Jun 27 2008
This is probably the most important area when discussing the origins of Irish Values, and also the hardest one to write about without giving a very biased view. I have a sincere loathing for the Catholic Church. I have a long list of bad experiences with priests and the Church (not that type of bad experience, don’t worry) and the simple fact that the Irish Church is, for many, synonymous with abuses, paedophilia, lies, conspiracies and power-mongering surely points to the Church as being a generally bad influence on our lives.
That is, of course, not entirely true, because nothing is ever black and white, is it?
At the Dublin Writers Festival, Lean, one of the coordinators, was eager to remove the question of Catholicism from the floor. She wondered why, firstly, other religions weren’t being discussed – the broader Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc. – but also why the panelists were reluctant to look at values beyond the religious divide – those of Atheists or those of people who are simple not religious. It is true Catholicism is the major religion in Ireland – the last census revealed 87% of the population considered themselves Catholic (the second highest religion was Church of Ireland at only 2.85%). When we look at those born in Ireland only, the figure rises to 92% (Church of Ireland at 2.35%). So, it is understandably important to spend time looking at Catholicism, but when other surveys reveal regular mass attendance in stark decline, we must wonder what influence other religions and cultures are having on our nation, we must ask how many of those Catholics truly have faith or are they simply marking an X in a box because they were raised Catholic.
These are not irrelevant questions but they are questions I can’t fully answer. I will attempt to look at the influence other cultures and beliefs are having on our society though.
What did the Roman Catholic Church ever do for us?
(any excuse to play some Monty Python)
Figuratively speaking, they did indeed build our aqueducts and roads. They paved the path of Irish education and pumped money into the fledgling Irish healthcare system at a time when Ireland was horribly impoverished.
On a grander scale, and bringing us back to morals and values, I spoke about the Ten Commandments and other guidelines handed to us (or perhaps foisted upon us) by the Church in my opening post on the topic; the Church gave us the basis for our moral code. We were told to live good lives, love our neighbours (not their wives though), be good Samaritans, be generous and charitable. When Catholicism first came to Ireland around the fifth century, the priests believed they were guiding beacons, ready to tame the savages. And to some degree they may have been right. Churches were built and communities and parishes grew around them. People would gather and pray and community spirit developed. The Church infiltrated ever aspect of our lives and this continued to be true right the way through to the encroachment of Protestantism on Irish life. Priests would hold mass in makeshift churches in forests, with rocks for altars, and many would still cling to their beliefs and the comfort and guidance the Church would provide.
So, at some point, did things just go wrong, or were there always questionable practices at the core of the institution?
The Papal Visit and What Went Wrong?
In 1979, Ireland saw its greatest ever mass gathering – when Pope John Paul II visited our country. It is odd that from this pinnacle moment things began to change. Mass attendances declined, the number of people entering the seminary dropped dramatically and, of course, the scandals began to break.
Allegations of child abuse, sexual abuse, cover ups, enslavement and cruelty began to surface publicly in the 1980’s and came to a fore in the 90’s. There are supporters of the Catholic Church who will say that these were mainly isolated incidents. I refute this – compensation payouts to date exceed €1billion (only €128million of this being paid for by the Church), this does not point to isolated incidents; mass cover-ups from high ranking member of the Church do not point to isolated incidents; the revelations of the Magdalene Laundries and other institutions are not isolated incidents; and the Ferns Report (and the Church’s efforts to block it) make it very clear that these incidents were widespread in the Church and were well known about among the upper echelons of the administration.
Is it any wonder people are turning away from the Catholic Church in their droves? The disappointment people must feel in an institution that has been a guiding light for Ireland for so so long is magnified because the Church was our moral compass and when our compass is in such a broken state, we are asking ourselves how we will ever find our way again. So we look to new religions, so we look to new outlets, so we look to the West in search of answers and guidance.
I remember reading about the replacement of religion with ‘fashion culture’ and consumerism and this makes sense. For many of today’s youth, communities are built in the shopping malls and guided by Hello, OK, Glamour and Cosmo. It is not surprising that many people look to The OC, One Tree Hill and Hollyoaks as a basis for a values system. I’m not saying it is right (quite the opposite), but it is not surprising.
Does the Church Have the Right to Interfere/Intervene in Our Lives Anymore?
In short, absolutely not! I would argue that it should never have been in that position of power in the first place. The good things that stemmed from the Church are still evident in our lives today, but those good deeds should never have elevated the Irish Catholic Church to such a position within our society, where today they still influence political opinion.
The Church long ago gave away their right to preach about morals, about values. Today’s Ireland has moved on. Many of us ‘live in sin’ everyday of our lives and to hear that priests offer marriage guidance classes in this day and age is a disgusting act of hypocrisy. Even the Church has conceded that it needs to take a step back from our educational system, something that should have been addressed many years ago. This is the fault of the government rather than the Church, however.
In 1979, Pope John Paul II said “Be what you are, and you will set the world ablaze…Rather than conform to the world, the world will conform to you”. Well, I apologise for distorting his words, but by continuing on its current course, rather than set the world ablaze, it will see its world burn down around it, and by not conforming to a modern world, the world will simple move on without it.
In 2012, the International Eucharistic Congress will be held in Ireland for the first time since 1932. Bock talks about it here, and Twenty here while Dublin Blogs looks at it in a slightly less emotional way here. The 1932 gathering reportedly saw 25% of the Irish population attend at some point. I find it hard to imagine today’s Ireland (easier as it is to travel now) managing a fraction of this attendance.
In the 1970’s more than 90% of Irish Catholics said they went ot mass once a week. Now trhe nuimber is 44% (and this includes a strong Polish immigrant contingent). Although this is a dramatic drop, the level is still high amoung Western nations. It will be interetsing to watch how swiftly that numbere declines further.
Á la Carte Catholicism is also maintaining a certain amount of followers where the ban on sex before marriage is ignored, where contraception is the norm. Other practices, such as confession, are being dropped while the likes of marriage, christenings and communions still play a huge part in the lives of Iriah people.
160 priests died in 2007, while 9 were ordained, and 228 nuns were lost being replaced by a mere 2 new nuns. This is further exacerbated by the some highly publicised moves by some Catholic Priests to Protestantism, the Church of Ireland. Rev Dermot Dunne, a former Catholic Priest, became Dean of the Church of Ireland’s Christ Church Cathedral and made a point of kissing his wife while standing on the steps of the cathedral as he took up his new post.
It is predicted that the current number of priests, over 4,700, will drop to less that 1,500 by 2028. Father Eamonn Bourke, director of vocations in Dublin, said “some priests are even reluctant to offer priesthood to people as a valuable way of life. It will take a long time to increase this confidence”.
The days when almost everyone was a church-going Catholic, when the parish Priest was revered and when Church doctrine was central to public policy and private life are no longer. Catholicism is a relic of the past. It’s outdated and it’s obvious that few are devoted to it anymore; if people were truly interested then they wouldn’t have manning shortages in the priesthood. Perhaps if they updated the religion they could attract new followers, but their death-grip on traditions is what has them in their current state. If they don’t modernise to keep-up with modern society then the Church will not survive the ever-growing generation gap.
Once responsible for forming the communities in Ireland, the Irish Catholic Church is now in search of a community of its own.
In this post I have discussed the role of the Catholic Church in Ireland, but I have been lighter on the subject of Irish Values. Towards the end of my series of posts I will try to nail down our Core Values and discuss, among other things, the Church’s part in defining them.
Update: In my next post on the subject, I hope to talk about New Communities, New Cultures, New Ideas and New Values, with an emphasis on how the Internet and other technologies have changed both Irish life and the global landscape.