'Voting for equality is not a disaster - it's just about the most Christian you can get'
Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30
Tony Flannery is unequivocal about how the Catholic church might become relevant to a new generation. "The only type of Church that has a chance of surviving and thriving in this country is a church that is open and welcoming," the Galway Redemptorist priest says.
"I hope and pray that we in the Catholic church will learn the lesson of these last days and weeks, and stop passing judgment on people. Instead, let us do a simple and basic thing, let us reach out to everyone, listen to their story and have boundless compassion for them in their human struggles."
The notion of the Church learning the "lesson" of the marriage equality referendum appeared as fanciful as ever on Tuesday when senior cardinal Pietro Parolin called the result "a disaster for humanity". His comments attracted global criticism, especially when the Vatican moved to endorse them.
"When I heard that, I despaired," says Dublin theologian Gina Menzies. "It illustrates just how out of touch with modern times the hierarchy of the Church is.
"It's not a disaster for humanity; it's a victory for humanity. Voting in favour of equality is a statement of compassion and just about as Christian as you can get. At a more local level, you sense that the clergy are more in tune with the people, but the bishops seem to be as far removed as they always were."
In the wake of the referendum result, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin acknowledged that his church "needs to do a reality check", but Tony Flannery questions if Dublin's most senior cleric has the stomach to confront other bishops and prominent conservative Catholic commentators.
He says a Church that hopes to be relevant in the short-term future, has to move with the times. "The day of doctrinaire Catholicism is over in this country," he says. "The people are no longer willing to listen to speeches and sermons on morality from the Church. Some might see this as a bad situation, but I would regard it as a time of wonderful opportunity for the Church, if they can recognise it, and learn how to present the fundamental Christian message.
"For most of the past century the bishops in Ireland, with the help of many of the clergy, hammered home a message on relationships and sexuality which was too negative and life-denying. Forty years ago, when I first started giving school retreats, the young people told us they were tired of the Church always saying no when it came to anything to do with sex. And once again, in this referendum, they were saying no. Except that now, as the vote clearly shows, the people are not listening.
"We need a period of at least a generation, when the Church authorities says nothing about sex. Then they will have a chance to speak about the far more basic aspects of the Christian message - love, forgiveness, mercy, compassion - and have a chance of being heard."
Gina Menzies says the hierarchy of the Church in Ireland consistently display a poor knowledge of theology. "Jesus had almost nothing to say about sex," she says, "but he had an awful lot to say about love and compassion. Sadly, church leaders are still caught up with this obsession with sex and the need to lecture us about how we should lead our lives."
She believes its courageous, principled individual priests - such as Fr Martin Dolan, who received a standing ovation from his Liberties, Dublin congregation when he came out as gay in January - who are far more likely to keep the Church relevant than the Vatican.
And while she says Pope Francis has offered a more contemporary take than conservative predecessors Benedict and John Paul II, she is disappointed that he isn't doing more to give women parity in the Church. "It's pretty obvious at this stage that we need women priests and need to involve women far more in the workings of the Church," she says. "The other obvious obstacle that needs to be tackled is celibacy. It should be a choice, not a diktat."
Meanwhile, Tony Flannery - who was suspended by the Vatican in 2012 for his support of the ordination of women priests - says a Church that willingly excludes half the population from the priesthood will continue to weaken over the next decade.
"Is it any wonder that people are becoming even more disillusioned with the Church? Not only do you have the Vatican talking about marriage equality as a 'disaster', but they won't even entertain the notion of women priests. If they are truly concerned for the future, that's one of the issues they will have to address.
"It's certainly something that priests of my generation [he's 68] would like to see, but then you see young priests coming through and they're very orthodox and conservative and it makes you wonder will anything substantive change?"