The Irish Church faces yet another test: a widespread loss of faith

Cardinal Seán Brady at a press conference yesterday (Niall Carson/PA Wire)

Two years after Pope Benedict XVI announced an Apostolic Visitation to Ireland to “assist the local Church on her path of renewal”, a summary of its findings has been released. It shows that the Irish Church has, at long last, got to grips with the child abuse crisis. However, it also points towards a newer and quite distinct crisis facing the Irish Church.

The Visitors looked in detail at the four metropolitan dioceses and seminaries, and also spoke to various religious and victims’ groups. The Visitation was originally prompted by the horrific details of child abuse and cover-up revealed by Irish government reports.

As regards the child abuse issue, the Visitors found that the combined efforts of laity, clergy and bishops produced “excellent” results in terms of child protection. The guidelines are being implemented. Any new allegations are being reported to the civil authorities. Care and compensation is being provided to the victims of abuse. Other recent Irish reports concur: the grave errors of the past have finally been learned from and robust systems are now in place nationwide.

Over the past two decades the abuse crisis went through the Irish Church like a wrecking ball. During this time, a great many Irish people turned away from the Church, and those who remain are demoralised and confused. As recently as 1984, 87 per cent of Irish Catholics attended Mass weekly. Now, only a minority do so. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin last year noted that on any given Sunday only about 18 per cent of the Catholic population of Dublin attends Mass – down to 2 per cent in some areas. He said: “The brink has already been reached. The Catholic Church in Ireland will inevitably become more a minority culture.”

Yet the demise of the Catholic Church in Ireland had broader causes than the abuse crisis. After 1922, the fledgling Irish state erected cultural barriers to keep the modern world at bay. These levees broke some time after the 1960s and in subsequent decades secular liberal ideas and values rushed in to Irish life. The rise to dominance of secular values in Ireland coincided roughly with the revelations of abuse, but it was essentially a separate phenomenon. The Visitors seem to understand this.

Therefore, the new and impending crisis in the Irish Church is very different to the abuse crisis. Most people do not practise the faith because they do not believe in it, don’t care about it, or don’t really know what it’s about. The child abuse scandals have certainly sped up the exodus, but this essential crisis in faith is one shared by much of the Western world. Ireland rapidly and recently became a very liberal and secular-minded country. The Visitors note that nowadays many Irish Catholics, including priests, hold beliefs contrary to Catholic teaching. A very common desire among Irish Catholics is for the Irish Church to become more separate – or completely separate – from Rome.

The Visitors’ concerns about the broader state of Irish faith are evidenced by the recommendation that seminaries should show “greater concern for the intellectual formation of seminarians, ensuring that it is in full conformity with the Church’s Magisterium”.

The report also says: “It is vitally important that, at a point in history marked by rapid cultural and social transformation, all the components of the Church in Ireland hear in the first place a renewed call to communion: communion among the bishops themselves and with the Successor of Peter”.

The Visitors “also encountered a certain tendency … fairly widespread among priests, Religious and laity, to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings of the Magisterium”.

This comment brought to mind the 2008 European Values Survey which found that, remarkably, 10.1 per cent of self-described Irish Catholics don’t believe in God, while 29.9 per cent do believe in reincarnation. Twenty-nine per cent don’t believe in life after death, while 49.8 per cent don’t believe in hell.

Given such statistics, it’s easy to see why the Visitors noted that “among the pastoral priorities that have emerged most strongly is the need for deeper formation in the content of the faith for young people and adults”.

Essentially, in the politest possible terms, the Holy See is telling the Irish Church to go back and learn its Catechism.

Yet more than Catechism will be required if the Irish Church is to survive the burgeoning crisis in Irish faith. For the Church’s leaders and its few remaining priests, this new crisis will be less about child abuse, and more about: “How do we engage with the largely atheistic generation now coming of age?” and “What do we say to the 29.9 per cent of Irish Catholics who believe in reincarnation?”