Collapse of Irish Catholicism: A Self-Induced Crisis?
My sincere thanks to Peadar Laighléis, President of the Latin Mass Society of Ireland, for kindly allowing me to repost his excellent article, appended below, concerning the crisis in the Irish Catholic Church. It was first published in the Sunday Business Post in 2001. He also sent me this helpful bit of background to the article:
I wrote this piece nearly ten years ago and at the time, I was annoyed I left one major source of discontent out. In the mid-1990s, the Bishops of Ireland transferred the feasts of Ascension Thursday and Corpus Christi to the nearest Sunday. This was calculated to please the laity and was greeted by the greatest outpouring of lay anger than anyone could anticipate which resulted in the dropping of the second phase of the programme fast (ie the transferance of the obligation to hear Mass on feasts falling on a Saturday or Monday to the Sunday – a ‘two for the price of one’ arrangement).
The bishops were surprised as they were led to believe that that was what the faithful expected. This was done through a process of consultation enthrusted to the clergy. The respondents were specially selected and they gave the correct responses. The problem was that these responses were totally unrepresentative. This attracted more correspondence to the Irish Catholic than any other single issue in David Quinn’s editorship.
When I wrote the article under discussion, I intended it as a wake up call and I found it very well received by laity, including many of whom would not go down the road of the older liturgy with me, and badly received by the clergy. Just over a year later, Father Joseph Briody (Raphoe diocese) wrote an article in the Irish Catholic [see here - shane] which described Maynooth during his time there in a much more specific manner than I did in my article. He was pilloried as a kind of traitor by his confreres, including many conservatively minded younger clergy and seminarists. I can recall the response of Bishop Willie Walsh and Father Colm Kilcoyne to criticisms advanced by Kieron Wood in a television debate. It seems that the clergy and the faithful occupy two different worlds at times. One might rather ask what has happened with the Irish Church since these criticisms were voiced? The answer is that the Church is in free fall. The issue of clerical paedophilia cannot be blamed for this – I am unaware of any new cases emerging in that decade. Most of the material dealt with in the reports is historical. The Church in Ireland has failed on a different and altogether more significant level. That is communicating the faith to the faithful. The most striking recent example of this was the utter cluelessness of Irish Catholics under the age of 65 in regard to the importance of the seal of confessional following the legislative proposals advanced after the publication of the Cloyne Report.
The principal reflection I will make in this regard is to recall a lot of the predictions of the late Monsignor Francis Cremin [see here - shane] whose jeremiads in regard to the Irish Church fell on deaf ears but have substantially come to pass. Nonetheless, I do not believe that the situation we have is irreversible. I just don’t see it as being reversible by human effort alone.
The following is the article in full:
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
by Peadar Laighleis,
Sunday Business Post, 21 January 2001
The Catholic Church is in serious trouble, but is the cure worse then the illness?
In the late 1980s, Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich shocked the nation with his prediction that missionaries would soon come from Africa to evangelise Ireland because of the vocations crisis here at the time.
A decade later, his prophecy has come true, and worshippers in several Dublin churches have already experienced the ministry of African clergy.
When the late primate made his remarks, there were about 350 diocesan seminarians at Maynooth. Now, there are 110. A number of diocesan seminaries that were open at that time — St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny, St Peter’s College, Wexford, St John’s College, Waterford, and Holy Cross, Clonliffe — have now closed down because of the shortage of vocations to the priesthood. St Patrick’s College, Thurles, and St Patrick’s College, Carlow, may not be far behind.
Last year, 19 first year students entered Maynooth. The Church of Ireland theological college in Braemor Park accepted 10 entrants — even though Catholics outnumber Anglicans on this island by about 10 to 1.
So what are the causes of this accelerating collapse?
The wave of clerical scandals of the 1990s is usually blamed, but this only partially explains a pre-existing trend. Seminaries are no longer a traditional route to higher education. More third-level avenues are now available to young men, and this is reflected in the qualifications some candidates bring to the seminary. Several students at Maynooth entered with master’s degrees or even doctorates.
A more telling factor is reflected in the recent survey showing that only 14 per cent of young Catholics regard attendance at Sunday Mass as important. The catechisms of the Council of Trent and the Second Vatican Council both reiterate the Church’s teaching that the Mass is the same sacrifice as Calvary, with Christ made present again on the altar.
Despite 13 or 14 years of religious education, this idea is lost on the vast majority of school leavers.
Faith is jointly transmitted by home, school and Church, so its loss during the years of most complete exposure would seem to indicate grave defects in the catechesis and liturgy to which this generation has been subjected. Catholic parents are continually assured of the benefits of the post-conciliar changes in these areas.
In the 1970s, parents were dissuaded from using traditional forms of prayer with their children at home, were patronised when they questioned the Children of God catechetics series and were dragged to aimless meetings about their children’s reception of the sacraments.
Similar treatment is now meted out to parents who express concern about religious courses such as Alive-O and Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE).
The Children of God series fell short of the requirements in the General Catechetical Directory, and Alive-O — now integrated with the RSE programme — ignores the teachings of the catechism of the Catholic Church and the document of the Pontifical Council for the Family, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality.
At the same time as the faith of Catholic children was being undermined, a campaign was underway to ravage the Church’s architectural heritage — the patrimony of all Irish people, regardless of their faith. Third-rate architects aspiring to rival Le Corbusier reckoned they could improve on Pugin masterpieces. Ecclesiastical treasures were destroyed to gratify the new iconoclastic spirit — despite the pleas of the faithful, whose impoverished forefathers had paid to build and upkeep their parish churches.
This vandalism was justified by the line: “Vatican II requires it.” In the Connolly v Byrne case (about the changes to Carlow Cathedral), the High Court was given evidence of a letter from Cardinal Ratzinger to Bishop Laurence Ryan, informing him that the Second Vatican Council had imposed no obligation to make such changes.
In other words, churches had been razed on the basis of an untruth, while the laity — who generally opposed changes mandated by clerical autocrats — were expected to foot the bill. Hierarchical lobbying even led to alterations to the Planning and Development Act 2000 to protect the Bishops’ newly-discovered power.
New liturgy brought new music. The organ was dismissed as old hat, and traditional hymns were replaced by folk music based on pop songs of the 60s and 70s. It was a good illustration of the adage that whoever marries the spirit of the age today is widowed tomorrow.
In 1980, I was confirmed in an ugly modern church with bare concrete walls, to the strains of a ‘hymn’ which parodied Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind. For most pre-teen children in 1980, Dylan was as archaic as Palestrina. Someone reliving a flower-power youth did not bring my contemporaries nearer to the Holy Ghost.
Yet, in the 1990s, English and Spanish monasteries featured in the charts with compilation CDs of Gregorian chant. Soon afterwards, the Faith of Our Fathers CD of rejected devotional hymns was a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Most pastors took no cue from the faithful on this matter.
Catholics are assured that today’s banal and uninspiring liturgy is “better than ever” and will be further enhanced by greater lay participation. Experience suggests that the word ‘female’ could be substituted for ‘lay’.
Laymen are disappearing from today’s Church, further diminishing the pool from which vocations are drawn. After all, why should a man sacrifice career and family to pursue a way of life that does not confer any privilege not already open to laity?
The Catholic priesthood is fast becoming invisible. Several years ago, the archdiocese of Dublin ran a vocations campaign asking ‘Who are the men in black?’ A more appropriate question might have been: ‘Where are the men in black?’ A clerical tailor in Dublin recently informed me that he had made more cassocks for Anglican ministers last year than for Catholic priests.
One orthodox young priest in rural Ireland told me he was frustrated with his Roman collar, as many people mistake him for a Protestant clergyman. At the same time, another young priest in Galway sees no problem in wearing the collar — and nothing else — for a photograph in a charity calendar. Does anything go for today’s priests — short of paedophilia?
If a candidate nevertheless presents himself to the seminary, what can he expect? He probably lacks the support of family or local clergy enjoyed by previous generations. He may be told that his beliefs about priesthood — even about Catholicism — are wrong. He might see Marian devotion trivialised or ridiculed. He could well see psychology used as a weapon against orthodox dissenters. He might see academic performance, or bookishness, denigrated.
It is not unknown for seminarians to be coerced into leaving because they are seen as academic, pious, distant from girls, or strict about moral issues, particularly homosexuality. Today, expulsion can be the reward for behaviour that one might have expected of clerical students in the past.
Some Catholic clergy, schooled in the prevailing current of paternalistic liberalism since the 1960s, seek to persecute recalcitrant quasi-traditionalist elements. But the Church will increasingly have to rely on such conservative and traditionalist churchmen for vocations, as liberal and radical thinkers challenge the fundamental need for Church or priesthood. Time to sing ‘Where have all the young men gone?’ with guitars around the campfire.
Blaming celibacy is inadequate. Celibacy dates from Apostolic times, and studies have suggested that married clergy existed only by way of exception. Celibacy was still a requirement when one eighth of Irish school leavers opted for the priesthood in 1959.
The Eastern Catholic Churches — which still have married clergy — also experience periodic vocations shortages. In any case, married clergy are not immune from scandal, as evidenced by some of the British tabloid headlines about the adulterous behaviour of vicars and ministers.
The Catholic Church is fast disappearing on many levels. Most obviously, it is no longer visible in the media. Official statements have become muted: the various conferences of bishops, priests and religious are more inclined to pronounce on economic issues than morality or dogma.
Individuals in these groups are more likely to make worthy but uncontroversial statements on popular social issues than to defend Church teaching on issues such as birth control, divorce or abortion. Few clerics who feature in the media are noted for upholding unpopular aspects of Catholic doctrine.
There is a new relationship between Church, state and the media, and the consensus which has emerged between these institutions has dangerously stifled debate. Many liberal clergy pride themselves on being ‘on the margins’ when they publicly oppose the Pope or Church teaching on old chestnuts such as sexual morality, priestesses or clerical celibacy — yet this earns them media praise, which would not be quite as forthcoming if they were to defend the Catholic position. Christ was a sign of contradiction, and He warned His apostles about the danger of courting human respect.
In the closing decades of the second millennium, Irish society became increasingly secular and materialistic, and the Irish Church reflects this shift. Today, the so-called Catholic press largely reflects that consensus. Conservative and traditional opinion are confined to publications like Catholic World Report, Position Papers and the Brandsma Review, none of which feature prominently on the publication racks in most churches. One wonders who is dissenting from what.
The Church’s liberal wing is hypercritical and dismissive of Pope John Paul II. Conservatives, for their part, cast the Pope as a superhero, and pray for a similar cardinal to succeed him. But — to borrow a word from the evangelical Protestant lexicon — both views are papolatrous. Both seem to regard the Pope as master of scripture and tradition, when he is in fact servant of both. It is a difficult time to govern the Church, and the Pope needs prayers, not unfounded criticism or flattery.
The liberals would like to see the next Pope allowing priests to marry, ordaining women, reversing Humanae Vitae and admitting remarried divorcees to communion.
A Protestant minister once challenged the dissident theologian Professor Hans King about such changes. The minister pointed out that the mainstream reformed Churches had for some time featured the characteristics Father King was seeking — yet they were in an even more advanced state of decline than the Catholic Church.
So is the cure worse than the illness? We may soon have to judge for ourselves.
Peadar Laighléis, who is 32, spent two years as a seminarian in a religious order. He now works as a civil servant and is president of the Latin Mass Society of Ireland.