A post-Catholic Ireland?


Last weekend Kathy Sheridan had a long piece in the Irish Times on ‘Ireland without the Catholic Church‘. Attention grabbing title, misleading of course because the Catholic Church in Ireland ‘ain’t going away you know’.

Many Catholics are more than a bit fed up with the media writing wish-fulfillment articles about the death of Irish Catholicism. To be fair to Sheridan her article isn’t such an example – in it she gives fair wind to the huge contribution the  Catholic Church has made to the social fabric of the Irish Republic – particularly in education and health.

But she rightly speculates about a future with a marginal more humble Church, largely absent from the health service and running far fewer schools.  She closes her article with this:

In a book of essays published this week, The Dublin/Murphy Report: A Watershed for Irish Catholicism? , editors Fr John Littleton and Eamon Maher quote poet Theo Dorgan: “The skeletal presence of the Catholic Church in our institutions and in our mores has begun to wither away, smoke in a gale, dust in the wind; there is a danger that with it will go the foundational ideals of justice, charity, compassion and mercy. We can already see the damage done in our country’s short-lived flirtation with mammon. We have seen what happened when the post-Gorbachev USSR turned to gangster capitalism. We would do well to begin thinking clearly, and very soon, about what we will choose for the moral foundations of a post-Catholic Ireland.”

I agree and disagree with this. Yes, because of the depth of Christendom Irish style, the onset of post-Christendom feels profoundly disorientating and threatening. Yes, the future will be very different. But in many ways it is already here. We are already close to matching European norms in terms of religious belief and behaviour.

For example, last Wednesday the Irish Times reported that there has been a fourfold rise in the numbers of co-habiting couples in the State from 1996-2006. Speaking with someone who works in the area of family counselling recently, he told me that rates of marital breakdown in parts of some cities range from 60-80%.

But Dorgan is mistaken to talk of the ‘we’ who somehow ‘chooses’ a moral foundation for a post-Catholic Ireland. There is no ‘we’ anymore. That wee word ‘we’ assumes a collective will and common vision of the people who get to ‘choose’ how to implement that vision. Maybe that existed in De Valera’s time, but it is long gone.

The future is pluralistic – with the Catholic Church and Christians in general representing a voice(s) among many others. To paraphrase Dorgan, ‘we’ Christians would do well to begin thinking clearly, and very soon, about how we contribute to the debate on the moral foundations of a post-Catholic Ireland ….


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