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The Irish Church faces yet another test: a widespread loss of faith

The Church in Ireland has finally got to grips with child abuse. Now, as the Apostolic Visitation report makes clear, it faces a new, grave crisis

By on Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Cardinal Seán Brady at a press conference yesterday (Niall Carson/PA Wire)

Cardinal Seán Brady at a press conference yesterday (Niall Carson/PA Wire)

Two years after Pope Benedict XVI announced an Apostolic Visitation to Ireland to “assist the local Church on her path of renewal”, a summary of its findings has been released. It shows that the Irish Church has, at long last, got to grips with the child abuse crisis. However, it also points towards a newer and quite distinct crisis facing the Irish Church.

The Visitors looked in detail at the four metropolitan dioceses and seminaries, and also spoke to various religious and victims’ groups. The Visitation was originally prompted by the horrific details of child abuse and cover-up revealed by Irish government reports.

As regards the child abuse issue, the Visitors found that the combined efforts of laity, clergy and bishops produced “excellent” results in terms of child protection. The guidelines are being implemented. Any new allegations are being reported to the civil authorities. Care and compensation is being provided to the victims of abuse. Other recent Irish reports concur: the grave errors of the past have finally been learned from and robust systems are now in place nationwide.

Over the past two decades the abuse crisis went through the Irish Church like a wrecking ball. During this time, a great many Irish people turned away from the Church, and those who remain are demoralised and confused. As recently as 1984, 87 per cent of Irish Catholics attended Mass weekly. Now, only a minority do so. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin last year noted that on any given Sunday only about 18 per cent of the Catholic population of Dublin attends Mass – down to 2 per cent in some areas. He said: “The brink has already been reached. The Catholic Church in Ireland will inevitably become more a minority culture.”

Yet the demise of the Catholic Church in Ireland had broader causes than the abuse crisis. After 1922, the fledgling Irish state erected cultural barriers to keep the modern world at bay. These levees broke some time after the 1960s and in subsequent decades secular liberal ideas and values rushed in to Irish life. The rise to dominance of secular values in Ireland coincided roughly with the revelations of abuse, but it was essentially a separate phenomenon. The Visitors seem to understand this.

Therefore, the new and impending crisis in the Irish Church is very different to the abuse crisis. Most people do not practise the faith because they do not believe in it, don’t care about it, or don’t really know what it’s about. The child abuse scandals have certainly sped up the exodus, but this essential crisis in faith is one shared by much of the Western world. Ireland rapidly and recently became a very liberal and secular-minded country. The Visitors note that nowadays many Irish Catholics, including priests, hold beliefs contrary to Catholic teaching. A very common desire among Irish Catholics is for the Irish Church to become more separate – or completely separate – from Rome.

The Visitors’ concerns about the broader state of Irish faith are evidenced by the recommendation that seminaries should show “greater concern for the intellectual formation of seminarians, ensuring that it is in full conformity with the Church’s Magisterium”.

The report also says: “It is vitally important that, at a point in history marked by rapid cultural and social transformation, all the components of the Church in Ireland hear in the first place a renewed call to communion: communion among the bishops themselves and with the Successor of Peter”.

The Visitors “also encountered a certain tendency … fairly widespread among priests, Religious and laity, to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings of the Magisterium”.

This comment brought to mind the 2008 European Values Survey which found that, remarkably, 10.1 per cent of self-described Irish Catholics don’t believe in God, while 29.9 per cent do believe in reincarnation. Twenty-nine per cent don’t believe in life after death, while 49.8 per cent don’t believe in hell.

Given such statistics, it’s easy to see why the Visitors noted that “among the pastoral priorities that have emerged most strongly is the need for deeper formation in the content of the faith for young people and adults”.

Essentially, in the politest possible terms, the Holy See is telling the Irish Church to go back and learn its Catechism.

Yet more than Catechism will be required if the Irish Church is to survive the burgeoning crisis in Irish faith. For the Church’s leaders and its few remaining priests, this new crisis will be less about child abuse, and more about: “How do we engage with the largely atheistic generation now coming of age?” and “What do we say to the 29.9 per cent of Irish Catholics who believe in reincarnation?”

  • Lindi

    After reading this I re-read Francis Phillips’ piece on St. Patrick. I remember singing hymns on his feast day fifty years ago. It struck me as a small English child how much there was a love of Ireland in the sentiments expressed. I can’t put a finger on what has changed for Catholics in Ireland. There must be a distancing between the government and the Church to-day. Also , all over Europe is the growth of individualism . The challenge is to lead people to accept the Catechism – which comes from the teaching authority of the Church. Plenty of English Catholics do not ! Maybe as Pope Benedict suggests – the Church may have to be smaller but more pure before She grows again in Europe. We need more Saints like Patrick , Francis ,Teresa of Avila ,,,,,etc. !

  • Charles Martel

    “What do we say to the 29.9 per cent of Irish Catholics who believe in reincarnation?”
    You say “reincarnation is a load of Buddho-gibberish”.

  • Michael O’Neill

    The basic problem in Ireland is that Catholicism has become syncretic.  Growing up in the 1980s in a community with near universal Mass attendance, the present crisis was entirely foreseeable; religion was something that was taught and participated in, but there was no sense that it was an actual real part of life and those who were actually quite religious were generally ridiculed.  The syncretism of Irish Catholicism has come about as a result of the near total absence of doctrinal input from the pulpit or Catholic schools.  Homilies took the form of ‘thought for the day’ rather than preaching of the faith; outside of schools, there was no opportunity at all for an adult to develop his understanding of his faith and how to put it into practice.  

    The catechesis and evangelism in Catholic schools was no better; I remember in my convent school being taught that the message of the Cross certainly did not involve encouraging non-Christians to become Christians and that in a portrayal of various types of Catholic, the Superior of the Convent considered that the ‘best Catholic’ was one who was actively engaged in social justice issues but avoided the sacraments.  It is of little surprise, therefore, that the current crisis has unfolded.  If one’s faith (at least one’s experience of it) teaches one that being Catholic leads to no discernible difference in one’s way of life than those who do not keep the faith, then one is inclined to think that there is really no need to bother with it.It is disappointing that the report of the Visitation is unduly vague.  Those charged with implementing the changes (and who know the real details of the actual reports, with its undoubted criticisms) are the same people that have presided over a system that brought about the issues that the Visitors have identified and criticised.  Scripture says that where there is no vision, the people perish.  Sadly, there is no vision in Ireland today.  

  • Anonymous

    Another sign of the Great Apostasy.

  • Benedict Carter

    ” … the Visitators also encountered a certain tendency, not dominant but nevertheless fairly widespread among priests, Religious and laity, to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings of the Magisterium … “.

    Oh, Nu-Church’s holiness! Vatican II’s fruitfulness! Oh the blessed fruits of that blessed Council! The joy of it, the graces that have flowed from Vatican II! 

    The destruction of the Catholic Church in Ireland being among them. And England. And the USA. And Germany, France, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and …. and …. and …. .

  • Benedict Carter

    A good summary of the uselessness, resting on Masonic values as it does, of the post-Vatican II nu-Church. 

  • Anon

    No, we need proper responses to this question, and I can’t locate them in the Catechism!

  • Anonymous

    The Irish Church has succeeded in doing to itself what no “reformer” ever managed. It has learned very little from what I can gather. E.G. ” Liturgy of Word and Water” at the forthcoming Eucharistic congress……. What??

  • Anonymous

    Pretty much spot on.

  • Jonathan

    I think it is also a result of ignorance and poor vocabulary.  I suspect that somewhere close to 29.9% of Irish Catholics think that reincarnation means resurrection.  I could imagine myself easily making that mistake in my hurry to finish a questionnaire and get on with my day.

  • Scyptical Chymist

     What you report here was/is not confined to Ireland but the resulting falling off in the faith is much more noticeable in what appeared to be such a devout country. The Church in Europe, noticeably in the UK, and North America had compromised with the secular spirit of the age and not spoken for Christian values, since the coup after Vatican II in the 60s. Only now is a fight back being mounted by Pope Benedict  but with only grudging support from some of the clergy and, I suspect, downright opposition from some others.

  • http://lxoa.wordpress.com/ Shane

    The bloated nonsense in the Visitation’s report is nothing more than a whitewash and goes nowhere near even mentioning, much less addressing, the cancers that are progressively destroying Irish Catholicism. The Apostolic Visitation has been a complete waste of time. What a damned disgrace!

    It might be said that in fairness to the Apostolic Visitation team their failed attempt at seeing the problem reflects to a certain extent the failure of ‘conservative’ (for lack of a better word) and traditionalist Catholics in Ireland to articulate our own analysis of the problems in the Irish Church, leaving liberals and secularists free to present their own narrative as unquestioned dogma. (According to this version ‘clericalism’ and excessive regard for orthodoxy are to blame for all the woes of Irish Catholicism.)

    There is of course one exception to this and not a pleasant one. (The fact that he’s a former student of the Pope means he gets more attention among orthodox Catholics than he really deserves.) Incidentally this happens to be why we hear so much about the ‘need’ for wholesale amalgamation of Irish dioceses – which is just a stupid idea that has been uncritically appropriated across the ecclesiastical spectrum and is distracting attention from the real problems.

  • http://lxoa.wordpress.com/ Shane

    Neither this column nor the report make mention of the elephant in the room: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/

    This shameful Council did more to destroy the faith than the combined efforts of Luther and Calvin.

  • Oconnord

    That’s a pretty patronising suspicion, based solely on your own lack of comprehension skills.

    But if it were true that those surveyed didn’t know the difference between resurrection and re-incarnation, then it would follow that 70% of Irish catholics don’t believe in the resurrection.

  • Anonymous

    I totally agree Shane.

  • Anonymous

    A friend is a headmaster in a “Catholic” ex-convent school in greater Dublin. I remember him saying that when he joined the School almost 30 years ago 90% of the pupils attended Sunday Mass. Now 90% do not. Quite a feat. What he does not seem to understand is that its the liberal position of people like him that have contributed greatly to this disaster. That and appalling “liturgies” in most churches and absolute tosh in religious education in programms like “alive-O”

  • Anonymous

    The Holy See needs to stop being polite and give the Brady bunch a good kick up the backside! Sooner rather than later.

  • Oconnord

    I was a pupil in a catholic school 30 years ago and the 90% estimate seems a bit hopeful to me. I would have put it more like 60-70% and many of those would have been unwilling attendees dragged along by their families. I can remember my grandmother trying to get me to go to mass.

    I think the drop in mass attendance has been more gradual than it seems at first sight, but it also has been going on for longer. 

  • theroadmaster

    The Irish Catholic Church was in poll position after the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, due to being the sole Institution which provided a collective sense of national and religious affiliation and pride  for the majority of Irish citizenry amid 4 centuries of religious conflict, land confiscations and plantations, famine and pestilence.  But this sense of socio-religious unity was taken too much for granted by successive Church hierarchies and when the political and social winds of change began to gather force during the Vatican 11 era, dioceses and parishes seemed ill-equipped to enforce  the teachings of the Great Council.  Thus the laity were left without a proper foundation for the application of their Faith and began to fall prey to the secular influences which effected much of Irish society.  But we must not see the Irish case in splendid isolation, but regard it within the overall context of the decline in religious literacy and observation across the Western world, which our present Holy Father is  devoting much of his ministry to combat by a thoroughly planned process of re-evangelization, which will sow the seeds of fruitful belief once more.

  • Benedict Carter

    ” … the Great Council”.

    Presumably you are referring to the Greater London Council? You cannot possibly be referring to the Masonic-Marxist Mess that was Vatican II. 

  • theroadmaster

    I meant the interpretation of the Council as understood by such participants as the present pope, Benedict XV1 who described it as the “Hermeneutic of Continuity” as distinct from the radical rupture which the “Spirit of Vatican 11″ crowd describe it as.  There has been a lot of damage wrought by the misapplication of the ordinances and policies of the Council, as in the destructive re-ordering of sanctuaries, sloppy DIY liturgies, outright dissent from religious and laity concerning core Church doctrine etc. The momentous gathering of the leaders of the global universal Church over the course of 3 years in Rome during the 1960′s was either an inspiration of the Holy Spirit, or else a heretical convocation conceived  by the enemies of Christ and the Church.  As Jesus promised that the “gate of hades” would not prevail against His Church, we must believe that the reality is very much the former.

  • Anonymous

    You may be correct, but whatever about the actual % s. The whole debacle has been largely self-inflicted.
     God bless your Grandma. She may succeed yet!
    I remember my mother trying to get me to go to Church. She succeeded in the end.

  • Oconnord

    Sorry if I seemed pedantic with the %’s, my point was that it’s been a slow, long, gradual process and I think it has had very little to do with “the abuse scandal”. The scandal was important because it destroyed trust in priests. I mean it that simply, not the clergy, or the hierarchy or the religious. People started to mistrust their local priest, even if he was completely trustworthy. 

    To use a personal example, the most admirable man I ever met was a priest. He worked his behind off to try stop young people “getting on drugs”. I doubt now he’d be allowed to left alone in the company of children, let alone organise and supervise the excursions he tirelessly led to get kids out of the city.

    As to my country granny, (I had a city granny on my Da’s side), well I’m afraid she was chasing a lost cause. I’m what I call an organic atheist, I’ve never believed in god. Even as a child the whole god idea was just too full of holes for me to believe. It wasn’t till my late 20′s that I even understood that I was an atheist, rather than an agnostic as I didn’t even understand the terms.

  • Oconnord

    Wow. No wonder so many young people find religion boring.

    When it speaks of issues that apply to them it seem at best wrong-headed, then it uses meaningless speech, (to them), to justify itself or it’s stance. 

  • Honeybadger

    It’s true. Atheists talk more about religion than those of us who practise!

  • Honeybadger

    I totally agree with you.

    The Irish Catholic Church, for far too long, convinced itself that it was a cut above the Holy See and the Magisterium – which caused pain and resentment in the land.

    Now, in the cold light of day, they are facing the hard reality that it isn’t a cut above – but a laughing stock!

    Ireland has lost its spiritual soul, which is very sad. Tragic.

    The courage of their – and my – forebears who lived through penal times, mass rocks, hedge schools and starvation for the faith has been exchanged…

    … for the Celtic Tiger, greed, snobbery that would not be out of place with Hyacinth Bucket and spray tans, helicopters at First Holy Communion!

    Where has it got Ireland?

    Having got the run of itself  and giddy like a reckless lotto winner – nowhere!

  • Oconnord

    And your point is? 

  • Oconnord

    I was too dismissive there.

    Atheists often talk about religion in the same way oncologists talk about cancer. Just because we don’t suffer from it doesn’t mean we can’t see the harm it causes.So, just as the actions of a cancerous cell are not in itself harmful, the beliefs of an individual are not. It’s when it spreads it becomes a problem. 

    I will defend your right to be what I consider a sad and nasty man, but I will fight against you looking for the right to spread your infection. 

    Although in this thread I’m not sure what particular point you’re trying to make.

  • Benedict Carter

    All the gross abuses and disasters have flowed from the Council’s documents, which were deliberately left vague by the Revolutionaries so the “implementation” of them could be the concrete Revolution which they desired. 

    The so-called “hermeneutic of continuity” is a Gorbachev-like attempt to reform or manage the unreformable. It’s not going to work. If the Church in Ireland or anywhere else wants to recover, it must first of all throw off the Revolution and return to completeness of Catholic doctrine, and that means throwing off Vatican II.

  • Parasum

    What you’re describing sounds like a sense of entitlement. Smugness & complacency have always been bad for the Church – and for any form of Christianity. IMHO, the CC is too large to be able to have a sense of urgency. And it is hamstrung by being hierarchical – Evangelicalism by contrast can plant churches much more easily, largely because it has a much looser structure.

    As for the New Evangelisation – well, maybe.  

  • Parasum

    Possibly because the CCC is not, and is not meant to be, a theology textbook, a book of apologetics, or (as some seem to think) a guide to Biblical exegesis or a handbook of liturgiology. Its purpose is to set out the Faith of the Church, with some of the implications – not to justify the the Faith of the Church. 

  • Anonymous

    I disagree that people do not trust their local Priest. Plenty mistrust “The Church” but I know of know one that does not trust the local Padre. They may not visit him as much as they used too, but there is still trust……Amongst non-Catholics, the majority here in Scotland, these are prevalent thoughts, that no Priest is to be trusted, but thats just born of ignorance of the facts.
     But your general point about Priests is correct. No way would they allow themselves to be alone with children. This is understandable, but crazy.  Most abuse happens in the home,  but what Dad would not be alone with his children?
     I have never heard of an “organic atheist”. I know people who claim to be athiests, but when you dig a little, agnostic is a better term. But they had always, at some point.  believed in something. You must be unique!!

  • Brian A. Cook

     Are you blaming renewed efforts to actually reach out to actual human beings?

  • Brian A. Cook

    I’m getting tired of these “Masonic-controlled Council” conspiracy theories.

  • Brian A. Cook

    Throwing off actual renewed efforts to reach out to actual human beings? 

  • Benedict Carter

    What the heck do you think the Church was doing for 1,965 before your Vatican II “Year Zero”? Making butterscotch?


  • Benedict Carter

    Tired, eh?

    Perhaps you ought to examine the new theology and compare with Masonic doctrine.

    Perhaps you ought to ask the Cardinal who gave a speech not long ago to the New York Lodges and thanked them “for upholding the ancient values”. 

    Perhaps you ought to read the eye-witness testimony of the several members of the French Police who had the job of guarding the future John XXIII as Papal Nuncio in Paris and saw him regularly enter the local Lodge meetings, travelling there in civilian clothes.


  • Oconnord

    I think we are pretty close to agreeing on the trust in priests point. Perhaps it’s as simple as I haven’t known any priests in a long time. I know that sounds dismissive but it is an honest truth, you may well have someone you could think of as as a Padre. I on the other hand have had no interaction with the church for many years.

    “Organic atheist” and unique?….

    To be honest it’s a term I made up to describe myself and I think I’m lucky you didn’t make the obvious vegetable joke.  

  • Anonymous

    He he… Its not that it did not cross my mind. But its Lent and one is trying( and mostly failing) to be charitable. To be honest, though we probably disagree much of the time, I really don t think you are a suitable side dish to meat and potatoes. Thats as near to a compliment as it gets around

  • Oconnord

    I’ll take that as a compliment and be thankful.
    As to us disagreeing? If you agreed with me too often I’d have to question your sanity.

  • ReadyToGO1

    This data shows that the Church (Rome and Ireland) have failed to teach and preach the Faith over the last 50 years. The generations who received the poorest levels of instruction and lowest degree of inspiration are now at the forefront of their lives and saying “why bother?”.

    The Church should get off its royal ass — and begin to DO the New Evangelization — not talk about it — or plan it — or have cycle after cycle of Apostolic Visitations (do the Bishops think they are angels or ‘higher powers;’?) — Stop with secrecy — the closed huddles — the eternal ruminating — and start DOING —- If the Pope can go to Mexico and Cuba — he sure can go to Dublin and he must. Why isn’t that obvious?

  • john connelly

    It has been said that the Catholic Church is the greatest fraud that has ever been perpetrated aganinst the human r race. The internet viral world is a great educator and opens a lot of locked catholic programed minds. 

  • silvia

    Very clever play on words..the ‘Irish Church’ is very different from a Roman Church located in Ireland…it is the Church of Rome that is being tested….not the Irish Church

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