Tracing the Cultural Legacy of Irish Catholicism: From Galway to Cloyne and beyond, by Eamon Maher and Eugene O’Brien (eds), Manchester University Press, 248 pp, £90, ISBN: 978-1526101068
From the beginning of the nineteenth century until nearly the end of the twentieth, the Catholic church became the rock on which Irish culture and society was founded. Being Catholic became embedded in the way people in the Republic saw and understood themselves and the world in which they lived. It was beyond question. It was taken for granted.
Cracks in the rock began to appear in the 1960s. This was mainly due to a change in the economic base, away from agriculture and towards manufacturing and services. It was also related to a move from rural to urban life, the growth of the media and increased travel. At the same time, the state began to divorce itself from the church’s view of what constituted a good life and a good society. Being ambitious, fulfilling pleasures and getting and spending were no longer seen as sinful.
These cracks would have led inevitably to the crumbling of the institutional rock, but the process was accelerated with the clerical child sex abuse scandals. Instead of being a protector, the church began to be seen as a coloniser of Irish minds and bodies that was primarily interested in maintaining its power.
Although the rock has crumbled, there are still some very large pieces of it left in Irish society, particularly in the fields of education and health. But the teachings of the church are increasingly irrelevant in the everyday lives of most Catholics. Its rituals do not take up the same time and space in their lives. Being a good Catholic is not a concern. It is not on their minds, in their hearts or on their lips. It is not the necessary path to salvation.
However, there is a conundrum. In 2016, the Census of Population revealed that seventy-eight per cent of Irish people, when given various options, identified themselves as Roman Catholic. What this means is difficult to decipher. Does it mean that it is a central part of their identity, or does it mean that, when asked to make a choice, they see themselves as Catholic rather than as Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Methodist or having no religion?
It would seem that for many Irish people, being Catholic is important. The vast majority baptise their children and send them to a Catholic school. Given that the church is the patron of ninety per cent of primary schools, they may have little choice. However, there is no rush to end this monopoly. In comparison to, for example, the debate about ownership and control of the National Maternity Hospital, there is no effective campaign to end church control of primary education, let alone a social movement for increased secularisation.
Most parents appear happy to have their children baptised and later to celebrate their First Holy Communion and Confirmation. Like Christmas, these celebrations remain part and parcel of family and community life. And although the numbers are declining, two-thirds of couples still get married in church. The church’s monopoly over the meaning of life is perhaps most evident when it comes to death: the vast majority of Irish Catholics die and are mourned and buried with Catholic prayers and rituals. There is not the same appetite to personally design and customise funerals as there is with weddings. This relates to a monopoly over suitable venues and burial grounds as well as to the pressure of time.
But the erosion of Catholic time and space is having an effect. It used to be said that a family that prayed together stayed together. But how many Catholic families now kneel down to say the rosary? Similarly, how many go together to Sunday Mass? As Louise Fuller points out in her chapter, the level of attendance at Mass on Sundays – what she terms “the traditional barometer of faithfulness” – has fallen from nine out of ten Catholics in 1973-74 to just over one in three today. And, as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has admitted, in some parishes in Dublin it is less than one in twenty.
Statistics generally only reveal part of the picture. In the large national survey conducted during 1973-74, one of the most remarkable findings was the proportion of people – often over eighty per cent – who said they fully accepted the principal teachings of the Catholic church. This was even though they were given the option of “accept with difficulty”, or “partly accept/partly reject”. It was as if complete acceptance of the church’s teachings was part and parcel of being a good Catholic. There was no room for doubt. There was no room for debate and discussion.
My own research (The Meanings of Life in Contemporary Ireland) suggests that this has changed considerably. It revealed a high level of ambivalence, scepticism and inconsistency among Catholics when it came to fundamental beliefs such as the existence of a personal God, the resurrection of Christ, the virgin birth, the existence of life after death and so forth. It may be that there was always a level of doubt about these beliefs. What seems to have changed is an ability and willingness to express these doubts.
Even if there is a desire, willingness and perhaps even a determination not to be Catholic, it is not something easily done. It is not like stopping wearing an overcoat. Catholic beliefs and practices have become so ingrained into how many Irish people see and understand themselves, into their identities and sense of self, that sociologists will still find traces of these beliefs and Catholic ways of being in Irish minds and bodies long after the symbolic domination of the institutional church in everyday life has disappeared.
The contributors to this volume attempt to shine more light on these conundrums of Catholic life in Ireland. They come from different backgrounds, journalism, history, politics, theology, psychiatry, literature, humanities, Irish Studies and, most interestingly, photography. The editors say that in constructing the volume they wanted “to avoid the trap into which many commentators fall by adopting a stance that is pro- or anti-Catholicism”. However, while many of the contributors are definitely in the pro-Catholicism and pro-Catholic church camp, there are none that are identifiably anti-Catholic or anti-church.
This is peculiar and reveals a lacuna in the understanding of power and how it operates. The absence of research about the power of the Catholic church in Irish culture and society is, for example, in stark contrast to the amount of research about the effects of having been colonised by England for so long. Much of the debate in Irish Studies has been framed within post-colonial theory, about the economic, political and symbolic domination of the English state. But there is not a similar approach to the Catholic church. And yet, for a long time, that church operated as a kind of state within a state, with its own laws, rights and sources of revenue. It was a dominant institution in many social fields, particularly education, health and social welfare. But it was also a dominant influence in the political field and in the media. It was able to limit and control what people said and did. Most important of all perhaps, it could ignore with disdain the attempts by the state to investigate its practices.
Eugene O’Brien (following the French Marxist Louis Althusser) argues that the Catholic church was the ideological apparatus of the state. However, this conceptualisation does not capture the complicated struggle for power between the state and the church. It is better to think in terms of first, the English state in the nineteenth century and then, the new Irish state in the twentieth century, which handed the task of disciplining, civilising and maintaining solidarity – necessary to reproduce state power – over to the Catholic church. French Marxists, particularly Althusser, were never good at describing and analysing the role of culture, particularly religion, in the struggle for power both at the level of institutions and between individuals in everyday life.
The reference to “from Galway to Cloyne” in the subtitle of this book refers to the transition in Catholic Ireland from the day in 1979 when, as part of the build up to the Pope John Paul II’s address to the “young people of Ireland”, the crowd were warmed up by two celebrity clerics, Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary. If there were any signs or hopes of a major renewal of Catholic faith in Ireland, it must have been that day. One could imagine Church leaders wondering if they were witnessing the dawn of a new era when the tide of secularisation, hedonism and the dominance of the market was being turned. Alas, it turned out that the two Irish lads on the stage were complete chancers and hypocrites. The darlings of the church and the media were having sex and children behind people’s backs. And yet, as we began to learn from the 1990s, in comparison to other priests and brothers, their sexual indulgences seemed like misdemeanours.
After almost two decades of revelations of the perversions that had been taking place behind the closed doors of Catholic schools, homes, orphanages and asylums and the systematic cover-up by the church, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, following the publication of the Cloyne report (2011), made a blistering attack on the church, referring to the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism … the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day”. He stressed how the “rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation’”.
Patsy McGarry sheds important light on how the pomp, arrogance and disdain of the church permeated down to every level of Irish society. There was, and still is among many, a sense that the state and the media have no business meddling in church affairs. McGarry emphasises the importance of investigative journalism in bringing the scandals into the public domain, particularly the work of Mary Raftery. However, he also argues that for years most Irish journalists were blinded by their faith and the sacred power of the church. Such was the level of symbolic violence perpetrated by the church that it was unthinkable or beyond belief that anyone would dare ask questions, let alone investigate, what it was doing.
And there is still much that we do not know. We are only beginning to understand the damage done to children in industrial and reformatory schools where so many were abused, tortured and used as sexual slaves. We do not know how the abusers were motivated and how they justified what they did. We do not know to what extent patriarchal authoritarianism, the exaltation of celibacy and the denial and repression of sexuality was linked to perversion, not just among clergy and religious, but in the general population. We still do not know how, and for how long, people were blinded by their faith: they could not see through their cultural emperor. There have been no confessions, no real attempt at self-examination, from those in power as to how the regimes of institutional power operated not just within Magdalene laundries and industrial and reformatory schools, but within dioceses and religious orders. We can suspect, but there has been little written about it, what it was like to “wake up” as a young Christian brother in some remote industrial or reformatory school, facing into a life of celibacy. What we do know from Marie Keenan’s research is that some priests saw their sexual abuse of children as a form of minor “collateral damage” that was part and parcel of them maintaining their vocation and fulfilling the mission of the church. And it is probable that many bishops thought the same. But the problem was much deeper. Because of the symbolic domination of the church, sex, the untamed beast that stalked the land, could not be recognised or talked about among either the clergy or the laity.
The first half of this book is focused on describing and analysing the transformations in Irish Catholicism, the second on exploring the responses to the change. There are good descriptions of the patriarchal, authoritarian form of Catholicism that emerged in Ireland. It was based on the principle of protecting the laity from the evils of the world, which ranged from materialism to socialism and sex. It was a way of life based on fear, of not questioning, of being shamed and shunned for transgressing the rules and regulations. Gossip and shame were the main forms of social control. Not much light came in through the squinting windows.
Louise Fuller makes the point that, when it comes to understanding the ways in which Catholic certainty has fragmented, we need to move beyond statistics and historical facts and events, and rely more on the writings of novelists like John McGahern and poets like Seamus Heaney. It may well be that, despite the efforts of Vatican II, the church has never really adapted to modernity. Now in an age of postmodern culture, in which certainty has given way to ambiguity and relativity, there is a danger of people not seeing through its limitations, of holding onto some nostalgic image of the church coming to the rescue, of it being seen as the only truth and the only hope for Ireland.
Vincent Twomey has been a leading commentator on the Catholic church in recent years. Like many others, he is worried that without Catholicism and the church, the Irish are on the road to perdition. He points to the malaise of Irish modernity and the “growing inability of many contemporaries to accept and cope with the reality of suffering” which, he says, leads to drugs, excessive drinking and suicide. For Twomey, “the recent referendum redefining marriage revealed rather dramatically the actual state of Irish Catholicism”. He quotes Kevin Myers and his depiction of Ireland as marching towards secularism and “unprincipled values and value-free principles”. Given, he argues, that people cannot live for long without some form of religion, Irish people will “in time meekly submit to the only vibrant religious force in Europe: Islam”. However, he sees signs of the faith springing up everywhere. He is confident that the faith will again be awakened in the younger generation, that Irish theology will be reborn and that “the collapse of traditional Irish Catholicism has laid bare the ground for the renewal of the Church in Ireland, and with that renewal, the inner transformation of society”. Given the symbolic domination of the market, the media and consumer capitalism, one suspects that he is blinded by his faith.
There are other contributors who are optimistic. To help understand the role and position of the church, David Carroll Cochran turns to the work of Charles Taylor, the Canadian Catholic philosopher. Taylor argues that modernity has been good for the Church as it has forced it to turn away from a concern for institutional power which reached its zenith when, as happened in Ireland, it allied itself with political power. However, the problem with modernity is that, being based on market capitalism, it promotes expressive individualism and consumerism. The only way out of this, for Taylor, is a reconnection with the transcendent. Cochran argues that the church can move away from its enthroned style by finding new ways of being spiritual and creatively reinventing old ones. It can, he argues, minister “to a deep spiritual hunger that still exists in Irish society”. But, again, there is little evidence that Irish Catholics see church teachings as a means of living a good life and attaining salvation and its sacraments, rituals and prayers as a means of being spiritual.
Eamonn Wall is another optimist. Following the work of the American sociologist Fr Andrew Greeley, he sees a new form of Catholicism emerging which is rooted in a more Celtic, less Roman-centred Church, in which women will have greater status and sexual freedom. Eamon Maher sees signs of hope in the oppositional voices that are emerging within the church, noting, in particular, the important contributions of priests like Joe Dunn (who produced the Radharc programmes for RTÉ), Mark Patrick Hederman and Brendan Hoban. The reality, however, is that these are small woodpeckers breaking their beaks on the steel door of the church.
Catherine Maignant devotes her chapter to the work of Fr Tony Flannery. He has been relentless and exemplary in trying to get the church to open the door to let in a new light. But the problem he and others like him face is that the church is a divine institution. It is not democratic. It is founded on faith more than reason. Rather than having an open debate about celibacy, women priests, sexuality and other critical issues, it silences devoted critics like Flannery.
In explaining the demise of the power of the church and the importance of Catholicism in people’s lives, Joe Cleary points out that there is little evidence to support the notion that the Irish were always, deep down, natural Catholics and that therefore being good Catholics is their default position. Religious interests are, he argues, never separate from the fulfilment of social, political, economic and other cultural interests. This is an important point when trying to understand how the Catholic church came to be so powerful in Irish society and, consequently, envisaging its future. The devotional revolution of the nineteenth century which led to Catholics devoting large amounts of their time, energy and money into building churches, schools, hospitals, welfare homes and so forth and, at the same time, submitting themselves to a legalistic adherence to the church rules and regulations, was fuelled by a number of different interests which included becoming disciplined and civilised.
The church was the main means of becoming bourgeois. This is no longer the case. Indeed it may well be that being a good Catholic is now seen as quaint and traditional but not in keeping with being a globalised cosmopolitan. For the new Irish, there is a time and place to be Catholic. It is still central to how many Irish people see and understand themselves. It is part of their heritage and culture and, for many, it is still part and parcel of family life. This is what keeps the church in business.
But there is increasing competition in the religious field. As Cleary points out, not only has there been a diversification in the ways of being spiritual, there has been major growth of alternative suppliers. Catholics used to take an à la carte approach to which teachings of the church they obeyed. Now, added to this, many mix and match Catholic teachings and practices with those from other world religions, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism.
These Catholics are creative in fulfilling their religious interests. On the other hand, there is a much greater number who, when it comes to being religious, particularly when it comes to life-transition ceremonies such as birth, marriage and death, return to the church. It has been the supplier of religious goods that they have known. They like the feelings of belonging, comfort and consolation that it provides. They are cultural Catholics. They like the trappings of the church but do not want to be trapped by its rules and regulations.
At some times and in some respects, these cultural Catholics are a captive audience that could be morally and spiritually inspired, particularly because like most of us, they are living in bad faith, destroying the environment and have not found a way to become attuned and attached to nature and other species. This is the curse of the concept of individual salvation. For thousands of years people have seen themselves at the centre of the universe instead of seeing the universe at the centre of themselves. Instead of seeing themselves as one species among many, they see themselves as God’s chosen ones. Many of the contributors refer to the curse of liberal-individualism propagated within consumer capitalism by the market, the state and the media. The question is, does Catholic theology have within it the seeds of not just the church’s salvation, but the salvation of the planet?
Thirty years ago, in the conclusion to the first edition of Moral Monopoly, I speculated about the future of the Catholic church and whether or not it could reinvent itself, particularly in terms of changing the notion of salvation and what it means to live a good life, and developing an ethic of global responsibility. Two years ago, Pope Francis wrote Laudato si’. It is a clear, erudite and insightful analysis of the conditions of contemporary human existence, particularly the link between global destruction and global inequality. The problem, however, is that the encyclical seems to have fallen on fallow ground. One wonders to what extent it has been preached from pulpits around Ireland, let alone the world. Given that this book is an examination of the changing role of the Catholic church in contemporary Ireland, it is peculiar that, with the exception of a brief reference by Michael Cronin in his chapter, there is no mention of the encyclical in the book.
One of the weaknesses of the encyclical is that it does not critically reflect on the role of religion and the power of the church in bringing about social and cultural change. How can the church be at the forefront of social change when it is a non-democratic, authoritarian, patriarchal institution? Nor does it deal with the even greater problem that liberal individualism, the secular, democratic ideology of market capitalism, is rooted in a belief in individual salvation.
There are some very significant issues raised in this volume and some good insights into how the church came to be the way it is and, for those who are committed, how it can be changed to adapt to the new conditions of its existence. On the other hand, there is a need for a more systematic, cohesive description and analysis of the role the institutional church plays in contemporary Ireland and what it means to be Catholic. It is unlikely that Pope Francis will be able to put the fragmented pieces of the church back together when he comes to visit next year. But the bigger question perhaps is why would people want him to even try.
Tom Inglis is Professor Emeritus of Sociology in UCD. His most recent book was The Meanings of Life in Contemporary Ireland.