Books: Limping into the future

A new book containing a series of essays by clergy, educators, journalists, academics and artists focuses on the decline in the power of the Catholic Church in recent years and its place in modern Ireland


Contemporary Catholicism in Ireland. A Critical Appraisal.

Editors: Eamon Maher & John Littleton

Publisher: The Columba Press

Price: €16.99


This book, containing a number of essays on the Catholic Church, expresses the concern, pain and anger of people who are committed to the Church, or at least positively disposed towards it, at what has happened in the past 40 years.  

“Why is it that a generation, most of whom were educated in schools dominated by Catholic Church personnel and who grew to adulthood in a culture still deeply impregnated by ecclesial language and concerns, has seemingly severed a meaningful relationship with the Church?”, the book questions.
In one essay, Peadar Kirby analyses Irish society's changing relationship with the Catholic Church, from the early 18th century when the Church was a popular challenge to existing power structures, to the mid-20th century when a clerical caste wielding immense societal and cultural power saw the mildest form of critical thinking as a threat to be stamped out.

In the process, the native and deeply rooted Celtic spirituality of the Irish people was replaced with a devotional set of practices, focusing on church buildings and therefore under clergy control, which were divorced from the everyday lives and struggles of people and were devoid of almost any intellectual content.  Almost every author of the essays contained in this book identifies the child sexual abuse scandals and the often-appalling response of Church leadership as a significant factor in the alienation of many from the Church. Nevertheless, they see that abuse as the consequence of the much deeper problem of dominating clerical power.

A way forward, it is suggested in the book, involves reflecting, through the lens of the Gospel, on the post-Celtic Tiger era: “a society of deep injustice, in which the class structure has been shaken up, creating a new wealthy elite of global market actors, who exercise immense influence over public authorities but also creating an entrenched and deepening marginalisation of around one-fifth of the population.”  
Several of the authors look to liberation theology for inspiration.

Kirby writes that he believes that the Gospel has the potential to challenge and transform society, from mobilising the marginalised to find an effective voice, to finding innovative ways of embarrassing our political, economic and social classes by highlighting the grave injustices from which they benefit.
Catherine Magnant finds hope in the “new prophets” of Irish society today, those voices from the margins such as Sister Stanislaus Kennedy. This “movement” re-interprets the Church and its mission, redefines spirituality and re-evaluates God. Dara Molloy, the unconventional ex-priest who runs a community on the Aran Islands, finds his religious identity not in working with those on the margins, but in being on the margins himself. Joe Lucey, who worked with drug users, understands the margins as being a “place of blessing”, from which to examine the mainstream worldview with a critical eye and to imagine a different future.

These, and the other prophets mentioned, all call for a “questioning Church”, a “listening Church”, a “de-clericalised Church” and an inclusive Church. They all stress the need for society to re-discover a sense of community and to combine economic success with justice. “The new life” to which they refer is not a form of eternal life after death, but a life lived in the here and now.

Patricia Kiernan finds hope with a very informative history of the development of the Irish denominational primary school system. She writes of the Church's recognition of the need to adapt to the new realities of Irish society.  Bishop Diarmuid Martin has spoken of “divesting current Catholic schools” and relinquishing, in certain circumstances, Catholic patronage and management.  While Catholic teaching on education supports change and choice and rejects any form of discrimination, requiring Catholic schools to be a witness to inclusivity, Patricia wonders whether those involved in Catholic schools are familiar with this positive body of Church teaching.

It is not possible, in this short space, to highlight all the authors and their reflections, but Patsy McGarry's article ‘Of Scribes and Pharisees' is particularly moving.

This is a powerful and very passionate account of McGarry's experience of the Catholic Church, beginning with his grandmother's anguish when the Church consigned her unbaptised son to Limbo, never to see the vision of God. The Scribes, so sure of themselves, finally changed their minds, and the anguish turned to anger. Then there was Mary, his godmother's daughter, rejected by her mother because, like another Mary, she was unmarried and with child. Mary did not blame her mother; after all, her mother was just doing what she believed was right, what she was told was right, by the Scribes and Pharisees: compassion banished by righteousness.

The Church's cult of virginity and chastity not only punished mothers whose children were unbaptised or born out of wedlock, but also terrified many men into bachelorhood. These inoffensive lonely men, terrified of women and the damning temptation they represented, often ended up on the road to alcoholism or suicide, a “shameful codology dressed up as theology”. Nor are the “homegrown scribes and Pharisees” exempt from his criticism.  Through inertia, torpor or fear, they have refused to tackle the “uncomfortable, somewhat frightening questions” and play the safe, orthodox career game.

The experience of Church is expressed here through the works of artists, poets and writers.  The art of Dorothy Cross, particularly her site-specific work, Stabat Mater;  the conflict between tradition and modernity in the work of Dermot Bolger;  the writings of John McGahern and the Breton priest, Jean Sullivan;  the poetry of Eilean Ni Chuilleanain. The poet John F Deane, though immersed in Catholicism, is now lost but seeking passionately for the truth, believing without knowing why. He trusts that: “if God was crazy enough to stir out of eternal restfulness to create a world filled with the doubtful wonder that is humanity, then that God is a poet, and a hugely masterful one.”  

This book will particularly appeal to those who value their Catholic heritage but are confused and saddened by the Church today. In it, they will find not only an analysis of the past that seeks to explain the present, not only the honest, pained experiences of some, but also little flickering signs of hope as the Church limps into the future.