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.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!