Can Ireland Be Catholic Without the Church?

People visiting Knock Shrine, a Catholic pilgrimage site in Ireland, last year.

DUBLIN — Shortly before he died in 1989, the novelist John Broderick was asked by an interviewer what it meant to be Roman Catholic and Irish. “Anyone who is reared in a Catholic atmosphere,” he replied, “takes in that Catholic atmosphere more or less through their pores.” That we are a few decades removed from 1989 is clear enough. It became more so on Friday, when Ireland voted resoundingly to overturn its 35-year-old constitutional ban on abortion. And yet it takes more than one vote, or even two or three, to reverse that kind of osmosis.

It has become common in recent years to declare the end of Catholic Ireland. By now, it’s a familiar story: the clerical abuse scandals which made headlines in the 1990s so undermined the institution that it has been on a slow slide into irrelevance since, with Friday’s vote to repeal the country’s ban on abortion the latest — and in some ways, most significant — in a string of losses that have included the decriminalization of homosexuality and divorce and the legalization of same-sex marriage.

The importance of Friday’s vote as a blow to the institutional Catholic Church should not be understated. At times, it seemed as much a referendum on the church’s historic treatment of women as it was about abortion itself. Stories dating back decades of women who had been at the receiving end of the church’s intolerance have not lost their power to rouse public anger.

But if it’s clear that the institution of the church no longer commands the moral authority or the loyalty in Ireland that it once did, the end of Catholic Ireland, too, is an overstatement. Ireland remains defined by its relationship with Catholicism, because it has yet to develop another way to be. What isn’t yet clear is what the social and political consequences of this new relationship with the church are.

The idea of Ireland as the last bastion of a stable Catholic society has been a myth for decades. The numbers of those who opt to join the priesthood, to become nuns, or to join other religious vocations has been in serious decline since as early as the 1960s, driven not by revelations of abuse, but by the same factors that have been at work in other Western societies. As Ireland became better educated, richer and more secular, its people were increasingly less prepared to accept blindly the dictates handed down by priests and bishops on how they should live their lives.

The visit of the charismatic young Pope John Paul II to Ireland in 1979, which saw millions attending the various events that were organized around the country, was driven in part by an awareness in Rome that the church was already beginning to decline as a major political and social force in Ireland, a process that would only pick up momentum in the years directly following his departure.

To outsiders, the church in the 1980s might have appeared at the height of its power; with the emphatic support of the electorate, it won two referendums to keep divorce and abortion illegal in the first part of the decade. But serious challenges to church hegemony were already taking root. The introduction of free secondary education in the 1960s, along with the growing prevalence of television in Irish homes, enhanced disposable income and increased access to foreign travel, meant that a new generation, exposed to other types of societies, came of age in the 1980s who would eventually lead and win what journalist Patsy McGarry referred to as the “moral civil wars” on matters of contraception, divorce, homosexuality and, ultimately, abortion.

And yet if the dislodging of the church as Ireland’s most important institution has been a longer, slower process that many recognize, the idea that Ireland has simply transformed into another secular Western European country is also a caricature. In 2013, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin published an article entitled “A Post-Catholic Ireland?” in America: The National Catholic Review. In it, he explained that one can “fully define post-Catholic only in terms of the Catholicism that has been displaced.”

For the sociologist Gladys Ganiel, “post-Catholic” does not mean that the island of Ireland was once Catholic and now is not. Rather, she believes that the dominant, traditional form of Irish Catholicism is losing ground, but that different spiritual outlets are emerging to fill the void. In some cases, this has meant other forms of Christianity; in others, it has meant extra-institutional religion; in others, a new relationship with the church. But in all cases, the people Ms. Ganiel interviewed for her work could not stop talking about Catholicism, defining their choices in terms of the church or against it; Irish Catholicism may be in decline, but its legacy continues to cast a long shadow.

Just what the consequences will be of lingering Catholic identity in the midst of institutional rejection are not yet clear. Catholic culture is still alive and well. It can be seen in the language that people use and the customs they observe: making the sign of the cross when going past a church or invoking God in daily conversation, the enduring attachment to Catholic rituals associated with birth, marriage and death, pilgrimages and private prayer. When two of Ireland’s most accomplished writers of the twentieth century, Seamus Heaney and John McGahern — both of whom had strayed from the formal practice of religion — died in recent years, they opted for a conventional Catholic service.

Whether Catholic identity will play any role in politics is less clear cut. What the referendum result shows most obviously is a clear divide between those who cling to the model of an authoritarian church that tells people how they should think and act, and a more liberal form of Catholicism where people feel free to cherry-pick certain facets of teaching while ignoring others. Clearly, most people now demand more freedom of conscience and less rigidity when it comes to moral choices such as those surrounding abortion. At the same time, examples such as the recent resurgence of so-called “zombie Catholics” in France as a political force show that under the right circumstances, identities seemingly long-ago abandoned can retain tremendous pull. The effects of a traditional Catholic upbringing tend to lie dormant in the psyche of the baptized, only to reappear at the most unexpected moments.

Reflecting on his experience of growing up in Ireland during the 1960s and ’70s, the writer Roddy Doyle remarked in an interview in 1996 that it was almost impossible to be Irish if you weren’t both white and Catholic. That this is no longer true is clear. But that it was true for so long means that it cannot be so easily dismissed, even with an emphatic Yes.

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