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Catholic priests' association calls for radical change at AGM

In a keynote speech, Fr Kevin Hegarty spoke about changing the way bishops are chosen and how the Catholic Church views sexuality.

Fr Hegarty described a complacency and hubris in the Catholic Church after the papal visit of 1979.
Fr Hegarty described a complacency and hubris in the Catholic Church after the papal visit of 1979.
Image: PETER MORRISON/AP/Press Association Images

THE ASSOCIATION OF Catholic Priests (ACP) has called for radical change in the Catholic Church – including an overhaul of how bishops are chosen and and its theology of sexuality.

At its annual general meeting, held over the past two days in Dublin, the ACP also discussed priestly life.

Fr. Seán McDonagh told TheJournal.ie that members examined other models of priesthood, including ones which could include married men and women.

In one of the keynote speeches of the meeting, Fr. Kevin Hegarty told the 350-strong audience that he believes there are two versions of the Catholic church in Ireland – one that is community-based where he has found fulfilment and the other is institutionalised, from which he is alienated.

Fianna Fáil-style annihilation

After describing a church in crisis with plummeting church attendances and a sharp drop in people taking up vocations to the priesthood, Fr Hegarty claimed that if Irish Catholics had a democratic way of reflecting their feelings, church leaders would suffer a defeat “as cataclysmic as that administered to Fianna Fáil in the recent general election”.

“For over 30 years the Church has recoiled from reform and returned to the incense-filled ghettoes in defence of its traditional hierarchical structure,” he said. “Its procedures are archaic and cumbersome and precious, utterly out of sync with the ways of the democratic world. It is also suspicious of lay involvement.”

Calling for a new way to choose Catholic bishops, Fr. Hegarty told the audience, which included lay men and women, as well as priests that “only those who are seen to conform to the [Church's] narrow views are admitted to the temple”.

He added:

So bishops are chosen on the basis of being in favour of compulsory celibacy, adherence to clerical dress, docility to papal teaching and above all against contraception and the ordination of women. Loyalty is defined in old narrow terms. And it is so fearful of the feminine. Misogyny is dressed up in theological abstractions.”

A narrow sexual morality

Fr Hegarty also said that since his ordination 30 years ago, he has been working in a “crumbling church” that became complacent after the papal visit in 1979.

He described a hubris within the 1980s church. ”A deadly combination,” he said.

“Church leaders left out of their calculations the effects of social change. In the age of the SatNav they hung on to antiquarian maps.”

As leaders failed to embrace a “new consciousness,” Fr. Hegarty said it also became obsessed with a “narrow sexual morality”.

The Church’s official theology of sexuality fails to resonate with the actual experience of human intimacy.

People began to lose confidence in an institution whose teaching on this matter was so out of sync with their experience. It’s insistence on compulsory celibacy for clerics is of the same ilk.

Its teaching on homosexuality has been heavily criticised, understandably, I suggest, for its insensitivity.

Commenting on the recent reports into clerical sex abuse, he said:

The Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne reports, in their cumulative and compelling detail, highlight the acute level of dysfunction in the Church. I don’t sense that the majority of Catholic leaders in Ireland have actually got the extent of the breakdown in trust that these reports have engendered.

About 550 priests have now joined the association, which aims to “reflect, discuss and comment” on issues affecting the Irish church and society today.

Fr. Seán McDonagh told TheJournal.ie that he believes membership will grow by up to 100 priests over the next week following Fr. Hegarty’s important speech at the AGM.

The ACP describes itself, not as a dissident group, but as a critical organisation which offers a different voice to priests rather than the “dictatorial way” of the Vatican.

Read Fr. Hegarty’s full speech from the AGM here>

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