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How did Ireland go from staunchly to not particularly Catholic?

Renewal must start from the grass roots upwards, says Primate

How did Ireland go from staunchly to not particularly Catholic?

Saint Patrick, Ireland's patron saint (picture: Shutterstock)

Diarmuid Martin for America Magazine

May 14, 2013

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I entered the seminary in Dublin in October 1962, just one week before the opening of the Second Vatican Council. The winter of 1962-63 was one of the bleakest in decades, and our seminary was a very cold place in more ways than one. My memory of the seminary is of a building and a routine, a discipline and a way of life that seemed to have been like that for decades. Even to someone who was not a revolutionary, it all seemed very out of touch with the world from which I had just come, and in which my friends were thriving. But one was not supposed to think that way. Things were to be done as they had always been done. The Catholic Church was unchanging, but that was about to change.

For decades Ireland was looked on as one of the world’s most deeply and stably Catholic countries. Today Ireland finds itself, along with other parts of Europe, being classified as “post-Catholic.” Everyone has his or her own definition of the term. You can fully define post-Catholic only in terms of the Catholicism that has been displaced. Irish Catholicism has its own unique history and culture. Renewal in the Irish church will not come from imported plans and programs; it must be home-grown.

Ireland does, of course, share the same currents of secularization with other countries of the Western world and thus shares many of the same challenges. There are specific challenges within Europe; there are specific challenges common to the English-speaking world. Yet the fact that Ireland is an English-speaking country does not mean it can be put into the same category as the United States and Great Britain.

Ireland is different. Neither the United States nor Great Britain was ever a predominantly, much less a dominantly, Catholic country. The demographics and the cultural presence of Catholicism in society were different and remain different. Indeed, one would have to say that today Catholicism in Northern Ireland, where years of conflict forged a tighter Catholic identity, is different from that in the Republic of Ireland.

There is a growing difference between the social realities in Ireland North and South because of the evolving differences in social policy and the emergence of a perhaps unforeseen consequence of the peace process: a new Northern Ireland identity. You can no longer simplistically equate Catholicism and nationalism in Northern Ireland. A very large number of Northern Irish Catholics would favor staying in the United Kingdom.

What Happened to the Old Ireland?

For years now people have looked to Ireland as a vibrant and sustainable model for strong economic growth. Today the economic situation of Ireland is full of uncertainties, precisely at a moment when confidence and trust are urgently needed. Why did so much happen so quickly? The deeper question is: What were the values that underpinned the better-times Ireland? How did we underestimate the fact that the success of an economic model ought to have been evaluated in terms of long-term social sustainability of jobs, mortgages and borrowing, of lifestyle, education and health care and sustainable opportunity for young people?

Ireland is today picking up the pieces economically and paying the price socially. In modern Ireland many children come to school without having had breakfast. There is growing anxiety that the austerity measures introduced to respond to the economic crisis are now coming to a social breaking point. In a time of rapid change, ownership of social change is vital. Who, however, wants to own policies of austerity? There is a certain flight from political ownership. In Ireland it is easy to put the blame on the previous government. It is too easy simply to say that it is being imposed from the outside or by necessity and that we would really prefer to do it somehow differently. You will not generate ownership if the measures imposed are applied arbitrarily across the board and do not appear to differentiate according to real situations, especially the situation of those already vulnerable. We see that in Ireland in some policies regarding education or health care or the care of the elderly. I attended a national congress of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul where it was noted that people who one year ago were contributors to the society are now turning to the society for help. Patience is wearing thin; it is hard for some to hope.

When I was asked to return to Dublin, Pope John Paul II asked me why secularization had taken place so rapidly in Ireland. It was one of the rare occasions when I told a pope he was wrong! The roots of change in Ireland were there but were not seen. It is not that Ireland is today in a momentary out-of-the-ordinary period in its history, somehow temporarily adrift from what is really the default position. There is no default position anymore, and there has not been such a position for some time. In many ways the church in Ireland had been trapped in an illusory self-image. The demographic majority the church enjoyed hid many structural weaknesses, and the church became insensitive to such weakness. In the immediate post-Vatican II period there was a moment of enthusiastic renewal in the Irish church, and the positive acceptance of change probably indicated that there was already a deep dissatisfaction and a desire for change in the Irish church and that the church leadership was out of touch with the religious sentiment of the people.

The Catholic Church in Ireland had for far too long felt it was safely ensconced in a “Catholic country.” The church had become conformist and controlling not just with its faithful, but in society in general. I was at a seminar last week about the church’s self-understanding as a “perfect society.” All I can say is that anyone who might have thought that “Catholic Ireland” was anything like a perfect society must now be very disillusioned.

Faith in Jesus Christ must open us out beyond human horizons. Christian faith requires changing our way of thinking, of trusting in God’s love rather than in the tangible securities of day-to-day life. When faith leads to conformism, it has betrayed the very nature of faith. Conformism falsely feels that it has attained certainty. Faith is always a leap into the unknown and a challenge to go beyond our own limits and beyond our own certainties and the distorted understanding that comes from them.

In the comments Pope Francis made at the congregation of the cardinals just before the conclave, he spoke about the need for the church to to break out into what he called the outskirts—the frontiers—of human existence. And he added when the church does not break out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referential and so shuts herself in. One of the keys to understanding the mismanagement of the recent sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland must be precisely the measure in which the church in Ireland had become self-referential.

The effects of the child abuse scandals have had a demoralizing effect on the entire church in Ireland and continue to do so. In one sense the scandal crisis could not have come at a worse time, in that confidence in the church was well on the wane; and when the scandals broke, their effects were devastating. Today Ireland has strong child protection measures in place, and the Irish church is a much safer place for children than in the past. I would like to pay tribute to the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church, and in particular Ian Elliot, for their extraordinary contribution to helping make the church a safer place for children. One still has to ask, however, where the roots of this scandal and its mismanagement were to be found within the church. Was the issue simply the action of a few deviant priests who did not represent the church, or was there something deeper?

Certainly the overwhelming majority of priests in Ireland led and lead an exemplary moral life; they carry out their ministry with great dedication and enjoy great support and affection from their people and contribute and support the new ethos of child safeguarding.

What is extraordinarily high is the number of children who were abused. We are talking about thousands. There is no way you can simply explain away the huge number of those who were abused and the fact that this took place undetected and unrecognized within the church of Jesus Christ. Today we are in a safer place, but it took decades to attain this.

One of the great challenges the Irish Catholic Church still has to face is that of strong remnants of inherited clericalism. The days of the dominant or at times domineering role of clergy within what people call the “institutional church” have changed, but part of the culture still remains and from time to time reappears in new forms. We often overlook the fact that the very term “institutional church” has meaning only in a context of clericalism.

Clericalism will be eliminated only by fostering a deeper sense of the meaning of the church; that understanding of the nature of the church will come not from media strategies or simply by structural reforms, but by genuine renewal in what faith in Jesus Christ is about. If we focus only on structures and power, there is a risk that clericalism might be replaced by neo-clericalism. The Christian presence in society is not achieved by the imposition of a manifesto or simply by high-profile social criticism. It is more about the witness people give to Christian principles, mediated within the particular responsibilities they carry.

Diarmuid Martin is the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland

Full Story: A Post-Catholic Ireland? 

Source: America Magazine

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