Ireland 2014: A Challenging Landscape for the Church

NEWS ANALYSIS: As a new national primate takes office, the local Church must address rampant secularization and the legacy of a series of clergy sexual-abuse scandals.

St. Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh, seat of the archbishop of Armagh, primate of all Ireland.
St. Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh, seat of the archbishop of Armagh, primate of all Ireland. (photo: Wikipedia)

DUBLIN — “In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, from whom is all authority and to whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and states must be referred, we, the people of Éire, humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our divine Lord, Jesus Christ, who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial ...”

These are the opening lines of the Irish Constitution. They imply that Ireland is a largely devout Catholic nation with a robust and healthy Church. But as a new archbishop of Armagh takes over as national primate, how accurately does this reflect the reality on the ground in 2014?

For most of the 20th century, the Church in Ireland looked very healthy, at least on the outside. Vocations were plentiful, and Masses were packed with more than 90% attendance levels. The country came to a standstill when St. John Paul II visited for three days in 1979.

Irish law largely followed Catholic moral precepts. As recently as 1983, abortion was prohibited in a referendum by a 2-1 majority, and in 1986, a proposal to introduce divorce was defeated by a similar margin.

These events represent something of a high-water mark for the Church in Ireland, and ever since then, the status and role of the Church in Irish society has diminished.

The signs of decline in the political power of the Church were evident in the mid-1990s, beginning with the passage of a referendum to legalize divorce in 1995. Matters have accelerated since then — the national government introduced abortion legislation last year and is currently developing plans to allow homosexual couples to adopt children, as well as to hold a referendum on same sex "marriage" next year.


Clergy Sexual Abuse  

More significant still is the internal decline within the Church. Catholic commentators in the United States have coined the phrase the “Long Lent of 2002” to refer to the painful months in that year when clerical abuse of minors, coupled with bishops' malfeasance and incompetence, were exposed for all to see.

But this “Long Lent” pales compared to nearly two decades of intense discussion of sexual failings, abuse and episcopal mishandlings that have dominated the media landscape in Ireland since the early 1990s and that have undermined the credibility and mission of the Church in Ireland.

The revelation in 1992 that the Bishop Eamon Casey of Galway had fathered a child sent shockwaves through the Church, and this was followed by a virtual tsunami of scandals and sexual-abuse claims and court cases, leading to a series of statutory investigations and reports, including the Ferns Report, the Cloyne Report, the Ryan Report and the Murphy Report. Most of the cases revealed in these investigations are historical in nature, with incidents of abuse peaking in the 1970s and 1980s.

Recent audits have revealed robust child-protection procedures in various dioceses and religious congregations. But the damage has been done, and it is impossible to overestimate the impact of the sexual-abuse scandals on the image, credibility and morale of the Church in Ireland. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his 2010 letter to the Catholics of Ireland, sexual-abuse scandals have “obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing.”

Much of the decline outlined above has sadly coincided with (but was not caused by) the tenure of Cardinal Sean Brady, whose resignation/retirement as archbishop of Armagh and primate of all Ireland (he turned 75 in August) was accepted by Pope Francis earlier this month. Cardinal Brady’s own authority was badly hampered by revelations about his involvement, as a young priest, in a canonical inquiry that investigated but failed to remove the notorious pedophile Father Brendan Smyth from ministry.


Key Issues

Cardinal Brady’s successor is the relatively youthful 52-year-old Archbishop Eamon Martin (no relation to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin in Dublin). He will have his work cut out for him in the years ahead.

One key challenge will be to salvage the Church’s image after the abuse scandals. One survey in 2011 suggested that 42% of Irish people believed that more than 1 in 5 priests was guilty of child abuse, and 14% agreed that Ireland would be better off if the Church disappeared completely. Evangelization is difficult with such a culture of distrust.

Vocational recruitment will also be a challenge. Only 14 men commenced study for the diocesan priesthood in Ireland in 2014, one-quarter of the number who entered seminary in England and Wales, despite Ireland having a larger Catholic population. Approximately 40% of diocesan priests — about 800 in number — are aged over 65, and in Dublin, the largest diocese in the country, there are only two priests under the age of 40. These figures will necessitate parish closures and amalgamations, distracting much needed energy and time in managing the administrative burden of decline rather than the urgent task of evangelization.

This vocational collapse goes hand-in-hand with a collapse in Mass attendance and a profound catechetical crisis. Surveys suggest that, nationally, about 38% of Catholics attend Mass weekly, a significant decline in recent decades but still better than much of Europe. However, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has claimed that Mass attendance is as low as 14% across Dublin.

The crisis seems particularly acute in urban areas and among the young. Indeed, while the vast majority of young people attend Catholic schools, it appears that they graduate with very little knowledge of the faith. According to one survey, one-third of 15-24 year olds did not know what Easter was about, and 95% were unable to recall the First Commandment. Serious questions have to be asked about a system of Catholic schooling that fails to impart even very basic general religious knowledge.


Signs of Hope

But Christians must always have hope, and Ireland’s history is a reminder of how the Church can flourish again even after the most difficult challenges. Archbishop Martin’s predecessor as archbishop of Armagh, the martyr St. Oliver Plunkett, ministered to a broken and persecuted flock in the 17th century. From this unpromising remnant grew the eventually mighty Irish Church that sent missionaries around the world.

There are small, green shoots that suggest signs of hope for the future, some of which have originated outside official diocesan structures and fall within the legitimate terrain of lay action. Pro-life groups have been mobilized and are growing as a result of last year’s battle over abortion, and groups of volunteer professionals have been formed to defend the Church in the public square.

The government’s 2011 decision to close the Irish Embassy to the Holy See was reversed this year, following sustained pressure from people around the country. And many Irish people retain a traditional decency and care for others. Despite a devastating recession, Irish people donate more time and money to charitable causes than any other country in Europe, often continuing to deliver this charity through the Church.

Novenas and pilgrimages remain popular, especially in rural areas — in excess of 20,000 people climb Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday of July every year, a day of special pilgrimage to the site. There are also signs of renewal among young people. Youth 2000, known for its orthodox faithfulness to the Gospel and devotion to Eucharistic adoration, attracts significant numbers of young people to its retreats and festivals all around Ireland, while Pure in Heart, which spreads the message of chastity among young people, has continued to grow. Most promisingly, many of the vocations to the priesthood originate in these faithful groups, while many enthusiastic young Catholics in these groups eventually marry and form families.


Being a Creative Minority

Compared to the overall population, the numbers involved in the renewal of the Church may seem small. But this has always been the case, right back to the time of the early Christians.

The challenge for Irish laypeople is to translate popular piety into full engagement with the New Evangelization called for by recent popes and to be what Pope Benedict XVI called a “creative minority.” The challenge for the bishops will be to provide leadership and to encourage authentic growth where it is to be found, even when it is not part of the formal diocesan structure.

But all Irish Catholics can draw strength from the words of the great Irish monk and spiritual writer Blessed Columba Marmion: “Let us remind ourselves that, in these our days, the Heart of Jesus is not less loving nor his arm less powerful. God is ready to shed his graces upon us … as abundant and as useful as those he shed upon the first Christians. He does not love us less than he loved them.”

Patrick Kenny writes from Dublin.