Is post-Catholic Ireland unable to make sense of its Christian culture?

Perhaps the sacred and the secular are not as diametrically opposed as is often assumed

In his new book, The Best Catholics in The World, Derek Scally, moonlighting from his day job as this newspaper's Berlin correspondent, poses a number of thought-provoking questions about the implosion of Irish Catholicism since the 1990s.

How should Irish people understand their own history, and the intertwining responsibilities of State, church and individuals for abuses, crimes and cover-ups? Why was Ireland so particularly repressive and closed? What made conformity such a social imperative? Why did people go along with it? Who were the winners and losers? In the absence of its previously dominating presence, what takes its place? And why did it all go on for so bloody long?

The book benefits from the perspective of an author who’s spent the past 20 years outside the country, and can bring his experience of Germany’s own struggles with its past to the questions he wants to ask about Ireland. One personal epiphany happens at an exhibition of Communist-era artefacts.

“I did a double-take in front of a huge photograph on the wall of a May Day march in 1980s East Berlin,” he writes. “The sea of colourful polyester uniforms and flags reminded me of something.” The something was the Catholic ceremonies of his own childhood in the 1980s on the northside of Dublin. It’s not a parallel received with much enthusiasm in Scally’s home country; he describes the stony-faced reception it received at a conference in Limerick. But it’s easy to misunderstand as an insulting comparison what is actually a challenge to learn how other societies have interrogated the complexities and moral grey areas of the past.(It also notes, possibly for the first time, the role played by synthetic fabrics in late-stage Catholicism.)

Irish variant

In media, this whole subject is generally branded as a “social” issue and covered in the news and opinion pages. But the question of how this country’s culture has been shaped by a very specifically Irish variant of Catholicism, and how it has been affected by its disappearance, has barely been addressed. Irish artists were at the forefront of internal resistance to the confessional State when it was still in its pomp, and many suffered for their impertinence. But, unlike other mostly Catholic countries, Ireland never had a strong, anti-clerical mass popular movement.

In retrospect, that was unfortunate for believers and non-believers alike. It would at least have offered an opportunity to examine some assumptions about the relationship between the sacred and the secular that remain unchallenged to this day despite the precipitous decline into apathy and near-irrelevance that Scally depicts.

The British historian Tom Holland, in his book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, argues that the most important ethical, cultural and political assumptions of contemporary western societies remain Christian in origin. That includes both secularism and atheism.

"Most people forget secularism is a distinctive Christian idea and it's not remotely neutral," he told The Irish Times in 2019.

“How we conceptualise sexual relations, the nature of the family, our ability to comprehend deep time, even the nature of belief and unbelief: all of these are mediated entirely through a kind of Christian filter. And insofar as we look at classical philosophy, we look at it through Christian eyes.”

Compelling case

That view may be contested in some quarters, but Holland makes a pretty compelling case. If he’s correct, then the current Irish moment of Catholic sort-of-collapse, with its sort-of Catholic parents sending their children to sort-of Catholic schools, does no favours to our capacity, no matter what our beliefs, to understand the enormous breadth and richness of meaning of the Christian traditions that continue to shape our lives.

You’ll usually find this argument being made by culturally conservative Catholic commentators who decry what they see as the erasure of Christianity by dogmatic secularists. But, even apart from the endless revelations of crimes and scandals, some of the fault for that erasure also lies with the “polyester” post-Vatican II Catholicism of the 1970s and 1980s, which Scally wryly describes, with its infantilising textbooks, disastrous aesthetics and general air of kitsch naffness. And atheists should be just as concerned as Christians that centuries of art, culture and philosophy have been reduced to banal slogans that wouldn’t be out of place on a Hallmark card.

“Banishing Ireland’s particular brand of conservative, clerical Catholicism is a natural, overdue response to that system’s intolerance, abuses and outgrowths,” Scally points out. “But this approach to the past does not resolve its legacy: not in how we lived then and how we live now.”

That resolution still seems a long way off.