SINS OF THE FATHERS; the Church Was Buoyed by Last Week's Increase in Vocations. but Here One Eminent Writer Argues, in a Controversial and Powerful Critique, That Unless Rome Embraces Massive Change, Its Place in Society Is Gone; SATURDAY ESSAY
Byline: by Tom Inglis
THE announcement earlier this week that the number of new seminarians has increased this year must be a cause of some joy for the Catholic Church. Thirty-six men have started training for the priesthood. This is 12 more than last year and the highest since 1999.
But the Church has been in deep recession for the past 50 years. In 1966, there were 254 new seminarians. The number of priests, nuns and brothers is dwindling rapidly. Most of those who are left are retired and elderly. In this respect, the Church is literally dying.
So while the increase this year may be seen as a green shoot, the reality is that the strength and influence of the Catholic Church in Irish society is in decline and will continue to decline in the years to come.
The main reason for this is that it has lost touch with the people. It no longer responds to their needs and interests. Irish Catholics have found new sources of meaning, new ways of living a good life.
While the decline in the institutional Church was inevitable, it was quickened by its attitude to sex. Ever since Humanae Vitae in 1968 and the declaration that the use of 'artificial' contraceptives was immoral, the laity began to move down a different path.
Most no longer accept the Church's teachings on sex. They no longer believe that it is wrong to have sex outside of marriage, that people have to be married to have children, or that homosexual behaviour is immoral.
They increasingly see sex as something to celebrate, as a central part of a normal, healthy, fulfilling life.
In my view it was this new attitude to sex which made the findings of the Ryan Commission all the more horrific. It revealed what happens when sex is repressed.
DESPITE moving away from Church teaching, if Irish Catholics follow their European counterparts, they will still continue to see and understand themselves as Catholics. They will continue to believe in God. But God, the Church and salvation will not have the same influence over people's lives.
The majority of Irish Catholics no longer believe in hell or the devil. While the large majority - close to 80 per cent - still believe in Heaven and life after death, there is increasing uncertainty about what happens when people die, about who gets into Heaven and, more importantly, whether getting into Heaven depends on following the teachings of the Church.
Irish Catholics are not only becoming similar to other European Catholics, they are also becoming more Protestant-like.
Salvation is achieved less through the Church and its sacraments and more through the individual. Increasingly, Catholics make up their own minds about what is right and wrong, good and bad. They follow their own consciences.
But Catholic Ireland is also becoming secular. This is happening at two levels.
In everyday life, God, Jesus and the saints, no longer have the same influence. They are no longer on people's lips, or in their hearts and minds. People no longer live in Catholic time and space. Their lives do not revolve around feast days, holydays, Lent, Advent. They no longer troop into Church for May and October devotions.
Meanwhile at another level, the Church has lost much of the influence and control it had in Irish society, particularly in education, health and social welfare. These were crucial instruments in maintaining the faith.
Similarly, it is no longer able to influence and control the State and the media as it once did. The voice and influence of the Church has weakened. It is no longer, as it might like to think, the moral conscience of Irish society. The media has taken over this role.
But many of the messages of the media are very different from those of the Church. The media accentuate desires, pleasures and the importance of the individual satisfaction. The failure of the Church to adapt to the media was central to its failure to adapt to the modern world. …