Believing but not belonging

SO are we becoming a nation of pagans?

Some Irish Catholic bishops appear to think so, though they may be confusing absence from the Church with the spread of unbelief.

And it may also be yet another indication that they are in serious denial over the implications of the clerical sex abuse scandal.

The consequences of this scandal for the bishops and their authority have been far-reaching. The hope that Pope Benedict XVI’s letter to Irish Catholics — issued on Mar 19, 2010 — would bring some form of closure was never realistic.

The Church here and elsewhere has been badly shaken by the sandal, and left exposed because of the attempted cover-up — something now widely recognised, though perhaps not yet by some bishops.

Faith in the institution and its leaders has been seriously undermined, and many Catholics who would never endorse actor Gabriel Byrne’s recently expressed opinion that the Catholic Church is “a very corrupt and nefarious institution” and even “a force for evil”, are now nevertheless disaffected with the institution.

More and more of them now belong in a category described by one commentator as “believing but not belonging”. An institutional crisis isn’t necessarily indicative of a loss of faith. Empty church pews at weekends are far more likely due to growing disillusionment than an actual abandonment of faith. Failure — or an unwillingness — to make this distinction, appears to be a characteristic of most Irish bishops at present.

This was borne out by the recently- published report from the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), drawn up after a series of nationwide meetings with priests’ councils. The report said there seemed to be a substantial number of bishops, and some priests, who believe that the problems facing the Church are not due to any difficulties in the Church or the priesthood, but are caused by a lack of faith in the people.

“The people, they told us, have bought into the evils of materialism and consumerism and don’t have time or interest in faith anymore,” said the report. “They have, to all intents and purposes, become pagan. And they [the bishops] believe that ‘evangelisation’ is the answer.”

The ACP report said: “[This is] a convenient belief, in that the blame lies elsewhere than among ourselves. We consider there are real problems here for the Irish Church. If there are such radically different understandings of the current situation, it is hard to see how we can make headway in working towards a solution. And if we don’t, the result will be a Christian people largely deprived of the Eucharist, and, we believe, for no good reason.”

Not all Irish bishops share this analysis. The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, to his credit, does recognise the scale and source of the problem. In a lecture he gave on “Catholic Ireland: Past, Present, and Future” at Fordham University in New York earlier this year (the text was published in the June edition of The Furrow), he said that the “causes of the crisis lie within the Church itself”.

And while he acknowledges that Ireland has entered a “post-Catholic” phase, he insists that this must be seen in its proper context. He points out that for decades Ireland was looked on as one of the world’s most deeply and stably Catholic countries, but “today Ireland finds itself along with other parts of Europe being classified as ‘post-Catholic’.”

However, the Archbishop reminds us that there are different definitions of “post-Catholic”, and its meaning in Ireland is not the same as in other parts of the English-speaking world such as Britain or the US.

“You can only fully define post- Catholic in terms of the Catholicism that has been displaced.”

Later in his lecture he emphasised that the “Catholic Church in Ireland had for far too long felt it was safely ensconced in a ‘Catholic country’.” The reality was very different.

“The roots of change in Ireland were there but were not seen. It is not that Ireland is today in a momentary out-of-the-ordinary period in its history, somehow temporarily adrift from what is really the default position. There is no default position any more and there has not been such a position for some time.

“In many ways the Church in Ireland had been trapped in an illusory self-image. The demographic majority which the Church enjoyed hid many structural weaknesses and the Church became insensitive to such weakness.”

And in his lecture, the archbishop made no attempt to downplay the effects of the child abuse scandal.

“One of the keys to understanding the mismanagement of the recent child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland must be precisely the measure in which the Church in Ireland had become auto-referential. The effects of the child abuse scandals have had a demoralising effect on the entire Church in Ireland and continue to have. In one sense, the scandals could not have come at a worse time, in that confidence in the Church was well on the wane and when the scandals broke their effects were devastating.”

It remains to be seen whether the “post-Catholic” phase in Ireland is markedly different from elsewhere, as Martin contends.

The evidence from a new book would suggest otherwise. This volume, which is a collection of studies by different scholars, is entitled The Sixties and Beyond: Dechristianization in North America and Western Europe, 1945-2000, and points to a deep-rooted religious crisis.

In one essay, Melanie Heath, assistant professor of sociology at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, tracks the “pervasive decline of religion” across Western Europe and North America. “For much of Western Europe, the 1960s prompted the beginning of a general collapse of religious culture, and matters of sex, sexuality and gender equality were at the forefront of debate.”

The professor of history at the Catholic University of America, Leslie Woodcock Tentler, takes up this theme and says that, beginning in earnest in the 1960s, there was a decline not just in religious practice, clerical recruitment and doctrinal literacy but in Catholic identity and communal institutions as well.

“There is nothing singular about this downward trajectory: With minor differences in timing, it has played out in locales as varied as Quebec, the Netherlands, Bavaria, and even Ireland. As elsewhere in the Catholic world, tensions over sex and gender appear to have played a significant causal role.”

Here in Ireland, the current debate and controversy over abortion, central to which are differences along gender lines and differences over a woman’s “right to choose”, is a reflection of trends which these scholars have highlighted. We saw this earlier in this country in the controversies over contraception and family planning and over divorce.

Arguably, the only significant difference between the situation in Ireland and the situation in the rest of Western Europe and North America is that these controversies surfaced later here, a fact no doubt due to the power and influence of the Catholic Church here up to the 1960s and even into the 1970s. As Martin acknowledged in his Fordham lecture, the “Church had become conformist and controlling not just with its faithful, but in society in general”, and he helpfully explains that “conformism falsely feels that it has attained certainty”.

That form of conformism has now been well and truly shattered, and the controlling influence of the Church has been on the wane at least since the publication of Humanae Vitae (the anti-contraceptive encyclical of Pope Paul VI) in 1968 — a state of affairs not in any way reversed by the papal visit of 1979.

All the evidence suggests that the phenomenon of dechristianisation means there can be no return to normalcy: As Martin has admitted, there is no default position anymore and there has not been one for some time. On the other hand, if the “post-Catholic” phase in Ireland is somehow different from elsewhere in Europe, then it may not signal a dramatic rise of religious unbelief. It could mean a continuing belief in Christian tenets, but a growing unwillingness to conform to the moral requirements of the institutional Church, especially in the sphere of sexuality. This could see more and more Irish Catholics opting for the category of “believing but not belonging”.


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