A prominent Jesuit theologian has said post-Catholic Ireland need not fall prey to the dominant trend of de-institionalisation and individualistion and he has argued that a synodal form of Church at all levels is urgently needed to salvage the faith here.
Writing in La Civiltà Cattolica, Fr Gerry O’Hanlon examines where the
Catholic Church in Ireland is today in the wake of the dramatic decline
in its reputation and fortunes. He also looks at where its future
potentially might lie.
The former Jesuit provincial warns that without a serious commitment
to reform and renewal, an extra-institutional religion that is practised
with vitality only outside the institutional Catholic Church, and an
institutional remnant that is culturally irrelevant, seems the likely
“The crisis is so grave that we need ‘all hands on deck’, we need to
come together to tap into all the resources available – clerical and lay
– to find a way forward,” he comments.
Referring to other studies on the state of play of the Church in
Ireland, Fr O’Hanlon notes that many Catholics have “long since
abandoned the institution – its princes, priests and politics – and are
choosing to interpret the faith according to their own conscience.
“With the new emphasis on personal conscience as opposed to
magisterial teaching, this is sometimes referred to as the
‘Protestantisation’ of the Catholic Church in Ireland.”
He highlights that Pope Francis is giving a pointer to a different
model of Church to that which prevailed in Ireland in the past and which
is based on “deeper conversion to Jesus Christ, missionary in its
approach to the great issues facing humanity and our world, respectful
of both personal conscience and Magisterium, and entailing a synodal
form of Church at all levels.”
He urges the Irish bishops to give leadership on this.
Outlining how a synodal Church would function, he describes “a papacy
exercised in collegiality with fellow bishops, diocesan commissions,
councils and regular synods appropriately representative of all the
baptised, parishes with representative parish council”.
He quotes theologian Susan Wood, who has written that the baptismal
call to laity for active participation in the Church “… is not a
democratic principle but a liturgical one and, when applied to ecclesial
life, it suggests a theology of conciliarity and synodality inclusive
Fr O’Hanlon underlines that synodality would not denigrate the
specific role of pope and bishops as authoritative ecclesial teachers.
“Rather it is to retrieve the notion that Magisterium functions best
in reality when it is part of a three-fold process in which bishops
engage discerningly with theologians and the ‘sense of the faithful’ (in
particular those who are poor and including the popular devotion of the
He also observes that the recent Synod on the Family, “in a modest
but real way, illustrated how thorny matters can be discussed, often
with considerable conflict and disagreement, and still with a discerning
love which resulted in concrete results for the situation of the
divorced and remarried in particular.”
Similarly many women and men will have been encouraged by the
establishment of a Commission to study the issue of female deacons, in
response to considerable representation on the issue.
“The recent Synod in Limerick fits into this evolving framework: it
enabled a deeper renewal and conversion within the Diocese, part of
which was due to the skilled and prayerful way in which open debate was
allowed to flourish.”
Of the traditional Catholicism which once dominated the Irish
Catholic landscape, the Jesuit theologian suggests it is now being
superseded in Ireland.
“It was a defining characteristic of Irish nationalism and identity,
with a ‘monopoly on the Irish religious market’, a strong relationship
with state power, elevating the status of cleric to extraordinary high
levels and emphasising the evils of sexual sin.
“This was Catholicism with high levels of religious practice, a
stress on rule-keeping and sin, a strong ethos of sacrifice and delayed
gratification, a familiarity with austerity and a hope for fulfilment in
the after-life. It was characterised by a deep popular devotion
featuring the likes of the rosary, benediction, sodalities, indulgences
and processions. It provided comfort and fuelled the spiritual and
ethical imaginations of its adherents, and had a deeply committed,
global missionary outreach.”
However, its anti-intellectual nature meant that it was ill-prepared
for the challenges posed by a late-emerging modernity in Ireland.
Of the abuse scandals, the Jesuit suggests that episcopal and
ecclesial authority and reputation were fatally damaged among a large
segment of the population by the revelations of various clerical
scandals (most notoriously the sexual abuse of children by clergy) in
the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium, and the initially
poor handling of these scandals by those in authority as revealed in a
number of scathing public enquiries and reports.
“While these reports were often characterised by a lack of historical
context and socio-cultural analysis, the egregious crimes they noted
were undeniable and the effects were devastating.”
During this period, while the figures of those self-identifying as
Catholics remained high (84 per cent identified as Catholic in the 2011
Census, in contrast to a peak of 94.9 per cent in 1961), religious
practice, particularly among young and working-class people, declined
(Mass attendance, for example, declined from 91 per cent in 1971 to
35 per cent in 2012, according to some estimates) and it became clear
also – as admitted by the Irish bishops themselves as part of their
response to the recent Synod on the Family – that increasing numbers of
the faithful found difficulty with Catholic teaching in areas of
sexuality and gender.
“Women in particular – the back-bone of the Irish Catholic Church –
have long felt invisible and marginalised in their church, and in a
culture which is increasingly influenced by feminism and ideas of
equality this has seemed unconscionable to many.”
The Letter of Pope Benedict to Irish Catholics in the wake of the
sexual abuse crisis and the subsequent Apostolic Visitation of
Seminaries and Institutions of Formation, “while undoubtedly well
intended and welcome, were widely felt not to have hit the mark and to
have had a demoralising effect”.
Though vocations to the priesthood and religious life have sharply
declined, various reform movements like the Association of Catholic
Priests (ACP), the Association of Catholics in Ireland (ACI), and We Are
Church have sprung up.
“In this testing environment the Irish Episcopal Conference has found
it difficult to respond in a way that shows confidence in its ability
to supply the strong and wise leadership that is required in a situation
He warns that “Real conversion is required here: Irish Catholicism
runs the risk of becoming cultural Catholicism only, devoid of personal
conviction, a far cry from the universal call to holiness of the
baptised articulated by the Second Vatican Council and the well-known
post-conciliar, prophetic call of Karl Rahner that the Christian of the
future needed to be a mystic.”
We are faced then, in Ireland, with the increasing cultural reality
of a ‘God who is missing but not missed’, of a culture that is betimes
indifferent and hostile to Christianity and, in particular, to the
institution of the Catholic Church.
“The challenge is to re-awaken the need for salvation and the Good
News of the Gospels within a culture which experiences no such need.”
It will be part of the mission of the Irish Church of the future to
take seriously the intellectual and educational challenge involved in
the development and communication of a new language of faith more
attuned to modern ears, and perhaps the increased emergence of theology
in the setting of the university is a hopeful sign here.
What is common to these approaches is a conviction that far from
being a fear and rule-based religion, buttressed by a kind of blind and
unquestioning conformity to formal authority, Catholicism is essentially
(and can be in reality) a liberating reality, that, to use a perhaps
surprising term, the gospels are (before their time) truly documents of
radical Enlightenment, showing a way to the kind of love that is not
illusory, self-created or oblivious of human suffering and evil – the
joy of the gospel.
For this reality to be seen as liberating requires ongoing and open
dialogue and conversation with our culture, in order to be sensitive to
where the Good News of God’s merciful love in Jesus Christ can resonate
with human need and desire.