Skip to content
How Catholicism fell from grace in Ireland
For the 8:30 a.m. daily mass at St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral, an imposing old church just off O'Connell Street in the heart of Dublin, you might expect to see Father O'Sullivan at the altar. Or perhaps Father O'Reilly or Father O'Flaherty.
Father Owuamanam comes as a bit of a surprise.
But Remigius Owuamanam, a priest from Nigeria, is a good reflection of the changes that have overtaken both church and society in Ireland during the last 20 years.
Like most of its continental neighbors, Ireland is undergoing a severe crisis of faith. Religious belief in this island bastion of Roman Catholicism is under siege by the twin forces of secularization and modernization. In addition, the recent exposure of a deeply ingrained culture of sexual abuse and cover-up by the clergy has dealt a staggering blow to the church's prestige.
What makes Ireland an interesting case study is the speed of the decline and the efforts of the Catholic Church -- lay people and clergy--to come to grips with the crisis. The Irish experience points to possible paths for the future of traditional religion in a globalizing society.
Through most of the 20th Century, Ireland was poor, backward and deeply Catholic. Irish Catholicism tended to be of a particularly harsh and unforgiving variety.
"Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood," wrote Frank McCourt, whose memoir, "Angela's Ashes," resonated among many Irish Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic.
Today, Ireland is prosperous, cosmopolitan and no longer so very Catholic. As recently as the 1970s, 90 percent of the Irish identified themselves as Catholic and almost the same number went to mass at least once a week; now the figure for mass attendance is closer to 25 percent, according to church officials in Dublin.
When Ireland was poor, its main export was people. Among them were many Catholic priests. Irish seminaries produced far more priests than the country needed, and the main beneficiary of the overflow was the United States, where American Catholicism once spoke with a distinctly Irish brogue.
These days Irish seminaries are nearly empty. Last year, for the first time in its history, the Dublin archdiocese ordained no new priests. Foreign priests like Owuamanam have been brought in to fill the gap.
The collapse has occurred with breathtaking rapidity and, in hindsight, many Irish Catholics can identify when the tipping point was reached.
"The 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II, that was the high-water mark of Catholicism in Ireland," said Simon Rowe, a Catholic commentator and editor of The Voice Today, a new Catholic newspaper.
But the visit also contained the seeds of decline, Rowe said.
About two-thirds of Ireland's population turned out to see the pope during his three-day visit. On one memorable day, more than 200,000 young people attended a special mass at Galway's Ballybrit racecourse. Before the pope's arrival, they were entertained by two of the Irish church's most popular and charismatic leaders: Bishop Eamon Casey of Galway and Rev. Michael Cleary, Dublin's "singing priest," who had his own show on national radio.
A decade later, it would come to light that Casey was the father of a son by an American woman and had "borrowed" from church funds to silence them. Cleary, it was discovered, fathered two children and had an abusive relationship with a troubled young woman who worked as his housekeeper.
"There was a disconnect," Rowe said. "And after that, a dramatic unraveling of the faith."
Flight from the pews
As the sex scandals gathered momentum through the 1990s, so did the flight from the pews. For the church, which once occupied a position at the pinnacle of Irish society, it was a stunning fall from grace.
Although Ireland has been Catholic since the 5th Century, the church's development as an institution was a product of the 19th Century and the religious renaissance that followed Catholic emancipation by the British Parliament in 1829.
As the nation moved toward independence from the United Kingdom in the 20th Century, the church hierarchy consolidated its privileged status. Eamon de Valera, one of modern Ireland's founding fathers, pledged to govern "in accordance" with Vatican teachings.
During the middle years of the 20th Century, Ireland's bishops could make or break governments, and until the 1990s and the sex abuse scandals, the Catholic hierarchy held a firm grip on national legislation that banned divorce, limited the sale of contraceptives and criminalized homosexual activity.
But in the late 1960s, Ireland began an economic and social makeover. Its doors opened to immigrants, the Celtic Tiger was loosed and by the 1990s this once-impoverished nation was on its way to becoming the European Union's second-wealthiest nation by capita (behind Luxembourg). Prosperity and secularization weakened the church's traditional hold on the Irish soul; the sex scandals accelerated the process.
The low point came in 2002 when Cardinal Desmond Connell, then the archbishop of Dublin, was heckled by the faithful for his mishandling of the sex scandals. One measure of how far the church had fallen was Connell's own pronouncement that Ireland had become a "post-Catholic" country.
When Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, a polished Vatican diplomat, was brought in to replace Connell in 2004, he did not minimize the crisis.
"Will Ireland be Christian in 2030?" was the title of a lecture he delivered a few months after his appointment.
Martin acknowledged that the sex abuse scandal had been catastrophic for the church.
"I don't think we've fully understood or written the history of this yet, but if I look at the cases of sexual abuse in Dublin, there's a great concentration in a particular period of time, from the early '70s to the late '90s," he said in a recent interview.
That coincided with the period of rapid social change, and "the church wasn't able to maintain its own sense of purpose," he said. "The faith of the church had become rather shallow. It didn't seem to have the roots that were needed at the time."
The lost trust and credibility, he said, would have to be earned back "from scratch." It would be a mistake, he added, for the church to think that "just by being nice or by being modern, that people's innate religiosity would come back to life."
He has told Catholic audiences that the church in Ireland had become too hierarchical and too authoritarian and that it had grown too close to power.
Martin, who represented the Vatican at the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, says the church has a role to play in the public square but has to keep its distance from power structures.
One of Martin's major initiatives has been to create a system of parish councils staffed by lay people. The idea is to break down the perception that the clergy "owns" the church. Some priests have resisted, but Martin says that for the church to survive in the 21st Century, it will have to create new forms of religious community.
In many ways, this runs counter to traditional Irish habits of worship. Owuamanam, the Nigerian priest, joked that parishioners at Dublin's Pro-Cathedral measured his ability as a priest by how quickly he could get through the mass.
"Here I try to be very fast. Twenty-five or 30 minutes. In Africa, a mass is two or three hours long," he said. Anything less, he said, and people would feel cheated. "And in Africa, they don't just sit and watch. They sing, they dance, they are included." Owuamanam said he has concluded that the Irish are lacking in "spiritual energy."
Martin put it another way. "Irish Catholicism is very individualistic," he said. Even in parishes where everyone knows everyone else, the tendency is to regard church "as a service station in which each person comes for their own private devotions . . . tanking up on grace for the week," he said.
Church seems dull
A big reason for this deficit of communal spiritual energy, Martin said, is that to many Irish Catholics and Christians across Western Europe, the traditional church appears dull and resistant to change.
Little wonder, he said, that Western Europeans are "surprised and perhaps a little frightened when they see the joy and vitality of young Muslim believers."
According to Martin, the church of the future should allow Catholics to feel as though they belong to a spiritual community that wants them to be free, responsible and fully human. "A church with participatory structures will be more effective . . . than an authoritarian one," he said.
Catholic intellectuals and lay activists have been applauding the archbishop's efforts.
"I do get the sense of a more humble church emerging, a church that is less arrogant and more open to lay people," said Paddy Monaghan, a Catholic activist in Dublin.
It is too early to tell whether this approach can reverse the long slide in church attendance, but according to Monaghan there are signs that ordinary Catholics are taking a more active role in their faith.
"Will Ireland be Christian in 2030?" was the question Martin posed when he took charge of the ailing Dublin archdiocese.
"The answer," he said, "will be determined by the way we work today to rejuvenate the church, to bring new vitality to its structures, by the way our church communities and institutions really are ... places where the knowledge and the love of God prevails."