How Religion Still Matters in a Post-Catholic Ireland – Text of Keynote

Last week I had the opportunity to give a keynote address at a conference on ‘Irish Catholicism on Trial,’ a multidisciplinary event at the Institute of Technology, Tallaght. The title of my lecture was ‘Understanding Post-Catholic Ireland: Does Religion Still Matter?’

The talk drew on my most recent book, Transforming Post-Catholic IrelandYou can read the full text here: does religion still matter 

In his opening remarks, conference organiser Eamon Maher emphasised that the conference was not primarily concerned with judging the Irish Catholic Church in a negative way – but it also was focused on weighing the cultural legacy of Irish Catholicism and considering its future.

I hope to blog more about other papers at the conference in the coming days — there were many reflections and insights that should be shared more broadly.

For now I’ll simply say that my own lecture moved somewhat beyond Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland by emphasising that the future of Irish Catholicism depends not only on the important role of what I call ‘extra-institutional religion’, but also on somehow managing to re-engage a ‘lost generation’ of Irish Catholics (those under 35).

I lay this out in the introduction to my talk, reproduced below. But I encourage you to click on the link above for my full text.

Conference on Irish Catholicism on Trial

IT Tallaght, Dublin, 6-7 October 2017

‘Understanding Post-Catholic Ireland: Does Religion Still Matter?’

Dr Gladys Ganiel, Queen’s University Belfast,

First of all, let me offer my sincere thanks to Eamon Maher for the invitation to speak this afternoon. I’ve recently written a book called Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland: Religious Practice in Late Modernity, which prompted the invitation.[1] Post-Catholic, of course, conveys a sense that the churches have lost their political influence and their social importance. ‘Secularization’ appears to be winning out over the life of faith– whatever winning might mean. People no longer trust institutions, especially church institutions. So at a conference concerned with ‘the current crisis in Irish Catholicism and what the future holds,’ I think it is especially important if we stop and ask ourselves this question: In a post-Catholic Ireland, does religion still matter?

My talk today offers some perspective on whether religion still matters. First, I will argue that Ireland should be described as post-Catholic, charting declines in religious practice and the rise of people who say they have ‘no religion’ across the island. Then, drawing on the three-year research study on which Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland was based, I will argue that the Catholic Church continues to frame the way that not only former Catholics, but also people of other faiths, think about and practice their religion. Religion matters to the extent that the Catholic Church is something that people define themselves against. But religion also matters to people whose actions continue to be motivated by faith. In particular, religion matters to people who practice what I call ‘extra-institutional religion’ – religion that is practiced outside or in addition to the institutional Catholic Church. I argue that these extra-institutional expressions of faith have greater potential than the institutional Catholic Church to ‘matter,’ based on the evidence of how they have enriched the lives of individuals and motivated them to work for the greater good.

To put it in the terms of this conference, if Irish Catholicism is on trial, the ‘institutional’ Catholic Church seems to have been condemned, resulting in a ‘post-Catholic Ireland.’ But extra-institutional forms of Catholicism are sources of life and vitality for many people. How those people live out their faith will shape the future of Irish Catholicism for generations to come. And that future depends on two factors: the extent to which extra-institutional expressions of Catholicism remain engaged with the institutional church; and the extent that Catholicism can capture the imaginations of a generation of under-35’s who are rapidly leaving religion behind.

[1] My talk today draws on Gladys Ganiel, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland: Religious Practice in Late Modernity, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); and ‘Christianity as a Vocation: The Rostrevor Benedictines and the Renewal of Faith in Ireland,’ in Festschrift for Geraldine Smyth, ed. John O’Grady, Jude Lal Fernando, and Cathy Higgins, (Dublin: Dominican Publications, 2015).

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