What Really Motivates Irish Hostility Toward Catholicism

My 11-year-old daughter loved it. We were in and out in 40 minutes flat. She knew she was on to a good thing as the priest walked out. He strode out like a man trying to catch up with an old flame who was strolling 100 yards ahead. He wasn’t jogging, and he was trying to retain decorum, but he was moving as fast as possible under the circumstances. The altar girl’s little legs were moving like pistons trying to keep up. A quick nod in the general direction of the tabernacle and away he went.

I don’t know the reason for the rush. He’s part of a three-priest team covering one large and three small parishes. Priests are an endangered species here in Ireland. He may have had another Mass to get to. I’m not sure. The Mass itself provided a clue or two that he wasn’t comfortable in his vestments: The new Missal translation of the Nicene Creed has been out for some years now, so he’s probably said a couple of thousand Masses with it. Besides, it was written on the Mass leaflet that he was working from, placed subtly on top of an ornate missal. Nonetheless, he slipped into the old version. He replaced “For us men and for our salvation,” with, “For us and for our salvation.” Perhaps a slip, or perhaps a conscious decision to not say the Mass of the Catholic Church, but instead his own particular version, reflecting his own personal perspectives. So, too, the penitential rite was skipped. We were invited instead to “think about the good things” God has done for us.

Further, he didn’t preach. Maybe there wasn’t time. Maybe he wasn’t feeling it. Locals told me that only one of the priests in the parish preaches, and he’s very unpopular because of it. The speed of this priest’s Masses made him far more tolerable to the townspeople than his colleague who wears his collar, preaches every Mass, and has the temerity to say the Nicene Creed as the Church intends it. The Mass I went to, both in its speed and its form, testified to this priest’s desperate desire to be tolerable in a country that increasingly sees the Church as toxic.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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I was born in Ireland but left in 2005 at the age of 32, to teach in the United States and Canada. I go back home every two years, with my wife and children, to spend the summer with my family in Ireland. These trips allow for a biennial look at the state of the Church there.

I was braced coming home this time. The abortion referendum showed a Church that was whipped. It had been whipped for a while, but the sheer euphoria that greeted the decision to greenlight the killing of countless babies only made sense as a delirious dancing on the Church’s grave. Very few supporters of abortion (some, but very few) get genuinely excited about abortions. The supporters who were dancing in the streets were celebrating the death of what they see as the “wicked witch” that is the Catholic Church.

This perspective is spectacularly ignorant. Don’t misunderstand, the Catholic Church in Ireland (in the twentieth century and beyond) has contained sin and corruption and crime and heresy in staggering proportions. Sexual abusers were protected, the Church hierarchy, time and again, cared more about protecting the image of the Church than tending to the needs of victims. In fact, the Church in Ireland was a witch’s brew of clericalism and cultural Catholicism, faithlessness and cronyism, and it produced horrors. These horrors make it understandable that when people think of the Catholic Church they think only of them. Understandable, but wrong.

The horrors that the Irish people, to an extent, and the Irish media, exhaustively, conflate with the Church, were also and at once symptoms of a toxic Irish society. It was an Ireland wracked by poverty, cronyism, Victorian puritanism, class prejudice, and more. These factors fueled the horrors that took place in schools, hospitals, and homes, Catholic and otherwise. The Catholic Church is rightly attacked for the treatment of women in “Magdalene Laundries.” But when Irish families kicked out children who were physically or mentally disabled, or girls who got pregnant, these places were set up to care for those rejected children. In them, mentally disabled children, cast out by their families, were cared for and given work to support themselves and each other, everything from arts and crafts to laundry work. And, horrifically, in these places, as in the society at large, there was often violence and abuse. For this violence, Irish society—the very society that rejected the disabled and girls who were shamed by their families, a society just as, if not more, violent and abusive outside the laundries than within them—hates and despises the Church. It hates and despises it with a passion that only makes sense if we understand that this hatred also is used in a way to absolve “us” Irish people from our complicity in these horrors.

We Irish savage Catholicism for the treatment of students in Catholic schools and of people being cared for in Catholic hospitals and institutions. But if such things also happened in secular schools and institutional contexts (and they did), then the belief that they were caused by Catholicism must, at the very least, be contested. But it isn’t. Not in the Irish media, and not in Ireland at large. Such nuance would rupture the cleansing balm the vilification of Catholicism provides a society reluctant to be shamed by the way it was.

You see, we forget that Ireland, after independence from England in the 1920s, was, like most post-colonial settings after independence, a “developing country.” That is, we were impoverished. We could not afford schools or hospitals, and we couldn’t educate or care for our people. People in Ireland in the twentieth century starved. What saved Ireland, in the first half of the twentieth century, from outright humanitarian catastrophe was the Catholic Church. It was the Church that fed, cared for, and educated the Irish people. Catholic faith was the impetus behind this. Catholicism was the formal cause of this compassion and charity.

The abuse, violence, ignorance, and prejudice that was manifest in the sexual abuse crisis was, without doubt, fueled in part by structural problems in the Church. For example, the destructive power of clericalism was rife in Irish Catholic culture, and it was a key factor. But it was also fueled by wider social and cultural pathologies. It is easier to draw a line of causation to the horrors from these social and cultural factors, than from core, foundational aspects of the Catholic faith. But we don’t do this. Instead, we cleanse ourselves and our cultural memory by raging against the Church.

As such, the crisis of the Catholic Church in Ireland is more complex than it first appears. The crisis is twofold. First, there is a legitimate identification of the crimes, sins, and heresies of Catholic leaders. There is the legitimate identification of a toxic ecclesial culture, which led to the horrors identified by the reports of the sexual abuse of children. These reports show a Church in need of drastic reform. We need to accept this need for reform and act on it. There can be no question about this.

Yet there is also the uninformed, unnuanced, conflation of Catholicism with all-the-bad-stuff-that-happened-in-Ireland-since-independence. This conflation speaks to something deep in our Irish psyche. If the Church was the problem, then “we,” the Irish people as a whole, are washed clean. If the Church was the disease, then we, if we can root it out, are “healthy.” The collective shame of poverty, prejudice and more can be pushed onto the Church and thereby we are cleansed. Again, the Church failed, the Church needs to atone and reform, and leaders need to retire and, in some cases, be imprisoned.

But the dancing in the streets after the abortion referendum reflects far more than warranted outrage at the Church’s failings. It represents an outrage that serves an important psychological function in whitewashing our own history. Note the speech of Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar to the pope on the pope’s arrival. It chided the pope and the Church but by so doing he gained himself massive “kudos” from the media and society at large. He was there as a representative of the Irish state and, by chiding the pope, he purged himself, and the state he represents, of the sins of the Irish past. He did what we Irish today do more generally: he attacked the Church as a means of cleansing himself and us. And for this he gained plaudits in newspapers, television, and on social media from a grateful Irish public.

The response Church leaders need to offer to both these elements of the crisis—genuine horrific failures and ill-informed cultural despising of the Church—is the same. Reform. Reform involves courage and faith. It involves a brave admission of our crimes, sins, and heresies as well as a passionate commitment to change in light of them. But it also involves a brave defense of the Faith and a proclamation of the saving power of Jesus Christ. It involves us taking the role of Peter when we’re asked whether we’re with the Nazarene and responding “Yes,” and accepting the consequences.

In many ways I think the priest at Mass last Sunday, in his speed, heresy, and desperate need for toleration, said “No.” Understandably, he wants to be tolerable. He wants to salvage something and live out his life with as little loathing as he can muster. Understandable, but nonetheless a tragic failure of his calling. We need him, just as we need all leaders in the Church to billow with the Holy Spirit and be brave, but he wants to hide and hope all the pain goes away.

Naturally, people are contrasting the Church in Ireland during Francis’s visit this past weekend with how it was when Saint John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979. They see, back then, a Church in triumph. They see, now, a Church in ruins. Both views are incorrect. When Pope John Paul II came to Knock, a small village in the West of Ireland, there were close to a million people there. Two and a half million people came in total to see him on the trip, well over half the population. The crowds, this time, were large, but smaller. People see a massive shift. But look more closely at the visit to Knock. A vast crowd waits in the rain. The crowd is being “warmed up” by two of the most popular Church figures in Ireland, Bishop Eamon Casey and Father Michael Cleary. Both were leaders of the Church in Ireland, but both were  also fathers in a very literal sense, in that both were men who fathered children during long-term sexual relationships. This was the Church in Ireland then. The faithful were led by men who were failing in the Faith. Men who were living a lie. It was led by bluffers, fakers, and frauds.

The crowds were smaller for Francis, but the crowds were still there. Masses in Ireland are still relatively well attended. And the leaders, too many of them, like this priest last Sunday, seem again to be failing to provide the kind of Spirit-led, faithful, brave, radical leadership the people need.

Despite this, however, there is cause for hope. After the abortion referendum, I was prone to despair, but I’ve since been to Masses in Tipperary, Kerry, and Limerick—weekday and Sunday—and attendance was good. Eucharistic adoration is growing. The Catholic faithful have been abused by their leaders and are being abused, daily, by the media, but they are still there. They are still saying “Yes” when asked whether they are with the Nazarene. Because of this, and because of the Lordship of the Holy Spirit and the guidance of the Blessed Mother, there is still hope for the Church in Ireland. We just need leaders to join in this chorus.

(Photo credit: Pope Francis in Ireland; Daniel Ibanez / CNA)


  • David Deane

    David Deane is Associate Professor of Theology at Atlantic School of Theology in Nova Scotia, Canada. He is the author of Nietzsche and Theology: Nietzschean Thought in Christological Anthropology (2006) and has published a number of essays in scholarly journals. An Irishman by birth, he earned his doctorate at Trinity College, Dublin. He is married with three young daughters.

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