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.

German newspapers dissect the Easter and Christmas homilies of bishops and priests anxious to have something relevant and intellectually interesting to say. Last year, three bestselling German books had Catholic themes; one was a very readable critique of globalisation and the financial crisis by Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich. In Ireland, the reporting of homilies is mainly limited to any content on clerical child abuse.

In Italy, by contrast, the vast swathe of opinion about the Italian Catholic Church and the Vatican is one of devastating cynicism, according to Paddy Agnew, this newpaper’s Rome-based correspondent. Although this might chime with some Irish Catholics, the roots are entirely different.

Italian Catholicism remains hugely active in Italian politics. When the media tycoon and former centre-right prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, desperately wanted to persuade the former Christian Democrat UDC party to join his shaky government coalition in the summer of 2010, his closest collaborators contrived a very political dinner party. In attendance were Berlusconi’s right-hand man, Gianni Letta; the then governor of the Bank of Italy, Mario Draghi; the banker Cesare Geronzi; the UDC leader Pier Ferdinando Casini; and the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Berlusconi’s men hoped that, in such a context, Cardinal Bertone’s presence would twist Casini’s arm.

Even in the age of Bertie Ahern’s public wearing of the Ash Wednesday ashes, it would have been difficult to imagine such a scene here.

Long before the Holy See was caught up in the current turbulence of arrests, media leaks and bitter internal wrangling, many Italians, whether Catholic or not, had expressed reservations about Cardinal Bertone’s political activism. Many questioned the morality of the Italian Catholic Church’s cosy relationship with Berlusconi, given his much-publicised excesses.

In the Irish church, these are not the issues that come up for discussion. The child-abuse scandals will not vanish easily. Nor will the debates relating to school patronage and the wealth of religious orders.

Meanwhile, many Irish priests and laity insist there is healthy life in the Irish Catholic Church, pointing to the churches that are packed for novenas and the annual uniquely Irish penitential rites, such as pilgrimages to Lough Derg or Croagh Patrick, which remain popular.

And ordinary, decent Catholics are now behaving and believing in ways readily recognisable to their European-mainland counterparts. Inglis quotes a study showing that 17 per cent of Irish Catholics did not believe in life after death and 44 per cent did not believe in hell. But a high proportion still went to Mass about once a month or more. “Is this evidence of new type of Catholic who likes to go to Mass for the experience and sense of community – a case of belonging without believing?”

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