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When theocracy met modernity

Second Reading

The rise and fall of the present model of Irish Catholicism

On July 26, I spoke at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties on the crisis in Irish Catholicism. Two weeks ago in this column I gave a summary of the first part of my talk. Today I present a resumé of the second half of my presentation.
The Catholic Church in Ireland entered the 20th century as a major force in society. This formidable church was the particular achievement of Cardinal Paul Cullen. In an episcopate of almost 30 years, he shaped a church that was strictly disciplined, theologically and spiritually acquiescent, politically powerful and a major player in education and health care.
Cardinal Cullen’s Tridentine temple strengthened in the years after the establishment of the Irish State in 1922. The partition of the country increased the power of the Church. It no longer had a rival that came close to matching its power. Ironically, Unionists helped ensure what they feared about an independent Ireland by their absence.
As a Renaissance cathedral was created within the austere line of the magnificent Cordoba Masque, Catholic leaders created a kind of theocracy inside a democratic state.
Catholic teaching on divorce, contraception and the censorship of literature crept into our laws and constitution. John McGahern commented that ‘it was as if suddenly the heavenly world of eternity had been placed on the 26 counties and the new class that had done well out of independence’.
The Church had its achievements in education and healthcare, but they were overshadowed by the oppressive atmosphere. Brian Moore, the novelist, telescoped this cultural climate when he wrote in an ironic parody of the start of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the word and the word was no.”
It was a time when authority hardened into authoritarianism, charism slid into control and humility transformed into hubris.
Cardinal Cullen’s temple was a shaky edifice. It exuded what Professor Liam Ryan once called ‘The four deadly sins’: “an obsession with sexual morality, anti-intellectualism or at best non-intellectualism, clerical authoritarianism and a ghetto mentality.”
Symbolic of its intellectual insecurity was the bishops’ insistence in 1908 that the new national university should not have a theological faculty. Theology was to be the preserve of the clerical elite in the controlled arena of the seminary. A country with the highest level of Catholic Church attendance in western Europe lacked a critical theological and philosophical tradition that might have critiqued and enriched pastoral experience.
In his poem, ‘Annus Mirabilis’, Philip Larkin detected significant social change in England between ‘the end of the Chatterley ban and The Beatles’ first LP’. In these years, modernity pitched its camp in Ireland. Seán Lemass abandoned the futile pursuit of De Valera’s arcadian vision and opened the country to foreign investment and industry. The advent of RTÉ television in 1962 brought an end to what Professor Tom Inglis has called the long 19th century of Irish Catholicism. Feminism began to enter Irish popular consciousness. Pop music started to dominate the airwaves. With a stroke of his ministerial pen, Donagh O’Malley changed Ireland by providing free second-level education.
Supreme Court judges discerned rights in the constitution that Éamon de Valera or Archbishop McQuaid never dreamed of. Even in the Church there were new stirrings evident in the Second Vatican Council. Irish Catholic leaders had carefully protected priests and people from the theological ferment in post-World War II Europe. The bishops returned from the council bewildered and sought to retrieve in their episcopal palaces the tranquility they had lost in Rome.
And then the chamber of horrors in the basement of Irish Catholicism was prised open to reveal a gruesome hinterland – industrial-school conditions, the Magdalene Laundries, the mother and baby homes, the clerical sexual abuse of children, the cover ups and the casuistic mental reservations.
So began a decline of the present model of Irish Catholicism that is as spectacular as its rise in the 19th century.  

The first article in this two-part resumé of Fr Kevin Hegarty’s MacGill Summer School 2018 presentation was published in The Mayo News on August 7, and is available on mayonews.ie/comment.