THE influence of religion in Ireland is on the wane, and over the past 40 years in particular, this has been an accelerating phenomenon. The truth is Ireland is losing its religion.
The socio-moral implications of this decline have been dramatic, though we are far from having a full picture. Too much has changed too quickly for us to be able to discern a pattern. And while the increasing marginalisation of religion may be welcomed by ardent secularists and militant atheists, it presents a profound challenge for wider society.
Since the foundation of the modern Irish State in 1922, religion has been the social cement that provided cohesion and stability, and it was religion primarily that shaped our common moral framework.
Our value-system was rooted in religion, and in his book Moral Monopoly, Tom Inglis of UCD has traced how the Catholic Church established a monopoly over Irish morality. That monopoly has now been broken, he asserts, and there is abundant evidence to support this view. But the consequences have, as yet, been only dimly perceived.
In his book Empty Pulpits: Ireland’s Retreat from Religion, Malachi O’Doherty emphasises that the collapse of religion, in one of the most conspicuously devout countries of Europe, is both fascinating and pertinent to an understanding of the world we live in.
And a key to that understanding is the spread of secularisation.
“One simple sign of secularisation is the reduction in the numbers of people going to church,” writes O’Doherty. “A more stark one is the reduction in recruitment to the priesthood, ministry or religious orders.
“Another is the relaxation of the felt need in government to defer to the institutional church or the religious sensibilities of the electorate. All these trends are strongly evident in Ireland.” O’Doherty says this doesn’t mean that we are all atheists — yet. “But we are getting by without God, most of the time.”
Many of the themes dealt with by O’Doherty had also been explored in an earlier book entitled Goodbye to Catholic Ireland, written by my formercolleague Mary Kenny. She, too, took a pessimistic view of the future of Irish Catholicism.
She linked the decline in the institutional Church to the decline in the Catholic faith as a central part of Irish culture.
“Although Catholicism has marked certain values, and has deposited its heritage in the culture, it is widely accepted that the Catholic Church means much less to young people in Ireland today than it has ever done in the course of Christian history. The young Irish no longer see catholicity as part of their identity.”
Mary Kenny was writing in 1996 — the disconnect between young people and the Church today is even greater than it was back then.
If one were seeking one subject and one decisive turning-point marking the beginning of a significant abandonment of religion, then that subject would be contraception, and the date would be 1968 which saw the publication of Pope Paul VI’s anti-contraceptive encyclical Humanae Vitae.
“I believe that the questioning of, and dissent from, the teaching of Humanae Vitae was a watershed in the Catholic Church,” admitted Willie Walsh, the retired Bishop of Killaloe, in his memoir No Crusader.
Malachi O’Doherty agrees: “The turning point in Ireland, in the 1960s, is widely credited to the Catholic Church’s assertive stand against artificial contraception. Catholic women could no longer be honest with their confessors, or accept their right to dictate their sexual behaviour. So they ceased in huge numbers to pay any serious attention to the clergy.”
The desertion of the Church by women seriously undermined the basis of religious faith. After all, traditionally it was the mothers of Ireland who transmitted the faith from one generation to the next.
Paul VI’s controversial and extremely divisive encyclical — which was deeply disappointing to the many who hoped for change – dealt a serious blow to the Church’s moral authority. In Ireland, it meant that since the 1970s, the Church has been struggling to come to terms with the fact that it no longer regulates the lives of most people.
Of course later on, the series of child sex abuse scandals that so shocked the nation also contributed to a growing sense of disenchantment with and alienation from the institutional Church. It could hardly be otherwise.
“There is no doubting the enormous damage done to the prestige of the Catholic Church by these scandals,” according to Louise Fuller on NUI Maynooth.
In her book Irish Catholicism since 1950: The Undoing of a Culture she writes: “But ironically it was precisely because of its enormous prestige and the high moral ground on which on which the Church had stood, that Irish Catholics were so shocked, disappointed and appalled. What sharpened the irony was that, of all aspects of morality, the Church was perceived as being particularly concerned to promote sexual morality, and these scandals flew in the face of the strict code of sexual morality so emphasised in the preaching of the Church — these were ‘sins of the flesh’, which many felt that the Church was obsessed with to the point of promoting prudishness”.
Ms Fuller also reminds us that the importance of the media cannot be underestimated in any consideration of cultural change.
“Whereas the Irish media in the main could be described as Church-friendly in the 1950s, television took the lead in steering the media in general into a more critical stance, and this new development gathered momentum in the 1970s,” she says.
With the collapse of religion and the values it promoted, the problem today is that Irish society has to contend with a moral vacuum. Some would say we are facing a moral wasteland, and some evidence of this can be seen in the rise in anti-social behaviour, petty crime and serious violent crime, and growing disrespect for persons and property.
And as the various tribunals of inquiry have revealed, corruption and corporate crime are more commonplace than many of us were prepared to admit.
It is premature, of course, to speak of “post-Catholic Ireland”.
We should never forget that the drift from institutional religion doesn’t always equate with actual loss of faith. Yet we have witnessed profound changes. “A transformation is occurring in present-day Irish society as dramatic as that which occurred during the middle of the last century,” according to Tom Inglis.
“The monolithic Church which brought a holistic view to Irish social, economic and political life is beginning to fragment.”
What all of this means is that if Pope Francis comes to Ireland next year (and the invitation has already been extended), he will find a very different set of circumstances to those which prevailed in 1979 when Pope John Paul II made his historic visit.