Reflections on The End of Irish Catholicism

imageI’ve had several people ask me if I would be blogging about the talk I gave last week for the Queen’s University Religious Studies Research Forum, titled ‘The End of Irish Catholicism?: Exploring Extra-Institutional Spaces for Faith.’

The material I presented at the talk is still very much ‘work in progress,’ but I’m posting the powerpoint I used here. My powerpoint is of course mostly images and bullet points, so looking at it doesn’t  make the content of my talk self-explanatory. But I will offer some brief reflections on the research now.

First, I want to point out that the title of the talk ends with a Question Mark. It is titled ‘The End of Irish Catholicism?’ NOT ‘The End of Irish Catholicism!’

It is a deliberately provocative title, but that doesn’t mean that it is somehow declaring the end of a faith that has survived for centuries on this island.

Rather, one of the broad arguments of my talk is that a particular form of Irish Catholicism has ended. This is the traditional, perhaps now stereotypical, Irish Catholicism of generations past.

This is an Irish Catholicism that had a close link with political power in terms of its relationship with the Irish state, that controlled social institutions such as schools, hospitals and children’s homes, and that informed the identity, culture, and everyday religious practices of countless Irish people over the centuries.

I’m not the first person to argue that we have seen the end of this type of Irish Catholicism. The social and political processes, as well as the recent scandals, that have seen this type of Catholicism wane are well-documented elsewhere by scholars such as Tom Inglis and Roy Foster.

There were of course positive and negative components of traditional Irish Catholicism – but that was beyond the scope of my talk and certainly beyond the scope of this blog post.

Another of my talk’s broad arguments is that as traditional Irish Catholicism has declined, the institutional church has responded by:

  • trying to defend the institution (this is seen in its careful apologies to victims of clerical sexual abuse, which never seem to go far enough to console the victims) and
  • by trying to empower lay people through mechanisms such as lay parish councils and diocesan level initiatives such as ‘listening processes.’

But what my research has been primarily concerned with is how what I call ‘extra-institutional’ spaces are developing within the Irish Catholic Church.

I came up with the idea of extra-institutional spaces while conducting research for my School’s Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism research project. This project has involved eight case studies of various faith communities on the island of Ireland, not all of which are Catholic.

I see two of those case studies – Holy Cross Benedictine Monastery in Rostrevor, Co. Down and Slí Eile, the Jesuit Centre for Young Adults based in Dublin (now called Magis Ireland) – as examples of extra-institutional spaces.

How do I define extra-institutional spaces?

They are organisations or religious orders that, while very much part of the Catholic Church, are seen by the people who participate in them, or avail of their services, to operate outside of the institutional Irish Catholic Church.

So in the eyes of those who are involved with them, they remain untainted by the scandals that have rocked the Irish Catholic Church. Some people I interviewed during these case studies said they offered more meaningful inspiration for how to practice their faith than the Catholic Church they had been raised in. These people often contrasted their involvement with Holy Cross or Slí Eile to their rather dull and uninspiring experiences of Catholic education and/or parish life.

They also said that Holy Cross and Slí Eile seemed to them to be focusing on issues that the wider Irish Catholic Church is ignoring, as it tries to preserve itself in the face of the scandals. These issues included ecumenism, social justice, and spirituality.

Indeed, some of my interviewees said that they believed that organisations or places such as Slí Eile, Holy Cross, and other similar extra-institutional spaces are keeping the Irish Catholic Church alive in this time of scandal and decline.

So we may be seeing the end of Irish Catholicism as we have known it, but also seeing the beginning of new types of Irish Catholicism ..

These are types of Irish Catholicism that offer more meaningful participation to lay people, a greater emphasis on spiritual formation through prayer and bible study, and a renewed commitment to the social justice tradition in Irish Catholicism, which has perhaps been best exemplified in the work of Irish missionaries down the years.

Of course, to say that they are renewing and re-forming the Irish Catholic Church is to claim a lot for these extra-institutional spaces, which appeal to only a limited number of people. I don’t have enough sociological data or evidence to make informed comment on how significant or wide-ranging their influence may be. Further research is needed.

When giving a version of this talk at the bi-annual meeting of the European Sociological Association in Geneva last month, a member of the audience pointed out that the two cases I had analysed were examples of religious organisations whose values seemed in line with my School’s (the Irish School of Ecumenics) history. And she is absolutely right.

Holy Cross has an explicit vocation for Ecumenism, and one of the principal founders of the Irish School of Ecumenics was a Jesuit!

Of course there are other examples of extra-institutional spaces in the Catholic Church whose values would not be in-line with those  associated with the Irish School of Ecumenics: organisations, groups or orders who would advocate a more traditional form of Catholicism. These groups might think the Irish Catholic Church has sold out to liberalism or modernism, and see it as their duty to call the Irish Catholic Church back to what they see as ‘true’ Catholicism.

But sociologically, the concept of an extra-institutional space doesn’t depend on the ideas put forward within those spaces. What’s important is their position as a religious structure: 

The people occupying those spaces believe they need to somehow operate outside of the normal structures of the institution – while remaining uncomfortably within it – if they are to contribute to its re-formation.

And for me, that means that plenty of questions remain for future research. I’ll end with the questions I posed on one of the final slides in my powerpoint:

  • How significant is the role of these extra-institutional spaces in reforming the church in light of scandal?
  • To what extent do lay Catholics become more ‘empowered’ to participate in the church through these extra-institutional spaces?
  • To what extent is there interaction between the institutional and extra-institutional spaces?

One thought on “Reflections on The End of Irish Catholicism”

  1. The new communities and orders are still very much under the authority of a bishop or religious superior, so they are still very much Catholic. The key to Catholicity is that one be a member of a local Church under the leadership of a bishop who is in communion with the Roman Pontiff, the bishop of Rome. The Pope talked about ‘professional Catholics here: Professional Catholics are those who run ‘the institution’, but sadly many of these have lost the faith. What we need is faithful bishops who are courageous enough to lead the faithful remnant forward in faith, and dispensing with the shackles of the professional Catholics, and their endless ‘pastoral plans’, ‘listening sessions’, and numerous other human schemes. Perhaps I exaggerate, but this is the general direction we need to go in.

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