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.’

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com