As Pope Francis discovered during his short visit to Ireland in August 2018, the Irish Catholic Church is in crisis. This is partly as a result of the Child abuse scandals, the cover-up by bishops, the Magdalene laundries, the Tuam babies scandal and the other shocking reports of abuse in Mother and Baby Homes around the country.
I believe the root cause of the crisis is the cosy relationship that the official Catholic Church developed with the southern 26 county state after Partition. The abuse of power in that state was revolting. The treatment of children was appalling. The collusion of Church and State was disgusting.
The official Catholic Church lost sight of its purpose and role in society. It lost its moral compass while preaching morals to others. It had become hypocritical and perverse.
It is difficult to know how the Catholic Church will recover from all of this. One thing for certain is that the old clericalised and hierarchical Catholic Church which wielded such power and influence is gone, finished for good -and that’s no harm.
How will the Catholic Church adjust to the New Ireland which is evolving? How will it adjust to an Ireland in which Sinn Fein will be in government? The kind of government that the Church feared after 1916, is going to become a reality in a matter of a few years. The politics of Sinn Fein has never found favour with the Church’s leadership either in Ireland or in Rome. It is not so long ago since a leading Catholic bishop urged people not to vote for Sinn Fein. There were and still are strong ideological differences.
The Church’s wealth and property will likely come in for more scrutiny in the event of a Left –wing administration in Ireland.
The Church in the New Ireland will be first and foremost a Church of the poor and marginalised. It will promote and defend the interests of the poor first and above all else. It will also be a Church that allows for open debate and defends the right of people like Fr Tony Flannery to express his views.
It must also be a Church that is actively promoting the care of Creation -if it is to have any relevance in the world today. It will connect this concern for all of Creation to the poverty and deprivation that exists in our country and in our world.
Unless there is a new kind of radical thinking and creative action in the Irish Catholic Church, I see little future for a new vibrant Catholicism in Ireland. It must give up its clericalism and control. Unless it changes and makes an option for the poor, it will still be seen by the majority of the people as a middle class church out of touch with the lives of the majority of the people -organising novenas and Masses and pilgrimages to Lourdes.
The historical alliance of the Church hierarchy with the Catholic middle class, and its association with organisations like the Knights of Columbanus, leaves the Church open to criticism from those who take a more radical approach to politics and religion. Republicans, many of whom still belong to the Catholic Church, have not forgotten the history of the Church in propping up and supporting the status quo and in denouncing republicans and republicanism at every opportunity while letting the real culprits for the conflict -the British government- off the hook.
If there is going to be a Catholic Church in Ireland in the future, it will have to get rid of all the trappings of wealth and power and be clearly seen to be a church of the poor and for the poor. That is the kind of Church being promoted by Pope Francis. The Catholic Church in the New Ireland will have to adopt the teaching of Vatican II and the approach of liberation theology if it is to have credibility in a new republic based on democratic principles. The Church, at an official level, will also have to become an advocate for neutrality and an opponent of all military alliances. Inevitably, that will mean a more critical approach to US Foreign policy and the use of Shannon airport by US military.
The first step for the Catholic hierarchy is to admit there is a crisis and then to honestly admit the real causes of that crisis. Only then can a new way forward be found through a process of dialogue and listening. Is anyone in the present leadership of the Catholic Church in Ireland willing to step up to the plate?