Colum Kenny: Christ himself preached that the truth will set us free
The Vatican, meanwhile, insists on silencing priests who express opinions at odds with its priorities
A SURVEY released last week shows that the majority of Irish Catholics find teachings of the Catholic Church on some matters, such as sex and women priests, irrelevant or wrong.
Yet the Vatican has taken action to silence a couple of Irish priests who expressed opinions that are shared in Ireland among lay Catholics. One of them, Fr Tony Flannery, is a founder of the Association of Catholic Priests, which commissioned the revealing survey.
Rome's clampdown is a reminder of the bad old days of hysterical Irish censorship, when the self-appointed guardians of public morality scoured bookshops and libraries with coloured pencils. They underlined bits of books that they wanted banned and removed from shelves, then sent those books to censors.
Last week Fr Adrian Egan, head of the Irish Redemptorists, expressed concern that there were "people sitting in churches on a daily basis that are almost listening to hear you express an opinion that might be seen as dissenting and they will report you".
The Redemptorists are not usually seen as the "a-la-carte Catholics" that some bishops tend to deride.
It was reported last week that Fr Flannery, who had been writing a regular column for Reality, the Redemptorists' monthly magazine, may no longer do so. Reality editor, Fr Gerard Moloney, is also barred from commenting on some issues. Did someone cut out articles from Reality and post them to the papal nuncio for Rome's attention?
This censorship says something about Rome's priorities. Yet again, sex dominates its agenda, with opinions on matters such as married priests, contraception and homosexuality being flashpoints.
The Irish Catholic Church is in disarray, its bishops discredited and some of its institutions decaying. Its many good services to the poor or needy are short of both volunteers and money. The fact that the vast majority of Irish people still declare themselves to be Catholics on their census returns is no measure of their engagement in that church or of their understanding of Jesus and his teachings.
For those who care deeply about spiritual matters, these clashes between pontiff and priests are grim. They endlessly recast the mission of Christ as some kind of power struggle, or as a culture war, rather than being a witness to joy. Where Christ preached that the truth sets us free, others insist in practice on defining truth for us even when we cannot believe what they say.
Rows like this latest one hurt some people who believe deepest, because the clamp-down is an affront to their adult intellect and their soul. And the scandal damages people whose lives might be enriched by a mature understanding of wisdom traditions such as Christianity, but who are exposed instead to sterile exercises of authority rather than evidence of humble religious practice that could give them hope.
One lecturer in moral theology was quoted last week as observing that "the church has a responsibility as well as a right, especially where priests and theologians are concerned", to ensure that "they truly believed in the faith and communicated it well".
But it is as much the practice as the theory of authority, as well as the particular instances or matters in respect to which it is invoked, that gives rise to problems. If "true belief" and "faith" are defined in ways that leave men like Fr Flannery and Fr Kevin Hegarty -- a priest in the parish of Kilmore-Erris in Co Mayo and a columnist with the Mayo News -- outside of the fold, then there is something wrong with those definitions.
Any organisation must discipline members who disgrace it, but disagreement is not disgrace. And the issue of how and by whom true teachings are defined is a central one when all Catholics, including not least the laity, are meant to be members of the one church.
Fr Flannery has questioned the doctrine of papal infallibility. This reminds me of my school days, and of hearing dogmas on papal infallibility and transubstantiation recited in class as if they really made sense. They were always divisive badges of belonging and are hard to reconcile with any scientifically informed intellectual understanding of our place in Creation today.
But perhaps what really got up Rome's nose is the fact that Fr Flannery expressed himself as "happy" about aspects of the Taoiseach's criticism of Rome's response to Irish investigations into child sexual abuse. Fr Flannery's comment could certainly be construed as a political intervention, not least because his brother is the Fine Gael strategist Frank Flannery.
Enda Kenny's attack on the Vatican last July had something of the grandstand about it, being not so much a case of too little too late as too much talk too late when it comes to the failure of this State to tackle church abuses of power.
Even today, behind such words, the State lets religious orders escape liability by transferring the ownership of schools to unelected lay trusts. They maintain a certain ethos and power through legalities rather than conviction. How many of those running such trusts are the type of Catholics who sit in church and watch for something to report to authorities?
The child abuse scandal has illustrated a broader problem within the Catholic Church. Experts say that child abuse is at least as much about the sick exercise of power as it is about sex. The exercise of power by a hierarchy that is appointed top-down is problematic. For it merely pays lip-service to the notion that priests, never mind the laity, have lives within the community that are as vital and authentic as that of any pope.
When it comes to authority, what credibility has a pope who believes that God wants so many new cardinals to be Italian (seven out of 18 new ones in January alone)?
The heart of religion is not a struggle between liberals against conservatives. It is fundamentally a matter of spiritual conviction. People who live in a complex and confusing modern world, assailed by real pressures, require convincing belief systems if they are to have hope.
Instead of ordering Fr Flannery to "pray and reflect" on the current situation, by which they seem to mean shut up or else, members of the church's influential hierarchy should practise what they preach. If they truly believe in God and listen, they might be surprised by what they learn.
For if the devil wanted a way to alienate people from Christ's message of love, he could scarcely do better than they are doing by their closed, dogmatic and very verbal version of faith.