The End of Irish Catholicism?: Talk at Queen’s Religious Studies Research Forum 20 October

image Last week I presented a paper at the European Sociological Association conference in Geneva, titled: ‘The End of Irish Catholicism?: Exploring Extra-Institutional Spaces for Faith.’ I’ll be speaking again on the same topic on Thursday 20 October at 5.15 pm at the Peter Froggart Centre at Queen’s University Belfast.

My talk is one in a series organised by Queen’s new Religious Studies Research Forum, launched in June of this year.

My talk draws on research conducted for my School’s Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism project, where I’ll be presenting results from two of our eight cases studies of ‘expressions of faith’ on the island of Ireland.

The series continues through the autumn and spring terms. Except for my presentation, all others will be at Edgehill College. All begin at 5.15 pm:

  • 20 October Gladys Ganiel (Irish School of Ecumenics, TCD) ‘The End of Irish Catholicism?’ Peter Froggart Centre, 02/008
  • 3 November Paul Shore (Education, Brandon University) ‘Equivalencies and Holy Alchemy: Towards an Understanding of the Interior World of Baroque Jesuits.’
  • 1 December Crawford Gribben (English, TCD) ‘John Owen and the British civil wars’
  • 9 February Peter Bowler (History, QUB) The Legacy of Darwin

To give you a taste for my paper, these are the first three paragraphs from the draft I prepared for Geneva:

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. This paper is primarily concerned with identifying and analysing what Fr Brian D’Arcy has called ‘green shoots of Christian living’ among Catholics in Ireland.[5] Drawing on in-depth case studies of Catholics who visit the Holy Cross Benedictine Monastery in Rostrevor, Co. Down, and who are involved with Slí Eile, a Jesuit Centre for Young Adults, I explore how some Irish Catholics are experiencing their faith in the context of the challenges facing their institutional church. I argue that Holy Cross and Slí Eile are providing Irish Catholics with extra-institutional religious spaces that are perceived as free from the corruptions of the institutional church, where they can experience hope, healing and personal growth. These extra-institutional spaces are also facilitating people’s explorations of pursuits that they think have been neglected by the CCI, such as ecumenism, social justice and a deeper spirituality.

The paper offers a brief account of what Inglis has called the ‘de-institutionalisation’ of the CCI.[6] Then it outlines the reaction of the institutional church to this development, before exploring how some Catholics have found room for their faith to grow within the extra-institutional spaces of Holy Cross and Slí Eile. But it is important not make grand claims for the significance of these extra-institutional spaces. We just do not know if these types of spaces will function as seedbeds for revival or reform within the CCI, or if they are simply refuges for the faithful, small and ultimately insignificant beyond their impact on individuals’ lives. But the research does reveal that Slí Eile and Holy Cross have provided life, vitality and hope for those who are involved with them. This raises some tantalising questions, which I outline in the conclusion.


[1] Donnelly and Inglis, “The Media and the Catholic Church in Ireland.” Inglis, “Catholic Identity in Contemporary Ireland.”

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

[3] Cooney, John Charles McQuaid. Elliott, When God Took Sides. Garvin, Preventing the Future. Mitchell, Religion, Identity and Politics in Northern Ireland.

[4] Inglis, Moral Monopoly.

[5] D’Arcy, A Little Bit of Healing, 113.

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

(Image sourced on flickr, by origamidon)

11 Responses to The End of Irish Catholicism?: Talk at Queen’s Religious Studies Research Forum 20 October

  1. Martin September 13, 2011 at 9:45 pm #

    There’s life and renewal, believe it or not, in many parishes. In my own parish there are several exciting initiatives, from evangelisation and catechetical programmes, to Eucharistic adoration, most of them sprang from faithful laity who were then supported by their parish priest in setting up or financing whatever was needed..

  2. Eric Conway September 16, 2011 at 3:13 pm #

    It’s a big question. In the span of 2000+ years there are going to be all sorts of fluctuations. But as a Catholic, the ” numbers game ” is not really that important. Sexual laxity is in vogue right accross all societies, so it’s not surprising that it has also spread into the Church. Given it’s involvement with the world, it is inevitable. I would’nt worry about it. However, the important point is that the core teachings of the Church remain unchanged. Also, look at the positives. Not too many world political/religious leaders ( & certainly not any media pundits !) would draw 2 million young people to Madrid ; to listen to the wisdom of quite a serious intellectual. Also while the Catholic Church ( & most other religious/ civil/political organisations ) declines in the west, it is growing rapidly elsewhere. The glass is definitely half-full. Europes loss ?. Even in Ireland, look at Youth 2000. They draw more young people to their meetings than any political party.

  3. Martin September 19, 2011 at 2:33 pm #

    Yes definitely Eric. If there is one thing about this blog, it is the tendency (bias?) to concentrate on dissident elements, such as the drive for changes to sexual teachings or women priests (e.g. the ACP, Fr Darcy etc…), whilst largely ignoring the faithful , youthful, orthodox youth, illustrated by the likes of Youth 2000, as well as the thriving orthodox orders such as CFRs and the ICKSP. That’s were the life of the Church is to be found, not among the ageing folks from the 60s flower-power era.

  4. Eric Conway September 22, 2011 at 3:36 pm #

    In fairness to Glady’s, Martin, at least she allows dissenting views. I would argue like yourself that the easy option ( it’s undoubtedly well meaning, but musguided ) is the age old request for the Church to change it’s core teachings in line with prevailing ( usually sexual, though not exclusively ) mores. Thus we have the perennial ( & boring at this stage ) special pleading by some ( definitely not all ) homosexual groups & others for the Church to change it’s teaching. In answer to this, I alway’s make the point that as a selfish, weak heterosexual male, quite frequently the Church’s teaching does’nt co-incide with my desires, but I accept that ultimately the teaching is for my own good/happiness.

  5. Paul September 25, 2011 at 9:42 pm #

    Ah Gentlemen, now we know the Church is going to be okay for the future. Clap, clap, clap! Has no one noticed that Rome seems to misunderstand the essence of the word truth or is that something which can be twisted according to the logic of those running the business of God?

  6. Eric Conway September 26, 2011 at 11:16 am #

    As alway’s, a cliched, anti-Catholic bigot emerges from the depth’s. Can I recommend a crash course in logic, as your post is bereft of same !.

  7. Eric Conway September 26, 2011 at 3:07 pm #

    As a follow up on the previous post, how would members of the reformed Church’s like it if Roman Catholics & the media chattering classes continuously held vacuous conferences titled – ” The End of Irish Protestantism ” ?. Not very much, I hazard to guess ; & I would agree with them. How about a degree of sensitivity towards the sincerely held belief’s of the Roman Catholic community. For Paul’s information, the recent ” clash ” between the Irish government ( in which the Taoiseasch read out blatant lies about the Pope ) & the Vatican, clearly illustrates that it is the Irish government that does’nt understand the ” essence of the word truth ” ; to use Paul’s clumsy phrase. People in glass houses !.

  8. Paul September 26, 2011 at 9:45 pm #

    Is it only children that notice when the Emperor has no clothes? It appears that to have a view point of what is truth somehow makes one a bigot and anti Catholic. With such views it appears that the problem does not just lie in Rome but is much closer to home. How sad for all of us.

  9. Eric Conway September 27, 2011 at 8:17 am #

    As I said, nothing positive to contribute. Only closed-mined, intolerant fundamentalism. It’s impossible to engage in civilised debate with such a mind-set. Pope Benedict delivered a brilliant, thougt-provoking speech ( as is the norm for this brilliant man ) to the German Parliament this week. A handful of closed-minded, liberal/feminist fundamentalists would’nt attend. Yeah, they’re really open-minded, thast type. – your fellow travellers, no doubt.!. As a matter of interest what is your ideology/creed. Let us all in on the secret. I’m sure it’s for mankinds benefit. Dont be selfish by keeping it to yourself. Much easier to make intolerant/knee-jerk jibes about others beliefs.

  10. Eric Conway September 27, 2011 at 2:37 pm #

    Paul, as a goodwill jesture I would like to engage with you about my religion. Let’s just say we got off to a bad start. It’s just that after an intereting discussion, I felt your post was a bit flippant/disrepectful. If you did’nt intend it as such, I apologise. I am a Catholic, 100% intellectually convinced by Catholicism. But I absolutely respect other’s decision to disagree, provided it’s done with respect.

  11. Eric Conway September 28, 2011 at 1:08 pm #

    It appears that Paul is not interested in respectful dialogue. A pity, as it’s the only way to clear up misunderstandings etc. That’s why, for example Pope Benedict, is willing to engage in dialogue with anyone. Can I recommend his absorbing addreses to both the UK Parliament, last year, & the German Bundestag, last week. Truly a renaissance man.

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