Apart from achieving independence, joining the European Union, and almost unlimited access to education, nothing has changed this society as dramatically as the Catholic Church’s spectacular loss of power.
Driven by endless abuse scandals, credo-based authoritarianism on medical and educational practice, and its evasion of agreed responsibilities on redress schemes, a once-unquestioned hegemony is but a whisper. That dominance was all but absolute as recently as 40 years ago, when John Paul II became the first pope to visit Ireland and the country came to a halt. That visit was expected to call lapsing Catholics to order, but time shows it bookended centuries of religious dominance that was often, but not always, conflated with frustrated nationalism. That argument stands even as Britain’s looming departure from the EU underlines how very dependent we remain on our largest neighbour, no matter how that relationship is framed.
The loss of Catholicism’s influence is routinely expressed through referenda on issues regarded differently by Catholic orthodoxy and a growing number of Irish citizens. The decline in Catholic marriages is one echo of those referenda. In the 1990s, more than 90% were held under the auspices of Catholicism. That has fallen to under 53%. There are other indicators. Last August, according to the Office of Public Works, 132,000 people attended the Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in Dublin. Two weeks ago, he said Mass in Abu Dhabi and, according to the Vatican, 180,000 people were present.
The impetus at the root of that loss of influence will dominate a four-day meeting, which begins
at the Vatican
today, to address the issue of clerical child sexual abuse. Francis has already dampened expectations, warning last month: “The problem of abuse will continue. It’s a human problem... that exists everywhere.” That is undeniable, but that as few as 10 of the expected 180 or so participants are women (
and they are
members of the International Union of Superiors General) suggests the institution of Catholicism has not yet understood today’s world, where gender equality is a long-settled issue.
The atmosphere around the meeting cannot have been cheered in recent days, when a former cardinal was expelled from the priesthood over abuse allegations. The Vatican announced the defrocking of Theodore McCarrick on Saturday.
McCarrick, an old man of 88 and formerly archbishop of Washington, is the most senior figure dismissed from the priesthood in modern times. The publication of In the Closet of the Vatican, in which French author Frédéric Martel claims that senior clergy at the Vatican who have most vociferously attacked homosexuality are gay, is also significant. Martel suggests that approximately 80% of priests at the Vatican are gay, but that not all are actively so.
It easy to criticise Catholicism, but it’s not the only ‘ism’ failing its followers. Capitalism is leaving far too many behind. The optimism behind socialism has not been justified, and environmentalism may prove the greatest failure of all.
All of these are, in one way or another, good ideas, so why can’t we — the ‘ists’— make them work?