The leaders of the Association of Catholic Priests have called on parishes to cease what they call the "inappropriate and insensitive" practice of allowing campaigners in the referendum on the Eighth Amendment to speak from pulpits during mass.

In a statement, the ACP said it fully endorses their church's teaching that all human life, from beginning to end, is sacred, and that every human person shares in the fundamental right to life.

They say that while ministering, they constantly encounter complex situations that are more often grey than black and white, that demand a sensitive and non-judgemental approach from pastors.

The ACP spokesmen said they are not best placed to be dogmatic on the referendum issue as they lead an association of unmarried and childless men.

Underlining that they do not wish to tell anyone how to vote, they encourage any citizens who may be interested in their views to strive to discover exactly what is being voted on and the possible consequences of their own vote, and then to undertake "the often painful and difficult task" of consulting their consciences, before casting their votes.

They add that a ballot "cast in accordance with each person's conscience, whatever the result, deserves the respect of all".

Noting the referendum's undoubted moral content they highlight the accompanying social, political and pastoral dimensions and express concern that some parishes are allowing their pulpits to be used by campaigners during mass. 

They call the practice "inappropriate and insensitive" and warn that it will be regarded by some faithful and church-going Catholics as an abuse of the eucharist. 

They say they believe it would be better if the practice ceased and wish the Irish people well in what they call "this immensely important decision awaiting all of us".

Finally, the statement says the ACP's leadership will not be engaging further in the referendum debate.

Tradition of lay people preaching in church, says bishop

Responding to the statement from the ACP, Bishop Dermot Farrell of the diocese of Ossory said there is a tradition in the Catholic Church, down through the years, of lay people preaching in church on various issues including the right to life and other social issues.

He said these lay people complement priests and are not there to replace them. He also welcomed the ACP's statement which defends the fundamental right to life.

Asked if campaigners from the opposite side would be allowed into church he said no, as the Catholic church was defending its own teaching which is the right to life of the unborn.

Bishop Farrell said the church was not there to present sides of a case but explain its central teaching on the right to life.

A spokesperson for the Catholic Communications Office confirmed that that Bishop Farrell was speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of all the hierarchy.

John McGuirk of the Save the 8th campaign said that its representatives have spoken on the referendum in the majority of the country’s Catholic parishes.

He said it and the Pro Life Campaign had been encouraged by the overwhelming majority of Catholic bishops to address weekend congregations and defended the practice as perfectly legitimate as it facilitated the airing of views which were in line with the Catholic church's own position.

Declining to comment directly on the ACP statement, Mr McGuirk said some people seemed to be advocating that church doors should carry the warning: "Catholic teaching may be heard inside!" 

"Nobody is compelling anyone in the church to vote one way or another," he said, adding that the response of congregations had been overwhelmingly positive and that mass-goers frequently applaud the campaigners' contribution.

Mr McGuirk explained that, instead of preaching a homily during mass, priests frequently invite advocates of a No vote, often local parishioners, to address weekend congregations on the referendum.