An LGBT choir sings outside the Pastoral Congress at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin (CNS photo/Clodagh Kilcoyne, Reuters).

Fintan O’Toole is a terrific writer, and his We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland is a remarkable chronicle of the economic, political, cultural, and religious transformation of his native country over the six decades since his birth in 1958. O’Toole has been a prominent journalist, drama critic, and prolific author for years, and now splits his time between Dublin and Princeton University. Readers are lucky that he also writes—with an acute eye for the absurdist political theater of Donald J. Trump and his devoted followers—about American politics for the New York Review of Books.

In We Don’t Know Ourselves, O’Toole examines the fitful way in which Ireland eventually embraced a secular liberal modernity. Over his lifetime, Ireland evolved from a rural agricultural economy to a modern industrialized and technological one. Educational institutions that were once controlled by the Church were eventually secularized. Meritocracy increasingly replaced hierarchy and tradition. Turning its eyes outward, Ireland first joined the European Economic Community and then the European Union. A nation whose principal export for centuries had been its own people became a land welcoming to immigrants.    

The sixty years O’Toole writes about were in many ways a period of disorienting, sometimes anarchic change, as well as a shocking amount of political and economic corruption. This period of rapid change culminated in the internationalization of Ireland’s economy and—after countless revelations of the sexual and physical abuse of children—the complete collapse of the Catholic Church’s moral authority. On that score, O’Toole is perhaps a bit too sanguine about the new nonjudgmental moral dispensation, which he claims rests on “the recognition by most of the faithful that they were in fact much holier than their preachers, and that they had a clearer sense of right and wrong, a more honest and intimate sense of love and compassion and decency.” To be sure, Ireland is a more tolerant and open society than it was in O’Toole’s youth, a development much to be praised. But his assessment of the laity’s virtues, now that they have thrown off the Church’s yoke, is hard to reconcile with his principal contention that the Irish have always knowingly participated in the hypocrisies of both Church and state. He describes that attitude as “a genius for knowing and not knowing at the same time.” 

Nevertheless, what O’Toole has to say about traditional Irish Catholicism, especially its puritanical attitude toward sex, rings all too true. “When all sex is wrong, no kind of sex can be more wrong than any other,” he writes. “Everything is beyond the pale of discourse. Everything is out of bounds—so therefore there are no boundaries. Everything is unspeakable, so nothing is speakable. This is what created a perpetual open season for sexual predation of children.”

He is even shrewder in his analysis of the relationship between the Church and a modernizing Ireland when he describes John Paul II’s much-heralded 1979 pilgrimage to the island. The Ireland of O’Toole’s youth was a confessional state that boasted of the close bond between Celticism and Catholicism. As O’Toole notes, two-thirds of the Irish populace attended one or another of the pope’s outdoor Masses, a seeming tribute to the enduring strength and vitality of the Church. But things are not always as they appear. He praises John Paul II’s denunciation of the IRA’s terrorist violence then convulsing Northern Ireland, but he’s more skeptical of the pope’s warnings about Ireland’s possible loss of Catholic identity. “What he was afraid of was money and modernity,” O’Toole perceived. “The pope did not say directly that Ireland’s faithfulness was linked to its relative poverty, that the country was much more religious than the rest of western Europe because it was less developed economically. But he strongly implied it in his warnings about the coming times.” 


O’Toole, a former altar boy, was in his early twenties during the pope’s visit, and like many of his contemporaries he was captivated by contemporary youth culture and its embrace of sexual freedom, much of it imported from America. During John Paul II’s visit, he celebrated a Mass for youth in Galway, where he was treated like a rock star. At one point, the youthful crowd cheered the pope for fourteen uninterrupted minutes, a demonstration O’Toole was initially confounded by. “He was trapped in a feedback loop of adoration where every movement he made to signal that he was about to continue his sermon was received as if he were conducting the crowd.” The cheering only subsided after the crowd was sternly told that “[t]he Holy Father has not finished his sermon.” It was only years later that O’Toole recognized what had brought about such fervent emotion. “The crowd was not reveling in piety. It was reveling in itself, in its own youth and energy and unbounded vigor. It was taking over, inserting itself into the event, insisting on its own anarchic presence. It did not know or care about what it was actually doing; shutting the pope up.” 

Nevertheless, what O’Toole has to say about traditional Irish Catholicism, especially its puritanical attitude toward sex, rings all too true.

That might seem like a tough judgment, but given the subsequent de-churching of O’Toole’s generation, it’s probably a fair one. Across his pontificate, John Paul’s famous World Youth Days brought together millions of young people. Those “Catholic Woodstocks” were often heralded as harbingers of a rebirth of faith among alienated youth, a rebirth that now appears to have been a stillbirth. I remember the extraordinary hype given to World Youth Day in 1993 in Denver, where more than half a million pilgrims gathered to see and hear John Paul II. Even twenty-five years later, papal biographer George Weigel insisted on calling the event “a turning point in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States,” evident in what he judged to be “the living parts of the Church.” 

But as O’Toole notes, it is not always clear what motivates those in attendance at such events, or how they understand the experience. If he is right, the young people in Galway that day felt themselves to be at the edge of a wave of change that would carry them into a future very different from the past. By a similar measure, the turning point Weigel perceived seems to have set the U.S. Church in an unanticipated direction. One in every three Americans baptized as Catholics has left the Church. Vocations have plummeted. In many dioceses, parishes continue to close. Catholic liberals and Catholic conservatives have dueling explanations for this exodus; one pushes for more reform while the other preaches retrenchment. As a fellow baby boomer, I find O’Toole’s suggestion that the Galway crowd was “insisting on its own anarchic presence” to be persuasive. Much of the experience of coming of age in the 1960s and ’70s was anarchic, and often found expression in mass celebratory gatherings. Those events, however, rarely helped to revitalize institutions, like the family and religion, that have traditionally been the glue that held a society together. 

“The real effect of the loss of Church authority was that there was no deeply rooted civic morality to take its place,” O’Toole writes about the endemic political and economic corruption that has rocked Ireland in recent decades. “The Irish had been taught for generations to identify morality with religion, and a very narrow kind of religion at that. Morality was about what happened in bedrooms, not boardrooms. Now, instead of moving from one sphere to the other, it seemed to be lost somewhere in between.” This raises an awkward question: Now that we’ve given up on legislating morality in the bedroom, do we still have the ability to legislate it anywhere else? Our anarchic politics and the grotesque inequalities of our economic and legal systems seem to be telling us we don’t. The moral autonomy we now concede to the adulterer and the “ethically polyamorous” is becoming harder to deny to the avaricious billionaire. In addition to its rigorous sexual rules, the medieval Church also had sumptuary laws restricting extravagant spending and consumption. Needless to say, neither set of prohibitions was strictly observed. But perhaps these prohibitions expressed a keener understanding of human nature and social reality than the one that prevails in our emancipated age.  

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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