Chris Morley has sent me some commentary on the recent vote of Irish Catholics in support of LGBT equality. Chris's commentary focuses on a recent Catholic Herald article by John Anderson (linked below), which seeks to place this vote in its historical context. Chris's article interweaves excerpts of Anderson's commentary with his own valuable comments and links. Here's what Chris has written:
The Future of Irish Catholicism after the Marriage Equality Deluge
Irish Catholicism is a really strange beast when examined by curious outsiders. It has just undergone another cathartic experience with 62% of the population voting against Catholic marriage orthodoxy and instead for marriage equality, despite their Bishops' firm prodding. The international and even Irish media have not helped our understanding with their simplistic stereotyping of Ireland as a Catholic country and society, who simply decided to ignore their discredited bishops in the wake of multiple abuse scandals and cover-ups. There is much more to the story than this.
In the thick of the final fortnight before the referendum, I overlooked a thoughtful analysis by Jon Anderson in the UK's Catholic Herald entitled 'Post-crash Ireland desperately needs the faith'. My quick reaction to the headline was to dismiss the whole article since that's not what Ireland needed with a major LGBT civil rights struggle to be won, so I didn't bother to read it.
A passing reference in a brief blog responding to the referendum in the latest Catholic Herald, prompted me to look again. The blog post is typical conservative stuff and nonsense, but it is here if you want.
I still don't like Jon's article's headline, but I persevered beyond that and found the sub-heading much more enticing:
'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?'
I thought I might find a helpful Irish "reality check".
(If you are wondering quite why the UK Catholic media are interested in Irish Catholicism, it is because the majority of the remaining Catholics in Britain are Irish-born migrants or Irish by heritage, so there's quite a strong yearning for information about the auld country and additionally UK Catholic media have a significant online Irish readership. There is now only one surviving Irish Catholic newspaper, the rather disappointing Irish Catholic.)
Jon Anderson's article begins:
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.
He then points out that opposition to marriage equality from the Irish hierarchy was 'low profile', but this was written over fortnight before the referendum and a rush of pastoral letters were issued subsequently. He says more active opposition came more 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."
That sounds like a 'golden age', but his 90% figure disguises how much Mass attendance was the unwilling and the begrudged result of intense social pressure. So large numbers arrived late, and left Mass early. Mass attendance by Irish Catholics living in Britain, without that social pressure, was more representative of reality and was very much lower from my own experience at the time.
"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 [Dublin, a College of the University of Ireland] 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 in Scotland. These days, it imports clergy from Poland, Nigeria or other countries that still produce vocations in number.
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. . . .
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.
Disillusionment: Abuse, Episcopal Cover-Ups and Fathers who Turned Out to be Daddies Too
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 [of Galway, a welcomed progressive after 40 years of his highly conservative predecessor] or the ubiquitous media priest Fr Michael Cleary [see here] both turned out to have fathered children. But the exposure in court of the crimes of predators such as the monstrous Fr Brendan Smyth was on a different moral level entirely [40 years of paedophilia, grossly covered up by the church, whose exposure caused the Irish government to fall in 1994]. 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.
Economic Development, European Funding, and the "Celtic Tiger" Economy
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; [and] religion with the impoverished, rural, insular Ireland, dominated by the two figures of President Éamon de Valera [who was responsible for the heavily Catholic-infused 1937 Constitution which is still the governing document] and [the ultra conservative] John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin between 1940 and 1972 [see here]. 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 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.
Political and Public Corruption and Cronyism – Irish Maladies
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.
British Colonialism's Legacy Writ Large in Irish Nationalism
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 [Northern Ireland], after [Catholic] Emancipation [Catholicism was effectively banned throughout Britain and Ireland until 1778 and emancipation was a painful, slow process which only really got started in 1829] it [the Church] took on a role not only as a religious denomination but also as a focus of national identity. As the [church was the] only Irish institution to stand outside the Protestant Ascendancy [Anglo-Irish protestant ownership of most of the land and control of government and administration in Ireland], 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 and with the emergence of serious corruption scandals at the highest levels), 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.
[Dublin Archbishop] 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 [which we saw exposed in the saga of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home] was shot down by the bishops, in collaboration with the Irish Medical Association, and the coalition government fell [on the Mother and Child Scheme, see here] 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. [The conservative and elderly Archbishop McQuaid of Dublin substantially impeded the influence of the reforming spirit of Vatican II in Ireland].
Defending the Catholic Status Quo
Since [Archbishop] McQuaid’s death [in 1973], 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 [Ireland] 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 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 quite unmanageable.
The Irish Catholic Future
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 [child] 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.
Low Profile of Catholic Traditionalism and Liberalism in Contemporary Ireland
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. [Nine] 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. [Archbishop Brown from the US was not a Vatican diplomat, as is usually the case, but was brought in to reinvigorate the Church pastorally. He was appointed at the end of 2011, after a hiatus because of Irish government fury over the mishandling of abuse. He's deliberately been selecting new pastoral-style bishops following a 2010 Vatican Visitation to enquire into and resolve concerns over Irish laity and bishops].
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.
[On the indifference of the young, while weekly mass attendance in the population is around 1 in 3, these are mainly people over 40, and among young adults, Mass attendance is only 10%. The practicing Irish Catholic population is headed for a crash within two or three decades but before then there will be a serious crisis as the number of elderly priests plummets].