Irish Catholics are Theologically Illiterate: Who do you Blame?

image Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s claim last week that Irish Catholics are ‘theologically illiterate’ has prompted a predictable round of finger-pointing.

Many who have reacted to Martin’s statement blame the Catholic Church itself. For example, Michael Clifford in the Tribune blames the intellectually stifling climate created by the Irish Catholic Church,

For decades, any form of debate was stifled. Anybody within – or without – the church who voiced opinions or ideas conflicting with the world view of the hierarchy was given short shrift. Debate was not encouraged. As for the theological illiteracy of the flock, how else could it be in an institution which placed very little emphasis on debate, theological or otherwise?

Vincent Browne, writing in today’s Irish Times, also blames the Catholic Church and the education system that it spawned. Browne asks how Ireland’s Catholic schools could have produced a ruling class that has proved so morally bankrupt, greedy and individualistic? He says,

Just think of the thousands of lawyers, accountants, bankers, stockbrokers and others who must have colluded in criminality over the last decade or so, in fraudulent accounting, in fraudulent trading, in fraudulent preference, in insider dealing. And such is our public culture that not one of them has been charged with a crime and, very probably, not one of them will go to jail. Many of them have made fortunes and many of them have retained fortunes.

These people didn’t come from nowhere. They came out of our schools, most of them Catholic schools and they came out not just theologically illiterate but socially illiterate as well. Most of them are without any sense of being part of a society; they have no sense or little sense of being social beings, of having responsibilities to others. No sense of sharing or wanting to share. Instead they have a highly individuated sense of themselves, out for their own advancement and enrichment and, if society suffered as a consequence, nothing to do with them.

If ‘theological illiteracy’ is failing to see how the teachings of Jesus just don’t fit with the recent social and economic behaviour of Ireland’s ruling classes, then Browne has a good point.

Then there are those like Monica Dolan, a letter writer to the Irish Times, who detects a rank hypocrisy in Martin’s remarks:

Dr Diarmuid Martin states that many Irish Catholics are theologically illiterate … theology being primarily the study of God.

When you look at the response to the scandal of child sex abuse by the Vatican, the permanent top of the class in theology – maybe we illiterates are better off.

Indeed, it is people from the ‘top of the class in theology’ who have condescendingly declared that Jennifer Sleeman from Co. Cork – who has called for a boycott of mass on September 26th – doesn’t understand what she is doing.

I think that Mrs. Sleeman understands deeply what she is doing, and that’s what makes her call to action powerful and poignant.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, I haven’t heard anyone arguing that Irish Catholics are particularly theologically literate! But as the ‘blame’ for Irish Catholics’ theological illiteracy gets shifted about, it strikes me that Martin’s comment could be interpreted as a call to action.

Can it be read as a healthy challenge to Irish Catholics (not just the hierarchy, but the people in the pews) to spend more time exploring their faith and spirituality?

A theologically literate laity is more likely to interrogate Church teachings than either:

  1. accept them as givens, or
  2. ignore them.

That might make life even more awkward and difficult for the hierarchy.

But I think that’s a price that must be paid for a healthy, thriving, Irish Church.

3 thoughts on “Irish Catholics are Theologically Illiterate: Who do you Blame?”

  1. Reading Martin’s address (which interestingly was made in Italy, in anticipation of Newman’s beatification) I see little in the points he makes about civil religion which are surprising or particularly controversial. The significant thing is that they have been made by an archbishop, albeit well away from home territory.

    The situation he alludes to is by now a humdrum, if not quite vicious circle, for which neither clergy nor laity can take the whole blame, as each colludes with the other. The church is valued primarily for supplying a sacramental gloss to rites of passage (or to be ruder, an excuse for conspicious consumption)and for providing the kind of education (cramming kids through exams, onto the sports fields and into good universities and lucrative jobs) for which parents otherwise might have to pay. Priests, whose own theological literacy is often impossible to ascertain, go along with this by preaching identikit homilies which begin with a reference to a recent sporting event (rugby in the south, soccer in the north, G.A.A. in both) and conclude with an exortation to try to be kind to our spouses/parents/children. As Vincent Browne points out, there is little or no awareness of society and its injustices, other than a rather archaic, if well-meaning, mission-based charity. Meanwhile it is largely left to the religious orders to minister to the minority, albeit a substantial, healthy and admirable minority, who recognize that their faith demands more of them than this and quite reasonably seek more from their ministers also.

    If the archbishop is seeking to break into this circle, to transform the church into more than the well-fed jester at the court of the bankrupt Celtic Tiger, then he is to be applauded. He must recognize, however, that if the church is to be more, it must also be prepared to be less. The appropriate archetype, if the jester’s hat is to be discarded, isn’t the sleek chancellor but the holy fool outside in the snow.

    And as you suggest, it looks strongly as though he’s actually trying to have the best of both worlds. The comments about the ‘people of God’ are significant:

    “I have the impression that when many people say “We are the Church” they actually want to say “I am the Church”, meaning “I am creating a Church according to my needs and my lifestyle.” There is a danger that when some say that the Church is the “People of God”, they really want to say that it is up to the people to determine who God is and how God is useful. But, whoever encounters only their own God does not encounter the God revealed in Jesus Christ.”

    Am I alone in finding this snide and patronising? The final sentence is, of course, true, but at least as true for those within the structures of power as for those outside. It seems to indicate the kind of Catholic intellectuals that he is seeking, those who will exercise their intelligence and insight only within prescribed boundaries, who will identify the specks in the eye of secular society but leave their own splintered planks unmentioned.

    It is a great pity. As a Catholic myself, a convert and blow-in, I’d rejoice to see today’s sterile symbiosis replaced by a genuine and fruitful relationship between all members of the church, clergy and laity, where each recognizes that they have aspects of faith to learn as well as to teach. That would be a truer way of expressing the vision of Newman, who, as seems to be forgotten whenever the hierarchy speak of him, was himself a thorn in their side and a man who, as he grew older, became less and less dogmatic and more and more tolerant. It was the spirit of Newman which brought about the Second Vatican Council, an event which still seems scarcely to have been noticed in Ireland; it is hardly just to use his memory to turn the clock back yet further.

  2. Perhaps we should be careful when commenting on the speech to refer to what Archbishop Martin actually said? He did NOT say “Irish people are theologically illiterate”. I quote:
    “SOMETIMES (my capitals), after 15 years of catechesis, young people remain theologically illiterate. “

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