The scandal of the Irish Catholic Mind?

I’m in the process of finishing off an article on evangelicals and pluralism in Ireland. Something everyone can agree on is that we are living in a radically changed Ireland to that of the recent past.

So it was interesting to hear what Archbishop Diarmuid Martin had to say in his recent, widely publicised speech in Italy. The speech was sensationally reported as if he’d said all Irish Catholics are theologically illiterate [which was sort of ironic in that he also talked about how the press tended to sensationalise its religious coverage.] And there was lots of comment on who was to blame for what can be called [after Mark Noll] ‘The Scandal of the Irish Catholic Mind’.

Here’s a bit of what he did say:

“While a traditionally Catholic country, Ireland does not have a proportionate level of theological research. School catechesis, despite the goodwill of teachers, does not produce young Catholics prepared to join in the Christian community. Sometimes, after 15 years of catechesis, young people remain theologically illiterate. There are no forums for reflection on the relationship between faith and life, like for example the Catholic academies in many German dioceses. There is a not a serious Catholic press, at the level of Catholic newspapers in France and Italy. There are few writers who would present themselves as Catholic.”

Catholicism in Ireland is, in many ways, a victim of its own success. A ubiquitous presence, unaccountable power, unquestioned authority, and virtually universal adherence ended in Irish Catholicism becoming the default experience. The Church became a politico-religious instituion with overwhelming influcence in education, politics, sexuality, health service and so on. This was classic Christendom. And the contraction of Christendom has exposed the reality of nominalism, where for many, Catholicism was little more than a badge of national and religious  identity.

Maybe the ‘Scandal of Irish Catholic mind’ exists because during Christendom there did not NEED to be much thinking done about faith and culture in what was close to [but not fully] a theocratic state.

These days it is clear that there does need to be a great deal of thinking about the future role of the Catholic Church in Ireland [and for Christianity in general which is why I’m writing the article]. This is why I find what Archbishop Martin says interesting. It seems to me that he at least is grappling with some realities that others in the Church do not seem able or willing to face, namely:

– the reality of post-Christendom and pluralism:

“Ireland is undergoing a veritable revolution of its religious culture. Many outside of Ireland still believe that Ireland is a bastion of traditional Catholicism. They are surprised to discover that there are many parishes in Dublin where the presence of persons at Sunday Mass is some 5 per cent and, in some cases, even below 2 per cent. The problem is that many in Ireland and in the Church in Ireland have not yet understood the full extent of the cultural change taking place and continue to act as if we were still simply living in a culture with a Catholic majority  …..

within the Church, there are those who want to keep the Church’s control over education to a level which does not reflect reality. Ireland needs pluralism in its school system …..

Today, there is a need for the transformation of that culture for the sake of pluralism, but also to highlight the true meaning of Christian charity which has no desire to dominate but to serve ….

Exponents of Catholic culture have difficulty in recognising that Catholic culture in Ireland does not have the prominence which it had in the past and must live as salt of the earth in a new way.”

– the need for a mature and constructive debate on the role of religion in contemporary Ireland [see John Waters for a typically rather over the top piece on the intolerance of the emerging Irish secularism]. Ireland may have rejected Christendom but Christians need to be arguing that the answer is not ‘hard secularism’ [my phrase].

“There is the impression that a pluralist Ireland must necessarily be a secularist Ireland ….. Ireland needs both mature secularists and atheists and mature Christians with a solid intellectual formation.”

– the recognition that there is no future for the Catholic Church simply providing space for ‘civil religion’:

“People develop a love/hate relationship with civil religion. The Church provides a unique space in which people, even though secularised, can share the events of their lives and find a ritual to express the more profound human experiences of joy, sorrow or fear. However, if the Church becomes just a place where lay persons gather to celebrate human experiences without a deep reference to God, then this civil religion ends up by being empty and does not respond to the search for God who is missing in the lives of many.”

Now, it’s also clear that he is a pretty isolated figure within the hierarchy and has been snubbed by the Vatican. It’s also fair to point out, as Tanya Jones does on Gladys Ganiel’s blog, that the Church for generations has colluded with the laity in just providing just the sort of civil religion that Archbishop Martin says is hollow and empty.

But I do think he is spot on in terms of the realities he identifies. And may I suggest that it is not only Catholics who are resisting engaging with those realities; evangelicals can be quite good at it too – but that’s for another day!

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3 thoughts on “The scandal of the Irish Catholic Mind?

  1. he is, in many ways spot on, and, with a little judicious substitution of “Northern Irish” for “Irish” and “Evangelical/Protestant” for “Catholic” could easily be read as a critique of evangelical Protestantism in the north.

  2. […] around to say that literal Genesis 1 means geocentrism, too. Rob turns this one around, too. Patrick and the Catholics and Ireland and well, lots of turning here.One of our students, Abby, is in France studying this year. You can […]

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