Goodbye to Catholic Ireland

By McGurk, John | Contemporary Review, July 1997 | Go to article overview

Goodbye to Catholic Ireland


McGurk, John, Contemporary Review


A scan of the headlines in recent years relative to religion, the church, Ireland and the Irish when brought together would apparently spell out the end or at best the fast waning influence of Catholicism in twentieth century Ireland. A random selection may well include: 'Convent closes as Ireland turns its back on Church'; 'Three teachers sacked in Ireland over lifestyles'; 'Bishops differ on closure of vasectomy services'; 'Bishop Brendan Comiskey returns after several months in an alcoholic clinic in America'. 'Claim that Protestants are being outbred is a myth', 'The promised referendum over abortion law to provide a test of the bishops' authority'. The more salacious headlines dealing with patrimony suits against bishops and priests and the rash of publicity on gay and paedophile clerics and religious wrought havoc on the images of Holy Mother Church but not quite on the scale of the Borgias in the courts of Renaissance Rome.

Observers of Irish Catholicism in the final decade of the twentieth century seem to concur with the historians of religion in modern Ireland that the authority of the Catholic Church has been in decline from a high peak in the middle of the century. Imperceptibly slow at first that decline is clearly visible by the 1970s so that in the 1990s it has become common to speak of 'a post-Catholic Ireland'. Irish writers in the 1990s are beginning to use 'Roman Catholic' whereas formerly they used 'Catholic'; many of my generation believed that Roman Catholics were Catholics from the City of Rome. Historical parallels are dangerous, but could we not also say that England in the 1890s became a post-Protestant country while France certainly became post Catholic in the late eighteenth century.

Naturally the phrases, 'post-Catholic' and 'a pluralist republic' to describe late twentieth century Ireland come easily to the pens and voices of those who wish to indicate their opposition to some of the teachings and doctrines of the Catholic church. Certainly there are indications of the decline in Catholic authority and a whole range of changes in traditional perceptions of Catholic Ireland and the Irish. How otherwise can the sociologist of religion explain the number of children born to Irish Catholic married couples is now much the same as those born to non-Catholic couples whereas earlier in the century the numbers had been much higher? It does not necessarily follow that Catholic married couples are no longer obeying the teaching of their church on contraception, but that is what many people conclude. In the fields of sexual and reproductive ethics the Catholic church has been assertive of its authority hence the conclusion that something like a hidden or silent revolt against that authority had and has continued to take place.

A recent poll of the Irish people in the Republic, of which over 94 per cent are Catholics, believe that Catholic priests should not be celibate; but how many parishes would be prepared to support the priest's wife and family? In the same poll about 80 per cent openly rejected the teaching of the Church on contraception, often summed up in the wisecrack, 'No recreation without procreation'. Formerly, those who rejected these two basic tenets of Catholicism would hardly have been considered Catholics. In a poll last year for The Irish Times a fifth of Irish Catholics said that they followed the teaching of their church when making 'serious moral decisions' compared to 78 per cent who said they would follow their own conscience. But as Mary Kenny points out in her recent Goodbye to Catholic Ireland (Sinclair-Stevenson. [pounds]11.99 p.b. ISBN 1-85619-751-4), in the chapter entitled 'The Pill, the Church and the Rise of Feminism':

'In fact, the pill has never been banned in Ireland, birth control "devices" were banned in 1935 (and books advocating contraception in 1929), but the pill was pharmacological, and not a mechanical device, and arriving in 1961, never fell under the original prohibition'. …

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