A strange entity haunts contemporary Irish commentary; hardly a day passes without it being cited in some, almost invariably negative, context. It’s “The Catholic Church”. It is “to blame for everything wrong with Ireland”. In the 1940s and 1950s, it created an atmosphere that can be described as “Stalinist” and in the industrial schools “The Catholic Church” created “our Holocaust, our Gulag”. It “grievously abused its position for too long”. It was responsible even for the closing of Merrion Square Park to the public, as part of the plan to build a Catholic cathedral on the site (a decision made by one archbishop, not by all Catholic clergy or “the Church”). According to the Financial Times, the Catholic church in Ireland is “a shrivelled entity, discredited by scandal and left behind by a diverse population”. There is a consensus among commentators, and even amongst some academics (normally suspicious of generalisations), that Irish Catholicism consists of ageing clergy, who mourn lost power and past glories, and ageing laity, who hope that the clergy will survive long enough to bury them.
We clergy have been described, somewhat poetically, as “misogynistic eunuchs”. According to one RTÉ documentary, the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 created such an atmosphere that “Protestants sat behind drawn curtains and wondered if there was a future for them in the new Ireland”; in reality, many Protestants enjoyed the celebrations. The most original recent comment appeared in a newspaper article that declared, when Boris Johnson married for the third time and in a Catholic ceremony, that “the Catholic Church owes an apology to Boris Johnson’s former wives”. It wasn’t clear who should make the apology ‑ should it be the pope, the archbishop of Westminster or simply the priest who officiated at the wedding? Would the former wives be interested in receiving such an apology? A broadcaster writes that Ireland has “escaped the cold dead hand of the Catholic Church”. Some of these images are quite beautiful, including the reflection that churches themselves are “sinister places”, but none of the writers are contenders for a Nobel Prize.
All the commentary, and all the criticism, is based on the false premise that Irish Catholicism has been and still is a sole body. The archbishop of Armagh has been described as “the line manager” of somebody less important in the institutional church, which implies a line of command coming from the pope’s desk, passing through Vatican departments and then through local bishops, going all the way to the nearest parish, while somehow involving all the remaining religious communities of priests, brothers and nuns. In fact it is likely that the pope does not think about Ireland for weeks on end but, more significantly, no archbishop has direct authority over any other bishop and most religious communities are exempt from episcopal control.
The “line manager” model also leaves out the laity, without whom any church would look silly, but whom most critics don’t consider when launching yet another broadside. It assumes that there is a central, policy-making unit (probably the hierarchy) sending out detailed instructions about everything. From that (incorrect) viewpoint, the Catholic church has been described as “a parallel government”, which “controlled” Irish life for many years, so it is imperative that all diocesan and religious archives be brought together, in one building, under State control. In fact, there was no central controlling Catholic authority in Ireland and no master plan for maintaining that control. Clergy controlled many aspects of Irish life because that suited the laity, but now we may congratulate ourselves on being freed from “the vice-like grip of the Catholic Church”.
“The Catholic Church”, in the current polemic, seems to be a foreign body, an incubus that fastened itself onto the unfortunate Irish population (“when the Catholic Church first installed itself in Ireland”), sucking out its vitality while accumulating vast resources in land and buildings, and then set about perpetuating itself with the collaboration of its deluded ordained or vowed recruits. The reality is far more complex, but the basic fact is that “The Catholic Church”, even when seen purely as an institution rather than a community, is staffed by Irishmen and Irishwomen who have the same background as most of their most fervent critics.
The abiding secret of Irish life is that nothing is ever quite what it seems. After the foundation of the Irish Free State, the almost-official religion was Catholicism, but there was such an exaltation of militant nationalism and the Irish language that both were also parts of the national faith system. The only acceptable form of nationalism was the armed struggle, so even Daniel O’Connell, who opposed all violence, was under a cloud. Many believed that Irish could replace English in daily usage, so the educational system was changed to promote this aim. These three elements in the post-independence psyche endured for a long time, but Catholicism seemed to be the most resistant to change. In fact, Irish Catholicism was in a constant process of adaptation, but this was an international success story, until, in the last decade of the twentieth century, everything “went wrong”.
Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1979 was misinterpreted as the contemporary manifestation of centuries-old papal support for Irish independence, but the first pope to support Irish nationalism was Benedict XV, elected as recently as 1914. Popes preferred to deal with monarchs, even when the ruler was a Protestant. The enthusiasm for John Paul’s visit was akin to the huge vote for Fianna Fáil in the 1977 general election: triumph could be followed only by disappointment. After the national economic decay and despair of the 1980s, the return to prosperity in the 1990s coincided with the first perceptible decline in Catholic practice. This gathered pace, so economic growth in the Celtic Tiger years was accompanied by a marked decline in religious observance. Vocations to seminaries and religious orders had been declining steadily from a high in 1966.
The centre of Irish public interest gradually moved away from religion, but the voices of clergy were heard speaking on many issues, particularly social justice, until about 2010. Churchmen, and some church women, were interviewed regularly in the media. Their opinions, based on vast accumulated experience, still seemed to matter. There was nothing like the rapid collapse of traditional Catholicism that astonished many people in Quebec from the late 1960s onward. The same rapid collapse occurred in both Dutch Catholicism and Dutch Protestantism. Flemish Catholicism declined more slowly, but it is now a shadow in what was once a very fervent region. The many Flemish churches, so carefully rebuilt after the destruction of the First World War, may have only one Mass on a Sunday; funerals are the most attended services. A newspaper that used to have the motto “For Christ and for Flanders” now concentrates on stories of clerical sex abuse.
Erosion in religious practice often begins slowly, and then becomes very rapid. In the 1970s, Catholicism in the Republic began to lose active working class participation, so the vast churches (really basilicas) in the newer suburbs now echo with memories of vanished congregations. By the early 1970s, the model of church construction changed: the new buildings were all smaller, and often had an adjoining parish centre, so worship was no longer the sole focus. If all the Irish churches had been more collaborative, Catholic bishops would have discovered that Northern blue collar workers had been lost to Protestantism a generation earlier than those in the South were lost to Catholicism. In neither case was there a noticeable loss of faith, but there was a changed attitude to worship, which ceased to be a weekly habit and became something for special occasions: weddings, funerals, Christmas, etc. For Catholics, this expresses itself in continued enthusiasm for baptisms, first communions and confirmations, especially in working class areas.
Ireland has not replicated the British experience studied by Grace Davie in several perceptive books, the most memorable being summarised in its title, Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging (1994), which looks at the widespread, if vague, religious belief, which persists without formal church membership. This is paradoxical in Britain, because both England and Scotland still have established churches, Anglican in one country and Presbyterian in the other. Professor Davie has studied Scandinavia, where Lutheranism remains the state church only in Denmark; it has recently been disestablished in both Sweden and Norway. As a result, she formulated the idea of “belonging without believing”, given the very large number of enrolled church members who never attend a service.
Irish working class people have had the initiating role that middle class people (especially intellectuals) normally regard as their own. Blue collar parishes were the first to empty, when middle class churches were still almost full. Blue collar families were the first to enter committed relationships, and to have children, without being in any rush to get married. Marriage became a step that might be taken, eventually, but it was unthinkable not to have a child baptised, nor not send that child to a Catholic school. Middle class people began to take the same path towards non-marital relationships a little later, but they were much quicker to dispense with baptism.
Sometimes pre-Christian Ireland is seen in a warm glow, a time and place when everybody lived in harmony with nature and with each other. This omits the constant internecine warfare and the slavery, which was so pervasive that even women slaves were forced into battle. The Celtic soft focus extends to early Christian Ireland. There was no guarantee of a successful Christian mission to Ireland, an island that had never been conquered by the Romans, which had no roads, no towns, no coinage and no central government. Ireland lacked a written culture. Our island became an unexpected testing ground for later Christian missionary efforts outside the former Roman empire. Conversion took about a century; it was peaceful and remarkably successful. The Irish adopted Latin learning; some even studied Greek; they became enthusiastic monks and ascetics. Irish monks preached in Scotland and northern England. Irish missionaries founded churches in Wurzburg (St Killian), Salzburg (St Fergal, known as Virgil or Virgilius), Alto Münster in Bavaria (St Alto), Bobbio in Italy (St.Columbanus). Kyiv was the most easterly point reached by Irish monasticism. The Irish monastic rules, like the Irish penitentials, were harsh. Some recent spiritual writers have overlooked the harshness and have published bestselling accounts of “Celtic Spirituality” that bear little relationship to the realities of early Christian Ireland, with its fierce ascetics, its learned monks, and its remarkable adaptation to a strange country. These developments may be taken as inevitable, but there was no guarantee that Ireland would become a Christian country. Lithuania, on the other side of Europe, admitted Christian missionaries only in 1386.
How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill’s bestseller of 1995 describes the enthusiastic Irish acceptance of Christianity, but the profound learning of the monasteries and the subsequent missionary outreach were all self-starting, all of it done without anyone being in overall control. The lack of centralised secular authority in Ireland made Christian growth spontaneous, self-organising and distinctive. There was no “Celtic Church”, self-governing and distinct from Rome. As in other parts of Europe, there were many local customs, which were widely accepted, with disagreement only about the dating of Easter. Cahill described the preservation of learning in Ireland in the “Dark Ages”, the post-Roman centuries when most of Europe descended into chaos. The papacy was a symbol of unity rather than a centre of authority.
In 798, when the first Vikings attacked Lambay Island, they were marauding pagans. Monasteries were among their favourite targets, because there they found splendid sacred objects and plenty of captives. None of the terrified Irish could have imagined that their savage enemies (who came from Norway and, later, from Denmark) would settle, build towns and become Christians. The newcomers were attracted by the religion of the Irish, but not by their concentration on monasticism: they wanted bishops in their settlements, and that changed the way Irish Christianity was governed.
The twelfth century was a time of radical change in European Christianity, with the founding of universities and of new religious orders. There was a strong push for a learned and celibate clergy, not least because monks and nuns, the most learned people of early medieval Europe, were already celibate. Much of the daily life of Christians had up till then been guided by married priests, who were devout but often barely educated, and who supported themselves and their families on donations and on farming. Saint Patrick, though he arrived in Ireland as a slave, came from this clerical background, because he tells us that his father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest. His education may have been above average. The clerical class was professionalised in the twelfth century and the astonishing growth of the Cistercian order (reformed Benedictine monks) transformed agriculture in many parts of Europe.
The Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169 brought new inhabitants, at a time of significant religious change in Europe. The invaders conquered a large part of Ireland and then ceded territory, gradually, to the Gaelic Irish. There were two church groups in medieval Ireland, one for the colonisers and another for the Gaelic Irish. The Irish landscape came to resemble that of other European countries, with very prominent monastic buildings. The Cistercians were followed by the Augustinian canons, who lived in smaller houses and were favoured by the less wealthy landowners. n the thirteenth century, the new orders of friars (Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians and others) came to live in or near towns.
Significantly, there was no central authority in the medieval Irish church; for example, the archbishop of Armagh, who was always of Anglo-Norman background, lived at Termonfeckin in Co Louth and could visit his cathedral, which was controlled by the Gaelic Irish, only with the permission of the dean. The colony was disproportionately weakened by the Black Death plague of 1348-49, which killed more people in the towns than in the countryside. The Gaelic Irish became stronger.
The apacy, often seen today as omnipresent and omnipotent in Catholic Ireland, had limited authority. Papal authority backed Irish church reform in the twelfth century. Pope Adrian IV created the title lord of Ireland for King Henry II, so the English monarchs officially held Ireland as papal representatives, but many Irish clergy saw the papacy primarily as a source of honours and income. By the fifteenth century, many European clergy regarded bishoprics, canonries, and everything in between as profitable positions rather than pastoral responsibilities. The Irish became notorious “Rome runners” as they made their way south in pursuit of promotion and profit.
The faith of ordinary people is lost in accounts of high ecclesiastical politics. Irish people of both Gaelic and Anglo-Norman backgrounds were prayerful, given to public displays of religion (processions in towns, pilgrimages to local shrines in the countryside). Continental pilgrims came to Lough Derg; Irish pilgrims went to Rome and to Santiago de Compostella. The failure to establish a university in Ireland obliged students to travel. The descendants of the Anglo-Normans saw themselves as loyal “English” living in Ireland. “Irish” had a variety of meanings, but all regarded themselves as Christians.
Until the mid-sixteenth century, there was only one way of being a Christian in Ireland. The division into Catholic and Protestant ensured that neither tradition recognised the validity of the other. Ireland should have become Protestant, because both kingdoms on the neighbouring island became Protestant, because the monarchs were nearly all Protestant and because the levers of Irish power passed into English Protestant hands. The Protestant Reformation, however, failed in Ireland because it never attracted a significant number of the indigenous population; neither the Gaelic Irish nor the Old English (descendants of the Anglo-Normans) became Protestants. In fact, the Old English community was the only English-speaking polity that rejected Protestantism, a fact that was fundamental to the survival of Catholicism
The Irish church had begun to reform itself about two generations before Henry VIII broke with Rome. The Irish parliament, which represented the Old English, accepted Henry as head of the church, encouraged him to change his title from lord of Ireland to king and was happy to see the monasteries and friaries dissolved. All those changes, however, had a very local nuance: the parliament represented only the elites; there were celebrations of the new royal title in Dublin, but none in London; all estates were taken from religious communities, but the friars later returned to live in their houses.
Most Irish bishops, present in parliament, accepted Henry VIII’s religious changes, but most of the people did not. Edward VI never called an Irish parliament and his regents relied on proclamations to introduce radical religious change: worship in English, banning of images, of holy water and ashes, and restricting religious practice to church buildings, thereby removing the pilgrimages and patterns that were an essential mark of Irish Christianity. His regulations (which were so detailed that they are equalled only by the recent list of Irish government regulations during the Covid crisis) were a step too far. When Edward’s half-sister Mary became queen in 1553 there was a general rush to restore all the old traditions and customs.
The five years of Mary’s reign convinced many Irish Catholics that religious change was not irreversible, so there was no feeling of resignation when the Irish parliament once more passed the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity in 1560. Ireland became officially a Protestant country once more and remained so for over three centuries. Queen Elizabeth tried to make the latest changes more acceptable by offering the Book of Common Prayer in a Latin translation and allowing priests to wear traditional vestments. The Gaelic Irish and the Old English were unconvinced and began to study in continental colleges, including the many small Irish seminaries founded in countries ruled by the Spanish crown. Irish Catholics were still divided into two groups, depending on their ancestry, but they were both adaptive and creative in dealing with their parting from the established church. The royal administration responded by bringing in English-born government officials and by granting confiscated land to Protestants. Between the accession of Elizabeth in 1558 and the death of James I in 1625, approximately 100,000 Protestants were brought to Ireland from England and, later, from Scotland. The New English were in control.
Irish Catholics associated Protestantism with violence (particularly from the 1580s onward), with confiscation, plantation, anglicisation and increasing marginalisation. The established church in Ireland was aggressively Protestant, leaning toward Calvinism, strong on predestination and somewhat vague about the role of bishops. Protestant bishops urged the Dublin administration towards a vigorous persecution of Catholics and were disappointed by the somewhat tepid response. The newcomers were not attracted by Gaelic culture and were part of the long process of its destruction. Unexpectedly, in this hostile environment, Irish Catholicism not only survived but became much stronger.
Irish Catholicism was saved by its European links. The structure of a Catholic church remained in Ireland, whereas England and Scotland had “missions”. Diocesan administration was preserved, even when there were gaps lasting decades in episcopal appointments. The Irish colleges on the continent supplied new priests, religious orders founded houses abroad and sent their members home on mission. New religious orders, such as the Capuchins, Jesuits and Vincentians, came to Ireland in the first decades of the seventeenth century. Reformed Catholicism needed an educated clergy, able to preach in both English and Irish. The colleges abroad provided them. Irish Catholicism not only survived but began to flourish, a growth which would have been impossible without the support of the people.
Oliver Cromwell was given a rapturous welcome by Protestant Dublin when he landed at Ringsend in August 1649. The bloody conquest of Ireland that he undertook on behalf of the English parliament was completed by 1652. Irish landownership and urban administration were permanently changed. Seeing no difference between Catholics of Gaelic Irish or Old English background, the new rulers persecuted both equally. The Mass was forbidden, priests were killed or deported; church structures collapsed. But Irish Catholicism proved its resilience when active persecution ceased and rebuilding began in the 1660s.
Post-Reformation Europe had inherited the medieval conviction that only one form of Christianity could be permitted in any territory and that the government should not only assist it, but should harass, if not actively persecute, all dissenters. That was the basis for the exclusion of Presbyterians from the Church of Ireland after 1660 and it was the thinking behind the framing of the Penal Laws against Irish Catholics in the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14). William III had ended the policy of Dublin Castle actively persecuting Catholics, but restrictions on their landowning and their political activity made them less powerful in every succeeding generation. They were excluded from the judiciary and the legal profession, from the craft guilds and from official medical positions.
Most Irish Catholics were wretchedly poor. Their landlords were not interested in converting them to Protestantism, which would have given them rights. By 1730, the Irish hierarchy had been restored once more, marking the third rebuilding of Irish Catholic structures since the early seventeenth century. The 1787 conversion to Protestantism of John Butler, the Catholic bishop of Cork, when he became Lord Dunboyne, ended the tradition of appointing Munster nobility to local dioceses. The proportions of Catholics and Protestants (about 75 per cent and 25 per cent) were fixed by the early eighteenth century and have changed little since then. Catholics were inferior in law and in fact. Catholic worship was permitted, but muted. Catholic recovery in Ulster was slower than elsewhere. The Irish Catholic inferiority complex took root in the Penal Times and has yet to disappear, its most subtle effects being found amongst lapsed Catholics, who often feel a “non-specific” inferiority, because they don’t know the reason for constantly measuring themselves so negatively in comparison with other social groups and other countries.
Every Irish family paid tithes to the Church of Ireland, assessed by tithe proctors. By the 1790s, tithes were extended even to the potatoes of the very poor. At the higher levels of society, intellectual and social unrest led to the passing of Relief Acts, which made life easier for Catholics, but very few were given the official positions that were now open to them. George III was happy to found the Royal College of Saint Patrick, at Maynooth, but he was opposed to complete Catholic Emancipation, which had been an unspoken promise made to the Catholic bishops as part of their support for the Act of Union that came in the aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion and the 30,000 deaths that it brought.
“The priest in politics” became a part of Irish life during the struggle for Catholic Emancipation, which was conceded in 1829. Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association relied on the support of the clergy. Alexis de Tocqueville visited Ireland in the summer of 1835 and was impressed by the closeness of priests and people. The widespread poverty astonished him, because the United Kingdom was the world’s richest country, but he noticed that the bishop of Cork lived in the poorest part of the city.
The outlines of what would later be regarded as the classical form of Irish Catholicism was appearing in the foundation of Irish religious communities (sisters of Mercy, Charity and Presentation, Christian and Patrician brothers). They were founded for teaching and later diversified into medical care. Saint Vincent’s Hospital, founded in Dublin in 1834, was the first hospital in these islands to be both owned and managed by women.
In this period, diocesan priests began to be addressed as “Father” and this usage spread throughout the English-speaking world. This had been (and remains in other languages) the designation for priests in religious orders. Priests began to wear black instead of brown suits and to wear round collars instead of white cravats. Nuns were addressed as “Missus” until the third decade of the twentieth century. Hostility between the Catholic and Protestant churches grew rapidly during the pre-Famine years. Evangelical revivals changed the attitude of the Church of Ireland (which launched the Second Reformation in 1822) and the Presbyterians (who abandoned the progressive thinking which had led many to become rebels in 1798). Disagreements about Repeal of the Act of Union and Home Rule were sharpened by the religious divisions in Ireland.
The Famine years changed Ireland so dramatically that survivors were unable to cope with the memory. The poorest class disappeared; emigration became a constant in Irish life and Irish Catholicism changed.
Empress Elizabeth of Austria came to Ireland for fox-hunting in 1879 and 1880. She was given a huge welcome from Catholics who, accustomed to feeling inferior, were pleased to see one of their own who outranked everyone. Irish Catholicism could never be said to have “recovered” from the horrors of the Great Famine, but it had taken on the public role and prominence that lasted for well over a century. Churches had replaced humble “chapels” (which had themselves replaced “Mass houses”) and every town of any importance had at least one convent. Seminaries, many of them built to educate priests for foreign dioceses, were being opened. Foreign religious orders of men and women, many of them from France, founded schools in Ireland, where vocations were plentiful and increasing. Before the Famine, there had been a shortage of priests and very few convents. The change to an abundance of both was rapid but was soon seen as normative of Irish Catholic life. When the Church of Ireland (united to the Church of England since 1801) was disestablished in 1870, Ireland was no longer officially Protestant.
Emigration became a constant in Irish life after the Famine. Irish people moved to the United States and to many parts of the British empire. Priests, brothers and nuns followed them, providing educational and pastoral support and, almost unintentionally, founding Anglophone Catholicism. Vast numbers of young Irishmen and Irishwomen chose a life, whether at home or abroad, which would give them little material comfort, demanding work and often harsh discipline. Those who went abroad were unlikely ever to return.
Anti-clerical governments passed anti-Catholic or anti-clerical laws in many countries, both in Europe and Latin America. Costa Rica was the only Latin American country not to pass anti-clerical legislation. The diminished political power of the papacy had the unintended effect of increasing its profile within Catholicism, so its enhanced prestige centred more power in Rome. The other Irish continental seminaries declined, but the Irish College in Rome became an almost essential stage in any successful ecclesiastical career. Study at Maynooth, followed by study in Rome and then teaching at Maynooth itself were stages on the way to a bishopric. Priests from religious orders became rare in the Irish hierarchy.
Organisationally, Irish Catholicism was very strong in the late nineteenth and first decades of the twentieth centuries. Intellectually, however, it was unadventurous. The harshest critique of this era of Catholicism was the semi-autobiographical novel Father Ralph (1913) by Gerald O’Donovan. As Father Jeremiah Donovan, he had been administrator of Loughrea cathedral. He depicts a self-satisfied church, where the seminarians who win all the prizes are those who give the best reproduction of the professors’ ideas, where women from “good” families become nuns if they cannot find a husband and where religious devotion is encouraged but intellectual inquiry treated with suspicion. The novel recreates the closing of the Catholic mind in the years after 1907, when a papal crusade against “Modernism” treated all theological speculation as suspect. This lasted until the late 1950s, with the result that Catholic intellectuals felt safer when they concentrated on literature, church history and archaeology.
The Land of Spices, a novel by Kate O’Brien published in 1941, is based on Laurel Hill Convent in Limerick. It describes a French foundation in Ireland and is so accurate that many readers were convinced that O’Brien had been a nun. Presentation Parlour, her memoir of 1963, puts an Irish convent into its social background.
The daily life of lay Catholics offered many activities and a high level of participation: in sodalities, confraternities, the Children of Mary, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul (the VDP) and the Legion of Mary. There were May processions, Corpus Christi processions and parish missions (often one week for women and another for men). The VDP and the Legion were founded and led by lay people. This high level of commitment was the background to the celebration of the centenary of Catholic Emancipation in 1929 and the Eucharistic Congress in 1932. The Congress, often cited as another example of Catholic triumphalism, was a splendid show, brilliantly organised and with an international cast. Unlike the mammoth political rallies being staged contemporaneously in continental Europe, it was affirmative of Irish Catholic traditions, but was not directed against anybody.
The partition of Ireland eventually weakened both the Protestant and Catholic churches. Protestant clergy became uncritical supporters of the Stormont government, and often spoke at Orange Order rallies. Catholicism was far too dominant in the Irish Free State, a new and poor country that relied on the clergy to provide education and health care. The religious orders that administered orphanages and industrial schools had no trained personnel and limited resources supplied by the state; only in the 1960s did anybody seriously question whether this system was right.
Life within a religious community was very demanding, and became more difficult from the 1920s onward as the number of recruits grew faster than the resources available to support them. Male communities had a cult of toughness, which reflected the harsh society from which the men came. Irish society was Victorian in its morality, prudish in its outlook and obsessed with sinfulness, particularly sexual sin. Chastity was “the holy virtue” (more so than the other ones?). There being no Catholic aristocracy and very few gentry, Irish Catholics aspired to be middle class. Priests became the upper tier in society. Bourgeois values triumphed, and with them came a pervasive snobbery. Children in orphanages and industrial schools, like women in Magdalen laundries, were not fully part of this society and so they counted for much less than their contemporaries.
The new religious communities founded in the early twentieth century were all missionary in their focus: the Medical Missionaries of Mary, Columban Fathers and Sisters, Holy Rosary Sisters etc. There was no Irish empire, but the missionaries worked in vast areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America and left a lasting impact in the schools and hospitals that they founded.
Catholics in Northern Ireland had to adjust to being in a statelet in which they did not want to live and which did not want them. From the beginning, they were treated as enemy aliens: driven out of the shipyards, denied employment or promotion, losing their businesses during the burning-out campaign. They drew closer to their church, with which they developed a relationship that was markedly different from that of their Southern brethren.
Brian Fallon’s study An Age of Innocence: Irish Culture 1930-1960 should have destroyed the myth of “Catholic Ireland” as a cultural desert, but it persists. Fallon shows the vibrancy of high culture, but ordinary folk were also great readers. The Catholic Bulletin is often cited as a mainstream journal, but it was extremist and lost episcopal approval in 1916. The Irish Messenger of the Sacred Heart was a Jesuit monthly that sold massively (nearly 200,000 copies of each issue), followed by the Blessed Martin Magazine (Dominican) and others. Studies (a Jesuit quarterly) and the Irish Monthly (yet another Jesuit publication) addressed contemporary issues in economics, politics and literature; the Capuchin Annual was an outstanding publication, with a high quality of design and content.
The Irish Catholic, a weekly newspaper, was reputed to make more money than The Irish Times. Its emphasis was on the papacy and on religious devotion, but it was very critical of a society that accepted emigration as fundamental to Irish life. For constant encouragement, Irish Catholics need look no further than the Irish Independent, by far the biggest seller among the daily newspapers. Its religious reporting was second to none, with photographs of ordination groups (invariably large), reports on nuns making their first or final profession and reliable summaries of all the Lenten pastoral letters issued by every bishop in the country. Protestants outside Dublin read the Independent and took no offense.
“Theocracy is a term that is often misused as a description of pre-secularisation Ireland. Politicians were responsive to episcopal and other church pressures when it suited them, including during the infamous Mother and Child controversy, but could also safely disregard church leaders when it suited them to do so. This commonsense approach dated back at least to 1888, when Pope Leo XIII, with British government approval, condemned the Plan of Campaign during the Land War. His words made no difference.
Catholics in rural Ireland continued to make “pattern” visits to the shrines of ancient saints, even when their priests opposed it. Nobody has been able to identify the parish priest who is reputed to have burned a copy of The Country Girls, Edna O’Brien’s first novel, shortly after its publication in 1960. If there was such a priest, he should be thanked for increasing sales of the novel.
Pilgrimages to Lourdes were the only foreign experiences of many Irish Catholics, made much easier when air travel transformed it into a journey of hours rather than days. Knock increased in popularity and Lough Derg, which had a shorter season, had an unexpected role in match-making, because some pilgrims went there hoping to find a spouse, and did so.
Clare Keegan’s novel Small Things Like These (2021) is a superbly told story, but it is also anachronistic, because in 1985, the year of the story, there was no all-powerful “Mother Superior” in any Irish convent. Such characters were ubiquitous in 1965, were just about conceivable ten years later, but had disappeared by 1985.
The Second Vatican Council (1961-65) saw the meeting of thousands of Catholic bishops in Rome. They took control away from the Roman Curia (the Vatican administration) and voted on documents that led to immense change. Relationships with other Christian churches improved immeasurably, attitudes to Judaism were altered, the role of the laity was emphasised and, most significantly for the majority of Catholics, worship in the local language was permitted.
The stress on the lay vocation led to massive departures from the priesthood, from seminaries and from convents. In the United States alone, it is estimated that 80,000 women left convents. Priesthood and religious life were no longer seen as innately higher ways of being Christian, so many men and women gave up the struggle. Many priests felt free to leave active ministry when their mothers died. Numbers entering seminaries and religious communities began a rapid decline, which has been reversed only very occasionally and few of those entering have persevered.
Irish Catholicism, whether at home or overseas, had been thriving. Irish bishops could see no need for all the changes, but they introduced them according to the letter, if not perhaps the spirit, of Vatican Two. Laity were encouraged to study theology, to participate in new forms of worship and to join parish councils. They were invited to share in everything, except the making of decisions. By retaining the last word in everything, Irish clergy lost an opportunity to expand the definition of “Catholic Church”, which therefore remained a term that referred only to the ordained.
Many Vatican officials were determined to remain in control of every aspect of church life. The Irish bishops had been reluctant to accept the appointment of a papal nuncio to Ireland in 1930 because it would give the Vatican far too much control over the appointment of bishops. Their fears were justified, not least because the Vatican Curia was not very interested in Ireland and did not name talented nuncios. One, who was left in the post for eighteen years, never learned to speak correct English. His nomination of bishops often overlooked the wishes of local clergy, and nobody thought of consulting the laity. The “safe pair of hands” was often the choice, so the preferred bishop was a man who would regard himself as the pope’s local representative rather than a pastor in his own right. By the last decade of the twentieth century, perhaps half the Irish hierarchy had as their greatest fear rebuke from any Vatican official, whom they should have been free to disregard. It was assumed that Mass attendance would continue as before, despite all the other changes in the church.
By the 1990s, a template for bishops had been established worldwide, so that whenever a creative or progressive bishop retired or died he would be replaced by a reliable, unadventurous conservative. The results of this policy would be disastrous, because, as in Chile, the bishops were incapable of coping with the child abuse crisis, or, as in Spain, unable to enter dialogue with a rapidly changing society. In some countries, the hierarchy would be seen as inept, if not corrupt; in others, the bishops would be seen as irrelevant. Some drew consolation from conservative Catholic lay organisations.
The religious orders in Ireland were much readier than the bishops to innovate and to take risks. Nuns were often pioneers in social work. The calls for social justice and fair housing came from many sisters and priests, who translated their words into deeds. The Justice Desk of the Conference of Religious issued sustained and well-reason critiques of public needs and government errors. Bishops were on a slower learning curve. Many assumed that young men would join the diocesan priesthood despite the decline in the number entering male religious orders. Then came the idea of bringing those orders into dioceses to staff parishes. After that came the slow move towards ordaining married men as permanent deacons, a development that had actually been possible since the 1960s. Finally, priests were recruited from other countries, particularly the Global South, which caused, and causes, tensions coming from wide cultural differences.
Irish clergy, religious and laity based their renewal programmes on American models. Many, (including the present writer), studied in the United States; Americans came to Ireland to give numerous retreats and, above all, workshops. Similarity in language, however, did not mean similarity in religious culture, so when Ireland’s rapid secularisation followed a European model, the leaders of the Irish church were bewildered and unable to respond.
RTÉ News had a favourite clip that was shown many times: a cassocked bishop walking along a corridor in Maynooth, entering a large room where the other bishops were sitting around a huge table, and closing the door in the face of the cameras. That clip demonstrated the inadequate media strategy of the Irish hierarchy. The Catholic Communications Institute on Booterstown Avenue in Dublin, founded by the bishops in 1967, gave superb media training to many laity and clergy. Inexplicably, just as media began to change and transform, the building was let to a media firm and later sold.
When abuses by clergy were reported, bishops and religious superiors were anxious that a man should continue to exercise his priesthood and they accepted current medical advice that successful treatment was possible, so offenders were often moved to another area rather than removed from ministry. Distrust of how the laity (whom some regarded as if they were children) might react and a fear of “scandal” led to cover-ups. There were plenty of people trained in media who might have helped, but the church’s reliance on PR companies and solicitors was defensive.
When a taoiseach criticised the Vatican in a Dáil speech (while showing a touching faith in “the markets” as Ireland’s saviours), his words resonated with more than a few Irish Catholics. The church’s central administration had shown itself almost indifferent to local needs and very self-confident. In 1980, a pastoral council of England and Wales, produced an impressive set of plans for future Catholic life; the report arrived in Rome and was shelved. In 1999, the International Committee on English in the Liturgy produced a splendid new translation of the Roman Missal. The twenty-six English-speaking hierarchies supported it; advice from other churches with a much longer tradition of vernacular worship had been sought. The Vatican ignored it and 2011 issued a dreadful “translation”, which tried to be close to the Latin original, was intentionally distancing and at times incomprehensible.
“Restorationism” was in the air throughout the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, based on yearning for a lost past, so the theme seemed to be “back to the future”. Admission standards to seminaries were lowered, but that did not increase the number of seminarians. Some young Catholics became nostalgic for a past that they had never in fact known. Church leaders did not grasp that the Western attitude to authority had changed since the 1960s, so “the experience of authority became the authority of experience”. Authority was no longer self-justifying and had to prove itself.
The abuse scandals undermined the teaching authority of the institutional Irish church, which had opposed everything that seemed progressive, from the sale of condoms to same-sex marriage. Criticism was deserved, but the closing of the Irish embassy to the Holy See was an unforced error by the Irish government. The Vatican is one of the world’s best diplomatic listening posts, where information arrives, in surprising ways, from all over the world. The Irish embassy (later reopened) was closed just as the British reversed the reduction in staff and space of their embassy, while both the American and Russian embassies were being enlarged.
In 1943, despite wartime shortages and rationing, paper was found to publish the latest book by HG Wells. Crux Ansata: An Indictment of the Roman Catholic Church recommended the bombing of Rome, among other means of limiting the influence of such an appalling institution. Wells was writing in a venerable British tradition, but his followers are now writing regular columns in Irish newspapers. Anti-Catholicism, wherever it occurs, is based on prejudice and generalisations. One writer concluded that the murder of Federico García Lorca in 1936 was caused by “the Roman Catholic Church”, rather than local fascist thugs. “The Roman Catholic Church,” we hear, “organised a ratline to send Nazi war criminals to Latin America” (in fact, it was one distrusted bishop in the Vatican). “The Jesuits inspired Adolf Hitler” (who detested the Society of Jesus) etc.
“The Catholic Church” is now the scapegoat for most of the flaws in Irish society. There is “abuse by the religious orders”, rather than by members of religious orders. Industrial schools, mother-and-baby homes, Magdalen homes and orphanages, all housing Irish society’s rejects, are now seen as solely the fault of the religious orders that administered them and not at all of the society at whose behest they were established or of the families who rejected so many unfortunate women. Thousands of nuns taught in schools and hospitals, but their work is now described as a mechanism for control, so some commentators have no problem in saying that “the nuns were worse than the Black and Tans”.
Ireland, in this interpretation, was uniquely awful, so there is no comparison with other countries; no need, for example, to reflect on the compulsory sterilisations of those judged “unfit to breed” in Scandinavia nor of the use of orphan boys as free labour on Swiss farms. Demonising our collective past may leave us unrooted in the present. “Presentism” is our modern habit of weighing the past against the social concerns and moral categories of the present.
“Presentism”, and hostility to Christianity, are widespread in Europe. The EU Commission, when issuing a declaration to celebrate the present millennium, decided to remove a reference to Christianity from the final draft, despite Europe’s Christian foundations. In an epoch that is uncomfortable with the concept of objective truth, considering everything to be a matter of opinion, there is some embarrassment at being a Christian, so it is better to privatise religion.
In Ireland politicians seem determined to distance themselves from the official church. A taoiseach told Pope Francis that child protection requires “deeds rather than words”, seemingly unaware that current practices make Catholic churches and buildings one of the safest places for Irish children. Another taoiseach had several meetings with the four Catholic archbishops but did not accept their requests for an earlier return to public worship, because churches had taken measures to become some of the safest spaces in Ireland. Some of their requests to meet him were not acknowledged.
It may have been unintentional that church services were listed after shops, spas, gyms, hairdressers and nail bars in the list of what was permitted under various categories. Fortunately it was not seen as necessary to enforce the provision that unauthorised Masses (or other such public assemblies) could lead to a fine of €127 or six months in prison. Only the bravest politicians would take a stand based on their personal Christian principles.
Media hostility to Catholicism is so pervasive that it can sometimes be heard even radio channels like Lyric FM, where the words “now that we Irish people have freed ourselves from the control of the Roman Catholic Church” featured in the introduction to a piece of music. The “Catholic Church” seems to be more dominant than ever in the minds of the well and truly lapsed: certainly they write and talk about it more than any practising believer.
There have been some interesting suggestions put forward, such as suppressing the religious orders. Henry VIII would have been delighted, but old age is doing the work anyway; religious orders are in rapid decline all over Europe. Another proposal has been the nationalisation of the orders’ archives, few of which contain anything scandalous or dramatic, but so many of the government’s own archives are uncatalogued that scholars would have to wait about fifty years to access anything.
Attacks on “the Catholic Church” are aimed at an institution which has changed so dramatically that it no longer exists in its old form. There was no “loss of power” or “escape”, but rather a shift in the focus of Irish (and Western) society. It is assumed that we can reject the beliefs, but that the value system will remain intact. If that does not happen, the consequences for our society will be dire. Already in the West we can see how very prominent politicians have no problem about telling multiple lies and feel absolutely no remorse when they are caught out. The rolling news cycle means that our attention soon passes on to something else.
The changes in Ireland, particularly in the Republic, are part of the movement away from Christianity in Northern and Western Europe. Disaffiliation began in the 1960s and has not stopped since then. People who became lukewarm or indifferent to religion in that and the subsequent decades have not passed on religious values to the next generations. The child abuse and other scandals have done incalculable damage to Catholicism as an institution and have eroded people’s confidence. The drama of sin and salvation was already losing its attraction, so the hypocrisy of many preachers has discredited their message.
Irish Catholicism, and, indeed, all Irish Christianity, has to reinvent itself. It has done so several times in the past and will do so again. The message of Jesus Christ is fundamental. The sense of community that was one of the strengths of the old system has disappeared, leaving a gap that has not been filled. Immigrants appreciate all that Ireland has to offer, but they are not as impressed by us as we are by ourselves.
Irish Catholicism is evolving in two ways: one is a continental Catholicism, which means being in the church for big celebrations, such as baptisms, Christmas and funerals. The other way of being Catholic is based on commitment, regular church attendance and acceptance of being in a minority, but a lively minority.
The reopened Irish embassy to the Holy See is in a sensible modern office, rather than the preposterous villa on the Janiculum Hill that now tries to accommodate our embassy to Italy. Ambassadors used to be men who had served with distinction in more important countries. But recent ambassadors have been young women. The changes in location and attitude point to an interesting future.
The scandals have now been dominating the news for about thirty years. The institutional Irish Catholic church has been criticised, examined, reported upon and has lost its prominent place in Irish society and culture. Many contemporary novelists never mention the church, because it is so far removed from their concerns and that of their readers. In Sally Rooney’s Normal People (2018), worship is presented as ritual rather than belief: an anniversary Mass and the funeral of a young man who has taken his own life.
In today’s Ireland, it is accepted that we can be disabled, have different sexual orientations, come from many ethnicities and be fully members of society. “Catholic guilt” is outmoded, and it hasn’t been cool to be Catholic since about 1980. The reaffirmation of the papal ban on contraception in 1968 began a process whereby much Catholic teaching on sexual morality was disregarded. Collective, rather than “Catholic”, guilt has been in vogue for a couple of decades. It assumes that all of us priests or religious are collectively guilty in the child abuse crisis. Paedophilia was not a topic in many medical schools; graduates were taught about it only if they went on to study psychiatry. Today, every psychologist is trained to deal with it, and their workload is enormous. Priests and brothers offended. Bishops and superiors tried to hush it up. Their concern was to protect the institution rather than help the victims, thus making the suffering much worse. Colleagues of the abusers were often unaware that anything was wrong, even when a man was suddenly transferred elsewhere.
Personal humility can be accompanied by institutional arrogance. The same may be said with regard to child abuse: there are not many guilty individuals, but the institutions are shamed by what occurred.
The future of the Irish Catholic church is in the hands of the laity. It will survive and renew itself, but only if Irish people desire that outcome.
Fergus O’Donoghue SJ was editor of Studies from 2001 to 2011.
We are making some changes at the drb. From 2023 we will publish three times a year. The reduced frequency means we will be concentrating on our core activity, the long-form review essay. The first of the three issues to be published next year will appear in February. Blogs will continue to appear between issues. We wish our readers and contributors a very happy Christmas.