Studies: Changing Catholic culture

September 27, 2022 in Featured News, News

The autumn 2022 Studies » is titled ‘Changing Catholic culture’. It means this firstly as a description of the seismic transformation of Irish Catholicism over recent decades, largely caused by the sordid history of clerical sexual abuse, the collaboration of religious congregations in oppressive state institutions, and the mendacious cover-ups by church officials. The contributors were asked to write in response to Derek Scally’s book The Best Catholics in the World, which is a thoughtful and honest bid to account for the transformation of the Church – how it went with such rapidity “from rigid reality to vanishing act”.

‘Changing Catholic culture’ also refers to the programme for the renewal of the Church in response to this transformation. Catholic culture must change. For Pope Francis, this can happen only when the Church becomes what it is – when it is properly set on a synodal path throughout the world, one on which all Catholics are given the space to relate their experience and to contribute to the Church’s direction.

In ‘Home truths: Irish neoliberalism’s eclipse of Irish Catholicism’, Kevin Hargaden takes his cue from Scally’s observation that ‘historic, economic and social circumstances made us subjects of a very particular type of Catholicism in Ireland’. What specifically set Irish Catholicism apart? In Hargaden’s view, the Irish Church took its shape from the anxiety over ‘societal legitimation’ and therefore the ‘pursuit of social and political influence through economic attainment’, which were inseparable from the ‘devotional revolution’ and Church reform of Cardinal Cullen in the mid-19th century. ‘If the capitalist ambition of the emerging middle class played a central role in explaining the rise of Irish Catholicism’, Hargaden asks, ‘why would it not play a part in its downfall?’

Applying the insights of Australian sociologist Melinda Cooper concerning the unlikely alliance between neoliberalism and neoconservatism, he argues that the sense of ‘family values’ that was enshrined in Irish Catholic life was traceable to the ‘moral vision’ of neoliberal technocracy. One way to continue Scally’s work, he suggests, would be to ‘consider the ways in which neoliberalism has stepped into the space that had been occupied by the church’. That this transition from the moral legitimation of Catholicism to that of neoliberalism occurred so smoothly is due to the fact that ‘Irish Catholicism had already cultivated and cherished these commitments over generations’.

In ‘Surviving the secular: faith, grief, parody’, Michael Kirwan SJ is ultimately sanguine about what he calls ‘the Church’s survival into a post-Christendom future’. The issue, as he sees it, is that it is not just the Church that is in crisis, but the secular state too. With Charles Taylor he rejects the ‘subtraction model’ of the secularisation thesis: ‘[I]t is simply not the case that stripping away religion reveals a fully coherent and autonomous (oven-ready?) secular social order’. Rather, secular society lacks the resources to provide a governing moral vision that establishes binding ideals – the kind of vision that religions can provide, as exponents of postsecularism affirm. So, there is an opportunity here for both religion and the secular order. Kirwan invokes Pope Francis’s image of a ‘polyphonic’ resolution, ‘emphasising harmony and complementarity’. As for the Church specifically, if it can learn once again to ‘parody’, to ‘re-work and re-dedicate what it finds to hand in the surrounding culture’, it may ‘survive and even flourish’.

Other contributions address the lived reality of being Catholic in Ireland today. Fr John Littleton writes of his own experience of priestly life, spanning nearly forty years. In recent years, deference towards the priest in Ireland has disappeared, and priests must learn to be “happy in their irrelevance”. For Gráinne Doherty, in ‘Women’s prophetic voice for the Church’, there is a striking disconnect between the experience of women and the Church’s language about them. The synodal process offers some hope, however. It has given the Church an opportunity to remember that “not only is it called to be prophetic, but it is itself challenged to listen to the prophetic voice of its own marginalised”.

Two members of the Irish Synodal Pathway Steering Committee are also contributors. Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick and Gerry O’Hanlon SJ express careful optimism that Pope Francis’s implementation of synodality can succeed in setting the Church on a new footing, one that would leave little room for the abuses of power that have blighted the Church in the past. Bishop Leahy sees Pope Francis as building on the work of his post-conciliar predecessors, taking the next step in implementing the ‘renewal movement’ by promoting its central themes of communion, mission, and participation. And Gerry O’Hanlon concurs with Scally’s warning that if the Church fails to reflect deeply on the sexual abuse scandal it runs the risk of ‘repeating, unconsciously and in new forms, the structural flaws of the past’. By inviting all the Church’s faithful to enter into a free and open dialogue, O’Hanlon asserts, the synodal pathway presents the Church with an opportunity to come to terms appropriately with abuse in its past.

In ‘Christianity for grown-ups’, Kieran O’Mahony OSA sees the longstanding failure of the Church to provide thorough catechesis – to give people an adult faith when they were no longer children – as critical in accounting for the atrocities perpetrated in the Church and to its general decline. And he too is hopeful that “the powerful awakening and ownership triggered by the Synodal pathway” will bring about the demise of the authoritarian Church of the past.

Br Emmaus O’Herlihy also provides an essay for this issue, to accompany his extraordinary painting of the Samaritan woman at the well, which hangs on the wall of the church in Glenstal Abbey and graces the cover of this issue of Studies. It conveys a relevant truth: “…that Christianity is founded, not on a set of creedal formulations or a logical system, but on the person of Jesus Christ’ – and to be in the Church is to enter into a dynamic encounter with Christ.