What Irish Catholics Believe

This is getting monotonous, but it must be stated again. What Catholics believe and practice on matters of sexual ethics, as a matter of empirical fact, is simply not what the (nominally) celibate bishops in their ivory towers would like us to believe, or falsely proclaim as “Catholic” belief, when it is in fact no more than Vatican doctrine.

The latest evidence, in a long line of similar research, comes from Ireland. This makes it all the more notable, given that country’s long reputation until recently as a “priest-ridden country”, where the dictates of the clergy meant that even contraception was forbidden by law, and people would journey across the island to Belfast just to buy condoms.

(In the discussion below, I do not distinguish between “Irish” and “Catholic”, purely for ease of reading. The full report does make the distinction, but in practice the results are just about identical for Catholics and the country as a whole – not surprising, given the Irish demographics.)

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Son of a Priest, Son of a Bishop: Another Cost of Compulsory Celibacy

It is estimated that 1,000 people in Britain and Ireland are the children of Catholic priests

Three common Irish surnames translate as ‘son of the priest’, ‘son of the Bishop’ and ‘son of the Abbot’.

-Bishop Pat Buckley, quoted in the Guardian

When we try to assess the value or harm of the rule on compulsory celibacy, we usually think in terms of the priests themselves, or possibly on the parishes they serve. Does  a celibate life leave them better equipped to devote their lives to their parishioners, without distractions of their own family – or does it leave them simply incapable of understanding sexual and emotional complexities way outside their own experience?

Sometimes, recognizing human weakness, we acknowledge that universal celibacy is a myth, and then consider also the impact on the lives of their partners (male or female) who find themselves forced to live in a clerical closet not of their own choosing. Even less often, do we consider the impact on the lives of those unfortunate sons and daughters of priests, who find themselves growing up either without a father at all, or with a father known to them – who refuses to acknowledge them publicly (which is worse, I wonder?)

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Progress to Marriage Equality (1): Ireland.

In Ireland, the Dáil (the parliamentary lower house) has passed the long-expected Civil Partnership Bill, without requiring a vote, and to applause from the public gallery. It is expected that it will pass in the  Seanad within a fortnight or so, and is most likely to be signed in the autumn, to come into effect in the new year.  The legislation is modelled on the existing British law, which gives couples virtually the same standing in law as married couples, except for the name. In Ireland, the law explicitly does not include adoption rights. There is also provision for a divorce equivalent, on exactly the same terms as existing divorce law.

This will leave Italy and Malta as the only countries in Western Europe with no provision for any form of legal recognition for same sex-partnerships. Resistance in Italy has come on the back of strenuous opposition but the Catholic bishops, but as the Irish example has shown, Church resistance elsewhere has come to nothing. How much longer can Italy hold out?

This will be the state of partnership recognition in Europe after the Irish law takes effect

(Dark blue – full equality; Light blue – civil unions; Red – constitutional restriction to opposite sex couples only; Yellow – under review)


Related articles

Steady Advance of Gay Marriage – and Christian Divorce!

In Ireland, Marriage Equality have launched a publicity campaign, “We Are Family” for gay marriage to the June month of of Pride. This is timely. Although the Irish government made a clear commitment last year to provide for strong civil partnerships on the British model (not quite full marriage), the timetable seems to be constantly stretching. the Civil Partnership was originally published in June 2oo9, with a promise it would be operational by the end of the year. Enactment is no longer expected any time sooner than October 2o1o.

Checking the progress of marriage equality in Ireland led me also to check on the other countries which have had big announcements, in some cases followed by silence.

Marriage in Europe, June 2010 (Wikipedia)


This is the highest profile story, and the battle has already been won. The bill has been ratified, and will take effect as soon as next week.

After Portugal and Slovenia, the most likely contenders to be next in line are the three Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Iceland and Finland.  (Sweden and Norway already have full equality. In Sweden, that includes church weddings.)


Last year, a ruling by the Constitutional Court forced action on equality on the government, who announced moves to full equality. The Equality bill which ensued was duly passed by the country’s lower house of parliament on March 2 this year. Since then, I have been unable to find any reports of progress in the upper house. As the bill was mandated by court decision, I assume it must eventually become law – but who can say when?


This was the first country anywhere to accept gay civil unions, more than 20 years ago. Right from the start, these were popularly thought of as “gay marriage”, and are by now so familiar that acceptance of full marriage is widely accepted in principle – but low in priority.  A news report earlier this year suggested that government had accepted the principle of gay marriage, but that the delay at present was just waiting to get approval from the Danish Lutheran Church for their own acceptance of same sex weddings in church, as in Sweden.


As in Denmark, the political will is there (with an openly lesbian PM, how could it not be?), but there is some delay while they attempt to achieve the backing and support of the Lutheran Church.


The leaders of all the main political parties have accepted the principle of a move from civil unions to full marriage, but the issue does not appear to have any great priority. Equality for Finns will surely come, but do no expect any progress until after the next general election – another couple of years to wait, then.


A news report from the Cyprus Mail back in February that the government had promised to “look at” gay marriage led me to ask breathlessly “Would Cyprus be next?”. As there has been not a whisper since, anywhere, I think I can answer confidently “No.” The government may well have “looked” at the question – and then looked away. It takes more than looking to achieve change, it requires political will and action. (Will David Cameron’s promise before the UK election to look at gay marriage go the same way?)


In Albania, the delay is because ME has become embroiled in wider, much more serious constitutional issues. The governing party has declared support and promised a marriage bill. The opposition socialists would also support the proposal – but do not recognize the validity of the government since the last elections, for which they dispute the results.  They have paralyzed parliament by boycotting it. Gay marriage, it seems, will pass when parliament reconvenes: but nobody can say when that will be.

Outside of Europe, the brightest hopes are in Argentina and Nepal.


A bill to approve both marriage and adoption rights for gay couples has already passed the Lower House of parliament, and is currently before the Senate. In an innovative move to take debate around the country, a Senate committee is touring major provincial cities to sound public opinion. The country’s president and Senate leader have both said they will not obstruct debate, nor veto the bill if approved. However, my own gut feeling is growing more pessimistic. Declared sympathies of senators are running about even, but a large bloc will not disclose their views, which I do not take as a promising sign.


As in Slovenia, equality has been mandated by the courts, and must come. As in Albania, the process has been clouded by bigger issues of fundamental constitutional change. Until they have been resolved, marriage equality is unlikely to be enacted. It is clear thought that the political will is now there: the money men have recognized the potential value of the pink pound to the country’s crucial tourism industry, and regularly float stories in the Western gay press promoting Nepal as a wedding and honeymoon destination. They will not want to backtrack now, but I am not going to stick my neck out and predict timing on the wider political issues.


Possibly the biggest marriage story I have not been reporting on comes from Oz, where I have a sense of a steadily growing groundswell of public support. However, their has not yet been acceptance by the two major political parties for anything beyond civil unions, and even they are limited to certain jurisdictions. However, there is widespread de facto recognition of same sex couples, the small but important Green party has embraced the cause, and if I am right that public pressure is growing, this could become a high profile issue quite suddenly, at least in the key states of Victoria (Melbourne) and New South Wales (Sydney).

New Zealand


New Zealand was one of the earliest countries to adopt strong civil unions, which offer marriage in “everything but name “- and adoption rights. But I have never seen any reports of pressure for anything stronger. What gives? Are Kiwi queers so laid back that the name doesn’t matter? Are they not interested in adoption? Or have I (and Wikipedia) simply been missing the news stories?

Christian Divorce.

Meanwhile. my research for this post led me stumble upon this delightful snippet, on religion and divorce. Which religious grouping (in the US) do you suppose has the highest divorce rate? Evangelical Christians. Which has the strongest opposition to gay marriage? (Oh, right that;s too easy – Evangelical Christians).

And which has the lowest divorce rate? Catholics. Which has (among) the lowest opposition to gay marriage? Catholics, again.

Perhaps that is why the religious right is so opposed to marriage equality – they are so desperate to rescue the parlous state of their own, that they will try anything, no matter how far-fetched. While Catholics, feeling less threat to their own marriages, are happy to share the benefits more widely.

OK, the preceding paragraph badly oversimplifies, and the data on divorce is ten years old, from a research outfit I’m not familiar with. This needs more careful analysis. But prima facie, I thought it fascinating.


Related articles

For the Irish Catholics, a Modest Proposal.

No substantive posting today, as I have been out all day on retreat with the Soho Masses congregation, with with as retreat director.Fr Bernard Lynch.  Bernard is Irish, and is even more concerned about the poor position of women in the Catholic Church than about that of gay men.

As an aside to a discussion on a broader topic, he made the following useful suggestion for the Irish Church. The best way for them to recover from the hurt inflicted on them, he says, is for every Irish Catholic to stay well away from Catholic priests and Catholic buildings for a year.  During that time, the impressive Irish women can fill the breach, celebrating Mass for their families in their own homes.

Sounds good to me:  Now, what about elsewhere?

A Theologian’s 12-step Recovery Program for the Church

Enda McDonagh is one of Ireland’s foremost theologians, with a particular interest in prayer through art and poetry. (I once attended a short retreat he led got our Soho Masses group, using this approach.) Now, he has turned his attention to the crisis of the Irish Church, and how it might regain the trust and respect of the Irish people. It needs, he says, something like a 12 step recovery program.

This could usefully be adapted for the wider, global church, too.

Theologian maps 12-step recovery for church

ONE OF Ireland’s most distinguished theologians has recommended a 12-step programme of recovery for the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Fr Enda McDonagh, former professor of Moral Theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, calls for the church leadership to repent more convincingly their failure “in dealing with the crimes of clerical and religious sexual abuse”.

He says “the intellectual weakness of the Irish Church will also require attention” in a contribution that, he says, was prompted by watching excerpts on the TV3 Tonight with Vincent Browne programme of the Catholic bishops’ press conference in Maynooth last Wednesday and, having attended the Tom Kilroy play Christ Deliver Us! at the Abbey Theatre earlier that evening.

The 12 steps are as follows: Read the rest of this entry »

Abuse: Is it OK if everybody else is doing it?

An Irish prelate has lashed out at “the media” for making so much fuss about clerical abuse, when so much more abuse occurs elsewhere.

A senior bishop has attacked the media for singling out the Catholic Church for covering-up paedophile priests when 95pc of child abuse occurs in families and community life.

Christopher Jones, the Bishop of Elphin and head of the bishops’ committee on the family, said in Maynooth last night that he strongly objected to the way the church was being isolated. “Of course we have made mistakes,” Dr Jones added.

“But why this huge isolation of the church and this huge focus on cover-up in the church when it has been going on for centuries?

“It is only now for the first time ever that victims have been given their voice.” Dr Jones said that it was known that “95pc of abuse out there is in families, communities and other institutions.

He is right, of course.  There is far more abuse outside the church than in it.  But that completely misses the point.  We do not point to “families” as at fault, because they do not represent a cohesive group, subject to the same  corporate rules and controls as the church.

But let’s take Bishop Jones’ figures at face value, and consider their implication.  If 95% of abuse takes place outside the chruch, then presumably 5 % is “within” . That implies that 5% of abusers are priests ( or other church staff).  Wikipedia gives the number of secular clergy in Ireland as about 3000, with a further 700 in religious orders.  Call it 4000 for round numbers, or even 5000 in case of undercount. The total population of the country is about five million: one person in a thousand is a priest.  So, 0.1% of the population are responsible for 5%  of the of the abuse.  That equates to a propensity to abuse which is 50 times greater than the general population (or 25 times more if we assume all abusers to be male). That is the point – not the total number of cases, but the incidence, especially in an institution that claims to be a moral guardian, guiding us in right living.

Irish Bishops’ Humpty Dumpty Language

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you
can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again.
“They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs, they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass

In Ireland, the Catholic bishops are concerned about the imminent passing of legislation to allow civil partnerships. In voicing their opposition, they are using an argument used before in Washington DC, and in Boulder Colorado, to restrict the religious freedom of gay and lesbian Catholics. This time, though, the application of the argument is so breathtaking it would do Humpty Dumpty proud:

In a statement, Why Marriage Matters, released by the bishops yesterday, they describe provisions in the Civil Partnership Bill as “an extraordinary and far-reaching attack on freedom of conscience and the free practices of religion – which are guaranteed to every citizen under the Constitution”.

Irish Times

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Reclaiming Our Consciences

At NCR Online, Joan Chittister has a thoughtful reflection on the Irish Bishops’ Vatican visit – from a perspective inside Ireland.  After noting that there are fundamental differences between the responses of people in Ireland and America, where the response was  that “people picketed churches, signed petitions, demonstrated outside chanceries, and formed protest groups”, in Ireland the response appeared much more low-key – but in fact was deep, and may well be far more significant for the future of the Church, over the longer term.

In Ireland the gulf got wider and deeper by the day. It felt like the massive turning of a silent back against the bell towers and statues and holy water fonts behind it. No major public protests occurred. “Not at all,” as they are fond of saying. But the situation moved at the upper echelon of the country relatively quietly but like a glacier. Slowly but inexorably.

A country which, until recently, checked its constitution against “the teachings of the church” and had, therefore, allowed no contraceptives to be sold within its boundaries, unleashed its entire legal and political system against the storm.

They broke a hundred years of silence about the abuse of unwed mothers in the so-called “Magdalene Launderies.” They investigated the treatment of orphaned or homeless children in the “industrial schools” of the country where physical abuse had long been common. The government itself took public responsibility for having failed to monitor these state-owned but church-run programs. And they assessed compensatory damages, the results of which are still under review in the national parliament.

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Visionaries or Heretics: Knock

In Ireland, there is an intriguing story unfolding at the established Marian shrine of Knock, where Mary is said to have appeared in a vision in… Since then, promoted by the Irish clergy, it has been a regular site of Catholic pilgrimage and devotion: as well as a useful source of income for the tourist trade. . Now, it is again a site of pilgrimage for some of the devout – but is encountering strong opposition from the clerical establishment. Early in October, a self-proclaimed visionary and spiritual healer announced that he had been seeing visions of the Virgin, who had told him she would be appearing at Knock on three distinct dates this year: October 5th, October 30th, and December 8th. With the news spread by internet, large crowds appeared on both the first two dates: many were disappointed, some claim to have seen the sun break through the clouds, “dancing” in the sky. Coleman himself, and a second visionary, claim to have seen theVirgin, just as she promised, and to have been given messages for the world.

knock pilgrims

Knock pilgrims:. (Picture: Independent)

The church establishment are not happy: they have denounced the claims, and stated that this expectation of Marian apparitions is “unhealthy”. Why this dismissive approach, when so many clergy actively encourage pilgrimage to Marian shrines, as they have done to this one in the past? Is it because the message this time is critical of the Church’s priests?

Mary, in her latest apparition, told him she is very angry: “She will rock the foundations of the church if the people do not listen, from Rome back down to where we are, down to Knock. -Coleman, after the first apparition on October 11th “I love all my children unconditionally with my immaculate heart, especially all my priests who are not listening to my call. I ask all my children to pray for my priests. Pray. Pray. Pray.” the second visionary, Keith Henderson. after the second apparition on October 31st

Oh, and she also wants the unification of the church:

“I am the immaculate heart, Mother of all my children, Mother of all God’s children. I am the Immaculate Conception. I am Queen of the heavens. I am Queen of the Earth. “I will glorify my father’s name through prayer from the people who come to pray. I ask for conversion many times. I ask for peace. I ask for prayers every day for my son’s apostles. I pray that they will listen. I pray and I ask for unification of the faith across the globe. -Coleman

What is to be made of this? Are these genuine, is Coleman deluded, or even just an opportunist? Press reports from the ground give conflicting impressions, and I have no intention of passing any armchair judgment. If you want to make up your own mind, ahve a look at some of the many press reports. I would like to share though, some pertinent observations on alleged visionaries and church reactions in general. I’d like to begin by pointing to an obvious similarity to the situation at the much better known, well established site at Medjugorge, where the Church establishment has similarly washed its hands of the place. Jayden Cameron at Gay Mystic last month highlighted the contrast between the church’s dismissal of Medjugorge with its endorsement of the much lesser known Garabandal, pointing out that at the latter, the Church was benefitting financially.

The essential message of Garabandal, apart from the now familiar call to penance and conversion, is respect for the Eucharist, reverence for priests and the necessity of ‘obedience to the Church,’ making this Marian visitation more than palatable to the Vatican leadership of the Church. This is in stark contrast to the ecumenical message of Medjugorje, which originated in Communist Yugoslavia in the 80’s and witnessed to the necessity for respect and tolerance between religions, particularly Islam and Christianity, some years before the outbreak of the horrific religious/ethnic wars of the 90’s.

An observation in the comments that Mary at Medjugorge appeared to be specifically including Muslims in her prayers, led to a series of later posts at gay Mystic and at Enlightened Catholicism on parallel traditions of “White Lady” apparitions and assistance in other faiths, from native Americans to Eastern religions. Does the reference in the latest message from Knock to “all” her children include non-Christians? Not too favourable to the Vatican, then. No wonder they’re upset. Next, consider the timing, a few months after the publication of the Ryan report into clerical abuse of Irish children, and just ahead of a further report on the episcopal cover-up which protected the culprits for decades (this report is expected any time soon). her reproach of her priests did not single out the Irish clergy, but that is how an Irish audience will have interpreted it. Again, no wonder the clerical establishment are not impressed. All of this fits a pattern. There have been far more alleged Marian apparitions than most people realise. Many of these are patent nonsense, others are less easily dismissed. Very few are endorsed by the establishment – for them, the problem is simple. Claims of visionary experience suggest a direct approach to the divine which bypasses the clergy as necessary intermediaries. This is why those few examples that have achieved endorsement are either under some form of clerical control, or urge faithful obedience to the church authorities, or both. Many examples though, after first meeting fierce resistance, have later been embraced by the authorities.

The Vatican’s statement on the dangers of Halloween, the African Bishops statement on Traditional African Religions, the denouncement of Medjugorge and the latest Irish upheaval around the Marian Shrine at Knox all speak to the threat that these interactions are to institutional authority.

There is a legitimate issue concerning private revelation about discernment and certainly with the motivation of the visionary, but there is also this issue of these revelations as outside the control of the hierarchy.

-Colleeen Kochivar-Baker, Enlightened Catholicism, writing on All Saints Day

One famous example of great significance for the LGBT community, is Joan of Arc: visionary, military hero, alleged heretic, martyr and canonized saint. More on her later.