Catholic Church today lacks a passion for truth


Rite and Reason: The recent well-publicised scandals in the Irish Catholic Church have taken attention away from the slow but inexorable erosion of Catholicism's public presence in Irish life.

They have, of course, also contributed to it. Mass attendance is in steady decline. Convents and seminaries have closed their doors. Credibility in the church as an institution has never been lower.

The once powerful "traditional Irish Catholicism", marked by a close identity of being Irish and Catholic of a particular kind, seems to be grinding to a halt in the face of the Celtic Tiger and a secular, "pluralist" modern Ireland. Is this a matter for regret or rejoicing? I think it is a bit of both.

But what is no cause for rejoicing is the inability of the contemporary church to respond convincingly to this new situation. This, I am now convinced, is the result of two main flaws - one cultural, the other structural - in traditional Irish Catholicism which prevent us today from making such a positive response.

They must be confronted if the church is to find its voice in modern Ireland.

Irish writers in the early part of the 20th century, such as Seán Ó Faoláin, sensed that something was seriously wrong with "traditional Irish Catholicism". They saw it as narrow-minded, anti-intellectual and rigorist on morality.

They were right. Because of cultural and political developments in Ireland after the Great Famine, many argue persuasively that culture was perhaps not authentically Irish at all. It is my conviction that neither was "traditional Irish Catholicism" fully Catholic.

This was in part due to the break with its mediaeval past caused by centuries of persecution. More significant was the loss of the language in the 19th century, when we became cultural exiles in our own country and Catholicism became the badge of our national identity. This fed into a very old temptation, namely to see the Irish nation as God's chosen people.

This in fact undermines our catholicity. The imported pieties of the 19th century appealed to the emotions, but numbed the mind. And the new provinciality robbed us of our confidence, making us dependent on the larger Protestant, indeed largely Puritanical, milieu at a time when the struggle to survive was the main priority.

The net result was a pragmatism that tended to extinguish both the divine and the human spirit and a piety that shunned the life-affirming celebrations that are the mark of Catholic culture in other countries and indeed once marked our own feast-days and pattern days.

Conformity reigned supreme, and critical reflection was discouraged.

In a word, the Irish church's catholicity was compromised by its lack of theology, in the strict sense of the term, namely faith seeking understanding. The Irish church today lacks a passion for truth. Without such a passion there is no vision. Without a vision, people are led astray. The crises of our day become insurmountable human problems for which we seek purely human - mostly pragmatic - solutions, without recourse to those resources that theology alone can offer. As long as the modern Irish church has no real interest in theology, as opposed to ideology or toeing the party line, the situation can only worsen.

But theology alone is not sufficient. The Catholic Church in Ireland has to catch the imagination of modern Ireland. This means that pastoral strategies need to be devised. Reform of the liturgy called for by the Second Vatican Council is but one of many reforms that has not really got off the ground in Ireland. The reasons for this are many and need to be confronted.

But there are also structural deficiencies that prevent the church from taking constructive or credible action. The 850-year-old diocesan structure is obsolete and needs to be reconsidered. So, too, the state of religious orders and congregations, including their national organisation, needs radical revision and humble self-criticism to enable religious life to flourish anew.

Finally, the relationship between church and State must move beyond the confrontational mode characteristic of the past two decades to a more positive one that respects the autonomy and mutual enrichment of each.

The church must think, and the contemporary Irish church must perhaps begin to think.

Father D. Vincent Twomey SVD teaches theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, and is editor of the Irish Theological Quarterly. His new book The End of Irish Catholicism?, dealing with the broad issues raised in this article, is published by Veritas