Why Ireland Snubbed St. John Henry Newman

Ireland, particularly its government, is now in the strange position of being simultaneously hostile and indifferent to Catholicism.

An indication of the seemingly indifferent attitude toward the Catholic Church by Irish officialdom occurred in connection with the recent canonization of John Henry Cardinal Newman. Newman was the founding rector (or president) of University College Dublin. Yet the University had not initially planned to send a representative to Rome for his October 10th canonization, nor had the Irish government. Ultimately, critical expressions of outrage had some effect: UCD did send a vice president, and the Minister for Education, as well as the Irish Ambassador to the Holy See, also attended.

Significantly, Prince Charles was in Rome for the canonization, as were members of the Anglican hierarchy. Naturally, many English and Irish Catholic bishops also attended, as well as a delegation linked to UCD.

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The initial indifference shown by Official Ireland to such a seminal figure in its own history is hard to fathom. Paradoxically, in view of his later life, when Newman was a priest of the Church of England, he was a vigorous opponent of the efforts of Daniel O’Connell to achieve Catholic Emancipation—that is, allowing Catholics to serve in parliament. Within a decade, Newman travelled to Rome; a few years later, he converted to Catholicism and became a Catholic priest.

In 1851, Newman was recruited as the first rector of the Catholic University of Ireland (now UCD), which opened in 1854. It was set up by the bishops as an alternative to the secular—“Godless”—Queens Colleges set up in Cork, Galway, and Belfast, as well as Trinity College in Dublin. The latter was historically linked to the then still-established Church of Ireland, having started out in the 16th century as a seminary. Not being a state-established institution, the Catholic University was not able to grant degrees, requiring its student body to take exams offered by a state agency, the Royal University, to obtain one.

Newman remained in Dublin only until 1858, as he did not see eye to eye with the Irish bishops on the organization of the university. They had a more practical or pragmatic approach, possibly appealing to those Irish Catholics anxious for credentials in an atmosphere of increasing economic opportunities. Newman’s aims were contained in the lectures he delivered that became his Idea of a University. In 1882, its management was transferred to the Society of Jesus. Then, in 1908, new legislation established the National University of Ireland with three constituent parts, University College Dublin, University College Cork, and University College Galway.

Until well into the twentieth century, UCD remained an institution with a Catholic ethos and a significant number of Catholic clergymen on its faculty. Today the atmosphere at UCD—and in Ireland more generally—is more secular; a total ignorance of Newman and his significance prevails.

The turn to secularism contrasts with Ireland’s past. In the last century, the first label that would have been applied to Ireland—at least to the twenty-six counties originally called the Free State and later Ireland—was “Catholic.” The cause of national independence, whether advanced by constitutional or revolutionary means, had been largely prompted by opposition to the anti-Catholic Penal Laws of the 18th century. The system created by those laws, directed against two-thirds of the population and comparable to modern totalitarianism, was described by Edmund Burke as “a law against the people itself… not particular injustice, but general oppression.”

The independent Irish state of the 20th century did not establish Catholicism, but its constitution acknowledged it as the predominant religion, while also recognizing the existence of other religions in Ireland. There were no disabilities imposed on non-Catholics—a disproportionate number of whom held significant social, economic, and even political positions. The first president of Ireland elected after the passage of the 1937 constitution, Douglas Hyde, was a Protestant. He was the founder of the Gaelic League, the major promoter of the revitalization of the Irish language.

In 1948, a time of anxiety regarding a potential communist victory in the Italian elections held that year, the Irish government was uninhibited in indicating its willingness to invite the pope to take up residence in the Emerald Isle should he have needed to relocate himself temporarily.

Admittedly, there were occasional incidents of inflexibility, if not intolerance, that could be traced to the historically defensive mindset of an Irish Catholicism that had experienced the Penal Laws. One especially embarrassing episode was at the 1949 funeral of Douglas Hyde, who had retired after his term as president. Neither his successor, Prime Minister Sean T. O’Kelly, Eamon de Valera, nor any of the cabinet—aside from one Protestant member, Erskine Childers (who would be elected president more than twenty years later)—entered the Protestant St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the funeral service. They only joined the funeral cortege after the service was over.

A couple of decades later, with episcopal approbation, the specific acknowledgment of the Catholicism of the population was removed from the constitution, but it was scarcely a sign of a weakened Catholicism. The massive turnout for the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979, the overwhelming approval of a constitutional amendment against abortion in 1983, and a comparable rejection three years later of one allowing divorce seemed to reinforce the image of Ireland as Catholic.

However, Ireland’s relationship with Catholicism began to change in the decades that followed, which to a degree was promoted by clerical as well as episcopal scandals. Other factors—such as economic modernization, increased international travel, a secularized media, liberalized attitudes on child-rearing, and the rise of political correctness—played a large role in the transformation.

In 1995, a constitutional amendment allowed divorce in limited circumstances. In 2012, a new prime minister from the traditionally more conservative Fine Gael Party, Enda Kenny, suspended for a while the position of Irish Ambassador to the Vatican in 2012 on grounds of alleged papal non-collaboration with Irish governmental inquiries into clerical abuse matters. In 2015, a constitutional amendment approved same-sex marriage. Three years later, a referendum allowed abortion without restriction in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, and later in cases of danger to the life of the mother or in the likelihood of the fetus being not likely to survive. Both amendments passed by majorities comparable to the anti-abortion and anti-divorce votes three decades earlier.

When Pope Francis visited Ireland in August 2018, the attendance at the Mass he offered in Phoenix Park, Dublin, was about one-tenth that of the Mass celebrated there by Pope John Paul II or that of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress.

These developments prompt one to ask whether the Church—which was able to survive and even thrive in bad times—will be able to meet the challenge of economic good times accompanied by official, media, and popular adherence to secularist intolerance in religious concerns. Constitutional changes, the decline in regular church attendance, increasing numbers of secular marriage ceremonies, and a minimum of priestly and religious vocations seem to suggest a spirit, not of indifference, but of outright hostility to Catholicism in what was once the island of her greatest saints and scholars.

Photo credit: Getty Images


  • John P. McCarthy

    John P. McCarthy is Professor Emeritus of History and former director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham University. He is the author of Hilaire Belloc: Edwardian Radical (1978); Kevin O’Higgins: Builder of the Irish State (2006); and Twenty-first Century Ireland: A View from America (2012).

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