The Future of Irish Catholicism: Special Issue of Studies

The Spring 2017 edition of Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, is a special issue on ‘The Future of Irish Catholicism.’ My article on ‘Ireland as a Post-Catholic Religious Market?’ is one among eight contributions that reflect on the current religious landscape and, in particular, the challenges facing Irish Catholicism.

You can purchase the edition for a fairly reasonable €10 here. Other contributors include Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, Tom Inglis, D Vincent Twomey SVD, Patrick Maume, Gerard Whelan SJ, Sean Brophy, and Patrick Riordan SJ.

Today I will write about just three contributions: my own and those of Gerry O’Hanlon and Tom Inglis – though all the articles left me with something to think about.

My article is a condensed summary of some of the key arguments made in my 2016 book, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland. Regular readers of this blog may have encountered these arguments before, but they are – in brief:

  • We can describe the island of Ireland as ‘post-Catholic’;
  • We can describe the religious landscape in Ireland as a ‘market’;
  • The concept of extra-institutional religion – which I develop in the book – can help us understand how religion is changing and evolving

I define extra-institutional religion as new religious spaces where people use various methods and strategies to keep their faith alive, outside or in addition to the institutional Catholic Church. I also see extra-institutional religion as having greater potential than the institutional churches (Catholic or otherwise) to contribute to the transformation of individual lives and to contribute to wider religious, social and political changes. As I conclude (p. 37):

The traditional institutional churches are more often than not tainted by the island’s religiously-divided and sectarian past, the churches’ perceived failure to act during the Troubles, and the failure to adequately deal with abuse within religious institutions. Extra-institutional expressions of religion are not burdened with that baggage, have more freedom to critique religious institutions, and have more flexibility to form networks with like-minded religious and secular groups to respond quickly to pressing issues and needs.

Extra-institutional religion is not just an interesting sociological development on the fringes of the island of Ireland’s religious market. Rather, it is a development that potentially holds the seeds for a wider religious, social and political transformation. Although such an outcome is by no means predetermined, such a transformation could make post-Catholic Ireland a place where religious diversity is celebrated as a gift, rather than seen as a burden to be endured.

Fr Gerry O’Hanlon SJ wrote the lead article for the special issue on ‘The Catholic Church in Ireland Today,’ engaging with the key arguments of Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland. He concludes:

‘Post-Catholic Ireland need not fall prey to the dominant trend of de-institutionalisaton and individualisation, with an extra-institutional religion that is practised with vitality only outside the institutional Catholic Church, and an institutional remnant that is culturally irrelevant.’

While I do not go so far as to say that the Catholic Church is ‘culturally irrelevant,’ that is one possible path for the future – as O’Hanlon recognises: ‘without serious commitment to reform and renewal, that seems the likely future.’

As remedy, O’Hanlon recommends a synodal form of Church at all levels; what this means is a church that rejects hierarchical pronouncements and puts into practice communal discernment, taking into account the perspectives of all people in the church. New structures are required to tap into the wisdom of all the baptised faithful. He identifies opportunities that have been proposed (though not yet capitalised upon):

‘A few years ago the recently retired Bishop of Ossory, Séamus Freeman, promised the beginnings of a ‘structured dialogue’ at a national level within the Irish Church, in response to Pope Benedict’s Letter to Irish Catholics. The Association of Catholic Priests, in a meeting with representatives of the Irish Episcopal Conference in May 2016, offered to help organise a national synod of the Irish Church. It would be wonderful if the bishops could offer such leadership, perhaps in tandem with preparations for the World Meeting of Families due to be held in Dublin in 2018.’

While O’Hanlon and others wait (in vain?) for a synodal approach to emerge, Tom Inglis’s article on ‘Church and Culture in Catholic Ireland’ provides a counter-balance to O’Hanlon’s cautious hope. My own research focused on the potential for renewal among those committed to their faith and living it outside or in addition to religious institutions – but Inglis’s work seems to indicate that such ‘extra-institutional’ people are few and far between.

Inglis, now Emeritus Professor of Sociology at UCD, shares some of the findings from his important 2014 Meanings of Life in Contemporary Ireland study. His findings overwhelmingly point to religious decline as people find meaning and significance in other sources, including family, the local community and sport. As he writes (p. 23-26):

‘Religion is not in the heart, in the minds or on the lips of Catholics. … the institutional Church and Catholic language, beliefs and rituals are no longer significant webs of meaning in everyday life. … When I explored the meanings of their lives, even among traditional, orthodox Catholics, there was little or no reference to god, religion or the Church until I deliberately raised these issues towards the end of the interviews. I asked them what it meant to live a good life, how they decided what was right and wrong and whether they had suffered any major illness, tragedy or loss. I thought that these would be precursors to asking them if they believed in God. However, very few mentioned God, or religion generally, in answering these questions.’

What I take from these three articles is that the Irish Catholic Church desperately needs the contributions of people (especially laity) whose gifts have been unrecognised or neglected. But at present it is an almost miraculous achievement if such people have found the resources, energy and imagination to contribute to ‘The Future of Irish Catholicism.’

Back in March, O’Hanlon was interviewed about the special issue on Newstalk Radio – you can listen and read about it here.


One thought on “The Future of Irish Catholicism: Special Issue of Studies”

  1. I wonder if non catholic churches particularly in northern ireland will undergo religious decline as well to a level of church attendance in line with the rest of the eu..I suspect it will

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