Columns Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

Catholicism down in Ireland, but some see hope

St. Patrick's College, Maynooth | Photo Credit: William Murphy/Flickr (cc)

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I used to teach with or alongside Emmet Larkin, University of Chicago expert on the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, motivated in part to understand Chicago Catholicism, which still numbers a couple hundred thousand people. Larkin wrote much and tutored me as I attempted to learn about, e.g., the Catholic seminary in Maynooth, north of Dublin, the largest seminary in Christendom at the time. How is it doing now?

James T. Keane, in the Jesuit magazine America, offers a compelling vision of “The uncertain future of Catholic Ireland.” He displays a flair for quiet drama, as in these three sentences:

In 1899, 82 priests “for Ireland, America, and Australia” were ordained at Maynooth.

In the fall of 2017, a new class of first-year seminarians arrived at Maynooth to begin their training for the priesthood.

There were six men.

End of quote. Readers of Sightings may be aware that we don’t favor reporting only on “declinism,” as in “decline and fall” stories. But it would be no favor to readers, or to reality itself, were we to close our eyes to stories like Maynooth’s. And we have read other “fall” stories about former bastions of Christendomic power, such as Quebec, where in a matter of a few decades pews and confessional booths became empty. One does not need to be a Roman Catholic in order to have an interest in what is going on, for the larger light these situations cast on basic human concerns and fates. It is also more fun and, one hopes, quite in place, to publish stories of compensatory weight about the astonishing growth of Catholicism and Christianity at large in South America, much of Africa, and some of Asia.

Keane joins other authors who have conscientiously chronicled these downs and ups. We can only point to the Irish scene while encouraging readers to follow up with other accounts. Here, then, are some elements from Keane’s article:

“The biggest problem is the decline in participation by the laity, especially by the young people,” says Sister Stan, founder of Focus Ireland. Agreed. Observers on the scene and at a distance also agree that a major factor is the “crisis caused by sexual abuse of young people by members of the Catholic clergy,” and the cover-up of such abuse by church authorities.

Next: Ireland has become “an extraordinarily open society, economically and culturally.” So? Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin sees positive features in this, of course, but knows that the traditional society had to undergo complicated adjustments. Urbanization brought drastic change, and “traditional roles for women also have changed outside the church, but not inside.” According to Martin, mothers and grandmothers adjust, while “their daughters feel in a much stronger way that [the church] isn’t necessarily a place where they belong. You can’t deny it.”

Martin points to yet “another source of the malaise: the Irish church’s unwillingness in the past to engage in significant evangelization efforts or faith formation on its own soil.” “We learned all the rules and the norms,” he adds, “and it was presumed that the basic elements of faith were there.” They weren’t. “People felt that … being born into Irish society made you a Catholic.” The great lesson from Vatican II—“the ecclesiology of communion … this idea that we are together, disciples on the road”—did not take hold.

Still, Mary Kenny, an Irish journalist who wrote the book Goodbye to Catholic Ireland, thinks there is a deposit of faith on which a new generation can draw and on the basis of which there can be invention.

If Mass at the Irish parish church doesn’t satisfy, alternative approaches might. Some have noticed the popularity of pilgrimages, and what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the culture of festivity” among “mobile Christians,” who find new ways to nurture the faith. Keane notes other signs of possible rebirth and recovery, including some features of the ministry of Pope Francis, but makes clear that no one can sit back and expect Irish parish church traditions to lead to resurrection by themselves. He and the main figures he quotes are utterly realistic about the present, but they have hope.

Meanwhile, I’ll have to be careful as a pedestrian: next weekend three large St. Patrick’s Day parades (no liquor allowed!) will crowd the Chicago streets. Perhaps some of the marchers will turn up at Mass, or some other ecclesial communion, where they can participate in the culture of festivity in their down time.

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


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  • The decline of religion in so many societies is well known, but it would be interesting to compare and contrast this with accounts of areas of the world where the opposite is true.

  • “Goodbye to Catholic Ireland”…great title for the book, and I would add “Good Riddance” too.

    The Emerald Isle, my Grandmother’s place of birth, has for far too long been beaten down as a country of sheep lorded over by the RCC. It is no accident that much of the population including my grandmother had to leave or starve. That’s what happens when a county is ruled by self-proclaimed teachers of God’s word. Only when the church started to lose power in the 1980s, did Ireland’s society and economy start to thrive.

    With the recent success of the Irish Gay Marriage Referendum and this year, the the referendum to legalize abortion — Ireland, especially Irish women — are almost free from the chains of Catholicism. We still have to get schools out from the control of the RCC…and answers from the Church about the horrendous abuse for decades of “illegitimate” Irish mothers and their children in slave camps and orphanages run by the RCC.

    But I can go to my Grandmother’s grave. leave a shot of Irish whiskey and a green ribbon…satisfied that the country she could never return to, is almost free.

  • I think it’s fascinating that despite many decades of indoctrination by the RCC, Irish folks are leaving the church and rejecting its teachings.

    Of course, any observor of these matters who is up on news, and understands even a little about behavior, understands that the church did this to itself, and its main goal is to empower itself and tell EVERYONE, catholic or not, what to think and how to behave–nothing more.

  • You ask why? The following helps you to understand:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2018: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (references used are available upon request)

  • The decline is usually the most severe in places where Church and State were entangled. Evidently being forced to follow arbitrary religious dictates by government weakens the credibility and authority of religious institutions. Go figure.

    It would be nice if theocrats in democratic nations got the hint. But unfortunately most consider power more important than sincere belief.

  • From my Irish travelogue of last year:

    People have asked me why I would want to go to Ireland, some sincerely wanting to know, some incredulously asking for justification, as if going there were on a par with visiting not my crazy aunt that no one talks about, but theirs. My reasons are entirely personal, highly eclectic ones: little byways of music, literature, photography, and mythology that appeal to me and no one else. Even food: Irish Stew is practically legendary, and Cork has a Museum of Butter!!! That’s the reason why I’ve not asked anybody to go with me. Such an unlucky traveler, in this land where luck was born, would simply be bored out of his mind. But for me, I’m scratching a lot of itches, things that have absorbed me or seized me since I was a boy.

    And all that is quite apart from the pleasure of visiting a country that was ridden like a banshee on a whirlwind by the Dominant Local Religion for centuries, and has now freely chosen same sex marriage and a gay prime minister. Effectively, they told the DLR to get stuffed. The DLR was not happy about that, but then, they’re not happy about lots of things. They’re not exultant about being caught with their rolexed hands in the cookie jar, or at least, down the cookie jar’s pants. There have been other abuse scandals, going back a long time, coming to light. So it all evens out.

    The DLR delicately, with great worry and concern, with even greater fluttering of preternaturally smooth hands and grimness of countenance, mayhap even deeply furrowed, consternipated brows, refers to this loss of power and influence as “defiant secularism”. Ya think?

    Back to the present.

    Where the church seeks to control society, itself obsessed with the alleged sins of others, but does nothing whatsoever about its own egregious sins, expect To see the church no longer a part of people’s lives. The church probably did a huge amount of damage to itself by the way it opposed marriage equality. I followed it all very closely in the Irish papers.

    There is also this from my travelogue…

    “I did see a rather wonderful show at the Abbey Theatre, founded by Yeats and Lady Gregory a century ago. The show is entitled Jimmy’s Hall, from a time between the Irish Civil War and the establishment of the Republic of Ireland in 1937. The entire cast was amazing, and could not only sing, dance, and act, but play several musical instruments. They received a standing ovation, which they richly deserved. What was intriguing about it is just how much the Easter Uprising of 1916, the Irish Civil war, and the struggle with Britain for independence still figure in the Irish mentality. It was an entirely appropriate play to see in Dublin.”

    Back to the present, again.

    What was also interesting in the play was to see the role played by the church and the village priest. it was so obvious that the priest was all about power, money, and control, and the people of the village knew it. The older people thought “He’s God’s man. He’s good for us.” The younger people were thinking “He’s the power structure’s man, and that power isn’t good for us.”

    You can talk about god’s love all you want, but people in general aren’t stupid, and can see what you are really about.

  • It isn’t surprising that the Catholic Church is losing adherents. Even those who still say they are Catholic, do not adhere to much of the doctrine.

  • I’m not sure that things are that clear-cut. Certainly sex abuse scandals and Islamic extremism have damaged the standing of religious belief, but I’d like to see the evidence about countries where religious belief is increasing.

  • Homophobia and misogyny still prevail in “backward” areas of the world. The Church of Rome, in addition to embracing the indifferent, welcomes the addition of folks willing to kowtow to ecclesiastical authority figures. FEAR among the laity has been a key ingredient of Roman Catholicism. Problem is, FEAR has been a key attribute of official church leadership over the centuries. Money, of course, has been a key ingredient, as well.

  • Religious belief is practically on life support in democratic nations which had a history of state sponsored religion. Essentially the coerced nature of religious/political entanglement has left a lot of bad blood for belief.

    You aren’t seeing many countries where religious belief is increasing outside of former communist ones. Where the State religion has been supplanted with the older more traditional ones. You also see more instances of religion being more radicalized and extremist for political effect like in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

  • The seeds of of Irish defection were always there. My immigrant parents’ generation of Irish immigrants developed a great deal of independent thinking during the Land League days, the formation of the GAA, and the WAr of Independence. All the relatives, over there and here in the US, were disappointed with the direction of the new Irish government after the assassination of MIchael Collins (a kind of Socialist). They found the government and the church far too conservative and lacking in imagination and a vision for Ireland. They thought the church and state were too enmeshed and this would end up corrupting both.

    As a child of Irish immigrants to the United States, with all uncles and all but one aunt born and raised in Ireland, I had a certain kind of raising in the Catholic church that was probably off center. One uncle made sure that all we kids understood that there is no one true church, that the kids we knew were Catholic or Jewish or Protestant because their parents were, that all religions are family religions and they are true or false according to the kind of people they produce (independent, kind, helpful being the ideal). One aunt was chosen to be the lead altar server in her parish in Ireland because the priest just did not get what the church was talking about when it talked about the roles of women and men. My pious mother thought getting too involved in the parish church would lead to bad character formation or bad habits among adults. We were strongly advised against becoming altar boys. My mother liked Mother Teresa because “she did what she pleased no matter what the priests said.”One nun taught us about the mystical tradition in Catholicism, including St Mectilde of Magdebourg, a Bride of Christ and quite erotic in her language, who basically said that Jesus told her that there were no souls in hell (I have to admit that I was disappointed about this). When I argued with the nun in charge of marshaling our first grade First Communion ceremony, it got quite noisy (largely on her part, I just kept repeating ,”I don’t have to wear a scapula, it’s not an essential of the faith, and my father says it’s superstitious”). BTW, I liked that nun, she was inspiring and a shrewdly effective teacher. My mother was always kind to “bad” people–single mothers, children of gangsters, drug addicts, prostitutes, lesbians (she liked to talk books with them). Ours was not a “good” neighborhood in the usual sense of the word. People were mostly poor. After three tries I decided I didn’t like confession and never went again. In my Catholic Jesuit high school in Manhattan students freely argued against “doctrines” of the faith. We elected the only drug addict in our class as class president. He always scrambled the prayers at assemblies (not deliberately). There were no sexual problems that I was aware of. Some of the mothers on our block were always plotting ways to get the younger priest married off. Mass was boring.

  • In the last Census, just over half of Australians said they were Christians and those who followed a faith would be about 60 per cent of the population.[email protected]/mediareleasesbyReleaseDate/7E65A144540551D7CA258148000E2B85?OpenDocument

    In New Zealand support for religion is less than in Australia but it is still substantial.

    Both Australia and New Zealand are less religious than the United States, but religious faith is still a significant part of both societies. Despite substantial declines, religious faith is far from being on life support.

  • The United States never had a history of state sponsored religion. It is expressly illegal under its 1st Amendment. So they avoided the cause of decline seen in countries which had an official government sponsored church. Separation of church and state has been beneficial to the integrity of both.

    The United States has far more vigorous immigration than either Australia or NZ. Australia and NZ Religious fervor tends to be strongest with 1st generation immigrants. In Europe one finds religious belief is strongest with its immigrants for the same reasons.

  • Religious belief has also been declining in the United States. See In that aspect, the United States is like other Western countries. The difference, of course, is that Americans are somewhat more religious than some other countries.

    As for immigration, Australia at the moment has a higher proportion of its population born overseas (22%) than the United States (11%).