A future for Irish catholicism?

In September 1961 my family moved from Germany to Ireland. My parents were a mixed marriage, with my father a Roman Catholic and my mother a German Lutheran. They had agreed that the first three children (there were four of us, eventually) would be baptised Lutheran, an agreement for which my father (who was actually a very devout catholic) was excommunicated for some years; and so my early childhood was a Protestant one. Taking into account also my father’s position vis-à-vis the Catholic church, I was not very aware of catholicism in any shape or form until we arrived in Ireland.

But in Ireland catholicism was everywhere, as was the local parish priest. I should say right away that the latter, Father Holmes, was a rather wonderful man, a community leader as much as a priest. But for many local people he was much more the government than anyone in Leinster House. So for example, if my father wanted the farm’s employees to work overtime at times of seasonal pressures, this required the permission of the priest (always readily given, however). No staff party could be held without him, and issues of public concern were settled in everyone’s mind only when he had pronounced on them; though after that they were beyond debate. Actually, Father Holmes was a warm and entirely humane individual, and his influence on the community was, as I remember it, benign.

But all over Ireland there were, as we know, hundreds of similar little local rulers, and some of them were autocrats, and some of them were cruel. Some of them knew about, or were involved in, extraordinary abuses of trust and compassion, but abuses that could not be mentioned even in private and that were not recognised or addressed by those in positions of secular authority. As we know from examples such as the letters of Sean MacBride to then Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid, society’s leaders for decades were subservient to the church authorities and would not have contemplated criticising or controlling them, regardless of the circumstances or the issues.

If you were to experience all that from a detached position, you would probably always have said that one day this house would come crashing down and when it did the damage would be terrible; and so it has been. It has been hugely aggravated by two things: the revelation of abuse and cover-up, and the sheer inadequacy of the response even now. The latter was brought home to me again when a couple of weeks ago the Bishop of Elphin, Most Rev. Christopher Jones, accused the media of being ‘unfair and unjust’ in focusing on the Catholic Church in the context of child abuse. If he could say that, then he had not understood what was happening to the church; but worse than that, he was speaking at a press conference after the Bishops had met in Maynooth, and he was speaking on their behalf.

It has not been all like that, and one light in this astounding darkness has been the Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Rev Diarmuid Martin, a man who has displayed both courage and insight. But he seems to be on his own, indeed literally. I confess I feel a little bit of sympathy for Cardinal Brady, who was doing in 1975 what he could do in 1975 (but no more); but his initial response to the revelations, that he had done nothing wrong and that in any case this had been someone else’s responsibility, was appalling.

It is very hard to see where Irish Roman Catholicism can go from here. It is my view that all churches run the risk of being corrupted if they play with temporal power, or if they become too concerned with institutional dignity, or if their clerics are given the status of local leaders. Add to that the exclusion of women from the clergy, and enforced celibacy, and you create a caste of rulers who lose a sense of perspective as to their role and who do not experience the mission of their founder in their lives. It is hard to see that those who have graduated from this caste – and that includes most of the bishops today – can jump over the shadow of their former self-importance and reach out to their congregations to meet their spiritual needs. And because they will hang around still, the work of renewal cannot properly begin. The Pope’s pastoral letter, while expressing some admirable and welcome sentiments as far as it goes, will not make much of a difference if its messengers are much the same faces as before.

When we settled in Ireland I took what is sometimes described as the via media and became an Anglican (Church of Ireland) by choice, so residing somewhere between my parents’ religious backgrounds. But I have felt a great fondness for some of the catholic inheritance of Anglicanism, including the spirituality, and the sense of poetry and art in its liturgy. I don’t enjoy the current spectacle of catholic decline. I don’t particularly believe that the erosion of religion from public consciousness impoverishes the people, but I regret it nevertheless. I don’t know how much of Ireland’s inherited sense of religion will survive, but I suspect that the religiosity which featured so strongly won’t, or that particular type of piety which was in reality just subservience to power. And if I am right, maybe that will give some space to a real sense of Christianity. At least I hope so.

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10 Comments on “A future for Irish catholicism?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    You will have noted that where the Catholic Church was strongest was in what might be termed border areas. Something that gave it a cast of resistence in the military meaning of the word. However once the conflict is removed that Control which was once so much a blanket of community becomes repressive.
    A repression, some of which comes from a belief that this is the way of things but mostly from Class.

  2. Aoife Citizen Says:

    I have no right to comment on religion, I come from a mixed Protestant background which we now approximate with a tribal attachment to the Church of Ireland. Unfortunately, I personally lack any sort of belief; I can’t even believe the sort of things atheists appear to believe.

    My feeling, though, is that religion is in trouble because the G– of modern belief is useless, somehow people have ended up believing in the wrong G–. Who is this useless Deity who preaches vague goodness while His priests sin so grievously, who lets half the world starve while His masses are a comfortable social feature of a plutocrat’s Sabbath? The modern G– can be replaced by a social worker and a lazy habit of imperfect exploration of the human condition; no wonder His church is a flimsy and hypocritical host to sin: His being is no match to the horror of our world.

    The G– I could believe in is terrible and unknowable; uncaring and awesome. His priests would sacrifice babies and our fear of His judgement would make the horror of the world explicable.

    Maybe this is the G– I do believe in, the one whose true fearfulness is His absence, whose only judgement is eternal extinction.

  3. Jilly Says:

    I should start by saying that I do believe in religious freedom. I really do. But only because I believe in people’s right to lead their private lives as they wish (however much I might disagree with them), providing that they do no harm to others.

    Public life, however, is different. Apart from anything else, in order to support freedom of religion (all religions and none), public life must embody the total separation of church and state. No aspect of any religious belief must influence or shape public life.

    It’s probably easy enough to guess that I’m an aetheist: and from a family of aetheists. My objection to religion (and that horror of modern life, ‘spirituality’) is not that I think its answers are wrong so much that I think it starts with the wrong questions. But I truly do support other people’s right to believe in any god of their choice. In return, however, I expect them to support my right not to believe in any god at all. For all of this to happen, we need religion out of all aspects of public life.

    • Vincent Says:

      Separation of church and State can be a bit of a sop. How does one separate in oneself the two.
      In the USA where the theory has been in operation for a while now, has very few outside the Anglican and Presbyterian sitting on the SCOTUS. And how many Catholics have been POTUS.

      • Aoife Citizen Says:

        Only one Catholic president, but SCOTUS is currently very Catholic with, I think, more Catholics than Protestants. I amn’t sure what conclusion to draw from this.


    • Jilly, while coming at this from the diametrically opposed direction from yours, I agree 100% with your conclusion. Religion and public life should never mix, not least because it fatally corrupts religion.

      • Jilly Says:

        Yes, that’s not an angle I would ever consider, but I can see that it would be a concern. Church and state don’t mix to either’s benefit.

  4. Jilly Says:

    I never said that I thought the US was a good example of the separation of church and state! In fact, despite some fine prose in their official documents, they’re a terrible example in practice. Perhaps we could do better?

  5. iainmacl Says:

    Interesting comments. I wonder if the emphasis should be less on how catholicism in Ireland moves forward to how to reconstruct the state and civil society in a post-church model, pursuing with real vigour the separation of state and church, down through constitution to practice, including the provision of education and health services and to the sometimes pernicious influence and control by agents of the church of local community organisations as you describe in this piece. Although is that latter more a reflection of the essential tribalism inherent in traditional rural societies where either (or both) politician or priest hold hegemonic sway ?


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