The economic crisis, corruption and political dysfunction have left the Irish longing for a vision of society that has more to it than property prices. Is the Church up to the challenge?

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Since 2008, Ireland has been marked by a deep economic crisis, a series of corruption scandals and a once stable political system sliding into dysfunction. Yet the Catholic Church, long the moral guardian of Irish society, has been so battered by its own scandals that it has had little to say on the state of the nation. Nor is it clear that the nation wants to listen to it.

Currently, one of the most controversial issues in Irish public life is the constitutional referendum on same-sex marriage scheduled for May 22. All the polls are suggesting that the measure will pass easily. One point worth noting is that, while opposition to the amendment is popularly identified as Catholic, and while the hierarchy has made a formal statement of its opposition, the institutional Church has kept a low profile on the issue. Active opposition has come from small groups of conservative laity. Partly this is because the abuse scandals have shattered the bishops’ credibility, but the same thing was largely true of the battles over divorce and abortion in the 1980s.

A survey in 2013 indicated that weekly Mass attendance in Ireland stood at 34 per cent, which may seem a relatively healthy figure for Western Europe, but is in stark contrast to the figures of over 90 per cent in the 1970s. Attendance currently stands at around 18 per cent in the huge Dublin archdiocese, and in the capital’s sprawling peripheral estates it is much lower still. (Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has put it at a mere two per cent in certain areas.)

The same decline can be seen in the number of vocations. In 2014, St Patrick’s College at Maynooth attracted just 14 seminarians, a disastrous figure in a country with an increasingly elderly priesthood, which would need at least 80 ordinations a year to maintain the status quo. It is not impossible that numbers could fall even further. Last year, 19 of the 26 dioceses produced no vocations at all. Ireland used to be famous for exporting priests, not only to the missions but also providing much of the manpower for the Church in England and Scotland. These days, it imports clergy from Poland, Nigeria or other countries that still produce vocations in number.

In a way that is less easy to quantify, Catholic education can also be seen as a failure. An unscientific way of gauging the problem is to listen to phone-in shows on Irish radio, which frequently cover religious issues. The listener is struck by how many callers – the vast majority of whom would be at least nominally Catholic – seem to have only the shakiest understanding of Catholic teaching. It appears that many Irish Catholics believe in Jesus in the same way that Hindus believe in Gandhi, as an interesting historical figure who said inspiring things. This may not be a representative selection, but it cannot be insignificant that almost all of these callers have been educated in Catholic schools.

Dublin, it seems, is quickly moving towards the post-religious culture of London, Paris or Berlin. Yet only a generation ago, Catholic Ireland was seen as a hotbed of religious fervour. Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit pulled enormous and enthusiastic crowds. Bemused British journalists would report on Marian apparitions in remote Irish villages, while the Dublin media were full of despairing liberal pundits quite seriously comparing Ireland to the Iran of Ayatollah Khomeini.

The most notable feature of the Irish collapse has been its apparent suddenness – how a society that used to be proudly, even ostentatiously Catholic has become stridently secularist in only a few years.

The conventional explanation for this is a popular turning away from the Church over the clerical abuse scandal, and there is a good deal of truth in this. It was one thing to laugh at clerical hypocrisy when Bishop Eamon Casey or the ubiquitous media priest Fr Michael Cleary turned out to have fathered children. But the exposure in court of the crimes of predators such as the monstrous Brendan Smyth was on a different moral level entirely. Worse still was the evidence of how bishops had sheltered these criminals for decades. No bishop came out of the scandals looking good, with their behaviour ranging from negligence to what looked very like conspiracy.

But the abuse scandals, and the deserved criticism heaped on the Irish hierarchy for their failures, brought things into focus and accelerated the decline. The faithful were horrified, the bishops lost all moral authority and those who were already turning away from the Church were confirmed in their view. But much of Catholicism’s decline is also due to long-term trends that have become visible only now, after the collapse.

There is an important generational aspect to the decline. It is striking that in Ireland secularisation has been seen as going hand in hand with economic development. The first, relatively weak wave came along with the 1960s boom and was strongly influenced by young Dubliners looking to Swinging London as their cultural lodestar. The second, arising in the early 1990s and continuing to the present day, was marked by two things: the seemingly endless paedophile scandals, and the Celtic Tiger economy, which seemed to promise Irish people that they could achieve prosperity without emigrating.

So secularism is linked in the public imagination with modernity and material wealth; religion with the impoverished, rural, insular Ireland dominated by the two figures of president Éamon de Valera and John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin between 1940 and 1972. For Irish liberals, “the Ireland of the 1950s” is something you frighten your children with, and McQuaid is its chief bogeyman. It has also become a common-sense assumption in Ireland that the abuse scandals derived from the conservatism of the hierarchy and their unwillingness to embrace the new liberal zeitgeist following the Second Vatican Council.

But this doesn’t really work as an explanation: countries like Belgium, with extremely liberal hierarchies, have had clerical abuse scandals comparable with Ireland’s. But there is a kernel of truth there, if we think about the place of corruption in Irish public life.

Large-scale financial corruption, with developers passing brown envelopes to politicians, really arrived in Ireland with European structural funding, and then massively accelerated with the 1990s and 2000s property bubble. Before then, Ireland lacked financial corruption because there wasn’t any money to go around. But there was a culture of back-scratching and string-pulling, where politicians might be able to secure jobs for family members, or get constituents off drink-driving charges.

This culture goes further to explain the scale of the Irish abuse crisis than any issue of doctrine. Just as the Italian Church has a problem with Mafia-linked construction contracts, the Irish Church has a problem with bishops and diocesan bureaucrats pulling strings for their friends and sweeping problems under the carpet.

Another long-term aspect which is unusual in Western Europe is that the Irish Church is in some ways a creature of 19th-century nationalism. Moulded by colonial repression as well as sectarian tensions in the North, after Emancipation it took on a role not only as a religious denomination but also as a focus of national identity. As the only Irish institution to stand outside the Protestant Ascendancy, it was in some ways comparable to the Catholic Church in Russian-dominated Poland, or the Orthodox Churches in Balkan countries breaking away from the Ottoman Empire. With its dense network of schools and its parishes at the centre of community life, it was almost a parallel society.

Then the Church was catapulted to a dominant position in the newly independent Irish state. Along with its close ally, the Fianna Fáil party (which has collapsed since the financial crash), it became one of the biggest vested interests in the country. This meant getting much too closely entwined with the secular power, which proved to be profoundly unhealthy for both Church and state.

McQuaid, indeed, seemed to relish the idea of establishing Ireland as a Catholic theocracy. The great example of his style was the affair of the Mother and Child Scheme in 1950, when a quite modest government healthcare scheme aimed at reducing Ireland’s shocking infant mortality level was shot down by the bishops, in collaboration with the Irish Medical Association, and the coalition government fell. The affair has become part of Irish folklore and the health minister concerned, Dr Noël Browne, subsequently enjoyed a decades-long political career based on him having been badly treated by the bishops.

Since McQuaid’s death, however, the dominant trend in the Irish Church has been a lazy and complacent defence of the status quo. The formidable network of patronage the archbishop built survived, but without an obvious animating purpose. To the extent that there was political or social leadership, it was directed towards the Northern peace process. Otherwise, the bishops fell too easily into inertia. They did crack down on the radical Belfast priest Fr Des Wilson, and they were none too fond of conservative laity agitating around divorce or abortion. But these were people who were disturbing a social arrangement that the hierarchy found congenial. Managed decline was an easier option, until it became clear that decline had become unmanageable.

What could be done now? It is clear that the dominant position the Church once had is not coming back. And, despite the strides made by safeguarding authorities and the replacement of offending bishops, the Church will not soon be forgiven for the paedophile scandals. Nor should it: the problem was on much too big a scale for much too long a time.

One thing that’s clear is that the ideological battles of the post-Council period are little guide as to where renewal might come from in the future. There are hardly any traditionalists in the Irish Church, and not many conservatives either. The doctrinaire liberals, though enjoying a higher profile and more public sympathy, are mostly confined to an ageing layer of clergy, with their lay supporters drifting out of the Church altogether. The great mass of Catholics in the pews are not obsessed with these disputes anyway.

A small step forward has been taken in the appointment of new bishops. Recent appointees have been men with pastoral reputations rather than political connections and, importantly, they have all come from outside the dioceses they have been appointed to. It is not fanciful to see this as an attempt to break up the local “Magic Circles” that have run Irish dioceses for decades. The Irish media have been running stories attacking the papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, on precisely this point, which is a sure sign that diocesan time-servers have been briefing against him.

Apart from breaking up crony networks and thoroughly implementing safeguarding policies, perhaps some visionary might want to suggest a reform of Catholic education in Ireland, which used to be very good. The Irish government has not been slow in putting forward its ideas on the subject, and the only serious response would be to propose better ideas.

Beyond that, a simple return to a pastoral focus would be appropriate in post-crash Ireland, when lots of people are eager to hear a vision of society with more to it than property prices. If the Church cannot articulate that, then, as the hostility of the present generation gives way to the indifference of the young, it could be at risk of extinction.

Jon Anderson is a freelance writer

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (8/5/15).

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