Book Review: The End of Irish Catholicism? by Fr Vincent Twomey, SVD
Fr 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%, 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.
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.” 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. 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 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. 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. Politicians consulted all churches when legislating on so-called ‘moral issues’ and exhibited scant scruple in rejecting episcopal direction. The author cites the hierarchy’s successful opposition to the Mother and Child Scheme in 1951, which is infamous precisely because it was so rare and even here 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 pub opening hours in 1959, which the government simply ignored. Even the ‘special position’ 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.’
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.
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, many of their Lenten pastorals in 1907 were dedicated to the clash between the French government and the Church, and local authorities throughout the country passed resolutions excoriating the French government’s anti-clerical campaign. 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. 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.” 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. 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. 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 and its ‘rural weeks’ were inspired by the French semaines rurales. The 1932 International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin had a world-wide representation and the glowing piety and religious vitality observed by visiting sources such as G.K. Chesterton, L’Illustrazione Vaticana and L’Osservatore Romano 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 and featured prominently in bishops’ pastorals and sermons. Uniquely among democratic countries, the vast majority of Irish people supported the pro-Catholic insurgency and responded generously to the hierarchy’s appeals for the afflicted Spanish Church. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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 and his subtle suggestion of Jansenist discolouration in the texture of Irish Catholicism is wholly devoid of historical basis.
‘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”. 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.
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. 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. This fear allowed a generation of young liberals to convincingly present secularization as a necessary prelude for reunification. 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. 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.
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.
 Irish Independent, 26 December 2003.
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 The scheme was also strongly opposed by the Irish Medical Association, which decried it as “treatment of the rich at the expense of the taxpayer”. McKee, Eamonn. “Church-State Relations and the Development of Irish Health Policy: The Mother-and-Child Scheme, 1944-53″. Irish Historical Studies, November, 1986. 159-194.
 For the full text of the statement see The Furrow, August, 1959. 553-554.
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 For a full list of prelates in attendance see The Ulster Herald, 2 July, 1932.
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 See the letters of the Spanish and Irish Cardinal Primates from 1937: http://lxoa.wordpress.com/2011/07/24/spanish-civil-war-letter-of-the-cardinal-primate-of-spain-to-cardinal-macrory/
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 Fuller, Louise. Irish Catholicism since 1950: The Undoing of a Culture. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2002. 82-83.
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 Fuller, Louise. Irish Catholicism since 1950: The Undoing of a Culture. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2002. 135.
 Curtis, Maurice. The Splendid Cause: The Catholic Action Movement in Ireland in the Twentieth Century. Dublin: Original Writing Ltd., 2008. 120.
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