In continued coverage of the Republic of Ireland’s abortion referendum, I spoke with the Guardian about possible future directions for the Catholic Church in Ireland.
Gladys Ganiel, author of Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, said the result was not a fatal blow for the Catholic church but the continuation of a trend rejecting Catholic teaching. Church leaders may “realise they’ve lost the battle and they’re not going to change hearts and minds with public statements condemning the result”.
She said: “We’ve seen widespread disillusion with the institutional church. And now we may see the liberalisation of Irish Catholicism, which would be a healthy thing.”
My comments contrast to those of Archbishop Eamon Martin, quoted earlier in the article. He spoke about three broad groupings in Ireland, with churchgoers a ‘remnant.’ He didn’t seem to recognise that there could be people who are committed to their faith but have ‘drifted away from regular practice’ not because they are ‘nominally or culturally Catholic,’ but because the church isn’t helping them live out their faith in a meaningful way. That’s quite different from his third category of people who are ‘hostile’ to church teaching.
There were now three broad groupings in Ireland, [Eamon Martin] said. One was a deeply committed minority of churchgoers, “a remnant”. Secondly, there was a large group of people who were “nominally or culturally Catholic but who have drifted away from regular practice”. Finally, there were those who had “quite consciously” rejected the church and were hostile to its teaching.
The referendum “has confirmed Ireland is conforming to western liberal democracy”, he said, referring to social acceptance of abortion, same-sex relationships and divorce.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s observation that many perceive the church as lacking in compassion could indicate that rather than simply ‘conforming to western liberal democracy,’ some Irish voters practice a more liberal – and more compassionate? – Catholicism than what they see offered by the institutional church. A more liberal Catholicism would not expect Catholic social teaching to be reflected in the laws of the state – it would grant everyone freedom of conscience to act in the way that they think is right. While liberal Catholics may be small enough in number that they are able to be overlooked in Eamon Martin’s ‘three broad groupings’, they should not be discounted.
It is difficult to predict if what we are seeing in Ireland will ultimately lead to a hard, anti-clerical secularisation, or a softer liberalisation of Catholicism. But if the Irish Catholic Church is to have a future in which it contributes compassionately to wider public debates, it will need the energies of liberals and conservatives alike.