In September 2010, over 300 Catholic priests in Ireland met in Portlaoise. The meeting had been called by the newly-formed Association of Catholic Priests to provide “a voice for Irish Catholic priests at a time when that voice is largely silent and needs to be expressed”. The formation of this body, following the demise of the National Council of Priests, arose during a very specific moment of crisis. Following the part publication of the Murphy report in November 2009 and the earlier report from the Ryan Commission in May, a small group of priests – diocesan and in orders – came together to express concern at their views not being heard. In particular, these views related to accusations and allegations of sexual and physical abuse. The founding and subsequent meetings of the Association represent a change in the way that a seemingly monolithic institution is presented in public.
This paper examines the Association’s formation following the publication of these two reports, framed as a ‘crisis’ in the Catholic Church. It outlines the Association’s basis for engagement in public at this time of ‘crisis’ and its desire for recognition of State and church separation. In this way, the Association’s objectives represent a map of the Irish public sphere, albeit through a specifically Christian lens. It is a direct appeal to a broader public, one that does not rely on hierarchical power relationships. In these ways, the Association is an attempt to create a public religion (Casanova, 1994). Public religions cease being state compulsory institutions to become “free religious institutions” and part of a broader civil society. The paper argues that such a move toward public religion in an Irish context means rescaling mainstream conceptions of secularization processes. The realignment of a hierarchical scale with one based on networks of diffused power means that the ‘crisis’ in the Catholic church in Ireland is far deeper than might first be conceived.