Mark Patrick Hederman
Columba Press, $26.95, 194 pp.
In Underground Cathedrals, Mark Patrick Hederman, OSB, abbot of Limerick’s Glenstal Abbey, has written a brave and timely book. His focus is on the still-unfolding collapse of Irish Catholicism, the one ecclesiastical establishment in Western Europe whose dominance and influence seemed so firmly founded that the Gates of Hell—and then some—would not prevail against it.
To use Yeats’s oft-quoted lines, “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.” In the case of Ireland, the change—the almost simultaneous discrediting of the country’s religious and financial establishments, Catholic Lion and Celtic Tiger, old god and new—seems likely to give birth to consequences more terrible than beautiful.
Hederman makes no attempt to downplay the horrific revelations of abuse made public by the Ryan and Murphy reports. Widening his lens to take in the universal church and its history, he casts a cold eye on the church’s suspicion (at best) of women and sexuality, attitudes sanctioned and supported by the blatantly misogynistic writings of (among others) Augustine and Aquinas. At the same time, he acknowledges the complex relationship between Irish state and Irish church, leaving no doubt that, if church was ready to use state to its ends, state was quite content to do the same with church. Citing the Magdalen asylums established to keep prostitutes under regimes intended more for punishment and humiliation than rehabilitation, Hederman underlines...