The decline of the power wielded by the Catholic Church in the late twentieth century is clear.
As Tom Inglis argued, the Catholic Church’s moral monopoly has been eroding since the 1960s. The proliferation of new media displaced the centrality of the Sacred Heart and Our Lady for many.
Later, the revelation of abuse and sex scandals shook the Church and the subsequent publication of the Ryan Report in 2009 left a chastened institution.
Despite these crises and the seeming onward march of secularisation, the Catholic Church remains a prominent part of Irish public life.
The ability to wield influence over matters of private conscience appears diminished in the light of last year’s same-sex marriage referendum – although the current struggle taking place over calls to repeal the eighth amendment may show that the residual power of Catholicism may prove substantial.
Bricks and mortar
There is one area in which the Church retains some aura of the prestige it enjoyed in the past and it exists in the form of bricks and mortar. The ornate churches which are threaded through Ireland’s urban and rural landscape are the material evidence of an institution that still maintains a hold upon things of a worldly nature.
The cathedrals, churches, convents, schools and hospitals constructed in the 19th and 20th centuries serve as discernible reminders that spiritual authority could be inscribed in buildings and architecture. Far from insignificant, ownership of property remains an important aspect of the Church’s institutional power.
I work as a researcher on a historical project that sets out to establish how the Catholic Church delivered one of the most impressive institution building projects in modern Irish history.
Led by Dr Sarah Roddy at the University of Manchester, Visible Divinity is a project which looks to explore two historical problems. Firstly, how did the church fund church-building projects between 1850 and 1921? Who were the people that donated the money? How much was donated? And how did the role of the Irish diaspora feed into all this? Secondly, the project explores how money played, and continues to play, a key role in the way people understand their religion. People’s faith is often mediated through the handing over of cash.
The historical issues at stake are significant. The money raised enabled the Church to acquire one of the most impressive property portfolios in the country. It also helped the Church build an iteration of the Irish State which is still present today.
Since earlier this year I have been granted privileged access to many religious archives the length and breadth of Ireland. I have been welcomed by a range of lay archivists, members of religious orders and communities, and even members of the church hierarchy keen for researchers to use the vast array of rich historical material in their possession. That this access has been unstintingly granted in the majority of cases signals an important desire for transparency and suggests one way historians might serve a useful conduit in redrawing Church and state relations in the future.
I have also visited many of the buildings with which our research has so far been concerned. Marvelling at the beauty and ostentatiousness of buildings such as St Macartan’s Cathedral in Monaghan, for example, provides evidence of the rich architectural heritage that exists in Ireland. Built over a 30- year period, the erection of Monaghan’s cathedral represented a concerted effort across generations. Any of the more modest churches located in rural parishes reminds one of the incredible efforts that must have been carried out in order to construct these buildings.
Such buildings radiated a kind of divine beauty for our ancestors. Even the most agnostic of visitors to these buildings today cannot help but be impressed. Why did people pay for these structures? Appeals made by the church hierarchy and clergy certainly played an important part in this work. However, besides the compelling influence of religious leaders other possible reasons must also be considered. For those people who donated money repeatedly to build, renovate and maintain these edifices in the past, an array of possible intentions lay behind the gift – a contribution towards the afterlife, a desire to do honour to God, a pride in one’s local parish, a need to honour the memory of a loved one, even self-aggrandisement.
Each church serves as a valuable archive with a wealth of local historical detail memorialised in stained-glass windows, holy water fonts and pews.
I know from recent experience how the relationship between religious donation and one’s sense of faith are entwined. Earlier this year I moved to Dublin from Manchester, where I grew up in an Irish family. The church informed my own sense of Manchester-Irishness.
Like many, my childhood was landmarked by key events that included the sacraments of Confirmation and first Holy Communion.
In common with many of my cohort I identify as a lapsed Catholic, which itself is an ambiguous position. “Lapsed” neither admits agnosticism nor completely divorces one from a latent Catholicism. Indeed, such identification is almost an admission of somehow falling short of an expected ideal. However, whenever I’ve visited churches in the course of my studies I felt a need to leave some small donation as if to acknowledge my trespass.
When my parents visited Ireland this summer I travelled to meet them in my mother’s home place in south Sligo and agreed to join them on their annual pilgrimage to Knock. My parents were never overbearingly religious, and I hope it is no source of embarrassment to them to suggest they are not the most regular of Mass attendees. When they asked how the work was going I laid out the central problem with which I struggled – namely why did Irish people in the past give so liberally of their financial resources to the Church.
My father thought that it was indicative of the awesome power the Church held over people in the past. “It’s hard for you to understand how powerful the Church was back then, even when I was growing up in Ireland”, he explained. “People were so afraid of the clergy that they just did what was expected. Things are different today.”
We then called in at Knock Shrine where my parents proceeded to one of the kiosks set up to enrol people in Masses. There was an order and efficiency to the place as pilgrims from far-flung places queued up. There my parents left behind a small fortune as they paid for Masses to be said for deceased loved ones, friends who were ill, and even one Mass for my own intention (“Just in case,” they explained). With that done they hadn’t time to attend a service there. When I asked my mother why she found it important to pay money for all those Mass cards her explanation was, “It’s what I’ve always done”.
Catholicism occupies a lesser position in Irish everyday life than it once claimed.
Nevertheless it still remains. However, in the consideration of the history of the Catholic Church’s built legacy there are questions of much wider significance at play.
To travel across Ireland is to see the prominent claim made by the church upon the landscape as it sought to institute its own permanency over a century ago. Yet increasingly, these buildings support Colm Tóibín when he has written of the Church’s “strange ghostly presence in Irish society”. Today, the church struggles to populate its pews, the religious workforce is aging and vocations have declined drastically. What the future holds for all of these churches, convents, schools and hospitals is a question that remains unanswered.
One possible solution that has been suggested relates to the current housing crisis and the use of religious property to provide the basic right of shelter. We shall see what might unfold on that question.
However, there still remains a question around the sustainability of the religious buildings in rural areas. For example, my mother’s church, St. Attracta’s in Tourlestrane, Co Sligo, can no longer justify holding services every Sunday – a result of continued depopulation in the area married to the fact one local priest needs to administer several parish churches. This is a pattern replicated in other parishes.
Therefore asking who funded the building works that gathered pace rapidly after the Famine is a legitimate one that might help illuminate a debate about how a custodianship of all this property should be administered.
The place of Catholicism within Irish society remains a source of contemporary fascination.
Any valuable debate about the role of religion in delivering state services, finding solutions to social problems, shaping the character of a country’s charitable sector, all require at the very least an engagement with the historical dimensions of these problems.
A wider appreciation about how and why the Catholic Church acquired such a significant portfolio can help to illuminate how it finds itself where it is today.