The Irish Church has lost its fervour, yet retains its fierce independence. But without outside intervention, it will continue to flounder
Pope Francis is due to visit Ireland in August 2018. His trip will probably include a historic journey north of the border. But what he is likely to find is that Irish Catholicism remains in serious long-term decline. Years of scandal have led to dwindling congregations, an increasingly hostile public climate and a Church that seems to have no clear idea of how to turn its fortunes around.
Francis’s personal popularity and celebrity should draw substantial crowds. But enormous crowds turned out for Pope John Paul II on his 1979 visit, and what seemed to be an affirmation of Ireland’s Catholic identity proved in retrospect to be the last hurrah of old-style Irish Catholicism.
This papal visit will be following more than 20 years of decline. The last three Irish cardinals – Cahal Daly, Desmond Connell and Seán Brady – have all been tarnished by proximity to clerical abuse scandals. The widely respected abuse survivor Marie Collins has recently resigned from the papal commission designed to tackle the subject. And there are fresh stories emerging about Dickensian conditions in Church-run homes in the last century. Mass attendance is extremely low, compared to the past, and the number of active priests may now be below 2,000.
The situation has been complicated by clerical politics, both local and Roman. Most significantly, the papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, was recently removed from his post and appointed to the relative backwater of Albania. The position of nuncio has long been controversial in Ireland, reflecting the Irish hierarchy’s historic independence from Rome. Archbishop Gaetano Alibrandi, nuncio between 1969 and 1989, was disliked by much of the Irish clerical and political establishment – which were more closely connected then than they are now – both for his pro-nationalist approach to Northern Ireland and the appointment of a number of bishops who were not the favoured candidates of the local hierarchy.
Archbishop Brown was subject to hostile briefing from the moment of his appointment in 2011. This focused on his background as an official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and his closeness to Benedict XVI. The American was often depicted as an enforcer who was trying to impose an ultra-conservative line on the Irish Church, though there was little evidence of this. Tellingly, though, the most specific complaint was that bishops appointed during his tenure had come from outside the dioceses they were to take over. In other words, he had been disrupting the local cliques who were used to being able to put their candidates in place.
There has been a persistent pattern for decades of the Irish Church resenting interference from Rome and jealously guarding its ability to do things its own way. This has survived the scandals that have raised serious questions about the consequences of the Irish hierarchy having free rein.
It is at least arguable that some of the Irish Church’s problems stem from Rome not having enough influence. One example is the sex abuse scandal in Cloyne diocese, where Bishop John Magee had simply not informed Rome of allegations, in contravention of both Vatican guidelines and the policy of the Irish bishops’ conference. It isn’t clear that an Irish Church that was more independent of Rome would have better governance.
But the narrative of Rome being the main source of the Irish Church’s problems has proved very popular, even with naturally conservative figures like the outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny. This could be seen with the apostolic visitation which ran from 2010 to 2012. After years of criticising the Vatican for failing to crack down on abuses in Ireland, stories started appearing in the Irish media complaining about Rome infringing on the Irish Church’s autonomy. Again, the story was that Rome was trying to impose a tough conservative agenda from which the Irish Church had been escaping – an agenda which, it was implied, was to blame for the failings of the past.
“It’s important to get away from the idea that the institutional Church is a driver of social conservatism in Ireland,” says a close observer. “The argument put forward for that idea is usually a reference to what Ireland was like in the 1950s. And yes, the bishops were much too powerful in those days, and had an unhealthily close relationship to the government. But a big part of that was simply that Irish society was conservative to a degree that people today find hard to imagine, and the Church reflected those attitudes as well as shaping them.”
The source continues: “It would probably be more accurate to say that the hierarchy has always been the status quo party. And, apart from sectarianism in the North, they never faced a challenge from outside. Until quite recently, there wasn’t a secularist lobby to speak of. Similarly to somewhere like Malta, Catholicism was as natural and unthinking as breathing in and out. But public attitudes, especially around gender and sexuality issues, have shifted so rapidly that the Church now appears to be a generation behind public opinion, not just a step behind.
“And, of course, the abuse scandals have shattered the Church’s credibility to the point where the bishops hardly feel able to take stances on controversial debates any more. The only exception is abortion, and activism on that issue has been lay-driven for a long time.”
One reason why this plunge in credibility may not be obvious is that, for a very long time, the Irish Church has been extremely good at putting forward a united face to the public. In fact, during the 25 years of the Troubles, discipline was so strong that only three priests in Northern Ireland got into trouble with their bishops for speaking out of turn, and one of them was for essentially non-political reasons. There are often rumours of disagreements, but there aren’t open factions like in the American or German hierarchies.
To the extent that there is a debate, this has mostly been framed by the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), a liberal lobby group with good media and political connections. Critics point out that the ACP’s membership is rather elderly – though probably no more so than the average for Irish priests – and that its proposals are largely the same ideas that were fashionable in the 1970s and that have failed to breathe new life into the Church across much of Europe. But the ACP has made an impact because its liberalism seems a break from the old style of doing things, and because its criticisms of bad governance in the Church are often accurate.
But the ACP is very much a loyal opposition, which unites with the Irish hierarchy in rejecting too much interference from Rome in Ireland’s affairs. Often it seems that the reformers in the Irish Church would rather have a weak and compromised Irish hierarchy than any change from the outside that may not be to their liking.
This is the situation that Pope Francis will be faced with when he visits Ireland next year. And it will be a difficult job for the new nuncio to deal with. If he tries to change things, he will face stern resistance, and if he doesn’t, the Church faces continued decline. The main hope for change is that the status quo is so bad that it can’t be sustained indefinitely.
Jon Anderson is a freelance writer.
This article first appeared in the March 31 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here