Irish Catholicism in decline: Sidelined by its own hypocrisy

Catholicism might not always have been blessed with admirable champions.

One was the Spanish fascist, Franco, who stole the embalmed hand of Saint Teresa of Avila from the nuns of the Nuestra Señora de la Merced, in Ronda, in 1937.

Spain’s last caudillo was so convinced of the relic’s potency that he kept it at his bedside, until his death in 1975.

It was then returned to the nuns, who keep it in a darkened, locked room, set inside a silver glove flecked with precious stones.

It may seem incongruous to compare the dictator’s morbid piety to the infamous, 1979 cheerleading of Bishop Eamon Casey and celebrity cleric, Fr Michael Cleary, both then parents, at Pope John Paul’s Galway mass, but they are two sides of the same coin.

They were expressions of a type of public religiosity now as rare as a full church on a Sunday morning, even on an Easter Sunday morning.

The deep hypocrisy and unfathomable cynicism of both gestures also unites them.

From a Catholic perspective, it is sad that the glowing humanity of, say, Jean Vanier or Óscar Romero — or Peter McVerry — has not countered myriad scandals.

The scale and criminal audacity of abuse scandals did more to enfeeble Irish Catholicism than centuries of anti-Catholic bigotry.

The impact of that institutional harakiri is seen in the inability to sustain the number of priests needed to serve even a declining church-going population.

Far more priests and nuns are retiring than are being prepared to replace them.

A growing number of parishes do not have a dedicated priest. More than half of Ireland’s 25 archdioceses or dioceses have seen an aggregate fall in the number of active priests over the last five years.

Nearly half of the country’s parishes have cut mass services. Some limit time options for weddings or baptisms.

Despite that implosion, Irish people between aged 16 and 29 may be among the most religious in Europe.

A study by two Catholic universities (St Mary’s University, Twickenham, in London, and the Institut Catholique de Paris) designed to inform the work of October’s Synod of Bishops in Rome found that Poles and Lithuanians were the only other Europeans to profess such strong religious beliefs.

More than half — 54% — of Irish people in this cohort described themselves as Catholic, but 39% said they had no religion. These figures may be influenced by other issues — school admission policies, say — but they are not reflected in religious practice.

In five months Pope Francis will visit Ireland. He will not repeat the triumphant progress of 1979, but will revive memories of that time.

Two involve the abuse of children while John Paul II was in Ireland.

Those memories will be framed by a hierarchy unable or unwilling to look beyond the ever-more pressing need to encourage vocations among celibate young men.

They will be exacerbated by a church leadership still paying lip service to half of humanity and any prospect of a greater role for women. It is hard to think of another faith-based organisation that has survived such self-inflicted


Irish Catholicism may not be in its death throes, but it was never closer to being marginalised and irrelevant. Whether the expanded role for Catholic laity of all genders that we report on today can turn the tide remains to be seen.

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