Hope for Catholic Ireland

Irish Catholicism was never what Americans thought it was. Understanding what it was will explain why it is what it is today and why there is hope for its future.

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Some of my conservative Irish-American friends, who cherish the old romantic myth of The Ould Sod as a place where 1950s culture and Catholicism reigned, in The Quiet Man and Bells of St. Mary’s harmony, ask: How could the Church in Ireland have “allowed” divorce/abortion/same sex marriage? And they assume the Faith is dead in Ireland. 

“Allowed?” As if the Church could have prevented the secularism, materialism, and self-indulgence of the contemporary West from taking hold in Ireland? As if the Church anywhere has been able to do that?  

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but Irish Catholicism was never what Americans thought it was. Understanding what it was will explain why it is what it is today and why there is hope for its future—and how Americans can help now. 

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“Irish Catholicism” was, in the words of Fr. Vincent Twomey, 

neither fully Catholic nor fully Irish…it contained within itself the seeds of its present demise. Living among the debris of a distorted cultural expression of Catholicism, the worst expression being the scandals and cover-ups, we are, as the Church, experiencing the end of a cultural phenomenon.  

Authentic Gaelic Catholicism went back to the fifth century, before “Catholic” was a name for the Church. What happened to Ireland in the 17th century might be called genocide today: the Penal Laws, Cromwell’s “Go to Hell or to Connaught,” the persecution of the Faith, the transportation of Irish slaves to the West Indies, and the overall destruction of Gaelic culture.  

In 1829, Catholics got some political representation, thanks to Daniel O’Connell and Catholic Emancipation. “But,” notes Fr. Twomey, 

the public realm was dominated by a highly developed, sophisticated, but predominantly alien, culture. [Ireland] had not only been deprived of a substantial public Catholic culture for over a century and a half, but its public culture was dominated by a desiccated English Protestant cultural tradition. 

Think of the worst Victorian preoccupation with “appearances” and the acquisition of wealth and diluted Puritan piety: those were English values, not Gaelic ones, but they dominated Ireland for the next two hundred years. 

In order for England to allow a Catholic seminary in Ireland, a deal was made that the Church would be Anglophone instead of Gaelic. In other words, it became legal to be a Catholic, but you had to be a cultural Brit if you wanted to claw your way into the middle class or better. Add eighty years of English education on top of that and you understand why Ireland’s culture has followed the lead of English-speaking culture ever since.

After the Great Hunger of 1845-52, the Irish people who survived, in their profound piety, took it to be a punishment for their sins—and their loyalty to the Church deepened; the parish priest became their comforter and advocate. And as long as they were poor and isolated from the rest of the world and mostly lived in villages, the Irish were faithful, docile Catholics.  

The Irish Church seemed strong into the 1960s because it had not been challenged. Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Constitution of Ireland) gave special place to the Catholic Church, recognized the place of women in the home, and forbade contraception. The faithful would ask the priest how to vote before an election, and some priests made it their business to know who in their parish had crossed paths with the police over the weekend. 

Fear of public shame, rather than personal piety, kept many behaving properly—and those who didn’t behave emigrated. Then came the Sixties. The national television network, Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ), came on air on December 31, 1961. The strict censorship laws which had shielded Ireland since the 1920s were largely repealed beginning in 1967.  

From the mid-90s until 2007 came the Celtic Tiger, which brought with it something never experienced in Ireland before: prosperity. In Fr. Twomey’s words, “Prosperity, no matter how welcome, inevitably gives rise to consumerism with its attendant spiritual impoverishment.” And how! 

As the population shifted to larger towns and cities, fear of public shame no longer controlled behavior. While the bishops’ own survey in 1973 reassured them that Mass attendance was 91 percent nationwide, more objective surveys a few years later found that 33 percent of young men received Communion less than once a year, and only 61 percent of young people said that religious principles would guide their behavior. Peadar Kirby reported—in 1984—that in some working-class Dublin parishes, only 10 percent of parishioners even went to Mass every Sunday.  

But they had all had a good Catholic education, hadn’t they? Or had they?

When the nation was born in 1923, it was bankrupt. So, religious orders stepped up to provide education. The national schools were generally in parish buildings and conducted by religious orders. What could go wrong?

Children were taught the three R’s and the Catechism in elementary school by pious sisters or brothers whose answer to probing questions was likely to be a slap for being bold, accompanied by a stern “because Father says so, that’s why.” In any case, religious education ended with elementary school. If you wanted to understand theology or philosophy, you went to minor seminary; there was no other option. 

By contrast, here in the United States we had long had a robust Catholic education system which did not end in eighth grade. Catholic high schools taught four years of “Christian doctrine,” a blend of theology and philosophy. Almost all Catholic colleges had theology and philosophy as part of their core curriculum requirements. Additionally, we had a smorgasbord of Catholic journals, newspapers, and magazines in various languages and coming from different points of view.   

Ireland had none of that. 

St. John Henry Cardinal Newman established the Catholic University of Ireland in 1854. In The Idea of a University, he advocated for the inclusion of theology as part of a curriculum devoted to all knowledge. The sad truth was that the bishops of Ireland were not interested in teaching either theology or liberal arts to the laity. Instead, they sent the money that had been raised for the college to defend the city of Rome during an uprising. 

Whatever the bishops wanted, it was not to educate the laity in theology. As a result, a lay Catholic intelligentsia never developed in Ireland, as one did here in the United States. When the great wave of relativism of the Sixties and the innovations of Vatican II came, the laity did not have the knowledge or skills to sort the wheat from the chaff. Generations of “because Father says so” bore the bitter fruit of confusion and disorientation after Vatican II. 

By the time of the national referendum on same-sex marriage in 2015, the people weren’t listening to the Church anymore. For twenty years, trust between the Church and the people had been not just eroded but cannonaded to shreds. 

Beginning in 1992, when Mass attendance was 78 percent, the Irish Church was sucker-punched by one indefensible scandal after another: a popular bishop had, for twenty years, been using diocesan money to support a wife and child; a popular television priest-defender of traditionalism for years had had a “housekeeper” who was the mother of his children. Next came the clerical pederasty and abuse revelations: the Church had shuffled assignments around for decades and informed nobody. 

Beginning in 1999, the media and the government investigated the inhumane and brutal systems of the Church-overseen Magdalene Laundries and Industrial Schools (reformatories). Fr. Flanagan of Boys Town USA had condemned the Industrial Schools in the 1940s—but he had not been heeded. Since the 1920s, almost 50,000 young people had been in one or the other of those systems, so this was personal for a significant number of Irish people. Remember, Ireland is a small community—its population is about the same as South Carolina’s: five million.

The great pain of betrayal and disgust from all this toppled the Church from the revered post it had enjoyed for almost two centuries. A theologically uneducated population found it difficult to separate their emotions from the supernatural reality of Christ’s institutional body on earth. 

Despite all this, the Faith is not dead in Ireland: 69 percent of the population still identified as Catholic in the 2022 census. What other country can say that? 

Far be it from me to know what the bishops may be doing; one trusts that the Holy Spirit is acting through them. Meanwhile, laity who have kept the Faith have been energetically focusing on the youth.  

Education and formation of the young are vital. Internal conversion and knowledge of the Church and her teachings are not invited or taught in the current government school system. If Generation Z can develop personal faith and the ability to defend it, to have an answer for the hope that is within them (1 Peter 3:15), the Church will emerge from its current trials—smaller perhaps, but purer. The laity are rising to meet the challenge of building both faith and reason.  

A youth missionary told me this story: she befriended and worked with a high school student and eventually got to the point of suggesting, “Have you thought about going to Confession?” This Irish teenager responded with a blank stare and asked, “What’s Confession?” That teenager’s ignorance of Confession lies at the feet of Ireland’s education system.

According to this missionary, Generation Z does not hate the Church. Usually, they simply, literally, do not know it. Their parents, Gen X and Millennials, who grew up during the barrage of scandals and horrors, tend to be turned off by the Church. Most of the Boomer generation is mainly confused: they cannot explain the Church to their grandchildren, and today many prefer to watch Mass on television than to attend it. 

If Gen Z can come to know and love Jesus Christ and His church, there is hope for Ireland. 

It is a definite sign of hope that youth ministries are thriving. Youth 2000 has been active in Ireland since 1993. NET Ireland, a relational ministry similar to FOCUS, was founded in 2004 and has sent almost 500 missionaries into schools and parishes around Ireland to evangelize. Lay ministries are also thriving: Focolare claims 5,000 “friends” in Ireland; Communion and Liberation and the Neocatechumenal Way both are strong and growing.   

In the 1950s, Ireland officially adopted the educational philosophy of John Dewey and oriented education around job skills instead of thinking skills. Thirty years ago, the teaching orders disappeared and government took over all funding and control of education. But the schools kept the same saints’ names on the buildings, so parents just assumed their children’s education was the same as theirs. But they were wrong. 

The government of Ireland is as secular and leftwing as any government in the world, and the wokeness of the European Union permeates the curriculum. Catechism was replaced decades ago with “comparative religion” studies—as if students can evaluate the claims of Hinduism when they don’t know Christianity! Crucifixes are not even allowed on the walls of schools. 

The most hopeful sign for the long haul is that faithful parents are beginning to take things into their own hands. Homeschooling is spreading; and independent, parent-run academies are springing up. These culture-changing trends began in America only forty years ago, and they are just now beginning in Ireland. Be patient: it takes time to change a culture.

The pioneer Irish homeschool curriculum, Mater Dei Education, offers Irish history, culture, and language as part of a classical liberal arts education that is designed to prepare students for Mater Dei Academy, a secondary school in Cork. Mater Dei Academy is not a seat-of-the-pants operation: its founder is an engineer with a Ph.D. from MIT. He and his co-founders spent several years examining different school models and curricula before designing their own. They decided at the beginning that they wanted to be independent. That means no government and no Church money or control.  

Nonetheless, no child who wants this education is turned away for lack of money. The Academy, now in its fifth year, is truly revolutionary in its funding model. Because faithful Catholics have large families and little disposable income, and in Ireland there is no tradition of paying for education except among the very wealthy, there is no set tuition fee. Parents pay what they can, and the school relies on donations to make up the difference. (Americans can help through www.saintsandscholars.us.)  

The bishop of Cork allows Mater Dei to rent space in the former St. Finbarr’s minor seminary. Other bishops and educators are watching. If Mater Dei Academy Cork succeeds, it might become a new model for Catholic education in Ireland. If it is imitated around the island, future generations of Catholics may once again make Ireland worthy to be called the land of saints and scholars.  


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