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Ireland survey shows gaps between church teachings and beliefs

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Catholic News Service

DUBLIN — Three out of four Irish who identified themselves as Catholics find the church’s teaching on sexuality “irrelevant,” according to new research published by the Association of Catholic Priests.

The survey, conducted by the research association Amarach, also showed that almost 90 percent of those surveyed believe that divorced or separated Catholics in a stable second relationship ought to be able to receive Communion at Mass. Under church law, divorced and remarried Catholics who have received an annulment may receive Communion.

The figures were compiled from a sample of 1,000 Catholics and, according to researchers, have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

According to the results, 35 percent of those surveyed attend Mass at least once a week; 51 percent attend at least once a month. Five percent of Irish who identify themselves as Catholics never attend Mass.

The Association of Catholic Priests, which represents about 20 percent of Ireland’s priests, is campaigning for changes in the church. Its members maintain that they are mainstream church and not dissidents; their founder, Redemptorist Father Tony Flannery, has been asked by the Vatican to quit writing for his order’s monthly magazine.

The survey appeared to reveal a wide disparity between what the church teaches and what the self-identified Catholics believe.

Eighty-seven percent disagreed with church teaching on an unmarried priesthood and said they believed that priests ought to be allowed to get married, while 77 percent said 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 said they disagreed while 18 percent of those surveyed believed homosexual acts to be immoral.

Two out of three surveyed want a greater role in choosing their bishop.

The survey results were released April 12. One week earlier, during his Holy Thursday Mass, Pope Benedict XVI cautioned against dissent from church teaching, saying it was not a legitimate path to reform.

In March, the report of an apostolic visitation to the Irish Catholic Church in the aftermath of clergy sex abuse scandals criticized what it described as a “fairly widespread” tendency among Irish priests, religious and laypeople to dissent from the church’s teaching.

Father Sean McDonagh, a member of the leadership team of the Association of Catholic Priests, told Catholic News Service that the survey “confirms that those who are advocating for change in the church are not a tiny minority, but are, in fact, at the heart of the church.”

He said Irish Catholics are “crying out for change and do not want the church to go backward, but to move forward and change.”

A spokesman for the Irish bishops’ conference told CNS that “the recent apostolic visitation highlighted the need for a new focus on the dignity and role of all the faithful and for deeper formation in the faith.”

“The results of this survey confirm the importance of all in the church taking up this task in a spirit of communion and sharing the good news of the Gospel in a rapidly changing social and cultural environment in Ireland today,” he said.

John Murray, a theologian at the Mater Dei Institute of Theology in Dublin, said he welcomed the survey “if it can lead to a discussion about the church’s teaching.”

“There has been too little discussion of these issues in the past,” he said, “we are paying the price for this now: The church’s teaching is largely misunderstood by many people in Ireland.”

Murray said he was “not surprised that many people have difficulties with some of the church’s teaching.”

Murray said he believes there has been a ‘vacuum for many Irish Catholics. That’s partly why people reject these teachings; they’ve never had them presented in a worked-out way.” He said it had been his experience that “when people see the depth of the church’s teaching, they understand and appreciate it much more.’

He warned that the church “cannot sacrifice truth based on an opinion poll. Ultimately the Catholic Church teaches what it teaches based on the fact that it is true, not based on the fact that it is popular.”

The church in Ireland has been rocked by a series of abuse scandals and mishandling by senior church leaders since the mid-1990s. A number of judicial reports have detailed a pattern of cover-up and a tendency to put the avoidance of scandal and the reputation of the church ahead of the needs of those who were abused. Four Irish bishops have resigned in recent years after been criticized for their handling of abuse allegations.