Thursday 20 June 2019

Why Ireland really lost its religion

Pilgrimage: Climbing Croagh Patrick is
modern religion in action, but how many
participants are devoutly religious?
Pilgrimage: Climbing Croagh Patrick is modern religion in action, but how many participants are devoutly religious?

author of the new book Empty Pulpits

Has any country ever lost its religion as fast as Ireland? Jump back a generation and the country seemed over-run with men and women in black.

Today, there is a critical shortage of priests and no one -- well perhaps one or two a year -- wants to be a nun.

I was born into Catholic Ireland and live, now, in a secular Ireland that seemed inconceivable then.

We knew that we were different from much of the rest of the world, but we were proud of that difference. We were God's people.

Now, if old Brother Gibbons, my form master, could come back and stand in the classroom and listen to the lessons and the conversations about him, he would conclude that he was in a Protestant school, among Protestants who were not very religious at all.

But how religious were we really back then?

Could it be that the conspicuous trappings of religiosity then did not actually reflect the attitudes of most people?

I had an insight into this question myself when I was 15 in 1966. One night at the Lenten mission, in a crowded church -- for there wasn't much else to do but go to the mission -- I felt the call of God.

Between walking into that church and walking out I had decided that I was to be a priest. I would have been a good priest. Well, I probably would have messed up on the sexual side like so many others.

I lived in a culture which, all around me, seemed to affirm the values of the Church and the status of the clergy. So, obviously, when I went home and told my mother that I was called by God, when I told my teachers and friends I was going to be a priest, I would encounter only universal approval, for I would be doing the best that any young man could do in God's holy Ireland.

The reaction was the precise opposite. Everybody laughed.

And when I, a year later, got over that sudden compulsion, it dawned on me that I had misread the world around me. I had made the grossest faux pas: I had taken religion seriously at an age at which virtually everyone expected me to have grown out of it.

And I was reminded of this watching an interview recently with Paddy Haughey, a member of Opus Dei, whose memory goes back even further than mine. He said that when he was in his teens he had to keep it secret from his friends that he went to Mass every day, because he would get mocked for it.

How do we reconcile this common sense derision of excessive devotion, this sense that there were well-understood limits to how holy a boy should be, with the fact that practically everybody went to Mass every week? These same people who had laughed at me for wanting to be a priest had stood with me in the pews in that same church.

The only answer can be that they went to church for reasons other than to express their finer religious feelings.

They went in answer to a social calling, not a divine one.

The historian JH Whyte, author of Church and State in Modern Ireland, made the same mistake that I had. At the start of his great book, he asked whether the Irish were truly religious or merely adhering to social norms of churchgoing. He concluded that, since people did far more than the church demanded of them, they were obviously genuinely religious. The church said we had to go to confession and communion once a year; most of us went every week, some every day. Whyte was judging behaviour against the demands of church law, not against the social rules by which we were drilled into conformity in a rural country in which there was little other opportunity for meeting all your neighbours in the one place.

Those who assume that we really were a very religious people also often misunderstand how the church collapsed. They will tell you that it is all to do with the child abuse scandals. It is a reading of the past which also credits the Irish with refined moral feelings: we ditched the clergy when they failed to meet our own standards.

Actually, the decline started in the 1960s, with the urbanisation of Ireland. A shocking coincidence for those who cherish the idea that Ireland was spiritually superior to England, that imperialist thug next door: recent research on the decline of religion there trace the tipping point back to exactly the same moment.

Not that England was as religious as Ireland; nowhere was as outwardly religious.

And the cause was the same. The cause was the decision of women that they were no longer to bear the burden of other people's respectability as well as their own. In the Catholic world, that decision pivoted around the Vatican's reaffirmation of the evil of sexual pleasure and contraception in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. But other Christians saw that if much of the risk had been taken out of sexual relationships, then there was little point in living a strait-laced life.

Of course, Ireland has not discarded religion entirely. There may indeed be as many authentically devout people in the country now as there were 40 years ago.

Last year, I climbed Croagh Patrick for the annual pilgrimage, to see popular religion in action. It was an extraordinary experience. More people climbed Croagh Patrick on that day than marched with the Orangemen through Belfast on July 12. But when the Orangemen reach the field, most go off to their picnics and take off their shoes while only a few gather round the prayer tent, and most Croagh Patrick pilgrims enjoy the day in much the same spirit in which runners enjoy the Dublin marathon.

I suspect it has always been like that.

'Empty Pulpits' is published by Gill and Macmillan (€16.99)

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