Muddling Through: The Catholic Church in Ireland

The Archdiocese of Dublin is easily the largest in Ireland, with around one million Catholics, but last year, for the first time ever, it advertised for vocations. The campaign asked, “Who are the men in black?” Posters appeared around the city posing the question to passers-by, featuring what were supposed to be two Roman collars against a black background. Many people didn’t know what to make of the two plain, white squares. The campaign helped to secure a grand total of two students last year—which was two better than the year before.

Ireland at the end of the second millennium is a vocations desert. The situation in Dublin is particularly bad, but there is little comfort to be derived from the remaining 25, mostly rural, dioceses throughout the country. Several have seen a year pass with no ordinations and no new vocations. Overall, the number of men joining the priesthood is almost exactly half the number dying or leaving; if the present trend continues, the number of diocesan priests in Ireland will drop by half sometime early in the next century.

By contrast, in the middle years of this century, St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, the national seminary, was bursting at the seams with students. In any given year the freshman class averaged 80; today that number is closer to 20. It would be even lower except that several of the smaller diocesan seminaries have simply closed their doors: Late last year St. Peter’s seminary in Wexford (the Diocese of Ferns) took in its last students. By looking at these facts alone, it becomes obvious that the Irish Church is in a state of crisis. That fact is not much in dispute, although its cause is.

Passive Orthodoxy

Both liberals and conservatives lay at least some of the blame for the crisis at the feet of the bishops, but for very different reasons. Liberals hope for the appointment of a “progressive” reformer, while conservatives yearn for a traditionalist who will hold the line on liturgical changes and catechetical confusion. Both sides accuse the bishops of passivity; liberals chastise them for not bringing the Church into line with modern trends, while conservatives blame them for not cracking down on dissent.

The Irish hierarchy is, by and large, orthodox. The nearest thing to a liberal is Willie Walsh, the bishop of a small rural diocese in the west of Ireland who frequently expresses “pain” over one or another teaching of the Church—most recently, over the ban on Protestants receiving Communion at Mass. This, of course, tends to win him rave reviews from the media. But except for Walsh, the nearest some of his colleagues come to being liberal is calling every now and again for the Church to allow more debate on the merits of celibacy, or perhaps by being a little overzealous in crushing those who dislike the reordering of churches.

With the retirement of Cahal Cardinal Daly from the See of Armagh, the de facto head of the Church in Ireland is not the new Archbishop of Armagh, Sean Brady, but Desmond Connell, the Archbishop of Dublin. In times of controversy it is Connell, not Brady, who is the public face of the Church, whether speaking on abortion, clerical celibacy, intercommunion, or women priests. Connell is a highly regarded member of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but at 73 years old he is nearing retirement, and, while he is willing to become involved in public controversies, he finds publicity trying. An academic by training and inclination, he is uneasy in the world of the sound bite. (Prior to being made archbishop in 1988, he taught philosophy at University College, Dublin).

When President Mary McAleese provoked a massive debate by taking communion at an Anglican service in December 1997, Connell said in a radio interview that it was a “sham” for Catholics to do such a thing because it supposed a full communion with their separated brethren that does not exist. Connell was, of course, theologically correct, but the remark caused an uproar because the word “sham” was taken to be gratuitously offensive. A more media-savvy person might have chosen different words that communicated the same meaning.

Connell’s remark illustrates part of the solution to the Irish Church’s problem. What the Irish hierarchy lacks at the present time is someone who combines orthodoxy with an excellent grasp of what is needed to communicate the Gospel effectively in a postmodern world, in addition to a willingness to stand in the areopagus and debate all corners.

Middle Management Muddle

If the members of the hierarchy are mostly orthodox, the same cannot be said of many of those who hold middle management positions in the Church. Maynooth—as well as many major seminaries in Ireland—is split between orthodox and liberal lecturers. Catechetical courses often are either bland or else heretical; the same holds true for courses in religion. One of these was teaching, until recently, the theology of Matthew Fox, a former Dominican turned Episcopalian who liked to bring a self-styled witch with him on his speaking engagements. Fox is the New Age writ large.

Many of the religious orders are in total disarray, with liberals in the ascendant and aging conservatives cowed into silence. For example, five years ago Ireland’s biggest congregation, the Mercy Sisters, issued a new mission statement. God received no more than passing mention, Jesus none at all. What was highlighted were all sorts of politically correct “social concerns” of the type that would do the UN proud. Some of the more conservative members of the order had deep reservations, but said nothing in public because they are not represented at the decision-making level of the Mercy Sisters.

Vocations to the diocesan priesthood may have declined sharply, but there has been an almost complete collapse in vocations to most of the orders. An exception is the Benedictine Order, whose abbey and school at Glenstal in County Limerick took in five students last year.

Education is the one area of Irish life where there is still something of a marriage between church and state. When Ireland gained its independence in 1922, the Church had already set up a network of schools with the support of its mostly poor flock. At the time it seemed natural that the newly independent state would begin to finance Catholic schools through taxation, given parents’ lack of interest in secular schools. The state supported the Church-run system, and the Church was glad for the lessened financial burden.

Today, with the faith of so many people in sharp decline, this arrangement is becoming more problematic. There is little demand for church and state to be separated completely in the educational system—few Irish people are so militantly secular. However, something of a tacit agreement has been reached. People like the hands-on approach of Catholic educators even if their numbers are dwindling fast, but they don’t want their children taught heavy-duty Catholicism—that is, orthodox Catholicism. The Church seems to have arrived at the understanding that, were the faith of our fathers to be taught in school in undiluted form, the parents would probably rebel.

As recently as ten years ago more than 80 percent of Irish people attended Mass each week. Today that percentage is estimated to have dwindled to not much more than 60 percent, though the number is higher in the country and lower in the cities, where, in deprived urban areas, it has declined into single digits. Now, by international standards, 60 percent is still very high, but with the trendline still pointing sharply downward, little comfort can be drawn from the figure. The only question remaining is when, and at what point, attendance will level off.

Matters of Morality

Parallel with the decline in vocations and church attendance is a declining interest in matters of Church doctrine and morality. Only ten percent of Catholics obey their Church’s teaching on birth control, while one-third approve of abortion—a number that doubles when respondents are asked about the usual exceptions of rape, incest, and the life of the mother. More than half say they have no problem with cohabitation. Among young people, the approval rating for cohabitation and premarital sex stands at just under 90 percent. Playing no small part in these changes is the ethic of radical individualism that has buried itself very deeply in the Irish consciousness.

The media, heralds of this new ethic, have long since set themselves up in opposition to the Church in reaction to the excessive authoritarianism of the past. The appalling clerical sex abuse scandals that came to light about four years ago provided the perfect platform for this unofficial opposition. One prominent commentator—a long-time anticlericalist by the name of Nell McCafferty—warned parents never to leave their children alone with a priest, and headlines crying “Pedophile Priest!” glared out at readers on an almost daily basis. The Church’s position was complicated by the fact that some of her leaders had undoubtedly covered up cases when they were brought to their attention. The most infamous involved Fr. Brendan Smyth, a member of the Norbertine Order, who had a long history of abusing children. His case was brought to the attention of Cardinal Daly in 1990 when he was bishop of Down and Connor. Daly contacted Smyth’s abbot, but was not told at that time of Smyth’s history, which was well known to his order. Daly only found out the full story when he read it in the newspapers in 1994. Daly was attacked at the time for not calling the police in 1990 and the Norbertines were excoriated for not taking decisive action against Smyth many years before that. Smyth served several years in prison in Northern Ireland for crimes committed there and was then extradited to the Republic for crimes committed there. Delays in the processing of Smyth’s extradition papers in the attorney general’s office helped bring about the collapse of the Fianna Fail/Labour government in 1994. Smyth, who died last year of a heart attack, remains the enduring image of the “pedophile priest.” His case is one reason for the poor morale of many Irish priests today.

Anti-Catholic sentiments reached a crescendo during the divorce referendum of late 1995. When the country voted against divorce by a two-to-one margin in 1986, liberals blamed the Church for their defeat. The second divorce referendum, in 1995, passed by a margin of just 0.6 percent. But the Church was not so much responsible for the first referendum’s defeat as was the Anti-Divorce Campaign, which relied heavily on data from America showing how divorce wrecked the family.

Today, the battle over abortion looms on the horizon. In 1983 an amendment was voted into the Constitution banning abortion. Pro-life groups feared that unless there were such an amendment, the Irish Supreme Court might make a Roe v. Wade-style ruling.

In the infamous X case of 1992, the court did precisely this despite the pro-life amendment. The case, covered by newspapers across the world, involved “X,” a 14-year-old rape victim whose parents wished her to have an abortion in England. They wanted to present the Irish police with a DNA sample from the fetus for use in the case against her rapist. When the police discovered this, they presented the matter to the attorney general, who determined that, given the constitutional ban on abortion, she could not travel to England. This decision caused an uproar. Under immense pressure, the government allowed the case to be brought before the Supreme Court. The court allowed the girl to travel to England and also ruled that a woman can have an abortion if a psychologist will testify she may commit suicide otherwise.

The Irish parliament has so far been reluctant to legislate on the basis of the X case, so abortions are still not carried out openly in Ireland, though there is some evidence that a handful are performed surreptitiously each year. Out of fear that someday parliament will legislate on the basis of the X case, pro-life groups are campaigning for another referendum that will rescind the decision.

If a referendum on abortion is held—which could happen as early as this year—the Church will likely keep a low profile. She has been so badly damaged by the scandals, bad press, and the prevailing ethic of radical individualism that she exercises almost a negative authority in society. Rather than the Church’s voice being able to rally people in support of a cause, it is as likely to drive them away, even if the cause is good in itself.

A contentious issue in Ireland today is the relationship between the prime minister, or taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and his “partner,” Celia Larkin. Ahern’s relationship with Larkin became intimate after he was separated from his wife, though it was not the cause of the separation. Larkin accompanies Ahern on state visits abroad and their names appear together on state invitations. Despite this, Ahern’s approval ratings are the highest for any taoiseach ever. Most people think his relationship is entirely a private matter despite the fact that it is very much on public display. Throughout this matter the Church has been silent, prompting people to wonder why this once-outspoken institution is saying nothing. Some surmise that any statement of condemnation would backfire and increase support for the taoiseach. The Church defends itself by pointing out that even when she was dominant, she never condemned any public figure over his private life.

An Effective Opposition?

An American visitor to Ireland could be forgiven for thinking that the faith is strong compared with what exists in his own country. After all, a sizeable majority of people still go to Mass, including almost 50 percent of young adults. Many of the old traditions are alive and well, even flourishing—particularly the Irish attraction to holy places. The Marian shrine at Knock in a bleak corner of County Mayo attracts hundreds of thousands of people every year, especially during the annual novena in August, when more people are in attendance than at any rock concert. The annual hike up Croagh Patrick, a holy mountain in County Mayo that St. Patrick is supposed to have climbed, still attracts between 20,000 and 30,000 people. Devotion to the Divine Mercy is quite strong: The annual Divine Mercy Conference attracts roughly 3,000 people, a number that is on the increase.

The Church would do well to build on and encourage these traditional devotions, but she instead often seems slightly embarrassed by them, presumably because they seem so premodern and antique. Yet they are a sign that people want some experience of the divine, and, if the Church continues to offer them only a pared-down liturgy that downgrades the transcendent, they will look elsewhere.

One of the problems is that there are no organized and well-motivated conservative—or to use a better term, orthodox—groups aiming to pressure the bishops into reforming the liturgy and improving the quality of catechetical texts, adult religious education courses, and seminaries. On the other hand, while the seminaries and theological institutes may not be the bastions of orthodoxy many would like them to be, there are some very fine people in them who are doing their best to pass on the faith in a modern idiom without compromising it in any way.

The pro-life movement gives some cause for hope. Obviously it has its share of extremists, but in the universities it is still managing to attract significant numbers of young, modern, and articulate people of both sexes. This movement seemed to coalesce in 1997 around the candidacy of the pop singer Dana, who ran for president and received—to the astonishment of most observers—a respectable 14 percent of the vote. Dana has encouraged the efforts of hundreds of young people concerned with the future of the Church in Ireland. Indeed, in contrast to the diminishing and aging ranks of activist Catholic liberals, there is a growing cadre of orthodox-minded young people in the Church who are well aware there is a culture war going on and who are learning to fight it without falling into fanaticism. They are watching America. They are aware of magazines like Crisis and First Things. They draw encouragement from them and from the people who write for them. They prove that it is possible to be both orthodox and intellectual, something that is doubted by all too many people.

What of the future? Things are almost certainly going to get worse before they get better, but there are signs that all is not lost. There is still a great deal of prayer taking place in Ireland, and some people are simply immune to the cultural trends around them. They know there is a God in heaven and they know that the Catholic Church is the one, true Church. They carry on with their lives, living the faith; becoming involved in prayer groups; going on pilgrimages to Knock, Lourdes, or Fatima; and generally sustaining the Church through their prayers and the silent witness of their lives.


  • David Quinn

    David Quinn is an Irish commentator on religious and social affairs. For over six years, he was editor of The Irish Catholic, a weekly newspaper. He has written weekly opinion columns for newspapers such as The Sunday Times, The Sunday Business Post and the Irish Daily Mail. Quinn has contributed to publications such as First Things, The Human Life Review and The Wall Street Journal (Europe edition). Currently, he freelances and contributes weekly columns to the Irish Independent and The Irish Catholic. He appears regularly on Irish radio and television current affairs programs.

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