Are Pope Francis’ Warnings About Apostasy Coming True in Ireland?

COMMENTARY: Let us remember the 38% of Irish people who voted to uphold the Christian truth, beauty and goodness of marriage.

(photo: Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The impoverished state of the Catholic faith and the Church in Ireland has been exposed by the large majority voting to legalize same-sex “marriage.”

I have heard reports from the Irish Diaspora of faithful Catholics being in a state “beyond shock” at the enormity of Ireland’s betrayal of marriage and the repudiation of the Church. Around the world, many are asking the same question, “How could this have happened to Ireland?”

During this time when so many of the faithful are crying out in distress, it is good to be able to turn to the See of St. Peter for guidance. Soon after the vote, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s secretary of state, described the result of the referendum not only in terms of a national tragedy, but as also a tragedy for humanity. He told reporters:

“I was deeply saddened by the result. The Church must take account of this reality, but in the sense of reinforcing its commitment to evangelization. I think that you cannot just talk of a defeat for Christian principles, but of a defeat for humanity. The family remains at the center, and we have to do everything to defend it and promote it.”


Pope Francis’ Analysis of Apostasy

But more than this, we could ask the question: Has Pope Francis been preparing us for the possibility of such a catastrophe befalling the Church?

On two occasions the Holy Father has recommended a modern novel as a key to understanding the forces at work in society and the Church. Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World, first published in 1907, describes a world set in the future where triumphant secularism has pushed the Church and Catholics to the margins of society. The events of the novel are set in a time when systematic secularist propaganda, delivered through parliament, schools and media, has created a pervasive skeptical humanism that leads to widespread apostasy among the last remaining ranks of Catholics, and most shockingly among priests.

It is this theme of apostasy in the face of secularism in Benson’s novel that has been the focus of Pope Francis’ reflections. During a homily given on Nov. 18, 2013, the Holy Father spoke of Msgr. Benson writing about “the spirit of the world that leads to apostasy, almost as though it were a prophecy, as though he envisioned what would happen.”

Pope Francis sets out an analysis of apostasy, which helps us understand the forces in the Irish Church that resulted in the “Yes” vote. Apostasy occurs when the people of God abandon our traditions and identity out of a preference for “worldly proposals.” He characterizes such disloyalty among Catholics as a form of adultery that is prepared to negotiate away the “essence of our being: loyalty to the Lord.” The Holy Father, in his 2013 homily, is clear that the disloyalty that is characteristic of apostasy “is a fruit of the devil who makes his way forward with the spirit of secular worldliness.” Pope Francis identifies a sign of this “spirit of secular worldliness” as the “uniformity of hegemonic globalization, a uniformity of thought born of worldliness.”

Pope Francis warns that the spirit of worldliness comes out of a sinful root, “out of wicked men capable of intelligent persuasion,” who seek progress at all costs. At heart, it is the attitude of the immature, which Pope Francis calls the “spirit of adolescent progressivism,” and which “seductively suggests that it is always right, when faced with any decision, to move on rather than remaining faithful to one’s own traditions.” The Holy Father advises that we guard ourselves from going down the path of adolescent progressivism because it always leads to the “culture of death.”

He warns:

“We would also do well to ponder the consequences of their infidelity, to think about the death sentences, the human sacrifices which followed thereafter. Do you think there are no human sacrifices today? There are many, many of them. And there are laws that protect them.”


Clergy Acting Against the Church

The Irish Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), which claims to represent a third of priests in Ireland, took a neutral position regarding the same-sex “marriage” referendum. A statement issued by the leadership team of the ACP exhorted priests “not to direct their parishioners to vote Yes or No.” However, members of the ACP leadership team then went on to prominently advocate support for a “Yes” through the media. In my previous article, “Is This the Death of the Irish Church?” I listed the prominent priests who misused their positions of leadership in the Church to support the “Yes” campaign. Father Tony Flannery explained why he would be voting “Yes” in an article in the Irish Independent in early May. He wrote:

“Having considered the question that is being presented to us on this occasion, and after having listened to the debate so far and given it a great deal of thought, I will be voting Yes. I do not consider this decision to be in any way in conflict with my faith, or with my position as a priest.”

Both the statement of neutrality and the active campaigning for the “Yes” vote were not only contrary to the guidance of Irish bishops, but also against the conclusions of Pope Francis and the world’s bishops at the 2014 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family that reiterated the Church’s rejection of same-sex “marriage.” The synod’s final report summarized the Church’s teaching with this quote from a 2003 document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

“There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” (55).

It is instructive to examine statements made by members of ACP’s leadership since the “Yes” vote from the perspective of Pope Francis’ analysis of apostasy in light of Msgr. Benson’s Lord of the World. In these statements, we find elements of apostasy: arguments for the abandonment of the Church’s traditions and identity out of a preference for worldly proposals and a sense of adolescent progressivism. Absent in the priests response is the one necessary thing: Catholic faith. 

Consider the following statements:


Abandon teaching sexual morality.

Father Flannery of the ACP proposes that the Church in Ireland must abandon teaching young people about the Church’s doctrines on sexual morality for “at least a generation” because of his experience of giving school retreats at which young people told him they were “tired of the Church always saying No when it came to anything to do with sex.” 

Father Flannery is right to criticize the reduction of the Church’s sexual ethics to only a list of negative prohibitions, but in response to the young people’s objections, did he present the positive Yes to sexual continence and chastity found in the theology of the body? Is he seriously suggesting that adults responsible for education and formation deny young people the wisdom and richness of the Church’s sexual morality for a generation?


Accept the worldly proposals of modernity.

Father Brendan Hoban of the ACP concludes that the overwhelming “Yes” vote shows that the Church “is very much out of sync with the temper of its people.” According to Father Hoban, the Church lacks “the confidence to engage with modernity” and above all is “trailing too far behind its people.” He sees the “worldly proposals” of modernity represented by same-sex “marriage,” abortion, contraception and divorce as an unstoppable force: “Trying to keep out the tide is always a failed enterprise. When will we learn that simple truth?” However, St. Paul warns of the danger to Christians of abandoning the faith handed to us from the apostles for modern fads and fashions:

“The time is sure to come when people will not accept sound teaching, but their ears will be itching for anything new, and they will collect for themselves a whole series of teachers according to their own tastes” (2 Timothy 4:3).


Adapt teachings to the spirit of secularism.

Both Father Tony Flannery and Father Iggy Donovan appear to suggest that the Church must adapt its teaching to the “spirit of worldly secularism” because, according to them, the people are no longer receptive to the doctrines of the Church.

Father Flannery writes, “The people are no longer willing to listen to speeches and sermons on morality from the Church.” And Father Donovan says, “The Church has to realize ordinary people are not listening to us anymore.” But the question must be asked, with the catastrophic collapse of catechesis in Ireland over the past 50 years, have ordinary people been given the opportunity to listen to God’s life-giving truths?

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin alluded to this crisis in catechesis when he admitted in the wake of the referendum that many young Catholics voted “Yes” to legalize same-sex “marriage.” He said:

“I ask myself, most of these young people who voted Yes are products of our Catholic school system for 12 years. I’m saying there’s a big challenge there: to see how we get across the message of the Church.”


A Novelist Depicts Apostasy of Priests

Writing more than 100 years ago, Msgr. Benson foresaw what we ourselves are witnessing: the apostasy of priests unable to withstand the relentless pressure to conform to secularism. He movingly conveys the struggle between faith and betrayal in the conversation between the novel’s main protagonist, Father Percy Franklin, and Father Francis, who is losing his faith. We see the conversation through Father Franklin’s eyes:

“He understood perfectly what a strain it had been; he felt bitterly compassionate towards this poor creature who had become caught up somehow into the dizzy triumphant whirl of the New Humanity. External facts were horribly strong just now; and faith, except to one who had learned that Will and Grace were all and emotion nothing, was a child crawling about in the midst of some huge machinery: It might survive or it might not; but it required nerves of steel to keep steady. It was hard to know where blame could be assigned; yet Percy’s faith told him that there was blame due. In the ages of faith a very inadequate grasp of religion could pass muster; in these searching days none but the humble and the pure could stand the test for long ... ” (Lord of the World, p. 35).

Though Msgr. Benson expresses compassion towards priests whose faith fails before the relentless ascendency of materialistic secularism, he also knows that they are culpable for their apostasy. How do priests who have given their lives to serve Christ’s Church get to the point where they protest that fundamental truths of the faith are absurd and impossible? Msgr. Benson concludes that they are guilty of pride, because they “dismiss all who believe in it as not merely mistaken, but unintelligent as well.”

Msgr. Benson counters the prideful objections of apostate priests by simply pointing out, “It cannot be absurd so long as educated and virtuous people continue to hold it.”

In this situation of post-referendum Ireland, let us remember the 38% of Irish people who voted to uphold the Christian truth, beauty and goodness of marriage. After the shock of the referendum, I know that many Irish Catholics, at home and around the world, are earnestly asking Our Lord to help Ireland. And from a great love for our priests, let us pray for these chosen men who daily enable, through the miracle of the Blessed Sacrament, our Lord Jesus Christ’s entry into our fallen world. May these priests again feel in their hands and hearts the eternal Truth, who does not waver or desert his people, but transforms our world.

Deacon Nick Donnelly is a contributor to EWTN Radio’s Celtic Connections program

and a columnist with Catholic Voice Ireland. A longer version of this article appeared in Catholic Voice Ireland and is republished with permission.