Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland – Talk at Fitzroy Presbyterian

TransformingPostCatholicCoverOn Sunday evening I spoke about my latest book, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland: Religious Practice in Late Modernity, at Fitzroy Presbyterian.

Despite the sunny summer weather I was delighted to see so many people turn out and ask such thoughtful questions.

I have reproduced some excerpts from my talk below.

You can read Rev Steve Stockman’s review of the book here.

You can read the full text of the talk here: Fitzroy Transforming Talk

You can read the first chapter of the book for free on the Oxford University Press website.

Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland: Talk at Fitzroy Presbyterian

Upon reading a draft of one of the chapters of my book, Denis Anderson, a former staff member on the Education for Reconciliation programme at the Irish School of Ecumenics, said: ‘Post-Catholic is a glib phrase—maybe a media phrase. What does it indeed mean?’ I noticed in his review of the book on his blog that Steve Stockman wasn’t convinced about this title! So I will try and explain.

Post-Catholic is a descriptive, empirical concept rather than an epochal one – I am not saying that the island of Ireland was once Catholic, and now it is not. Rather, a dominant, traditional form of Irish Catholicism is being displaced. This is the Catholicism that was a defining characteristic of Irish nationalism, that had a ‘monopoly’ on the Irish religious market (at least in the Republic and among the minority Catholic community in Northern Ireland), had a strong relationship with state power, elevated the status of the cleric to extraordinary high levels, and emphasized the evils of sexual sin. Even if Ireland has largely moved beyond this form of Catholicism, the Catholic Church continues to loom large over the whole island. It retains some social and cultural privileges vis-à-vis other expressions of Christianity, other religions, and secularism/atheism. But a post-Catholic Ireland involves a shift in consciousness in which the Catholic Church, as an institution, is no longer held in high esteem by most of the population and can no longer expect to exert a monopoly influence in social and political life. People from a variety of religions, including Catholicism, now often define their faith in opposition or contrast to Catholicism.

The ‘Transforming’ part of the title has to do with how I describe something I call ‘extra-institutional religion’ and its role in changing the religious – and perhaps also social and political – landscapes of the island. So, I define extra-institutional religion as new religious spaces that are being created (or discovered) within Ireland’s post-Catholic environment, which is simultaneously undergoing secularization and religious diversification. These are spaces where people use various methods and strategies to keep their faith alive, outside or in addition to the institutional Catholic Church. The term extra-institutional is meant to capture how people’s experiences and practices are so often described not only as outside or in addition to the Catholic Church (extra), but also in the Irish Catholic Church’s own terms (institutional).

… As well as making a case for a ‘post-Catholic’ Ireland and introducing the concept of extra-institutional religion, I make three key arguments in my book. One of the three arguments is of interest primarily to sociologists of religion, so I will not say very much about that tonight, and will instead focus on the other two. These are the two arguments:

  • Ireland’s religious market is increasingly diverse, and within it extra-institutional religion can theoretically take on a dynamic role by prompting personal transformation, and by creating spaces on the margins of the market where people work together for religious, social and political transformation;
  • The practice of extra-institutional religion has the potential to contribute to reconciliation on the island of Ireland, more so than other expressions of religion such as the island’s traditional Christian denominations.

And the third argument, for completeness’ sake:

  • In the sociology of religion, the concept of extra-institutional religion provides a counter-balance to some prevailing theories in which the ‘reflexive’, modern religious person is seen as constructing a ‘God of one’s own’, quite unmoored from traditional religious institutions (Beck 2010). Extra-institutional religion in part depends upon the individualization of religion. But it also depends on those individuals maintaining some relationship with institutionalized religion, making it more ‘solid’ than other forms of more free-floating modern religion.

…. Fitzroy Presbyterian and the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship get a mention in the book, and as Steve also pointed out in his book review, I characterize Fitzroy as an extra-institutional space. I interviewed ‘Michael and Ellen, an Evangelical Couple from Belfast’, as part of the case study of people who have some involvement with Holy Cross Monastery in Rostrevor. (Michael and Ellen are not their real names – so now you can distract yourselves by trying to figure out who they are!). I write (p. 11):

Michael and Ellen’s religious practices illustrate extra-institutional religion, in that almost all of their ecumenical—for lack of a better word, with apologies to Ellen [who was adamant that she is not ecumenical]—activities have taken place in spaces perceived as outside of the strict control of the institutional churches. Fitzroy Presbyterian could be considered one such extra-institutional space, as it has been considered an unusual congregation within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Its model of a fellowship group with a Catholic institution, and its explicit ‘peace’ vocation, have not been enthusiastically adopted by many other Presbyterian congregations. For example, the Presbyterian Church’s Peacemaking programme recommended that all congregations have ‘peace agents’, but a majority of congregations did not take this up. Likewise, Holy Cross could be considered an extra-institutional space, because it has become a haven both for Catholics disillusioned with the institutional church, and people from various Christian traditions who are attracted by its ecumenical and reconciliatory vocation.

Although in this book I argue that the marginal position of extra-institutional religion puts it in a good position to contribute to change, Ellen had doubts about this herself. She was very conscious of an ‘anti-institutionalism’ in her approach, as she explained in a story about attending an ‘ecumenical conference’ (p. 13-14):

I even had it out with [Fr] Gerry Reynolds [from Clonard Monastery], who’s a saint. But . . . he was just doing his usual of assuming that everybody in the room . . . were all ecumenical. And I’m sitting there going, ‘I beg your pardon, and what does that mean?’  He said . . . ‘that we were all one in Christ, and that these people who took a non-sacramental and non-institutional, non-structural view of the faith, were just a kind of irrelevant minority.’  And I was sitting there going, ‘what, what, what?’ I do love him . . . and we always laugh . . . but we had it out again in October over this stuff.  He was trying to tell me again that we need institutions to do this, that and the other, and we need priests and what not.  I’m going, ‘no, no, no’. 

 I asked Ellen if that meant she wanted ‘to smash the institutions’ and she replied, ‘yeah, I think so,’ before saying that her approach was probably ‘inadequate’ in ‘the wider scheme of things’ but that on ‘my little individual level . . . it has served me well in terms of what it has enabled me to do and the risks it has enabled me to take.’ That’s a fair summary of how Michael and Ellen, like many others throughout the island, have found extra-institutional spaces where they feel safe enough and free enough to experience healing, reconciliation, and a type of Christian unity.

Extra-Institutional Religion and Reconciliation

Ellen is right to recognize that the transformation she has seen has been primarily individual and small-scale. There is limited empirical evidence for extra-institutional religion contributing to wider social, political or religious transformation. But I have good theoretical reasons for arguing that the practice of extra-institutional religion could be a significant vehicle for change within this island’s mixed, post-Catholic religious market. There are many areas in which extra-institutional religion could contribute to wider religious, social, or political transformations on the island of Ireland. Some limited examples of transformation are provided in my book: the way congregations like Abundant Life, St Patrick’s, and Jesus Centre are facilitating immigrants’ integration into wider society; or the ways the Rostrevor Benedictines have inspired grassroots ecumenical projects outside the walls of their monastery. If Clonard-Fitzroy had been a case study, it also could have provided plenty of examples – Ron Wells’ books, Rev Ken Newell’s recent biography, and your own collective memories are good sources for this kind of information!

There are many worthy areas where people of faith could focus their energies. But my judgement is that the most significant contribution faith-based activists could make to ‘transforming post-Catholic Ireland’ is to focus their energies on promoting reconciliation: among Catholics and Protestants on the whole island, between Irish-born and immigrant, between people of different religions, and within the institutional churches themselves.

I also think extra-institutional religion has the potential to contribute to reconciliation on the island of Ireland, more so than other expressions of religion such as traditional denominations. 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.

To conclude, I have identified five general lessons that faith-inspired activists seeking wider religious, social, and political transformations in any context would do well to consider. Hopefully they provide some food for thought about where we go from here:

  • Work outside traditional religious institutions. Extra-institutional religion is better equipped than traditional religious institutions (especially denominations) to contribute to personal, religious, social, and political transformations.
  • Do not give up on institutional religion. A key task of extra-institutional religion could be transforming traditional religious institutions themselves, inspiring them to become more flexible and creative in their approaches. So while you may get more done through the practice of extra-institutional religion, remain in contact with traditional religious institutions.
  • Do not focus solely on promoting reconciliation between individuals. Lead the way in promoting reconciliation between groups: Catholics and Protestants on the whole island, Irish-born and immigrant, people of different religions, and within the institutional churches themselves. Do not ignore the structural aspects of religious-based division and sectarianism, such as segregated housing and education, and socio-economic inequalities. These structures must also be transformed.
  • Make your case for reconciliation in both secular and religious terms. The ability to speak the language of the secular will boost your legitimacy in the public sphere and make secular partners more open to working with you. Yet your religious tradition may furnish you with a treasure trove of inspirational stories, language, models, and examples that could inspire people of all faiths and none. Better yet, if you can critique your own religious tradition, admitting that it has contributed to division and violence in the past, you will gain even more respect and legitimacy.
  • Create networks of groups and individuals, drawing on the skills and resources of both religious and secular citizens. No single expression of extra-institutional religion can sustain the activism necessary to effect large-scale religious, social, or political transformation.

These lessons are grounded in the research that resulted in my book. They are lessons supported by the empirical evidence of the case studies and undergirded by theoretical, sociological perspectives on what works best for contributing to wider transformations. But the empirical and the theoretical cannot always capture the illusive quality of hope, which I observed sustaining so many of the people who participated in this research. I conclude with a statement of hope from Denis Anderson, whose wariness of the term ‘post-Catholic’ I shared earlier. He also said this when responding to earlier drafts of my book:

Ultimately, your findings are saying that the extra-institutional is better able to contribute to reconciliation. In one sense that is sad, as the institutional church is being left behind. Indeed, it is not even ‘at the races’. But it is also exciting for the future: the thrill of not knowing, of venturing into a new ‘God space’.


One thought on “Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland – Talk at Fitzroy Presbyterian”

  1. This all seems to relate to people of ‘Faith’ and ‘Faith Communities’.

    ‘Faith’ and ‘Belief’ are usually presented as synonymous, but they are not.

    ‘Belief’ in the unbelievable is a matter of choice. ‘Faith’ is trust in one’s choice to ‘Believe’.

    In or out of an institutional Faith Community / Church, it is Belief and Faith that are the cause of discord..

    Dennis Golden

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