Is This the Death of the Catholic Church in Ireland?

COMMENTARY: There have been three key moments in the recent history of the Irish Church when leading bishops and priests could have chosen to strengthen the faith of the people. Instead, poor choices and inaction have weakened what remains.

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This column has been updated since it was posted.


The vote in Ireland has been to legalize same-sex “marriage,” an outcome that suggests a loss of moral clarity among the majority of Catholics in the Irish Church. I am left asking the question: Is the Irish Church dead?

I know this may sound shocking, and some may accuse me of alarmism and defeatism. However, sacred Scripture is clear that, though Our Lord has promised to be with the universal Church until the end of time (Matthew 28:20), it is possible for a local Church to die.

The Book of Revelation contains the locutions and visions Our Lord granted to his beloved disciple, St. John the Evangelist. Our Lord sent seven messages to the local Churches, one of which was addressed to the Church of Sardis, which reveals the awful possibility of the death of a church:

And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: “The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars, I know your works; you have the name of being alive, and you are dead. Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God” (3:1-2).

In 2003, Pope St. John Paul II urgently addressed the exhortation contained in Our Lord’s Letter to the Church of Sardis to the whole of Europe, including the Church in Ireland, “Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death” (Revelation 3:2). Twelve years later, it is clear that Ireland and many other European countries have not heeded Pope St. John Paul II’s final warning, and, in fact, many of the bishops and people have done the exact opposite: They have weakened what remains to the point of death.


Weakening What Remains to the Point of Death

Pope St. John Paul identified the necrotic forces at work in the European churches that 12 years later have tipped the Irish Church into death:

“[There is a] serious situation of indifference towards religion on the part of so many Europeans, the presence of many people even on our continent who do not yet know Jesus Christ and his Church and who are not baptized; the secularism which poisons a wide spectrum of Christians who habitually think, make decisions and live ‘as if Christ did not exist’” (Ecclesia in Europa, 26).

There have been three key moments in the recent history of the Irish Church when leading bishops and priests could have chosen to strengthen the faith of the people. Instead, poor choices and inaction have weakened what remains to the point of death.


The Apostolic Visitation of the Irish Church

The first key moment was Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic visitation of the Irish Church in response to the crisis caused by pedophile priests and the bishops’ widespread cover-up of crimes of child sexual abuse. Pope Benedict’s “Letter to the Catholics of Ireland,” announcing the need for an apostolic visitation, clearly stated his judgment as the Successor of St. Peter that his brother bishops had failed. He said this was a failure where “grave errors of judgment were made and failures of leadership.”

The apostolic visitation report was mainly a snapshot of the Irish Church that summarized safeguarding measures that the Irish episcopacy and religious orders were already putting in place. It also made a number of reasonable recommendations, including: the updating of safeguarding guidelines in accordance with the norms established by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF); the reorganization of ecclesiastical tribunals; the formation of seminarians; and various formation, spiritual and administrative changes for religious orders.

One paragraph of the report stands out in light of the open dissent among Irish priests supporting, or remaining neutral towards, the legalization of same-sex “marriage” in 2015:

“Since the visitators also encountered a certain tendency, not dominant but nevertheless fairly widespread among priests, religious and laity, to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings of the magisterium, this serious situation requires particular attention, directed principally towards improved theological formation. It must be stressed that dissent from the fundamental teachings of the Church is not the authentic path towards renewal.”

Instead of welcoming the balanced findings of the apostolic visitation, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin harshly criticized it two years after its publication, giving the impression that he had shelved it. He told The Irish Times, “The Irish Church has to find the answers for the Irish Church, and where it has done so it has done so well.” He also attempted to shift blame onto the apostolic visitation, saying it “actually, in some ways, delayed reforms in the Irish Church,” without providing any evidence to support such a serious claim.

The archbishop’s rejection of Pope Benedict’s apostolic visitation gave the misleading impression that the Irish Church’s problems lay with Rome and not within herself. He even went so far as to unfairly imply blame lay with Pope Benedict XVI, when he told The Irish Times, “That isn’t a criticism of those who carried it out, maybe a criticism of those who planned it.”


Enda Kenny’s Abortion Law

The second key moment that has weakened the Irish Church to the point of death was the failure of the bishops to act over Catholic politicians who supported the legalization of abortion. The fact that Enda Kenny continues to receive holy Communion after spearheading the legalization of killing unborn babies through abortion is an ongoing public scandal. In 2013, Kenny received Communion in the presence of Bishop John McAreavey of Dromore,  Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Conor and Bishop Christy Jones of Elphin.

Even The Independent newspaper, no friend of the Church, commented that this was in defiance of the Code of Canon Law, “915, which states that anyone who supports abortion legislation is automatically excommunicated.” What makes the inaction of the bishops even more incomprehensible is that, as cardinals, both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis had insisted that pro-abortion Catholic politicians should not receive holy Communion.

The shocking scandal attendant to Kenny’s abortion law was compounded by a number of Catholic hospitals publicly agreeing to cooperate with the provisions of the law. When Dublin’s Mater Misericordiae hospital, named after Our Lady, Mother of Mercy, announced that it would “comply with the law, as provided for in the act,” Archbishop Martin’s spokesman said he would “seek further clarification on the exact meaning of the hospital’s statement.”

Nineteen months later, Irish Catholics are still waiting to hear Archbishop Martin’s response to a Catholic hospital agreeing to provide the morning-after abortifacient pill and performing medical abortions. For the sake of Catholic nurses, doctors and staff working in these hospitals, it is imperative that Archbishop Martin breaks his silence and addresses them as their pastor.

Not only should Enda Kenny’s legalization of abortion and same-sex “marriage” rightly incur the pastoral intervention of excommunication, but his public admission of heretical beliefs on Irish television makes the bishops’ inaction all the more inexplicable. Kenny has admitted that he doesn’t believe in a personal God or in the physical, real presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Yet Archbishop Martin refers to him as our “Catholic Prime Minister,” and he continues to receive holy Communion.

The consequence of the failure of the Irish hierarchy to act over Kenny publicly promoting and cooperating with abortion is that it signals to clergy and laity that the Church doesn’t really take seriously its own moral teachings and laws. Simply put, if politicians, hospitals and bishops can break the Church’s teaching on abortion, then it mistakenly appears that any of the Church’s moral laws on marriage and sexuality can be ignored without consequences.


Kenny’s Same-Sex ‘Marriage’ Legislation

For faithful Catholics, the referendum has been a heartbreaking catalogue of failures on the part of many bishops and priests, which has tipped a weak Church over into the point of death. What we have witnessed is either an unwillingness or inability of some to live up to their duties as bearers of the triple munera (duties of ordained ministers) of Our Lord — the ministerial powers of teaching, sanctifying and leading in conformity with the fullness of faith safeguarded and explained by the magisterium.

  • A number of priests misused their positions of leadership within the Church by publicly supporting the same-sex “marriage” campaign, and by so doing encouraged Catholics under their pastoral care to join them in voting for its redefinition. Such priests include: Redemptorist Fathers Tony Flannery and Gerry O’Connor, Augustinian Fathers Iggy O’Donovan and Gabriel Daly and Father Pádraig Standún, parish priest of the Archdiocese of Tuam.
  • The newly appointed Bishop Donal McKeown caused immense confusion and anguish among faithful Catholics when he said during a radio interview: “People have to make up their own minds, and I’m quite happy that people can do that in front of God, be it Yes or be it No. … I don’t doubt that there are many people who are practicing churchgoers of whatever church background who will in conscience vote Yes, and that’s entirely up them. I’m not going to say they’re wrong.” Bishop McKeown appeared to have forgotten that, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, people can be culpable for committing immoral acts even if acting according to conscience (1791). By talking about conscience in such a way, Bishop McKeown has surely added to the cross carried by homosexual Catholics who are seeking to live chastely according to the teachings of the Church.
  • Archbishop Martin’s advocacy of the enhancement of homosexual civil unions, as an alternative to same-sex “marriage,” is clearly at odds with the 2003 directives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Archbishop Martin said, “We have to find ways in which gay and lesbian people can have their love fully recognized in an equal but different manner. We have to find ways of examining that, and I don’t think we have done that far enough. I think civil partnership is not adequate; I think it could be tweaked.”

However, the CDF document “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons” concludes with these words from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, on behalf of Pope St. John Paul II:

“The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions. The common good requires that laws recognize, promote and protect marriage as the basis of the family, the primary unit of society. Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity. The Church cannot fail to defend these values, for the good of men and women and for the good of society itself.”

The tragedy is that by not only publicly accepting civil unions between homosexual persons, but also advocating their enhancement, Archbishop Martin has inadvertently obscured basic values of marriage that he sought to defend.


With Every Death There Is the Hope of Resurrection

Every faithful Catholic knows that death is not the terminal point of life, but is the necessary condition for participation in Our Lord’s glorious resurrection. This is not to underestimate the pain, suffering and anguish that come with death — total incapacity, complete loss and impoverishment in extremis. We are grief-stricken at the weakening towards death of the Irish Church and the loss of sanctity, truth, goodness and beauty in the lives of so many Irish people.

However, Our Lord’s Letter to the Church of Sardis also contains words of hope and consolation:

“Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy. He who conquers shall be clad thus in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life; I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 3:4-6).

Out of a population of nearly 5 million people, 734,300 Irish citizens voted “No,” despite the unrelenting propaganda from the Irish media, celebrities and political parties. Many who voted “No” also campaigned and canvassed unambiguously to uphold the truth and dignity of marriage entrusted to each one of us by God.

It is among these 734,300 people that the hope of the Catholic Church in Ireland's resurrection is active and alive. And it is in this spirit of hope that we must pray daily for our bishops during these hard times for the Church. Maranatha: Come, Lord Jesus.

Deacon Nick Donnelly is a contributor to EWTN Radio's Celtic Connections program. This article originally appeared in Catholic Voice Ireland and is republished here with permission. It has been edited for style.