“The Ireland celebrated by G.K. Chesterton in his ‘Christendom in Dublin’ is no more.”
That’s the opening sentence of John P. McCarthy’s analysis of the Catholic Church in Ireland, which appears in the 16 March issue of The Catholic World Report. It’s a sober, thoughtful, well-reasoned piece.
Those who know Chesterton’s book, and perhaps–like myself–have even romanticized the 1932 Eucharistic Congress celebrated within its 99 pages, will immediately see the power of McCarthy’s lede. The professor emeritus of History and former director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham University methodically assesses more than 80 years of change in the Irish Church, sans the anti-Catholic undercurrents of most contemporary journalistic accounts.
Here are three extended passages, including McCarthy’s conclusion:
What had happened to weaken the religious enthusiasm of so many Irish? Obviously a very major factor in distracting young minds from religious concerns was the substantial economic modernization and prosperity that had come to Ireland beginning in the 1960s. … A less-acknowledged explanation of the current sparsity of religious vocations in contrast to the abundance in the mid-20th century might be the mixed motives of many of the earlier ones. Economic considerations could have been as much a factor as religious devotion, especially on the part of aspirants’ families.
Many rushed to attribute the decline in religious faith among many Irish as a reaction to the notorious clerical scandals that came to light in the 1990s, many of which had in fact occurred in earlier decades. … [T]here seems to have been a disproportionately large number in the second half of the past century—especially in Ireland. A possible explanation might be in the number of faulty vocations mentioned earlier. Admittedly only a small percentage of the total clergy were involved, although that scarcely excuses it.
Hopefully, a Church exercising a dedicated minority position might prove to be more vital than a Church that had rested on unchallenged—but probably insincere—laurels from public officials or the media. A cynic might also suggest that the intensity of Irish Catholicism in the past century might have been prompted less by religious devotion than by nationalism. Fear and repression of Catholicism had been central to the British control of Ireland, and Irish separatism was reinforced by Catholicism. One hopes and prays, even if it is a minority position and one subject to harassment, that “the faith of our fathers” will live again in Ireland.