Test of faith: New books explores Catholicism in contemporary Ireland

Irish author Declan Henry’s new book ‘Forbidden Fruit: Life and Catholicism in Contemporary Ireland’ looks at what he calls the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church towards the LGBT community. He spoke with Donal O’Keeffe

Test of faith: New books explores Catholicism in contemporary Ireland

There's a lovely line at the start of Declan Henry’s book, Forbidden Fruit: Life and Catholicism in Contemporary Ireland.

“I sometimes wonder if I’m Irish anymore,” he writes, “when I compare Ireland now to how I remember it from my adolescence and early adulthood.”

Speaking on the phone from London, his home for over 30 years, Henry says he still feels very much a part of Ireland, and is a frequent visitor here. “I’m originally from Co Sligo. I grew up on a farm in the west of Ireland, doing my Leaving Cert in 1981, so I got the full blast of Irish Catholicism.”

Henry says that when he began writing his book, he had thought he knew all about the decline in the Catholic Church in Ireland following the clerical sex abuse scandals, but he says he was shocked to learn the extent of that collapse. “It’s a really crumbling empire, it’s pretty much on its knees, and I perhaps didn’t realise the extent of the disinterest — rather than disdain — in Catholicism these days.

“There are a lot of middle-aged people I spoke with who said ‘It’s a habit, we go to Mass, but the enthusiasm isn’t there’.”

The purpose of Henry’s book, he says, was to ask why the Catholic Church produced so many paedophile priests, and to look at what he calls its hypocrisy toward the LGBT community.

Of Pope Francis he says: “He’s not a stupid man, and by papal standards he’s very popular and likeable, but he can say incredibly foolish things. He has been known to say gay men aren’t welcome in the priesthood. There are 400,000 priests in the world, probably less than 4,000 in Ireland.

If you look at the statistics, at least 60% of Catholic priests are gay, so if gay men aren’t welcome, that’s a lot of priests who should be packing their cases tonight and leaving their parishes.

Might Francis have meant gay men who are not celibate, the same as heterosexual priests are unwelcome if not celibate?

“Perhaps, but I think there’s still that distorted view of gay men, that they’re all promiscuous, that they will bring scandal on the Church; and some of the older priests would not be able to differentiate between homosexuality and paedophilia.”

Henry says his research shows the Catholic Church has a reputation for accepting men who would be battling what he calls “internalised homophobia”, men uncomfortable with their sexuality.

“The priests that I’ve spoken with, very well-educated men, they would have gone through all that training in the seminary and sex was never, ever mentioned.

Young men, 17 and 18, going into the priesthood had to just park their sexuality at the door, and from that moment onward they never had any freedom to express any intimacy. It was a forbidden aspect.

You can only imagine the years and years of profound loneliness and repression, and the compulsory celibacy, you wonder what it leads to, and did lead to, and can still lead to.

“One of the things I wanted to do in this book was to look at the reasons for paedophilia. I think the church is reluctant to engage in debate around the reasons for paedophilia because there are psychological studies which state that celibacy leads to an unhealthy and perverted pathology about sex, intimacy etc.”

The change in Ireland, especially since the 2015 marriage equality referendum, has been phenomenal, Henry feels. “I talk in the book about meeting a gay priest who had come out during that referendum. I went to one of his Masses, and it was one of the best-attended Masses that I’ve been to in Ireland in recent years. He’s had no problems with his parishioners accepting him as a celibate gay priest.

"I think he’s a very good role model to other gay priests who might be thinking about coming out.”

Declan Henry
Declan Henry

Might those parishioners have been so accepting, though, were the priest not celibate?

“That’s difficult to know, but given how progressive Ireland is now, you wonder how that would go. Everybody has somebody in their family who is LGBT. People are not so removed.

"We have uncles, sisters, cousins. I had grand-uncles who weren’t married. It’s the same in every family. It’salways been there.”

In conversation, Henry is enthusiastic and engaging. When advised that a passing reference in his book to Ireland’s myriad abortion referendums confuses the 1983 Eighth Amendment with the 2018 36th Amendment, which repealed the Eighth, the author is apologetic and promises to amend the error in the second edition.

He describes himself as still on good terms with the Catholic Church, even though he has lapsed: “I think we just have to have a more realistic, honest debate, particularly about homosexuality in the priesthood.” Asked his own religious philosophy, he is sanguine.

“As a Christian, you have to transcend the Catholic Church and find your own faith, your own God, your own Jesus.

And remember that you can read all of the Gospels and you will find that Jesus never once condemned homosexuality.

- Forbidden Fruit: Life and Catholicism in Contemporary Ireland is in bookshops now and available on Amazon.

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