Can religion find its voice and preach to the masses again?

Some 20 years after predictions were made of a ‘Catholic restoration’, the Church finds itself lost in modern Ireland, writes TP O’Mahony

Can religion find its voice and preach to the masses again?

When Mary Kenny published her book, Goodbye to Catholic Ireland, in 1997, even she didn’t have any real sense of how dramatic the flight from the faith would be in the years to come.

Surprisingly, given the trends she was observing, she thought there might even be a Catholic restoration, saying “in 25 or 30 years’ time another writer will be appending a postscript to the effect that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more it changes, the more it remains the same). That looks far less likely now than it did in 1997.

Ms Kenny’s book appeared five years after the nation was shocked when the news broke, in May 1992, of the Bishop Eamonn Casey-Annie Murphy affair. It was, she wrote, “a scandal unprecedented in Ireland for 200 years... People were flabbergasted; breathless; appalled; disbelieving. And bitter.”

She admits that, at first, she took the news of the Casey scandal too lightly: “I much underestimated the impact of the Bishop Casey affair.” She wasn’t alone in that. The Casey revelations did irreversible damage to Catholic Ireland, though much, much worse was to follow in terms of any moral calculus.

The book of the affair, Forbidden Fruit, co-written by Annie Murphy and Peter de Rosa, was published in 1993. While it may have been, as Ms Kenny concluded, a “bonkbuster” — a “coarse and lurid account of seedy couplings in parked sports cars” — it greatly added to the damaging impact of the affair.

The catastrophic collapse of the Church’s moral authority can be conveniently dated from the shock and disillusionment caused by this affair. As Ms Kenny herself acknowledged, the “furore over Casey — followed by the controversy over the X case — marked 1992 as the year when Catholic Ireland began to slide into retreat and decline, the year in which Irish Catholicism was seen as being in the wrong”.

In fact, that process had started much earlier. The slide into retreat and decline really began in July 1968 with the publication of Pope Paul VI’s anti-contraception encyclical, ‘Humanae Vitae’. In his book, The Encyclical That Never Was, dealing with the story of the commission established by Pope John XXIII to examine the question of birth control, Robert Kaiser, who had covered Vatican II (1962-65) for The New York Times, said “many Catholics found out that in matters of their own marital morals, the Pope wasn’t in change — they were”.

From that time on, papal authority would never be the same. What started with a rejection of papal teaching on birth control would blossom in time into a burgeoning disillusionment with institutional Catholicism.

By the time Malachi O’Doherty’s book, Empty Pulpits: Ireland’s Retreat from Religion, appeared in 2008, Catholic Ireland had undergone profound changes. The spread of secularisation is one of the most obvious changes:

“A more stark one is the reduction in the recruitment to the priesthood, ministry, or religious orders. Another is the relaxation in the felt need in government to defer to the institutional church or the religious sensibilities of the electorate.”

In the six years since the publication of Empty Pulpits, those trends have accelerated, so much so that the headline over the front-page lead story in the November 13, 2014, edition of The Irish Catholic said: “Church has ‘lost the battle’ with secularism — archbishop”.

The archbishop in question was Michael Neary of Tuam. The paper reported that, in his homily at the Mass for the Association of Papal Orders in Ireland at McKee Barracks in Dublin, Dr Neary said the Church in Ireland found itself “at a rather bewildering crossroads”.

Warning that the Church was regarded with apathy by many people, Dr Neary said: “This is because the whole society, like an Irish village of 50 years ago, knows and is tacitly acknowledging something that hardly needs to be said — that a great struggle, social, political, intellectual, and profoundly cultural, has been fought. And that we have lost.”

The crisis besetting Irish Catholicism will undoubted be greeted with schadenfreude by some. We shouldn’t blind ourselves, however, to the awful repercussions of the fracturing of the social cement that religion provided for so long.

The restoration of Catholicism in Ireland that Mary Kenny seemed to envisage in 1997 is now so remote a possibility as to be off the board. The best hope for a renewed Catholicism may lie in the rediscovery and promotion of the Social Gospel, something Pope Francis appears to envisage in his desire to see “a Church that is poor and for the poor”.

A deeper problem concerns the place of religion in the public square. Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told officials at the recent US Conference of Catholic Bishops that the voice of the Catholic Church must be heard in the public square.

In Ireland, that voice used to have not only a guaranteed place in the public square, but for a very long time it had a pre-eminent place there. That’s no longer the case. The Church’s voice has become increasingly peripheral.

Henceforth, it will have to make its case for a right to be heard in the public square. The days when it could take things for granted are gone.

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