Catholic Ireland is still standing

By  Michael Higgins
  • September 25, 2009
{mosimage}It is a strange business trying to make sense of Irish Catholicism. In recent years pundits of various colour and hue have sounded the death knell of the Irish Catholic Church. Books have been written about the agonizing last days of a once proud church; editorialists and commentators have announced with triumphalistic emphasis the demise of, well, Irish Catholic triumphalism; cartoonists and satirists have had a heyday with errant priests and libidinous bishops; documentary makers have worked the very entrails of Catholic history and its dark infamy.

And yet the Irish Catholic Church is still very much around. Cowed admittedly, humbled undeniably, but still in working order.

I was in Ireland recently — both the Republic and Northern Ireland — as part of a Government of New Brunswick delegation on trade, cultural tourism and higher education matters. There is a long and largely illustrious history connecting Derry and Donegal with New Brunswick and we were there celebrating that connection on the occasion of the dedication of “The Fid,” an impressive wooden sculpture on the wharf of Moville — the embarkation point for many of the province’s 19th-century ancestors.

But there is more to Ireland than a fid.

Religious news receives prominent coverage in the Irish media — sometimes very unwelcome coverage and not without consequence for the nation proper. What is important, and yet often lost sight of, is the simple fact that religion is still taken seriously enough in Ireland to warrant coverage. 

In many respects contemporary Ireland is like post-Quiet Revolution Quebec. But in many other respects it is not and the differences are remarkable. For instance, weekly attendance at Mass remains appreciably higher than in any other nation in the European Union save Poland; churches and chapels retain a religious function rather than serving as heritage markers; the Catholic press is active, well subscribed and rigourously investigative (although not all media organs are); Catholic post-secondary education is thriving and theological schools appear to crop up everywhere (although the staying power of many of them is questionable); and the hierarchy’s opinions are sought if not heeded when it comes to the social and political welfare of the state. They continue to be seen as a source of some authority.

Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin is often asked  by the political powers for his counsel and recently served on a special commission established by the Lord Mayor to look into the rise of gun violence in the capital. Given his record for mediation, diplomacy and human rights it was an inspired choice. On the ecclesiastical front, the impending release of a report on the abusive behaviour of a number of clerics in the Dublin archdiocese is likely to make his life more stressful than it already is. But he has proven to be an estimable bishop at a time of deep moral malaise.

But there is also an economic malaise infecting the island that was once the darling of the European Union. Known until recently as the Celtic Tiger for its unparalleled economic prosperity, Ireland now has the second highest unemployment rate in the EU, a skyrocketing deficit and a perilous fiscal situation that has put it within the Iceland orbit of default and collapse. House foreclosures and mortgage defaults are at an all-time high. Not good news.

But the Irish in both the Republic and in the North are resilient. The Bogside in Derry consists now of new and attractive flats; the Shankhill Road and the Falls Road areas of Belfast (at one time a visible illustration of the apartheid effects of sectarianism) are now passable; and Belfast itself has increased its hotel and B & B accommodation by 2,000 per cent in the last five years.

In addition, as The Irish Times trumpeted in one of its lead editorials: “Seventy-five-thousand babies brought joy into homes across the state last year and nudged the population to a level not seen in more than 100 years.” Try reading that in the Iberian peninsula or indeed in the very seat of Christendom: Italy.

As well, enrolment in Irish seminaries has reached its highest level following a decade of steep decline and, perhaps the most surprising bit of news for a media junkie like me, readership of the vast majority of the 17 daily and Sunday editions of the newspapers has increased, whereas the international trend is to plummet.

As I say, it is a strange business making sense of the Irish.

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