Irish Christianity: Reform or Revolution – Easter 1998

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Since writing an article for an earlier edition of The Athenry Journal, I was asked to write more regularly. I am happy to do this. It gives me a feeling of still being connected to Ireland, even though I have been living abroad for eleven years. As I settle in to my new job teaching theology in Kenya, I realise that my years of continuous absence from Ireland are likely to continue.

There were a couple of events that occurred this June that reminded me of how long I have been away from home. Both Ireland and Canada held national elections within days of each other. I had only a limited feel for the issues at stake in Ireland. However, I knew quite a lot about the inside story in Canada. Having just finished four years of studies in that country, I felt much affection for it and felt also that I had a reasonable sense of its political culture and current issues.

Something that occurs to me at the moment is to compare Canadian Christianity with that of Ireland. To be more specific, to compare the affairs of the Catholic Church in the Province of Quebec with what I know of the situation in the Irish Republic. There are many parallels between the two places. Possible implications for the future in Ireland can be chastening.

Quebec’s Quiet Revolution

The population of Quebec represents a unique phenomenon on the American continent. They speak French, of course there are enclaves of English speakers. Nevertheless, the majority of the people in this immense territory are descendants of French settlers who arrived during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They comprise about a quarter of the whole population of Canada. When I was living in Canada I was based in Toronto, Ontario. However, I spent a certain amount of my time in Canada visiting Quebec and trying to communicate in my faltering French. I found Quebecers to be a charming people – earthy, with a great sense of extended family, and great singers-and-celebrators. Actually, there are many Irish names amongst Quebecers. Quebec was the landing point for the majority of the coffin ships that sailed to North America during the famine.

After World War 11, like so many other countries (though not Ireland) the Canadian economy experienced the “post-war boom”. Quebec soldiers returning from Europe experienced what the song expresses: “”How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm – After they’ve seen Paree“? In addition to this, increased educational opportunities and access to mass media changed the attitudes of many rural Quebecers. Now lay people wanted more of a say in the running of their province. Many also wanted to move to the cities, to make money and to gain entrance into the professions.

A great desire emerged amongst Quebecers to modernise. Inevitably this involved rejecting many aspects of their old ways. Unfortunately, a focus for much of what was to be rejected was the Catholic Church. A phenomenon then happened that left sociologists stunned, within a very few years the majority of the population stopped practising its faith. By about 1970, attendance at Mass had dropped from the 90% range to below 10%. Experts called this “The Quiet Revolution”.

Similarities to Ireland

At first glance, there seems to be some disturbing similarities between Quebec in the 1960s and Ireland today. There also seems to be similarities in the longer pattern of our histories. Like Quebec, Ireland experienced a keen sense of being oppressed. This oppression was not only economic but also cultural. As in Quebec, the Catholic Church became the bastion of the cultural identity of the local population. After independence, the Catholic Church in the Republic exercised a remarkable influence. As in Quebec, this influence was keenly felt in such areas as education, health and social services.

Once again, there are similarities in the next act of the story. Ireland’s post-war boom had to await the 1960s. However, once it arrived, major cultural changes began to occur. The two-thirds of the population that “rose with the economic tide” experienced new opportunities and expressed new expectations regarding what life could bring. A pool of unemployed people missed the tide and experienced a kind of exclusion from the main-stream of Irish society that was new.

The 1990s have witnessed a second burst of economic growth and the cultural impact of this looks set to be even greater than that of the 1960s. Irish people have embraced the vision of a European identity. Values of pluralism, freedom of choice and the separation of Church and state seem increasingly attractive.

Now, in some ways, it is understandable that a person who holds fast to these modem values would see the Catholic Church as very old fashioned. It can appear that the Church is the only place where authority is still exercised in a heavy-handed manner that does not allow questioning or criticism. Middle-aged people remember the 1950s and how many other social institutions such as political parties and families had rather “authoritarian” leaders? They can feel that times have changed in other walks of life and it is time for them in the Church to change as well.

Alas, there has been a final act to the story in Ireland. This dimension of the story does not have a parallel in the Quebec of the 1960s. However, the impact of it could encourage a “revolution” against Catholicism in Ireland similar to what happened in Quebec. I refer, first of all, to the Bishop Casey affair. The Irish population has been deeply shocked by the revelations about the former bishop of Galway. The revelations involved not just sexual scandal, but also a financial one. The question of the length of time it took for these issues to become public tells us something about the kind of unquestioned authority exercised by the Church leaders.

Following fast and furiously on this were reports of other sexual scandals involving clergy. At times, the defensive responses of Church leaders seemed to worsen the problem for a certain period. There is no doubt but that in certain areas, rates of attendance at Mass are dropping. Some commentators in the mass media are raising the chorus that was heard in Quebec in the 1960s “to modernise means to reject the Catholic Church.”

So what can we expect in the next century? Will Ireland show the effects of a quiet revolution as severe as Quebec? I hope not.

It’s our Choice

The question remains regarding how we choose to respond, both individually and as a society, to changing times. In fact, we might point out that one fact that seems pretty clear is that in the future being Catholic will require a conscious choice more than has been the case in the past. This can be an opportunity as well as a problem. More and more we will have to choose to be Catholic rather than “drift” into being Catholic because everyone else is. Each of us will soon have to ask “How important is the Eucharist to me?” or “Do I have a relationship with Jesus Christ that gives meaning to my life?” and “If I have the glimmers of such a relationship, am I going to cultivate it? Because unless I do, this glimmer might get extinguished.”

It seems to me that the values of pluralism and individual responsibility that are so valued today are very compatible with this manner of being a member of the Church. Of course, if we want to reenergise our faith like this it will take effort.

Working at our personal relationship with God and taking responsibility in our Church will take more effort than some of the old ways of being Catholic. The choice is ours.

(This article had to be abridged for space reasons.)

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Written by Gerry Whelan S. J.

Published here 20 Mar 2023 and originally published Easter 1998

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