The dire straits confronting religion in Ireland was recently noted (and possibly privately celebrated) by the editorial writer of The Irish Times.
Membership in the Presbyterian Church had dropped 40 percent since the 1970’s. Average attendance at the Church of Ireland, the largest Protestant denomination in the island, had shrunk to 15 percent of its membership.
Until recently the Roman Catholic Church had an unchallenged ascendancy in popular adherence and support. Of late weekly Mass attendance—once one of the highest among Catholic populations—has dropped to 34 percent, while only 17 percent of 18 to 34 year olds attend regularly.
Predictions are that the figures will only worsen, especially in view of the declining number of priests. Their ranks were almost halved in the past twenty years, leaving a total of slightly more than 2000 and with an average age of 65. Only 80 men are studying for the priesthood, a decline from 526 in 1990.
Recent political developments, such as the passage by over 60 percent of the electorate of a constitutional amendment last year accepting same sex marriage, definitely suggests a changed Ireland from the 1980s. Then, two proposed constitutional amendments, one against abortion and another allowing divorce, saw the Church position, yes on the first and no on the second, prevail by majorities exceeding 60 percent.
A recent national election in Ireland saw no political party or even coalition achieving a majority in Dáil Éireann, the parliament. It took several weeks of negotiations before a government was formed. Fine Gael, the party that led a coalition with the Labour Party in the previous ministry, was returned to power, but only with the help of a handful of unpredictable independents and the abstention in the Dáil vote for a government by the major opposition party—Fianna Fáil.
The Fine Gael Party is affiliated with the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats), but that did not inhibit it, along with its then coalition partner, the Labour Party, from advancing a same sex marriage amendment to the constitution last year.
Also, the same government in 2012 withdrew its ambassador to the Vatican (ultimately restored) because of dissatisfaction with Papal response to alleged clerical child abuse. In 2013 it passed legislation allowing abortion in the case of an expectant mother threatening suicide. Earlier liberal judicial reading of the 1983 anti-abortion amendment allowed such to be done.
The present Fine Gael government has not indicated any opposition to demands made by some of its own members for the actual repeal of that amendment.
Among the independents included in the new government is the Minister for Children, a lesbian activist, who, with her wife, legalized their “marriage” upon the passage of last year’s marriage.
On the whole the outlook looks glum for any significant attentiveness to Church views in the immediate future. This will also be the case also on the question of education.
Eighty to ninety percent of the state supported elementary schools in Ireland are under the management of the Catholic Church. Others are under other churches, and a few are “Educate Together” schools in which comparative religion, rather than traditional faith formation, is taught.
The Irish constitution requires that, even in church-managed schools, children, if they or their parents wish, can be exempt from attending religious classes. Ordinarily there is no problem.
However, in some urban districts, especially in the City of Dublin, the failure to build sufficient number of schools has created a situation whereby some schools don’t have the capacity to accept all the students in their neighborhood. Consequently, some priest managers use Baptism as a criterion of admission. Inevitably some of the growing number of non-Catholics became upset.
Rather than agitate for the construction of more schools to meet those desirous of being free from “Catholic indoctrination”, articulate political activists have demanded the removal of church management from schools and/or the replacement of traditional religious education with a comparative religion curriculum.
Most people, Catholic or not, don’t have to confront lack of school places, and are not anxious to change things.
On the other hand, even in the schools that teach traditional Catholic faith formation, one fears, especially with the virtual disappearance of religious as teachers, many of the existing faculty are religiously indifferent and just go through the motions of training the children for Holy Communion and later for Confirmation, with minimal in depth instruction in the Faith or in those sacraments.
Evidence is the scarce number of children who appear at Mass during the years between their First Communion and their Confirmation.
But against this ominous perspective for Irish Catholicism there recently was one bright development. An outspoken Catholic champion was elected to the upper house of the Irish legislature, the Seanad, a body whose members are selected after the national election.
The Seanad has sixty members: 43 of whom are elected by members of existing local government councils, the outgoing Seanad, and those newly elected to the other house in the legislature, Dáil Éireann; eleven are appointed by the Taoiseach (prime minister); three are elected by the alumni of Trinity College; and three by the alumni of the National University of Ireland (which includes among other institutions, University College Dublin and University College Cork).
Its powers are limited to initiating and/or revising legislation passed by the popular house, but not money bills. It cannot permanently delay measures approved by the other body. Many of its members are either former Dáil members defeated in recent elections or future aspirants to the Dáil. However, there have been significant personalities who articulately served, including William Butler Yeats, Conor Cruise O’Brien, and prominent academics like Professors John A, Murphy and Joseph Lee, historians from University College Cork.
Those chosen by the university electorates usually play very significant roles. For example, two of the three chosen by the Trinity alumni are incumbents Ivana Bacik, a barrister celebrated for her advancing the cause of abortion in Ireland, and David Norris, a Joycean scholar, and Gay activist who ran unsuccessfully for the Irish presidency in 2012.
The National University alumni selected Alice Mary Higgins, the daughter of the present Irish president and with decided liberal views and Michael McDowell, a barrister and former Minister for Justice, whose views are a mixture of libertarianism and conservativism.
Their third choice caused the greatest delight from a Catholic perspective. He was Rónán Mullen, a barrister, who has already served two terms in the Seanad
He is the essence of everything that the Irish media and political establishment detest. An uninhibited champion of Catholic principles, he is outspoken in his defense of the right to life of the unborn and was one of the few elected figures who opposed same sex marriage.
His election provoked an article in leading national newspaper, The Irish Times, trying to explain how an advocate of such unfashionable views could have been elected by university graduates.
Forty-five years of age, a native of County Galway, he has a BA in English and French from the University College Galway, a master’s in journalism from Dublin City University, and a law degree from the King’s Inn, being called to the Irish Bar in 2003. He had worked as a teacher, an educational administrator, and as a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Dublin. When chosen as an independent member of the Irish parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe, he joined the European People’s (or Christian Democrat) Party.
His electoral success will guarantee at least the presence of an articulate voice in the Irish legislature for values currently being forgotten—especially the defence of the right to life and of the right to educate children in accord with the ethos and values of their families. Hopefully he will inspire many more Catholics in Ireland to assert their principles.