The crumbling of Irish Catholicism

Catholic Ireland

The news from Ireland these days is more Church horror, writes Ronan McCoy in America magazine. The media is in frenzy, the country's bishops are struggling and the world is again made aware of Ireland's darker side.

Then we heard that the story might be a convolution of truths that have been amplified by a media angry with the Church, in line with their agenda. Whether they are true or not, these stories (and myths) remind people of the truth that many Church leaders covered up crimes within the church for years.

What happened the bodies of 800 malnourished children is not the real focus of this story. We know that the child mortality rate in homes for unwed mothers and 'illegitimate' children was significantly higher than elsewhere in Ireland at the time, due to malnourishment and other mistreatment. Sadly though, the truth is that this isn't as much of a shock as we pretend. We know that many in the Church acted in ways that stained not only the Church but Irish society as a whole. We know that hundreds of priests, religious and lay people in church institutions abused vulnerable children and adults in mother and child homes, orphanages, schools and churches. We know that this was done in some collusion with the Irish government and supported by a society given over to a particular brand of Catholicism. Now we're beginning to speak openly about how much was known publicly as it happened, but judged as proportionally acceptable.

What did that Ireland look like? It's difficult to imagine today and even more difficult not to imagine some black and white simplistic image. My understanding of that time, garnered from books and newspaper articles, family stories, and childhood introductions to Church life, is that Irish Catholicism was a legalistic faith of obligation. An acceptable ideal of life was narrowly defined and rigidly adhered to. That ideal created stability in the fledgling State and supported a national contentment won from an understanding of the Irish as being right, just and holy.

Church and State were intertwined and Church governance busied itself with the ordering of a 'Christian' society through a tight control of the public square. The outside world had more crime and more depression. To many, this new Catholic Ireland, while poor and lacking infrastructure, was a model to strive towards. If a person stepped or fell outside of the perfect mold however, they were treated with contempt and punished severely as someone who had forfeited the dignity the Church claimed to defend. Spirituality was an individual, private affair. Public prayer was obligation.

The Ireland of my childhood was one where this system was crumbling. Crime and depression were on the rise but education and compassion were too. This disintegration could have made room for authentic religious encounter and an upsurge in spirituality, but before that could happen it allowed us to see beneath the surface of what was.

- Ronan McCoy

Read more: My Catholic Ireland (America)


Jim Linwood - St. Vincent's Catholic Church, Ballyferriter, Dingle Peninisula, Kerry, Ireland.

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