Is the Catholic Church Losing the Irish People? Reflections on Tony Flannery & the Church of England

On Sunday, Redemptorist priest Fr Tony Flannery celebrated mass publicly for the first time in five years, defying a Vatican ban on public ministry dating from 2012. Fr Flannery is being disciplined by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for expressing views contrary to official church teachings on matters like clerical celibacy and the ordination of women.

Fr Flannery insisted the public mass was a one-off event, to celebrate his 70th birthday and the 40th anniversary of his ordination. Coverage of the event in Irish national media outlets confirmed that hundreds attended the mass in rural Co. Galway.

In an account published on his blog, Fr Flannery reported that he had 500 hosts to distribute for communion, but this was not enough:

I had five hundred hosts, and I knew they would not be enough, so I invited the people, when they took the host, to break and share it with others. This added to the closeness, the sense of belonging. In my homily I stressed that God is present in every one of us, not just in the host, so by being together we were bringing God to each other. And I invited everyone, as long as they had any sense of the Divine in their life and in this gathering, to come to communion.

RTE’s coverage described it this way:

Signs were erected on approach roads to the centre before today’s service. In addition, a marquee was erected beside the building to cater for the hundreds of people who turned up.

The proceedings were relayed on a big screen to the congregation outside the community centre.

Fr Flannery’s homily met with a standing ovation and many of those in attendance expressed hope that the Vatican would engage in a more meaningful manner with the faithful.

This outpouring of popular support for a ‘banned’ priest reflects profound changes in the Irish Catholic Church. A 2012 poll commissioned by the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), of which Fr Flannery is a founding member, found that a large majority of self-identified Irish Catholics disagreed with official church teachings on married priests, the ordination of women, sexual morality, and so on.

Fr Flannery also made this point in his blog, emphasising that Church leaders should be open to the voices of the people of God:

Killimordaly is a rural area in the centre of county Galway. It is traditional in many ways. The way they responded, and took part, showed clearly to me how much has changed in our Church. Diktats from the Vatican, or any Church authority, do not carry much weight any more. A Church leader, if he is to be credible, must in future be a listener, who is with the people. Otherwise he will not be a real leader. (What I am saying here is not original; Pope Francis is constantly saying this to the wearers of mitres.)

But will the Irish Catholic Church – and the Catholic Church internationally – ‘engage in a more meaningful manner with the faithful’? It is a truism that ‘the Catholic Church is not a democracy.’ Those who do not agree with officialdom are more often excluded than seen as people who could contribute constructively to change, helping to renew the Church.

Reflecting on the support Fr Flannery’s mass gained from so-called ‘ordinary’ Irish Catholics, I was reminded of recent sociological research on the decline of religion in the UK.

Surveys conducted by Prof Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University in 2015 revealed that the UK has reached a tipping point: a majority of UK adults now describe their affiliation as ‘no religion’ rather than ‘Christian.’

(The surveys excluded Northern Ireland, where people identifying as ‘no religion’ is not as significant a trend as in England, Scotland and Wales …).

This makes the UK one of an estimated seven countries where people of ‘no religion’ outnumber those who identify with a religion. The others are China, Hong Kong, North Korea, Japan, the Czech Republic, and Estonia.

Woodhead also found that among British Catholics, only 5% ‘qualify as “faithful” or orthodox.’ That figure drops to ‘a mere 2% of Catholics aged under 30’ (“Intensified Religious Pluralism and De-differentiation: the British Example,” Society, 53: pp. 41-46, 2016).

(We don’t have strictly comparable figures for British and Irish Catholics, though the 2012 ACP survey provides a starting point for comparison on teachings about some issues.)

Woodhead has stressed that it is not just general trends of modernisation and secularisation that have led to the rise of ‘no religion’ in the UK.

In particular, she recounts how the Church of England made very clear decisions to move from being a church of the people or  a ‘societal church’ –monikers that could have been ascribed to the Irish Catholic Church for much of its history – to a more ‘sectarian’ church concerned with preserving purity around matters of gender and sexual morality. She writes in the Journal of the British Academy (p. 256):

‘What … accelerated the rise of ‘no religion’, was a volte face by church leaders in nearly all the major British denominations after the 1970s, which saw them move in a more conservative direction and take an increasingly vocal stand against ethical liberalisation, especially in relation to gender and sexuality. The Church of England, aided and abetted by other churches, has fought successfully for exemption from the laws which prevent other public bodies from discriminating on the basis of gender, religion and sexuality.’

This argument is developed in more detail in a book she co-authored with journalist Andrew Brown, That Was the Church that Was: How the Church of England Lost the English People.

Similar trends look like they could be at work on the island of Ireland. We see a general liberalization of attitudes of people who are still – at least right now – willing to identify themselves as Catholic. The approval of the referendum for same-sex marriage in 2015 confirms this: one of the world’s most ‘Catholic’ countries voted to approve something at odds with official Church teaching. But the liberalization of Irish Catholics looks like it will continue to be resisted by Church authorities, not only in Ireland but in the Church internationally.

In the Church of England, the conservatives who gained control of leadership seemed happy to ‘lose’ people that they did not consider to be ‘orthodox’. Woodhead contrasts this to churches in Scandinavia, who ‘liberalized’ their teachings and retained higher levels of adherence (albeit coupled with low levels of weekly attendance).

The leadership of the Catholic Church in Ireland looks to be faced with a similar choice. Of course, unlike the churches in the UK and Scandinavia, its choices are enabled or constrained by the Vatican.

Priests like Fr Flannery, and many of the laity who attended his mass, think that the Catholic Church can make different choices. They don’t necessary believe that conservative equals orthodox. They believe that the spirit of God is working in these matters, and it is not a question of orthodoxy versus heresy. It is a question of listening.

A generation from now (or even less), an Irish sociologist of religion may be sitting down to analyse what happened to the Catholic Church at this key point in its history.

The cover image of Brown and Woodhead’s book is a gravestone. Unless there is a sudden and quite dramatic change amongst the leadership, the Catholic Church in Ireland could gain a similar epithet: ‘that was the church that was.’

  • file

    A (fairly) balanced article on the issue. But the issue is central: should an organisation which purports to know the truth about moral issues ever change its stance on those moral issues in order to follow popular trends? My feeling is no. But there is a big difference between moral issues and traditions; for example, celibate, unmarried priests is merely a tradition, and can be changed tomorrow. The if celibacy goes out the window, the issue of practising (as opposed to celibate) homosexual priests can be discussed too.

  • anon

    Speaking as a lapsed Catholic, it’s pretty easy to analyse and explain why the church has lost a lot of people – it enabled and facilitated child rape, and covered up child rape.

  • Roger

    Hong Kong is a Chinese region, not a country.

  • articles

    And for those that remain how about cognitive dissonance

  • Croiteir

    Perhaps Gladys is correct – however there is another side to this coin which never gets any exposure. The growth of Catholics, especially amongst the young, who are returning to the Latin Mass. This was lead to a large part by the SSPX. They regularly have turnouts at events larger than a few hundred. The thing about Flannery et al is they are the last of a disappointed breed, the post V2 priest who have not seen their vision of the Church materialise, they know that this Pope is the last hurrah of any chance of it happening and he is being challenged inside the Church and may not be there too long, (I personally believe he will be kept as a leader but the power will be elsewhere).

    Flannery is chancing his arm, open rebellion to the Church masquerading as a sentimentalism coupled with disrespect for the host. Time for him to go.

  • Teddybear

    God does not change and that’s why I have sympathy with fundamentalists of any religion.

    God does not change with the fashions, fads, frolics and fancies of capricious silly little humans.

    This priest knew what the church ordinances were. If he disagreed with them, then he is at odds with God.

    It’s not the Church who makes the rules you know. It’s God. It’s like blaming the police for Acts of Parliament.

  • Paul

    A good read. I’m a lapsed catholic as well, only show up at weddings and funerals really and even that is more to do with the people than the faith.
    To answer the headline yes they are in buckets, give it 20-30 years if it says as it is and it will be on the endangered species list.
    I fell away for a number of reasons but chief among them was their attitude to abuse inquiries and their adversity to telling the truth.
    As well as that the attitude to priests being married and the flat refusal on the possibility of women becoming priests is another (do we really believe God would only trust men to bring the message?)
    I also have trouble with the belief that anyone who isn’t a catholic is condemned to eternal damnation (however that’s more of a personal gripe).
    I doubt if I’ll ever really return to the church I’ve too many questions and their answers are either not good enough or not there at all, I’ve my own beliefs and I can stand over them.
    I don’t think the church has the capability to change its attitude to its congregation, for too long the people were there to serve the church not the other way round, i’m not talking about the ordinary parish priests btw but the hierarchy behind them just aren’t in touch with people, are too old and don’t want to change.
    How do you get people back into it? Involve women a lot more (priesthood), allow marriage of priests, involve the young people more and have youth organisations were they can see the priest as humans not just as a preacher on a Sunday afternoon. Stop being aloof get involved in the community and their projects and help with their troubles(getting housing etc), that’s how you’ll maybe get more people through the doors but like I say I don’t think they’re capable of this type of change.

  • Granni Trixie

    The church interprets Gods words/rules.

  • Paul

    God does not change but you’ve got to remember God didn’t write the Bible….that was humans who throughout thousands of years translated and re-translated it over and over, then left out the gospels (most written hundreds of years after the events) and bits and bobs that didn’t fit with the message they wanted to tell. The rules of the church who could be a priest, the trinity, papal infallibility etc. all created by humans.

  • file

    Teddybear: in the case of The Catholic Church, it is the church that makes up the rules. [This is also true for all other churches too, no matter what they say.]

  • John Collins

    Teddy
    Where in scripture did God say priests could not be married.
    Names like McEnaspig (the son of the bishop), McEntaggart (the son of the priest) and McEvoy (the son of the Abbott) all suggest that centuries ago priests were married in Ireland

  • John Collins

    Roger
    For some reason I could not get an answer on display to a statement you made on another thread. You claimed that UKIP got more votes that the SNP and yet got only one Commons seat. The fact that SNP ran 59 candidates and UKIP ran 624, only getting a bare one elected, has to be taken into consideration.

  • Marie Halligan

    I would agree with you in a lot of ways.I do think the way the abuse was handled was a disgrace. But I have decided not to blame God for the crimes of human beings.For all it’s faults, and it’s run by mere human beings so it’s bound to have faults, I still believe that the Catholic RELIGION is the nearest we have to the truth about God on this Earth. It doesn’t answer all my questions either,but I have now accepted that some questions will only be answered in the Next Life and I think the most important thing is to do what I can to ensure I go to the right place, and not risk my soul by separating myself from God because His representatives on Earth have made a hames of things.This is only my take on it; all the best to you.

  • Teddybear

    Men were the pens that God wrote the bible with

  • Teddybear

    Marriage of priests is not in the bible. You’re right.

  • Croiteir

    “Preach the word: be instant in season, out of season: reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine. For there shall be a time, when they will not endure sound doctrine; but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears: And will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned unto fables. But be thou vigilant, labour in all things, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill thy ministry. Be sober.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Indeed, I think it was introduced to protect the church’s property; priests were carving out fiefdoms for their sons so they just banned them from having sons (I read it from Dairmud MacCullough’s History of Christianity)

  • Oggins

    So how do you confirm if god is writing through the writer? Thus being the word of god?

  • Oggins

    Many a pope had a son, and his sons becoming a pope at some stage

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Indeed; “Do as I say, not as I do”

  • Croiteir

    How many?

  • Oggins

    And then I usually tut at them, shake my head and walk on

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I’ve often wondered if the old pre-Whitby Church would ever make a come back?
    A Gaelic church, no ban on female priests, no ban on marriage for priests, no transubstantiation, no pre-destination etc etc

    Plus they could make a big song and dance about early gaelic saints such as Brendan and the like.

    As it wouldn’t be a reformed church per se then there’d be no stigma for Catholic converts having ‘turned’…

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    And why did he have to write so many versions for? I think there was something like 30 000 variants at one point (Thankyou Mr MacCullough)

  • Oggins

    Maybe its still in draft…. 😁

  • Granni Trixie

    If there were more compassionate priests like this there would be more people hanging in there with the church.

  • Granni Trixie

    Through time knowledge expands our thinking plus with industrialization and technology we now live in a complex world. So I wouldnt say that the Church ought to change to respond to popular opinion and Morals but to respond and adapt to a changing world.

    I think however it is the exposed hypocrisy of the church not to mention the ridiculousness of sexual behaviour somehow becoming of paramount importance that is a turn off. O and the lack of equality for women.

  • Croiteir

    Compassionate? In what way?

  • file

    Women are doing all right, to tell you the truth. As far as I am aware, advances in technology do not have that much of an effect on moral issues.

  • Granni Trixie

    It seems logical to say that instant communication inevitably quickens social processes. ‘Morality’ is a social construct. Join up the dots?

  • Roger

    Thanks John. I don’t think that was overlooked. Not on my part.

  • file

    It might seem logical, Granni, but it isn’t. I am not going for the relatavism line in regards to morality. If a hypothetical society existed in which murder were acceptable, murder would still be morally wrong. You can’t be leaving it up to society to decide what is morally right or wrong. And I also think that, on the whole, instant communication is a bad thing – it leads to people shooting off at the mouth without proper reflection and tends to make people think that every opinion (even an uninformed one) is as valid as every other opinion. As for that hypothetical society of mine in which murder is acceptable – duh! I forgot it already exists, i.e. in all countries where abortion is treated as some sort of ordinary medical procedure that has no moral consequences.

  • @KieranMaxwell

    I agree Croiteir.

    I’m a relatively young man at 35, and I’d describe myself as a Orthodox Catholic (not in the Eastern sense, though). Over the last 5 / 6 years i made a conscious decision to find out more about my faith, why we believe what we do, the reasoning behind it and the evidence for the same. This was such an enlightening experience and has strengthened my faith immensely. By educating myself to the truth of Catholic teaching was difficult for me, coming from where i was in my life, i was really only a nominal Catholic, i was ignorant. But i believe there is great mercy in telling the truth, only by telling the truth can we truly help the people we love. The Catholic truth is counter cultural and being authentically Catholic makes you different and susceptible to ridicule and abuse. But there is also great Joy in orientating your whole life towards God, day by day!

    Priests like Fr. Flannery disappoint me, for it is Priests like him who in fact are showing no mercy to the sinner. Saying things like; “In my homily I stressed that God is present in every one of us, not just in the host, so by being together we were bringing God to each other. And I invited everyone, as long as they had any sense of the Divine in their life and in this gathering, to come to communion.” is helping no one. It circumvents the need for examination of conscience and the sacrament of Confession (which is actually another way we can encounter Christs mercy.)

    Jesus was never afraid to lose followers and i use the example of the the rich young man. Jesus told him to come follow him and sell all that he had. For Jesus new that you cannot have two Gods. Christ would have been doing the man an injustice by fooling him into believing that he could serve both. So maybe we have to accept a smaller Church, one that will be smaller but burn brighter.

    God bless my friend.
    Take care and keep commenting, you have wisdom.
    Kieran

  • @KieranMaxwell

    I agree anon, it was a despicable scandal that has rightly rocked the Church and all those involved should be prosecuted and Jailed, and the victims rightly compensated to heal some of the the hurt they will always carry with them.

    However, I must point out that the Catholic faith contains no teaching that promotes facilitating child rape and covering up of the same. The Catholic faith is a beautiful faith, and it is the faith that make you Catholic not the actions of some evil members. I would encourage you to return to your faith with this point in mind and to ask God to help rediscover this. The Church needs and wants you!

    God bless a chara.
    Kieran

  • Starviking

    Disagrees with church ordinances, so he disagrees with God?

    I find it of the utmost arrogance when people claim with certainty what God thinks.

  • Teddybear

    Just like the arrogance of liberals and atheists who seem to know when God has changed his mind or ceases to exist because we all n ow how inconvenient God is to sinners

  • Teddybear

    Jesus chose only men for his disciples. Also God is not a liberal.

  • Teddybear

    I agree

  • Teddybear

    A Gaelic church? I’m surprised SF haven’t put this in their manifesto

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Well, the free Presbyterian church of Scotland doesn’t have to be the only show in holy town.

  • anon

    I’m reminded of Gandhi’s quote:
    “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

  • Jams O’Donnell

    Maybe they should revive the old Celtic Church – the Church of Saint Columba?

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    And you have this from the horse’s mouth? It is an extreme sort of egotism (not to mention blasphemy) that someone re-casts God in their own image. But you are right in a way – God would not be a Liberal – probably more of a revolutionary Communist, if She exists.
    PS I am not a revolutionary Communist.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    I don’t think any self respecting atheist would claim to know when God had changed her (imaginary) mind.
    PS. I am not an atheist – or a Liberal.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    And you know how fallible men are.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Time for the ‘Catholic’ church to become more flexible or die.

  • Croiteir

    The Catholic Church is growing

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Not what I’m hearing from Ireland.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Aye, that’s sort of what I was getting at.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “Jesus was a Capricorn
    He ate organic food
    He believed in love and peace
    And never wore no shoes

    Long hair, beard and sandals
    And a funky bunch of friends
    Reckon we’d just nail him up
    If he came down again”

    If there was someone on here with that description you’d be one of the first ones to call him a libtard…

  • Croiteir

    Then someone s fibbing you

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    I was misled by stuff like this:
    https://www.pri.org/stories/2013-03-26/irish-catholics-continue-flee-church

    Are you saying that this is made up?

  • Croiteir

    I am saying that the Catholic Church is growing both in Ireland and the world

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Well, you and the article can’t both be right – which is wrong?

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    God forbid!

  • Croiteir

    It is obviously

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Pardon me, but it is not obvious at all. Diane Winston would appear to be reporting in good faith. Why should I prefer your word over hers?

  • Croiteir

    Well go and check it then

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    I’ve checked her word out – it seems ok. I have no way of checking your word – unless you have a web site. If you are going to make statements it would help if you had links to support what you claim.

    Actually, don’t bother – I’m getting a bit bored with the whole thing. Either the Catholic Church will continue or it won’t. The examples of the Sumerian, Assyrian, Ancient Greek and Zoroastrian and other assorted religions suggest that it probably won’t in the long run, but who knows? I don’t wish Christianity (Protestant or Catholic) well, but if it can stop sexually assaulting children and ruining adult’s lives by making them feel perpetually guilty, who cares.

  • Croiteir

    You haven’t looked too hard – the Church has expanded massively in Africa in particular and at the last census in Ireland has also recorded an increase.

  • Richie Cronin

    There’s a denomination in Ireland that you might have heard of ‘The Church of Ireland’. They cover these bases pretty well. 😉

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Aye but the tags ‘anglican’ and ‘reformed’ don’t sit well with some.