Rev­e­la­tions and the fall

The cul­tural le­gacy and dis­man­tling of Ir­ish Catholi­cism.

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Mark He­d­er­man

By Eamon Ma­her and Eu­gene O’Brien Manch­ester Univer­sity Press, £85

Through­out most of the 20th cen­tury i n Ire­land, the Catholic Church was in­volved in a sym­bi­otic struc­tural en­tan­gle­ment with the Ir­ish Free State as this re­al­ity un­folded so­cially and po­lit­i­cally. As the song says, both went to­gether like a horse and car­riage. This seemed nor­mal and al­most prov­i­den­tial to the ma­jor­ity of Ire­land’s cit­i­zens for the first half-cen­tury of our ex­is­tence. Then, very sud­denly, in a pe­riod of 20 years, more or less, the horse col­lapsed or the car­riage crum­bled, which­ever way you choose to look at it: the Catholic Church melted away. How did this hap­pen? How could this have hap­pened? This is the ques­tion posed by this col­lec­tion of es­says.

I’m not sure whether it is pos­si­ble, with a hind­sight of less than 20 years, to give a com­pre­hen­sive over­view of the de­cline and fall of the Catholic Church in Ire­land. If it is pos­si­ble, this work is as good an at­tempt as you will find, and it will cer­tainly pro­vide later gen­er­a­tions with the con­tem­po­rary where­withal to make a more de­fin­i­tive long-dis­tance judg­ment. For their spe­cific pur­poses here, the con­trib­u­tors to this vol­ume cre­ate a prism that pro­vides clar­ity and fo­cus. They sit­u­ate their ex­am­i­na­tion be­tween the year 1979 as the first book­end and the be­gin­ning of the new mil­len­nium as the sec­ond. Al­though the edi- tors wish to avoid the trap of tak­ing a proor anti- Catholi­cism stance, the one thing all con­trib­u­tors are agreed upon is that the Catholic Church in Ire­land is in se­ri­ous de­cline. Such una­nim­ity in no way iden­ti­fies any clear un­der­stand­ing of what is meant by that state­ment. As one es­say­ist points out: “Cul­ture is com­plex and de­vel­ops in ways that make it dif­fi­cult to dis­man­tle.”

Thir­teen writ­ers from a mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary panel pro­vide schol­arly, al­though highly read­able, ac­counts of the his­tory, con­text and causal­ity of the dis­man­tling of “the once- dom­i­nant force that was Ir­ish Catholi­cism”. Four­teen es­says sur­vey, from mul­ti­ple stand­points, the rel­e­vant past, the un­com­fort­able present and the pos­si­ble fu­ture for Ir­ish Catholi­cism. Nor is this a pro­pa­gan­dist ex­er­cise. The con­trib­u­tors are dis­pas­sion­ate, what­ever might hap­pen to be their pri­vate af­fil­i­a­tion. The book is el­e­gantly pre­sented, al­though the in­ter­est­ing es­say on pho­tog­ra­phy, sug­gest­ing that “the prop­a­ga­tion of im­agery in any so­ci­ety is di­rectly re­lated to the dis­sem­i­na­tion of au­thor­ity”, would have ben­e­fited from a more so­phis­ti­cated kind of print­ing to il­lus­trate the im­por­tant points be­ing made about the in­flu­ence of that medium. The pho­to­graphs re­pro­duced are some­what faded and dif­fi­cult to de­ci­pher.

These stud­ies em­pha­sise, at the nether end of their cho­sen chunk of his­tory, that al­though pub­li­ca­tion of four damn­ing re­ports (Ferns in 2005; Ryan in 2009; Mur­phy in 2009; and Cloyne in 2011) cer­tainly put nails in the cof­fin of the dom­i­nant Catholic cul­ture in Ire­land, “the die had al­ready been cast in terms of peo­ple’s move away from or­ga­nized re­li­gion”. It wasn’t sim­ply the scan­dals and the rev­e­la­tions of hor­rific be­hav­iour on the part of cer­tain mem­bers of church of­fi­cial­dom that caused dis­af­fec­tion among the church-go­ing pop­u­la­tion; these were stim­uli that added im­pe­tus to an al­ready grow­ing mo­men­tum.

These pages also be­lie the oft-cited view that the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ire­land in 1979, which is the point of departure for their over­view, rep­re­sented a high- point for Ir­ish Catholi­cism as an all- en­com­pass­ing so­cio- po­lit­i­cal amal­gam, sym­bi­ot­i­cally con­nected with the State. Sev­eral es­says sug­gest that far from be­ing sent on a tri­umphal­ist visit to our shores, the superstar pope was the fi­nal hope in some­thing of a last- ditch stand against an in­ex­orable sec­u­lar­ist tide.

But even these two re­fine­ments of per­spec­tive at ei­ther end of their cho­sen cor­ri­dor may t urn out t o be s ome­what short-sighted. Was not the whole world be­ing torn apart by a much older and wider fis­sure on the Earth’s sur­face? Is it not also a pos­si­bil­ity that a new era had dawned the world over? It was not only Ire­land that had sud­denly recog­nised that the lives of its whole pop­u­la­tion, es­pe­cially women, “had been framed by a celi­bate male-dom­i­nated in­sti­tu­tion”. Most of the so- called first- world coun­tries had be­come aware that a ( per­haps) 4,000- year- old pa­tri­ar­chal par­a­digm had been de­throned and that a tidal wave of re­pressed ar­che­typal fem­i­nin­ity ( in both men and women) was seep­ing through the con­crete? One of the es­says uses a the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work of Charles Tay­lor to show how Ire­land “rep­re­sents an in­trigu­ingly com­pressed ver­sion” of a world- wide “de­thron­ing” of Catholi­cism by “mod­ern sec­u­lar­ism”.

“In a post- Catholic Ire­land, char­ac­terised by ques­tion­ing, doubt and un­be­lief, where the Church can no longer im­pose its ver­sion of the truth,” the writ­ers here sug­gest that “the more cryptic and spo­radic in­sights of po­etry” might have a bet­ter chance of cap­tur­ing the imag­i­na­tion of a pub­lic who are cer­tainly still thirst­ing for “glimpses of the tran­scen­dent”. In other words, in times of un­cer­tainty, art may be able to sketch a way for­ward. How­ever, the

Pope John Paul II dur­ing his visit to Ire­land in Septem­ber 1979.

con­trib­u­tors also note a down­ward tra­jec­tory in the be­lief pat­terns of Ir­ish artists them­selves.

An older gen­er­a­tion of more ru­ral artists such as Sea­mus Heaney and John McGa­h­ern are shown to be more tol­er­ant and be­nign to­wards the Catholic faith they had re­jected, even to the point of be­ing buried in Catholic grave­yards with tra­di­tional fu­neral rites and cer­e­mo­nial. A later gen­er­a­tion of more ur­ban nov­el­ists, such as Anne En­right and Roddy Doyle, re­ject the whole para­pher­na­lia, lock, stock and bar­rel. “It’s dif­fi­cult in a coun­try like Ire­land,” says Doyle, “be­cause you do have to put your face out and tell it to go away – ‘Fuck off’. You have to be quite blunt to al­low your­self your own ag­nos­tic space.”

What­ever about the pos­si­bil­ity of a way for­ward, con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety re­jects the Catholic Church’s pre­sump­tion not just to reg­u­late pri­vate lives but “to dic­tate what it means to be Ir­ish”. One of the ed­i­tors’ take on the same- sex mar­riage ref­er­en­dum in May 2015 is salu­tary. Mar­riage as “a core ide­o­log­i­cal sig­ni­fier of ide­o­log­i­cal hege­mony” makes this vote into a trans­for­ma­tion of Ir­ish so­ci­ety from a con­glom­er­a­tion of semi- in­de­pen­dent or­ganic home­steads into a more post­mod­ern and plu­ral­ist net­work of so­cial re­la­tion­ships. A whole new so­ci­ol­ogy might have to be in­vented.

In general the over­all tenor of this pub­li­ca­tion is cap­tured in these words of Louise Fuller: “The mood is grim, and, un­doubt­edly, the Church is fight­ing a rear-guard bat­tle in Ire­land, but in the mat­ter of re­li­gious al­le­giance, ab­so­lute con­clu­sions can never be drawn. The re­li­gious in­stinct is deeply in­grained in hu­man na­ture. So­ci­ol­o­gists have pointed to the re­silience of the Catholic cul­tural le­gacy in Ire­land, and there are many signs of this.” To get an over­view of the whole predica­ment, this timely study is to be rec­om­mended.

It wasn’t sim­ply the rev­e­la­tions of hor­rific be­hav­iour on the part of cer­tain mem­bers of church of­fi­cial­dom that caused dis­af­fec­tion

Mark Pa­trick He­d­er­man is a monk of Glen­stal Abbey in Co Lim­er­ick. His lat­est book is The Opal and the Pearl, To­wards a Gy­ro­scopic Ethics (Columba Press)

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