The Dying of Catholic Ireland

In erstwhile Catholic Ireland, there are now more non-religious people and convinced atheists than there are practicing Catholics. In just seven years, the proportion of Irish claiming to be religious has plunged from 69 per cent to just 47. The WIN-Gallup International Global Index of Religion and Atheism published last week found that only Vietnam is losing its religion at a faster rate. In reporting the publication of the study, most international media outlets from West to East have adopted this Irish angle. For a country renowned for its Catholicism, which for time immemorial has willingly yielded authority to the Church over education, politics and even family life, it is a newsworthy story. But it is not surprising.

Invariably, the media have identified the anger and disgust at the sexual abuse of children by Irish Catholic priests as the chief cause of the decline, fuelled by three reports into that abuse that have been published in that period. There is a palpable sense of betrayal in a society that once venerated priests almost as much as the god they purported to represent. It is not simply a betrayal by priests who held themselves aloft as moral authorities while violating innocent children. It is also seen as a betrayal by a Church that thought better to protect the criminals in its midst than the children in its care. Tending to pass the abuse off as the wicked actions of a few wayward individuals, the Church has repeatedly failed to acknowledge the endemic scale of the issue, not just in Ireland but throughout the Catholic world. In calling the actions of the abusers “a mystery“, Pope Benedict embodied a self-deluded institution more interested in repairing its own ruined reputation than rebuilding the trust of its betrayed faithful.

As with the culpability, the anger is evident at every level. Within two years of the publication of the Ryan report, over 12,000 Irish people had formally defected from the Catholic Church, before – with suspicious timing and without explanation – the Church suddenly changed Canon law to abolish the practice of defection. When the Cloyne report was published last summer, Taoiseach Enda Kenny launched a savage attack on “the dysfunction, the disconnection, the elitism that dominate the culture of the Vatican”. And in November, the Irish government took the extraordinary move of shutting down its Vatican embassy, ostensibly for cost-cutting reasons, but the unspoken implication was all too obvious. Ireland was no longer in the thrall of the Catholic Church.

But there is more to Ireland’s precipitous decline in religiosity than that. Rather than being the cause of the fall, the clerical sex abuse scandal has been more of a catalyst. Moreover, it is a catalyst not of the loss of faith exactly, but of the acknowledgement of a lack of faith. It is not a new phenomenon, but perhaps one that is just newly spoken.

In 1967, at the height of the Catholic Church’s influence over Irish society, the Irish filmmaker, Peter Lennon, made a promethean documentary called The Rocky Road to Dublin. The film’s unflinching veracity about the state of the nation at that time was illustrated by the speed with which it was suppressed by national broadcaster RTÉ – no doubt under heavy pressure from Church authorities. Ironically, the film illustrates exactly that oppressive power exerted by the Church over politicians and the media. But it also captures an Irish society in the first flowering of a new modernity, and the first symptoms of a disconnection from an outdated Catholic Church.

The atrophy of Irish Catholicism has been more a long slow decline than a sudden reaction to scandal. As that generation dwindles that venerated priests almost as gods themselves, the generation now coming to maturity has witnessed extraordinary societal, scientific and cultural advances in the light of which the cloistered obduracy of the Church seems increasingly irrelevant and out of touch.

My own Catholicism withered before these scandals broke, though I had been quite religious up until my late teens. My father had passed his Catholic faith on to me, and his faith still remains firm, though he too is horrified by the institutional crimes and failures. Growing up, I knew nothing except Catholicism – there was no comparative religion on the curriculum yet – and the very notion of atheism terrified me. Yet around the time I went to college, my faith fell away with a speed that shocked me.

I remember going to Mass and being thoroughly disillusioned at how little faith I could see in many of the people around me. There was little sense of transcendence or devotion to the Almighty, or even awareness of his supposed presence among them. Instead, many of the congregation seemed to be there from habit or obligation. They seemed bored or distracted, and rattled off prayers with little sign of interest in or understanding of what they were professing to believe. Over time, the more I looked at them, and at myself, I came to realise that – for all my practice and devotion – I didn’t actually believe it myself.

Back in June of this year, an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll found that only 26% of Irish people who call themselves Catholics believe in the literal truth of transubstantiation – an absolute non-negotiable of Catholicism. Without believing that the eucharistic bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ, it is meaningless to call oneself a Catholic. To me, this was, for the first time, a confirmation of my teenage suspicions.

Speaking in Dublin a few days after that poll was published, evolutionary biologist and God Delusion author Richard Dawkins, called on Irish Catholics to be “honest” about what they truly believe, and for those who do not accept its doctrines to accept that they are no longer Catholics. Though not a fan of Prof Dawkins’ often belligerent approach, I do agree with him. This new honesty may well be what is happening. Perhaps what last week’s study shows that the long-overdue humbling of the Church has emboldened some of Ireland’s nominal Catholics to give honest expression of true beliefs too long latent.

The decline did not begin with the abuse scandals. It has been a long time coming and for that reason I suspect it is irreversible. There will always be faithful Catholics in Ireland – my father no doubt among them – but as a nation, I do believe Catholic Ireland is dead and gone. It’s with Smyth and Fortune in the grave.

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