Roman Catholic Church: Since 1891

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Roman Catholic Church: Since 1891

By the 1890s Irish Catholics displayed extraordinary levels of religious practice thanks to the devotional revolution of the mid-century. Ecclesiastics were well aware, however, that intense devotion to Catholicism existed in uneasy alliance with another popular passion—nationalism. Though most clergy, including nearly all the bishops, shared the popular aspiration for Home Rule, over the preceding two generations the church had acquired important interests under British rule, foremost among which was a network of clerically managed but state-funded primary schools that had become denominationally segregated despite the government's original intent that they be nonsectarian. The Catholic hierarchy's problem was how to protect its interests within the existing political system while retaining the confidence and fidelity of a laity committed to the abolition of that system and its replacement with one in which Ireland would be self-governed.

Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

During the career of Charles Stewart Parnell as leader of the Irish Nationalist Party in Parliament, the Catholic hierarchy had addressed the difficulty of protecting its interests in an 1884 arrangement to support the party's effort to gain Home Rule for the Irish nation on condition that the latter defer to the bishops' judgment in matters relating to the church's educational interests. This arrangement was able to survive the crisis in 1890 and 1891 over Parnell's divorce because, contrary to an important strain of popular memory, it was not the bishops but the party itself (prompted by the English Liberal Party leader, W. E. Gladstone) that deposed Parnell from the leadership. Two legacies from the period of Parnell's dominance of Irish politics, however, made the 1884 arrangement problematic for the church over the next three decades.

The first of these legacies was that all parliamentary constituencies with Catholic majorities had become permanent "safe" seats for nationalists. As a result, a cohort of politicians only a few years younger than Parnell continued to dominate nationalist politics from the latter's death in 1891 until the party's humiliating defeat in the 1918 general election by a new generation of politicians. Therefore, to the extent that the bishops adhered to the 1884 arrangement, they risked alienating younger Catholic nationalists frustrated by the party's failure to deliver Home Rule. The second legacy was Gladstone's commitment of the Liberal Party to Home Rule, which meant that the Nationalist Party had no practical alternative to some sort of alliance with the Liberals. The latter's increasingly secularist outlook toward education made some bishops deeply suspicious of Nationalist Party leaders.

During the decade-long split in the party following Parnell's fall, some ecclesiastics were enthusiastic supporters of Timothy Healy, one of the anti-Parnellite leaders whose policies seemed to promise greater clerical influence in party affairs. The 1900 reunion of the party under the leadership of the Parnellite John Redmond, with the support of Healy's anti-Parnellite rival John Dillon, isolated Healy politically. Cardinal Logue of Armagh had never really abandoned his Healyite sympathies, but Archbishop Walsh of Dublin, the subtlest intellect in the hierarchy, did correspond candidly with Redmond in the years immediately following the reunion. Around 1905, however, Walsh became alienated from the party under Redmond's leadership. Communication between the hierarchy and the party leaders generally devolved upon one of Logue's suffragans, Patrick O'Donnell, bishop of Raphoe, who had become rather deeply involved in party affairs.

Although the 1884 arrangement remained the basis for the relationship between the bishops and the party, unease over the Liberal alliance, as well as some popular disillusion with the party, meant that the hierarchy increasingly tended to conduct that relationship at arm's length. Of course, the outcome of the two 1910 general elections, which seemed to give the party leverage to force enactment of Home Rule, restored some of its popularity. Popular disenchantment with the party returned, however, after Ulster Unionist threats to secede from any Home Rule government in Dublin resulted, at the outbreak of World War I, in the mere pro forma enactment of Home Rule coupled with an act suspending it for the duration of the war.

Easter Rising through World War II

The distancing of the bishops from the party during the preceding decade or more worked very much to their advantage during the revolutionary developments of 1914 to 1923. Nineteenth-century experience might have led one to expect the hierarchy to rally around the party's constitutional nationalism in opposition to "physical force" nationalism in the wake of the 1916 Easter Rising. Certainly a number of bishops condemned the violence immediately after the event, but the hierarchy avoided any ringing endorsement of the party. Meanwhile British execution of most of the rebel leaders left a sort of tabula rasa upon which an alternative to the party would be constructed under the label Sinn Féin ("we ourselves"). The young Sinn Féiners were unsullied by the old party's associations with the Liberals, and the fact that many of them were associated with movements celebrating rural Gaelic society resonated with the bishops' anxiety over the dangers of modern urban popular culture.

In the spring of 1918, by promoting a nationwide anticonscription movement in which the party and Sinn Féin were nominally coequal partners, the hierarchy sent a message that the latter was a legitimate claimant to the former's role as representative of the nation. During the hostilities of 1919 to 1921, bishops deplored the violence of both the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and crown forces without calling into question the legitimacy of Dáil Éireann, the alternative legislature constituted by the Sinn Féiners elected to Parliament in late 1918. The hierarchy rejoiced at the 1921 treaty settlement and came down very hard on the side of the new Free State government by excommunicating the anti-treaty side in the Civil War of 1922 to 1923.

Given this ecclesiastical support at such a critical moment, it is not surprising that the new state quickly enacted into civil law Catholic moral teachings in such matters as divorce and contraception. More significant is the fact that antitreaty politicians, after they reentered the Dáil in 1927 as the Fianna Fáil Party led by Eamon de Valera, proved themselves equally committed to the confessional character of the state despite their harsh treatment by the church during the Civil War. When de Valera as head of government set about redrafting the constitution in 1937, he relied heavily on the advice of Father John Charles McQuaid, who became archbishop of Dublin in 1940. The new constitution was influenced by contemporary Catholic social teaching and recognized "the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens."

The 1950s

By the 1950s the Irish Catholic Church had settled into certain grooves and seemed likely to preserve this combination of features far into the future. It was thoroughly hierarchical in its governance, with its bishops and priests expecting the laity to accept a distinctly subordinate role. It occupied a position of enormous power and influence primarily because, with vocations at floodtide, priests, brothers, and nuns in great profusion staffed schools, hospitals, and other public services. Most politicians—and Catholics generally—readily acknowledged its authority over public and private morality. The celebrated "Mother and Child" crisis of 1951 was remarkable not because the church succeeded in blocking implementation of a system to provide prenatal and pediatric care and instruction but because the minister of health insisted on making a public issue of his disagreement with the hierarchy.

Taking a deeply pessimistic view of the secular world, church leaders saw moral danger lurking almost everywhere, and nowhere more menacingly than in the sexual realm. Other Christians in Ireland (not to mention Jews), outside the "one true church," were regarded as fit only for conversion; otherwise their very salvation was in doubt. To the discomfort of Irish Protestants, the cult of the Virgin Mary had long occupied a central position in the devotional life of most Irish Catholics. Rituals and ceremonies focused on Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Lourdes, and the rosary were especially widespread and exuberant in the 1950s, when devotees were stimulated by the Marian Year (1954), the centenary of the Lourdes apparitions (1958), and the rosary "crusades" of the Irish Dominicans and Father Patrick Peyton. There was no scriptural tradition either in popular piety or in scholarship, and Irish Catholics were encouraged to observe with great strictness the iron laws of a punitive God and "his" church if they wished to escape everlasting damnation.

Irish Catholicism since Vatican II

All of these characteristic features of Irish Catholicism were challenged forcefully by the very different winds that blew from Rome during and after the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). In its sweeping reform program Vatican II called for giving the laity a much-expanded role in the governance of the church. It expressed considerable optimism about the nature of the modern world. It strongly encouraged dialogue with other Christians and indeed with representatives of other major religious traditions. It discouraged popular religious beliefs associated with miraculous cults, and it sought to put the life of Christ and the boundless love of God at the core of personal religious experience, thus relegating the Virgin Mary to a subordinate position. And the Scriptures were to become the touchstone of both theological inquiry and popular piety.

Over the next quarter-century Irish Catholicism was substantially reshaped by the reforms associated with Vatican II. In some important areas, admittedly, change came very slowly and in small doses. The hierarchy was unwilling to share much power with either priests or the laity, and the roles of both in church governance expanded more in form than in practice. On the other hand, clergy and laity alike readily accepted numerous liturgical changes—Mass in the vernaculars (English and Irish), hymn singing, lay Scripture readers, lay ministers of the Eucharist, and Communion in the hand. Marian devotions and Marian organizations such as Our Lady's Sodality and the Legion of Mary soon dwindled into insignificance. Relations between the churches vastly improved. Laying aside its earlier conversionist mentality, the institutional Catholic Church entered into respectful theological discussions with representatives of other Christian traditions in Ireland and began to view certain kinds of interfaith religious services as not only acceptable but even highly desirable.

But Vatican II did not only reshape the Catholic Church in Ireland; it also weakened it and helped to precipitate its decline. The development that has proved most debilitating has been the dramatic fall in vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. Of course, the causes of this development include the materialist values arising from economic prosperity and the spread of modern sexuality since the 1960s, but the emphasis placed by Vatican II on human freedom, the development of the whole human person, and the dignity and beauty of married love worked strongly in the same direction. The requirement of celibacy now seemed to entail too great a sacrifice. Whatever arguments there might be about the relative weight of the different factors involved, the results have long been all too plain. By 1998 there were only 44 ordinations to the priesthood in Ireland, as compared with the peak of 412 in 1965. The total number of priests, brothers, and nuns in Ireland plummeted from almost 34,000 in 1967 to fewer than 20,000 in 1998 (a fall of 41 percent), with the heaviest declines coming among the orders of religious brothers.

If the recent past and the present have been bleak, the future is even darker. In 1966, at the crest of the floodtide of vocations, some 1,400 people in Ireland were registered as beginning formal preparation for the priesthood or the religious life, but by 1998 the corresponding number had fallen to 92. The dramatic decline in vocations has hardly been limited to Ireland, but its consequences there have been more far-reaching than almost anywhere else owing to the historic role of Irish Catholicism. Because of this radical contraction in its personnel, the institutional Irish Church has been unable to staff schools, hospitals, and other public services to anything like the same degree as in the period up to the mid-1960s, and in the process much of its old power and influence has been lost.

Other factors have undoubtedly contributed to this loss of power and influence. One is that the Catholic laity of Ireland have been made more independent of clerical authority by their rising levels of education. Between 1970 and 1998 the number of students enrolled in third-level education in the Irish Republic increased from about 25,000 to over 112,000. The statistics for secondary-school education tell an equally dramatic story. The moral authority of the church has also been badly damaged by poor leadership. In Ireland as elsewhere, the Catholic laity generally repudiated the teaching of Humanae Vitae, the notorious papal encyclical of 1968 banning all forms of "artificial" birth control. On this issue the Catholic bishops of Ireland took a hard line in accord with Roman orthodoxy and prohibited priests from engaging in public dissent. The obvious fact that many priests did dissent and yet pretended to accept the ban fostered an image of clerical hypocrisy among the laity and cost the institutional church dearly in credibility with most Irish Catholics.

Crippling the moral authority of the church even more seriously has been the avalanche of clerical scandals since the early 1990s, beginning with the case of Bishop Eamonn Casey of Galway (who resigned in 1992 when it was discovered that he had fathered a son years earlier), and extending to the case of Bishop Brendan Comiskey of Ferns (who resigned in 2002 after his role in failing to stop the activities of a pedophile priest—the suicide Father Sean Fortune—came under intense public scrutiny). Among these scandals none caused more public outrage than the disclosure of the widespread physical and sexual abuse of children and adolescents in residential institutions conducted by male and female religious orders. This particular scandal, magnified in its public impact by a powerful television documentary in spring 1999, led to the appointment of a government commission of investigation and eventually to a huge financial settlement in 2002 by the religious orders to compensate victims of abuse. The clerical sex-abuse scandal in Ireland, as in the United States, eventually focused on the failure of church leaders to remove priests from active ministry or contact with children after the receipt of credible evidence of serious wrongdoing. Cardinal Desmond Connell, the archbishop of Dublin, came under pressure to resign for this reason. The Irish Catholic hierarchy promised a thorough diocese-by-diocese investigation of clerical sex abuse, to be followed by a public report.

As if the seemingly endless drumbeat of scandals were not depressing enough, church leaders have also had to confront much evidence that a basic feature of Irish Catholic life—regular Sunday Mass attendance—has become imperiled. Surveys indicate that during the 1990s Mass attendance rates declined significantly—from 85 percent in 1990 to 65 percent in 1997. Although even the lower rate is quite impressive by European standards, what is especially worrisome is that when these figures are broken down by age and location, it emerges that a majority of young people in urban areas "have turned their backs on a part of Irish life which was almost universal a generation ago." It should not be assumed, however, that there is a causal connection between the scandals and the drop in Sunday Mass attendance. Persuasive evidence exists that Irish Catholics have not substantially changed their religious beliefs or practices in reaction against the scandals. Nevertheless, the aura of serious moral misconduct attaching to numerous servants of the church since the early 1990s can only worsen the problems of the dearth of vocations and the poverty of moral credibility. It will be years before the Irish Catholic Church could recover even a semblance of its former authority in the moral sphere, and its old political power is gone for good.

SEE ALSO Ancient Order of Hibernians; Ecumenism and Interchurch Relations; Education: Primary Public Education—National Schools from 1831; Education: Secondary Education, Female; Education: Secondary Education, Male; Education: University Education; Gaelic Catholic State, Making of; McQuaid, John Charles; Marianism; Maynooth; Mother and Child Crisis; Overseas Missions; Religion: Since 1690; Religious Orders: Men; Religious Orders: Women; Secularization; Social Change since 1922; Sodalities and Confraternities; Temperance Movements; Walsh, William Joseph; Primary Documents: From the 1937 Constitution; Letter to John A. Costello, the Taosieach (5 April 1951)


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