Last month’s referendum result brought with it much discussion relating to the apparent demise of Catholic Ireland.
Indeed, the comprehensive nationwide victory, the overwhelming support for unrestricted abortion among young voters and the raucous celebrations at Dublin Castle all showed that something had indeed changed, and many are intent on accelerating that change elsewhere.
Flush with victory, Deputies Clare Daly and Richard Boyd-Barrett loudly decried the presence of religious statues in Catholic schools where voting had taken place.
Others demanded that Catholic education in Ireland should be done away with entirely, a sentiment which is by no means limited to those on the far-left.
Most shocking of all though were the demands for pro-life, Christian organisations such as the Iona Institute to be removed from the airwaves, if not closed down entirely.
One thing was clear. In spite of the Yes side’s landslide victory, many of their strongest supporters were not satisfied. Their war is far from over.
The World Turned Upside Down
For Ireland’s beleaguered Catholic minority (who are indeed a minority, regardless of what the erroneous Census statistics might suggest), May 25th, 2018 will long be remembered as a day of national tragedy.
In approving the killing of unborn children, the Irish people have publicly rejected the core teaching of Christianity: “In so far as you do unto the least of my brothers (and sisters), that you do unto me.”
Innocent life is no longer sacred in Ireland, and certain human beings can be disposed of if they are inconvenient. This is what modern Ireland believes, and an institution which insists on teaching otherwise is naturally to be despised.
How did it come to this?
The anti-Catholic narrative which has developed in Ireland over the last generation or two is clearly flawed, but it is based on a reality which cannot be forgotten.
It is the story of a doomed marriage between church and state which damaged the former party almost beyond repair, a sordid union which left some of the most vulnerable people in our society scarred for life. To understand how this union came about we need to examine the historical context of what forces led to the creation of the Irish State.
Going back to the 16th century, Ireland bucked the trend towards reformation in these isles by refusing to adopt the new-found religion of the Tudor overlords, which started with King Henry VIII.
From that point on, Catholicism in Ireland became not only a clearly defined religious belief, but also a badge of national identity. It inspired resistance to foreign rule, a resistance which guaranteed that no lasting political union could ever be built between Britain and Ireland.
When the defeated occupier finally departed, it was only natural that the Catholic education and healthcare system which priests, nuns and brothers had done so much to establish would become closely tied to the nascent Irish state, which was at any rate too weak and poor to establish a significant welfare state of its own.
From that time forth, the temporal power of the Church grew further. Foolish clergymen latched on to political leaders, and sought to obtain ever greater power. The ban on divorce, the closing of the pubs on Good Friday, petty censorship and the opposition to the Mother and Child scheme. So much of what unfolded was simply a repeating process whereby state failure and blind obedience to religious rule was masked by the alleged comfort that we were, in spite of everything, a good Catholic country.
Those who claim a vocation to serve God should have the best of motives, and throughout our history, most people who embarked on a religious life really did.
But the Church in Ireland also attracted the power-hungry and the status-seekers in droves.
Much worse, it attracted many depraved perverts who found ample prey in institutions which became places of terror for children and others with no means of defending themselves, and no one outside willing to defend them.
Now, as a direct result of these abuses – long since exposed – noble priests and nuns are subjected to cruel abuse because of the sins of others. Their Church – the institution which has shaped our nation’s culture since the 5th century – is scorned at every turn.
Furthermore, an indirect result of much greater consequence occurred last month, when hundreds of thousands of people gave vent to their anger about the abuses of the past by voting to deny the constitutional rights of future unborn children.
Was Ireland ever Catholic?
Irish Catholicism was not only noteworthy for its excesses and abuse of power, it was also notable for its shortage of beauty and joy. What works of substance did Irish Catholicism produce before its leadership was so publicly disgraced?
Consider the physical appearances of our churches. In other countries, the local church is invariably the most beautiful building in the community, and contains some of the finest artistic works and sculptures. In Ireland though, it is very rare to find such aesthetic jewels.
Granted, there are extenuating factors: Ireland is historically poor, and many of its churches were stolen and destroyed in the 16th century by the English Crown. Yet other poor and persecuted nations like the Poles were able to build and maintain beautiful churches. Why weren’t we?
Music is another obvious shortcoming. Traditional Irish music is unquestionably beautiful, and our performers have gained worldwide acclaim. In spite of this, we have never developed many of our own hymns, and the standard of church music here has always left much to be desired. Contrast us with the rich tradition of the black church in the United States, which despite its material poverty was able to produce so many well known songs of praise.
Our literary tradition is also highly-respected internationally, but rarely did Irish Catholic writers address aspects of the faith in detail. Contrast this with England, where the small Catholic minority can boast of G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, Hilaire Belloc, and Evelyn Waugh in the last century alone.
We produced an abundance of missionaries, who it must be said served the Church overseas with great distinction, and in so doing left a lasting impression of Ireland as a caring nation.
But was it not strange that a nation would produce so many priests, and so few distinguished theologians?
Did Irish Catholicism not encourage architects to build, artists to paint, performers to sing or philosophers to think?
And did it inspire anything in the Irish people except fear, and the delayed sense of resentment which we are now experiencing?
In a foreign sojourn in the Middle East some years ago, I found myself a parishioner in a church with a predominantly Indian congregation. Every mass was thronged with the faithful, who sang hymns in English with great passion, and who listened to the priest attentively.
After mass, the large crowd would gather outside to chat happily over samosas, fried chicken and other tastes of home. This was not a burden or a chore, but instead a time of the week which the families cherished. The joyous atmosphere left me feeling that in addition to moving country, I may have inadvertently changed religion as well.
It also made me feel that somewhere along the way, something went very, very wrong with Irish Catholicism.
Withdrawal and consolidation
Catholicism is counter-cultural in today’s Ireland, and in a world where the unborn (and soon perhaps, the aged) are deemed unworthy of life, Catholics can occupy no other position. Rebuilding the Church to prepare for whatever is next to come will require significant change.
To begin, the Church should withdraw fully from its role in Irish healthcare. Last year’s furore over the involvement of the Sisters of Charity in the new National Maternity Hospital showed clearly how toxic the attitude is now towards those who will not countenance the ending of some patients’ lives.
This crime is now to come to pass throughout our healthcare system. The prospect of members of the clergy remaining in ownership of hospitals in spite of this would be unconscionable.
The area of education is more complicated, as it is still possible to teach the Catholic faith without being compromised. However, maintaining over 90% of primary schools is completely untenable.
Most of the parents of primary school-aged children voted for abortion – with 84% support among 25-34 year-olds and almost 73% among 35-49 year-olds.
This situation complicates matters enormously for parents who deeply desire an authentic Catholic education for their sons and daughters, and for Catholic teachers who wish to provide it.
The number of Catholic schools in the country needs to be reduced, possibly by as much as three-quarters. After that reduction, the remaining schools could be more unapologetic about their identity, certain in the knowledge that no parent had been compelled to enroll their child.
If a genuinely Catholic school system is allowed to compete in a free market of educational provision, it is bound to prosper, particularly as more and more people become disillusioned with the ‘Educate Together’ and other modernist alternatives.
The model of Britain, where Catholic schools perform outstandingly well in league tables and where the strong moral ethos attracts parents of all religions and none, is the example which should be followed.
Secular though the nation is, no British government will ever end Catholic education for fear of a parental revolt, and the same situation will exist here if parents are able to see what Catholic education really is when compared with other types of schooling.
Furthermore, preparation for the Sacraments needs to be removed from all schools, Catholic or otherwise. During the referendum, there were reports of parents of First Communion children walking out of churches when priests dared to speak about the importance of protecting all life, born and unborn. Altogether a neat summation of the popular attitude towards religion these days.
From now on, people looking for their children to receive the Sacraments should be required to give up time at the weekend to attend mass in their parishes and receive whatever additional instruction is necessary. This will reduce demand considerably, but compared to the hypocrisy of the status quo, it is immeasurably the better option.
More importantly, those children who are raised in the Catholic faith will, as a result of this, have a much better appreciation of what requires belief, and why.
In legislative matters, there will be some action in the coming years, with blasphemy about to be removed from the Constitution via a referendum. The Church should take the initiative and ask the state to remove the preamble which states that a Constitution which now makes specific reference to killing unborn babies in some way operates “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity”.
A divorce referendum is to be held in the next year to liberalise the law further.
No energy should be expended on opposing this, and it is time that the Church carried through on its previous threat that priests might stop performing the civil aspects of weddings. The state’s definition of marriage is ever-shifting, the Church’s definition is constant, and laid down by Christ himself.
The Church should have nothing to do with civil ceremonies at all, and as with the other Sacraments, a more thorough process should be instituted for those seeking to marry according to its rites.
Most of these changes are inevitable in the long-run, as cultural Catholicism rapidly recedes, and Catholicism by conviction should become the prevailing mood amongst churchgoers.
A new beginning
Those who hate the Church have spent years calling for a secular state. It should be given to them graciously, and amongst Catholics, the focus should be on building a revitalised community of their own.
Right now, the situation of the Church appears grim, but the possibility of resurrection cannot be ruled out.
People want more in life than what they are provided with by a secular culture. No matter what happens, that search will go on, particularly for young people.
However the question of whether they can find an answer in the faith of their fathers will in no doubt be determined by the efforts of the faithful few who remain.