What gives first?

There is discord in the Irish Catholic Church, tension between priests who live beside and converse with their parishioners and church leaders who increasingly seem intent on no conversation at all and in slamming shut the doors and windows through which any and all changes blow.

Is change for its own sake a good thing? Well, you could argue either way on that, and when it comes to the world's largest Christian institution there is never any lack of issues to argue over.

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Two hardy annuals concern the ordination of women and the question as to whether priests, all men of course, should be allowed to marry and continue to work in Holy Orders.

Before anything else is said it is pertinent to say that there are already married Roman Catholic priests working hand in glove with Rome. Many of them are in the United States, former Episcopalian clergy members who switched sides and are permitted to practice as Roman Catholic clergy. Also, widowers with children are not barred from donning the Roman Collar.

So regardless of what the Vatican actually says about tradition, the overarching principle has already been conceded with regard to marriage and the priesthood.

With regard to the ordination of women, the Vatican points to the church tradition going all the way back to the apostles, all of them men. Supporters of women priests point to the fact that after the Crucifixion, the apostles hid themselves while it was women followers of Jesus who went to the tomb.

But who stepped up and who did not is not really at the heart of the issue. What is at its heart is the less than full role that women have been permitted to play in the church since its foundation. There is high praise for women, sure, and a lot of sops. But, even at a time when the male priest is in rapid and visible decline in terms of numbers, the idea that women are suitable for Holy Orders remains anathema to male-dominated enclave that is the Vatican.

Interestingly, Ireland, long noted for its adherence to tradition, is fast becoming a focal point for the debate over the future of the priesthood. This has lately reached new heights with the Vatican's disciplining of Fr. Tony Flannery and the outraged reaction of many of his clerical colleagues, indeed over 800 of them, in the ranks of the Association of Catholic Priests.

Fr. Flannery, a member of the Redemptorists - an order which is known in Ireland for speaking volubly more than adherence to any vow of silence - has been ordered by the Vatican to spend six weeks in a monastery for spiritual and theological reflection, this as a result of his open-mindedness with regard to priests being allowed marry, and women being ordained as priests.

It will be interesting to hear what Fr. Flannery thinks after his sojourn. Given the support from his fellow priests and the sentiments of most Catholics in Ireland, this gleaned from a recent survey carried out by the ACP, he is far from being alone in at least calling for a meaningful discussion within the church.

The bottom line for the Irish church is that in a very few years, no more than 20, the sight and sound of an Irish priest on the island will be a rare one. Bringing in priests from other countries will plug the gaps in the ranks to a degree, but that will only lead to stresses and strains elsewhere in an institution that is global in every sense of the term

So, what will change first, the rules with regard to marriage in the priesthood or ordination of women? This question is entirely relevant and sensible because if there is one thing certain, and this is barring a miracle, the priesthood is lately an institution staring at a most uncertain future, if a future at all.