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David Quinn: O Cuiv's isolation exposes our double standards over silencing of clerics

Eamon O Cuiv has been told by his party that he should not speak again in public on the issue of the fiscal treaty and he has agreed to this.

The manner in which O Cuiv has been dealt with by the Fianna Fail leadership is extremely reminiscent of the way in which certain priests and theologians have been dealt with in recent times by the Vatican.

However, while those priests and theologians have plenty of defenders who are protesting their right to speak their mind, precious few are demanding this same right for O Cuiv. Odd that.

The letter sent by Fianna Fail whip, Sean O Fearghail, to O Cuiv is instructive. It tells him: "The party needs to be allowed to put its position to the people without being confronted at every turn by a challenge from within the party." It adds: "You know that our membership requires us to be coherent."

Substitute 'church' for 'party' in the foregoing and you've captured the essence of the Catholic Church's position regarding those Irish priests and theologians who are constantly calling into question certain teachings of their church.

For the record, I don't necessarily believe that instructing these priests and theologians not to speak or write about those issues is the best way to go. A better way might be for our own bishops to make crystal clear what the church teaches and doesn't teach and to make clear what is dissent and what is not dissent. Their consistent failure to do this forced the hand of the Vatican.

But if a political party is allowed to take certain action to maintain the coherence of its positions, why isn't the church allowed this same right?

Of course, some people will argue that the church isn't a political party, and they're correct. The church is far more important.

It has teachings, not policies, teachings it believes to be part of divine revelation. Therefore, the need to protect the coherence and clarity of those teachings is vastly more important than a party's need to defend its policies.

I raise this because of the obvious double-standard involved in attacking the church for doing something political parties do whenever the need arises and with hardly a word of criticism, but also because the issue was discussed at a meeting this week to debate the future of the church.

The meeting was organised by the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) and it discussed, among other things, the teachings of the church, the censuring of clergy and calls for changes to the structures of the church. However, I remain to be convinced that changing structures or altering the teachings on matters such as women priests or contraception or homosexuality will do anything to revive the fortunes of the Catholic Church here or anywhere else.

When you look across the range of churches that exist within Christianity you see every type of structure and all sorts of teachings.

There are some like the Catholic Church that are hierarchical and have very little democracy and others that are not hierarchical and which elect their clergy and which have meetings at which teachings are frequently changed.

Those who demand that the Catholic Church change its teachings or make itself more democratic are very hard-pressed to point to a church which has done this and is thriving as a result. In fact, commonly the opposite happens. The most liberal tend to be the ones that are losing people fastest.

This isn't to say that the Catholic Church shouldn't alter its structures in certain respects, or consider changes to disciplines like priestly celibacy, but let's not fool ourselves into thinking a revival would result.

We need to be realistic about this. There are two chief reasons for the decline of Christianity and religion in the West.

The first is that too many Christians are lukewarm at best about their faith. If more Christians led better, more Christian lives, were better informed about what it is they are supposed to believe, and looked for opportunities to share their faith, the churches would be much fuller than they are.

The second reason is the general collapse of religious belief in the West and the rise of individualism.

Insofar as we're religious at all, our religion tends to be highly personal and individualised, and hence our preference for 'spirituality' over religion.

The reason many of us don't want to belong to a church is simply because we don't believe we need to join a church, period. We prefer to go it alone.

This is the fundamental problem faced by all the churches, of whatever type and until they solve it they will find it very hard to grow.

Compared with this overwhelming problem, altering structures or this or that teaching is next to irrelevant.

The challenge facing the ACP and every other Christian is to give people a good reason why they should join any church at all.