When Ireland was lagging behind other European nations, there were those who attributed its failure to a defect in Irish character and culture. I often commented in response to this allegation that it was remarkable how sea air seemed to change the Irish character.
Now that in a very short time Ireland’s standard of living has become the highest in Europe (save perhaps for Norway) and higher than that of the other island to the east, some Irish critics are finding fault with their countrymen again. Community cooperation, religious devotion and faith, generosity and concern for the poor are all deteriorating, we are told, and secularism and moral relativism dominate the country. We were better humans when we were poor.
The Blindness of Self-hatred
I sat and listened to this stuff (a euphemism for two other words) at a dinner recently at a major Irish university until I could stand no more. “I’ve had it with your sickening (a euphemistic participle) Irish self-hatred. Poverty is only good when it is voluntarily embraced.”
In ecclesiastical circles this self-hatred blames education and prosperity for the “secularization” and loss of faith in Ireland. The implicit assumption of such an allegation is that if the church had been able to keep the Irish poor and uneducated, Ireland would still be a Catholic country. That excuse may be half true, but it misses the point. Education has taught people to think. For those who value the old Ireland and the old Catholicism, that may have been a mistake.
As my colleague Mark Chaves has argued, “secularization,” if it means anything at all, means that organized religion has lost its power to impose unquestioned rules on the behavior of its members. Religious leaders are reduced from commanders who issue orders to teachers who must listen and try to persuade. It is a transition that is not without its difficulties, though one might argue that, in fact, the religious leader who is skilled at the arts of listening and persuading may have more power than the absolute leader who need only make decisions and give orders. Perhaps the turning point in this transition in the Catholic world was the birth control encyclical (Humanae Vitae, 1968).
Loss of Faith or of Blind Obedience?
People do not lose their faith or their religion in this kind of secularization. Rather, they lose their willingness to accept the apodictic rules of church authority. Work that Msgr. Conor Ward of University College Dublin and I did on religion in Ireland over the last four decades shows that the Irish are still Catholic, but now on their own terms. You cannot be Catholic on your own terms, the leaders say; you must be Catholic on our terms. Sorry lads, those days are gone forever. You should have protected your flock from higher education if you expected that to continue to work.
Yet the clergy persist in their propensity to blame the laity for their lack of faith and the overarching power of “secularization” and “relativism,” platonic labels for disembodied forces and energies that circulate around in the atmosphere and take possession of human souls. It would be more accurate—and more honest—to blame this so-called “decline in faith” on higher education.
Could the Church Be at Fault?
An alternative and dangerous strategy is to ask whether the church and its leadership might be responsible in part for the alienation of its followers. Did the sexual abuse crisis and the leadership’s shameful response to the crisis damage our credibility, perhaps permanently?
Is it possible for men who perceive themselves as sharing in the charism of infallibility to permit themselves the question: “Might we be part of the problem? Might we have caused by our style and our mistakes the very problems we are railing against?” Not many churchmen are asking that question of themselves on the public record these days.
One who does is Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin. Responding to those who lament the prosperity of the Irish people, he crosses the border from those who blame the laity and blame society to those who are willing to raise the question of blame for the structures of the church.
Others will say to me that is precisely the style of prosperity created within the European Union that has brought a climate of materialism and rejection of Christian values. For me, taking huge sectors of the European population out of poverty and precariousness is an achievement about which the Christian must only rejoice.
His next sentence is a response to the “blame the laity” mentality that currently paralyzes the church everywhere:
If such prosperity has been accompanied by a change in belief patterns within the E.U., then this may be due to a lack of dynamism in the churches’ own pastoral structures for evangelization in a cultural climate that is changing, just as much as a result of the economic prosperity fostered by the E.U.
Or as I would put it in far less graceful words than Archbishop Martin, “For the love of God—quite literally—shut up and listen!”
A Challenge Not Only for the Irish
I have described this as a situation in Ireland, since Irish prosperity has taken a beating in some recent articles in this journal. Patently the “loss of faith” in Ireland (or “secularization” of Ireland) is paradigmatic of a problem that exists in the West, in the East, and in the South—in Poland and Nigeria as well as in Ireland and in this land across the seas, which some Irish seafarers once called Great Ireland.
Like I say, shut up and listen.