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Bishops give priests' plea for renewal kiss of death

The supine acceptance of Vatican authority is driving clergy out of office, writes Colum Kenny

THE Irish Bishops Conference has refused to meet the Association of Catholic Priests. The hierarchy will not dignify them with a high-level meeting.

'Cardinal snubs plea by liberal priests for meeting,' shouted one headline. But the Association of Catholic Priests is no fringe group of lax priests. It represents more than 1,000 members. The laity may be surprised to learn that there are still that many priests in Ireland.

The behaviour of the Irish hierarchy since Vatican II has driven committed priests and nuns out of office. And it has driven many other Catholics to despair. Its recent censoring of outspoken priests to placate the Vatican now means that even a priest as mainstream as Fr Brian D'Arcy has to submit his newspaper columns for approval in advance of publication.

Last week, D'Arcy appeared on a special documentary made by BBC Northern Ireland about his life and thoughts. He asked, "How can I stay in a Church which I've served for 50 years and which now doesn't trust me to speak my mind about religion?".

Parishes are merging as the number of priests decline. Last week, Ballina was shocked by the sudden death of local priest and theologian Muredach Tuffy, aged 39.

Fr Tony Flannery of the Association of Catholic Priests said last week that, "Our indication is that the church is in very serious difficulty and we believe that it is of crucial importance that all sections of the church in Ireland begin to face this reality and that a dialogue is created among us all."

The failure of church authorities to engage in dialogue and to embark on a radical journey of change led Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini to say in his last interview before he died this year that his Catholic Church is 200 years behind the times.

Pope Benedict and his most loyal hierarchies seem to like it that way. They appear not to worry that the sin of pride may be blinding them to their own faults.

Not content to leave well enough alone, they have been pursuing nuns in the USA, academics in Latin America and priests who write in Ireland. There is no space for serious disagreement or for effective consultation within the church.

The Irish hierarchy, whose handling of child abuse makes the recent BBC's management of the scandal over Jimmy Savile look good, seems to have remained fundamentally unperturbed by every disaster that it has visited on its church.

Bishops continue to play the kind of hair-splitting, legalistic games that have brought Ireland to its knees both in the civil and religious sphere, as powerful elites guard their rights and privileges. In this instance, the hierarchy is telling the Association of Catholic Priests that any engagement with it "would best take place at local level".

In theory, this may seem reasonable. In practice, it is the kiss of death for what priests wish to achieve in terms of renewal and change in their church. It is a policy of divide and conquer, of letting the water run into sand. It has as much chance of ultimately changing power structures within the church as have public consultations of changing the way that Irish politicians make decisions.

It is not surprising that the Irish hierarchy cannot share power with priests, never mind nuns or the laity. It has been supine in its acceptance of Vatican authority as Rome edges ever further away from the spirit of Vatican II.

In her new book on how the second Vatican Council's teachings on collegiality were sidetracked or ignored, Ireland's former president Mary McAleese writes that, "A quiescent episcopacy failed to carry forward the conciliar agenda on Episcopal collegiality with any enthusiasm."

Mary McAleese's new book, Quo Vadis, is a good gift for anyone who cares about the future of Christianity in Europe. It is balanced and fair, its title being the Latin translation of an urgent question that Jesus once asked Peter: "Where are you going?"

McAleese, now studying in Rome for a doctorate in church law, identifies ways in which both critics and defenders of the current status quo within the Catholic Church may yet find common ground in Christ. That is, of course, if they actually want to share power in a way that is appropriate to democratic societies rather than to the Roman Empire.

The Catholic Church in Ireland is increasingly absent for lay people, its presence in their communities withering and its evident priorities irrelevant. The continuing exercise of absolute power with the church is not inspiring, especially when many Irish people currently feel oppressed by circumstances.

In his final interview, Cardinal Martini, who himself once might have been Pope, said: "I advise the Pope and the bishops to look for 12 people outside the lines for administrative posts -- people who are close to the poorest and who are surrounded by young people and are trying out new things. We need that comparison with people who are on fire so that the spirit can spread everywhere."

But the present Pope and many of his most obedient bishops seem to have closed the door. Allying themselves with some of the most reactionary political and social elements, they rebuff nuns and priests who have devoted their lives to their church -- and offer the Irish people a stone when what is needed is bread.

Professor Colum Kenny teaches a course in Belief and Communication at DCU

Sunday Independent