Church's loss of authority started in 1950s, says academic


Parnell Summer School: The extent of the recent decline in the Irish Catholic Church's authority can be blamed in part on the nature of its power in the early years of the State, the Parnell Summer School has been told.

While the sex scandals of the 1990s were "enormously damaging", school participants heard, the Church's loss of authority can be traced to the 1950s, when its influence was greatest. This was the beginning of the end for "a particular kind of Catholicism, which contained the seeds of its own demise".

The claim was made by Dr Louise Fuller, academic and author of Irish Catholicism Since 1950: The Undoing of a Culture. The eve of the 1951 Mother and Child crisis was the high water mark of ecclesiastical power, Dr Fuller said. And yet even among Catholic clerics at that time, dissenting voices were already arguing that the Church's dominance in Irish life was not as healthy as it seemed.

Contributors to magazines such as The Furrow and Christus Rex "challenged the idea that the high level of religious practice was an index of the nation's spiritual health". Ireland's strict Catholicism was supported in many cases by legislation, and protected by censorship. The writers feared that such a faith could not withstand the "secular ideas and culture, and the era of mass communications" that was coming. In the event, the legislative and constitutional support structure for Catholicism would be "dismantled in just 40 years", Dr Fuller said. The turning point was Dr Noel Browne's decision to hand the newspapers all correspondence on the Mother and Child Scheme between himself, the taoiseach, and the Church. This move marked "a widening of the sub-culture of dissent" in Ireland.

An Irish Times editorial commented: "The Roman Catholic Church would seem to be the effective government of the country." Seán Lemass's defiance of the bishops over the 1959 Intoxicating Liquor Bill was another milestone. But a more profound change came with the Second Vatican Council, the democratic style of which was "in stark contrast to the legalistic model that had obtained until then". One of the messages of Vatican II was that the era of certainties was over. By 1974, a survey showed that while 91 per cent of respondents attended weekly Mass, they did not necessarily live according to Church precepts. The phrase "a la carte Catholic" was born.

"Ironically, the power the institutional Church enjoyed in the early years of independence, and the deferential approach of lay Catholics to that power, has in the long run been a liability rather than an advantage," Dr Fuller concluded.

Speakers yesterday also included the Rome-based theologian, Prof Michael Paul Gallagher SJ, who called for a mature dialogue about the Church's role that would go beyond the "adolescent pouting and parental sulking" stage in which it seemed stuck. God was "missing but not missed" in contemporary Ireland, which had moved from alienation towards the institutional Church, through anger at the scandals of the 1990s, to apparent apathy. But that apathy could be "a mask on suppressed hunger", he suggested.

Urging dialogue about "where our culture has come from and where it is going", he cited the example of Italy, where Church leaders such as Cardinal Martini of Milan frequently engage in written or face-to-face exchanges with representatives of secular culture, such as novelist Umberto Eco.

In this context, he added, there was an important moment during the 1970s when the Italian bishops issued a statement recognising that "we are no longer a majority Church". This may have seemed premature at the time, he said. But the Church's "undoing" in Italy was a kind of "liberation". The school also heard from Dr Margaret MacCurtain, the Dominican Sister and former academic, who described how violence in the North helped undermine the Church, since "the sectarian divide eroded confidence in religion as a unifying force". But the current crisis in spirituality could be looked upon as an opportunity, she said, and much of the hope lay in the younger generation.

Her own grandfather was born before the Famine and carried the survivors' guilt until he died in 1906. Her parents inherited the guilt of the Civil War and the disillusionment that followed independence. And the generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s were doomed to be witnesses or participants in what was euphemistically termed "the Troubles". Those now aged under 25 "are the first generation in Ireland to be free of guilt", Dr MacCurtain said.