Winter Approaches

The spiritual equivalent of the approaching demographic winter in Europe and the world has surely taken a firm hold in Ireland. A recent report (April 03 2018) in the Irish Examiner on the state of the Catholic Church in Ireland paints a very grim picture of the future for the Faithful in this country. Contrast this with the visit of the last (and first) papal visit in 1979. Thirty eight years of continuing secularisation has brought about a huge change of attitudes in Ireland towards the Church and the Faith and coupled with an abandonment of the traditional catechism has resulted in a largely clueless laity who are antagonistic towards the Catholic Faith.
“On the ground, a survey of archdioceses and dioceses around the country shows an ageing priesthood, with human resources stretched. It has meant parishes relying more on the laity, particularly the volunteering parish councils, while a small but growing number of serving priests are from overseas. Senior figures within the Catholic Church are warning that the ageing profile of priests and the lack of new ordinations could mean a further reduction in its footprint around the country.
A survey of archdioceses and dioceses highlights the changing face of the Catholic Church in Ireland. It found that human resources are being stretched, that a small but growing number of parishes are without a resident priest, and that there is an increased role for deacons and for priests coming to serve from overseas. At least half of the 25 archdioceses and dioceses around the country have seen an aggregate fall in the number of priests serving within them in the past five years, while almost half have parishes which have had to reduce the number of Mass services they can offer. A handful of dioceses and archdioceses have parishes which do not have a resident priest or share a priest with another parish — with warnings that this could increase unless there is a rise in the number of people who can serve.”
The various dioceses are struggling and there are a few notable attempts to combat the incontrovertible decline. None of these however would appear to be particularly Catholic. For instance the report states that the Archdiocese of Armagh established a seminary in 2012, based in Dundalk, Co Louth — The Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary. The 17 seminarians who are studying there are part of Neocatechumenal Way communities throughout the world and will be ordained as priests of the Archdiocese of Armagh. The Neocatechumenal way is a pseudo Catholic organisation which teaches Lutheran doctrines and has closed liturgies which have split parishes around the world. Indeed they have been ejected from many dioceses internationally because of their cult like behaviour and heterodox teaching. This cuckoo in the nest is seen as a good thing by the preeminent See in the country!


The diocese of Limerick has taken another direction. In 2016 it held a Synod. “The Synod was a three-day gathering of 400 delegates — 300 lay and 60% female — in Limerick after an 18-month listening process that engaged with over 5,000 people across the diocese. Some 97 proposals across six themes that covered the biggest issues for the Church were agreed.” A synod historically has been held from time to time in various dioceses in order to correct abuses or organise the diocese more efficiently. It involves the clergy and Bishop and few lay people. This was thus a far cry from a true synod and the results (see the pastoral plan here were predictable. The calls for lay leadership in liturgical and other areas, the reduction of parishes to social outlets for community organisers and the pushing of ‘green’ and other fashionable issues are to the fore. Under the heading “Liturgy and Life” the plan calls for training to be provided for lay volunteers to lead liturgies when priests are absent. I cannot see how all of this will not end up with the balkanisation of the diocese and its further distancing from the Catholic Faith.
As regards clergy from other countries serving in Irish dioceses are concerned a recent incident comes to mind. During the so called ‘Same sex marriage referendum’ a priest of Nigerian nationality, Fr. Joseph Okere, while serving as curate in St. Mel’s Cathedral in Longford, preached a homily in which he stated that the Marriage referendum was the Devil’s work. It made the newspapers and was swiftly apologised for by Fr. Okere’s superior…Bishop Francis Duffy! As one member of his diocese wrote in a letter to him,
“The priest didn’t say anything that was untrue (if the report was accurate) and he was speaking in the Cathedral of the diocese. So why did you feel the need to apologise? You would appear to have internalised the commands of the Church’s oppressors.
The report states that one person walked out because he did not like what was being preached, “I am a Catholic and gay and I have never felt unwanted, but this was like something you would have heard 30 years ago. The Church just has to stop this – enough is enough.” I’m assuming that this individual (who didn’t mind being named) means by “gay” that he is a practicing homosexual. He was given the truth by a genuinely charitable priest and you apologise for that charity. I can understand why the Independent and the Longford LGBT “community” wants the Church to succumb to the secular zeitgeist but why are you doing it’s bidding?”
The report paints a picture all too familiar to most traditional Catholics but the large mass of the country’s baptised seem to be blithely unaware of the broad road they are travelling and its inevitable end. Perhaps they simply don’t care?


The joyful death of Catholic Ireland


James Matthew Wilson

Do you remember the joke about the Irish brewery worker who drowned in a vat of suds? “Poor Sean,” the new widow said upon learning her husband’s fate, “He didn’t stand a chance.” “Oh, I wouldn’t say that, Mrs. Reilly,” replies the foreman. “He did crawl out three times to use the bathroom.”

The Republic of Ireland has just voted, by a commanding and unprecedented popular vote, to establish “gay marriage” in its territory. The world, and the Irish themselves, who generally look at themselves from the viewpoint of the foreigner in a sad kind of “double consciousness,” will not fail to read the message: “Catholic Ireland’s dead and gone, it’s with De Valera in the grave.”

The coverage of the vote holds it up as an occasion of joy, of national pride, of a new era in an old country. I am sure there are some who use these expressions sincerely. Modern westerners usually think of life in this world in therapeutic terms. Matters of what is sometimes called “private” morality are decided entirely in terms of the question, “How will this make me feel?” while matters of “public” morality are submitted to a utilitarian calculus the numbers of which are usually undefined or unsatisfactory, boiling down to something like, “How will such-and-such a measure affect public health?” These are the only questions one can ask, if one inhabits an impoverished world where goodness and truth, happiness and justice, are taken for mere “subjective” projections onto the wandering atoms of the universe. But this diagnosis is not my interest today, because it cannot wholly explain the queer elation in Dublin.

What I want to consider is the specific conditions in Ireland that led up to this moment. My account will be somewhat hobbled; though for a number of years I resided in Dublin regularly, I have not visited the country since 2007, and so learned of some of the more recent and traumatic events in Irish life only from the newspapers.

My days in Ireland began just after the peak of the so-called Celtic Tiger. The economy was expanding, the “ribbon effect,” or suburban sprawl was spreading out around Dublin and Galway, and the restaurants, bars, and hotels were staffed by immigrant workers, most of them from Eastern Europe.

My interest in Irish culture was incidental to begin with. I had fallen in love with the modern Irish poets, from Yeats to Mahon, for their formal dexterity. But I also loved God above all things, and viewed the love of country as little less sacred than the love of one’s father and mother. The Irish narrative of faith and fatherland, fought and died for, resonated with me and, I thought, provided an occasion to deepen my understanding of those loves. To study Irish literature, it seemed to me then, was to study the work of authors who lived and died for the sacred.

What I found in the Ireland of 2001 provided little occasion for dwelling on any of that “rubbish.” In the previous decade, the hierarchy of the Irish Church had been wracked with scandal. Its prestige had come to be viewed as hypocrisy and arrogance, its power as conceit and corruption. Regular Mass attendance had dropped from nearly 90 percent a few years prior to around 60 percent, and it continued to plunge in the years of my visits. If practice of the faith was plunging then, it has plummeted since. The churches were full on Sunday, then, now they sit empty, as if Dublin were Paris or New York.

I saw few signs of genuine piety, and the demeanors of the pious seemed passive and weary. The Irish saw well that prosperity had at last come to their land; it seemed to entail a giving up of both Irish folkways and the ancestral religion, and that was a bargain they were willing to make.

The political elite in Ireland had long since come to have more in common with their counterparts in other western European nations than with the supposedly backward sensibilities of the people they ruled. They clearly saw the embarrassment of the Church as something to be capitalized on to advance the secularization of the country—its normalization, you might say, within the post-Christian mainstream. A prime minister brought his concubine to dinner with the Archbishop; it created a sensation rather than a scandal. Where Nelson’s Pillar had once stood—blown up in a symbolic act of nationalism by the IRA in 1966—the Irish government had erected a “millennium spike.” It is just as bad and stupid as it sounds. I wrote about it thus in my first book of poems, one inspired by the Belfast poet Louis MacNeice:

Where Nelson’s Pisgah pillar pruned, then plumed,
They’ve propped a sterile spike up like an altar
To pious E.U. secularity.

Irish society never fully recovered from the Civil War that humiliated it in 1922-23. The internecine conflict was, as Thomas MacGreevy once wrote, a last humiliation by the British Empire, disillusioning Irish nationalism just at the moment when it had achieved something like victory—a modest independence called “home rule.” In the subsequent decades, Irish politics was marked by a persistence of nationalist ambition to make Ireland in actuality what it has long been regarded as being: a distinctively Catholic republic that would stand outside the main tendencies of western Europe toward secularization, economic liberalization, and, later, the welfare state.

In this ambition, they succeeded. The Church enjoyed a central place in Irish public life; its charitable institutions served as a non-state agent to educate, heal, and care for the Irish people in lieu of public schools, hospitals, and other social services. The long-reigning Eamonn De Valera attempted a third-way economy—one founded on agriculture and autarchy, especially in regards to its powerful neighbor. This last was not a great achievement, though it was more successful than it would have been had the ranks of Ireland’s lower classes not already been emigrating in a continuous flow for most of the previous century.

The persistence of these nationalist ambitions should not surprise us, given the tremendous symbolic power generated in the decades before independence. Nonetheless, it was a waning influence from the beginning. In the 1950s, the Irish economy was liberalized and increasingly opened to the European market. That was sufficient to make most Irish conclude that their country was nothing special; it should rightly assume its place as a marginal junior player in the global economy. Economic liberalization led to secularization, or might have, were it not for a string of public controversies, including votes on abortion and divorce, that reminded many Irish of their distinctive self-image as a Catholic nation—much to the anguish of liberals, including the literati, who sought to show that the only thing distinctive about Ireland was that it was much worse than other countries.

It was the expansion of the Irish economy and the sex scandals in the Church in the 1990s that brought this long developing contempt for Irish exceptionalism to a head. It seemed to vindicate every accusation of Ireland as a backward backwater of hypocrisy. But this contempt for the past was softened by the unprecedented prosperity of the Celtic Tiger. The young were too busy earning money and spending it to have children much less to attend to the dissolution of Ireland’s Catholic culture.

When the global economy collapsed in 2008, Ireland was among the handful of worst-hit small countries. Emigration increased to highs not seen for decades. The time had come for reprisals. Their hopes for prosperity dashed, the Irish had few political options, and a future of bailouts and austerity imposed from abroad. Enda Kenny was elected Prime Minister on a European liberal economic platform, but it soon became clear that his power could only be enhanced by taking Irish society in a leftward direction. Every confrontation he staged with the Church, he won. He was called brave for taking on such a venerable but hidebound institution in the name of truth and progress; but, indeed, how much bravery could it require to fight a battle he could not lose? The disappointments of Irish society were increasingly expressed as contempt for the Church.

Year by year, government inquiries into sexual abuse within Church-run institutions, the physical abuses of those in the care of nuns and priests, and finally the supposed unearthing of mass graves of children on the properties of homes for unwed mothers. The stories themselves were increasingly distorted in the press, but nobody cared; the outrage and contempt only increased. To present oneself as a faithful Catholic in contemporary Ireland would require far more bravery than, say, to present oneself as a practitioner of sodomy.

For more than a century, the Irish had been told, had told themselves, that they were something distinctive in the history of Christendom. A Catholic nation that had persisted in the faith despite domination by a Protestant foreign power, the service of country and of God seemed almost as one. But, for just under a century, a nagging doubt had haunted such convictions. Ireland was insignificant: its dream of itself consequently stood in the way of its simply getting on as one more country on a continent that had long since lost its faith but had embraced the mundane contentment afforded by a liberalized economy, the welfare state, and a far more immanent horizon of beliefs.

Some scholars tell us that the gothic genre of story-telling grew up as a response to the Catholic Irish. A society that saw itself as enlightened, rational, secular, and modern suddenly found itself haunted by some frightful other, a ghoul, a return of the repressed: an avatar of superstitious, atavistic, arcane Catholicism. The Irish and Catholic response to such tales of Whiggery was easy: Catholicism “returns” not as the ravenous claw of the past reaching up from the grave to strangle the present, but as the truth, which never goes anywhere. Truth always asserts its inescapable claim on every person.

But what is one to do when that claw represents not simply the past, but also the future, the Catholic nation that Ireland was meant to become, but never quite did? What is one to do when the gothic monster is not something intruding from the depths beneath one’s society, but is, if anything, the institution that seemed to represent the most distinctive virtues of that society? Kill it, of course. Kill it, and take joy in the sport.

The joy with which the “gay marriage” referendum is being greeted not only in the streets of urban Dublin but across the whole country must surely be a complex emotion. Insofar as the Irish are just like most of us westerners, they are celebrating a new freedom of the will to assert itself without any moral prohibition. But the therapeutic triumphed long ago, and didn’t need Ireland to cement its victory.

The reason the Irish—as Irish—are celebrating is that they have with this referendum delivered a decisive and final blow to their venerable image as a Catholic nation. They have taken their vengeance on the Church. They must relish the unshackling; they must love the taste of blood. But, finally, they take joy in becoming what, it seems, they were always meant to become. An unexceptional country floating somewhere in the waters off a continent that has long since entered into cultural decline, demographic winter, and the petty and perpetual discontents that come free of charge to every people that lives for nothing much in particular.

James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. He is the author of a chapbook of poems, Four Verse Letters (Steubenville, 2010) and of Timothy Steele: A Critical Introduction (Story Line, 2012), and a new collection of poems entitled The Violent and the Fallen (Finishing Line Press). A scholar of philosophical theology and literature, Wilson has lectured widely on topics ranging from modern American poetry to ancient Greek philosophy.

Published originally in Crisis Magazine

Book Review: The End of Irish Catholicism? by Fr Vincent Twomey, SVD

This is a fantastic review by Shane at Lux Occulta, one of the blogs I follow.
aicFr Vincent Twomey, Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at Maynooth, offers in The End of Irish Catholicism? a series of sober reflections on the condition of contemporary Irish Catholicism. He aspires to examine, from a theological angle, the historical origins of our present woes and to navigate a way out of them. It may be thought by some Catholics that such an examination is superfluous and that the crisis in Irish Catholicism can be adequately analyzed from the standpoint of secular sensibility. Yet several aspects of this crisis not only provide ample warrant for such an examination but even make it obligatory. The fallout from sex scandals, combined with resentment over the Church’s erstwhile hegemony, continue to perpetuate a haunting shadow over the Church’s pastoral mission in the changing Ireland of today. Moreover, in order for the Church to progress beyond her present paralysis, Irish Catholics need to understand clearly how we arrived at this juncture and consider ideas on how to best proceed. Fr Twomey is to be congratulated on associating himself with such a worthwhile initiative.

The book begins auspiciously with a critique of Irish Catholic identity. While this tradition certainly merits critical scrutiny, the reader is soon dissatisfied with the author’s subjective penchant. Fr Twomey bemoans the “identification of Irish and Catholic” and attributes the Church’s ‘collapse’ in Ireland to this dubious fusion. Secularization in Ireland reflects a pan-western phenomenon and the author’s insular tendency to examine Irish social trends in isolation is provokingly simplistic. Indeed, an intolerable exceptionalism marinates the entire book and detracts from objective analysis. Even if such a nationalist conflation had never existed in the popular mindset, it is unreasonable to suppose that Ireland would have been unique among all western countries in resisting the strongly secularizing force of modern culture. When this book was published in 2003, after more than a decade of public scandal, weekly Mass attendance stood sturdily at 50%,[1] an exceptionally high figure by European standards. Fr Twomey does not consider that the process of secularization in Ireland occurred at a slower pace than in any other comparable Catholic society in western Europe. Far from inducing its demise, it seems eminently plausible that the convergence of religious and national identity in Ireland actually tended to buffer the Church from the full impact of a secularizing society.

For any discerning observer, the appalling revelations of sexual and physical abuse by Catholic clergy and religious are a much more obvious factor in the Church’s decomposition. The reader will therefore be astonished to find that a book purporting to explain the crisis in Irish Catholicism almost entirely fails to intrude on this awkward but conspicuous elephant in the room. Roy Foster, Professor of Irish History at Oxford University, has taken Fr Twomey to task for this omission:

It is striking, indeed semi-miraculous, that in a book by the editor of the Irish Theological Quarterly published in 2003 and called The End of Irish Catholicism?, there is much about the dangers of the liberal agenda and not a single word about scandals.[2]

In justice to Fr Twomey, he does discuss the scandals in a brief passage (p. 33) but six sentences are a deplorable inadequacy when accounting for the topic’s glaring resonance to the book’s theme. Professor Foster points out elsewhere that this passage “refers specifically and solely to the abusive conditions in industrial schools run by religious orders.”[3] Revelations of abuse scandals involving priests, and administrative mishandling of offenders, was a topic that exploded in the 1990s — predating the book’s publication. It quickly impacted the public reputation of the Church: the proportion of Irish adults who held ‘a great deal’ of confidence in the church dropped to 22% in 1999, compared to 40% in 1990 and 51% in 1981.[4] The book’s failure to discuss the issue directly impinges on its credibility.

The author’s delineation of Irish Church-State relations could be most charitably characterized as superficial. Contradictorily, Fr Twomey imputes to the Church the charge of usurping an unseemly political role while simultaneously lamenting that the Church degenerated into an erastian ossification, “subject to the political entity”. On the contrary, the Church in Ireland drew much of its vitality from its political independence, unlike regimes on the continent, where the Church was deeply interlinked with the civil establishment, to the point that monarchs often appointed bishops. After the passage of the Roman Catholic Relief Act (1829), without even a provision for state veto over episcopal appointments, the Church in Ireland enjoyed more temporal liberty than any other Catholic church in the west, save in the United States. Irish bishops jealously cherished their autonomy[5] and were not disposed to entertain civil intrusions calculated to subvert their prestige. The bishops, both before independence and after it, were sensitive to public opinion and it was an active influence in moulding political pronouncements.[6][7][8] Moreover, independent Ireland was a pluralist democracy; if Catholicism exerted influence on public legislation, it reflected not a sinister conspiracy but the popular consensus of Irish people at the time. Partly as a result of changes within the Church, that began to change from the 1960s onwards, although even as late as 1995 almost half of Irish voters (49.72%) still rejected the introduction of the most restrictive divorce laws in the western world. Fr Twomey’s depiction of Ireland as having been a stultifying clerical dictatorship contrasts sharply with historical reality. In the period 1923 to 1979, meetings between government and bishops over issues of policy averaged about one per year.[9] Politicians consulted all churches when legislating on so-called ‘moral issues’[10] and exhibited scant scruple in rejecting episcopal direction.[11][12][13] The author cites the fate of the Mother and Child Scheme in 1951 (which is infamous precisely because it was so rare) but even here economic factors were probably more decisive than Church condemnation[14] and variants of the scheme were subsequently introduced in Public Health Acts of 1954, 1957 and 1970. This case can be contrasted with the government’s earlier angry rejection of Bishop Dignan’s social insurance scheme in 1947 or of the hierarchy’s condemnation of the liberalising of opening hours in 1959,[15] which the government simply ignored. Even the ‘special relationship’ of the Church in the 1937 Constitution was recognized only by virtue of the Church being “the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens” — which was simply stating a demographic fact and went no further than the Napoleonic Concordat of 1801 (viewed by French historians as reconstituting the French Church on an unambiguously subordinate position vis-à-vis the state). As Archbishop D’Alton of Armagh pointed out in 1952, ‘since a native Government was established, the bishops have intervened very rarely.’[16]

It is a central thesis of this book that Irish Catholicism bears an essentially insular imprint and the self-imposed seclusion of the Irish Church from continental innovations is, for the author, an incontrovertible axiom. This is certainly not true of the early modern era or penal times, when Irish priests were forced by persecution to receive their entire formation on the continent, and it is even less true of the 20th century. According to the author, the Irish Church has until recently been obdurately ignorant and uninterested in continental developments, believing them irrelevant to the Irish situation: “Irish Catholics, especially their pastors, were not likely to entertain the notion that other Catholic Churches in, say Germany or France, could have anything to teach the Irish Church.” This rash assertion does not survive scrutiny. Many Irish bishops and theologians studied on the continent and, even before the Second Vatican Council, were well aware of the changing pastoral scene. Cardinal Cahal Daly, Archbishop of Armagh and arguably the most influential of post-war prelates, relates the following in his memoirs:

It was not long before I came to realize that the problems of the French Church came in great part from the profound cultural changes taking place in France in the post-war period and especially in the 1960s. Quickly, too, I reached the conviction that the same changes would affect Irish society too before long, and would consequently confront the Church in Ireland; and that French pastoral experience would be illuminating for us and French pastoral strategies beneficial for us when that time came.[17]

Looking back at the beginning of the century, we quickly discover that the Church in France, and the troubles afflicting it, was an almost obsessive preoccupation for Irish Catholicism. The Irish hierarchy felt moved to send a letter of solidarity to French Catholics at their October meeting at Maynooth in 1906,[18] many of their Lenten pastorals in 1907 were dedicated to the clash between the French government and the Church,[19] and local authorities throughout the country passed resolutions excoriating the French government’s anti-clerical campaign.[20] Oblivious to this reality, an industriously engineered straw man is concocted to the effect that Irish Catholics were sanguinely satiated in smug superiority, viewing disdainfully the plight of Catholics on the continent and confident that it reflected a comparative inferiority. It is at this point that the author’s interminable expostulations cease to constitute a convincing camouflage for rank ignorance. Even in the pre-conciliar era, the Irish Church was not ignorant of the wider Catholic world. Religious publications and popular newspapers — the Irish Independent and the Irish Press — gave extensive coverage to ecclesiastical affairs all over the world; for example, the Irish Messenger of the Sacred Heart (the most widely-read publication in Ireland at that time) became “intensely interested” in China during the 1930s.[21] Irish Catholics were acutely conscious of belonging to a wider Catholic commonwealth and exhibited a high degree of communal extroversion. The foundation of the Maynooth Mission to China in 1916 (now the Columban Missionary Society) pioneered the modern Irish missionary movement and led the Irish (alongside the Dutch) to become the strongest missionary community in the Catholic world. Alongside the Columbans, the Kiltegan Fathers, the Holy Rosary Sisters and the Medical Missionaries of Mary (to cite but a few) were all founded in Ireland and sent thousands of missionaries around the globe. The activities of Irish missionaries abroad and the state of the Church in the developing world were communicated constantly to the Irish people through the media (both religious and secular) and to children in schools. ‘Ireland’s spiritual empire’ was an object of popular pride and was “based on a notion of an Irish ministry to the outside world.”[22] From its origins the Catholic social movement in Ireland, which went on to make such a sharp mark on political ideals (though not necessarily public policy – witness the fate of the 1943 report of the Commission on Vocational Organization), looked to the activities of the Church on the continent for inspiration and as a blueprint for imitation.[23] Its most influential exponents in Ireland often had first-hand experience of the European situation: for example, Fr. Peter McKevitt, appointed Professor of Catholic Action and Sociology at Maynooth in October 1936, had spent time in Italy studying Catholic organizations.[24] Muintir na Tíre, founded in 1931 by Fr John Hayes (then a curate in Castleiny, Co. Tipperary) and which did so much to develop rural Ireland, was directly modelled on the Flemish Boerenbond Belge[25] and its ‘rural weeks’ were inspired by the French semaines rurales.[26] The 1932 International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin had a world-wide representation[27] and the glowing piety and religious vitality observed by visiting sources such as G.K. Chesterton,[28] L’Illustrazione Vaticana and L’Osservatore Romano[29] seems so much at odds with the author’s assumption that Irish Catholicism was inherently fraudulent. During the Spanish Civil War, the persecution of the Church in Spain by leftists was well publicized by Irish newspapers[30] and featured prominently in bishops’ pastorals and sermons. Uniquely among democratic countries, the vast majority of Irish people supported the pro-Catholic insurgency[31] and responded generously to the hierarchy’s appeals for the afflicted Spanish Church.[32] The prospect of a communist victory in the Italian elections of 1948 aroused much disquiet in Ireland and public appeals by Archbishops McQuaid and D’Alton were met with consistent generosity. Irish Catholics sent over £60,000 to the Italian Christian Democrats.[33] The trial of the Hungarian Primate Cardinal Josef Mindszenty in 1949 was a major issue for the Irish Church and provoked political and public outrage; 140,000 Catholics protested in Dublin.[34] The author’s portrayal of Irish Catholics as insular and shut off from the rest of the Catholic world owes more to prejudice and ideological assumptions than to applied research.

The author uncritically accepts the consensus that Irish Catholicism in the immediate pre-conciliar era was a reactionary monolith, which was caught off-guard by the Second Vatican Council. The post-war era was, in fact, an important decade of both innovation and transition in Irish religious culture. The otherwise halcyonic Holy Year of 1950 witnessed the founding of The Furrow. Taking its name from the Austrian Catholic Die Furche, it was an influential magazine of reform-minded Irish Catholic intellectuals and aimed to rethink Irish Catholic culture.[35] In the following year, it was joined by the like-minded Dominican monthly Doctrine and Life and the revived Irish Theological Quarterly. Of all reformers in the pre-conciliar Irish Church, The Furrow’s editor, Fr. J.G. McGarry, was unquestionably the paramount exponent. As Professor of Pastoral Theology at Maynooth College, he was intimately acquainted with the liturgical movement and the new theological thinking brewing on the continent.[36] He was actively involved in the Irish Liturgical Congresses from their inception in 1954. Eclipsing the long-standing diocesan liturgical festivals, the Irish Liturgical Congresses in Glenstal Abbey did much to prepare the Irish Church for the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council; its guest lecturers read like a ‘who’s who’ of the European liturgical establishment: J.A. Jungmann, Balthasar Fischer and A.M. Roguet were among the many guest lecturers who addressed the Congresses. Attended by Irish clergy and bishops, the Congress papers were republished in The Furrow, in a three-volume book set (Studies in Pastoral Liturgy) and in pamphlets for the general public. It is fundamentally wrong to conceive the changing Irish Church of the 1950s as static; Fr Brendan McConvery C.Ss.R., lecturer in scripture at Maynooth, accurately observed the disconsonance in established consensus (which Fr Twomey accepts uncritically) and historical reality:

Although it has become something of a truism to say that the Council caught the Irish Church unawares, a re-reading of the early numbers of The Furrow will show that much of the changing European scene in theology and pastoral practice was in fact being mediated into the Irish Church by the McGarry circle and its collaborators including Seán O’Riordan.[37]

Throughout the book, Fr Twomey labours energetically in a fallacious and futile endeavour to establish an impermeable dichotomy between Irish Catholicism and ‘continental Catholicism’. Employing the broadest of brushes, the former is irreverently relegated for inherent inauthenticity, being infected by contagions of puritanism, pietism, philistinism, and even (in romanticism unbecoming of serious discussion) the English language. The author identifies the appointment of Cardinal Paul Cullen as Archbishop of Armagh in 1849 as inaugurating a baleful rupture with happier praxis subsisting hitherto, even though the ninteenth-century reform of the Irish church was already underway before then[38][39] and his subtle suggestion of Jansenist discolouration in the texture of Irish Catholicism is wholly devoid of historical basis.[40]

‘Continental Catholicism’, on the other hand, is idealized as a cohesive composite stretching from Lisbon to Warsaw — glowing luminously with baroque churches, sung High Masses, learned theologians, articulate and engaged laity, etc. Unfortunately the only continental country that Fr Twomey’s seriously engages with is Germany and even here he depends not so much on hard data or historical narrative but on his rather interesting reminiscences of his experience in Bavaria as a postgraduate student at the University of Regensburg.

The sharpest of the author’s spears are directed against Irish Catholicism as it existed before the Second Vatican Council. When considering circumstances in 1950s Ireland, the nostalgic Catholic is apt to forget our present misery and instantly flees to contemplate longingly on all those vanished glories — the extraordinary devotion of the laity, the piety of the clergy, the self-sacrifice of the missionaries, the immense labours of the religious, the unity and almost aggressive self-confidence of Irish Catholic culture. In truth, all that sprung from a deeply Catholic society (how could it be otherwise?) but it counts for nothing in Fr Twomey’s estimation. Needless to say, these characteristics are legitimate objects of criticism but any appraisal that fails to duly acknowledge them is necessarily imbalanced. Whole generations of Irish clergy and religious who selflessly dedicated their lives to God, the salvation of souls and helping their fellow man could justly reproach the author for neglecting to appreciate (much less even recognize) their contributions to both the Church and Irish society. Ironically, his own personal memories of growing up in Cork in the 1940s and 50s are joyous to the point of sentimentality: ‘shot through with light and sunshine’ (p. 63). Fr Twomey treats Irish Catholics of the past in a condescending manner by assuming a widespread theological ignorance. An objective perusal of the religious education used in schools during that era — principally the Maynooth Catechism and Sheehan’s Apologetics — suffices to establish that it reflected a high degree of theological sophistication. The Catholic Truth Society of Ireland (CTSI) rack was, in the pre-conciliar era, a “familiar sight at the back of every Catholic Church in Ireland”.[41] It published thousands of quality pamphlets on a comprehensive range of theological, cultural, and social issues; for example the popular 14-part “What is Christianity?” series by Dr. William Moran, Professor of Dogmatic Theology at Maynooth (published in volume and pamphlet form by the CTSI in 1941) expounded a substantial, neo-scholastic treatment of the sacraments, grace, redemption, justification and virtue. The pre-conciliar Irish Church cannot fairly be faulted for failing to inculcate religious knowledge among the public. Catholic publications were widely spread and read. By the 1920s a survey in Tralee found that a remarkable 17,000 Catholic pamphlets and booklets — along with 20,000 Catholic newspapers, fortnightlies, monthlies and quarterlies — were sold every year and a similar survey in Roscrea found that 95% of Catholic households were taking a Catholic publication from their local CTSI branch.[42]

The author’s inappreciation of the strengths of Irish Catholicism is sustained by an ignorant idealization of the Church on the continent. A cursory glance at the Church in France and Germany furnishes a grim but familiar spectacle of decline and decay that scarcely commends itself to admiration, much less imitation. Ageing clergy, depleted pews, empty seminaries, demoralized laity — this is the harsh reality facing French and German Catholics; it is a sight more properly pitied than adulated. The author’s grandiose delusion of Gallic prowess ought to be immediately dismissed with indignant ridicule by anyone claiming even the remotest acquaintance with the facts. We are told that the “Church in France…seems to be undergoing a springtime in vocations”, which would surely come as a surprising revelation to the French bishops. Embarrassingly for this thesis, vocations in France have continued to decline since the book’s publication and by 2011 only 710 men in France presented themselves as candidates for the priesthood — the lowest level since the French Revolution.[43] Fatal for Fr Twomey’s overall narrative is consideration of the fact that the countries which 50 years ago were in the vanguard of pastoral and theological ‘renewal’ (which the author uncritically admires) are ranked today among the most secularized societies on the planet. It also seems objectionable to conflate the exceptionally progressive countries of the Rhine basin with the entirety of Catholic Europe, much less the Catholic world. A comparison of Irish Catholicism with the Church in Latin America, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain or Quebec would yield a richer and less exceptionalist perspective.

This book is inadmissibly silent on Northern Ireland. The Troubles didn’t just greatly impinge on the Church in Northern Ireland; political instability north of the border was the most powerful force for legislative secularization in the Republic during the 1970s and 80s. Suspicion of Catholic clerical aspiration has long been a cornerstone of unionist ideology; a survey in 1983 found that fear of the power of the Catholic Church was the third most common Protestant objection to a united Ireland.[44] This fear allowed a generation of young liberals to convincingly present secularization as a necessary prelude for reunification.[45] In their submission to the New Ireland Forum (1983-‘84), a statutory body established to discuss political solutions to the Northern Ireland conflict, the Irish bishops repudiated altogether the idea that Catholic moral doctrine need command legislative influence.[46] It is to be regretted that Fr Twomey does not discuss any of this, not even in the simplistic ‘Appendix II: The Moral Revolution: Ireland since the Sixties’ or his chapter on Church-State relations. Indeed, it seems particularly unfortunate that a book by an experienced moral theologian doesn’t really add anything to our knowledge of the state of moral theology in Ireland or the background to its crisis. A valuable opportunity has been wasted.

The chapter ‘Which Path to Follow?’ cruelly betrays its promising title, for it fails to mention the deplorable state of catechesis in schools and why this problem needs to be urgently remedied. The ‘new religious education’ introduced after the Council has deprived generations of Irish Catholics of even a basic knowledge of their own religion and has made an inestimable contribution to the decline of Irish Catholicism. Valid criticisms are made of the Irish media for their treatment of religious issues, but no direction is given on how Irish Catholics might overcome this problem. Irish Catholicism needs to undergo a painful psychological adjustment towards the self-consciousness of being a minority culture; this will require new (or old) pastoral strategies. Fr Twomey does not seem to recognize this. He puts his hopes in a national church synod and a radical amalgamation of Irish dioceses. He presents the Irish Church as burdened by an excess of dioceses, but this seems implausible. The huge dioceses of Germany and Austria are exceptional and originate in the missionary provinces of late antiquity. Italy’s 50 million Catholics are lavished with 225 dioceses – and that figure is down from more than 300 in the 1980s, when the Vatican amalgamated around 100 dioceses (and the fact that Catholicism in Italy has declined significantly since then challenges the supposition that diocesan amalgamations will do much to kickstart an ailing national Church). We now know that Germany’s large dioceses have not immunized it from some of the most appalling revelations of abuse incidents, or their subsequent mishandling on the part of bishops; allegations have relentlessly poured out of that country over the course of the last three years. The same point is applicable elsewhere: the archdioceses of Boston and Los Angeles are among America’s largest, but this has not prevented them from becoming bywords for priestly pedophilia. It is worth remembering that small dioceses have intrinsic advantages: they facilitate greater pastoral care (which has never been needed more than now) and allow a bishop to exert greater supervision over his diocese (the lack of which has arguably been a factor in the scandals). The unpopularity of the merger of the diocese of Ross with Cork in 1958 suggests that diocesan amalgamations might only demoralize the Church in Ireland to an even greater degree than is already the case. Certainly it can be confidently predicted that administrative tinkering will not inaugurate a great Catholic revival, for it fails altogether to address the problem encapsulated in the following observation:

In the past Catholicism in Ireland was a cultural phenomenon. Irish Catholicism wasn’t just handed on from generation to generation. It was inhaled. It was in the air, in the pattern of everyday living and dying. Ask some of the adults who no longer practise their religion about the reasons why. The vast majority are puzzled by the question. They just….stopped.[47]

Ten years have passed since this book was published. The decline of the Irish Church has accelerated significantly since then and there is no reason to believe that this trend will interrupt itself at any point in the foreseeable future. A critical Catholic analysis of how we got here, and what to do about it, has never been more necessary. The End of Irish Catholicism? is an honest and, at times, heartfelt attempt, but it is neither an adequate answer nor a satisfactory substitute.

[1] Irish Independent, 26 December 2003.

[2] Foster, Roy. Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change c. 1970-2000. London: Allen Lane, 2007. 62.

[3] The Spectator, 2 November, 2007.

[4] Fahey, Tony. “Is Atheism Increasing?” Measuring Ireland: Discerning Values and Beliefs. Ed. Eoin G. Cassidy. Dublin: Veritas, 2002. 58.

[5] Daly, Edward. A Troubled See: Memoirs of a Derry Bishop. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2011. 62.

[6] Larkin, Emmet J. The Roman Catholic Church and the Plan of Campaign in Ireland 1886-1888. Cork: Cork University Press, 1978. 309-10.

[7] Miller, David W. Church, State and Nation in Ireland 1898-1921. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1973. 408.

[8] Murphy, Patrick. Oracles of God: The Roman Catholic Church and Irish Politics 1922-37. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2000. 406.

[9] Whyte, J.H. Church and State in Modern Ireland 1923-1979. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1984. 365.

[10] Ferriter, Diarmaid. Judging Dev: A Reassessment of the life and legacy of Eamon de Valera. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2007. 217.

[11] Ferriter, Diarmaid. The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000. London: Profile Books, 2005. 403-404, 509, 523.

[12] Curtis, Maurice. A Challenge to Democracy: Militant Catholicism in Modern Ireland. Dublin: The History Press Ireland, 2010. 95, 166.

[13] Keogh, Dermot and O’Driscoll, Finín. “Ireland”. Political Catholicism in Europe 1918-1965. Ed. Tom Buchanan and Martin Conway. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. 298.

[14] Kennedy, Finola. “Cottage to Creche: Family Change in Ireland”. The Economic and Social Review. Vol. 33, No.2. 259-262.

[15] For the full text of the statement see The Furrow, August, 1959. 553-554.

[16] Irish Catholic Directory, 1952. 681.

[17] Daly, Cahal. Steps on My Pilgrim Journey: Memories and Reflections. Dublin: Veritas, 1998. 115.

[18] Freeman’s Journal, 18 October, 1906.

[19] Curtis, Maurice. A Challenge to Democracy: Militant Catholicism in Modern Ireland. Dublin: The History Press Ireland, 2010. 27.

[20] Kenny, Mary. Goodbye to Catholic Ireland. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1997. 28.

[21] Kenny, Mary. Goodbye to Catholic Ireland. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1997. 129.

[22] Kenny, Mary. Goodbye to Catholic Ireland. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1997. 128.

[23] Ronan, Myles. Catholic Action in France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy (and Ireland?). Irish Ecclesiastical Record, April, 1919. 289.

[24] Corish, Patrick. Maynooth College 1795-1995. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1995. 315.

[25] O’Leary, Don. Vocationalism and Social Catholicism in Twentieth Century Ireland. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2000. 42.

[26] Kenny, Mary. Goodbye to Catholic Ireland. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1997. 182.

[27] For a full list of prelates in attendance see The Ulster Herald, 2 July, 1932.

[28] Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. Christendom in Dublin (reprint). Dublin: Irish Catholic, 2012.

[29] Keogh, Dermot. Ireland and the Vatican: The Politics and Diplomacy of Church-State Relations 1922-1960. Cork: Cork University Press, 1995. 98.

[30] McGarry, Fearghal. Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War. Cork: Cork University Press, 1999. 138.

[31] McGarry, Fearghal. “Ireland and the Spanish Civil War”. History Ireland, Autumn, 2001. 36.

[32] See the letters of the Spanish and Irish Cardinal Primates from 1937:

[33] Keogh, Dermot. Ireland and the Vatican: The Politics and Diplomacy of Church-State Relations 1922-1960. Cork: Cork University Press, 1995. 243-247.

[34] Cooney, John. John Charles McQuaid: Ruler of Catholic Ireland. Dublin: O’Brien Press, 1999. 226-228.

[35] Fuller, Louise. “New Ireland and the Undoing of the Catholic Legacy: Looking Back to the Future”. Irish and Catholic?: Towards an Understanding of Identity. Ed. Louise Fuller, John Littleton and Eamon Maher. Dublin: Columba Press, 2006. 74-75.

[36] Fuller, Louise. Irish Catholicism since 1950: The Undoing of a Culture. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2002. 82-83.

[37] McConvery, Brendan. “In Memoriam: Seán O’Riordan, C.Ss.R.” The Furrow, November, 1998. 622.

[38] Rafferty, Oliver. The Catholic Church and the Protestant State: Nineteenth-Century Irish Realities. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2008. 107.

[39] Connolly, Sean. Religion and Society in Nineteenth-Century Ireland. Dundalk: Dundalgan Press, 1987. 14.

[40] Keenan, Desmond. The Catholic Church in Nineteenth Century Ireland: A Sociological Study. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1983. 13. See also Dr. Thomas O’Connor’s entry on Jansenism in The Oxford Companion to Irish History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

[41] Fuller, Louise. Irish Catholicism since 1950: The Undoing of a Culture. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2002. 135.

[42] Curtis, Maurice. The Splendid Cause: The Catholic Action Movement in Ireland in the Twentieth Century. Dublin: Original Writing Ltd., 2008. 120.

[43] Paix Liturgique letter, No. 325:

[44] McElroy, Gerald. The Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland Crisis 1968-1986. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1991. 164.

[45] Fitzgerald, Garret. Towards a New Ireland. London: Charles Knight & Co., 1972. 92-93.

[46] Hogan, Linda. “Interpreting the Divorce Debates”. Religion and Politics in Ireland at the Turn of the Millennium. Ed James P. Mackey and Enda Mc Donagh. Dublin: Columba Press, 2003. 111-112.

[47] Looney, Anne. “Disappearing Echoes, New Voices and the Sound of Silence”. The Church in a New Ireland. Ed. Seán Mac Réamoinn. Dublin: Columba Press, 1996. 111-112.