The vast majority of Irish Catholics want women and married priests, liberal clergymen have found.
The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), which has had one of its founding members silenced by the Vatican for his views, insists it has public support for Pope Benedict to open dialogue on the controversial bans.
The group of more than 800 priests in Ireland claimed they have a mandate from mass-goers to raise concerns after a survey revealed a disconnect between official church teachings and what ordinary Catholics believe.
Almost nine out of 10 Catholics questioned said priests should be allowed to marry, with 77 per cent believing women should be ordained.
Fr Brendan Hoban, of the ACP, said the group believe in the fundamental teachings of the Church and is not leading any breakaway from Rome.
“We are not dissident priests. There are not 815 dissident priests,” he said.
“We are reflecting what we are hearing in parishes and have heard in parishes for years.”
The ACP said its all-Ireland survey put statistics behind anecdotal evidence that parishioners want change from the heart of Rome.
It criticised the silencing of founding member Fr Tony Flannery, who was told to stop writing his monthly column with the religious publication Reality.
The Redemptorist was also ordered to spend six weeks in a monastery for spiritual and theological reflection.
“We think it’s not the way the church should go about doing its business,” said Fr Hoban, a parish priest in Mayo in the west of Ireland.
“There are differences and there are problems and I think the way to face them is not by silencing the messengers, but teasing out what the message is. We are disturbed by that sort of blunt kind of reason to questions we are asking.”
Fr Hoban said Ireland’s Catholic church will be in crisis in 20 years when the country’s ageing clergy retire.
He said there is no reason why a married man should not be ordained, adding that concerned priests with up to 40 years’ service believe they have a right to raise questions that need to be addressed.
“We are operating this for the good of the Church, we love the Church, we want to be in the Church,” said Fr Hoban.
“We have questions about the Church. But like any family, you don’t turf out the guy who says there’s an elephant in the living room.”