Vincent Twomey’s thought-provoking essay sees reasons for hope in the midst of all the problems currently besetting Irish Catholicism. He opines that people’s faith has withstood the turmoil within and without the Church and argues that there are signs of the kind of renewal that was recommended by some of the documents of Vatican II. Detecting these signs is important in revealing the newly opened up possibilities (and risks) for a more humble Church that seeks to fulfil its God-given mission to bring joy to the world of today. The re-evangelizing of Ireland will not happen easily: it requires placing more emphasis on the beauty of lived Christianity and, by extension, of everyday sanctity.
Church, State and modernity in contemporary Ireland
David Carroll Cochran
Using Charles Taylor’s A Catholic Modernity? as its starting point, David Cochrane explores the evolving role of Catholicism in Ireland over the last half century and concludes that the disentangling of the Church from the dominant political and cultural institutions of society has paradoxically extended many of the very values Catholicism celebrates. Due to the severing of its close traditional connection to the State, the Church has rediscovered its original mission to provide a prophetic spiritual voice, especially in favour of the poor, and to align itself more closely with the concerns of its founder, Jesus Christ.
Michael Cronin opens this chapter by observing that the greatest threat to Irish society has been the dominant discourse of neo-liberalism and the Market, which has come to be the deity to which all must bend. The Irish Church has traditionally been associated with a regime of fear and punishment, which is somewhat paradoxical given that the founding message of Christianity is one of hope, of the end of fear. In Cronin’s view, a more radical move for a Church, which has been brought to its knees by a multiplicity of cultural factors, would be to embrace empathy and a politics of hope, which might consist of no longer saying ‘No’, but ‘Yes’. The affirmation of justice for all, a more equal sharing of wealth, the creation of a climate where difference is embraced, these are the life-affirming and Christian principles on which the future of Irish Catholicism should be based.
The fraught relationship between women and the Catholic Church in Ireland
Sharon Tighe-Mooney’s chapter sees the divorce, contraception and abortion referenda of the 1980s and 90s as a watershed for Irish women, as these were issues that impacted directly on their lives. Tighe-Mooney examines the events of the past four decades in Irish society in the context of the weakening hegemony of the Catholic Church juxtaposed with the growing realisation by women, especially when the child abuse scandals broke, that their lives had been framed by a celibate male-dominated institution that displayed serious double standards in the area of human sexuality. She argues that in order to survive into the future, the Church will be increasingly dependent on women remaining active within the institution. As Irish women Catholics are demanding a central role in the running of a Church that has shown itself allergic to change, especially when it comes to gender equality, Tighe-Mooney wonders what the future holds for both groups.
Patricia Casey’s chapter argues that up until recently there was no tradition of a questioning laity, or indeed, clergy, in the Irish Church. Centuries of persecution had brought priests and laity closer, even though they were never viewed as equals. A coalescence of events at home and abroad in the form of the sexual revolution, the rise of Communism, the reforms of Vatican II, created a Western Church where personal choice took precedence over the dictates of Rome. In Ireland, certain myths such as Catholic guilt, the links between celibacy and paedophilia, the death of God, the delusional nature of all religions, began to gain traction. The clerical abuse scandals served to reinforce hostility towards the Church and to add weight to the aforementioned myths, which has resulted in a society that is becoming increasingly impervious to the Word of God. Casey sees the need for Irish people to become educated about their faith so as to be in a position to speak to a secular audience and to find space for their Christian faith.
Eamonn Wall’s discussion of Irish American Catholic experience reveals many similarities on either side of the pond, and some differences also. The Irish American authors and commentators provide unique perspectives on many facets of Irish life, including the unique role played by the Catholic Church. Among the authors discussed are Frank McCourt, whose account of a poor Catholic childhood in Limerick is so memorably captured in the best-seller, Angela’s Ashes, Colum McCann, Colm Tóibín and Mary Gordon. Similarly, the theologian Richard P. McBrien, journalist and writer Maureen Dezell, and sociologist Andrew Greely combine to illustrate the impact that the Irish Church has had on its American equivalent. Wall maintains that looking towards Ireland from the US, and drawing on American notions of egalitarianism and individual freedom, sometimes allows for a more dispassionate view of Ireland’s Catholic heritage and enables envisaging its future with a far greater clarity than can be achieved when change is all around you.
This chapter takes a number of priests with a public profile and examines the extent to which they are prophetic voices or complicit functionaries. Choosing the French priest-writer Jean Sulivan (1913-1980) as a comparator, Eamon Maher examines the published work of Joseph Dunn, Vincent Twomey, Mark Patrick Hederman and Brendan Hoban, before concluding that they all share the prophetic tendency of raising uncomfortable and often unpopular issues while remaining within the institution. He further argues that being so closely aligned to the Church makes it difficult, and professionally dangerous, for priests to criticise certain practices within the institution. However, while retaining a huge love of, and devotion to, the main tenets of Catholicism, these men nevertheless feel obliged to point out things that are going wrong, even when expressing such views can often involve them in conflict with their superiors at home and in Rome.
Street photography, humanism and the loss of innocence
Justin Carville draws on recent debates in relation to photography and the everyday in order to examine the role of street-photography in the cultural politics of religion as it was played out in the quotidian moments of social relations within Dublin’s urban and suburban spaces during the 1980s and 90s. The essay argues that photography was important in giving visual expression to the social contradictions within the relations between religion and the transformation of Irish social life, not through the dramatic and traumatic experiences that defined the nation’s increased secularism, but in the quiet, humdrum and sometimes monotonous routines of religious ceremonies and everyday social relations.
Louise Fuller claims that there can be no doubt that Irish Catholicism is in serious decline. The decline itself is no huge surprise: it is the extent of the implosion and the consequences this has had on Irish society that require explanation. The ‘aggressive secularism’ that is now commonplace has led to a situation where it has become extremely difficult to express a Catholic viewpoint in the public arena, a situation that is as unhealthy in its own way as the theocracy that dominated for far too long in Ireland. Major changes in how it communicates the Word of God will be necessary if the Church is to have any hope of reengaging the minds and hearts of a population that is becoming theologically illiterate and indifferent to religious observance of any type.