David Quinn: Outspoken clergy must be clear on endgame
What is the endgame of the Association of Catholic Priests? Suppose it can't force the church to allow women priests, or to approve the use of artificial contraception or to change its teachings on sexuality more generally, what then?
Obviously the ACP would never think that on its own it can bring about these changes. Presumably it hopes that in alliance with like-minded Catholics around the world it can do so, but what if it can't?
In that event, does it formally go into schism? Do its members leave the church? Or do they eventually accept that these are the unchanging teachings of the church and learn to live with them?
In the end, this is a debate about authority. Does the church have the authority to teach that certain things are true, or not?
It's all very well for members of the ACP to say that church teachings on matters such as the charging of interest on loans has changed (it hasn't actually), but this can easily give the impression that every teaching is up for grabs.
Does the ACP really believe this? If not, then how does it distinguish between the teachings that are non-negotiable and those which are up for discussion?
Is it everything short of what's in the Apostles' Creed? If so, then they have a very narrow view of what the church can teach definitively. Or is even the Apostles' Creed up for grabs as some theologians believe?
Unless and until the ACP sets out exactly how it views the teaching authority of the church it belongs to, then we can't know when the ACP believes a particular teaching is subject to change, and why.
Until it clarifies this, then ordinary Catholics could be forgiven for thinking the ACP believes most teachings are up for grabs and in that case it will sow endless confusion and dissension because it will encourage Catholics to believe -- erroneously -- that very few teachings are ever settled doctrine.
In such an eventuality, the ACP would become a deeply divisive force in the church which it surely doesn't want to be.
A second and related area is whether or not it believes that the church has a right to defend its teachings up to and including using disciplinary procedures against Catholic priests, religious and theologians in certain circumstances.
The ACP complains that the Pope preached freedom in Cuba when he was there recently but denies those same freedoms to dissident priests and other Catholics in his own church.
But the analogy is false. When the State forbids certain freedoms they are forbidden to everyone who lives within the borders of that State. The most the church can do to someone these days is to forbid them to speak or write about a given issue as a Catholic, or in a Catholic publication or institute.
This is what happened to dissident theologian Hans Kung. He had his licence to teach as a Catholic theologian revoked. However, he was still free to teach theology at any university which would have him. If the State had forbidden him he would not have been able to teach anywhere.
Even in democratic societies, organisations use disciplinary measures against their members. Political parties do it all the time. For example, Willie Penrose and Patrick Nulty have both lost the Labour party whip recently for voting against the Government. But no one complains that the Labour Party is crushing freedom of conscience when it does this.
So again, the ACP must tell us whether or not it believes the church ever has the right to defend its teachings by taking action against priests, religious and theologians who openly contradict those teachings.
Meanwhile the silence of the Irish hierarchy is deafening. It has little or nothing to say about the ACP, one way or the other.
It has said nothing about the decision by the Vatican to stop Fr Tony Flannery writing in 'Reality', the Redemptorist magazine. It has said nothing about the decision by the Vatican to discipline moral theologian Fr Sean Fagan.
A case can be made on prudential grounds that the Vatican should not have disciplined either of these priests.
But equally a case can be made that the Irish bishops themselves should have acted against them, and others.
However, if disciplinary action of any sort seems too punitive, or else counter-productive then at the very least the bishops ought to make it extremely plain to ordinary Catholics which teachings of their church are definitive and which are not.
The ACP is hosting an assembly next month to discuss the future of the church in Ireland. At that meeting it ought to tell us when they regard a given teaching as definitive and whether they believe the church ever has the right to discipline priests who dissent from those teachings.
If the ACP wants to avoid becoming a source of endless division, it owes its members and the wider church answers to these vital questions.