There’s an obvious distinction between the governance of the Church and the essence of the faith

I had not meant to return so soon to the subject of the crisis in the Irish Church, for though this is something I care about very much for personal reasons, I’m still an Englishman and this isn’t my business. But the American George Weigel has now written with ponderous weight on the subject, and I cannot simply ignore his piece, since people are influenced by what he says and somebody has to say something about it. After his epic and authoritative biography of the late pope, Weigel now speaks plausibly about a wide variety of subjects. And he’s a great one for the well-turned phrase which arrests attention.

He has now outdone himself with an opening sentence to an article in the respected National Review (which in Buckley’s time I wrote for myself sometimes), a sentence which, though certainly striking, is quite simply wildly untrue. The article, disrespectfully entitled “Erin go bonkers” (“Erin go brach”, of course, means “Ireland forever”) opens thus:

While America’s attention has been absorbed in recent weeks by domestic affairs, something quite remarkable has become unmistakably clear across the Atlantic: Ireland – where the constitution begins, “In the name of the Most Holy Trinity” – has become the most stridently anti-Catholic country in the Western world.

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Well, now. The point is, of course, that the current crisis in Irish Church affairs, involving certainly an unprecedented fury against Ireland’s bishops and also against Vatican bureaucratic procedures – of which Enda Kenny’s late performance was the most striking example – is not about Catholicism at all. Incidentally, though the invocation of the Holy Trinity at the beginning of the Irish constitution certainly implies that Ireland is Christian, those behind the constitution (who also devised a national flag implying peace between Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants) were well aware that the Island of Ireland is home to more than the Catholic majority, and as Mary Kenny pointed out recently in an article I quoted on Monday, the constitution nowhere says that the Irish state is officially Catholic.

The flaw in Weigel’s article is very obvious: to be anti-clerical isn’t necessarily to be anti-Catholic. Later in his piece, Weigel asks the question “How on earth did this most Catholic of countries become violently anti-Catholic?” Well, of course, it didn’t. To be strongly disenchanted with your own bishops is hardly to be anti-Catholic (and it may indicate precisely the reverse).

But Weigel isn’t saying that the Irish are turning against the excessively deferential way in which they themselves have treated their bishops (and high time too, some might say) he’s actually saying (get ready for this one, it’s a corker) that “Ireland has now become the epicentre of European anti-Catholicism”.

The online version of this piece attracted a furious riposte:

Sitting here in Ireland, rather than thousands of miles away, I take serious offence at this inaccurate and misleading article.

“violently anti-Catholic”?

Firstly, Ireland is 85 per cent Catholic, and while there are many who have turned from their faith in despair, there is no violence (other than the priests who are obviously still quite content to rape and torture children as shown in the reports recently published) and there is no anti-Catholic actions – other than fully justified disgust that the organisation we have trusted for so long could be so lacking in any moral authority. As an 85 per cent Catholic country, one which I might add has been embroiled in fights for religious (Catholic) freedom for near on 800 years in one shape or another, we would need to be self-loathing to fill your inaccurate description of us.

That these crimes were committed by those who are meant to be the guides in life and one’s spiritual journey is sad, but in fairness the Irish congregation did put in place some (relatively soft touch) guidelines for the safety of children and reporting of crimes by clergy. What is unacceptable to many here is that the Church authority – the Vatican – would interfere and advise that same congregation (ie the Vatican’s staff as such) that those were not rules to follow but instead just things to discuss.

My good Lord! How dare they.

And for that matter – how dare you. What on Earth gives you the knowledge and authority to state “Ireland has now become the epicentre of European anti-Catholicism”? …. Or is it simply that you have failed to research your subject properly?

…We are more Catholic than you would comprehend.

Weigel’s article is partly based on a common American error about Europe, the notion that it’s really all the same country with a few different languages in it. Another comment under Weigel’s piece made the point rather well, I think, pointing out

… an error that is made all too often by American pundits or “experts”, and that is to refer to Europeans as a single group with the same culture and attitudes …a measure of how [“expert”] any American really is [is] that he can look at all these countries in Europe and say to himself “yeah, they’re pretty much the same”.

Weigel has a quick tour d’horizon of the reasons for the secularisation of a few formerly overwhelmingly Catholic countries, which leads him to a bewildering conclusion: “Once breached, the fortifications of Counter-Reformation Catholicism in Spain, Portugal, Quebec [not European, not a country], and Ireland quickly crumbled. And absent the intellectual resources to resist the flood-tides of secularism, these four once-hyper-Catholic nations flipped, undergoing an accelerated course of radical secularization that has now, in each case, given birth to a serious problem of Christophobia…”

Christo WHAT? WHAT phobia? What is actually a crisis in the governance of the Catholic Church in Ireland has now become a general European hatred for the Saviour of the world. As one of my Scottish critics vividly commented recently about something I’d said: “Sheessh!!!”

Weigel’s plan for the reform of the Irish Catholic Church is to clear out most of the Irish bishops and import a load of foreign bishops who understand nothing of Ireland or the Irish, to sort everything out: “Men of indisputable integrity and evangelical passion who have no linkage to this sad, and in some instances tawdry, history are needed to lead the Irish Catholic reform for which Benedict XVI has called. I know no serious observer of the Irish Catholic scene, anywhere, who disputes the necessity of clearing the current bench of bishops; I also know no one who thinks that a reconfigured Irish episcopate, even one leading fewer dioceses, can be drawn entirely from the resident clergy of Ireland today.”

And why is that precisely? No reason is given. And where are the bishops to sort this out to come from? The US, perhaps? Maybe the gruesome results over the last 20 years of self-confident American efforts to tell other people how to run their own affairs might be thought to rule this out? England perhaps? That’s all the Irish need, a few English voices telling them what to do. I think we’ve been there before: it didn’t work. The point is, Mr Weigel, that the Irish spent 800 years shaking off foreign tutelage: they’re certainly not going to accept it now.

The real point about the Irish people is that they have not become disenchanted with the Catholic religion at all; it’s precisely by the moral standards of the Catholic religion that they are now judging all too many bishops and some, a small minority but still far too many, clergy. The child abuse scandals themselves have brought no decline in Mass attendance. On the contrary, far from being the “epicentre” of European anti-Catholicism, the practice of the Catholic religion is one of the highest in Europe.

As Michael Kelly pointed out in the Irish Catholic in April: “Decline in Church attendance in Ireland happened long before revelations about abuse and the subsequent cover-up. Polls show that in 1981 a staggering 88 per cent of Irish people attended Mass at least once a month, with 82 per cent attending weekly. By 2006 that figure had slipped to just 48 per cent for weekly Mass attendance while that figure climbs to 67 per cent when those who attend at least once a month are factored in. Subsequent polls have been fairly consistent, putting weekly Mass attendance somewhere between 45 per cent and 48 per cent. These are remarkably high figures by western European standards (the latest figures for Italy are 22 per cent and approximately 10 per cent for France).”

So, Mr Weigel, I think it’s back to the drawing board for your “epicentre of European anti-Catholicism”. I don’t know where that would be: but it’s certainly not Ireland. Anti-clericalism, maybe…

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