SENIOR church figures were last night trying to come to terms with the stark findings of a report which lays bare massive alienation among huge numbers of Catholics.
The survey, for an 800-strong group of priests, found most Catholics are at odds with the hierarchy over several issues.
The vast majority of those surveyed disagreed with the Vatican's thinking on women clergy, homosexuality and celibacy for priests.
The survey found:
- 87pc believe priests should be allowed to get married.
- 77pc support the ordination of women as priests.
- 72pc believe that married men should be allowed to be ordained.
- 46pc oppose the church's stance on homosexuality.
- 75pc believe that the church's teachings on sexuality are irrelevant to their lives.
Publication of the report comes just days after Redemptorist priest Fr Tony Flannery was silenced by the Vatican for his liberal views.
And amid the fallout from the clerical-abuse scandal and a shortage of priests, one senior clergyman admitted last night that the bishops would have to reflect seriously on the findings contained in the report.
Monsignor Brendan Byrne, the diocesan administrator of the Kildare and Leighlin Diocese, said: "I'm sure the bishops will look at it seriously. They will take a serious view of it, will reflect upon it and try to respond to it."
Yesterday the Catholic hierarchy issued a short statement in which it recognised that there was a "rapidly changing social and cultural environment in Ireland today".
Just over 1,000 Catholics across the island of Ireland were interviewed over two weeks in February for the study, which was carried out by Amarach Research. Men and women were questioned, ranging in age from under 25 to over 55.
Among the key findings is that more than a third - 35pc - still go to Mass at least once a week.
Almost nine out of 10 feel priests should be allowed to marry as a means of tackling the shortage in vocations, while 77pc also believe that women should be ordained.
The survey also found that 46pc of people strongly disagreed with the church's stance on homosexuality.
And some 87pc believe that people who are divorced or separated and in a new relationship should be allowed to take communion.
The report comes in the wake of the publication of the Vatican's Apostolic Visitation to Ireland last month, which said that there was a tendency among some priests here to hold theological opinions which differed from church doctrine.
Ireland is due to host the International Eucharistic Congress in June, which is expected to be attended by pilgrims from all over the world. The report concluded that 56pc thought there was value in holding the congress in Dublin.
The Catholic Communications Office said last night that the recent Apostolic Visitation "highlighted the need for a new focus on the dignity and role of all the faithful and for deeper formation in the faith".
It added: "The results of this survey confirm the importance of all in the church taking up this task in a spirit of communion and sharing the good news of the Gospel in a rapidly changing social and cultural environment in Ireland today."
Fr Brendan Hoban, of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), said members of that organisation were not dissident priests but were merely highlighting opinions from laity.
"We are reflecting what we are hearing in parishes and have heard in parishes for years," he said.
Fr Hoban said they were surprised at the number of Catholics who wanted to see married and women priests.
"The church can change dramatically when it has to change," said Fr Hoban, adding: "If we don't move things forward, the Irish church will be in terminal decline."
The ACP was established less than two years ago to provide a forum for priests to discuss issues facing the church and Irish society. It has since grown to include over 800 priests.