At Easter: Loss and Hope in the Irish Catholic Church? Research Published in Doctrine and Life

imageThe Easter message is fundamentally one of hope – hope for redemption, forgiveness, and reconciliation …

Catholics in Ireland may feel hard-pressed to find hope in their church. The fall-out from the clerical sexual abuse scandals continues to impact on how people interact with their church – especially its institutions and the seemingly out-of-touch clerics that populate its highest positions.

As readers of this blog will know, I’m not a Catholic, but I am in a ‘mixed marriage’ and I often attend mass. I see all the Christian denominations as one church, and I think that the crisis in the Catholic Church has damaged all of Ireland’s churches.

Some of my recent research, part of my School’s IRCHSS-funded project ‘Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism,’ has focused on the crisis in the Irish Catholic Church. That research is featured in this month’s (April) issue of Doctrine and Life, in an article titled ‘Loss and Hope in the Irish Catholic Church.’

This is the first of a two part series on the theme (part II will be published in the next issue). Doctrine and Life is available through Dominican Publications. I’ve reproduced the first few paragraphs of the article, which introduce the two-part series:

Loss and Hope in the Irish Catholic Church

The Catholic Church occupies an increasingly weak and peripheral position in Irish life. With their church damaged by the clerical child sexual abuse scandals, Catholics report decreasing levels of trust in the church as an institution, and mass-going has declined accordingly.[1] Such trends are not unusual across Europe, where increasing secularisation and similar revelations about clerical child sexual abuse have damaged the witness of the Catholic Church. But in Ireland, the decline has been much more rapid, especially since the 1990s.[2] This is remarkable, given the long-standing identification of Irishness with Catholicism[3], and the ‘monopoly’ which the church held over much of society.[4]

But the story of the Catholic Church in Ireland (CCI) is not entirely one of loss. Ireland is not experiencing a straightforward transition from ‘Holy Catholic Ireland’ to a secular, irreligious republic. The CCI is experiencing what Inglis has called ‘de-institutionalisation.’[5] This is a sociological process, linked not just to the clerical child sexual abuse scandals but also to wider processes of modernisation, secularisation, and globalisation. In this article – part one of a two part series – I offer a brief account of ‘de-institutionalisation’ and outline the reaction of the institutional church to this development. The institutional church’s responses fall into two broad categories: 

  • responses to clerical child sexual abuse (apologies, the pope’s letter to the church in Ireland, the apostolic visitation, etc.) and
  • responses to encourage greater lay participation (such as encouraging the formation of parish pastoral councils).

Part two of this series, to be published in the next issue, will explore how some Irish Catholics, mostly laypeople, have responded to de-institutionalisation. It will examine how they have found room for their faith to grow within what I am calling ‘extra-institutional’ spaces such as:

These extra-institutional religious spaces are perceived as (relatively) free from the corruptions of the institutional church, and they are places where people can experience hope, healing and personal growth. Part II also will also raise questions about the relationships between these extra-institutional spaces and the ‘institutional’ Catholic Church.


[1] Donnelly, Susie and Tom Inglis, “The Media and the Catholic Church in Ireland: Reporting Clerical Child Sex Abuse,” Journal of Contemporary Religion, 25(1), pp. 1-19, 2010; Inglis, Tom, “Catholic Identity in Contemporary Ireland: Belief and Belonging to Tradition,” Journal of Contemporary Religion, 22(2), pp. 205-220, 2007.

[2] Donnelly and Inglis, “The Media and the Catholic Church in Ireland,” 3, 10-13.

[3] Cooney, John, John Charles McQuaid: Ruler of Catholic Ireland, Dublin: O’Brien Press, 2003;. Elliott, Marianne, When God Took Sides: Religion and Identity in Ireland: Unfinished History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009; Garvin, Tom, Preventing the Future: Why was Ireland Poor for So Long? Gill and Macmillan, 2005; Mitchell, Claire, Religion, Identity and Politics in Northern Ireland, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005.

[4] Inglis, Tom, Moral Monopoly: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Modern Ireland. Dublin: UCD Press, 1998.

[5] Inglis, “Catholic Identity in Contemporary Ireland,” 217.

[6] Redmond, Mary, “Omega: The People’s Voice,” The Furrow, 62(2), 2011.

(Image sourced on Flickr, by Fergal of Claddagh)

One Response to At Easter: Loss and Hope in the Irish Catholic Church? Research Published in Doctrine and Life

  1. Eric Conway April 12, 2012 at 11:00 am #

    Don’t be so gloomy Gladys. The recent census results in the Republic show that 84% of people identify themselves as Catholic, & a combined total of 90% as Christian. Not bad considering the hammering ( some of it undoubtedly justified ; but much of it agenda driven & unbalanced) the Church has taken over the last 10 years or so. I sponsored an individual who converted to the Church in our parish ( along with 12 others – you won’t read about that in the media ! ) during Easter. The Easter ceremonies were standing room only here. We are blessed with orthodox/sound Priests, I believe that’s a strong contributing factor.

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