Irish bishops decide not to publish responses to synod questionnaire

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.
Supporters of same-sex marriage march to the Department of Justice in Dublin Aug. 18, 2013. (PA Wire/Julien Behal)
Supporters of same-sex marriage march to the Department of Justice in Dublin Aug. 18, 2013. (PA Wire/Julien Behal)

by Michael Kelly

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Irish bishops have come in for sharp criticism after deciding they will not publish the results of the Vatican survey on the family.

The key findings from Irish Catholics on issues like premarital sex, homosexuality, and Communion for the divorced and remarried will remain under wraps before a synod, a meeting of the world's bishops that Pope Francis has called for later this year.

Survey results made public by other bishops' conferences -- including Germany and Switzerland -- so far show a clear divergence between what the church teaches on marriage, sexuality and family life and what Catholics personally believe.

A spokesman for the Irish bishops said that the results of the survey were "a matter for the Synod of Bishops and not for the local Church," The Irish Catholic newspaper reported Feb. 13. It would "undermine the integrity of the information collection process if there was to be a comment made from an Irish church representative at this time," he said.

The Association of Catholic Priests -- which represents about a quarter of Irish priests and is calling for liberal reforms to the church's teaching -- has expressed disappointment about the decision. A spokesman for the association said the bishops' statement "is contrary to the openness that Pope Francis is encouraging at all levels in the church."

"We fear that, at a time when the church in Ireland is regarded with suspicion, this decision of the bishops will only serve to make many people question if they have really reported the views of the people," said the priests' association spokesman.

Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin broke the silence Feb. 27 during a meeting at Holy Cross College, the major seminary in Dublin. Catholic teaching on birth control, cohabitation, same-sex relationships and divorce is "disconnected from real-life experience of families -- and not by just younger people," Martin said.

Many of the survey respondents in Dublin "said that the teaching appears as not practical in relation to people's day-to-day struggles, being at best an unrealistic ideal. There appears to be a 'theory-practice' gap," he said.

While clearly there was among the respondents "hesitancy, uneasiness and opposition" to same-sex marriage, "many felt that there should be some way of civilly recognizing stable same-sex unions," he said.

There is more than anecdotal evidence that Irish Catholics differ significantly from the church on controversial teachings, particularly around human sexuality.

The report of a Vatican-sponsored apostolic visitation of the church in Ireland in 2012 criticized what it described as a "certain tendency, not dominant but nevertheless fairly widespread among priests, religious and laity, to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings of the Magisterium."

A 2012 survey -- carried out by the respected pollsters Amarach Research and commissioned by the priests' association -- showed that three out of four Irish Catholics find the church's teaching on sexuality "irrelevant."

Eighty-seven percent believe that priests ought to be allowed to get married, while 77 percent say that the church should admit women to the priesthood.

When asked, "To what extent do you agree with the Catholic church's teaching that any sexual expression of love between a gay couple is immoral?", 61 percent of Catholics said they disagreed, while 18 percent believed homosexual acts to be immoral.

Just 5 percent of Catholics believe that divorced or separated Catholics in second unions should be denied Communion, while 87 percent said they had no problem with the reception of Communion in these circumstances.

[Michael Kelly is editor of The Irish Catholic, Ireland's independent Catholic newspaper.]

A version of this story appeared in the March 14-27, 2014 print issue under the headline: Irish bishops decide not to publish responses.

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