HE certainly doesn't see himself as an apostate priest or a heretic, but Edinburgh's Father Mike Fallon is taking a quietly strong stand against the power of the Vatican by asking for a debate on two of the most dearly held principles in the Catholic Church: the vow of celibacy and the ban on ordaining women.
"My fundamental disagreement would be that there is no discussion allowed on either of the issues," says Fallon, whom some might see as being at the forefront of a simmering progressive rebellion against Rome within the priesthood. "Whether there is change or not is another matter, but there has to be debate."
Fallon is not alone in his views. Last week Fallon attended an unprecedented meeting of more than 1000 priests and churchgoers in Dublin to discuss the future of the Catholic Church. As revolutions go, it was a relatively sedate affair, but the gathering sent a spasm through the church after attendees called for debate on controversial topics such as married priests and the ordination of women.
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The challenge to the Vatican's authority by the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) in Ireland comes against a backdrop of disintegrating respect for the Church – particularly in Ireland – over child sex-abuse scandals. The issue of paedophile priests has been reignited by accusations that the head of Ireland's Catholic Church, Cardinal Sean Brady, failed to act on abuse allegations when he was a priest in the 1970s.
This has arguably accelerated the calls for Church reform. Some priests who have spoken out on the issue have reportedly been "silenced" by the Vatican and banned from writing about such issues. Father Tony Flannery, an Irish founder member of ACP, was advised to go to a monastery to "pray and reflect" on his views.
Back in Edinburgh, Fallon believes there is support in Scotland for ACP's call for debate on Church reforms, but few have spoken out about it. "I believe there is a latent support," he says, "and it exists among people who are 'thinking Catholics' and people who keep themselves informed about Church affairs and who keep themselves aware of what exactly it is the Church teaches."
For now, Fallon and his fellow travellers seem to be sticking to the centre ground. He says that while he is not for the ordination of women or the abandonment of the rule of celibacy, neither is he against them.
"The fact of the matter is I can't make an informed choice until there has been debate – open and honest dialogue conducted in a spirit of true discernment," he adds.
Fallon also attacked some Vatican officials for vesting themselves with "far more authority" than they are meant to have. He said the lack of "sound management" of abuse cases and the "imposition" of a new English translation of the Roman Missal – the prayer script used for Mass – indicated a "wilful pursuit of control and power". He said: "My concern would be anyone who goes along with the diktats of a dysfunctional leadership is doing exactly what Cardinal Brady is being accused of having done – looking away and allowing injustice to flourish and evil to continue.
"That is not to say that I think all Vatican officials or bishops are wilful and pursuing unjust agendas, but there is an ecclesiastical culture that appears to lead people of good faith [to the point] where they come to believe that it is more important to be loyal than it is to have integrity." According to a recent survey carried out by the ACP, 90% of Irish Catholics said they would support married priests. It also found 77% want women to be ordained, while over 60% disagreed with Church teaching that gay relationships were immoral.
The issue of reform has been brought into focus by the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, which opened in October 1962 and aimed to reflect on the place of the Roman Catholic Church in the modern world. For some Vatican II – which took place a century after the First Vatican Council – promised real reform and liberalisation.
Werner Jeanrond, a Catholic theologian and professor of divinity at Glasgow University, said priests' thinking had been increasingly coming into line with the majority of their congregations in the wake of the abuse scandals and other issues such as shortages and overworking of priests.
He added: "When I lived in Ireland, in the mid-1990s, we had the priests, the bishops and the Vatican on one hand and the laity on the other. But this has changed. Now we have priests and laity on one hand and the bishops and the Vatican on the other. That shift I think is significant.
"We are living in a time of enormous change for the Church. I see this not as a sign of collapse, it is a sign of change and transformation and hope."
Jeanrond said the Catholic Church in Scotland had always been influenced by what happened in Ireland and England and Wales, despite being independent.
"It has not been known for any major doctrinal rebellions or anything like that," he said. "But here too [in Scotland] we face a generational change. Most of the bishops have been or will be replaced in the next few years, including the Cardinal [Keith O'Brien, Archibishop of Edinburgh and leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland].
"If an increasingly well-informed Catholic laity in Scotland wants to participate more actively in the governance of the Church they will ask themselves why on Earth – when you look at church history in the last 150 years – the worldwide Catholic Church accepted an absolutist model, a model which is not necessary to the Gospel.
"You cannot ask someone to live in a democratic country – especially a country facing a democratic decision about its future – to then reduce them in terms of their faith, without their exercise of reason."
PROFESSOR John Haldane, professor of philosophy at St Andrews University and a Vatican adviser, said the actions of the priests in Irelandwas partly about the clergy wanting to instigate change. However, he argued there was also an element of trying to ingratiate their way back into Irish society.
"To be a Catholic clergyman in Ireland now is hardly a high-status social position, so there is just a bit of self protection," he said. "The second aspect is if you look at the generation of those priests, they are what would be called Vatican II priests. They believed somehow everything was going to change. I think that was a deep mistake as anyone who knows the history of the Church knows that it is a deeply conservative institution; it couldn't be other than that, given its own understanding of itself."
Haldane argued that the situation in Ireland cannot be directly translated to Scotland, where Irish Catholics had historically faced discrimination and the Church in Scotland had not become such a "discredited institution".
He added: "One of the most interesting things about the Scottish Catholic Church is that there is almost no dissent within it. I think the Catholic Church in Scotland has had to keep its head down a bit historically."
Haldane said the Vatican viewed Ireland as a "basket case" and was more concerned about similar groups of priests in Europe in Austria and Germany, who have also challenged the church's teachings on issues such as contraception and celibacy.
Valerie Stroud is co-ordinator of the UK branch of the laity-led organisation We Are Church, which started in Austria in 1995 and aims to encourage discussion about reform of Catholicism. She claimed people were often frightened to speak out and their group was even barred from using Catholic Church premises as it was viewed as a threat.
"People don't want to rock the boat too much," she said. "If you say something out of turn and exception is taken, it is not just you who would suffer, it is quite possibly your family. Your children wouldn't get into Catholic schools, and maybe if your daughter wanted to get married, little obstacles would be placed in the way."
She added: "The only way things will change is by dialogue and, of course, dialogue is something which Vatican II talked a lot about, the bishops talk a lot about. Unfortunately, dialogue to them is 'we will stand and tell you what to do'."
The Catholic Church in Scotland declined requests from the Sunday Herald to provide any comment on the ACP meeting in Ireland and how it could impact Scotland. Sources in the Church said the issue was viewed as specific to Ireland as a "foreign country" and not relevant to Scotland.
Pat Brown, of Catholic Women's Ordination, which campaigns for women priests and yesterday held a meeting to discuss "Whatever Happened to Vatican II", is also concerned about the stifling of debate.
"The Church is moving backwards at the moment," she said. "It is getting more dictatorial and not listening."