Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, one of the prelates tasked by the pope with investigating the damage wrought by Ireland’s clerical sex abuse scandal, reportedly delivered a sobering assessment at a recent meeting of Irish priests: Despite the Emerald Isle’s reputation as one of the last Catholic countries in the world, the Irish Church is at the brink of collapse, maybe even within a decade.
Just as striking was the response of one of Ireland’s leading churchmen, Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. In a remarkably frank talk last month, he said: “My belief is that in many ways the brink has already been reached. The Catholic Church in Ireland will inevitably become more a minority culture.”
“The challenge,” he continued, “is to ensure that it is not an irrelevant minority culture.”
The archbishop’s entire 5,300-word talk is worth reading in its entirety (and can be found at osv.cm/fP29y6). It is poignant, self-deprecating and intelligent. More importantly, it directly grapples with the central issue also faced by the Church in North America: how to evangelize effectively in a secular, pluralistic culture.
The central questions are: How much can the Church assimilate of the dominant culture to be able to speak to contemporaries without diluting its Gospel message? On the other side of the coin, how faithfully can it stick to its traditions and familiar language without returning to a ghetto existence, and becoming “an irrelevant minority culture”?
Here is the central challenge, as articulated by Archbishop Martin: “The paradoxical thing is that the farther the Church goes in adapting to the culture of the times, the greater is the danger that it will no longer be able to confront the culture of the time. ... There is a difficult path to tread between a fundamentalism which would pretend that the Church can have its own answer to all questions and a lack of courage to take up positions which may be culturally unpopular.”
Of course, the experience of the Church in Ireland is not exactly like ours. There, the abuse crisis was seemingly more far-reaching and devastating, and is still very new. There, Catholic participation in the Church is dismally worse — just 5 percent of Dublin Catholics attend Mass on Sundays (here, it is more like one-third).
But in some ways, there are close parallels, and not least because the Church in North America was shaped strongly by Irish missionaries. Archbishop Martin describes the nonintellectual and clericalist streaks in Irish religious culture, and those can be found in swathes of U.S. Catholic culture as well.
In other ways, we have it worse. We are a more polarized Church, and along more political lines. We have more self-professed “ardent” Catholics who too easily dispense with the Church’s harder teachings, whether on abortion, contraception, immigration, the death penalty or outreach to the poor and marginalized.
The challenge for the Church in North America is to rediscover the Gospel, in its entirety, and to resist allowing itself to be defined by political divisions.
Archbishop Martin’s assessment for Ireland applies equally well here: “The Church today more than ever needs saints and prophets. We should constantly remind ourselves that the one thing that even our most secularized societies really expect from the community of believers is that we witness to how Christ’s message can lead people in their search for the meaning of why we live and how we should live.”
The question we need to ask ourselves is: Are we, in our own lives, families and parishes, meeting that expectation?