Ireland and the end of cultural Catholicism

In a global village and a global Church where ethnic identities are dissolving, cultural Catholicism is also disintegrating.

The ruins of Bective Abby , a Cistercian abbey on the River Boyne in Bective, County Meath, Ireland. (Jonathan Bowers @jbowersphotography | Unsplash.com)

The vote to allow abortion in Ireland has revealed what we already knew–that Ireland’s Catholic faith has eroded, and the once great and powerful Irish church has become a husk of what it once was.

I am no expert on Ireland, Irish history or the Irish church, but I expect the malaise has the same roots as the decline of the institutional church not only in the other European countries, but also in the decline of cultural Catholicism in the United States.

I understood the impact and influence of cultural Christianity when I was a minister in the Church of England. We used to joke that “C of E” meant “church of everybody” and that people would greet you in the street and say, “Oh, you’re the vicar of St Chad’s? Yes. That’s the church I don’t attend.”

They hadn’t a clue what Christianity was about, but there was a sense that the big old musty medieval building in the middle of the town was somehow “their church” because they were English and after all, it’s the Church of England right?

When I was a Catholic in England it was different. Catholicism was not the national church so you had to belong intentionally either because you were Irish or you were a convert or you were one of those rare birds, an English cradle Catholic…even so your parents or grandparents were either Irish or converts or you might be one of those even rarer birds–a descendent of one of the great recusant families.

Either way, you were Catholic and you were different, and that is a healthy way to be a Christian.

On returning to the States, I was blessed to come to the Diocese of Charleston which comprises the whole state of South Carolina where Catholics are still a suspect minority. Even with the recent growth of Catholicism in the South we are no more than about 5 percent of the population.

Only when I traveled to the cultural Catholic strongholds of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago did I begin to realize the vast difference between South Carolina Catholicism and Catholicism in the solidly Catholic Northeast. There, like the Irish, the Church had vast holdings of real estate. I visited huge (mostly empty) seminaries, convents, and monasteries. Huge (mostly empty) churches sat on the corner of campuses where once stood the rectory, the convent, the parish school, the high school, the church social hall, and all the rest of the facilities of a wealthy, dynamic, and muscular church.

It was cultural Catholicism that built these great parishes and dioceses in the Northern cities, just like it was cultural Catholicism that strengthened the Catholic Church in Ireland. The fact that the immigrants were members of a minority group and their religion was a minority, strengthened both identities and helped them build a strong Catholicism.

But the problem was that their Catholicism was too linked to their national or ethnic culture. They were Catholic because they were Polish or because they were Italian or because they were Irish or Portuguese, and when, after a few generations, they stopped being Irish, Polish, or Italian and were just American, they also stopped being Catholic.

This accounts for the huge departure of so many American Catholics to either Protestantism or the golf course. When their culture became affluent suburban America rather than Irish or Polish or Italian, they chose a church that suited their new culture better–a nice, respectable suburban Protestant church…..and as a side note, observe how in the post-war period so many Catholic parishes also became nice, snug suburban churches— pretty much indistinguishable from their Protestant neighbors.

What’s the old saying? “America is a Protestant country. Even the Catholics are Protestant.”

The same collapse of cultural Catholicism can be seen in Ireland. As long as the Irish had a strong national identity–especially as opposed to the hated English–they banded together and they clung to their Catholicism as part of that distinctive identity. Once they joined the European Union and the English turned out to be much more friendly, their strong Irish identity got watered down and their Catholicism with it. When they stopped being Irish, the stopped being Catholic.

When this cultural phenomenon is combined with poor catechesis, the culture of privilege and power among the clergy, the financial and moral corruption of the Church–no wonder Irish Catholicism is sinking fast.

With the rapid advance of mobility and instant global communications, national cultures are disappearing. In a global village and a global Church where ethnic identities are dissolving, cultural Catholicism is also disintegrating.

And is that such a bad thing?

This is why I would offer the phenomenon of Catholicism in the American South as an interesting model for the future.

In our town of Greenville, South Carolina there is virtually no cultural Catholicism. Yes, there is an Order of Old Hibernians who keep the Irish culture alive, and the Hispanics treasure their cultural links with the faith, as do the Vietnamese, but these are minor currents.

The majority of Catholics in the Southern USA are Catholics not because they are Irish or Italian or Polish, but because they’re Catholic.

Our parish is typical, and has a wonderful mix of people from a range of cultural backgrounds: French, Nigerian, Polish, Italian, Irish, Philippino, English, Scottish, Vietnamese, El Salvadoran, Mexican…you name it.

In my opinion, the death of cultural Catholicism can’t come too soon.

From it will emerge not only a smaller and more vibrant Church, but also a Church that is truly multi-racial and multi-national…and surely that’s an important part of what it means to be Catholic.

But to push this further, what is it that will bind us all together? If it is not our shared Irish, Polish, Vietnamese, or Hispanic culture–what is it?

Here’s a radical thought: what if the thing the drew us together was a dynamic new appreciation of our shared Catholic culture? One of the interesting things we have discovered in building a new church in our parish in Greenville South Carolina is that it is our ancient Catholic traditions that unite us.

The beauty of our traditionally styled Romanesque church is appreciated by everyone from all cultural backgrounds. Yes, the architecture is rooted in twelfth-century Italian tradition, but then so is the music, the art, and liturgy of the Church.

All of this is not so much Italian as Catholic. The Gregorian chant and plainsong, like the Romanesque architecture, is timeless and transcends culture. It also transcends the post-Vatican II “American Catholic” culture of folk music, fan-shaped carpeted churches, bland homilies, and the faux egalitarianism that shapes the liturgy.

Those who argue for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass have some good points and some weak points, but one of their strong points is that a uniform liturgy and language is important because it transcends individual cultural or aesthetic choices in liturgy and therefore unites all of the faithful.

I don’t propose any magic solutions, but I predict that over the next few decades we will see cultural Catholicism continue to fade away and a smaller, more vibrant church will emerge in which traditional architecture, music, and liturgy proclaim to the world a Catholicism that looks, feels and smells Catholic (don’t forget the incense) and is therefore firm in its identity not as Irish or Polish or Italian or Suburban American, but as Catholic–nothing more and nothing less.


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About Fr. Dwight Longenecker 4 Articles
Fr Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He blogs at Standing on My Head on Patheos and is the author of several books, including Slubgrip Instructs: Fifty Days with the Devil. Browse his other books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.

38 Comments

  1. As one who came from the culturally Catholic north, and who now resides in the culturally Christian south, it is a more vibrant Catholicism, especially here in Charleston. It’s healthy to stand out from our Christian brothers, and explain to them our history, our similarities and our differences.

    • As my grandpa from Cork like to say: “be careful what you wish for because you just might get it…” One of the oldest Irish legends has it that St. Padraig cut a deal with God about the Irish. “Ireland would never see the end of the world, as long as they kept the faith.” Well, the pro-infanticide people got what they wanted, but broke Padraig’s deal with God.

  2. A time to love, a time to hate, a time for war, a time for peace. Memorial Day seems sadder than previous. Fr Longenecker muses [correctly] the death of Catholicism in Ireland has its roots in the decline of cultural Catholicism in the United States. And elsewhere. King Solomon mused writing Qoheleth attributing cyclic futility to God’s allowance. For our good. The important matter he muses is to live a just life, a good life in simple satisfied humility. Though we’ve lost even that I wonder that God would have it that way. The death of Ireland’s soul typical worldwide will have an aftermath. If the wisdom of Qoheleth follows the current war against Christ’s Mystical Body will be followed by peace. But it will not be in Memoriam. Christus Vincit, Christus Regnat, Christus Imperat.

  3. Oh, take it one step further. What caused the corrosion of the American Catholic culture in the strongholds you cite? Politics. The Church was infiltrated here, and in Ireland.

    Catholics haven’t suddenly become pro abortion en masse. They have been beguiled by their leadership, which has long since sold itself to the purveyors of glory.

  4. “But the problem was that their Catholicism was too linked to their national or ethnic culture. They were Catholic because they were Polish or because they were Italian or because they were Irish or Portuguese, and when, after a few generations, they stopped being Irish, Polish or Italian and were just American, they also stopped being Catholic.” That’s a bit simplistic. I live near to a small city in New England where the Portuguese community is still quite Portuguese in language and culture but has seen the closure of Portuguese parishes; yet it still has numerous cultural festivals and plenty of pub chairs available to watch Benfica. Also, I know a parish which was traditionally French which still has a lot of French people even though the local Franco-American club has five members. It appears more likely that many of the ethnic people who remained Catholic did so because they were Catholic, not because they were ethnic.

    • Yes. I agree with you. It is not only a bit simplistic, but it seems to be not the right way of approaching the main (big) problem. Thus no, I’d say that, while this piece is very well written and in good and healthy optimism, I also will say that I disagree with the way of thinking that the “problem was that their Catholicism was too linked to their national or ethnic culture.”

      A numerous national and ethnic cultures of many Catholic Nations are rather richness and great treasure for Catholic Church and all mankind on Earth, than a problem. That richness of the beauty of the diversity is the purpose for which we differ. And we (all the Nations) should preserve, nurture and defend his own treasure, which is widely known under the term – Tradition!

      As we, as Catholic Nations have (had) that kind of diversely national traditions, and folklore, we also have (had) as Catholic Nations, as the parts of one Mystical Body – Christ’s Church, much more beautiful, but also very, immensely more important,- non-diversely but unique, uniform, universal, apostolic and Catholic FAITH and LITURGY.
      Our CATHOLIC FAITH and certainly our HOLY LITURGY, namely the Mass of All Ages, the TLM, given to us as the most important gift from our Lord and for our very own sake, which was keept, preserved and saved by the Christ’s faithful ones (once), maintained for 15 centuries long the same,… until the 60’s of the last century and the non-famous Vatican 2 council,…
      Thus, the Holy Mass – with ONE and the same official Church language, which was and still is,- the LATIN, WAS AND STILL IS THAT WHAT IN FIRST PLACE MUST HAVE NEVER BEEN ABOLISHED AND EVEN PROHIBITED.
      We are not the Babylonians, therefore we ALL around the whole world, should and must celebrate and serve our God the Lord in one and the same language – LATIN language, the official language of the Catholic Church.
      With which beautiful diversity and a lot of folklore and traditions of all different Catholic Nations, have nothing to do.
      It is not America, European Union, Africa, or whatever country or continent that we wish to make it “great”, – but we all should do our best effort to make the Kingdom of our God the Lord- great again! Even on this earth. Entire Earth. Greater than America, Europa, Russia, Africa, Antarctica…

      • Ivan – thanks for your comment. I agree that TLM should be held in high honor in the Latin Rite. And a Church that honored its Tradition would be more united and a stronger force against the progressive secular culture.

      • Language, whatever it is since Vatican II, must, first and foremost express the Truth. We hear far too much pablum from the pulpit and in the public square, and very little of the hard counter-cultural Truth so sorely needed in the face of the dominant secularism that pervades Western culture.

  5. Fr. Morello – No mention of the clerical abuse scandal? Would that not have a terrible effect on the Church? I am of Irish descent and a practicing Catholic.

    • It’s that habit of refusing to acknowledge it, discuss it, own up to it, suffer for it — but that eagerness to pay for it — that despicable habit — that alienates people of good will.

    • I assumed that was included in the phrase “moral corruption.” But, yes, that played such a huge role (I believe) in alienating the recent generation of Irish from the Church that perhaps it shouldn’t be hidden in generalities.

      I can’t help but be stricken by the fact that Satan played his hand perfectly in Ireland. First, a focused artillery barrage in the form of revealing the “financial and moral corruption” in the Church worldwide, including the Irish Church. The media and other of the devil’s (witting or unwitting) minions facilitated the devastating effects of this attack by ignoring the same exact scandals in other areas of culture and society (other religions, schools, politics, etc., etc., etc.) This succeeded in painting the institutional Church — justly or not — as nothing more than a club for perverts and pedophiles. Once the Church’s moral authority and credibility had been completely destroyed, time was ripe for the main attack. Ireland was specifically targeted with tons of Soros-esque money and propaganda, and the organs of opinion were very successfully able to manufacture broad consent to the idea that the opposition to abortion, and not abortion itself, was a national disgrace. Still high on the fumes of economic success, and infatuated like a schoolgirl with their new paramours in the EU, coupled with rotten catechesis and a Church that had allowed its litury to devolve into a lame spectacle of the church-of-nice, what happened with homosexual marriage and abortion was a foregone conclusion. The Irish have been played like a harp. Welcome the the modern world (i.e., hell).

    • Certainly Terrance. Homosexual abuse of minors by clergy and with other adults is perhaps the major catalyst for the Apostasy affecting the entire Church. The recent scandals in Ireland involving prelates has reinforced a long developing rejection of Catholicism. You can read into that in some of the great Irish writers James Joyce’s Ulysses, The Dead from The Dubliners, and recently Frank McCourts’ Angela’a Ashes. I spent time in Ireland recovering from malaria in my return from Africa and the experience was of a then very Catholic faithful people. There’s been a sea change since there and elsewhere except Africa. The African church is alive and well and resistant to the liberal West including the trend to sanitize homosexuality.

    • I think that is exactly what precipitated this vote. Couple the abuse scandal with the treatment women received while imprisoned at the Laundries, the adoption scandals where mother either had no choice or wasn’t even told, the deaths of hundred/thousands of infants either naturally or unnaturally buried in unmarked graves at best. The RCC has devastated Irish catholic culture, and people are no longer listening to what the church says even when they speak what is right and true. Yes, this whole vote was about rejecting the RCC and all they have done. The big question is how does everyone move forward here.

      • All those supposed scandals you speak of were exaggerated fakes. And the Irish bought it hook line and sinker.

        • I was just trying to find solid information about those alleged mass graves at the mother and child home, and there *isn’t* any. There’s an “official report” that is only an outline of background and a proposal for action to be taken, with some ground probes of the former grounds of the home. And then there are a lot of lurid headlines making all sorts of claims based on almost no evidence.

  6. “I visited huge (mostly empty) seminaries, convents and monasteries. Huge (mostly empty) churches sat on the corner of campuses where once stood the rectory, the convent, the parish school, the high school, the church social hall and all the rest of the facilities of a wealthy, dynamic and muscular church.

    “It was cultural Catholicism that built these great parishes and dioceses in the Northern cities, just like it was cultural Catholicism that strengthened the Catholic Church in Ireland. The fact that the immigrants were members of a minority group and their religion was a minority, strengthened both identities and helped them build a strong Catholicism.”

    Somehow, it sounds as if you are denigrating the Catholics who built those churches, seminaries, convents, and monasteries by implying that it was only because they were “culturally Catholic” (which you look at as a bad thing) that these now-empty buildings were built. And you blame the emptiness on their increasing identification with being American rather than being Polish Catholic or Irish Catholic or Whatever Catholic. I think that’s an uncalled-for insult to the devotion of those people. When did the emptiness come along? After they became “more American,” or after the disastrous mess that is the “spirit of Vatican II” was loosed on the Church? I live in a town that once had German Catholic churches and Irish Catholic churches, but long before this emptiness they were no longer German or Irish, just Catholic.

    You throw a sop to the Catholics who prefer the Tridentine Mass and then mention their “weak points” without specifying them. I’d say their good points must overwhelm whatever those weak points might be.

    You say “and as a side note, observe how in the post war period so many Catholic parishes also became nice, snug suburban churches.” The growth of suburbs happened after the war, so naturally they built churches in the suburbs, so the “suburban” part can’t be the problem. It’s the “nice, snug” that irks you. I wonder exactly what the timeline for the hideous un-Catholic modern churches is? Postwar, or post-conciliar? I’ve read Michael Rose’s Ugly as Sin but I don’t remember if there’s a timeline.

    “the big old musty medieval building in the middle of the town was somehow “their church” because they were English and after all, its’s the Church of England right?”

    Yeah – stolen form the Catholic Church that built it.

    • Well observed.
      The richness of beauty of diversity of many different Catholic nations is not problem at all! That are cultural traditions, which must be kept and even deffend.
      The problem was and still is the false spirit of the V2 and its babilonian-protestant ‘makeover’ of the most sacred ever given to us, by God Himself, namely the TLM aka The Holy Mass of all Ages!
      Right THERE all different Catholic cultures and Nations were the ONE and the SAME! As they all, in fact, are and must be the one same, uniform, universal, Catholic,- before God!

    • Real living faith that sanctifies and transforms culture is very different from cultural Catholicism. Cultural Catholicism is akin to running a car on fumes; eventually it will sputter to a halt.

  7. What shaped culture Catholicism was not ethnicity, it was the faith and devotion of Catholics.What we can see immediately as a result of religious and moral relativism, is chaos, rampant grave sin and suffering.What then can the Church offer to suffering souls, if She also was taken by the world? Problems within the Church were way before Vatican II,low attendance to Mass, poorly catechised Catholics,etc. There were many reasons for that, thus Vatican II was called for, and yet many abuses ensued.You left out the clergy sexual abuse, and as I see it was one of the main reasons for Catholics to leave the Church.And it is not a “cozy”, multicultural church that will fix that.

  8. I think St. John the Baptist addressed cultural religion when he said:

    “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:9-10)

    This passage might also explain the great pruning/purging that is taking place in our institutions which have largely relied on cultural Catholicism these last 50 years. Many will be closed down in the next 20 years. Like Pope Benedict said, the future Church is a smaller more faithful one.

  9. One of the things that united us was that the Mass was the same everywhere, in Latin; no matter where you went in the world.

    “Gotta have the Mass in my very own language” sounds a lot like dumping Catholic culture for local culture.

  10. If you want to see a strong and vibrant Catholic Church with a healthy number of seminarians, passionate priests with good homilie and a high daily Mass attendance, come to North Dakota. Father Longenecker has been here to speak at our Thirst conference, so he understands.

  11. The Catholic Church will survive, as it has through many trials and controversies throughout history. As long as we have a group of little old ladies praying the rosary, the Church will be alright. Oh and by the way, those little old ladies are lately being replaced and/or joined by young people. Those same young people also are very much present at the packed TLM Mass I attend. The ten young and faithful altar servers are the future of the Church, many of them considering the priesthood. Do not lose hope. We always have hope, and its name is Jesus.

  12. The situation of Ireland is more dire than just a loss of “cultural Catholicism”. Over the last four decades there has been an active embrace of a nihilistic form of secularism. The outward manifestation of this exploded in the 90s when it was revealed that Bishop Casey had a secret mistress and a child. A large percentage of “cultural Catholics” almost immediately renounced the Church, both visible and invisible. There was a sense that they were awaiting the right sort of scandal and pounced. Ireland’s unique history empowered the Catholic hierarchy and many rank and file clergy to develop into a complacent and smug elite perhaps only rivaled by the Soviet nomenklatura. Once Irish nationalism waned they were exposed as a self satisfied elite quickly being deprived of authority. There is also the tragedy of Irish provincialism poined out by among others the poet Patrick Kavanagh. There is a deep insecurity in the Irish people which seeks the approval of the European cultural elite. Tragically these factors combine to make them prime fodder for the cultural experimentation that the German and Brussels Eurocrats have planned for them.

  13. I was once told that St. Patrick asked a favour from God.
    If Ireland loses the Faith would he (God) allow it to sink into the sea!

  14. Into the sea, yes, but possibly not before California and the whole west coast of the USA!

  15. I’ve lived in the New Orleans area, which was steeped in Catholic popular culture but devotions and customs counted for more than doctrine or morality. Later, I witnessed the last generation of intense ethnic Catholicism in the Chicago area. (Young folk may be surprised to hear that mid 20th century Chicago was a vibrant diocese bubbling with lay apostolates as well as strong Church institutions.) Recent visits to the South–last Sunday’s Mass at the majestic new cathedral of Raleigh NC–persuade me that Fr. Longenecker is on to something. Maybe we’ll be better off as smaller communities of intentional disciples.

  16. I would urge Fr. Longenecker and the posters on this page to see Wim Wenders’ remarkable film “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word,” if they have not already done so. Francis is as near-perfect exemplar of a truly catholic Catholicism as we’re likely to see: open and accepting of humanity in all its racial, cultural, and sexual diversity, not at all rigid or doctrinaire, genuinely humble, a voice for equality and justice, a man for others. If we’ve been waiting for a St. Francis for our time, let us rejoice and be glad; we’ve got one.

    • “open and accepting of humanity in all its racial, cultural, and sexual diversity,”

      Are you deranged? So one should be “open and accepting” to any sexual perversion that wanders down the pike, and that’s what Christianity should be?

      God help us.

        • If you have even so much as the sense God gave a grapefruit, you know that while we cannot judge souls we can certainly judge actions. Or would you look at someone stealing, murdering, abusing a child, torturing an animal, or some other such action and say, “Who am I to judge?”

    • And what defines that as “truly Catholic Catholicism”? Pope Francis is an example of liberation theology, with all its pitfalls. While he looks the other way, Christian civilization continues to spiral downward. I can pray only that we survive this Papacy. It would be different if his actions had the air of a strategy to actually bring people back into alignment with the faith, but, alas, no such air exists.

      We have spent far too long tolerating far too much depravity. Far too much perversion. And suffering far too much because of it. What we need is a Pope who will lead an unapologetic return to orthodoxy and belief in traditional Christian morality.

      • I said “catholic Catholicism,” not “Catholic Catholicism.” What would that be–more Catholic than the pope? My point is that Francis’ spiritual generosity is universal in its scope, transcending any ethnic or cultural Catholicism. As Fr. Longenecker says, the latter won’t be missed.

        Does a preference for the poor and opposition to materialist consumerism = liberation theology? That’s probably where Francis’ critique of our culture is most mordant.

  17. No more ethno-cultural Catholics, but Yankee Catholics, or eventually globalist Catholics. Not a good progression.

  18. +J.M.J.
    Fading of cultural Catholicism? What I’ve seen and encountered over the years is suppression of Church teaching in schools, parishes, and even in home school support groups, with everything allowed except Church teaching, with no consideration of freedom of association rights,and health consequences of forced social isolation. CERC has a fancy article about Belloc as Defender of the Faith, and that’s great. However, why are there not Catholic literary conferences, so that Catholics can discuss Hilaire Belloc’s The Path to Rome, in conjunction with Church documents (e.g,: this work can be examined in conjunction with Catholic Scriptures, Catechism of the Catholic Church, that famous encyclical of Pope St. Pius X against modernism, Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII (reportedly favorite encyclical of Belloc), and the Sayings of Light and Love from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross)? People might also like the opportunity to hear a lecture in person and chat about Tolkien, Chesterton, Paul Claudel, opera such as Dialogue of the Carmelites by Poulenc, and maybe view a saint play or film (e.g., Therese film or St. Maximilian Kolbe play presented by St. Luke Productions), or Gregorian chant. Thanks for your consideration.
    In caritate Christi,
    Mrs. Richard Avian (Carol Avian)

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