Though the 24-hour news cycle has long moved on from applauding the Irish referendum in favor of same-sex “marriage,” this catastrophe for the Church and future of Ireland should still be the focus of thoughtful reflection by faithful Catholics. Just as outward physical symptoms reveal the presence of disease and disorder throughout the body, the abandonment of the Faith in Ireland is the outward manifestation of a virulent spiritual disease infecting the entire Church in the West.
This deadly disease infecting the Church in Western society has three inter-related symptoms — heresy, apostasy and schism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church classifies heresy, apostasy and schism as sins against the Faith. These are three expressions of the culpable personal fault of incredulity, which the Catechism describes as the “neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it” (CCC 2089).
Since the close of the Second Vatican Council the Church has been plagued by clerical and lay groups that advocate both the neglect of revealed truth and the willful refusal to assent to revealed truth. Even though the Code of Canon Law clearly identifies these three manifestations of incredulity as grave offences against the faith and the Church (Can. 751), the serious canonical penalties are rarely, if at all, threatened, let alone consistently applied. I’m certain that this failure to confront heresy and apostasy with the full force of canon law is a contributory factor to the collapse of the Faith in Ireland and the rest of the Church in the West.
A Network of Disobedient Priests
During the reign of Pope Benedict XVI we witnessed the tragic spectacle of European priests not only publicly refusing to assent to revealed truths but forming associations to encourage sins against faith. Such disloyal groups included The Austrian Priests’ Initiative, the Irish Association of Catholic Priests and the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests. Pope Benedict XVI took the unusual step of challenging the disobedience of these groups of priests accusing them of seeking to desperately change the Church according to “their own preferences and ideas”:
Recently a group of priests from a European country issued a summons to disobedience, and at the same time gave concrete examples of the forms this disobedience might take, even to the point of disregarding definitive decisions of the Church’s Magisterium, such as the question of women’s ordination, for which Blessed Pope John Paul II stated irrevocably that the Church has received no authority from the Lord. Is disobedience a path of renewal for the Church?
The Irish Association of Catholic Priests
Members of The Irish Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) committed sins of omission and sins of commission during the campaign that resulted in the large “yes” vote. The ACP, which claims to represent a third of priests in Ireland, took a neutral position regarding the Same-Sex “Marriage” referendum. A statement issued by the leadership team of the ACP exhorted priests “not to direct their parishioners to vote Yes or No.” However, members of the ACP leadership team then went on to prominently advocate support for a “yes” through the media. Father Flannery explained why he would be voting “yes” in an article in the Irish Independent in early May. He wrote:
Having considered the question that is being presented to us on this occasion, and after having listened to the debate so far and given it a great deal of thought, I will be voting Yes. I do not consider this decision to be in any way in conflict with my faith, or with my position as a priest.
Priests Who Acted Against the Pope and Bishops
Both the statement of neutrality and the active campaigning for the “yes” vote were not only contrary to the guidance of Irish bishops, but also against the conclusions of Pope Francis and the world’s bishops at the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family that reiterated the Church’s rejection of same-sex “marriage.” The Synod’s Final Report summarized the Church’s teaching: “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” (55).
It is instructive to examine statements made by members of ACP’s leadership since the “yes” vote from the perspective of Pope Francis’ analysis of apostasy in the light of Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World. In these statements we find elements of apostasy: arguments for the abandonment of the Church’s traditions and identity out of a preference for worldly proposals, and a sense of adolescent progressivism. It appears to me that these statements from these priests suggest a single and faulty solution to the situation of the Church in Ireland that is entirely lacking in the one thing necessary — the Catholic faith. Consider the following.
Teaching Sexual Morality
Father Tony Flannery of the ACP proposes that the Irish Church must abandon teaching young people about the Church’s doctrines on sexual morality for “at least a generation” because of his experience of giving school retreats at which young people told him they were “tired of the Church always saying NO when it came to anything to do with sex.”
Father Flannery is right to criticize the reduction of the Church’s sexual ethics to only a list of negative prohibitions, but in response to the young people’s objections, did he present the positive YES to sexual continence and chastity found in the Theology of the Body? Is he seriously suggesting that adults responsible for education and formation deny young people the wisdom and richness of the Church’s sexual morality for a generation?
The Worldly Proposals of Modernity
Father Brendan Hoban of the ACP concludes that the overwhelming “yes” vote shows that the Church “is very much out of sync with the temper of its people.” According to Fr. Hoban the Church lacks “the confidence to engage with modernity” and above all is “trailing too far behind its people.” He sees the “worldly proposals” of modernity represented by same-sex “marriage,” abortion, contraception and divorce as an unstoppable force. “Trying to keep out the tide is always a failed enterprise. When will we learn that simple truth?”
However, St. Paul warns of the danger to Christians of abandoning the Faith handed to us from the Apostles for modern fads and fashions: “The time is sure to come when people will not accept sound teaching, but their ears will be itching for anything new and they will collect for themselves a whole series of teachers according to their own tastes” (2 Timothy 4:3).
The Spirit of Secularism
Both Fr. Tony Flannery and Fr. Iggy Donovan appear to suggest that the Church must adapt its teaching to the “spirit of worldly secularism” because, according to them, the people are no longer receptive to the doctrines of the Church. Father Flannery writes, “The people are no longer willing to listen to speeches and sermons on morality from the Church,” and Fr. Donovan says, “The church has to realize ordinary people are not listening to us any more.”
But the question must be asked: With the catastrophic collapse of catechesis in Ireland over the past 50 years, have ordinary people been given the opportunity to listen to God’s life-giving truths?
Now, more than ever, it is essential that we pray for these priests who have so tragically lost their way. And from a great love for our priests let us pray for these chosen men who daily enable, through the miracle of the Blessed Sacrament, Our Lord Jesus Christ’s entry into our fallen world. May these priests again feel in their hands and hearts the eternal Truth Who does not waver or desert His people but transforms our world.
This draws on an article originally published in the Catholic Voice Ireland.
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