Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Diarmuid MartinMarch 17, 2014

I entered the seminary in Dublin in October 1962, just one week before the opening of the Second Vatican Council. The winter of 1962-63 was one of the bleakest in decades, and our seminary was a very cold place in more ways than one. My memory of the seminary is of a building and a routine, a discipline and a way of life that seemed to have been like that for decades. Even to someone who was not a revolutionary, it all seemed very out of touch with the world from which I had just come, and in which my friends were thriving. But one was not supposed to think that way. Things were to be done as they had always been done. The Catholic Church was unchanging, but that was about to change.

For decades Ireland was looked on as one of the world’s most deeply and stably Catholic countries. Today Ireland finds itself, along with other parts of Europe, being classified as “post-Catholic.” Everyone has his or her own definition of the term. You can fully define post-Catholic only in terms of the Catholicism that has been displaced. Irish Catholicism has its own unique history and culture. Renewal in the Irish church will not come from imported plans and programs; it must be home-grown.

Ireland does, of course, share the same currents of secularization with other countries of the Western world and thus shares many of the same challenges. There are specific challenges within Europe; there are specific challenges common to the English-speaking world. Yet the fact that Ireland is an English-speaking country does not mean it can be put into the same category as the United States and Great Britain.

Today Ireland finds itself, along with other parts of Europe, being classified as post-Catholic.

Ireland is different. Neither the United States nor Great Britain was ever a predominantly, much less a dominantly,

Catholic country. The demographics and the cultural presence of Catholicism in society were different and remain different. Indeed, one would have to say that today Catholicism in Northern Ireland, where years of conflict forged a tighter Catholic identity, is different from that in the Republic of Ireland.

There is a growing difference between the social realities in Ireland North and South because of the evolving differences in social policy and the emergence of a perhaps unforeseen consequence of the peace process: a new Northern Ireland identity. You can no longer simplistically equate Catholicism and nationalism in Northern Ireland. A very large number of Northern Irish Catholics would favor staying in the United Kingdom.

What Happened to the Old Ireland?

For years now people have looked to Ireland as a vibrant and sustainable model for strong economic growth. Today the economic situation of Ireland is full of uncertainties, precisely at a moment when confidence and trust are urgently needed. Why did so much happen so quickly? The deeper question is: What were the values that underpinned the better-times Ireland? How did we underestimate the fact that the success of an economic model ought to have been evaluated in terms of long-term social sustainability of jobs, mortgages and borrowing, of lifestyle, education and health care and sustainable opportunity for young people?

Ireland is today picking up the pieces economically and paying the price socially. In modern Ireland many children come to school without having had breakfast. There is growing anxiety that the austerity measures introduced to respond to the economic crisis are now coming to a social breaking point. In a time of rapid change, ownership of social change is vital. Who, however, wants to own policies of austerity? There is a certain flight from political ownership. In Ireland it is easy to put the blame on the previous government. It is too easy simply to say that it is being imposed from the outside or by necessity and that we would really prefer to do it somehow differently. You will not generate ownership if the measures imposed are applied arbitrarily across the board and do not appear to differentiate according to real situations, especially the situation of those already vulnerable. We see that in Ireland in some policies regarding education or health care or the care of the elderly. I attended a national congress of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul where it was noted that people who one year ago were contributors to the society are now turning to the society for help. Patience is wearing thin; it is hard for some to hope.

When I was asked to return to Dublin, Pope John Paul II asked me why secularization had taken place so rapidly in Ireland. It was one of the rare occasions when I told a pope he was wrong! The roots of change in Ireland were there but were not seen. It is not that Ireland is today in a momentary out-of-the-ordinary period in its history, somehow temporarily adrift from what is really the default position. There is no default position anymore, and there has not been such a position for some time. In many ways the church in Ireland had been trapped in an illusory self-image. The demographic majority the church enjoyed hid many structural weaknesses, and the church became insensitive to such weakness. In the immediate post-Vatican II period there was a moment of enthusiastic renewal in the Irish church, and the positive acceptance of change probably indicated that there was already a deep dissatisfaction and a desire for change in the Irish church and that the church leadership was out of touch with the religious sentiment of the people.

The Catholic Church in Ireland had for far too long felt it was safely ensconced in a “Catholic country.” The church had become conformist and controlling not just with its faithful, but in society in general. I was at a seminar last week about the church’s self-understanding as a “perfect society.” All I can say is that anyone who might have thought that “Catholic Ireland” was anything like a perfect society must now be very disillusioned.

Faith in Jesus Christ must open us out beyond human horizons. Christian faith requires changing our way of thinking, of trusting in God’s love rather than in the tangible securities of day-to-day life. When faith leads to conformism, it has betrayed the very nature of faith. Conformism falsely feels that it has attained certainty. Faith is always a leap into the unknown and a challenge to go beyond our own limits and beyond our own certainties and the distorted understanding that comes from them.

In the comments Pope Francis made at the congregation of the cardinals just before the conclave, he spoke about the need for the church to to break out into what he called the outskirts—the frontiers—of human existence. And he added when the church does not break out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referential and so shuts herself in. One of the keys to understanding the mismanagement of the recent sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland must be precisely the measure in which the church in Ireland had become self-referential.

The effects of the child abuse scandals have had a demoralizing effect on the entire church in Ireland and continue to do so. In one sense the scandal crisis could not have come at a worse time, in that confidence in the church was well on the wane; and when the scandals broke, their effects were devastating. Today Ireland has strong child protection measures in place, and the Irish church is a much safer place for children than in the past. I would like to pay tribute to the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church, and in particular Ian Elliot, for their extraordinary contribution to helping make the church a safer place for children. One still has to ask, however, where the roots of this scandal and its mismanagement were to be found within the church. Was the issue simply the action of a few deviant priests who did not represent the church, or was there something deeper?

Certainly the overwhelming majority of priests in Ireland led and lead an exemplary moral life; they carry out their ministry with great dedication and enjoy great support and affection from their people and contribute and support the new ethos of child safeguarding.

What is extraordinarily high is the number of children who were abused. We are talking about thousands. There is no way you can simply explain away the huge number of those who were abused and the fact that this took place undetected and unrecognized within the church of Jesus Christ. Today we are in a safer place, but it took decades to attain this.

One of the great challenges the Irish Catholic Church still has to face is that of strong remnants of inherited clericalism. The days of the dominant or at times domineering role of clergy within what people call the “institutional church” have changed, but part of the culture still remains and from time to time reappears in new forms. We often overlook the fact that the very term “institutional church” has meaning only in a context of clericalism.

Clericalism will be eliminated only by fostering a deeper sense of the meaning of the church; that understanding of the nature of the church will come not from media strategies or simply by structural reforms, but by genuine renewal in what faith in Jesus Christ is about. If we focus only on structures and power, there is a risk that clericalism might be replaced by neo-clericalism. The Christian presence in society is not achieved by the imposition of a manifesto or simply by high-profile social criticism. It is more about the witness people give to Christian principles, mediated within the particular responsibilities they carry.

A Changed Society

For generations now the Irish Catholic Church relied on Irish society in general to be the principal instrument for the passing on of the faith. Day by day that becomes less and less the case. The religious culture of Ireland has changed. Many people say to me that they reject the church but still consider themselves believers in Jesus Christ. The difficulty is that in such a situation, without a personal and rigorous intellectual encounter with the Scriptures and Christian tradition, a person can drift into something that is their own, rather than a challenging encounter with their faith. The realities of faith, if viewed, consciously or unconsciously, through secularized lenses, can easily end up with a distortion of faith or an inability to understand the logic of belief.

I am not saying that reform of structures is not necessary within the church. Anything but! What I am saying is that such reform without ongoing radical renewal in the faith will end up with the wrong structures and indeed might end up just answering yesterday’s unanswered questions tomorrow. Clericalism will to some extent vanish when a new culture of co-responsibility and collaboration develops.

There is a further and more vital need: that of charting a new path to allow the church once again to have an impact on society and mediate the Christian message into the broad culture of the Ireland of tomorrow. Reform is not just an inner-church reality. A church trapped in inner-church squabbles will never be attractive to others.

The church will relinquish many of the institutional roles it has held in Ireland. But this does not mean that the church should retreat into sacristies or into the private values systems. If anything, its presence must become even more vigorous within society. I am not advocating here imposing one’s belief on others or establishing a sort of Catholic mafia to manipulate society. I am not thinking just of the area of sexual morality. I am talking about the place of faith and of believers in the social, economic, political and cultural world. I am talking about the type of person I have so often encountered in international life. These are people who are recognized by their colleagues as people whose religious faith brings an added dimension to the quality of their professional life and to their broad humanitarian concern.

The Catholic Church requires lay men and women whose faith enables them to dare to hope. 

The Catholic Church requires lay men and women whose faith enables them to dare to hope and who will challenge us to expand the parameters of our hope beyond the narrow confines that each of us individually and as communities consciously or unconsciously fix for ourselves. The church has to re-find its ability to form leaders in an Ireland that is facing new challenges culturally, economically, politically and religiously.

We have men and women who take this task on in the media world. But much of our Catholic punditry is as ideological as much of the punditry of the other side. Catholic punditry of this kind will only appear to the other side as narrow defensiveness, while the analogous secular punditry will be perceived as entrenched anti-Catholicism.

Why is it that the type of mature dialogue between believers and atheists and nonbelievers that we find in other European societies—in the academic world, in the media and indeed in churches—does not happen in Ireland?


Let me take a brief look at the changed demographics of Catholic Ireland. Church attendance is very low in some areas, especially in socially deprived areas. In Dublin, Mass attendance is generally highest in middle-class parishes, where parishioners are middle class economically and liberal middle-of-the-road on matters of church teaching. They are parishes, however, where there is a sense of community and activity. There is a growing interest in adult faith formation, but as yet generally on an irregular basis. Irish Catholics are generous to the church even in hard times. The International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 2012 was financed above all by the voluntary contributions of ordinary Catholics. The presence of young people in the life of these parishes, however, is minimal. The strong backbone of good Catholics in Ireland is an aging group.

Where there are signs of youth participation in the Irish church it is among more conservative young Catholics. Is this where the future of the church lies? I am not sure. Many of these movements of young, more traditional Catholics are very limited in numbers and make few inroads into the lives of their peers. When it comes to new evangelization, the Irish church has to ask radical questions about where it should direct its resources.

On the question of vocations, numbers are low and the seminarians are divided between two establishments, one in Ireland and one in Rome, neither of which can really achieve its aims on the basis of such small numbers. There are religious congregations that have not had an ordination for 15 years and more. There are dioceses that have currently no seminarians. No one from west of the River Shannon entered the seminary this year. It is not the case of a secularized, urban Ireland and a healthy, rural Ireland. The same cultural processes are at work across the country.

With regard to the Archdiocese of Dublin, we have been able to carry out detailed research on the basis of the most recent census figures of 2011, matching them to parish boundaries and to the boundaries of the entire diocese. There are a number of interesting facts. The population of the diocese has gone up significantly, but the numbers of those who registered as Catholics has remained at about 1.2 million. About one quarter of the population of the archdiocese registered as something other than Catholic, well above the national average. It is very clear that of the three quarters who ticked the “Catholic box” on the census form, many would not be practicing or even in any real contact with the church. This gives a very different demographic picture than the one at times presented or presumed. There are already parishes in Dublin where Catholics are in a minority, and it is clear that the cultural Catholicism that today still exists will not continue forever.

Another significant fact is that the number of those under 6 years of age is higher than of those over 70. Ours is a young diocese. Demographers estimate that the population of the island of Ireland will once again reach the eight million of pre-famine Ireland and that 50 percent of that population will live on a narrow strip of land along the east coast of Ireland from Gorey to Dundalk, most of which will be within the territory of the Archdiocese of Dublin. Will that emerging demographic reality still be “Catholic Ireland”?

The Future of Irish-Catholic Education

Until now the formation of young Catholics depended in great measure on the schools. The specific preparation for the sacraments of first Communion and for confirmation took place within the schools, and at times the link between family, school and parish was problematic. Almost all Irish education at the elementary level has traditionally been denominational, with Catholic schools making up well over 90 percent of all such schools. These schools are fully funded by the state and were thus until very recently the only form of state school that existed. With greater pluralism there is growing demand for other forms of school patronage.

All the indications, however, are that a sizeable number of parents wish to see high-quality denominational education remain an essential pillar, alongside other models, of our national educational system to help young people to grow and flourish within the religious tradition to which they belong. Obviously such denominational education should not become divisive or exclusivist, but neither should religious education be reduced to simply a colorless presentation of the history or the sociology of religion.

The presence of the Catholic Church in the educational landscape of the United States is quite extraordinary. At times in Ireland there is a latent fear that Catholic schools and Catholic higher academic institutions are somehow a little outdated in a pluralist and increasingly secularized world. There is an ambiguity about how to define their Catholic specificity. I am uneasy when I hear of Catholic education being defined somehow as a service of quality education with religious veneer offered in general to society and within which anyone can feel fully at home.

I fear that in the current debates about divesting patronage of a substantial number of Catholic schools, the argument is being presented that Catholic schools are so “open” that there is really no need for schools of different patronage. The Catholic Church in Ireland has to focus its energies more clearly on how it wishes to ensure a presence, in a more pluralist educational system, of schools and institutions that are truly Catholic. The contribution of Catholic academic institutions to the good of society is not something that extinguishes the ecclesial nature and vocation of those institutions. Their Catholic identity is an essential part of the package that has built their excellence. Indeed, one could rather say that any downplaying of their Catholic vocation and identity could well result in a downgrading of their academic excellence.

In the past, if one was talking about renewal of the church in Ireland one would in the first place have looked toward the seminaries. That is still the case, and the crisis of vocations has to be addressed. But vocations spring from within the life of believing families and communities. The renewal of the church in Ireland and the challenge of creating a new Christian presence in Irish society tomorrow will come from a renewed generation of lay men and women who feel confident to witness to the meaning that their Christian faith brings to their lives.

One of the great surprises of the recent International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin was the extraordinary interest the various seminars and catechesis aroused. Many seminars were repeated to accommodate the audience, and for the first time, hundreds of people had to be turned away from attending my initial talk. (I must add that on that occasion mine was the only event on offer and it was raining outside.)

There is a strong desire within Irish Catholics for a deep renewal in formation in faith and in prayer, and this is not being responded to sufficiently. We have a first-class national directory for catechesis, “Share the Good News,” that indicates what is needed at every stage. But its implementation is slow, and it encounters resistance to change. Our school system and our teachers have made an immense contribution to the transmission of the faith. But many teachers no longer practice, and there is a growing danger that because of curriculum pressures, catechesis will be limited to two events—first Communion and confirmation—and stop there. Young people have in many cases already drifted away from religious practice before they enter second-level education. The church’s presence at third-level education is often limited to pastoral care, with minimal faith formation.

All this is taking place at a time in which there is a growing secularization of culture and politics. I could list many examples of the distance between politics and the church and examples of unbalanced media coverage. But to do that would probably be interpreted as saying that it is politicians, journalists and the media who are to blame for the crisis in the Irish church. The causes of the crisis lie within the church itself. Much of the heritage of Catholic-dominated Ireland still entraps us from being free witnesses to the Christian message within a secular society that is seeking meaning. It is not a time to be lamenting; it is a time to be rising to the challenge with courage and Christian enthusiasm.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

The latest from america

Pope Francis accepts the offertory gifts during Pentecost Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on May 19, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)
The pope devoted his entire Pentecost homily to describing how the Holy Spirit works in the lives of Christians with both “power and gentleness.”
Gerard O’ConnellMay 19, 2024
Today’s text from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith makes clear that henceforth, as a rule, the Holy See will not declare any alleged spiritual phenomenon, such as an apparition, as authentic‚ that is, “of divine origin.”
Gerard O’ConnellMay 17, 2024
Cardinal Robert McElroy, Bishop Robert Barron and Bishop Daniel Flores joined moderator Gloria Purvis for a roundtable discussion on the rise of polarization in the church.
Michael O’BrienMay 17, 2024
Whether carefully reflected upon or chosen at random, picking a confirmation name is a personal and spiritual journey for Catholics, reflecting a connection to the saints or a loved one and a commitment to embodying their virtues.
America StaffMay 17, 2024