Several weeks after Pope Benedict XVI issued a letter urging a renewal of the Faith in Ireland, one of the country’s leading prelates gave his thoughts on the future of the Irish Church. His words were both somber and sobering.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin gave a May 10 speech to the Knights of Columbanus, the Irish equivalent to the Knights of Columbus.

What caught the attention of the media was what he had to say about the country’s clergy sex abuse scandals. He spoke of “strong forces which would prefer that the truth [about child abuse] did not emerge.” 

He also hinted at “worrying signs” that the Church’s child protection norms are not being properly followed.

Going beyond scandals 

However, the great bulk of his talk was devoted to the topic of renewal in the Church. He said he sees very few signs of renewal and, therefore, “I have never since becoming archbishop of Dublin felt so disheartened and discouraged about the level of willingness to really begin what is going to be a painful path of renewal and of what is involved in that renewal.” 

Archbishop Martin said he did not believe that people “have a true sense of the crisis of faith that exists in Ireland.” 

It may be assumed that he was speaking chiefly about a crisis of faith brought about by the abuse scandals. But, in fact, what those scandals have mainly caused is a collapse of public trust in the bishops and have increased anti-Catholic feelings among those who were already ill-disposed toward the Church, in addition to increasing cynicism toward the Church among many young people. 

But they have not caused any further decline in Mass attendance. Vocations have not fallen any lower. Practicing Catholics appear able to distinguish between the Faith and the institution of the Church. 

What Archbishop Martin was actually referring to in his talk was a more generalized crisis of faith that would exist even without the scandals. 

‘Least evangelized’

It was this, for example, that led him to describe young people in Ireland as “among the most catechized in Europe but the least evangelized.” 

He said religious education is “being shifted to the margins of school life in many Catholic schools.” He spoke also of a disconnect between those schools and the local parishes. 

He then criticized parishes for offering “very little in terms of outreach to young people.” 

A superficial examination of the Church in Ireland might seem to contradict his assertion. After all, weekly Mass attendance hovers around 45 percent, and if you add in people who go at least monthly, more than 60 percent of Catholics still go to Mass regularly. That is higher than virtually anywhere else in the West. 

Even more strikingly, more than 90 percent of primary schools are Catholic, as are 70 percent of secondary schools. 

Given the fact that so many young people are exposed to Catholic teaching throughout their school life, how is it possible that so few are evangelized? Indeed, how can it be that in a modern — and increasingly secular — democracy so many schools are Catholic and in receipt of public funds as well? 

Watered-down identity 

The answer lies in the period before Ireland won independence from Britain in 1922. 

Essentially, the Catholic Church in the 19th century established a nationwide system of parochial schools as an alternative to a state-run system dominated by a foreign power. Once independence came, the newly formed state had a choice: It could develop its own system of schools or it could support the existing schools. It chose the latter option. 

Today, of course, Ireland is far less Catholic than it was at the time of independence, and therefore it is certain that the Church will have to reduce its involvement in education. 

The number of schools it still controls, in theory (the Department of Education often is the dominant player in practice), exceeds the true level of demand for such schools. The fact is, many parents who no longer practice their religion send their children to the local Catholic school because it is the only school in their area. 

In addition, many teachers, and even school principals, no longer practice their faith, and the result is that a growing number of Catholic schools are not as Catholic as they seem. 

The ethos of many Catholic schools is now so watered down in many cases that, apart from preparation for first Communion and confirmation, there is little to suggest that these schools are, in fact, Catholic. 

In addition, the catechetical material used in schools is often of low quality. Many pupils graduate without even knowing the basics of the Faith. One survey showed that a third of 15- to 24-year-olds can’t name the Holy Trinity, for example. 

Archbishop Martin also highlighted the disconnect between schools and parishes. Even though primary schools are mostly attached to parishes, in practice they are much more under the control of the Department of Education. This tends to push the parish priest to the margins. But in any case it is clear that most parishes leave too much up to the schools. So do many Catholic parents, who mistakenly believe children receive adequate catechesis in school.

Call to action 

Put all of this together, and it becomes clearer why Archbishop Martin told the Knights that he is so discouraged. The prospects for faith renewal in Ireland are, as he says, remote under present circumstances. Parents, priests, parishes and schools must realize the extent of the crisis of faith in Ireland and then forge a new alliance to correct the situation. 

Until they do, Mass attendance will continue to decline, vocations will remain very low, and young people will remain unevangelized. 

Archbishop Martin’s talk may have been rather depressing, but in the main it was also accurate and should be a spur to action. Whether it will be is another question entirely. 

It is evident that, so far as the archbishop is concerned, the future of the Faith in Ireland hangs in the balance. It is clear he believes that, if present trends continue, it will shrink until it is practiced only by a small minority. 

David Quinn is former editor of The Irish Catholic, a columnist with The Irish Independent and founder and director of The Iona Institute.

Following Christ's Model

“The Catholic Church in Ireland, as I said, will have to find its place in a very different, much more secularized culture, at times even in a hostile culture. It will have to find that place by being authentic and faithful to the person and the message of Jesus Christ. The agenda for change in the Church must be one that comes from its message and not from pressure from outside and from people who do not have the true good of the Church at heart. We all have reasons to be discouraged and to be angry. There is a sense, however, in which true reform of the Church will spring only from those who love the Church, with a love like that of Jesus which is prepared also to suffer for the Church and to give oneself for the Church.”