Examining the Catholic Church in Ireland, past, present and future

Book edited by Iowa scholars covers broad range of topics from secularism to demographic trends and clerical abuse

You wouldn't think the first interdisciplinary examination of the contemporary Catholic Church in Ireland by American-based scholars would come out of Dubuque, Iowa. It seems like something that should come from places with deeper (or at least more popular) Irish-American roots, such as Boston, New York, South Bend.

But we’re delighted to say Loras College in Dubuque claims the honour. As a school with a growing programme in Irish Studies, Loras has been sending students to Dublin for almost 15 years, and during that time it has been building relationships with Irish educators and scholars. One result has been the recently-released volume, The Catholic Church in Ireland Today, which we were fortunate to edit and publish with Lexington Books, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

The book grew out of a symposium on contemporary Irish Catholicism that featured Irish, Canadian, and American experts who gathered at Loras College last March. This was the first comprehensive and interdisciplinary exploration of the topic of its kind in the United States, and it showcased both a broad range of perspectives and a lively exchange of ideas designed to reach various audiences, from teachers and students to pastors and parish workers.

The book opens in the same way the symposium did, with introductory chapters by Eamon Maher, of the Institute of Technology in Tallaght, and Fr John Littleton, of the Priory Institute in Tallaght. As two established scholars in the areas of Irish Catholic faith and culture (who also have worked with Loras College faculty and students in the past), their essays provide readers with three important features: an overview of the current state of the Irish Catholic Church, an analysis of the complex changes in Irish life that have produced this state of affairs, and reflections on its future directions.


Subsequent contributors respond to the chapters by Maher and Littleton and develop their observations. Some of these chapters take a social scientific approach to examine topics such as the impact of demographic trends (especially religious practices and beliefs for different age cohorts); morale levels and political roles among Irish priests; and the experiences of Polish priests who have migrated to Ireland.

Others draw on literary or religious studies to explore topics such as the changing role of Irish missionaries, shifting Irish theological visions, and contemplative practices within the Irish Church. Many essays in the book address the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger, growing secularism within Irish culture, and, of course, multiple dimensions of the abuse crisis.

Taken together, the essays introduce and explore several important themes. The first arises from the American context for both the 2014 symposium and the book. As several chapters point out, problems confronting American Catholicism such as declining Mass attendance, fallout from sexual abuse scandals, changing social norms, shrinking vocations, and so on, face the Irish Church as well, but in Ireland the pace of these problems seems accelerated.

The forces challenging Catholicism in other parts of the world were in some ways held back longer in Ireland, where the Church enjoyed more devotional loyalty, cultural power, and political influence. In what one of the book’s contributors, Michele Dillon, calls “compressed secularism”, these previously pent-up challenges have brought rapid changes to Irish and Catholic life in recent decades.

In a second theme to the collected essays, writers investigate how that rapid pace of change in Irish Catholicism has been matched by deep, national impact. Take the abuse crisis for instance. In the United States, where Catholicism has always been a minority religion, incidents of sexual abuse has largely been viewed a problem within the Church. But in Ireland, with its Catholic majority, historical links between Catholicism and nationalism, and close Church-State connections, the problem has affected national identity as well.

This sense of national change seems to be even more urgent as a result of globalisation, felt in many ways but especially through new migration patterns that are bringing a world-wide Church to Ireland’s doorstep. As an increasingly multi-ethnic/multi-racial Catholic population emerges in Ireland, a host of pastoral challenges arise that involve matters from language to custom and tradition.

The third theme of the volume looks to the future. While the dominant of image of Irish Catholicism is of a Church in crisis, contributors to The Catholic Church in Ireland Today have also been struck by signs of resilience and renewal within the faith.

The Irish Church today is still marked by relatively high levels of religious adherence and participation compared to most of its fellow European countries. Two of the book’s contributors, Elizabeth Oldmixon and Brian Calfano, find most Irish Catholic priests do not feel “burned-out” and report reasonably high levels of job satisfaction, in line with ministers in other religious traditions.

Another contributor, Bernadette Flanagan, finds a lively spirituality still at work within the Church, one that can now be informed by practices from other cultures as well as from the country’s own past.

Throughout the essays, the writers agree the potential is great for an Irish Catholicism that otherwise stands liberated from long relationships to political power and social privilege. Using various approaches, the contributors assert that this is a time of tremendous opportunity for Catholicism, a time when it can discover both a more authentic and prophetic voice in Irish belief and practice.

As Eamon Maher notes, invoking the example of Pope Francis in the conclusion to his chapter, such change might well serve as a way to "attract people back to the loving embrace of a Church that seems to have lost its way".