There are not as many devout Catholics in Ireland as there used to be, because priests and nuns have abused children.
That is a fact and has been confirmed by the world’s media in the wake of Pope Francis’s visit.
“Twenty-five years of revelations about multiple turpitudes (abuse, sexual violence, confiscation of child-mother children) perpetrated for decades against children, youth and women in Church-run institutions, or in the parishes, by priests and religious, have done their work and dethroned it from its rank of moral authority”, opined France’s Le Monde in a translation published in The Irish Times this week.
The Guardian announced that Pope Francis was leaving behind “a country in which the wounds of clerical abuse are still raw and where visceral anger is building rather than fading”, while in Germany, Die Welt judges that the reason the Irish are now more secularised has nothing to do with the general secularisation of Europe. In Ireland, “the reason is the Church itself.”
This is cobblers. The reason the Catholic Church is declining in Ireland is because Ireland is catching up with the rest of Europe. Christianity is dying in Europe.
There are now a dozen countries in Europe in which a majority of young people declare themselves to have no religion, including the Czech Republic, Estonia, Sweden, and the Netherlands, and their status has nothing to do with any history of sexual abuse.
It is true that while Christianity is dying all over Europe, there is huge variation and sociologists will make careers out of explaining why Poland and Lithuania are the two most religious countries in Europe, while the Czech Republic and Estonia, also post-communist, are the least religious.
Ireland has had very public clerical sex abuse scandals, but Stephen Bullivant, the UK professor of theology who published these statistics this year, calls Ireland “pretty religious” compared with anywhere else in Western Europe. It is one of only three European countries in which more than 10% of young people said they went to a weekly church service, along with Poland and Portugal.
In the UK, a mere 7% of young people now consider themselves Anglican. There are more Catholic than Anglican young people in the UK, at 10%, but that’s because one- in-five British Catholics was born outside the UK.
There are nearly as many young Muslims as young Anglicans in the UK and Anglicanism will soon be overtaken by Islam among young people. Within 20 years there will be more Muslim than Christian babies born worldwide and Islam will supercede Christianity as the largest world religion between 2055 and 2060.
Christianity’s relative decline will be most extreme in Europe, its former heartland. Bullivant told The Guardian, “Christianity as a default, as a norm, is gone, and probably gone for good — or at least for the next 100 years.”
The reason does not seem to be simply increasing affluence, because religion is booming in China.
It is probable that what is happening there is a version of what happened in Poland, when religion became a defence against State socialism.
Affluence is a major factor, however, and more specifically the rise of individualism which it allows.
The American psychologist Jean M Twenge has been part of a research project looking at religious affiliation in American young people across several decades. They found the US to be fast converging with Northern Europe in the decline of religion among young people, with three times more college students declaring themselves to be of no religion than in the 1980s, and 20% fewer calling themselves spiritual than in the 1990s.
Twenge describes the individualism which underpins this change as “a cultural system focusing more on the self than on social rules.”
This means, she says, there will be more tolerance of difference in race, gender and sexual orientation but lower empathy and less interest in adhering to large groups with social rules.
“If these trends hold”, she writes, “the America of the future will be unchurched, unmarried and unprejudiced.”
Except against religion, perhaps?
Those of us who dared welcome Pope Francis have this week reaped a whirlwind of shocking hostility. There is anecdotal evidence of priests being barred from a pub in Dublin on their way home from the Phoenix Park.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Primetime, the journalist Brenda Power struck a nerve when she said that the fact that Irish people expressed hatred of the Catholic Church betrayed the strength of their feelings for it.
This is probably true, even if the feelings may be for the people who raised you a Catholic rather than the religion itself. If Irish people reject Catholicism, they are very likely rejecting a creed which their parents held dear, after all.
I think a large part of the emotion is manufactured, however. We are all familiar with the need to have a fight if you want to break up an intense relationship. “It’s not you, it’s me” doesn’t really cut it as a break-up line.
It’s easier to say that you reject Catholicism because of clerical sex abuse, the lack of women priests and the Church’s poor record on gay rights than because you would rather sleep in or go out for brunch on Sunday mornings.
I like sleep-ins and brunches too and my record of church attendance is poor.
owever, I am one of the many Irish people who wants and needs religion. I can look past the massive short-comings of institutional churches, including my own, the Church of Ireland — as do many feminists, some extremely forgiving gay people, and some even more forgiving survivors of poor treatment by religious organisations — because they have nothing to do with Christ’s message.
They are cultural legacies of past economic and social orders which have been fossilised in undemocratic organisations.
It amazes me that many Irish people — and virtually all the media — can drown out the message of Pope Francis, whose Laudate Si is the most radical deconstruction of the economic order which is destroying life on this planet which has ever been published by any world leader, by repeating ad nauseam the mantra, “clerical sex abuse”.
It shouldn’t amaze me, though.
This can’t be about the abuse of minors at all or it would be recognised that Catholic agencies have saved tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of minors from different forms of abuse.
The survivors of abuse in settings other than the Catholic Church would not be ignored and the campaigns would not be fought on social media platforms which tolerate the abuse of minors .
This is about finding the words to dismiss a piece of our past for which many of us have no further use.