During a parliamentary debate this summer over the Catholic Church’s handling of sexual-abuse allegations, Ireland’s Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, railed against the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, and narcissism” of the Vatican—strong words from any head of government, and unprecedented in Ireland. Kenny’s blistering criticism may provide a chance for a needed recasting of Irish church-state relations.

As Ireland stumbles toward recovery from the economic catastrophe of recent years, it needs a Catholic Church that can articulately criticize both the lack of accountability and the excesses of individualism that led to Ireland’s financial crisis. For its part, the Irish church must stop mourning its lost power and prestige and read the signs of the times in contemporary Dublin—signs announcing a range of pressing issues, from the continuing aftershocks of the housing bubble to the demand for justice for sexual-abuse victims. And—just as important—the church must recognize that such signs of the times in Ireland today are more likely than ever to be written in Polish, Chinese, or Arabic.

The church’s opportunity to refashion its role in Irish life will be driven not so much by choice as by necessity. In the past two decades, what University College Dublin sociologist Tom Inglis has termed the “moral monopoly” of the Catholic Church over public life in Ireland has crumbled. Under the traditional church-state model, Irish bishops tolerated a formally secular constitution because the law of the land enshrined much of Catholic morality and thought. Divorce was unconstitutional, primary education was entirely denominational, and politicians like Éamon de Valera knew how to kiss a bishop’s ring. In 1951’s Mother and Child crisis, Dublin’s Archbishop McQuaid vetoed state public-health legislation because it threatened to run afoul of Catholic teaching on the autonomy of the family. In today’s Ireland, where sexual cover-ups by bishops seem endless, this kind of controlling clericalism is unthinkable.

Amid the wreckage of the old church-state model, the future public role of Irish Catholicism remains to be determined. Many argue that Ireland is simply on the express route to post-Catholic Europe. Weekly Mass attendance has dropped to around 40 percent, and even lower in urban areas like Dublin. The Irish press generally praised Taoi-seach Kenny’s anti-Vatican outburst, and the World Atheist Convention held its global convocation in Dublin this June, with Irish Senator Ivana Bacik warning of “creeping fundamentalists” in Irish life. For all these reasons, papal historian George Weigel recently called Ireland “the most stridently anti-Catholic country in the Western world.”

Yet cries of anti-Catholic persecution are off the mark—and moreover won’t save Irish Catholicism. The truth is that disgust with large parts of the hierarchy simmers just as hot among observant Catholics as among atheists like Bacik. Fr. Gerry O’Hanlon, SJ, certainly no anti-Catholic, spoke for many devoted believers when he recently asserted that “our current model of church is nonsense.” Nearly 75 percent of weekly churchgoers tell the International Social Survey Programme that they think church leaders should not influence government. To oppose aspects of the Catholic Church’s historically unchallengeable power in Ireland does not betoken anti-Catholicism.

There exists a way forward. At its best, the Irish approach to church-state relations is well equipped to chart a middle path between religious rule and assertive secularism. That path would require the state to treat all religious communities equally without driving religion from public life—in the process encouraging religious participation in education and health care, and influence on public policy in such areas as criminal justice, housing, and foreign aid. Catholic officials would exercise influence through persuasion, not coercion, and in conjunction with partners of other faith communities.

Parts of the Catholic Church remain well placed to play a vital role in an Ireland shaken by economic crisis. Catholic social-service agencies like the Society of St. Vincent de Paul remain widely respected, and deftly blend political connectedness with grassroots knowledge of the suffering that exists in Ireland. The Council for Justice and Peace’s 2009 statement “From Crisis to Hope” offers an eloquent testament to Christian hope in the midst of economic gloom, and its indictment of the “radical individualism” threatening the common good has resonance well beyond Ireland. Social Justice Ireland, under the leadership of antipoverty activists Sr. Brigid Reynolds and Fr. Sean Healy, provides another source of Catholic-inspired economic analysis. As Ireland rebuilds its national community after a decade-long binge of deregulation and materialism, Catholic teaching about human dignity, family protection, and the common good can once again find a receptive audience.

Finding this audience, however, will require the church to acknowledge its complicity in the general culture of elitism and nonaccountability that allowed both the economic collapse and the systematic cover-up of sexual abuse in Catholic institutions. Further reports detailing these cover-ups seem likely, and they must be confronted openly. Ireland is fortunate to have Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, a leader dedicated to penance and to transparency in the workings of the church. Oversight by Ian Elliott and his National Board for Safeguarding Children represents a meaningful step away from clerical control—and encouraging it marks a welcome transformation in Catholicism’s public role in Ireland. Instead of deciding everything in privileged, cloistered negotiations around archbishops’ residences, today’s Irish church must work openly alongside other stakeholders in Ireland’s increasingly diverse public square.

This new pluralism is another striking sign of the times in modern Ireland. Walk around city-center Dublin today and you’ll find world-class curry, thriving Polish markets, and perfectly palatable burritos. In this regard Dublin stands out from the rest of the country to some extent, yet immigrant-assistance centers operate throughout the Republic. Africans, Eastern Europeans, and Asians call Ireland home, and are unlikely to leave no matter how long it takes the economy to recover. This diversity brings with it a new religious pluralism. African Pentecostal churches have sprung up in substantial numbers, and the 2006 census counted more than thirty thousand Muslims in the country. Dublin’s largest mosque, the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, sits in a lovely area of South Dublin not far from University College Dublin. Its minaret looks quite at home amid the surrounding greenery.

For Catholic leaders, the new and growing Irish pluralism presents an opportunity, pointing toward a future for Ireland as a multireligious nation rather than a postreligious one. Already, Catholic leaders have been supportive of Muslim efforts to open primary schools with state support. Officials at the Clonskeagh mosque in South Dublin spoke warmly of visits from Archbishop Martin. A range of Christian denominations have worked closely on the Parish-Based Integration Project, which provides congregations with resources to ease the arrival of new international members. Whenever the state engages in “structured dialogue” with the faith community today, the resulting photo-op gives some hope. Roman collars mix nicely with yarmulkes and prayer beads at the government buildings.

Ongoing debates about education reform will test this dedication to pluralism. How should pluralism fit within a state education system that is basically denominational? Again, it is important to emphasize that taking the wishes of minority parents seriously is not anti-Catholic. In a country where the Catholic Church controls over nine in ten primary schools, the challenge of protecting the rights of minorities, including those who identify as nonreligious, is a real one. Smart reformers, like the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Catholic Schools Partnership, are well aware that Ireland will have to address such challenges—or risk litigation by European human-rights bodies. And so Ireland finds itself in the ironic position of needing to protect the consciences of its religious minorities in order to preserve the public presence of Catholicism.

Dublin’s churches and real-estate developments have something in common: They are both half-empty. In the midst of religious and economic crises, Catholicism may simply drop out of Irish public life, or remain only as a vestigial reminder of earlier times. Yet hope persists that a commitment to addressing economic crisis, promoting internal accountability, and engaging pluralism can salvage the best of church-state relations in Ireland. The three defining features of today’s Ireland—economic crisis, abuse cover-ups, and increased pluralism—provide opportunities to put this new church-state model into action.

Research related to this article was conducted with support of the Cosmos Club Foundation.

Related: Ire-land, by Grant Gallicho

David T. Buckley is a doctoral candidate in government at Georgetown University.
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Published in the 2011-10-21 issue: View Contents
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