Rubicon: Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland

TransformingPostCatholicCoverOn Saturday I had the opportunity to speak at Rubicon in Dublin about  my forthcoming book, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland. 

Last week I was also able to unveil the cover for the book, which features a striking image by photographer David McDonald. (Thanks to everyone who participated in the Facebook poll to help choose the cover.)

Rubicon describes itself this way:

Rubicon is conversation for those eager to explore how God’s intention is showing up in the lives of their peers and the cultural projects they create.

The gathering will be intimate and intentional; a small environment designed to draw together innovators and the best ideas through which we can embody the Gospel in public life.

Rubicon is a place for discussing and debating the interplay with culture and the Gospel. We want to create a place where the big questions can be debated and talked about. Rubicon was founded by Greg Fromholz and Rev. Rob Jones as a Holy Trinity, Rathmines initiative.

Our goal is to examine the current conversations happening in our world today. We don’t have a litmus test on a person’s lifestyle in order to appreciate their expertise in the way of contributing to the conversation and educating us.

Rubicon isn’t focused on rewriting orthodox theology that has guided the church for centuries. We hold to the tenets of the Christian faith that date back to the Nicene Creed. Rubicon is asking what does the practice of these central beliefs look like in Ireland today in a post-Christian society.

I’ve reproduced my text below.

Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland at Rubicon

I’ve titled my contribution for today ‘Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland.’ Conveniently, that’s the title of my forthcoming book, which is due out in February 2016 (Oxford University Press 2016). I understand that ‘Rubicon is a place for discussing and debating the interplay with culture and the Gospel.’ The research that I conducted for my book speaks directly to how Ireland’s historically Catholic culture has changed and is changing. In particular, it explores how people who are on the margins of the institutional churches are contributing to that change.  My talk today will draw on this book and at times I will even be reading passages directly from it.

I’ve also co-authored a book on the Emerging Church Movement, The Deconstructed Church (Oxford University Press, 2014), which may be of interest and relevance to those of you here today. This book compares the Emerging Church Movement in North America, the UK and Northern Ireland. The Belfast-based collective Ikon, and one of its founders, Peter Rollins, features prominently in it. Emerging Christians are also on the margins of the institutional churches and share some similarities with the Irish Christians whose faith I will be discussing today. I also am happy to answer questions about Emerging Christianity.

But back to ‘post-Catholic Ireland.’ Upon reading a draft of one of the chapters of my book, Denis Anderson, a former staff member on the Education for Reconciliation programme at the Irish School of Ecumenics, said: ‘Post-Catholic is a glib phrase—maybe a media phrase. What does it indeed mean?’ I will try to explain.

My title, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, captures a key argument of my book – and this talk – that the religious landscape of the island of Ireland has changed from one in which the Catholic Church commanded a monopoly of religious, social, and political power, to one in which the Catholic Church is one option among many in a mixed, post-Catholic religious market. So for me, post-Catholic is not an epochal concept, indicating that the island of Ireland was once Catholic, and now it is not. While I think that over the last generation or two the island has entered a new religious era, I acknowledge that Irish Catholicism has not gone away. It continues to affect, even dominate, religious life on the island, but in more subtle ways. It retains some social and cultural privileges vis-à-vis other expressions of Christianity, minority faiths, and secularism/atheism. This is in line with trends in other European nations, where one-time established or monopoly religions continue to be viewed by some as ‘public utilities’, retaining some privileges even in the midst of secularization. This is a type of religious market that Grace Davie (2007, 2015) has described as ‘mixed’—where religious ‘choice’ is not quite as straightforward as implied by American-inspired market theories of religion because the market seems to favour some expressions of religion, for example former monopolies, over others.

In addition, a post-Catholic Ireland involves a shift in consciousness in which the Catholic Church, as an institution, is no longer held in high esteem by most of the population and can no longer expect to exert a monopoly influence in social and political life. Instead, for some people, the Catholic Church provides a convenient foil which they now define their faith against. But that does not necessarily translate into a straightforward rejection of the institutional church; for example, through conversion to another religion or expression of Christianity, through abandonment of religion, or in the case of people who have never been Catholics, through a refusal to engage with the Catholic Church. Rather, what I observed were various methods and strategies people use to keep their faith alive, outside or in addition to the institutional Catholic Church.

I have conceptualized this as the practice of ‘extra-institutional’ religion. The term extra-institutional is meant to capture how people’s experiences and practices are so often described not only as outside or in addition to the Catholic Church (extra), but also in the Irish Catholic Church’s own terms (institutional). Post-Catholic Ireland, then, is paradoxical: the role of the Catholic Church has changed so dramatically that it is possible to identify a new era. But at the same time, Catholicism retains a different, yet still important, influence in people’s personal lives and in the public sphere.

I developed the concept of extra-institutional religion through reflecting on the sociological research conducted for the book, including surveys, in-depth interviews, and observations.[1] I conducted two ‘Surveys of 21st Century Faith’ in 2009, the first of which canvassed 4,005 faith leaders (Ganiel 2009a). I strove for a universal sample of faith leaders on the island, and 4,005 was as many as my research assistant Thérèse Cullen could track down. 710 responded. The second was an open, online survey for laypeople, to which 910 responded (Ganiel 2009b). The in-depth interviews and observations were carried out as part of eight case studies of ‘expressions of faith’ between 2009‒11, including the Parish Pastoral Council of the Parish of Good Counsel in Ballyboden, Dublin; Slí Eile/Magis Ireland, a Jesuit young adult ministry; Abundant Life, a Pentecostal congregation in Limerick; St Patrick’s United Church, a combined Methodist and Presbyterian congregation in Waterford; Jesus Centre Dublin, a congregation of the Redeemed Christian Church of God; Holy Cross Benedictine Monastery in Rostrevor, Co. Down; the Fermanagh Churches Forum; and a sample of individuals from faith traditions other than Christianity. In total, 113 people were interviewed from across these eight cases, by me and by research assistants Richard Carson and Fred Vincent.

I was impressed by the long shadow that the seemingly steady demise of ‘traditional’ Irish Catholicism cast over the research project. Unprompted, Irish converts to Pentecostalism spoke about the Irish Catholic Church. As did Protestants, north and south of the border. As did immigrants of various religions from all over the world. And, of course, Irish Catholics themselves. Some even used the term ‘post-Catholic’ to describe the island they now found themselves living on. It was clear to me that as the people I spoke with live out their faith day-by-day, they are transforming the religious landscape. They are creating new religious spaces within a post-Catholic environment that is simultaneously undergoing secularization and religious diversification.

As well as making a case for a ‘post-Catholic’ Ireland and introducing the concept of extra-institutional religion, I make three key arguments in my book. Today I only have time to speak briefly about two of them. But now I want to take the opportunity to share with you all three:

1) Ireland’s religious market is increasingly diverse, and within it extra-institutional religion can theoretically take on a dynamic role by prompting personal transformation, and by creating spaces on the margins of the market where people work together for religious, social and political transformation;

2) This is a more academic/theoretical argument, and I will not elaborate on it further today: The concept of extra-institutional religion provides a counter-balance to some prevailing theories in which the ‘reflexive’, modern religious person is seen as constructing a ‘God of one’s own’, quite unmoored from traditional religious institutions (Beck 2010). While extra-institutional religion in part depends upon the individualization of religion, it also depends on those individuals maintaining some relationship with institutionalized religion, making it more ‘solid’ than other forms of more free-floating modern religion; and

3) The practice of extra-institutional religion has the potential to contribute to reconciliation on the island of Ireland, more so than other expressions of religion such as the island’s traditional Christian denominations.

Extra-Institutional Religion and Transformation

Throughout my research, I found a multitude of examples of how the practice of extra-institutional religion had led to individuals’ personal transformation, or as they might describe it, spiritual growth. For example, one participant with Slí Eile/Magis described how he became involved with this organisation, a ministry of the Jesuits which is now defunct, through attending the Gardiner Street Gospel Choir mass. He described a range of activities he had participated in through Slí Eile/Magis, including taking courses for a certificate in ‘social spirituality,’ going on retreat, volunteering in the Zamcraft fair trade initiative, which sells Zambian handcrafts in Ireland, and helping organize and publicize the Gardiner Street mass. In all of this, he refused to separate his faith from ‘social justice,’ going so far as to say, ‘I think to be honest if there wasn’t an element of social justice [in the church] I don’t know how relevant [church-going] would be for me.’

At the same time, he said that his upbringing in the institutional (Catholic) church had not equipped him to make the links between faith and social justice that he now saw as so important. Nor had the institutional church led him to a personal experience of God or of fellowship with others in Christian ‘community’. In these ways, he was similar to many of the Emerging Christians Gerardo Marti and I spoke with when we wrote The Deconstructed Church – they too were disillusioned with institutional Christianity. He said that this meant that the scandals that have so damaged the church have not really affected his faith, but it also meant that he did not perceive the institutional church as being relevant to him:

I never got my inspiration or my energy from the church as an institution. . . . Because my faith wasn’t necessarily connected so strongly to the institution of the church, [the scandal] hasn’t affected it too much. At times it would kind of frustrate me. It goes back to that experience I had in history class and I went, oh shit, actually this guy Jesus that we’re all talking about, he was actually a real person. . . . You know, he is no longer something fake to me. . . . That didn’t happen to me reading the Bible. . . . It didn’t happen to me making my communion or confirmation. It didn’t happen to me in school or in religion class. It happened in a very secular context.

But although many individuals who participated in the research could describe how extra-institutional religious spaces had nourished them personally, they struggled to effect wider social change in areas they cared deeply about because of their faith, such as poverty/social justice issues or reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants on this island. I found some small-scale, local evidence of change brought about through these individuals working through their organizations or congregations, but it was more limited. And some people were dismayed about this. After I sent an earlier draft of the chapter on the Fermanagh Churches Forum to participants, several responded with emails which conveyed a sense of gloom. As one man wrote, ‘sometimes we feel tired and discouraged. We have difficulty in getting volunteers for the committee and to lead.’ Another wrote:

I am glad you manage to be more optimistic than me. . . . I cannot help feeling that it depends on the energy and enthusiasm of just a few key members, and these are running down, as we fail to recruit new young, energetic, and enthusiastic folk in large enough numbers. My wife would also say that unless and until we get the clergy to come on board in a major way, we shall not increase interest. . . . perhaps you are saying, ‘It is very hard to evaluate the impact of FCF, but it has probably done a bit to change the views of a few folk in Fermanagh.’ I fear that is rather like damning with faint praise!

Extra-Institutional Religion and Reconciliation

But despite the limited empirical evidence of wider social, political or religious transformation, I have good theoretical reasons for arguing that the practice of extra-institutional religion could be a significant vehicle for change within this island’s mixed, post-Catholic religious market. There are many areas in which extra-institutional religion could contribute to wider religious, social, or political transformations on the island of Ireland. Some limited examples of transformation are provided in my book: the way congregations like Abundant Life, St Patrick’s, and Jesus Centre are facilitating immigrants’ integration into wider society; or the ways the Rostrevor Benedictines have inspired grassroots ecumenical projects outside the walls of their monastery.

There are many worthy areas where people of faith could focus their energies. But my judgement is that the most significant contribution faith-based activists could make to ‘transforming post-Catholic Ireland’ is to focus their energies on promoting reconciliation: among Catholics and Protestants on the whole island, between Irish-born and immigrant, between people of different religions, and within the institutional churches themselves. And extra-institutional religion has the potential to contribute to reconciliation on the island of Ireland, more so than other expressions of religion such as traditional denominations. The traditional institutional churches are more often than not tainted by the island’s religiously-divided and sectarian past, the churches’ perceived failure to act during the Troubles, and the failure to adequately deal with abuse within religious institutions. Extra-institutional expressions of religion are not burdened with that baggage, have more freedom to critique religious institutions, and have more flexibility to form networks with like-minded religious and secular groups to respond quickly to pressing issues and needs.

To conclude, I have identified five general lessons that faith-inspired activists seeking wider religious, social, and political transformations in any context would do well to consider. Hopefully they provide some food for thought about where we go from here:

  • Work outside traditional religious institutions. Extra-institutional religion is better equipped than traditional religious institutions (especially denominations) to contribute to personal, religious, social, and political transformations.
  • Do not give up on institutional religion. A key task of extra-institutional religion could be transforming traditional religious institutions themselves, inspiring them to become more flexible and creative in their approaches. So while you may get more done through the practice of extra-institutional religion, remain in contact with traditional religious institutions.
  • Do not focus solely on promoting reconciliation between individuals. Lead the way in promoting reconciliation between groups: Catholics and Protestants on the whole island, Irish-born and immigrant, people of different religions, and within the institutional churches themselves. Do not ignore the structural aspects of religious-based division and sectarianism, such as segregated housing and education, and socio-economic inequalities. These structures must also be transformed.
  • Make your case for reconciliation in both secular and religious terms. The ability to speak the language of the secular will boost your legitimacy in the public sphere and make secular partners more open to working with you. Yet your religious tradition may furnish you with a treasure trove of inspirational stories, language, models, and examples that could inspire people of all faiths and none. Better yet, if you can critique your own religious tradition, admitting that it has contributed to division and violence in the past, you will gain even more respect and legitimacy.
  • Create networks of groups and individuals, drawing on the skills and resources of both religious and secular citizens. No single expression of extra-institutional religion can sustain the activism necessary to effect large-scale religious, social, or political transformation.

These lessons are grounded in the research that resulted in my book. They are lessons supported by the empirical evidence of the case studies and undergirded by theoretical, sociological perspectives on what works best for contributing to wider transformations. But the empirical and the theoretical cannot always capture the illusive quality of hope, which I observed sustaining so many of the people who participated in this research. I conclude with a statement of hope from Denis Anderson, whose wariness of the term ‘post-Catholic’ I shared earlier. He also said this when responding to earlier drafts of my book:

Ultimately, your findings are saying that the extra-institutional is better able to contribute to reconciliation. In one sense that is sad, as the institutional church is being left behind. Indeed, it is not even ‘at the races’. But it is also exciting for the future: the thrill of not knowing, of venturing into a new ‘God space’.







[1] The chapter on the surveys and each case study chapter include a brief description of methods.

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