“There may well be more laity on the shop floor or behind the reception desk, but the manager’s office out back, or the boardroom upstairs is still out of bounds, other than to receive the latest clerical directive” Martin Murray told Gladys Ganiel recently.
Gladys Ganiel, a lecturer in Conflict Resolution at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin and Belfast and author of the well known blog Building a Church Without Walls, met with Martin Murray of the ACI Steering Group to learn more about the Association and what it is working on now that it has launched.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN HOW THE ACI GOT ITS START?
The idea for an Association of Catholics in Ireland first surfaced on the fringes of a meeting of Catholic clergy and laity gathered to prepare for an unofficial event which had as its theme ‘Towards an Assembly of the Irish Church’. This seminal event, sponsored by the new Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland (ACP) was held in the Regency Hotel in north Dublin on 7th May 2012 and was attended by well over 1000 clergy and laity. It was here that an announcement was first made, proposing a meeting of those interested in forming an umbrella group for reform minded lay Catholics.
Just under a month later, on the 30th May 2012 around 175 people responded to this call, by attending a meeting in All Hallows College, Dublin. That meeting endorsed the setting up of an ad-hoc steering group to work on a statement of objectives for a new Association.
In November 2012, again in the Regency Hotel, Dublin around 300 gathered to give the steering group an endorsement for its statement of objectives and for the proposed name, the ‘Association of Catholics in Ireland’ (ACI). It was further mandated to develop a website; plan towards an official launch; and provide for the election of a formal committee. The official launch and unveiling of the new website took place in the Liffey Valley Clarion Hotel, Dublin on 1st June 2013.
WHY DO YOU THINK SUCH AN ASSOCIATION IS NEEDED?
The yawning gap in the Catholic Church has always been any type of official forum for lay Catholics to contribute to internal discussion and debate on matters of belief, practice and church organisation. This means there are no structures in place to allow lay Catholics to contribute in any significant way to the decision making processes in the church. Existing canon law does allow for synodal type gatherings and pastoral councils at various levels. However pastoral councils (for the most part, unelected) are strictly consultative, and the option for synods lies in a state of willful disuse. The reality is that under Canon 129 of church law, laity are explicitly excluded from any of the major decision-making processes within the church. Despite the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the primacy of baptism, Canon 129 restricts decision-making power to the ordained clergy. ’Co-responsibility’ between clergy and laity is currently the rallying call for renewal after decades of despondency and crisis. However to date, there is little or no evidence that this amounts to anything more than an increased level of ‘lay involvement’ (an unfortunate, but much used term) in an otherwise, male, celibate, clerical church and using this term does nothing to mitigate the strictures of Canon 129. In other words, there may well be more laity on the shop floor or behind the reception desk, but the manager’s office out back, or the boardroom upstairs is still out of bounds, other than to receive the latest clerical directive. This is more particularly the case if you happen to be female.
This is not to say that efforts at renewal are not happening. The best of the International Eucharist Congress hosted in Dublin in June 2012 and currently the ‘Living Church’ initiative in Down and Connor with its ambitious ‘Congress’ scheduled for the Waterfront Hall, Belfast (Sept 2013) are good examples of what is possible when the creativity energy of clergy and laity working together on a level playing field is given its head. However, these large scale one-off events and any hierarchically led exercises at listening are only able to include and hear what is already acceptable to the institutional church.
The type of change that is needed if the church is to have a future and a relevance in the lives of current and future generations requires much more. Along side efforts at renewal there needs to be a serious agenda for reform. Unfortunately, discussion of such matters is actively discouraged. Priests and bishops who have attempted to engage with such topics finding themselves sanctioned and threaten with excommunication. However, globally the conversation has started. It may be on the fringes, but it isn’t going to go away. The ACI can play a part in ensuring that the voices of those advocating change can be joined with those of reform minded Catholics worldwide, and begin to be heard as the voice of the Spirit for out times. As its statement of objectives says, “The ACI is committed to the renewal of the Catholic faith in the changed and changing circumstances of the 21st Century and to the reform of the institutional church which, at this time, is experiencing conflict, crisis, and lack of credibility.” You can read its full Statement of Objectives here: http://www.acireland.ie/objectives/
DOES THE ACI HAVE A RELATIONSHIP WITH THE ASSOCIATION OF CATHOLIC PRIESTS (ACP)?
The two associations are autonomous. The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) which was formed in 2010, shares many elements of the ACI’s Reform and Renewal agenda and it is hoped to two groups, along with other existing catholic reform groups, will maintain a very close working relationship.
There had been some online discussion about the need for two associations. Some felt separate organisations did nothing to address the problem of clericalism in the church. Others felt the laity needed to find their own unique voice, and avoid a structure where the tendency might be to give way to the clergy in decision making. It was also recognised that priests at this time of crisis in ministry, have their own issues to address. In the end it was decided different associations working in close relationship was the best way to proceed at this point in time. This could of course change in the future. Meanwhile double membership is an option.
It is also worth pointing out that there are other Catholic reform groups in Ireland that predate the ACI. The oldest is probably Pobal Dei ( http://www.pobalde.ie ) which held the first of its annual conferences back in 1987. More recent arrivals are Irish branches of the international Catholic reform movements ‘We are Church’ ( http://wearechurchireland.ie ) and ‘Voice of the Faithful Ireland’ ( http://www.votfi.com ). ACI aspires to proving an umbrella structure where all these voices for reform, can work together for change. Time will tell if this can be realised.
HAS YOUR GROUP ANY INTERACTIONS WITH THE LEADERSHIP OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN IRELAND (BISHOPS, ARCHBISHOPS, ETC.)?
The ACI has had no interactions with the Irish hierarchy as of yet. While it of course can’t speak for everybody, it is hoped that meaningful and respectful dialogue will be achievable at some point in the future. Meanwhile, there is much to be done to encourage concerned lay people to have their own conversations and to imagine the shape of the future church, beyond what is presently possible. It will not be easy. There is a serious lack of encouragement for this type of engagement to take place within parishes and a culture of silence and unhealthy deference to be overcome. As one Belfast priest put it, ‘as a church, we are not good at dissent’. It may even be too much to expect for this to happen much within parishes. It may well need to take place outside, or on the fringes of parish life; near enough for parishioners to get on board, but also outside enough for baptised Catholics who are currently not participating in the life of the church, to want to take part.
WHAT HAS MOTIVATED YOU PERSONALLY TO GET INVOLVED?
I am old enough to have experienced some of the hopefulness that was generated in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. Getting involved in church as a young man in my mid twenties, I developed an interested in renewal and discovered within myself a passion for ecumenism. While change seemed to be slow in coming I was happy to hang in there, convinced that things would happen eventually. But what initially felt like a standing still, has become for me, a recognition of a blatant centrally lead, reversal of direction, undermining my hopes for a progressive Church that had Christian unity high on its list of priorities. More specifically, what has motivated me to get involved in the Catholic reform movement would be any or all of the following (in no particular order):-
– a rowing back from the reforms promised by the Second Vatican Council, including liturgical reforms. (often referred to as a reform of the reform).
– a hijacking of collegiality and a misappropriation of authority by the Vatican curia.
– a closing down of meaningful theological exploration and a heavy handed approach by the Vatican in its dealing with theologians and clergy considered to be out of step with current church orthodoxy.
– clericalism and the shortcomings in seminary training that undergirds it.
– two decades or more of abuse scandals and a culture of cover up in the church.
– a declared preference for a smaller more exclusive church (unworthy of the title Catholic).
– a creeping tide of fundamentalism, not least among the young and recently ordained clergy.
– an artificial shortage of priests (with married clergy excluded from ministry).
– a growing awareness of injustice towards women who feel called to play a fuller role in the church.
– declining church attendance.
Of these it was probably witnessing the encroachment of fundamentalism that tipped me over into the movement for reform. Silence felt like complicity. Now, after 30 years of active contribution to parish life (which continues), I feel I have some entitlement to share my views. Over the last year my journey has been one of, contributing to online discussion on the ACP website ( www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie ) , attending the historic Regency Hotel gathering last year, joining VOTFI and more recently in helping to launch the ACI ( www.acireland.ie ) . The ACI provides a forum where I can contribute to new conversations within the Catholic Church and a place where I can engage constructively in the struggle for change. There is some optimism with the arrival of Pope Francis. While it is still early days, many hope he will be a reforming pope. If that does happen to be the case, he will encounter much opposition and it would be unrealistic to expect him to deliver it on his own. Widespread support at a grass-roots level will be needed. I now see reform as a ministry within the church. Maybe not a popular one, but one to which I hope more and more Catholics will lend their weight. Change is required, but wishful thinking on its own, will not make it happen.
FOR THE DISILLUSIONED CATHOLIC OUT THERE, WHAT HOPE CAN THE ACI OFFER?
It is recognised that there are disillusioned Catholics for whom concern has turned to despair. Many have abandoned church practice or are going elsewhere. For them the church is not connecting with their life experience and is no longer relevant. They feel the Church has not being able to hear them or value their concerns. Instead the fall-off in church attendance has been blamed on factors external to the church, such as secularism, individualism, consumerism, relativism etc. Yet such people have something valuable to say. Everyone should have the opportunity to express what they actually believe rather than what they are expected to believe. This is particular true in the context of a society which is post-modern, post-Christendom, where information is open, everything is questioned, and authority has to be earned.
I know personally how difficult it is for Catholics to speak out, embedded as we are in a church culture that is traditionally conservative. It takes a certain level of courage. But in light of the a growing concerns, many Catholics, fearing for the future of the church, not least for their children, are beginning to find their voice. Silence for them, is no longer the virtue it used to be. The ACI can provide a safe and supportive space for re-engagement, in a way allows them to be true to themselves, while at the same time contributing to the imagining and shaping of the future church.
Such re-engagement should not be considered futile. Borrowing from words attributed to Gandhi, we need to “be the change we wish to see” in the church and in the world .
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