Ruins of St. Mary's Church, New Ross, County Wexford, Ireland

Irish priest warns “shuffling deckchairs won’t do” in “Titanic” times for Church

“Ongoing change is now a permanent reality of the Catholic Church”, a prominent Irish priest has insisted, calling on clergy and laity “to accept” this reality and embrace “living in the grey” with “difficult questions that have no ready-made ‘black and white’ answers”.

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“Change just is and life, as we have known it, is over”, Father Brendan Hoban, a founding member of the Association of Catholic Priests, wrote in the current edition of the Jesuit quarterly Studies.

This change in the Church has been especially felt in Ireland, Hoban said, where “the tectonic plates really have shifted” and in the Church “effectively we’re trying to build a scaffolding around a house that has already collapsed”.

“All the targeted parish programmes, all the parish councils in the world, all the experts sitting in offices with secretaries and computers, all the prayers in Christendom won’t put the old church back together again. It’s day is done”, Hoban warned, lamenting “Ireland’s Catholic twilight”.

Even parishes in the country are nothing but “a biblical remnant holding grimly to a mix of community custom, familial loyalty and an ever-diminishing dividend of social respectability”, the priest decried.

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What, then, is the Irish Church to do in the face of this decline?

For Hoban, “these are truly Titanic times for the Irish Catholic Church so shuffling with the deckchairs is an indulgence beyond reason”.

“Make-believe, illusion and denial need to be named and shamed. In present circumstances not facing the truth is, a form of religious treason”, he warned.

“The focus now”, Hoban continued, “has to be on intellectual rigour; on a communicable theology that connects with the lived experience of people; on a robust commitment to a respectful re-imaging of our Church; on an honest acknowledgement that clergy in the interests of the gospel need to divest their control and authority; and on a consensus that a robust synodality is the obvious and only way forward”.

“What we don’t need are pious platitudes about saying our prayers or condemnations about the terrible times we live in or blaming Satan or secularism or whatever convenient excuse absolves us of personal responsibility for the unravelling of our Church”, Hoban urged.

“Catholics will no longer endure an insensible theology or a spirituality of fear. And what a priest has to say will be subject to the same remorseless criticism as anyone else and if it’s simplistic or pious or plain gibberish, it will be cursorily dismissed at the court of reason and common sense”.

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Why it matters

“The jury is out on whether the Irish Catholic Church has a discernible future, apart from a ceremonial presence on the official side-lines of Irish life or a refuge for those ill at ease with the modern world”, Hoban warned.

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“Once we mattered too much in too many ways, now we’ve moved beyond antipathy into apathy”, he admitted.

The only way to guarantee a future for the Church in Ireland, he concluded, is to recover a Catholicism beyond condemnations, and open to possibility and promise.

What the poet and playwright Seamus Heaney called “the radiance of Catholicism”, that gives “a right to joy” and a “tremendous sense of being” beyond the “repression, guilt and prudery”.

“But who is there now to articulate that religious vision?”, Hoban asked, before praising the results of the “listening process” in the Killala diocese as proof that “there’s still a huge commitment on the part of a significant number of lay people to value and support the Church”.

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