FERGUS FINLAY: Irish Catholicism is a ‘northern white rhino’ about to go extinct

Irish Catholicism is visibly dying ... its decline is, in my opinion, irreversible, says Fergus Finlay.

Is Catholicism at death’s door in Ireland? I’m not asking if it’s struggling, or even in crisis. Is it actually beyond the point of recovery? When Pope Francis visits Ireland later this year, will he breathe new life into his moribund organisation, or will he have to preside over its last rites?

I’m not a Catholic, although, as a baby, I was baptised into the Church. Years ago, I decided that what worked for me was humanism.

It irritates me that, when I’m asked to declare my religion, I have to say “no religion”, because humanism isn’t a religion. There’s no space on the census return, for example, for saying that I’ve tried to have an ethical life that doesn’t depend on blind faith or adherence to dogma.

But even though I’m not a Catholic, Catholicism has dominated all our lives. It has educated us and has brought us back to health. But it has also been an architect of often oppressive social policy, a dominant and regressive influence in politics.

It has punished what it sees as sinners, and too often protected abusers from within.

In my lifetime, there has been no more powerful institution, and that power has derived from the number of people who claim adherence and who profess faith. So, even when the newspapers would publish stories about falling mass attendances and the like, I never thought Catholicism would simply fade away.

Now, I do, and the experience of a week has convinced me that it will be over soon.

A couple of weeks ago, I watched a news item on television about the death of the last male northern white rhinoceros.

There was something terribly sad about it. Sudan was the name of the animal. He had lived the end of his life in pain, and surrounded by guards, because even though his rhino horn had been reduced to a stump, he was still at risk from poachers, who believed they could get an enormous price for that one piece of him.

It was tragic to see this giant of an animal pass away. But it was sadder still to realise that this almost certainly meant the elimination of an entire sub-species from our planet.

There are two northern white rhinos left, both of them female. Sudan’s DNA has been preserved, in the forlorn hope that it might be possible to find a way to breed, or perhaps clone, a new rhino, but none of the experts believe we will ever see a newborn rhino of that type again. (There are other sub-species of rhino in the world, all of them threatened with extinction.)

I don’t mean it disrespectfully, but nothing reminds me as much of a great northern white rhino as the Irish Catholic Church.

I can’t speak for Catholicism in the rest of the world, but Irish Catholicism is visibly dying in front of our eyes. It means less and less in the life of the country, and its decline is, in my opinion, irreversible.

It might seem odd, but I was prompted to start thinking about this, the other day, by an item about the former Russian spy who was poisoned, along with his daughter, in the UK.

As the Morning Ireland presenter was about to introduce the story, he remarked that there was an irony in talking about it that morning, because, as he said, “someone on the team just realised that today is Spy Wednesday”.

When my generation was younger, the rites and rituals of Catholicism were all around us, alive and kicking. So all of us — even the few God-fearing atheists — knew exactly when Spy Wednesday was and why it was significant.

In the middle of Holy Week, we all understood that it was the moment that Judas Iscariot decided to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. It was the start of the week of the passion.

The betrayal of Jesus didn’t actually happen until the following day, after the Last Supper, but Spy Wednesday had deep significance, nevertheless.

So it was quite a jolt to hear, on RTÉ’s premier radio news programme, that “someone on the team” had remembered Spy Wednesday.

That means that Spy Wednesday had no significance for the rest of that team.

My generation, and every generation of Irish people before me, almost lived in suspended animation during Holy Week: Eucharistic prayers on Thursday, the stations of the cross on Friday, confession on Saturday, Mass and communion on Sunday. Only after that could the Lenten fast be broken with chocolate.

That’s why I decided, last week, to retrace my steps, and do something I haven’t done for 30 years or more. I went to church.

To be more specific, I joined about 40 people in our local church, for eucharistic prayers on Holy Thursday. You could hear the echo, and a note of pleading in the priest’s voice, as he told his few parishioners that the stations of the cross would take place at 7.30 the following day, to facilitate those who had to work.

I went back on Good Friday. Even for a non-believer, there is something undeniably tragic and uplifting about the story of Jesus’s agony and death — the journey along the Via Dolorosa, as the priest called it.

And they had tried to dramatise it further by darkening the church and shining an individual light on each of the stations, as the priest intoned the prayers.

The passion is central to the Church’s story. But I could still count no more than 60 people in the gloom of the church on Good Friday, at a ceremony organised for their convenience.

Our local church holds comfortably more than 600 people. I can remember occasions when it burst at the seams. I can even remember being at a Sunday mass in the church — I can’t remember why I was there — when all records were broken for attendance because we were all enthralled and entertained by a visiting celebrant, the famous Michael Cleary.

We didn’t know then, of course, about the depths of his cynicism and hypocrisy — itself one of the possible reasons behind the terminal decline of his Church.

It was the same throughout the weekend — and not just in the Dublin suburb where I live, but down the country, too. The census figures show continuous decline — data published last week shows that barely half of all marriage ceremonies take place in the Catholic Church now.

That would have been unimaginable when I was young.

Our local church is at one end of the street where I live. At the other is a popular wine bar. On Good Friday — the first Good Friday it was allowed to open — there were comfortably more people in the wine bar than were observing the stations of the cross. Unlike the Church, the wine bar was doing a thriving business.


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