For centuries, Irish Catholics have heard priests deliver sermons about sin, hell, repentance, grace and heaven.
Times have changed, and an 80-year-old priest in County Kerry didn’t get the memo.
“How will people know that God wants to forgive them if we don’t tell them?” said Father Sean Sheehy, preaching as a substitute priest at St. Mary’s Church, Listowel. “How will people who are lost, be found, if we — as God’s people — don’t call them and say, ‘Look, God loves you. He has come to call sinners. But he wants you to have life, and to have it to the full’? … That’s what he wants. He wants you to live life to the fullest.”
The problem was that Sheehy’s Oct. 30 sermon stressed ancient Catholic doctrines on behaviors many modern Catholics refuse to call “sins.”
This caused a media storm, including this Irish Times headline: “Fr Sean Sheehy’s Listowel sermon was an uncomfortable reminder of who we really were.” Also, Kerry Bishop Ray Browne apologized after 20-plus parishioners walked out of the rite, and barred Sheehy from saying Mass until the parish priest returns to the altar.
During his sermon, Sheehy fiercely condemned core doctrines of the sexual revolution, while defending Catholic teachings on marriage and sex.
“What is so sad today is you rarely hear about sin but it’s rampant. It’s rampant,” he said. “We see it, for example, in the legislation of our governments. We see it in the promotion of abortion. We see it in the example of this lunatic approach of transgenderism. We see it, for example, in the promotion of sex between two men and two women.
“That is sinful, that is mortal sin and people don’t seem to realize it. … And we need to listen to God about it — because if we don’t, then there is no hope for those people.”
In his public statement about the furor, Browne said it’s crucial for Catholics to have “total respect for one another” and it was wrong for Sheehy to address these issues during a weekend Mass.
“I apologize to all who were offended,” he said. “The views expressed do not represent the Christian position.”
In a Catholic Herald essay published as the Sheehy controversy erupted, former Anglican Bishop Gavin Ashenden said “sin” has become one of the most controversial words in Catholic life. This includes the new “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent” document from the Vatican’s global Synod on Synodality.
“The tent is presented as a place of radical inclusion from which no one is excluded,” wrote Ashenden, a former chaplain to the late Queen Elizabeth II. He converted to Roman Catholicism in late 2019.
“Since God is love, he obviously doesn’t want anyone to experience being unloved and therefore excluded; ergo God, who is Love, must be in favour of radical inclusion. Consequently, the language of hell and judgement in the New Testament must be some form of aberrational hyperbole which must not be taken seriously, because the idea of God as inclusive love takes precedence. And since these two concepts are mutually contradictory, one of them has to go. Inclusion stays, judgement and hell go.”
Sheehy, who served in the Diocese of Baton Rouge in Louisiana before retiring in Ireland, has not remained silent. In a Radio Kerry interview, he claimed that most of the congregation remained in the pews and, at the end of the Mass, gave him a standing ovation.
“I know myself that what I said cannot be disproven by any honest-to-God Catholic, Christian or Catholic teaching, and that’s the bottom line,” said the priest. The bishop, he added, was “muzzling the truth in order to appease people.”
Most of all, he refused to retreat from his sermon’s call for repentance from sin — period. The goal of the Catholic life is, he said, to become a saint.
“Why are they saints? Because they repented and because they sought forgiveness,” he said, near the close of the sermon. “As somebody said one time, ‘Heaven is full of converted sinners.’ And so, today, God says to us: ‘I have come to call sinners. But if you don’t admit you’re a sinner, then you are not listening to my call, and I can’t do anything for you — because it’s a two-way street.’”
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.