Irish Liberals Have Second Thoughts on Pope Francis

For the past year and a half many Irish commentators, especially those not known for friendliness toward the Catholic Church, have expressed great enthusiasm for Pope Francis.

They have interpreted some of his often casual comments about not judging people, about the Church serving as a field hospital, about the need for Church leaders to smell like the people, and his criticism of clerical careerism in the Curia, as indications that he will be an agent for change in the Church.

Some, who envision themselves as the true adherents to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, believe they are finally being listened to after what they allege was the downplaying of the teachings of the Council by Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Pope Francis’ socio-political statements about income inequality, poverty, and migration, although consistent with earlier Papal pronouncements, have been interpreted and referred to by some politicians as virtual endorsements of their own policies.

No wonder Irish figures not known for their religious zeal, such as Senator David Norris and President Michael D. Higgins, called for a papal visit to Ireland, and the Irish government reversed its earlier withdrawal of its ambassador to the Vatican.

Last year there was even speculation that the former Irish president, Mary McAleese, might be one of the first females to be named a Cardinal. Mary McAleese, it must be noted, is a very devout, although independent-minded, Catholic.

Of course the enthusiasm for the pope’s “modernism” exists primarily among the chattering classes, many of whom are not especially religious. But the rest of contemporary Ireland would probably be relatively indifferent to a papal visit.

This would contrast to the throngs that greeted John Paul II on his visit in 1979. Ireland then, and in the generations preceding, was much more zealously Catholic.

There was remarkable religious devotion, deference to the clergy, and almost scrupulous adherence to the sixth and ninth commandments.

Today church attendance, especially among the younger generations, is confined to a shrinking minority. The dwindling number of clergy and religious are subject to suspicion. Sexual mores have become quite liberated, as evidenced by the substantial portion of new babies born out of wedlock.

However, in recent days what enthusiasm there was for the new Pope in “religiously liberated” Ireland may well have peaked and might quickly go into a downturn following certain recent remarks by him, especially his seeming approval of parental slapping of their children.

The most significant of his critics was the above-mentioned Mary McAleese. In a letter to The Irish Times she asked if the Holy See was reversing its earlier commitment to the view of the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child that the corporal punishment of children be banned.

If so, then, she notes, “Pope Francis has surely turned the clock back considerably.”

Barbara Scully, writing in the Irish Independent, follows a similar line as she notes: “After such a promising start it seems like the Pope has gone bad or reverted to ‘Pope type’.” She saw it as a disappointment for the many who had hoped that he “would manage to bring some long overdue changes to the Catholic Church and much of its outdated teachings.”

But other unscripted comments by the Pope on matters like conventional marriage and birth control, especially in the Philippines where millions gathered to see him in desperate weather, have made liberal commentators apprehensive.

Perhaps they should be. A careful study of the Pope’s biography would suggest that their earlier expectations were unwarranted.

The difference between Pope Francis and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI are more in style than in substance. Unlike both of them, Francis is not a scholar

The present pope can best be understood by reading a new biography of him, The Great Reformer (New York: Henry Holt, 2014) by the English writer and scholar Austen Ivereigh, a former advisor to the former cardinal archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.

The book effectively demolishes the smear that Father Bergoglio, while provincial of the Argentine Jesuits, collaborated with the military junta.

More importantly, it draws a clear picture of the kind of priest, provincial, seminary rector, and ultimately bishop he was. Central to his work was his pastoral sense and his catechetical commitment. He had little patience for many in his Jesuit community committed to avant-garde theological formulations that meant little for the ordinary Catholic.

The Church for him was the Church of the people with their popular devotions and pieties. While rector of a seminary college he also served as pastor of the impoverished neighborhood where it was located.

He employed the increasing number of seminarians he attracted to help run a farm on the college’s grounds with which to provide food for the poor. But he also involved the seminarians in teaching religion to the youth of the area. That is what he meant by “the smell of the people” or the “battlefield hospital.”

He met with the disapproval of some Jesuits of more intellectual bent. Their influence with the superior general in Rome was great enough to have him sent into internal exile to a Jesuit residence in the mountain town of Córdoba.

When in 1992 he was made an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires, he was told by the order it would be more appropriate that he not live in their quarters. From then until he became pope, he distanced himself from the order. On his many visits to Rome, he never visited the Jesuit headquarters until after he was elected pope.

The point of all this is to suggest that such a pastoral minded man, committed to a popular, rather than elite, Catholicism would identify very much with the Catholicism that seems to have almost disappeared from Ireland. That is, the Catholicism of the family rosary, the Angelus, missions, novenas, and Corpus Christi Processions.

It was a Catholicism of loving families in which discipline, even physical discipline, was present, but ultimately accepted and appreciated.

But I can’t help but believe the degree of child neglect consequent upon broken or non-existing families in contemporary Ireland—not to mention that other form of neglect: spoiling children—exceeds that of earlier times.

Rather than emulate post Christian Europe, hopefully Ireland will some day soon cash in on the apostolic energies that sent its sons and daughters to the four corners of the globe by welcoming to Ireland returning missionaries from those same places.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in The Irish Echo on February 25, 2015 and is reprinted with permission of the author.

John P. McCarthy


John P. McCarthy is Professor Emeritus of History and former director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham University. He is the author of Hilaire Belloc: Edwardian Radical (1978); Kevin O’Higgins: Builder of the Irish State (2006); and Twenty-first Century Ireland: A View from America (2012).

  • ForChristAlone

    It is time for Catholics from Africa to now be sent to Ireland as missionaries. Ireland is a country (among many others in Europe) that is in dire need of evangelization. These missionaries should be very wary since there are likely to be many martyrs among them.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      According to the 2011 census, self-identified Catholics make up 84.16% of the population of the Republic and 40.2% of the population of Northern Ireland.

      • publiusnj

        The 2011 Census reports 40.8% of the popultion of the occupied part of Ireland is Catholic, not 40.2%. Importantly that is 40.8% of the 83.1% of the population that reported a religion. It is projected that Catholics will actually outnumber Protestatnts in “Northern Ireland” at some point in the next two or three years. At that point, the long attempt by the British Crown to ignore the real religion of Ireland will be finally exposed as the incredible hubris it has always been.

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          No, of the whole population, 40.2% identified as Catholic, 45.6% as Non-Catholic Christian, 0.3% as other religions and philosophies and 13.9% as no religion or religion not stated.

          Thus, together Non-Catholic Christians, others and nones make up 59.8% of the population.

          • publiusnj

            That is what I said: “40.8% or the population.” That figure is even more consequential given the high percentage of surveyed respondents who did not report a religion. 40.8% as a portion of the 83.1% who reported a religion is almost half of those reporting a religion. And the Good News is: soon Catholic will represent a plurality of all the people of Occupied Ireland.

            Catholic Pilgrim, though, is wrong in thinking the Protestants swill ever give back the buildings they stole in either part of Ireland. I was there this past Summer and suffered the indignity of having to pay to enter every ancient cathedral I went to in Ireland. In all my trips to Europe, I have NEVER had to pay for admission to any Catholic Church but I have had to pay for entry to such “Protestant” cathedrals such as Westminster Abbey and Canterbury in England, St. Patrick’s and Christ Church in Dublin and St. Canice in Kilkenny. Why? Because, they may have the old Irish churches but they don’t have the Irish people and the only way they can support the “Church” is by turning them into tourist sites and charging admission.

        • Catholic pilgrim

          And hopefully then, the British Crown will withdraw their Anglican Protestant community (technically, not a church) from Ireland & return the historical Irish church buildings that they stole from Irish Catholics back to the Catholic Church.

      • “self-indentified” leaves a lot of room for qualification.

      • Patti Day

        There was a documentary on EWTN that stated that only 7% of Irish Catholics regularly attend Mass. The country is ripe for evangelization.

        • Rich Coleman

          Keep telling yourself that.

    • How about the U.S.?

      • ForChristAlone

        Oh, we’ve gotten our share of priests from Africa. Unfortunately they are not here as missionaries with the intent to evangelize but are used as “supply priests” (as the expression goes).

        • Too bad we can’t obtain “supply Bishops (or Cardinals)”
          Cdl Arinze or Cdl Sarah, perhaps.

          • Atilla The Possum

            Right on!

          • LongIslandMichael


    • MairinT

      There are African priests in Ireland…and in some cases the Irish are not very accepting….so small minded and insular.

  • slainte

    Priests from various regions of Africa are already serving at the Shrine at Knock in County Mayo in the west of Ireland.

    A friend recently commented that for decades Ireland sent its priests and religious sisters to serve the people of Africa; now Africa is returning the favor by evangelizing Ireland. God is good.

    • Atilla The Possum

      I sincerely hope the Africans will teach the Irish about the REAL Catholic Church and Her Teachings … not the Church of Nice variety!

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    • Thomas J. Hennigan

      Extremely ironic this, as most of the former British African colonies were evangelized by Irish priests. God help Ireland.

    • thebigdog

      County Mayo is way better than County Miracle Whip.

  • publiusnj

    This might just be political noise. If the Pope and his early supporter, Cardinal Kasper, manage to get the October Final Session of the Family Synod to approve of Communion for the Divorced and Remarried as Kasper (with supportive nods from the Pope) tried to do the last time, all will be forgiven by Irish Liberals. Who will lose? Catholics.

    • Thomas J. Hennigan

      Forget that. Even if the Pope wants that, which seems likely, he will not be able to do it. Do you think he is going to want to be the first Pope to teach heresy? Yes, Pope Liberius knuckled under to the demands of the Emperor Constantius, and Pope Honnorious unwittingly allowed himself to be fooled by clever Byzantines to seem to favour monothelism. Popes simply don’t have the power to change Catholic teaching on such a matter which is wha the Church has always taught. How would be be able to contradict what is clearly tuaght by St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consosrtio, Benedict XVI and all previous popes? . The only thing he can do is in some way streamline the annulment process probably by eliminating the need for a review of the judgement. Cardinal Burke is opposed to this, so I would assume that this was why he got the boot. However, he is not the only one opposed to it. Do you think he is wreckless and is willing to bring about some kind of schism in the Church. German Cardinal Marx has already stated that their Bishops Conference will go its own way no matter what comes out of the Synod, that they are not an affiliate of Rome.

      • publiusnj

        I certainly hope you are right. We’ll know after the Synod in the Fall.

        Know this, though: this Pope is packing the College of Cardinals with his nominees, such as the Bishop of David, Panama. Who he? Who knows, but I will bet he is a liberal. The same with most of the other nominees who are from seemingly “non-cardinabile” dioceses.

        And the threat of the Germans is not to go against Kasper but in his favor, no matter what the Synod might do. These are parlous times for the Pope however sure we are that Christ will ultimately triumph.

        • Phil Steinacker

          Sure, Francis is adding Cardinals reflecting his thinking but he will not live long enough to mirror the impact of 35 years of John Paul & Benedict. Let’s not overstate it by comparing it to FDR “packing” the Supreme Ct. which had far fewer numbers requiring manipulation.

          • publiusnj

            I certainly hope you are right too. There are just 120 voting cardinals most of the time (under eighty of course). So they age out in much less than 35 years. At a replacement rate of about 15 per consistory, it does not take much time to make a lasting impact. Remember, Francis was elected by the last conclave and he has named 27 voting cardinals since. They are likely to have a lot more say than JPII’s cardinals from the six consistories he held prior to 1992. There are still 29 of them alive but only two of them would be able to vote if the next conclave were held this month. So, we could be facing a very packed next conclave.

      • TomD

        It may be important to distinguish that those who will forward the more liberal position at the Synod are unlikely to directly seek to change Church teaching. Instead, they will focus on undermining that teaching through subtle, and not so subtle, changes to pastoral practice.

        This backdoor, “pastoral approach,” which modifies how the Church practices the faith, without explicitly changing Church doctrine, has become a basic tactic by the Left in the Church.

  • kentgeordie

    Amen. And it would be a fine ecumenical gesture if the Anglicans could do likewise in England, starting with Westminster Abbey. I would have no objection to their holding on to St Paul’s.
    In the longer term, it would be much appreciated if the British state and its ecclesial apparatus established by law could move towards compensation for the theft and destruction of Catholic property during the C16th – perhaps the provision and maintenance of existing monastic communities, and an annual grant, let’s say £10million, towards the conservation, restoration and production of Catholic art.
    Practical gestures such as these would be far more convincing than the expressions of sorrow we hear so often, unaccompanied by the slightest concrete action.

  • fredx2

    The Irish media seems to be a particularly bad cesspool of anti-Catholic hatred. Remember they manufactured most of the Magdalene Laundry affair. They manufactured the 800 dead babies report, subsequently shown to be mostly hogwash. They pretended that a women died in the hospital because the Catholic hospital would not give her an abortion. In fact, she died because the hospital failed to detect and treat an infection. It is probably fair to say the Irish media are the most hysterical in the world right now. And that is saying something. I like the Irish; they deserve a better media.

    • Atilla The Possum

      You are right on the bullseye there! From their amateurish RTE One series ‘The Meaning of Life’ to the utter contempt in the voice of their newscasters on the RTE News when they say the words ‘Catholic Church’ as though talking about rancid landfill.
      A land of Saints and Scholars? Don’t make me laugh! It’s all cafeteria/Church of Nice/superstition-based C’atholicisim.
      No wonder Pope Benedict XVI sent an Apostolic Visitation – a Damascus-type shoe up the bum would have been better!
      PS: (by the way, I’m Irish!)

  • clintoncps

    The Pope speaks with sanity, respect, and love for the creation of man and the natural family.

    There are many who espouse a trans-human view of “family” life that seem to view children as creatures of the state who have no intrinsic bond to their biological parents, and that parents should never use physical punishment of any kind in the instruction of their children. But I have seen this approach lead to families where children do not respect the authority of parents or take seriously their guidance. It seems that’s what The State wants.

    So many children are physically abused, that’s true, but to try to outlaw any use of physical discipline of children at all is to turn them into autonomous beings who are in a certain sense pitted against their parents and not subject to their authority to enforce virtuous behaviour and obedience to proper moral guidance.

    This would be one more step in the break up of family solidarity, order, trust, and love, and one more way for The State to impose restrictions on parents being the first educators, disciplinarians, and guardians of their children.

    • Veritas

      You write a good post. Why do liberals want to erode authority? The state only reflects the attitudes of the leaders in power.

      When do authority and corporal punishment become abusive?

      The only authority that works, the only discipline that works, is when it is done in the best interests of the subject and when love is the motive behind it. As a teacher and coach, I have learned that for every pound of discipline I mete out, I must give three pounds of love. Now, I’m the type who likes to supply lots of discipline….

      The conclusion?

      • “Why do liberals want to erode authority?”

        People who understand organizational dynamics undertand this perfectly. Any division of humanity (whether it be a state, a society, a culture, a corporation, etc) has two sources of authority. The formal (political power) and the informal (authority that accrues to other persons with influence from reputation or esteem, non-political office, age, etc).

        If you are a statist, you must erode informal authority because it competes with the power of the state. It has been going on for some time. This is why the state has sought to undercut the family (paternal authority, especially), voluntary associations and the Church. You can’t have some pesky cleric or prelate telling people things are immoral when the state has decided that it is a priority policy.

        Before obeying the state blindly, one must be free of any other affinities, affections or attachments to non-governmental entities.

        • Veritas

          All communications between the UC system and my son exclude me. This not only is wrong, it complicates my ability to know how to handle financial matters, and other significant matters.

          • UC?

            • Veritas

              University of California. It is decreed that since the student is 18 years or older, all financial aid matters are between the student and the respective university, in this case UCLA.

              I don’t get grade reports or financial aid award information, and only find these things out by communicating with my son. If my son were truly financially independent, this would be a non-issue for me.

              Regarding the question I had posed above, it was a rhetorical one. I appreciate your reply, however.

              • St JD George

                I believe this is the result of federal law, not the UC system, though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they or CA piled on to add even more restrictions between parent and child. I was surprised too when my son attended GT in GA and I’m pretty sure they said it was due to federal regulation – go figure.

              • No problem that is stupid..but it is California…so…

  • Thomas J. Hennigan

    Unfortunately, many Irish Catholics these days are a lot like adolescents, who seem to have changed the traditional victimism of the Irish by which all the evils of the country were the fault of the British, to now blame the Catholic Church. In the process, they have blinded hemselves to the evils promoted by themselves. As for the Irish media, their favorite sport seems to be lambasting the Church. Recall the whole ridiculous effort to smear some nuns last year regarding some bones of children found in the grounds of what was a home for children which happened to have one nun on the staff, but it belonged to the State. This was only the most recent nun bashing affair, the previous one being about the laundries.

    The clergy in Ireland seems to be totally cowed down by the pesent Church bashing. So, it would requiere some miracle for Ireland to recover its former missionary zeal.

    One correction: Córdoba is not a mountain town”. Yes there are hills there but it is Argentina’s second largest city. .

    • Atilla The Possum

      Absolutely right on, there! Stroppy teenager behaviour isn’t in it!
      I’m so relieved that I’m not on my own with the views you expressed in your post. With the Ryan and Murphy reports into the abuse crisis, the Irish media emphasised more on the clergy and nuns (which were not on every single page) when the State, Government and ordinary lay people were a lot more involved and to blame.
      The Irish are very good at blaming everyone but themselves for a lot of things … and pretty manipulative with it!

    • Jamodus

      Cordoba? In Argentina?
      Oh I see, the place where same-sex couple were allowed to engage in same-sex acts in the sanctuary of the Cathedral !
      In fact the Irish liberals should be cooing at the advance of their despicable agenda in the present set-up.
      But I guess people are never satisfied.
      Read more:

    • Bogdan Szczurek

      “So, it would require some miracle for Ireland to recover its former missionary zeal.”

      Don’t be afraid! 🙂

      After all, miracles are God’s specialty and we are God’s Church.

  • MgW

    Thank you for this most informative article! I believe that Francis is one of the most misunderstood, and therefore Christ-like of all the popes of our time. Pray for him. Love him.

    • MairinT

      Misunderstood? Well, if the HF did not speak in riddles so much,,,,just kept it clear and as always understood,,,,then we might all be on the same page. I am sorry, I cannot accept that it is normal to push our traditional minded clergy out to the margins nor can I accept that the renegades like Kasper, Marx etc. should be allowed to spew their modernist liberality around without being corrected by the HF.

      • MgW

        I shall say it again…misunderstood. Do you live in the mind of HF? Do you know his intentions? Perhaps he is putting light on those who seek to ruin the Church..which cannot be ruined? Perhaps he is smarter and wiser than you? Hmmm? Wait, and watch my brother/ sister, and dont forget to pray for HF Francis. Pray for him as he is a human being who has been given a very heavy cross, to rightly guide this ship….and pray that God gives you humility and insight. Do not be afraid. Trust in The Holy Spirit! Love is all.

        • Jamodus

          If you believe the present papacy is sincere then you will believe anything.

          • MgW

            no, Jamodus, I do not beleive everything I “see” at face value. For instance I do not beleive that the HF is evil and trying to dstroy the Church. I do not beleive that he is promoting the views of liberals. I do beleive that he is allowing them (by their own pride) to come out into the light, to expose themselves before the Church, then let the Church speak! As you are doing now. mYes, speak and let HF inow how you despise the liberal agenda. If the whole Church speaks, it is The Holy Spirit and Pope Francis will listen. and obey..I am sure of it! I love the Holy Father.

            • Jamodus

              Then explain why he has not deemed it fit to reprimand Cardnal Dolan for praising a practicing Sodomite (Michael Sam) who then went on to propose to his same-sex partner in Rome – a stone throw from pope’s residence?
              BTW I would not love something evil if I were you.

              • MgW

                If every pope were to reprimand every disobedient or mistaken bishop then he would have to be a dictator spending his time watching every word and move of each individual bishop around the world. That is not his job. C Dolan will have to answer to Jesus not the pope. I love Jesus and The Church and the pope who was chosen by the inspiration of The Holy Spirit. I love no evil. I love God. You do not scare me with your words. God is Love. As your sister , I wish you peace in Christ.

                • Jamodus

                  I wish you peace too. I know it is all difficult to stomach the fact that we have problems at the highest levels of the Church.
                  But the gates of Hell will never overcome.
                  I love the Chair of St. Peter too but not some of the recent sitters on that Chair

        • Phil Steinacker

          A Holy Father this misunderstood is an abject failure. Name me a recent pope so regularly “misunderstood.” You can’t while remaining honest. This pope has a serious problem; he is in over his head, and he reveals it in many ways, one of which he is addicted to making offhand comments without concern as to how they are perceived and lacking focus and discipline which leads to unnecessary problems and false understanding of what the Church actually teaches.

          • MgW

            I cannot name you a recent pope, but Jesus was more misundertsood. I think that Francis is ambiguious on purpose. I think Jesus was too. He may not be a scholar like the previous Popes,(..both of whom I also love and admire greatly), but he is simple, down to earth humble, and I think those traits, are the most needed in a Pope, so that The Holy Spirit has room to move around. Remember, the “intelegnsia” in Jesus day, didnt get what Jesus was saying either. I think Francis wants to shake things up…and from your response it looks like he certainly has shaken you up! peace to you my brother.

  • MairinT

    As an Irish person I can say that what I experience in Ireland each year I return is heartbreaking. I find it impossible to accept that my siblings and I come from the same wonderful parents. There is a supercilious attitude and a sharpness of tongue when clergy are mentioned. God help the priests there – most of them at least -. They are suffering, lonely, drinking, depressed. Just one really made me angry, right at the altar too, when he told me when I come ‘to him’ (to receive The Host) that I am to stand. My response? “I am not here for you Father, I am here for Christ…”. No wonder there were no more than 20 people in that Church. Next time I may have to go to SPPX for reverence. The majority of the churches are so old fashioned – with the hanging cloths of the post Vat.II 60s/70s. At least elsewhere the beautiful statues have returned, the veneration is clearly seen. Where I live I appreciate the devotion shown by the Sri Lankans, the Filipino’s, the Vietnamese and the mixture of Caucasians. I appreciate our Malaysian Parish Priest at the Trad Mass and the American at the English Mass. Where I used to live I appreciated the Goan priest, the Canadian, the Maltese. Yes, the only thing I dislike about my annual stay back in Ireland is facing the state of the Church. It is the least like the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic. As for the most dreadful governmment Ireland has ever had since Independence, I had better not go there….it is poisonous to the Church. God Save Ireland.

    • kentgeordie

      What a sad post. We must keep the holy land of Ireland in our prayers. From absolute power to disintegration in barely a generation.

    • Michael_Brennick

      A hearfelt and accurate post about the Irish apostasy. My parents from the Connemara Gaeltacht were heartbroken at the state of paganism that prevails in the hedonist Ireland of the past 30 years. In my trips back I’m amazed at the contrast of a devotion to the preservation of Irish language, traditional music and culture in Gaeltacht areas and the complete contempt for the RC Church and the slavish conformity to materialism and a deadened secularism.

  • bdlaacmm

    Just as Irish missionaries once saved the West for Christendom in the early Middle Ages, African missionaries in the 21st Century will once again save the West from its apostasy.

  • ignacio

    you get much correct. But Córdoba is not a mountain town it is the 2nd or 3rd city of argentina. One is not in exile in in the University center of the nation. He was taken out of the administrative circle of the province but was living in the Principle Jesuit residence of the City. Where he had a very productive apostolic work directing retreats. And was never restricted in his work. It was in fact directing retreats that he caught the attention of the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

    While living in córdoba he exhibited personal holiness and humility washing the clothes of the community.

    The production of animals and crops in el colegio máximo was to feed the Jesuit students who lived hand to mouth. While they helped neighbors with donation that was not the primary purpose. Curiously enough the Argentine province of the Society of Jesus is the poorest of Latin America because of several expulsions and expropriations of lands and resources. So they did not have adequate funds to feed students when there was a great increase of vocations under the Bergoglio administration.

  • Paddy S

    As an Irish catholic I can testify to all this. Being young man too, I see it all the time among my generation – they are Catholic when it suits them, agnostic or atheist. Serious religion is looked down on. Liberalism and the worst fascist version of it is the de facto dogma of PC Ireland. 2 in 5 kids are born out of wedlock, marriages are for 30 plus people now only, and religion is hated by liberal elite. It is shocking.