Pope Francis will be greeted by large and enthusiastic crowds when he visits Dublin to attend the 2018 World Meeting of Families (WMOF). The papal Mass in the city’s Phoenix Park, which concludes the event, is expected to be well attended, and the Pope himself remains popular in a country that has been rapidly moving away from its traditional Catholic identity. It’s a rare opportunity for the embattled Irish Church to have a good news story.
But that opportunity has turned out to be a serious challenge. Irish Catholicism has been so weakened by sexual scandals that holding an event in Ireland to celebrate the Church’s teaching on the family was always going to be difficult. There will be demonstrations, prominent speakers have pulled out, and the WMOF risks being either overshadowed by scandals around the world, or else highlighting the Church’s internal divisions.
The only previous papal visit to Ireland, by Pope John Paul II in 1979, was the largest public event in the nation’s history. It was estimated that 1.25 million people attended the papal Mass in Phoenix Park, and 2.5 million attended at least one of the events on his tour. This was a majority of the population of the island – an enormous proportion of the Catholic population – and seemed to underscore the Irish people’s devotion to their religious traditions. There was even a baby boom following the papal visit, leading economist David McWilliams to write a bestseller called The Pope’s Children, on the generation growing up during the pre-2008 economic boom.
But in retrospect the 1979 visit looks like the end of traditional Catholic Ireland. John Waters has written that the Irish people responded to Pope John Paul’s rock star charisma without paying attention to his message.
Since then, the decline in Catholic tradition and observance has been constant and accelerating – with the generations of 1979 and after in the lead. Same-sex marriage was passed comfortably in a 2015 referendum, and the country’s abortion laws liberalised by an even larger margin this year. A country that used to be a virtual Catholic theocracy has now become one where politicians openly demand that the Vatican should change doctrine to fit public opinion. One of the main reasons for the shift has of course been the scandals that have rocked the Irish Church since the 1990s, particularly the mishandling of sex abuse cases and the exposure of Dickensian conditions in care homes. In the view of most Irish people, the Church has betrayed the trust placed in it and forfeited any claim to speak on sexual morality. The old deference has gone forever.
And at least part of the explanation for Pope Francis’s popularity in Ireland is the perception that he talks less about sex and more about climate change and poverty than his predecessors.
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