Church at a crossroads

 

THERE IS no need to labour the contrast between the troubled state of Irish Catholicism in 2012 and its triumphant self-assurance when the Eucharistic Congress was last held here 80 years ago. The culmination of the 1932 congress, when John McCormack sang Panis Angelicus before a million worshippers in Phoenix Park and the voice of the pope was broadcast to the hushed throng, was described at the time as “the greatest day in Irish history”.

Most Irish people would not have regarded this claim as hyperbole. An identity that had long been suppressed had at last come into its own. Here was the ultimate proof of its continuity and persistence, its apparent imperviousness to change.

For many in the church, the temptation to indulge in nostalgia for this lost world is irresistible. The return of the Eucharistic Congress offers an escape from the trauma of a decade in which the moral standing of the institutional church has been ravaged by its systematic collusion with the abuse of children. It allows those who still believe to celebrate their faith while forgetting, for a moment, the reality of an Irish Times Ipsos/MRBI poll showing that a majority of Catholics no longer attend weekly Mass or believe in basic doctrines like transubstantiation. No one should begrudge those believers the joy and comfort they can still find in the expression of their identity. But most of those who will come to celebrate at the congress will be fully aware that the identity they cherish cannot be sustained by dreams of a return to the triumphalist Catholicism of 1932.

That world is dead. Ireland will never again be a monolithic culture in which a single hierarchical institution can enjoy such power and prestige. And nor should it be – the darker consequences of that culture are now all too well known. So how, if not through nostalgic fantasy, is the church to find its bearings in the new Ireland?

There are two possible reactions. One is to build high defensive walls around a hard core of doctrinal certainty and institutional obedience. Jettison the “cultural Catholics” who are theologically unsound, devotionally lax and increasingly at odds with church positions on sexuality and reproduction. Accept instead that there is a trade-off between the number of the faithful and the intensity of the faith. This new Irish Catholicism will be smaller but steelier. Such a view seems to be the dominant one at the moment, expressed most clearly in the silencing or censoring of even mildly dissident priests.

There is, though, an alternative to this vision of a rather dour, self-protective minority, increasingly at odds with secular society. Another way to look at the Irish Times poll, for instance, would be to marvel at the fact that, even when they’ve given up believing in some core Catholic doctrines, so many people still retain a connection to the church. What’s so terrible about “cultural Catholicism” – the idea that the broad church is deeply intertwined with the way Irish people think and feel and, however occasionally, pray? There is a deep well of respect and affection for Catholic tradition even among those who do not wish to obey an all-male celibate elite and who make up their own minds about spiritual and moral questions. If the church pushes such people away, it will make itself a sad and bitter thing and, in the process, impoverish Irish culture as a whole.

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