Belonging Without Believing

While 84 percent of Irish people self-identify as Catholics, support for key Church teachings is at an all-time low.

During a meeting at the Vatican in 1946, Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini—the future Pope Paul VI—told Ireland’s ambassador to the Holy See, “You are the most Catholic country in the world!” The latest figures from the country’s census show that, in some respects at least, Ireland remains an overwhelmingly Catholic country.

Bucking a trend all across Western Europe, the census recorded that the Catholic population in Ireland rose by around 5 percent from 2006-2011. Eighty-four percent of Irish people now describe themselves as Catholic.

That headline figure, however, masks a Church in deep trouble, with many of her priests appearing to no longer hold the Catholic faith. This fact was noted in the report of the recent Apostolic Visitation to Ireland, which mentioned a “certain tendency, not dominant but nevertheless fairly widespread among priests, religious, and laity, to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings of the Magisterium.”

“This serious situation requires particular attention, directed principally towards improved theological formation,” the visitation report said, going on to point out that “it must be stressed that dissent from the fundamental teachings of the Church is not the authentic path towards renewal.”

Underlining the problem, a recent survey of Irish priests found that 60 percent of respondents wanted the Church to change its teaching to permit women priests. Just 30 percent of priests surveyed supported the Church’s teaching on this crucial issue.

One priest insisted that “women priests would have a lot to offer in many ways. They are good listeners, more understanding, and very sensitive to peoples’ needs.”

“Women priests are doing a great job in other Christian churches,” he insisted.

In the same survey, 78 percent of surveyed priests said they thought Catholic clergy ought to be allowed to get married. Sixty-seven percent said they felt Irish bishops were “too subservient” to the Holy See.

Perhaps exposing a fault line, however, 96 percent of those priests who responded had been ordained for more than 10 years. Anecdotal evidence suggests that younger priests are, by-and-large, more orthodox.

When the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP)—a liberal pressure group—was established almost two years ago, several younger priests signed “not in my name” letters distancing themselves from the group and its positions. However, the growth of the ACP has been rapid and the body now represents some 20 percent of the country’s 4,000 priests.

It was revealed this month that the ACP’s founder, Father Tony Flannery, is being investigated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The CDF has already prevented Father Flannery from writing in the monthly magazine Reality, published by his Redemptorist Order. Father Flannery has been a vocal critic of the Church’s ban on artificial birth control and has called for opening up discussion on questions like the ordination of women and mandatory celibacy for priests.

According to David Quinn, director of the religious think-tank the Iona Institute, the ACP represents a “sub-section of priests who want the Catholic Church to adopt the failed project of liberal Protestantism.”

According to Quinn, that project was to adapt Christianity to the ways of the world, or, “more accurately, to the ways of the liberal, secular elite who dominate Western societies.”

The ACP’s “manifesto” is a familiar litany. Policy stances include a “re-evaluation of Catholic sexual teaching and practice that recognizes the profound mystery of human sexuality and the experience and wisdom of God’s people,” as well as “a redesigning of ministry in the Church, in order to incorporate the gifts, wisdom, and expertise of the entire faith community, male and female.”

Mass attendance figures in Ireland remain relatively high (at least by western European standards). Recent research shows that 35 percent of Irish Catholics attend Mass at least once a week. That figure rises to 51 percent when one includes those Catholics who attend Mass at least once a month. Just 5 percent of Irish Catholics say they never attend Mass.

Professor Grace Davie, a British sociologist of religion, has described a phenomenon in her home country of “believing without belonging.” That is to say, many people have faith in God but are not members of a church or religious community. Conversely, in Ireland a recent survey suggests that many Irish Catholics may be “belonging without believing”—attending Mass regularly, but generally ignoring the Church’s teaching on a wide variety of issues.

A survey released April 12—carried out by the respected pollsters Amarach Research and commissioned by the priests’ association—showed that three out of four Irish Catholics find the Church’s teaching on sexuality “irrelevant.”

The figures, which were compiled from a sample of 1,000 Catholics and, according to researchers, have a margin of error of +/-3 percent, revealed that 80 percent of Catholics felt that the Church should continue to speak out on social issues. However, the survey reveals what theologian Dr. John Murray describes as “a wide disparity between what the Church teaches and what Irish Catholics actually believe.”

Eighty-seven percent believe that priests ought to be allowed to get married, while 77 percent say that the Church should admit women to the priesthood.

When asked, “To what extent do you agree with the Catholic Church’s teaching that any sexual expression of love between a gay couple is immoral?”, 61 percent of Catholics said they disagreed, while 18 percent believed homosexual acts to be immoral.

Just 5 percent of Catholics believe that divorced or separated Catholics in second unions should be denied Holy Communion, while 87 percent said they had no problem with the reception of Communion in these circumstances.

Father Sean McDonagh, a member of the leadership team of the ACP, told Catholic World Report that the survey “confirms that those who are advocating for change in the Church are not a tiny minority, but are, in fact, at the heart of the Church.”

Father McDonagh insists that Irish Catholics are “crying out for change and do not want the Church to go backwards, but to move forward and change.”

Dr. Murray, who lectures in theology at Dublin’s Mater Dei Institute, believes the survey reveals a “crisis in Catholic education.”

“Many Catholics in Ireland have never had a thorough presentation of exactly what the Church teaches and why it teaches what it does,” he told Catholic World Report.

Murray said he welcomes the survey “if it can lead to a discussion about the Church’s teaching.”

“There has been too little discussion of these issues in the past,” he said. “We are paying the price for this now—the Church’s teaching is largely misunderstood by many people in Ireland.”

Murray said he was “not surprised that many people have difficulties with some of the Church’s teaching.” However, he did say he questions the thinking behind the research.

“Is this to start a discussion about why many people reject the Church’s teaching, or is this part of a campaign to get the Church to change key teaching?” he asked.

Murray said that it had been his experience that “when people see the depth of the Church’s teaching, they understand and appreciate it much more.”

He warned that the Church “cannot sacrifice truth based on an opinion poll.”

Father Brendan Hoban, a well-known liberal priest in Ireland, thinks the poll reveals the solution to the problems faced by the Irish Church.

“We have been hearing these things in parishes for years and we hope that the Vatican will now listen,” he told Catholic World Report.

The situation has led Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin to warn of a climate of “undeclared heresy” in the Irish Church brought about by a failure to pass on the Faith.

In a 2011 interview, Archbishop Martin observed that “the crisis of the Irish Church is not simply a crisis related to sexual abuse of minors.”

“The crisis goes much deeper,” he said. “It is a crisis of faith, a crisis of transmission of the Faith, and in many cases a lack of understanding of the nature of the Church.”

The archbishop added: “Ireland is now a highly secularized society, and many look to the Church through a secularized lens, to the point that, in a sense, one could speak of what I call ‘a climate of undeclared heresy’ that pervades many dimensions of understanding of Faith among Catholics.”

Quite apart from the abuse scandals, many ordinary Catholics have succumbed to the prevailing relativism, as have many priests, seminaries, and theological institutes. There is a reason for this; the Catholic Church has become extremely bad at defending itself.

This lack of a defense has had its effect over time, as more and more Catholics have come to suspect that the relativists might be right after all and their Church wrong.

In this climate, David Quinn of the Iona Institute believes that Ireland does indeed need a priests’ association, but one that is explicit in its efforts to uphold the teaching of the Church.

“What we need is a priests’ association that will accept the challenge of defending the Church against the insistent attacks on it, that will set out in a calm and reasonable and compelling manner why the Church teaches what it teaches and why these teachings are humane and are what the world needs to remedy many of its ills, not least the collapse of the ethic of commitment and responsibility brought about by modern sexual morality,” Quinn said.

That’s a tall order—the climate of moral relativism and secularism is so pervasive in today’s Ireland, that even a concerted effort to better explain and defend what the Church has to say won’t reverse the Church’s fortunes in the short term. But, Quinn believes, “it will improve matters and it will help restore the morale of ordinary Catholics who are disheartened by seeing their Church constantly battered.”

There are already tentative signs that ordinary Catholics who cherish the faith of the Church are willing to step up to the plate. A new organization, known as Catholic Comment, is in its infancy. Independent of the Church hierarchy but fiercely loyal to the teaching of the Magisterium, the group aims to present the Church’s teaching in the media.

They aim to have talented and committed spokespersons available in time for the International Eucharistic Congress, which will be held in Dublin June 10-17. The congress will be the largest religious event in Ireland since Blessed Pope John Paul II’s historic visit in 1979. As he climbed aboard the papal plane leaving Ireland that bright October morning, John Paul turned toward the Emerald Isle for one last time. “Ireland, always faithful,” he said. “Semper fidelis!” He could never have imagined what lay ahead: a combination of secularism, a hierarchy muted by abuse scandals, and a weakening of faith has left Irish Catholicism in deep crisis and, at least for now, may have succeeded where centuries of persecution failed.

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About Michael Kelly 29 Articles
Michael Kelly is editor of the Irish Catholic, Ireland's best-selling religious newspaper.