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Home Uncategorized Working With What’s Left

Working With What’s Left

Patrick Claffey

The Catholic Church in Ireland Today, David Carroll Cochran and John C Waldmeir (eds), Lexington Books, 198 pp, £49.95, ISBN 978-1498502528

In a cartoon in The Irish Times following the recent marriage equality referendum Martyn Turner portrayed a forlorn episcopal shepherd struggling, clearly in vain, to get his unruly flock into the pen. The suggestion seemed to be that finally the sheep had rebelled in voting massively Yes in the referendum against the advice of their shepherds. The cartoon was heavy-handed and far from sharp. Most importantly, however, it wasn’t a very accurate assessment of the situation since people in Ireland had, of course, been in rebellion against the Catholic Church for quite some time.

The truth was that the result of the referendum was a foregone conclusion and it had been a long time since the Church had the kind of power and influence it would have required to halt what was essentially a popular movement. Indeed the role played by the Church in this debate was, on the whole, quite muted and ultimately accepting, however reluctantly, of the result – not that it had much choice, although D Vincent Twomey did come up with an inelegant and graceless jeremiad lamenting the victory of emotion over reason, as if the country had somehow lost its collective mind.

Underlying the result, of course, is the more rational fact that we have moved from being a society where both religious belief and church-belonging were axiomatic to one where there are perfectly acceptable and even respectable alternatives, notably unbelief and non-belonging. As Charles Taylor has expressed it, we have moved “from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option amongst others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace”. We are living in a society where, as the sociologist Bryan Wilson puts it, we have had “a radical reorganisation of the structure of society … a process in which the major areas of social organisation [have] become differentiated and autonomous, and in which organised religion has finally relinquished the last remnants of the presidency that it once enjoyed over the whole gamut of social affairs”.

It can be argued that the dominant doctrines now are those of rights and choice rather than those emanating from a religious auctoritas. This has for long included the area of human sexuality. In reality, we have arrived at a situation where the state is simply following society and attempting to legislate for a changing social landscape and where the Church is usually floundering as its once overarching moral vision, the vision that it can be argued held Irish society together from at least the middle of the nineteenth century, falls apart before its eyes.

It is certainly true, as Diarmuid Martin sees it post-referendum, that the Church is in need of a “reality check”. However, one also has the impression that this horse has already bolted and that the institution struggles to have the spiritual will, the intellectual alacrity or the moral capital to stay up with it. It struggles hopelessly with the whole process of secularisation – now seen by many as a moment of liberation from an overbearing institution, particularly perhaps in academia and politics. The signs of secularisation enunciated by sociologist Steve Bruce are all abundantly clear: the decline of popular involvement with churches; the decline in their scope and influence; and, perhaps most striking of all, the decline in the impact and popularity of religious beliefs.

While in Europe secularisation was a relatively slow process, going back to the Enlightenment or even the Reformation, in Ireland it can be argued that the change took less than a few generations. When it came, however, it was vertiginous, creating what Michel de Certeau has described as a scène de crise. Several somewhat arbitrary dates are suggested for the beginning of the decline. Many see the last high point of Irish Catholicism, a time when there was seen to be an overarching sense of belonging that brought the majority of the nation together, as the papal visit of John Paul II in 1979. The pope spoke warmly of Ireland semper fidelis. From then on, however, it seemed to go quickly downhill, becoming calamitous with the onset of the scandals eventually fully revealed in the Ferns (2005), Ryan (2009), Murphy (2009) and Cloyne (2011) reports. While the process of secularisation had certainly already begun, and John Paul II’s visit was perhaps a media moment as much as anything else, the cumulative effect of these reports and what they revealed in terms of sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the ensuing cover-up at the highest levels was little short of catastrophic. It was certainly the nadir of Irish Catholicism, which almost seemed to implode. By now it is clear that the Church can never recover its former dominance, which, it can be argued, was in any case itself an aberration due to historical circumstances. It may well have to simply face into the prospect of living as a religious remnant community, as has happened in many other places in the world – indeed therein may lie the start of its spiritual salvation.

This book is one of many responses to what is surely seen by many Irish people as a very painful situation. While many will acknowledge that the Church had indeed been guilty of a serious abuse of power and privilege and many have themselves been the victims of clerical arrogance, it is also true that the Church was an important part of their lives, giving them existential meaning and comfort in difficult moments. Before it had been a church “triumphant” it had been a “croppy” church, close to the people in their suffering and itself persecuted. While there were many who abused their position, there were also many genuine servants, people who gave their lives both for the institution and for the people they served. Has all of this come to naught? I have written elsewhere that people’s faith has been “broken” on a number of levels; their faith in the institution certainly but also their deeper existential and personal faith, the faith in which in scriptural terms they lived and moved and had their being. (Acts 17:28) This has left a deep wound in their psyche that we still have not come to terms with.

Eamon Maher is clear-sighted in his analysis of what has happened to the “faith of our fathers”, noting that, one way or another, things can never be the same again. Quoting John Waters, however, he notes that: “In Ireland, although there are Catholics, lapsed Catholics and anti-Catholics, there is no such thing as an ex-Catholic.” Maher has a long-time interest in the imaginaire Catholique as he finds it in literary figures both in France and in Ireland. He argues in terms of this imaginary that faith may still have a role to play and in this sense it is never fully lost, even if it has to a greater or lesser extent been abandoned and all we will have left are the runes in the ruins, the traces that suggest what it might have looked like. One wonders if it can simply express itself in different ways where there is less of an emphasis on high theology and institutional discipline and more on the imagination.

As John Littleton grimly expresses it in his chapter, the church in Ireland is in periculo mortis and indeed in some places in urban Ireland it is to all intents and purposes dead. It has become the retreat of a diminishing number of faithful elderly people, often attached to older devotions that no longer speak to their children and certainly not their grandchildren, for whom it is probably little more than an anachronistic cult carried on in a language they simply don’t have access to even if they occasionally still undergo its rites. Littleton writes: “The child abuse scandals have validated the negative opinions of many critics of the Church. This in turn, has undermined the faith of countless ordinary Catholics, both laity and clergy, who are desperately struggling to make sense of what has happened to their Church.” Littleton sees in the “mortal danger”, perhaps, the beginning of a road to redemption, passing by way of the people rather than the institution itself. He sets out eight challenges he thinks Irish Catholicism must address in order to even begin a process of renewal. These all seem quite reasonable but, of course, they require genuine commitment and an energy at all levels that I am not convinced the Church in Ireland actually has.

In another chapter Elizabeth A Oldmixon and Brian R Calfano examine “Clerical Burnout and Political Engagement”, which might give us some insight into their willingness and ability to engage with a process of renewal rather than settling for “seeing things out” as best they can. While they note that morale among clergy has “apparently diminished” they also add that “even in this period of tremendous stress … Irish clergy report only moderate levels of burnout’ and that “[overall] clergy have a reasonably high sense of professional accomplishment”. My own experience would tell me that this is in fact very variable: indeed in an ageing cohort this is inevitable. However there is certainly some hope in the fact that “although they may be frustrated with the episcopacy [….] they find their work as pastors satisfying”. In more recent times there has, of course, been the “Francis factor”, which has certainly brought some light and a sense of purpose that had been lost in the darker years.

However, the sharp decline in traditional faith does leave something of a vacuum. For those not fully subscribed to consumer values there remains a desire for some kind of spirituality, either on the fringes of or outside the religious traditions. In other terms, there is a religious/spiritual market and people willing to supply this market for meaning. Here one encounters what the Congolese theologian Kä Mana once colourfully described as “the respectable”, “the delirious”, “the venerable”, “illusion merchants”, “true seekers of God”, “counterfeiters of the sacred”, “the deep breath of the spirit” as well as the occasional “terrorist of the invisible”. Bernadette Flanagan examines a number “contemplative strands in Irish identity” which may be emerging to offer some hope “against a background of rapid and fundamental change”. These come from across a fairly broad range of contemplative movements either within various kinds of monasticism, eastern and western, or with their roots in these. Often notable for an apparent absence of dogma and with an emphasis on the self and more vaguely something beyond, they may have a certain appeal. Flanagan notes “a strong apophatic quality in the narratives of spiritual identity which are being constructed in this time of change” in which there is little or no reference to the overtly religious but a suggestion of something more nebulous that may have an attraction in postmodernism. It is certainly salutary to remember that in no society where secularism has become dominant at a popular level has there even been any sign of a lasting resurgence of religion.

This is an interesting book. It has many of the strengths and weakness of a book of papers written for a conference, both in terms of the style and content. In many of the essays there is a very academic tone, with perhaps an overemphasis on “methodologies” and “theoretical frameworks” which, while they have their place in dissertations, will leave even the reasonably well-informed general reader gasping for air. However, it is certainly a very helpful contribution to a phenomenon in the study of religion in Europe and indeed in the study of twentieth and twenty-first century Irish history that is likely to be a subject of some interest for many years to come.


Patrick Claffey is adjunct associate professor in the Department of Religions and Theology at Trinity College, Dublin.



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