Three days after my 66th birthday I find myself forbidden to minister as a priest, with a threat of excommunication and dismissal from my congregation hanging over me.
How did I find myself in this situation?
joined the Redemptorist congregation in 1964 and was ordained 10 years
later. That was the era of great openness in the Catholic Church.
believed in freedom of thought and of conscience, and that church
teaching was not something to be imposed rigidly on the people we served
– they were intelligent and educated, and could take responsibility for
As preachers we must try to present the message of
Christ in a way and a language that spoke to the reality of people’s
lives. This necessitated a willingness to listen to the people, to
understand their hopes and joys, their struggles and fears.
people to deal with the teaching on contraception during the 1970s was a
great training ground. Just repeating the official line of Humanae
Vitae was no help.
During those years priests and people alike learned a
lot about how to form their consciences and make mature decisions about
all areas of their lives. As priests we learned more from people than
they learned from us.
As the years went by we could all see that
the teaching authority within the church was reverting to the more
authoritarian style of ministry practised in the past.
became centralised in the Vatican once again, pressure came on priests
of my generation to be more explicit and decisive in presenting church
teaching: orthodoxy was now the imperative, and allowing people to think
for themselves was seen as dangerous.
There was no room for grey areas.
Reports to Rome
became aware that there were people around the country who reported any
slight deviation from the official stance by a priest, for example
allowing a woman to read the gospel at Mass.
Throughout the world,
priests were being sanctioned, silenced and even dismissed because they
would not toe the line.
In autumn 2010, I was one of a small group
who set up the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP). This association
was unique in that it was an independent body of clergy, a new
phenomenon in the church, and one with which the authorities, in Ireland
and the Vatican, were uncomfortable and didn’t know how to handle.
growth of the movement served to catapult me into a more prominent
position, which brought me to the attention of the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). I had been writing for various religious
magazines for more than 20 years without any problem.
But suddenly last
February I was informed by my Redemptorist superiors that I was in
serious trouble over some things I had written. I was summoned to Rome,
not to the Vatican, which to this day has not communicated with me
directly, but to the head of the Redemptorists.
This was the
beginning of what is now almost a year of tension, stress and difficult
decision-making in my life. Initially my policy was to see if some
compromise was possible, and it seemed in early summer this was a real
But I gradually became aware that the CDF continually
raised the bar, until it got to the point where I could no longer
negotiate. I was faced with a choice.
Either I sign a statement, for
publication, stating that I accepted teachings that I could not accept,
or I would remain permanently banned from priestly ministry, and maybe
face more serious sanctions.
It is important to state clearly that these
issues were not matters of fundamental teaching, but rather of church
So now, at this hour of my life, I either put my name
to a document that would be a lie, and would impugn my integrity and my
conscience, or I face the reality of never again ministering as a
I have always believed in the church as the community of
believers and as an essential element in promoting and nourishing the
faith. I have enjoyed my years of preaching, the main work of
Redemptorists, and never had any doubt that Christ’s message was one
But to give up on freedom of thought, freedom
of speech and most especially freedom of conscience is too high a price
for me to pay to be allowed minister in today’s church.
are people who will say I should leave the Catholic Church and join
another Christian church – one more suitable to my stance. Being a
Catholic is central to my personal identity.
I have tried to preach the
gospel. No matter what sanctions the Vatican imposes on me I will
continue, in whatever way I can, to try to bring about reform in the
church and to make it again a place where all who want to follow Christ
will be welcome.
He made friends with the outcasts of society, and I
will do whatever I can in my own small way to oppose the current Vatican
trend of creating a church of condemnation rather than one of
I believe that the real aim of the CDF is to suppress
the ACP – attempts have been made to clip the wings of the Austrian
association. I hope and pray it will not succeed.
While I am
dealing with these issues in my own life I believe it is appropriate for
me to temporarily stand down from my position of leadership in the
I will, however, remain an active member, and will be
available to help in every way possible for the work of the ACP, which
is bigger than any one person.
Finally, it could be asked why I am going public now having remained silent for a year.
I need to take back my voice.