For so many people, Ireland would not be Ireland without its historic Catholicism, rigidly held despite four centuries of persecution, at times intense.
This image is changing quickly and rapidly.
Attendance at weekend Mass, not that long ago a cultural expectation, has plummeted. One estimate says that of the people in the Dublin archdiocese, the country’s largest, who identify themselves as Catholics, only 10 percent are in church on Sundays.
An Irish bishop, hardly an elderly man, told Our Sunday Visitor within the last year that when he began to serve as a bishop, he routinely met 100 children when he confirmed. “Now,” he said, “if I confirm 10 in a ceremony, I am lucky.”
In 20 years, divorces have multiplied 600 percent in any given year. Fewer and fewer marriages occur. More Irish couples live together without marriage, speaking of percentages, of course, than do couples in the United States.
The vocations picture is dismal. In living memory, Ireland was a reservoir of priestly vocations. Many priests still quite active in this country were born and reared in Ireland.
That day is long gone. Only one seminary is left to educate candidates for the diocesan priesthood. All the others closed for want of students.
Everywhere, Catholicism is becoming less and less a factor in life. In another 20 years, many fear, it virtually will be a memory.
The Irish situation is not unique in Western Europe. Spanish Catholicism is dramatically declining. The same is true of the Church in Belgium, Austria and Germany. French Catholicism started showing signs of trouble generations ago.
France’s current president is a good example, and it hardly is a matter of gossip or suspicion. He tells anyone who is interested that he is from a devout Catholic family, educated in Catholic schools, but now is an agnostic.
His predecessor has the same personal history, strong Catholic background, and so on. The former president still calls himself a Catholic but says outright that he never attends Mass, and he is married outside the Church.
The trend is quite visible, and it can be tracked.
First comes slippage in religious practice and Mass attendance. Then follows weaker and weaker connections with the Church. For a while, people still call themselves Catholics, but then this also fades. The new adults have no interest in their ancestors’ religion. They abandon, and often scorn, traditional religious values. They do not have their children baptized, nor do they rear them as Catholics.
Behind all this is the elevation of individualism. People on the basis of their own individual likes or dislikes, or personal opinions, make their own decisions without regard to what any outside authority or source may say.
A couple chooses to live together outside marriage. Who, they ask, is the Church to say it is wrong? Why attend Sunday Mass? I can worship God anywhere, and I do not need to be in a group. On and on the excuses and rationalizations go.
Many circumstances have an impact, such as literacy and instant communications. Once people relied on the Church, but because without the Church they had no access to revelation. This began to change with the Protestant Reformation, not exactly coincidental with the invention of the printing press. As Bibles were made available to the masses, people could study the Scriptures without Church interpretation.
Of course, always, it is easier to avoid following the Church if Church teaching requires hardship or something less preferred. This is nothing new.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.