Arts & Books Books

Casting off ‘rules and rigidity’ won’t save the Irish Church

A newly ordained priest blesses a pilgrim at the summit of Croagh Patrick, Co Mayo (CNS)

Michael Duggan on an unconvincing prescription for reviving Irish Catholicism

5 Years to Save the Irish Church
Talks from the National Columba Book Conference,
Columba Books, 94pp, £7.99/$10

Let’s cut to the chase. What exactly is needed to stop the Irish Catholic Church from going under? As I read through these essays, I tried to extrapolate what the contributors were proposing should be done. I think a master list would include: an end to clerical celibacy; reversing Humanae Vitae; women priests; a loosening of the rules concerning who can receive Communion; a change to teaching on homosexuality; a more activist Church, pressurising the state to intervene forcefully on social inequalities; and a more empowered laity.

A specific proposal concerning voluntary baptism, built around the argument that infant baptism is an abuse of human rights, appears solely in the essay by the former president of Ireland, Mary McAleese. However, I can imagine some of the other five contributors sympathising with such a move.

These changes are not, of course, within the immediate gift of the Irish Church. On the other hand, the bishops could begin to agitate for them tomorrow morning, if they so wished. But one can’t help noticing that a Church that took many of these steps would look a lot like the Anglican Church of Ireland. So why, one wonders, when a more congenial alternative is freely and easily available, does no one suggest simply moving over? Why this frenzy about trying to resuscitate something so apparently corrupted, unlovable and difficult to change?

The answer to that particular question is also hard to find in these pages. There may, I suppose, be some kind of deep, ancestral attachment at work. But the contributors seem too principled to cling to such a hollow cause. In any case, the unremitting, industrial-strength sarcasm of Fr Mark Patrick Hederman about the Ireland of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, takes a blowtorch to any possibility of sentimental attachment to the past.

There are some invocations, too, of the early Church, but we know how contested these can be.

Publisher Garry O’Sullivan, meanwhile, rallies to the figure of the “good priest” working hard for the benefit of everyone. But would Ireland, without its priests, run out of people ready to dedicate themselves to their local communities? It wouldn’t.

Perhaps, then, the contributors believe that, in the doctrine of the Real Presence or in the custom of venerating the Blessed Virgin, there are things that they know to be right and true and could never give up? While Fr Brian D’Arcy enters at least into the vicinity of such arguments with his essay “Listen to the People”, no one in this book shows any strong signs of Catholic exceptionalism.

What several of the contributors do talk about – a lot – are the dire effects of rules and rigidity on Irish Catholicism. Those days are past, however. “The age of Trent is over and done with,” rejoices Fr D’Arcy (who also believes that, when Pope Benedict resigned, “it was as if the Holy Spirit was allowed back into the Church”, while Pope Francis, on the other hand, “not only talks, but acts like Jesus”).

When Irish churches were packed to the rafters, it was mainly, he believes, down to control-freakery on the part of clergy and cunning on the part of a people grown adept at playing along.

Fr D’Arcy offers the Sermon on the Mount as the “blueprint” for the future. However, he seems to stop reading it after the Beatitudes. As a result, Christ’s teachings on lust, divorce and adultery, his talk of the “hell of fire” and those who might be cast into it, even the recognition in the Our Father of the dangers of temptation, evil and sin get nowhere near this blueprint. On what grounds are Christ’s own warnings and strictures dropped? This question is left unraised and unanswered. The contributors to 5 Years seem strenuously to avoid the “hard sayings” of the Gospel.

The essay by Fr Joe McDonald is an outlier of sorts, however. Fr McDonald, a parish priest in Dublin, is concerned about a harsh, excluding Church, yes – but he is also aghast at what he calls “the trampling of the sacred”. “We are the only major faith that tolerates growing disrespect in the sacred place reserved for worship,” he writes, reflecting on the things he sees adults get up to during First Holy Communion services. “Are you seriously telling me our Muslim sisters and brothers would put up with this reprehensible behaviour in the mosque?”

He would like to enforce a “country-wide liturgical audit”. Music at Mass must be prayer, not performance. Chewing gum, putting on make-up and allowing children to run around must “not be permitted”. Fr McDonald’s co-contributors will, I imagine, recoil at such rules-based talk.

There are many more unsquared circles in these pages. The hour of salvation still feels like a long way off.