The Catholic Church was once again center stage in Ireland last week with the controversy surrounding remarks by an 80-year-old priest in Co. Kerry.
Father Sean Sheehy became an overnight media sensation after he spelled out his own interpretation of sin and repentance during a Mass at St. Mary’s in Listowel, a church nestled in a square in the town.
Sheehy, who served in the Diocese of Baton Rouge in Louisiana before he retired to Ireland, pulled no punches in his sermon in which he told parishioners that sex between gay couples was sinful, criticized free contraception being provided by the Health Service Executive because it promoted promiscuity, condemned abortion and described transgender proposals by the government as “lunacy.”
Early reporting of the Mass was confusing, with some saying the priest spoke about “sex between two men and two women” while other news outlets correctly reported that he spoke about “sex between two men or two women.” The importance of the correct preposition meant the difference between normal sex and an orgy.
His words sparked immediate outrage as a queue from liberal Ireland lined up to condemn the man and his words. The list included the Green Party, government ministers, the leader of the Labour Party, and of course RTÉ, as well as other, predictable, media outlets.
Much of it was personal. Sheehy was branded a "doddery old fool," "a hateful man" with "repugnant views." A protest was staged outside the church on Sunday.
RTÉ, the state broadcaster, outdid itself with two senior presenters interviewing the priest. He was baited with taunts of “how dare you?” and was shouted down when trying to explain himself.
However, he stuck to his guns on the national airwaves and refused to apologize for what he had said. "Why," he asked, "should I apologize for telling the truth?”
Say what you like about the man, but he sure has moxie.
Spotting a passing bandwagon Simon Coveney, the foreign affairs minister, demanded an apology. Yes, you read that right. The man responsible for the disastrous homeless policies when he was in charge of housing in 2016, promising then to end the housing of families in hotels, wants an apology. After you, minister.
At least his boss, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, who had reason more than most to be upset by the remarks as he is gay, remained above the fray, stating that while he "profoundly disagrees with Sheehy's views," he "respects his right to express his religious beliefs freely."
Not so accommodating was the Bishop of Kerry Ray Browne who rushed to judgment, stating that he apologized “to all who were offended. The views expressed do not represent the Christian position."
I’m afraid the bishop’s statement raises more questions than it answers. In particular, what part of what Sheehy said is against Catholic teaching, and does that differ from a “Christian position?”
As the week wore on Browne came in for intense criticism. It is still the Catholic position that sex outside marriage is wrong, and chastity– a very old-fashioned word – is a virtue.
The Church is opposed to abortion, and Pope Francis himself has said that teaching transgenderism to children is akin to “ideological colonization.”
Browne also needs to explain how throwing a fellow priest under a bus is itself a Christian thing to do. Denying him the right to say Mass in a church was a particularly harsh punishment. The faithful in Kerry and further afield deserve to know the rationale for the bishop’s actions.
Sheehy, for his part, has nonchalantly gotten on with his ministry. He has already turned up at a public prayer meeting in Tralee where he was warmly welcomed and has stated that his home will be open to those who want to attend Mass there.
Mind you, Sheehy is certainly not above criticism. By singling out the LGBT community he has caused unnecessary distress. The teaching on sexuality applies to all.
There is a growing movement within Catholicism to be more welcoming to gay men and women, with the Pope’s exhortation that “it is not the church that rejects gay people, but instead it’s some people in the church.”
Some of Sheehy’s comments on local radio were also over the top, in particular, his claim that unless people like Varadkar repent, they will go to hell. That is certainly not church or Christian teaching.
There is also the time and place where the remarks were made. The congregation who were there were attending a regular Sunday mass. This includes people of all ages including young children, and the sermon was certainly not age-appropriate.
Also in attendance were the family members of a man being commemorated. They have made clear their belief that the topic of the sermon was not suitable for such an occasion.
Media reports claimed that up to 30 people walked out of Sheehy’s Mass, though this figure is contested with some saying the number was less than 10.
What this whole affair shows at the end of the day is the intolerance of liberal Ireland. Sheehy is an outlier and the language he used does not reflect current thinking within the church in Ireland which has rapidly moved away from an obsession with sexual practices.
Nevertheless, no one has yet pointed out where he is fundamentally at odds with the teaching of the Catholic Church.
Cancel culture has arrived at where it always wanted to be, literally at the entrance to the church. They have no real interest in an elderly priest in Co. Kerry.
Their target is the teachings of Rome, to silence those who do not buy into their liberal agenda. To label those who oppose abortion as guilty of misogyny and individuals who question transgenderism as transphobic.
Well, I have news for them. Sheehy has galvanized the faithful who are tired of being bullied and harangued by those who are not of the same faith and have a clear political agenda.
And while they don’t agree with everything he said or the language he used, they will defend his absolute right to say it even if others don’t. Rather than foreshadowing the end of the culture wars, the Sermon in the Square is just the first skirmish.