The Irish Catholic: How we differ from the German, Italian and Polish churches
When did Irish Catholics finally stop fearing the belt of the crozier? Was it in 1992, when they were forced to confront the tragedy of the raped and pregnant 14-year-old girl in the X case? Or after the 2009 Murphy report, when Mary O’Rourke spoke scathingly of the nuncio “parading around Ireland in his wonderful glitzy clothes but not replying to letters”? Or was it the spectacle of a fearful, perspiring Cardinal Seán Brady being torn apart in interviews after revelations about his role in the interrogation of a boy who had been abused by a priest?
The whiplash speed of bishops’ fall is awesome. Now the Catholic Church no longer acts as a “sacred canopy” for social, political and economic life, says Prof Tom Inglis of the school of social science at University College Dublin.
“The main change now is in fear,” says Inglis. “There was a sense in which the church was an authority to be obeyed, and there was a fear of not being obedient. Then you moved into a phase where it wasn’t obeyed and it was respected. And now it has moved into a phase where the institutional church is not respected.”
In an academic paper in 2007, Inglis asked: “Are Irish Catholics becoming more like their fellow European Catholics and Protestants . . . ‘believing without belonging’?”
But how different are we from our fellow Europeans? European Catholics were always extraordinarily diverse in their practice and belief, says Inglis. “The French were more like the Spanish, but both were quite different from the Italians and the Irish. Poland and Malta were in a league of their own.”
The Roman Catholic Church markets itself like Coca-Cola, the same the world over, says Derek Scally, the Berlin-based correspondent of The Irish Times. But anyone who has travelled, even just around continental Europe, knows this is far from the case.
A point that rarely gets an airing is the fact that “the” church in Ireland is just “a” church, “a product of the often stifling intellectual climate in which it exists”. On one of his first visits to Poland, Scally almost laughed out loud when a Polish friend mentioned that he was a member of the Club of Catholic Intellectuals. The idea of Catholic intellectuals seemed hilarious.
But when Polish people needed a bulwark against the communist authorities, the Catholic Church offered people a place to meet and an alternative space to think. It remains the case today: one of Poland’s leading weekly publications is a Catholic newspaper.
Scally notes a similar tale from east German friends, though the German Catholic Church has, since Luther, occupied a place as a “minority” faith. It now runs the gamut from hard-core conservatives to far-out reformists, a trend also evident in Ireland.
In Germany, too, there are pitched battles between the two sides, says Scally, “but it is an energetic reflection of the society in which the church exists”. The Catholic Church there faces the same challenges as in Ireland – falling attendance, financial challenges and an à la carte attitude to its teachings – but it remains engaged with society.