Máire Byrne on Catholic Identity – Can Theology Contribute to Peace in Ireland?

image When most people think about making ‘peace in Ireland,’ it is likely that their thoughts turn to transforming the Troubles in the northeast part of the island. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reviewing chapters in an Irish Peace Centres’ publication, Studying Faith, Practising Peace, which re-enforce that perception.

The publication is a product of a conference which asked graduate students in theology to address the question, ‘Do theological studies make a tangible and practical contribution to peace on the island of Ireland?’

But, refreshingly, not every chapter in the publication deals with the Northern Irish Troubles. In my final instalment in my series of posts about this publication, I feature Máire Byrne’s contribution: ‘Catholic Identity – How can Irish Catholics Define themselves in Light of the Changing Views of the Catholic Church?’

Byrne has a PhD in theology from St Patrick’s College in Maynooth and currently teaches Scripture in Maynooth and Milltown. Her blog, ‘Bible Nerd,’ offers a creative blend of resources for those involved in Pastoral Work, Liturgy or Education.

Máire Byrne on Catholic Identity

Byrne’s chapter opens with her justification for shifting the focus from Northern Ireland to other areas of Irish life in which people desire peace. For her, there is an absence of peace in the Irish Catholic Church. This is mainly due to child sexual abuse in the church, and its subsequent cover-up by members of the Catholic clergy. Byrne writes (p. 25):

… my idea of ‘peace’ is primarily associated with Irish Catholics who have been affected by these events becoming at peace with themselves and their Catholic identity.

She therefore wants to ‘reconstruct the question posed’ as:

Do theological studies make a tangible and practical contribution to the inner peace of Irish Catholics on the island of Ireland?

Byrne then contextualises this re-framed question by reviewing the ‘changing views of the Catholic Church.’ She is not examining changing views on the part of the hierarchical, institutional church.

Rather, the ‘changing views’ are the views of Irish people themselves, who now see their church in very different ways than they would have a century, a generation, or even just a few years ago.

Byrne characterises this as Irish Catholics ‘reassessing the role the Church and the leaders of the Church play in their lives’ (p. 26). Further, Byrne recognizes that ‘reassessing’ may include people deciding to leave the Catholic Church altogether, as epitomized by the website countmeout.ie, which was set up to help people to officially exit the Catholic Church.

But she cautions against seeing Ireland’s reassessment of Catholicism as a straightforward process of secularization, or something that is ‘negative.’ She writes (p. 27):

‘… we should look at what is happening in Ireland as a cultural shift, not a dismissal of religion, but a redefinition of a person or community in light of a momentous and changing event. This shift does not have to be seen as something negative, or viewed by leaders of the Church as abandonment. To reassess your role in a society or institution is healthy and in the long term will contribute to the growth and development of both the person and the group.’

Byrne goes on to describe how some Irish Catholics are exploring not just the various ‘beliefs, practices and teachings’ of their own church, but also those of other churches and religions. While she recognises that some may dismiss this ‘á la carte’ or ‘mix and match’ Catholicism, she sees this rather as a healthy process whereby one’s faith might be enhanced. She writes (p. 27):

‘The idea that we can be open to other religions will mean that we are more open to appreciating the beliefs and cultural practices of the Protestant community. The idea of creativity in terms of Catholicism is raised here – not just in terms of practices and beliefs being influenced by religion, but by Catholics who creatively seek to learn about, engage with and challenge the teachings of the Church.’

Byrne notes the questioning spirit that is already embraced within the American Catholic Church, arguing that (p. 28):

‘This leaves them open to being able to embrace philosophies and ideals that at first may seem contradictory to Catholic teaching (a good example here being feminism).’

As should be obvious from the text that I have quoted, Byrne conceives of the church as a body in which the non-ordained – the laypeople – should question and challenge the teachings of the church.

This is well-illustrated by the artwork by Jayne McConkey which accompanies Byrne’s text, which bears the phrase ‘to disagree is to engage with …’

If we assume the freedom to disagree, this means that the leaders of the church and some of its beliefs, practices and teachings can at times be wrong. Therefore the church should be open to critical self-reflection, repentance and change.

The freedom to disagree is undergirded by a perspective that sees Church as all the people of God, with all of them able to discern the call of the Holy Spirit and to ask whether the church is indeed heeding that Spirit. The non-ordained, the laypeople, may therefore be the source of change and renewal.

So, with Máire Byrne we can ask: Will Irish Catholics engage with their faith, willing to disagree with aspects of it but not to depart from it? Will this lead to the inner peace that Byrne writes about? And will this lead to change and renewal in the wider, institutional church?

(Image sourced on flickr, by origamidon)

2 thoughts on “Máire Byrne on Catholic Identity – Can Theology Contribute to Peace in Ireland?”

  1. Very interesting post – I suppose more conservative Catholics would say that that there is a non-negotiable deposit of faith inherited from apostolic teaching which defines the church in every age and cannot be reinterpreted by individual choice. However I am much more in sympathy with Maire Byrne approach.


  2. Yeah the Deposit of Faith is the Church’s treasure and it is unchangeable so it doesn’t conform to the current trends.

    Pope JPII wrote about that in APOSTOLIC CONSTITUTION

    Google it.

    When I hear talk of renewal and change, I wonder what they are talking about. There are some changes which are good, and there are some changes which are bad, just as there are some things which can change, and those that can’t.

    The world’s idea of renewal and change is, for the most part, anathama to the Church of Christ, because it typically requires the condonement of sin. That is not going to happen.

    I think there is a need for honesty and straight talking – let us see the cards for renewal and change laid out on the table by people like Byrne, then the Church can look at them and see if there is anything that is good, beautiful, and true.

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