Has Irish Catholicism lost the knack?

Yesterday’s referendum on repealing the 8th amendment of the Irish Constitution may not be a watershed moment in Irish history, but it does say a lot about how we Irish want the country to look like in the 21st century. For decades Ireland had some of the most socially conservative laws in the world.

But why was that? To answer that, we need to look back around a hundred years.

The Ireland of 1918 was a very different to that of today. It was still ruled from London. There wasn’t a split between the 26 counties of Ireland (The Irish Free State – later to become the Republic of Ireland and then just Ireland) and the six counties (Northern Ireland) until the Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified by the Irish Government (The Dáil) in 1922.

Gaining independence from the United Kingdom wasn’t quite as straight forward though. There was a sizable minority who felt there should be no independence deal, unless all 32 counties of Ireland were included. The non-acceptance of the split between the north and south was a major factor is the year long civil war. This ideal of a united Ireland is something that colours Irish politics to this day.

With the major fighting over in 1923, the Dáil started to build a country from a broken, impoverished state. Less than a century before, the country was ravaged by several famines. Many left Ireland for other shores. In the early 20th century, the continued independence struggle had taken its toll on the country’s infrastructure. The stand out conflict was the 1916 Easter Uprising, but even before then there was guerrilla action. After World War One, the IRA saw their chance and started the Irish War of Independence which ultimately lead to Anglo-Irish Treaty.

The first Dáil had a real issue. How do they rebuild a country, when there isn’t a lot of money. Thanks to the Catholic Church, which had suffered none of the financial upheaval, they were able to make a start. The quid quo pro was the cultivation of a one-dimensional type of nationality, culture and religion. In particular the Catholic Church was able to use the education system to foster this. To this day the majority of Irish schools are Catholic schools, run and largely funded by the church.

Roll on 50 years or so, and a series of scandals rocked the Catholic Church, and none more so than in Ireland. For the first time in a long while, Irish Catholics started to question the legitimacy of their faith. A growing number of couples couldn’t remarry after ending previous relationships. Divorce only became legal after the 15th constitutional amendment in 1995.

As the Celtic Tiger moved into the 20th century, the spotlight was shone on Ireland and the world liked what they saw. An young, educated, and hard working population seized their chance and made hay whilst the sun shone. Whilst the scandals certainly affected the association many had with the Catholic Church, so did this sudden feeling of financial and social independence.

The vote to allow abortion in Ireland up to 12 weeks pregnancy, is the latest in a line of revolts against the Catholic church’s stance on issues like divorce and homosexuality.

Perhaps the most telling of all is the Catholic Church’s own faith survey. The 2016 survey showed that whilst 78% still identified as Catholic, this is over 13% down on the 1991 survey. Furthermore less than half of Irish Catholics attended mass at least one a week, down from 81% in 1990. The fact that the Catholic Church’s doctrine describes this as a mortal sin, meaning the individual is likely to end up in hell unless they repent, seems not to worry most folk.

Whilst the education system may still be largely run by faith organisations, it is clear their influence is waning. So is the pull of the traditional faith system of attending services. The end result is a population unable or unwilling to hear a religion’s theological teaching.

Last Friday, the Irish nation said to the world it was no longer accepting of the past. It wants to be a modern, progressive society. It may still want to be identified as Catholic, but not in the same manner as before.

Could this have been prevented? Maybe. The current Pope seems to be the church’s best chance of progressing its theology, but that’s a big ask. If Pope Frances had arrived 30-40 years ago, he would have a better chance of making real theological chance, but then he wouldn’t have been elected back then. The Catholic Church can appear to be like a super tanker trying to turn around in the middle of the Suez Canal. The Catholic Church clearly hasn’t kept up with the times, and maybe has paid the price.

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