Visit of Pope Francis heralds the end of the Church as we know it

There is no blame as articulate as the accusations of the implicated, writes Gerard Howlin

Visit of Pope Francis heralds the end of the Church as we know it

Pope Francis will land at Dublin Airport at 10.30am on August 25. If the scale of public exuberance will be entirely different from 1979, I predict it will, within limits, be a modest success. There will certainly be sharp criticism, and perhaps some confrontation.

On the whole, I think there will be a welcome. And then things will go on largely as they were before. It is a healthier thing and a more mature understanding of religion that it is no longer to be defined by, apparently, epoch-making events, only for disappointment to rapidly arrive afterwards.

The Church context has changed completely in 39 years. The last papal visit was foretold as a great revival. It was seen in hindsight as a high watermark.

Both estimations were misleading. The euphoria of the event, contrasting subsequently with reputational shattering, doubled down on anger towards Church and clergy. Partly because people felt duped, and they were.

More insidiously, many were wise enough to know they were also culpable. Child abuse may have taken place behind closed doors, but Magdalene laundries, industrial schools, and mother and baby homes were highly conspicuous.

More to the point, they facilitated societal need and prejudice and were actively fed and supported by it.

There is no blame as articulate as the accusations of the implicated. Craw-thumping then and rancorous criticism now need to be understood not as opposites but as a continuum of exaggerated self-interest unconnected with any real moral compass. Change abounds. Moral improvement is more difficult to see.

Another part of Church context that has changed completely is that the parish network, instituted universally at the Council of Trent but only effectively created in Ireland in the 19th century after Emancipation, especially after the Famine, is on the verge of collapse.

The Counter-Reformation arrived here 200 years late and in an entirely different context. Jansenism, a particularly guilt-ridden and gloomy view of the world more interested in sin than redemption, had already taken hold in Maynooth.

That institution simultaneously developed as a permanent counterweight before independence to Irish republicanism generally and secret societies especially. There could be no secrets from God or his anointed.

That struggle was comprehensively won by the bishops. There was a Republic, in significant measure created by physical- force republicans. But the State that emerged was not a new invention. It was continuity with an unofficial but enforced social contract already in place for a generation.

The critical moment in Church-State relations was not 1922 or 1916. It was the fall of Parnell in 1890-91. That was the moment when, politically, Ireland calcified into what later became a largely Catholic state.

Structures were populated in schools, hospitals, and parishes by a burgeoning army of clergy. Now numbers have plummeted while the age profile has soared. What there is less awareness of is how embedded this process has been for a very long time.

In 1965, the total number of Catholic religious vocations, male and female, was 1,375. By 1970 it was 750. In 1979, the year of the last papal visit, it was 506.

In a separate comparison which deals with candidates for the priesthood only, by 2009 there were 92 students for the priesthood in Maynooth and the Irish College in Rome. Last year, there were 41 studying in Maynooth.

We shouldn’t be surprised by an almost 50-year trajectory of a decline in vocations. In a week when the Bishop of Elphin, Kevin Doran, advocated for ‘Humanae Vitae’ as an alternative to a contraceptive culture, which he sees as the centre of much that is wrong with modern culture, it is worth thinking back to The Riordans, a farm-based soap opera in the early 1970s.

The contraception train had already arrived from Belfast; the McGee case had established contraception as a right, and, in a way that completely transfixed the country, Maggie Riordan went on the pill. This was really the start of bodily autonomy.

There is a direct line from the Riordans’ fictional farm at Leestown, Co Kilkenny, to May’s referendum.

All the while, the immutable structure of the Catholic Church, with its dense institutional network and phalanx of clergy, seemingly withstood the onslaught of events. But not for much longer. Demographics are the new certainty. The parish structure still stands, just about.

But if Pope John Paul II came to revive what went before, the visit was, in hindsight, an unhelpful diversion from home truths. It engendered a last gasp of institutional arrogance, when humility might have been more appropriate.

Whatever its stated intention, Pope Francis’s visit is truly goodbye to all that. Within 10 years, the structures will first subside under the weight of retirements, and then they will collapse. It won’t be the end of the Church by any means, but it is certainly the end of it as we know it.

Irish Catholicism had a long history before the Famine. What we have experienced since will soon be not only history but a historical aberration.

The problem is that, without priests, there is no Catholicism. It is a priestly religion, and the sacramental function of the ordained is essential. Prayer services are well and good, but the sacraments can only be provided by priests.

In a sense, the stripping of the altars since the 1960s has desacralised Catholicism, and left the role sometimes indistinguishable from that of a senior social worker, in architectural settings now remarkably similar to the parish hall.

There is not just a vocations crisis, there is an identity crisis. The surrounding culture has changed profoundly. In 2016, only 53% of marriages were Catholic ceremonies. A key purpose of the Council of Trent was to ensure that marriage was a public and registered ceremony in the local parish church.

This was to police private conjugal rites, as distinct from ‘living in sin’, which was something else entirely.

It is not just that the parish structure is on the verge of collapse for want of priests to serve. It is that the function of the parish and its relationship to the surrounding community is withering as culture changes.

I don’t know what will exist in 20 years’ time.

But the inalterable change to a once unchanging edifice is now unstoppable. If you consider that only a third of the population is now seriously committed to its Catholic faith, the immediate corollary is that there is no vocations crisis, just a vast excess of already denuded and now clapped-out plant.

The unspoken context is that ultimately it is never about structure, it is about belief. Is counselling and psychoanalysis working for us?

A lot of it is just applied as a fake religion. Naming ceremonies and humanist funerals seek to meet essentially similar needs as Church ceremonies.

The Church is an old story, and it is not finished yet. But a page is being turned.

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