Let’s talk about…The Catholic Church’s future

No religious institution should have the level of influence the Irish Church once did…

‘Part of why the Church continues to survive as well as it does… has to do with the administering, day-to-day running, and care-taking within local communities done under the Church by human beings who are genuinely well intentioned’

I imagine readers will have heard the joke about the atheist man who’s stopped at a roadblock in Northern Ireland and gets asked his religion – when he replies ‘atheist’, the response he gets is: “Sure, but are you a Protestant or Catholic atheist?”.

If all jokes have a bit of truth in them, anyone remotely familiar with Irish history will know the truths being observed by the joke as a whole. But even just the idea alone of an Irishman being a ‘Catholic atheist’ – as oxymoronic of a phrase it may seem – feels like it could have truth in it too.

According to the 2022 Census, 14% of Ireland is atheistic (an almost 200% increase on the 2011 figures). Given Ireland’s history, it’s not unreasonable to assume a significant portion of these were originally raised Catholic – but I don’t just mean that ‘Catholic atheist’ feels like it could describe some Irish atheists simply because they’re formerly Catholic. I mean that even if you’re now atheistic, until recently Catholic Ireland was the norm for so long, that it often remains the de facto way of life regardless.

As of 2021, 88.6% of Irish schools had Catholic patrons. If you have a child, the school they attend will more than likely be one with some form of Catholic ethos. Their schooling will probably routinely involve events like school Masses. When they grow up and begin participating more within their community, often, particularly in rural areas, communities will be divided along, and run under the auspices of, local parishes. We may no longer be a ‘Catholic country’ as it were, but because of the longevity of its influence on our society, to this day the sensibilities, norms, and frameworks of Catholicism still function as the given for Irish people, especially rurally.

But of course the Catholic Church itself has, by no means, the same level of influence and esteem in Irish society it once did. The 2022 Census revealed a 10% drop in the Catholic population since the last census alone, and even among those, many tend to be “less practicing” – not going to Mass every Sunday/only going for Christmas, etc. And while there’s many reasons why this is, undoubtedly one of the biggest catalysts behind why so many Irish people have moved away from Catholicism – or at the very least, the institution of it (as opposed to the belief) – must be the various scandals that have come to light over the years.

Revelations like what happened for decades in Ireland’s mother and baby homes, the Tuam babies, scandal after scandal of physical and sexual abuse against children – in addition to general heightened grievances regarding the Church’s greed, rigidity, intolerance, and bigotry – did a decimation to the public perception of the Irish Church that it’s never quite recovered from. And it’s something it frankly shouldn’t fully recover from; no religious institution should have the level of influence the Irish Church once did over every political and social issue.

The decline of Catholicism has also been spurred by the simultaneous decline in ordinations in recent years. Priest numbers are dwindling, putting pressure on remaining priests to take on extra responsibilities… all of this breathing new life into old debates about whether certain rules for entering the priesthood, such as taking a vow of celibacy or being a man, should be re-examined and perhaps done away with.

Given this recent topicality, the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland formed the focus of last week’s ‘Upfront with Katie Hannon’. Amid discussions around how the Church has failed Irish society in such massive ways historically, panellist and Catechist Caitríona Lynch tells the audience, “We have all been hurt and disappointed by our churches” because “Our churches are administered, run, and taken care of by human beings, who are flawed at the core of their being”.

This statement struck me. Not that it’s a totally surprising take… because I mean it does feel like an appropriately Catechistic read of the situation; humans being inherently flawed is a very ‘original sin’ line of thinking. But (from a non-Catechistic point of view), this statement struck me because I see it almost exactly the opposite.

Yes, when it comes to the big scandals, there are specific, very flawed humans whom direct blame can be put on. But the institution itself is not blameless; Catholicism as it once existed in Ireland was a belief system so intrinsically built upon patriarchy, shame, power dynamics, blind servitude, and control, that it created the perfect conditions for such flawed humans to get away with atrocities for a long, long time – and indeed, often to be shielded from consequences.

So then why, given these horrific scandals and how much the Church has fallen in people’s eyes, does Catholicism remain the majority religion by far, and still retain so many links in modern society in areas you’d expect to have become more secular? It could simply be the endurance of tradition, sure, but I believe a part of it has to do with what the practice of Irish Catholicism can look like on the micro-scale, because of the human beings who ‘run’ the Church on a local level.

There’s a tangibly genuine and empathetic intent behind the large contingent of Irish society that contribute to Church-related activities in some way or another – as mentioned, local priests taking on extra work to make up for dwindling ordinations, but also local people organising charity event-type fundraisers for church and community upkeep, those who volunteer to give their time to help out at different activities, etc – and people respect and appreciate this.

I don’t think it’s as simple as the Church “hurt and disappointed” us “because it is administered, run, and taken care of by human beings” who are inherently flawed. In fact I think if anything, part of why the Church continues to survive as well as it does (despite everything), has to do with the administering, day-to-day running, and care-taking within local communities done under the Church by human beings who are genuinely well intentioned.

The institution of the Catholic Church is on the decline, and this is not a bad thing; of course you can believe in whatever faith you want and feel whatever way about its popularity, but in terms of the institution itself, Ireland is long overdue a breather from its influence.

I wrote earlier about how parts of Irish society still operate through Catholic frameworks – for example, our 88.6% Catholic primary schools and our parish-based communities. And when we talk about the decline and the future of the Church, we must ensure that no matter what, deliberate effort is made going forward to allow such valuable parts of our society, which have traditionally operated under the Church, to transition to operating completely secularly. This is not just because it’s important for things like education and community groupings to exist without being restricted by certain religious ethos, but also because it’s important such things can continue if the Church declines drastically.

Who knows what lies ahead for the Catholic Church;  that’s impossible to gauge. But in the meantime, hopefully we make the effort to migrate away from the areas where the Church’s influence still unnecessarily permeates society (like with patrons still being over most schools), and eventually become the ‘secular Ireland’ we already claim to be… before the phrase begins to ring as plainly rubbish as ‘Catholic atheist’.