VOTFI Submission to the National Conference of Priests of Ireland, 2nd July 2007

(Regrettably the NCPI dissolved itself in September, 2007. This was due entirely to the collapse of the morale of many priests in Ireland in the wake of many scandals and poor leadership from Irish Catholic bishops.)


Voice of the Faithful is an international lay Catholic organisation formed in the wake of the clerical child sex abuse catastrophes, beginning in 2002. Aiming to support abuse victims and clergy of integrity, and to work towards church structures that will bring greater openness and accountability in the administration of the church, it has over one hundred members throughout Ireland, and has already networked victims of abuse in six Irish dioceses.

Although our specific mission relates to the problem of clerical sexual abuse, it is our firm intention to assist our church in meeting all of the challenges that now face us – including the rapid growth of a secularism hostile to religious faith. We believe that the church has ample latent resources that will enable it to recover and to develop a new dynamism capable of overcoming all obstacles. Among these resources are:

The unfailing help of God;

The warmth and humility of many priests and religious, founded on a strong spirituality and an appreciation of the role and gifts of laity;

A rich theology that can illuminate the proper role of laity, and help us all realise our common baptismal mission in the life of the church;

A strong idealism in our younger generations, waiting only to be given a heroic role.

There is, however, one very serious obstacle to the harnessing of all of these resources.

The Problem of Clericalism

In meeting with and listening to victims of clerical sexual abuse we have become convinced that this critical problem is linked in many important ways with clericalism – an attitude that exaggerates the role of clergy and retards the maturation of lay Catholics in the Irish church.

In a submission earlier this year to the ongoing Irish State Commission of Investigation into the handling of clerical child sex abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese, we explained how clericalism impacts upon all major aspects of this problem.

Defining clericalism as the expectation on the part of too many clergy of unquestioning compliance from lay people, and the traditional lay sense of obligation to grant that compliance, we pointed out how this was central to the specific imbalance of power that makes children especially vulnerable to ordained paedophiles. We pointed out also how it disempowers victims and their families in their subsequent dealings with church authorities; how it may continue to weaken any child protection measures the church may adopt; and how it remains a grievous obstacle to the healing of victims, and of their relationship with their church.

We attach a copy of this submission to the Dublin inquiry to this document, as it is highly relevant to what we want to say here.

Although many victims of clerical sexual abuse – and many of their relatives also – are alienated completely from faith and church by this experience, we have found that a minority are enabled by the experience to disentangle Catholic clericalism from Catholicism per se, understood as faith in the Trinity. They come to see that the clericalism that had disempowered and injured them is an unnecessary and naive hindrance to an adult conviction that all of us are radically equal in dignity. In that more mature Catholic faith they become reconciled to the essential belief system of their childhood, and reconciled also, to a degree, to their church.

However, they continue to see Catholic clericalism as an obstacle to a full reconciliation, and as a continuing source of danger to Catholic children and vulnerable adults.

So do we.

Clericalism as a Wider Problem

A young Catholic in a northern diocese had the following recent experience after an evening prayer service. An elderly priest had expressed some annoyance about this young man’s youth group staying late in chapel that night. Trying to make friendly conversation, the young man privately asked the priest if he would be joining a pending diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes. The response was as follows:

“Oh, things like that are not decided by curates like me, but by the parish priest. Curates are almost the lowest form of life in the church. There’s only one lower form of life – and that’s lay people like you!”

(Fortunately this young man then got a crash course in the difference between clericalism and Catholicism and his faith has not wavered.)

We offer this story not as proving something generally about all Irish Catholic clergy, but as an extreme illustration of an attitude of mind that lingers because of the historical experience of the church – and that can only continue to alienate younger generations especially. It is founded upon an inadequate theological formation and it continues to survive because of the undeveloped nature of the church’s communal structures – i.e. the complete absence of structures that would allow all members of the church to commune, and communicate, as equal brothers and sisters in Christ.

It could not have survived if our Irish church, after Vatican II, had set out to become fully aware of the priesthood of the laity, and to allow the laity to realise their own special mission and responsibility: to consecrate the world to God.

We are convinced that the phenomenon known as secularism has been greatly strengthened in Ireland by Catholic clericalism – because the latter works against the maturation of the Irish laity, frustrates their need to become proactive adults, denies them an heroic role in developing their church and consigns them to the absurd role of eternal flag-waving extra in a clerical pageant. It denies them also a speaking role – a confident sense of their own empowerment to speak of their faith when it is challenged – and therefore frustrates the action of the Holy Spirit also.

Clericalism can be seen as an attitude that undervalues all Catholic sacraments save one: ordination. In doing so it tends to deprive laity of confidence that sufficient graces are available through Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist – and prayer – to enable them to become effective ambassadors for Christ in their own family, employment and social spheres. It also tends to deprive them of the intellectual confidence necessary for their continuing growth in the understanding of their faith.

Clericalism the Central Obstacle to the Recovery of the Irish Church

Clericalism is therefore intimately connected in a multitude of ways with the unfolding tragedy of the Irish church since 1965, and its current continuing decline. We have no hesitation in identifying it as the central obstacle to the recovery of Irish Catholicism at this time – and especially to the full reconciliation of those injured and alienated by clerical abuse and by the culture of concealment that enabled that abuse for so long.

Clericalism subtly distorts Catholicism, shifting its focus from faith in God to an exaggerated, childlike – and therefore dangerous – faith in clergy. It denies to lay Catholics – especially women – the full development of their gifts, role and mission. We do not understand why it has never itself been formally identified and condemned by the magisterium, and feel that such a development is long overdue.

The Route to Recovery

Confident that this obstacle of clericalism is itself being weakened by the seriousness of the present situation, we recommend the following priorities to the NCPI:

The identification and abandonment of clericalism as a hindrance to the life of the church;

The exploration together of the role of lay people in ‘consecrating the world to God’ – and especially in building a society that is safe for children and young people;

The recognition that the Holy Spirit will enlighten lay people on this, and give them a speaking role in their own church;

A new collaboration between priests and people, based on openness, mutual accountability, and a spirituality of Communion.

Knowing that already there are ‘green shoots’ heralding the emergence of a more vibrant church, we applaud especially the NCPI proposal that there should be as soon as possible a national assembly of the Irish church. This is needed to allow us to share the gifts of insight that the Holy Spirit is already endowing us with in different dioceses; to allow us to celebrate our Catholic heritage and our Baptism; and to dissipate the cloud of despondency that has settled over the church in recent years.

Aware of the slow progress of this proposal through the deliberative machinery of the Irish Conference of Bishops, we wonder if in the interim the NCPI could sponsor some kind of central conference for all in Ireland who are interested in celebrating our tradition and in developing an effective collaboration of priests and people. We would strongly support any such event, as a vital step towards a genuine communion of the whole Irish church.

Aware also that this brief first meeting between VOTF and the NCPI executive will not in itself permit a full understanding of one another’s issues and concerns, we would especially welcome ongoing contact with the NCPI – perhaps through a periodic forum of interested members of both the NCPI and VOTF.


We are grateful for this opportunity to present our mission and perspectives to the NCPI, and look forward to a fruitful collaboration – in fidelity to Christ.

Representing VOTF Ireland:

Sean O’Conaill
Marie Collins
Teresa Mee