Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Not-Very-Critical Review of The End of Irish Catholicism? by Vincent Twomey

The End of Irish Catholicism?
D. Vincent Twomey SVD
Veritas Publications, 2003

The first thing that occurs to me about The End of Irish Catholicism? is that the question in the title is never really answered. The book is more diagnostic than prophetic in nature.

Perhaps this is inevitable. I, for one, have no predictions to make about the future of Irish Catholicism. Of course, as long as there are any practicing Catholics on this island, there will still be an Irish Catholicism of some sort-- and, with such a huge majority having declared themselves Catholic on the recent census, it's hard to see the faith of our fathers going the way of the Irish Elk any time soon.

But will Catholicism survive as a social and cultural force on this island?

It only takes a look around most Sunday or weekday Mass congregations to feel very bleak about this. All too often there are empty pews, and the smattering of worshippers are mostly in their sixties or seventies or beyond. Our priests, too, are mostly well into their twilight years. A decade or two more, and what will become of those congregations? Will church after church have to be sold off? Will Catholics get used to making long treks to the nearest Mass? When journalists in that future Ireland talk about "the church"-- if they talk about any church, that is-- will it still be assumed that they mean the Catholic church?

But it's not all doom and gloom-- in fact, the state of the Church in Ireland seems quite contradictory in many ways. Though many congregations are scanty-- and it has to be remembered that I am writing from a Dublin perspective, and the situation in rural areas is very different-- at other times, churches are packed. St. Teresa's Church in Clarendon Street is often full for Mass, even on weekdays, and there is always a queue for confessions. The Archbishop of Dublin drew a crowd when he came to UCD to celebrate Ash Wednesday Mass this year. The Veritas Catholic shop in Abbey Street seems to do a booming trade. Younger Catholics tend to be more orthodox, and the decline in vocations seems to have levelled off.

The End of Irish Catholicism? attempts to describe how we got where we are now, and to suggest possible measures towards revival.

At the beginning of the book, Dr. Twomey addresses a topic of particular interest to me-- the link between patriotism and religion, nation and faith. He says, "growing up in the Ireland of the 1940s and 1950s, I was certainly aware that part of our self-identity as Irish Catholics was to see ourselves as Christian Jews, God's chosen people, materially weak but spiritually strong, spread diaspora-like throughout the world, ever loyal to the faith of our fathers." He then describes this notion of chosen-ness as being "of dubious theological value", and points out that "the New Israel is not any particular race but is made up of Jews and gentiles, that is, people from all races and nations now united in one faith..."

However, a Christian is not obliged to renounce national feeling, and Dr. Twomey quotes Solzhenitsyn: "Nations are [part of] the wealth of mankind, its collective personalities; the very least of them wears its own special colours and bears within itself a special aspect of divine intention." And the author is himself rather critical of the modern Irish attitude to nationhood: "The very concept of nation, not to mention nationality, seems to have vanished from public discourse, not least due to the 'Troubles' in the North-- we now refer rather disparagingly to 'this island'. In addition, national identity is difficult to reconcile with the vague cosmopolitanism of our new mid-Atlantic identity."

One thing I really like about this book is that Dr. Twomey resists the temptation to caricature the Irish Catholicism of the twentieth century. It has become rather fashionable to do this-- to find the seeds of our current spiritual "recession" in the devotional "Celtic Tiger" of previous generations. I think this is too simple. It is true that the faith of our fathers (and mothers)-- or, more accurately, of our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers-- was often quite naive and ritualistic, focused on popular devotions such as First Fridays and sacramentals like the Miraculous Medal. We often hear that the faith of the Irish had become so complacent and unthinking that it crumbed at the first tides of secularism.

I don't really go along with these criticisms. I think every generation has to answer for itself. Perhaps lots of people went to Mass in the forties, fifties and sixties because it was the done thing. But I am sure that thousands, tens of thousands, went out of genuine religious fervour. Nor is a devotion to sacramentals, pilgrimage and popular devotions a bad thing.

A more plausible explanation for Ireland's crisis of faith comes with Dr. Twomey's description of the post-Vatican II atmosphere. Suddenly, everything seemed to be up in the air.  "Things were permitted, like attending services in a Protestant church, which up to then had been strictly forbidden under all kinds of dire penalties...few have pondered the effect it must have had on the majority of priests, many of whom, up to relatively recently, controlled all the strings. The ground had been taken from under them."

An intriguing theory that Dr. Twomey puts forward is that Irish Catholicism had rather more in common with English puritanism than we like to think. Ireland, in comparison with Catholic countries on the continent, had little concept of sacral time and space, of religious festivity, of the cult of saints and martyrs. Dr.Twomey instead posits that traditional Irish Catholicism focused on an intensely moralistic, anti-sensual, anti-sexual piety that he describes as "angelism". This is also a familiar argument from John Waters.

I'm not sure what to make of this, either. Irish Christianity has always had an ascetic, rather sombre flavour to it. In this it is much like Russian Christianity. This seems to me a matter more of tone than of doctrine. Ireland never seemed to fit into the spirit of Belloc's couplet:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine
There's always laughter and good red wine.
Edward Feser, the Thomistic philosopher, has pointed out that attempting to distill a spirit of Catholic culture is contrary to the very catholicity and universality of our Church-- that Catholicism embraces and consecrates all that is good in every culture. Ireland has its unique gifts and temptations, just as continental forms of Catholicism have their own.

Dr. Twomey calls for a rediscovery of Catholic festivity and community celebration. I wonder about this. My own guess is that religious joy overflows into festivity, and not the other way around. I don't think people come for the parties and stay for the prayer, but vice versa. Of course, Dr. Twomey is not making such a claim himself, but I suspect that this mentality exists elsewhere.

One powerful argument that Dr. Twomey makes is for the recovery of contemplative life: "In Ireland over the past two centuries, most religious orders were engaged in some form of apostolic work, or, as they are called today, active ministeries, such as teaching, nursing, or missionary activites abroad. There was always a core of strict contemplatives, men and women, and indeed most active orders (especially of women) had, before the Council, evolved into semi-contemplative orders with strict enclosure. The initial implementation of the decrees of the Council by the active congregations resulted in the gradual removal of the contemplative dimension almost entirely....good and necessary though these social concerns are, one may well ask: should they be the main focus of our attention for those consecrated by vows to the religious life? Or should men and women religious perhaps be more concerned with testifying to 'mankind's yearning for its heavenly home', as the Council put it?"

I think this is right on the money. As Tennyson wrote, "more things are wrought in prayer than this world dreams of", and the story of Mary and Martha should be a permanent reminder to Christians that we are forever tempted to value bustle and activity over the "direct line" to our Creator. It seems to me that nothing is more radically counter-cultural and (in the best sense) subversive than prayer. Making it a priority is, in itself, an act of renewal, an affirmation of Christian identity.

Besides this, I believe that our culture thirsts for prayer more than for social workers. We can see this in the endless flood of prayer requests that the Poor Clares receive. I see it, also, whenever I visit the UCD church, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom. This small (but handsome) church rarely seems to attract more than a handful of worshippers outside Mass times, and is often to be found empty. But the book of prayer intentions by the door seems to be written in almost every day, and usually several times a day. Turning these poignant pages, I always feel I am seeing a different Ireland to the one we see on television and in the media-- an Ireland of sleepless nights and silent rooms and unquenchable spiritual yearning.

Dr. Twomey's book was written in 2003, and I wonder if the author himself would now consider the proposals in his chapter "Beyond Church vs. State" to be at all plausible. "Perhaps, also, the time has consider working towards a concordat between the Catholic Church and the Republic of Ireland that would define more clearly, and anchor in international law, the relationship (and so the authentic separation) between Church and State". The tide now seems to be running in the opposite direction. Dr. Twomey deplores a comment by a recent Minister for Justice "that he would accord the Church's canon law the same status as the rules governing a golf club". Even that seems benign now.

Rather than seeking greater institutional relations between Church and State-- even relations that emphasise Church/State separation-- it seems wiser, at this point in time, for the Church to regard the hand of Caesar with suspicion. The Church authorities in Ireland surely made the right decision in not seeking any public funding for the International Eucharistic Congress this year-- as evinced when one texter to a recent radio show, in the wake of the latest anti-Church frenzy in the media, wondered whether the taxpayer was paying for this event and suggested that, if so, such funding should be removed.

Dr. Twomey complains of a fatalistic attitude amongst Catholic and, especially, religious orders in Ireland, as though secularisation was some inevitable law of history. This is certainly a strong tempation. We live in a culture in which deterministic thinking has almost become a second nature to us (even while we are encouraged, by the fashion and entertaintment and advertising industries, to assert our individual freedom ever more aggressively-- and ever more superficially).

When it comes to the future of Catholicism in Ireland, and our attitude towards it, the two great temptations remain-- as always-- presumption and despair. We hear the note of despair when Catholics of the liberal stamp suggest that the Church has to reformulate its doctrine according to the spirit of the age. But perhaps we hear it also in the most stubbornly traditionalist Catholics, who seem to see the Church as nothing but a sign of contradiction, and a bulwark against every manifestation of modernism.

As for the note of presumption, I think we hear that whenever any sign of "green shoots" are hailed as a new Spring-time of the Church. Not only is this presumptious, it is foolish. We can only cry "revival" so often before we lose all credibility, like the ageing Marxist who always believes the Revolution is just around the corner. We should give thanks for every welcome development, while firmly resisting the temptation to make too much of it.

Our Lord has told us not to be afraid, that he will be with us even to the end of the age, that he who perseveres to the end shall be saved, that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against his Church. That is all we can know, and it's enough.  What the future holds for our own era and nation, we cannot know.

In a final appendix, Dr. Twomey welcomes the phenomenon of a greater lay interest in theology, and calls for greater academic study of the subject in Ireland. Here I must simply defer to his authority, while admitting a personal scepticism. I once lodged, very briefly, with a gay philosophy PhD student who taught (I can't remember if it was theology or philosophy) in a well-known institute of Irish theology. His living room walls were bedecked with rather erotic drawings of nude men. The philosophers he tended to cite were Heidegger and Nietzsche and other figures who are hardly within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy. When I think of lay theological studies in Ireland today, I think of him. Perhaps that is unfair.

My own guess is that, if all Irish Catholics knew their Catechism, that would be an extraordinary advance in faith formation. It seems to me-- especially flicking through the pages of The Irish Catholic-- that Irish Catholicism will certainly not perish for the want of seminars, courses, book launches and magazines.

But doubtless I am wrong to be so cynical. As Dr. Twomey says, "Once people begin to think about their faith, they will in time search for, and find, the truth." Or as Chesterton put it, if every human being lived to be a thousand years old, everybody would end up either a Roman Catholic or a stark nihilist. The problem with dissidents who call for a "debate" in the Church is that they don't realise the debate has been going on for centuries, and has in fact already reached conclusions on most of the topics they consider to be unaddressed.

The End of Irish Catholicism? gives suggestions rather than answers, and it's hard to see how it could give easy answers to such vexing questions. I wonder how Dr. Twomey would have written the book today, and if he would have substantially altered any of the arguments and proposals he makes.

When it comes to Irish Catholicism today, I think even the most bullish secularist would have to admit-- to quote the title of a perennial favourite on Donncha O'Dulaing's radio show Failte Isteach-- "There's Life in the Old Dog Yet".


  1. That was a very well written and interesting piece. I hope you submit articles to Catholic newspapers to test the waters. I don't understand why some tripe is published and the likes of these blogs are not.

    Anyway, I completely agree on the education front. You mentioned a documentary recently following Irish people in the fifties or sixties. I remember the glee of the presenter talking to young boys who didn't know the answer to the first few questions of the Catechism, as opposed to 50 years earlier when they could recite it like a pop song. I studied theology and the young priests teaching us were kosher but there was a greying priest who was flabby on doctrine, and dogma, and religion and most stuff really. Maybe he wandered into the wrong room? I also clearly remember having the idea of contraception framed as a human rights issue and the notion of homosexuality as sinful not being in the bible being gently put to the room. I mentioned Sodom for starters and the room went quiet. Believe me, that would have descended into the Church as homophobic had I not stepped in. I googled her recently and listened to her speak very firmly for homosexual rights, this the woman who teaches theology in one of the big two religious colleges.

    If we don't form ourselves and our own there's no hope. I do think our priests should be taught abroad and hope to God that many of the lecturers in the big two retire or are offered tenure elswhere. We are poorly catechised and I wish the parish church and parents would take on that responsibility themselves, for the classroom teachers from kindergarten up cannot be relied upon to do the job for us anymore.

    Can I plug another postulant to the Red Nuns in Drumcondra as a lovely green shoot?!

  2. I read that back and it sounds like one big whine. I am actually a very happy and hopeful Catholic really belonging to a thriving parish church with youngish kosher priests so God is good to us, we are blessed and know it well!

  3. Thanks for your kind words. I just hope that any uncommitted people floating around cyberspace might come on a Catholic blog like this one and be disarmed by reasonable and balanced posts, realize we are not glassy-eyed zealots, and perhaps be that bit more open to the Faith.

    My own Catholic schooling was very confusing, too. For example, the teachers were (understandably) very keen on avoiding any hint of homophobia in their presentation of Catholic teaching on sexuality, but they really went too far in the opposite direction. But really I don't want to moan about my Catholic schooling either. Missing out on solid catechesis was a big loss, but just having holy pictures and statues around had a huge, almost subliminal effect. And the Catholic ethos really does seep spontaneously into subjects like English and history and art history. In fact, I find it hard to understand how you can teach the humanities without some kind of underlying life-philosophy-- not just liberalism but something with metaphysical foundations.

    The more I think about my Catholic education, the more I am struck by something I didn't even notice at the time-- the all-pervading assumption that life had meaning, that the universe was created by a benevolent intelligence, and that the human person had intrinsic dignity. You only notice that when it's gone.

    I remember that footage of Peter Lennon exulting over modern schoolkids not knowing Bible stories. It seemed so petty and spiteful.

  4. Children are so openminded, truly. I remember my primary school teacher from 4th-6th class, then in her twenties, bringing us to church for benediction for the first Friday, praying the Angelus every day, prayer before and after break, May procession for Our Lady, throats blessed for St. Blaise in the school hall. They took it seriously so we did too. They held it as non-negotiably sacred so we did too. In secondary school we had faithful teachers with their hands tied by the curriculum but prayers every day too and Mass was sacred time. The problem was the movement into social justice instead of stretching our little minds when we were so ripe. Abortion was verboten though and sex before marriage was spoken of as beneath us by a very young male teacher. Stuff like that sticks with you.

    I am amazed that people convert as adults from something as boring as atheism to Catholicism without a Damascus moment. I wonder how they understand the Real Presence and all the bells and smells without a childhood seeped in it. Even Dara O' Briain is an atheist, but a Catholic atheist! How can we expect the next generation to experience the awe and wonder of Christ as children when those who are historically responsible for teaching them rarely believe themselves? If the teachers don't believe (I know many) then the children will pick up on it too and if their parents abdicate responsibilty... I sincerely hope that the new Arcbishop Brown pokes his non-Irish nose into education and spots a problem there for solving. It is a philosophy of education and a specific worldview that begs for protection.

  5. I can't remember which Catholic writer it was-- maybe Arnold Lunn-- who made the point that children actually don't struggle with the concepts of the Trinity or the Real Presence or the Incarnation, that they are open-minded and unprejudiced enough to imbibe them and absorb them. Which is not to say that they are simply credulous, but that their minds are still pliable enough to grasp these concepts, just as we can learn other languages so much easier when we are children.

    As for how kids can eventually be drawn back to the Faith without being seeped in a Catholic atmosphere at an early age, sometimes I think of the point Chesterton made in The Everlasting Man: "The next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it." Maybe a wishy-washy, watered down religious education is the worst of both worlds. Maybe it simply makes us blasé. Maybe an entirely secular upbringing and education would lead to a spiritual thirst that would make those so afflicted seize eagerly upon the Gospel when they encountered it. I'm not sure about that, though, because the peoples of the former communist bloc don't seem to display much religious yearning right now. Places like the Czech Republic and Estonia are the most secularised on Earth. Then again there are some signs (I think) that the Scandinavian and Nordic peoples are beginning to feel their way back towards religion, so it's a complex subject.