A Catholic activist friend of mine, involved in social issues and, as he sees it, fighting for family values in an ever changing society, once told me that the last people he could rely on for help in this quarter was the Catholic Church itself. The reason, as he brutally put it, was because the church was ‘dead from the neck up.’

My friend’s point was that the real energy and imagination in the Catholic Church in Ireland was in its lower reaches, or among its lay followers, whereas the church leadership itself was wooden and immobile. Traumatised by having to deal, often badly, with the fall-out from sexual abuse controversies and from having to play PR catch-up with a rapidly liberalising society while at the same time accommodating the often antiquated teachings of an unreformed church, the church leadership is too often left paralysed, fearful and confused. But in the battlefield of change and social challenge, the foot soldiers and ordinary church members have sought to confront these new challenges, even if they feel on their own

We saw this with the recent referendum on same sex marriage. We saw spirited and flexible contributions from the likes of former President Mary McAleese, an expert in Catholic theology, and Tom Curran, the chairman of Fine Gael, who is a devout Catholic but who spoke movingly about his son being gay and who was, like McAleese, a prominent Yes campaigner. They sounded like more passionate and modern as Catholics than those representing the church itself. But among the religious too, we had support for a Yes vote from Sister Stanislaus Kennedy (pictured below), who like other poverty campaigners such as Fr Peter McVerry and Fr Sean Healy represent those at the very coalface of Irish society.


It was the same with the No campaigners. Activists such as David Quinn and Breda O’Brien from the Iona Institute, who represent a Catholic ethos, as well as columnist John Waters and Senator Ronan Mullen offered an energetic and persuasive case against the fundamental changes being made in marriage and family life.

By contrast, the Catholic prelates themselves struggled in the debate and didn’t seem to want to even be in the discussion. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin tied himself up in knots telling us how he was going to vote No, but only reluctantly. Such an admission may have cheered the liberals and but it was utterly demoralising to Catholic activists in the field who wanted an upbeat message and clear and unapologetic approach. Martin now says that the Catholic Church needs to have a good look at itself in light of the referendum result. And he’s right: but he may be part of the problem. His equivocating and appeasing manner does not instil confidence.

But neither does the dogmatic and unyielding stance of his namesake, Eamon Martin, the Bishop of Derry, who offered the more traditional response: which was that same sex marriage was simply out of line with church teachings. Perhaps coming from the divided society of Northern Ireland where the Catholic church operates like a separate and well respected culture within its community, Eamon Martin seemed oblivious to the fact that our society and the Irish State was moving in a whole other direction, and he would need to address and even accommodate to that.

Indeed, at one stage, almost out of panic, the Catholic Church appeared to threaten to stop performing the civil ceremony aspect of the marriage altogether if the same-sex marriage referendum was passed.  It was a claim that struck many people, including even staunch believers, as being somewhat petty and desperate. And, interestingly, we have not heard much more about this nuclear option since the referendum was passed.

kevin doran

Meanwhile, the Bishop of Elphin, Kevin Doran (above), in a car crash interview, suggested that gay parents who were rearing children were ‘not necessarily parents.’ Of course, by his own logic, and that of his church, we knew what he meant but it sounded terrible. He also said that God ‘did not intend people to be gay.’ Another bishop conceded, in the closing days of the campaign, that in fact yes, the church does still sees homosexuality as wrong, so the question of gay marriage was almost irrelevant (The Church’s position is that it acknowledges homosexuality but does not condone the act).

And this seems to be the nub of it. The Catholic Church appears to be so far behind society now, on these issues, that it seems almost impossible to catch up. It has simply moved too slowly and bureaucratically, and theologically.

So can such an institution properly reconfigure and modernise without falling apart altogether, like Communism did after the reforms of ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’? That is the question now. And who can navigate it through that journey and realignment? One must remember that over time, this powerful and often great institution has been able to abandon, or downgrade, many outmoded concepts, like Limbo, objections to family planning and to the rights of women, and barriers to ecumenism. So it has shown an ability to reform and reconstruct.

But in recent decades it has been reactionary. Much of the blame for this must go to the Vatican itself, and the legacy of two very conservative Popes, with John Paul II and then Pope Benedict. By contrast, the new Pope Francis appears to be trying to change things quickly, and catch up. And yet, the immediate reaction of a Vatican representative to Ireland’s Yes vote was to describe it as a ‘blow to humanity.’ This is belligerent talk, completely out of touch with the public mood.

So the big question now is, will the Church acknowledge that times are changing and that it needs to adapt to the modern world or will it stick to its guns on its teachings in the belief that such ideas can save people from the chaos and uncertainty of modern life ? Either is valid, and they are not mutually exclusive. People have never been so starved of spirituality and guidance. In the turmoil of modern life, and great political uncertainty, many would welcome a fresh religious dimension.

The strange thing is that one suspects that many in the church would wish to take a more conciliatory and pragmatic approach to modern challenges such as gay marriage and other issues. But they are held back by the strictures of conservative theology, or of the strict control of language presided over by the church authorities. For example, in this newspaper, the aforementioned Eamon Martin gave an interview to Jason O’Toole on his becoming Archbishop which he forecast a whole new Church relationship with modern world and with ordinary people.

‘In some ways’ said Martin in 2013 ‘we have to find a way of presenting our message in a way which is not seen as judgmental on people who are in same-sex relationships.’ He said he was echoing Archbishop Martin who spoke about it being important for the Church to ‘show respect’ to same sex couples ‘who are finding their way in life, in fulfilling relationships for them. This was in the spirit of Pope’s own pronouncement that ‘if a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?’


This is an interesting and expansive approach and a more nuanced once, than that shown by Bishop Martin (above) in the subsequent referendum. However, one wonders, if this is still playing with words and whether the prelates are not still tying themselves up in knots as they try to square modern policies with ancient beliefs? In the same interview, Martin stressed that he’d be very surprised if Pope Francis ‘were not to say that he believes marriage is between a man and a woman.’ Instead, ‘it’s not the context of his teachings which has changed, it’s his style of approach.’ And he believed the Pope was calling upon his bishops to do the same.

Perhaps then this is what the Irish bishops were doing during the recent very awkward referendum for them, even if their attempts to be flexible and understanding ran into logical cul-de-sacs. There are, after all, limits to a ‘style of approach’ and eventually one has to deal with actual teachings and beliefs.

Bishop Martin said in 2013 that the challenge for him was to find a way of teaching the merciful message of Jesus in a non-judgmental fashion. ‘If you can speak the gospel message in a challenging way, but accompany it with compassion and mercy — in other words, understanding that not everybody can reach this ideal — then you’re getting very close to how Jesus actually taught.’

This seems a very laudable approach, but one wonders will it be enough. And certainly Bishop Martin didn’t show such this flexibility in recent weeks. But the bigger question is whether this is not just tweaking and rebranding the message and whether much more is needed? Perhaps it is time for a revolutionary approach by the Church to itself, like another Vatican II sit-down when, in the early 1960s, it had a wholesale rehabilitation of its beliefs and strictures. We could start with a more meaningful involvement by the church’s lay community, not least those who are female and make up half the population. Leadership roles for the likes of Mary McAleese and Sister Stanislaus Kennedy would seriously invigorate the Church and its relevance. Otherwise, the Catholic Church in Ireland will, with the nest will in the world, continue to be ‘dead from the neck up’ and the great flock of those who are still faithful will continue to yearn for better and clearer leadership..