Wednesday 22 May 2019

The 'Catholic-before-all-else' Ireland is gone - and it's the Church's own fault

'Pope Francis will meet a radically changed nation when his plane touches down in August 2018' Photo: Reuters
'Pope Francis will meet a radically changed nation when his plane touches down in August 2018' Photo: Reuters
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

The Irish were once defined by their Catholicism. Indeed, the Constitution opens, "In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority..." with a special constitutional position assigned to the Catholic Church.

It was a Catholic-above-all-else Ireland visited by Pope John Paul II in 1979 - a place where Church and State were conjoined at the hip. John Paul was mobbed, with nearly three million people packing a variety of locations from Limerick to Drogheda. A million people turned out for the first papal Mass on Irish soil in Dublin's Phoenix Park.

To put such attendance figures in context, the population of the Republic was 3.3 million at the time. Many crossed the Border from the North to share in the euphoria, while British Catholics also flocked to the papal gatherings.

But Ireland is no longer Catholic first and last. Pope Francis will meet a radically changed nation when his plane touches down in August 2018. The intervening decades have seen Ireland grow increasingly secular.

Mass attendance is in freefall and vocations have collapsed. Referenda have led to divorce and same-sex marriage legislation, despite resistance from the bishops. Inevitably, Irish bishops will seek to instruct the electorate on matters of conscience once again when the flawed Eighth Amendment blocking abortion goes - eventually - before the people. The hierarchy is slow to accept its lost authority, thrown away not just by clerical child abuse but the sinfulness of persistent cover-up.

This time, Croke Park is suggested as a venue for a papal Mass. It is Ireland's largest sporting arena, but capacity lies in the 80,000 range rather than that golden million.

What else has changed? The current Pope will be able to cross the Border, unlike John Paul, who had to cancel a planned visit to Armagh. where Catholicism was seeded by St Patrick - post-peace process, tribal sensitivities have been allayed, to a large extent.

No doubt, there will be some to protest in the Calvinist language of the Rev Ian Paisley - later evicted from the European parliament during a speech by John Paul for heckling the Pontiff as "Christ's enemy and Antichrist with all your false doctrine". However, the heat has evaporated from the Antichrist rhetoric, and Arlene Foster says she will meet Francis in her capacity as First Minister.

Francis appears to be a good and well-intentioned man, and of course he will rustle up a crowd. But the level of interest will not reach the celebrity levels of 1979, when people thrilled even to a distant glimpse of a tiny figure in his Popemobile.

Too many testimonies have revealed too many whitewashes.

Successive reports have logged routine physical abuse of children within institutions, and a litany of sexual abuse - laying responsibility at the doors of Church and State.

Irish people have heard the evidence about child safeguards running a poor second behind protecting the institution of the Church. They have watched the Catholic Church turn a blind eye to evil within its ranks.

It will not be forgotten easily. The jig is up for authoritarianism and its expectations about obedience.

Attitudes to the Catholic Church began to show a significant shift in the 1990s when two clerics prominent during that earlier papal visit - Bishop Eamon Casey and radio and TV personality Father Michael Cleary - were shown to have double standards. The bishop had fathered a son, while Father Cleary had two children by his housekeeper - revelations which caused a sensation.

How innocent it seems, in retrospect. The child abuse reports had yet to start unpeeling their horrors.

In 1984, nearly 90pc of Irish Catholics attended Mass regularly. By 2011, only 18pc did. This is a massive cultural realignment. And the Catholic Church has only itself to blame.

Yet despite a horde of scandals, there remains a solid core of Catholicism in Ireland. Even those who no longer go to Mass every Sunday expect to have their children baptised. But 21st-century Irish Catholicism is not a biddable Catholicism. People may describe themselves as Catholic on their census returns, but dwindling numbers choose to have their faith mediated to them through the hierarchy. If they practice, they do it privately. Some have turned away from the institution for "worshipping the Church rather than God", as Robert Harris has a character (a cardinal) express it in his latest novel, 'Conclave'. The same reproach was levelled by the Murphy Report, which said the Catholic Church placed most emphasis on its reputation.

As for the 2011 Cloyne Report criticising child protection guidelines, it "exposed the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism" in the Vatican, according to the Taoiseach. Affronted, the Holy See recalled the Apostolic Nuncio from Ireland, complaining about "certain excessive reactions". Which proved Enda Kenny's point about disconnection and narcissism.

Priests and laity continue to call for reform to bring about a more democratic Church. The Association of Catholic Priests has recommended that women be ordained and priests allowed to marry, and surveys show Irish people would support both changes.

But the hierarchy resists restructuring, confusing stubbornness with strength. Francis appears to be effecting some change quietly, in the hope of avoiding schism with hardliners, but his alterations are relatively minor - unlikely to reach those in the process of drifting away.

Francis is a moderate, keener on compassion than theology: when asked how he might behave as confessor to a gay person, he said in 2013: "Who am I to judge?" Equally, LGBT people could rightly ask, why should we be judged?

Recently, the Pope granted all priests the right to absolve what the Catholic Church describes as the sin of abortion - until now it has been a reserved sin, meaning not all confessors can forgive it. Catholicism is still a cold house for women, all the same.

Unlike a number of senior figures in the organisation he heads, Francis understands that the ideals of the Catholic Church have become polluted. But it is probably too late to turn back the secular tide in Ireland.

The hierarchy's moral mandate has been squandered, credibility and clout weakened, although the Church's saving grace is its foot soldiers - hardworking priests, nuns and monks on the ground.

Times have changed. When Pope Francis comes calling, he will be greeted by a gathering of the faithful as opposed to the cheering Irish nation en masse.

Irish Independent

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