Comment & Analysis

‘We have to ask ourselves whether as a Church we are confronting the true challenges’
Revitalisting the Church is not just about reforming structures, it is about witnessing to the message of Christ says Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

Knock Shrine is one of Ireland's top tourist destinations.

Understanding the religious culture of Ireland and its political impact today is not an easy task. It is not an easy task for those of us who were born and live in Ireland; it is not easy for people living in a different cultural background. I wish to reflect on changes in Irish religious culture today, changes that are not irrelevant to the situation in other parts of Europe.

The Irish have every right to be proud of what was achieved by the Irish Church in history. Ireland is proud of the cultural contribution of the early Irish monasteries. St Killian was just one of the many great missionary monks who brought renewal in the Faith from Ireland right across Europe. In more recent times, Irish missionaries were pillars in the foundation and renewal of the Church across the English-speaking world, in Britain, in the United States and in Australia and New Zealand and indeed in many parts of Africa and Asia.

Activity

I do not know how many St Patrick’s Cathedrals or St Patrick’s High Schools there are around the world, but they each indicate something of the extraordinary missionary activity of Irish priests and religious and indeed lay people.

Such a distinguished history is something to be proud of, but paying too much attention to the past can be misleading in trying to assess the present. The religious culture of Ireland has changed greatly.

When Bishop [Friedhelm] Hofmann asked me for a title for this talk I answered quickly that you might be interested in hearing something about the religious culture of Ireland today.

How is the Irish Church responding to change and how effective has that response been and where should we be looking towards for tomorrow? Changes are taking place and the Church is responding in various ways: the more fundamental question, however, is whether or not in its responses the Irish Church is responding to the true challenges.

Many of the changes taking place in the Irish Church will be familiar to you from within the German Church itself. They are often the same questions that have been challenging the German Church for many years. The Irish situation however has its own peculiarities and differences and paradoxes. Regular religious practice in Ireland has dramatically decreased in recent years but by European standards, religious practice in Ireland is still high. 

Secularisation

Secularisation is well advanced in Irish society and yet there are many residual elements of faith and religiosity present in daily life. Irish national radio and television both transmit the Angelus bells twice a day!

The cultural influence of the Church in Irish society is difficult to define. The Ireland which many looked on as a bastion of Catholic influence was the same one which in 2015 approved same-sex marriage by an overwhelming popular vote.

There is no such thing, for example, as the Catholic vote in the sense that it exists in the United States. While the main political parties in Ireland would traditionally have espoused Christian principles in a general way, there has never been an officially designated Christian Democrat political party in Ireland. 

In Ireland it has long since moved from being politically risky to get into a battle with the Church, to a situation in which there are few votes to be won through being too closely linked with Church issues.

The religious culture of Ireland and especially that of Catholic Ireland is unique because it is in large part the fruit of isolation. I am not speaking of Ireland just being an island. The religious history of Catholic Ireland was affected in a very different way to what may have been the case in mainland Europe by the various socio-cultural movements of modern history.

Piety

Before Catholic Emancipation, which came in 1829, the level of religious practice in Ireland was particularly low. The appointment in the mid-19th century of Paul Cullen, Ireland’s first cardinal, as Archbishop of Dublin changed that situation and in more or less one generation an extraordinary renewal of Catholic practice took place. It came through spiritual renewal, the stronger discipline of the clergy and the introduction of new forms of piety. 

Cardinal Cullen had lived much of his life in Rome where he was Rector of the Irish College and of the College of Propaganda Fide and he brought with him an Italianate and very much an ultramontane religious culture.

The effects of the Enlightenment, for example, were marginal to the emerging post-emancipation Catholic religious culture.  Cullen favoured the establishment of a closed Catholic culture. Catholic schools, a Catholic university, Catholic health care and a monolithic Catholic presence in society guided by the bishops were all aimed at protecting Catholics from the influence of the secular, the enlightenment, continental republicanism, socialism and Protestantism.

It is interesting that the only Irish bishop who had been open to the idea of Catholics attending secular schools and civil universities was Cullen’s predecessor in Dublin, Archbishop Daniel Murray. He faced strong opposition from his fellow bishops and from the Holy See.

Cullen’s idea of a Catholic University of Ireland, to be modelled on the Catholic University at Louvain, failed due to tensions between Cullen and Newman but also because its degrees received no civil recognition. 

The sole powerhouse of Catholic intellectual formation passed on to the national seminary of Maynooth, then a purely clerical institution.

Home Rule

The political process which led finally to Irish independence is linked with the Home Rule movement of the early 20th century and the uprising of 1916. Men and women, who were for the most part Catholic, inspired the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, the foundational document of the 20th Century move to Irish independence. It was however the proclamation of a Republic and not a theocracy.

The 1916 Proclamation had emphasised freedom of religion. After independence in the 1920’s the new Irish Free State became more Catholic than the Proclamation had intended. 

The protectionist Catholic closed culture took roots in broader society and assumed a dominant position in the politics and social policy of the new Irish State.

There is still a great deal of historical research and analysis of social history to be done on Ireland in the first decades after independence. Michael D. Higgins, the current President of Ireland, has noted that the dominance of a sectarian ethos had negative effects on the realisation of the ideas of the Proclamation. That cannot be denied. The evolution was however a complex one. Catholics began for the first time to have access to public office and to important positions in the public administration from which until then they had been largely excluded. The mainstream of Irish society at the time was innately socially conservative and such social conservatism took root in society.

In this situation, Catholic institutions that at their original foundation aimed at providing necessary help for the poor, began to assume a monopoly of services in education and health care and social provision. The Church dominated the educational situation of the country. Priests and religious were in sufficient number to provide the personnel necessary and did so generously and often with minimal financial recompense. 

The Catholic Church become increasingly clerical and the influence of that clerical Church became a prevailing dimension of the Irish State. That closeness produced, inevitably, some very unhealthy results.

Ireland did not experience the cultural tensions that occurred in Europe as the continent moved towards World War II. Ireland remained neutral in the war not for ideological reasons but for nationalist reasons. It was felt impossible for Ireland to fight alongside Britain until the partition of Ireland was resolved.

Authoritarian

The authoritarian Church seemed to flourish right up to the moment of the Second Vatican Council. In 1961 a massive series of Church and State events celebrated the 1500th anniversary of the coming of St Patrick. Things then began to change dramatically, a sign that in fact that what appeared as the solid edifice of mass-Catholicism was already creaking and waiting for some event to decree its slow collapse. 

The authoritarian monopoly of the Church in the social sphere began to give way to its opposite: a widespread desire to remove the Church from such a position of influence.

Many people - particularly bishops and even scholars – had not been strident in their discernment of what was taking place. The roots of secularisation in Irish culture were not set in a sort of Kulturkampf. It would be hard to identify a list of historical leaders of an anti-Church movement in Ireland. The situation was more that of a series of individual winds of change which almost unknown to most, came together to bring change, while much of daily life continued outwardly unchanged.

There are no structured organic links between Church and State on a political level, except regarding education. 

There are no concordats or other broad legally-binding agreements between the Holy See and common law countries. Ireland has a common law juridical culture but it also has a Constitution in which the rights of the individual are strongly protected. 

These rights would almost always be considered in court as superior to any arrangement or agreement between Church and State.

Hostile

The Separation of Church and State is not a hostile one, but it could turn into one and there is a growing number of vocal supporters of a much more hostile relationship. Alongside hostility to the Church one can identify more integralist elements within the Church who see a Christian presence in a pluralist culture purely in terms of a negative culture war.

Overall the political relationship between Church and State in Ireland today is one of prudent distance. Many in Ireland and overseas were surprised by the result of the referendum on same-sex marriage. What is worthy of note is that every single political party in Ireland supported the change of status. 

The vote was not about doctrine. It was however not just about personal sympathy with gay and lesbian people and their families but about a conviction that gay and lesbian people should be permitted in civil law to have their stable loving relationships recognised in marriage.

How and when did the overall religious culture of Ireland begin to change? I remember on my appointment to Dublin, Pope John Paul II asked me “how it is that secularisation came to Ireland so quickly?” 

My answer to that question was quite simple: “Your Holiness is wrong”, though my Vatican training did not allow me to express myself quite in those exact words. The Pope was wrong. Secularisation, whatever that means exactly, had been on the Irish radar screen for many years. 

Negative

It was not all negative but it was not an overnight wonder. It was there, but not fully recognised. It was there but the answer of the Irish Church was for far too long to keep the same show on the road, not noticing that there were problems with the show and that the road was changing.

Ireland is today undergoing a further phase of revolution of its religious culture. Many outside of Ireland are surprised to discover that there are parishes in Dublin where the presence at Sunday Mass is some 5% of the Catholic population and, in some cases, even below 2%. 

On any particular Sunday about 18% of the Catholic population in the Archdiocese of Dublin attends Mass. That figure may be higher in some other parts of Ireland, but it is certainly not an isolated situation. Statistics about Mass attendance most significantly do not examine the age of those attending.

The new national census which was carried out just over a year ago, showed a very large percentage of the population ticking the ‘Catholic’ box, but that percentage hides the range of difference about what ‘Catholic’ may mean even within an individual family and among generations. 

No religion

While Ireland remains a predominantly Catholic country, the percentage of the population who identified as Catholic has fallen sharply from 84.2% in 2011 to 78.3% in 2016.

Significantly, the number of those who registered as having ‘no religion’ grew by 73.6%, representing almost 10% of the population. The census showed that Catholicism was the largest religion, followed now by ‘no religion’, followed by Anglicanism and in fourth place by Islam.

The precise makeup of the grouping who registered as ‘no religion’ is hard to breakdown. A substantial portion belonged to immigrant communities, but the most striking factor is the fact that the ‘no religion’ category was highest in the age group 20 to 39, the group with children entering school life and the group naturally most active in the formation of political culture for the future. The age group 20-39 accounts for 28% of the general population but 45% of those with no religion fall into this age bracket.

Most certainly, there are still many vestiges of popular Catholic culture. The Marian Shrine at Knock is one of the most-visited tourist sites in Ireland – closely following the Guinness Brewery! Every year around 20,000 people – many of them young people – climb Croagh Patrick, a difficult mountain, in a penitential pilgrimage in honour of St Patrick. 

Signs

There is a growing number of youth movements and initiatives of faith formation for young people. Numbers are small but that does not mean that they may not be the signs of new beginnings.

That said, it must be repeated that the road of Irish Catholicism had been relentlessly changing for some time. 

I remember already back in the mid-1960s I had a Professor of Sociology who began his opening lecture to seminarians by affirming that “Catholicism is a minority culture in Ireland”. 

Our reaction was that this man is telling a joke to provoke us. He however stuck to his ground showing how already then many of the forces influencing Irish culture were coming from outside the country. You had the curious situation that Irish newspapers were more expensive than imported British newspapers. 

Most of the programmes transmitted by Irish television were produced abroad and most families in Dublin at least were also able to watch British television. Despite censorship, Ireland was open to art and theatre and literature from any part of the world. Ireland has for a long time no longer been a protected island of safe Catholicism. Irish art and literature has in any case traditionally had within it a strong anti-clerical strain.

For decades now Ireland has been becoming one of the most open economies in the world and that economic openness inevitably was to have cultural consequences. In general, these consequences were positive and openness was one of the vital - if risky - elements in Ireland’s economic transformation. 

But Ireland was becoming ever more open culturally. 

Evangelised

Young Irish people travel and despite most of them attending Catholic schools for 12 years or more, they are as secularised as the young people of any European nation. Irish Catholic young people are among the most catechised and least evangelised in Europe. 

Yet I must clearly state that young Irish people are idealistic and generous and tolerant, but they find it hard to explicitly root that generosity in the type of religious education that they have received.

My sociology professor of the mid-1960s did not apply his analysis to the state of the Irish Church itself. In the mid-60s, the effects of Vatican II were beginning to affect the Irish Church and were receiving a warm welcome. The conformist Ireland changed very rapidly and with few tears, despite the fact that the conformism of the earlier era had not been without substantial support.

The Vatican Council was without doubt one of the most significant cultural events of the 20th Century for Irish culture taken as a whole, especially through its documents on the Church in the Modern World and on Religious Freedom and thus on the concept of pluralism.

Was Irish Catholicism ready for radical change? Not only was the Church culture of the time inadequate to face the challenge of change, but that culture was in itself something that made real and realistic change more difficult. 

Conformist

That the once conformist Ireland changed so rapidly and with few tears was read as an indication of a desire for change, but perhaps it was also an indication that the earlier conformism was covering a shallow faith and a faith built on a faulty structure which people no longer really endorsed. The good-old-days of traditional mid-20th century Irish Catholicism may in reality not have so good and healthy after all.

The sexual abuse scandals have affected the faith of many and at the same time they were an indication of an underlying crisis of faith where the self-protective institution had become in many ways decoupled from the horror which ordinary people rightly felt. The emerging post-Vatican II new religious culture, with its stress on the role of the laity, found itself once again betrayed by a culture of clerical self-protection.

All of this indicates how Ireland needs to do much more to incorporate a broad spectrum of activity of laymen and women in the life of the Church and to be witnesses to their faith in the emerging Irish culture.

Pope Benedict in his homily at the Mass for the beatification of Cardinal Newman noted: “the service to which Blessed John Henry was called involved applying his keen intellect and his prolific pen to many of the most pressing ‘subjects of the day’”.

The Church in Ireland is very lacking precisely in “keen intellects and prolific pens addressing the pressing subjects of the day”. Many of the reform movements are still clerically-led and still fundamentally clerical in their vision of the Church. 

Generation

They represent an older generation. Since the failure of Newman’s Catholic University project in Ireland the Irish Church has not really found the right path of a balanced Catholic presence in Irish culture.

When I was received by Pope Benedict on the occasion of my first ad limina visit 10 years ago, I arrived well prepared with all my statistics and my analysis of the bright spots and the shadows of Catholicism in Dublin. I had statistics about priests, about institutions, about Mass attendance. 

After greeting me the Pope started the conversation immediately by asking me “where are the points of contact between the Church in Ireland and those areas where the future of Irish culture is being formed”. 

Instead of asking me about the number of parishes he quizzed me about the relationship between faith and universities, and media, and politics, in art and literature, as well as fundamental ethical issues on economy and society. Pope Benedict’s question is still today a vital one for the Church in Ireland to address and on which to reflect.

The Catholic Church in Ireland will have to learn a new manner of being present in society. A Protestant leader from Northern Ireland told me recently that some years ago, he would have spoken of change in Church culture “from management to mission”. Now he said we have to move “from monuments to movements”. 

The Catholic Church both in Ireland and in Germany have to avoid wasting time and resources in keeping in place and maintaining monuments: physical, structural, institutional and financial.

No religion

The Irish Church in the future must become be a much more monument-less one, but rather one which reaches out into hearts and becomes heart-driven through the conviction of those who feel touched and inspired by the message and teaching of Jesus Christ. 

Faith is not about establishment. It is about taking the risk of abandoning one’s own security in order to be like the God who did not cling to the trappings of power and authority, but who gave himself totally for our sakes. 

This is a message which is difficult to comprehend and realise especially by those of us who have a leadership role in the Church and who are open to the perennial temptations to defend and even to abuse the power which was given into our hands to be servants.

We celebrate St Kilian, one of the great missionary monks who spread the good news right across the continent.  In its earliest days the Irish Church was fundamentally monastic. Bishops were hired by abbots to carry out sacramental ministry. 

While I am not advocating a return to such practice, it is important for us to remember that hierarchy is only one pillar in the nature of the Church. 

The Church has to become less narrowly institutional and allow other forms of charismatic presence to animate the Church. Many of the attempts to address the question of the drop in the numbers of priests are still priest-centred, rather than focussing on the role of the wider believing community in a different form of leadership. This of course cannot be inspired by trying to replace priests through laymen and laywomen becoming substitute priests. It requires new ways of ensuring that every member of the Church becomes a missionary disciple of Jesus.

This search for different forms of leadership is not a question of the sociology of leadership, but a form of trying to follow Christ whose concept of leadership though service was revolutionary in its time and remains revolutionary today. We need flexible interaction which can address the future. 

Above all we need new ways of reaching out to and involving young people actively in the Christian life.

How do we move towards institutional reform and achieve a less monumental Church structure? Where are the focal points which will foster such a move? Institutions have an innate resistance to change and a tendency to self-preservation. Some of the attempts at Church reform have only increased bureaucracy and bureaucracy is even more resistant to change.

Resistance

Let me take as an example the educational system in Ireland. Almost 90% of all primary schools in Ireland are under religious patronage, and are almost fully financed by the State. Yet less than 80% of the population registers as Catholic. Preparation for First Communion and Confirmation is carried out primarily in the schools. 

There is a stubborn reluctance within the Church to allow that situation to change. With the exception of Catholic Schools Week, the Irish religious education establishment is fixated on questions of ownership and management and too little on the purpose of the Catholic school and the outcomes of Catholic education in terms of faith formation. 

It is stressed that Catholic schools are most welcoming of people of different faiths and social background and with educational disability. That is indeed true. This is not however a reason for maintaining patronage of most of the primary schools in the country, when more and more people want something else.

From the moment of my appointment as archbishop, I advocated a process of divestment of a substantial number Catholic schools to foster a more pluralist presence which would reflect changing demographics. It would also open the possibility of more clearly defining the Catholic nature of Catholic schools. I have to admit that I have been relatively unsuccessful in pushing that idea into practice.

More and more parents look on their local Catholic schools primarily as State schools somehow under Catholic patronage. If enrolment policies become more diversified, equality and non-discrimination legislation will be used to challenge any exclusive denominational character in the ethos of a State school, except where necessary to protect the rights of minorities. 

Risk

The risk now looms large that effectively it will become more and more difficult to maintain a true Catholic ethos in Catholic schools. The move towards parishes undertaking more effective faith formation of young people is miniscule. 

I fear that much of the debate about schools fails to address the real challenges about the religious education of our young people.

The principal contribution of Church institutions in an increasingly secular society is, as Pope Benedict said: “to witness to God in a world that has problems finding Him…and to make God visible in the human face of Jesus Christ, to offer people access to the source without which our morale becomes sterile and loses its point of reference.”

Christian faith is not just a faith about doctrines or about rules and regulations or about ethical standards against which we have to measure our own moral behaviour. It is not just about reforming structures. It is about the ability to preach and witness to the message of Jesus. Reform in the Church is not in the first place about the redistribution of power, but about the redefinition of power in terms of the way in which Jesus revealed who God is.

 

*This text is the speaking notes of Archbishop Martin addressing the topic ‘The challenge for the Church in 21st Century given in the Diocese of Wurzburg, Germany on July 8, 2017.