Irish Echo Online


Observers say Irish church lacks leadership, focus for new times

By Peter McDermott

DUBLIN -- The news vendor waited on a recent Sunday morning outside Mass. Election candidates looked down from posters pinned to lampposts.

The worshipers emerged then into the sunlight to complete the familiar Irish church-gate scene.

But things have changed over the last three decades. There are more newspapers on sale than in the past. More parties vie for preference votes, while election literature is brasher and personalized.

And the parishioners are disproportionately middle-aged and elderly. The once-powerful, monolithic Catholic church is no more.

The Rev. Tom Stack said that about 50 percent of Catholic parishioners here in Milltown, a South Dublin middle-class suburb, attend Mass every Sunday.

"It's leaner, but those who do go, go with because they have some sort of conviction," said the pastor, who was ordained more than 40 years ago.

"There was a strong social coercive element to it," he said of Mass attendance in the past. "You were considered odd if you didn't go."

He added that contrary to some reports, the churches are not empty.

Indeed, 65 percent of Catholics in the Republic tell pollsters that they attend Mass regularly.

"It's holding up despite everything. I can't see it dropping to the floor," said Simon Rowe, editor of the conservative Irish Catholic. "Those young people who are involved are much more zealous, have a more intellectually engaged faith."

Breda O'Brien, a practicing Catholic who comments on religious issues for the Irish Times, has a more pessimistic view. "There's a crisis of morale and there's a crisis of faith," she said of the church in Ireland.

A married woman with four young children, O'Brien said her generation, those from their early 40s down to 30 are "strikingly absent" from the pews.

"They've just given up and gone," she said. "Some are hanging in there by their fingertips."

She questions the depth of commitment of those who do go to Mass "when push comes to shove."

Catholic commentators may disagree on the extent of the crisis facing the church, and about the prescriptions for some sort of recovery, but all agree that secularizing trends long predate the Celtic Tiger boom and the clerical sexual abuse scandals.

"There was a self-secularizing of the intelligentsia in the 1970s," said the Rev. Fergus O'Donoghue, who edits the Jesuit journal Studies. He said that today no Irish writer of note is a practicing Catholic.

What has happened in the Republic of Ireland was seen in other religions and other countries earlier, he said. The Church of Ireland, for example, lost the active allegiance of the Protestant working class in Northern Ireland a generation before the working class stopped going to Catholic churches in the South. He also pointed to the collapse of French Canadian Catholicism in the 1960s.

O'Donoghue argued that the Irish Catholic hierarchy failed to involve the laity in change after the Second Vatican Council.

"And our bishops for a long time encouraged devotion and not reflection," he said.

More radical critics add that the strict sexual code with which the church was identified for so long has become a millstone.

"On issues like contraception, the church does not do justice to the reality of people's lives," said the Rev. Michael O'Sullivan, a Jesuit who teaches at the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy.

"There's a lot of alienation on the part of women," he said. "People have felt let down by the church, think it's too rigid, that it hasn't accompanied them satisfactorily in their lives."

O'Sullivan said the church has to have certain standards, but the approach of its hierarchy, including the current pontiff, has excluded certain groups.

"Jesus was a very encompassing kind of person, but people see a judging kind of church," he said.

O'Sullivan, a proponent of Liberation Theology, went to Chile in 1982, a time when there was increasing agitation against the Pinochet dictatorship that took power on Sept. 11, 1973. He survived kidnapping and assassination attempts before being eventually forced from the country in 1984.

He spent other spells since then working with the poor in Latin America, but back in Ireland he became increasingly involved on the issue of women's rights.

He found the church more oppressive in Ireland than in Latin America, where there were fewer priests and more scope for initiative.

"Here, you feel you are being constantly monitored," O'Sullivan said. "There's a sense of being under the microscope."

The new Dublin archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, has said that he's surprised at the amount of mail he's been receiving. A good deal of it, O'Sullivan suggested, is from conservatives complaining about church liberals and progressives like himself.

Moral absolutes

Newspaper editor Rowe is a critic of what he calls "priestly dissent," arguing the church should expect its paid officials to advocate its teachings.

"There are very few organizations that tolerate such ongoing dissent as the Catholic church," he said.

Rowe said that individual priests argued for a married clergy not because it would be a boon to the church, but because they themselves were unhappy.

"People don't like moral absolutes. They don't like 'yes' or 'no' or 'thou shalt not' anymore," Rowe said. "But a value system says: thus far and no further. The church has a line and says no further.

"The church has stayed true to what its view of what human sexuality is. Its views cannot change, but for most people they say they cannot accept that and it's a 'thou shalt not' that they cannot live with."

On issues such as contraception, Rowe said there's "a knowledge gap, a catechetical gap that has to be bridged." For the church, it's a question of "communicating the message, not the what of it, but the why of it."

Stack said that all young people are welcome at his church. Cohabitation or the use of contraceptives, for example, are not excommunicable offenses.

"I think the church has to be open and that sort of openness is gradually getting through," he said.

The heavy-handed clerical approach is a thing of the past, Stack added.

"People should get the feel of real worship -- rather than working from some archaic image or fantasy that they have," he said.

"I tell couples getting married that going to Mass on Sunday is not the be-all and end-all of being a Christian, but there's a very strong community dimension to being a Christian. You've got to put yourself with the community."

But observers agree that the breakdown of traditional notions of community is one of the greatest problems facing the church. Political scientists and others have pointed to the steep decline in volunteerism and the growth of individualism and consumerism in Western societies.

"It's affected political parties. People when asked to put up posters say: 'How much am I being paid for this?' " Stack said.

"It's been said that many French Canadian villages and small towns no longer support a church but all of them support a sex shop," O'Donoghue said.

In a time-pressured world, people are much less involved in civic organizations. And the trend is most marked among young adults.

O'Donoghue recalled that a couple of years ago when the dynamic young Spanish bishop who heads the young Catholic workers movement complained about how few members he had, his Socialist counterpart told him: "Hold onto them, I've none."

Immigrant revival

But these Catholic commentators also pointed to what they saw as positive signs.

"There's an increasing number of lay people studying theology," O'Sullivan said. "There's a genuine desire for God and a meaningful Christianity. There's a greater interest in spirituality, not as an alternative to Christianity but as part of a search for a Christian God."

Stack said that people will always be interested in the spiritual dimension. Some will find it in reflexology, others in meditation, or in prayer groups. Others still will discover it in a more traditional way -- at their parish church

"There's more to life than eating, drinking, sleeping and copulating," Stack said.

Another positive development has been the church's outreach work among immigrant communities, which O'Donoghue said has been "impressive." He cited the example of the Spirasi Center for refugees run by the Holy Ghost Fathers.

Rowe argued that the movement of Catholic immigrants into Ireland is helping to fuel a revival.

And O'Donoghue said that the Protestant churches, notably the Methodists, have gotten new leases of life too from immigrants.

"If Irish Protestantism were to die in the South, it would be extremely unhealthy, apart from being the loss of a great tradition," he said.

Some argued also that the media is taking the church more seriously. David Quinn, a respected conservative commentator, was recently appointed religious affairs correspondent of the Irish Independent.

The other four interviewed for this article all expressed admiration for Irish Times columnist O'Brien, who is a conservative on Catholic social teaching but veers to the left on economic issues.

Despite her traditionalism. O'Brien is a forthright critic of "clericalism," echoing a theme raised recently by a Mayo priest, the Rev. Brendan Hoban, who said that clerical control was "strangling" the church. In a new book, "Change or Decay," Hoban writes that "a feudal church is incapable of conversing with today's world and unless we embrace change the Irish Catholic Church will turn over and die."

"People have been bored away," O'Brien said. "There is nothing stimulating, there's nothing alive to say 'this is good for your children, this is full of hope, is positive, is challenging.'

"There's nothing in the liturgy for small children, nothing for teenagers," said O'Brien who teaches the equivalent of ninth grade. "Nothing to support me and my husband struggling to keep the flame going.

"They [the clergy] talk about family, but they display very little understanding about what a normal family is like, and the demands of family life.

"There's a terrible deadness about the Irish church and Irish worship," she added.

Safe bishops

The once-powerful church, the critics have argued, is failing to adapt to its new role.

"The church in France is a minority, but it's a lively minority," O'Donoghue said. "There are many movements in it, from far right to far left. They all contribute."

Most place the blame at the top.

"The priests in the parish are very demoralized [due to the abuse scandals]," said O'Brien. "They see the bishops as middle management."

Said O'Sullivan: "There's a lack of confidence of ordinary people in the church leadership."

"Very often the leadership is not good," Stack said. "Very often they [the Vatican] appoint very safe, dull people. And people know that."

He said that was no "authentic consultation" for the recent appointment of Martin.

"He could be the greatest guy in the world," said Stack of the new archbishop, but the process that selected him was in marked contrast to that which produced William Walsh in 1885, who was archbishop until 1921. (He was elected by the senior priests, a decision endorsed by Rome.)

The electronic age has only served to strengthen the Vatican, Stack said.

"Tip O'Neill said all politics is local. The same with the church," he said. "The Roman center is a sign of unity. It shouldn't be controlling the minutiae of Milltown. Rome does not accord the autonomy and the reverence for the local church that it should."

Said O'Donoghue: "Many of our bishops are very good administrators, but a country in the midst of such rapid change needs prophets."

This story appeared in the issue of June 9-15, 2004

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