The End of Irish Catholicism?

by | Dec 4, 2012 | Church Archive, Church B, ZZ_All

The End of Irish Catholicism?

Author: Fr D. Vincent Twomey SVD

Publisher: Veritas Publications

ISBN-10: 1853906832

ISBN-13: 978-1853906831

Fr D. Vincent Twomey is a member of the Divine Word Missionaries and professor emeritus of moral theology, Pontifical University, Maynooth.


“…but it was Ireland he thought about, the husk of the old, the seed of the new. And often he wondered what that new would be.” – William Trevor

This is a book I did not intentionally set out to write. An invitation to speak to a seminar in the US on the state of the contemporary Irish Church sparked off a train of reflections, which, almost with an inner logic of their own, organically grew into the six chapters of the present book. From the start, it must be admitted that the end product is somewhat dangerously wide-ranging, going at times from analyses of the past to strategies for the future, and at other times from the apparently trivial (altar linen) to the obviously heavy-duty items (Church-State relations). But then faith touches on all aspects of life. While preparing the manuscript for publication, it struck me, further, that the wide-ranging nature of the book could easily create the false impression that the author presumes to have a solution for all the problems facing the Church in Ireland. This would clearly be, well, a slight exaggeration. Quite obviously, no one – not even a theologian! – has all the answers. Moreover, it is perilously easy to misunderstand the questions raised by ‘the Irish Catholic experience’. In fact, the actual subject matter is limited to certain parameters. The following reflections are mostly restricted to Catholic culture and customs rather than Catholic doctrine and morals (though the latter are always in the background – in the wings, as it were – and occasionally come on stage). In addition, I have tried to highlight areas of practice and structures that, it seems to me, urgently need to be debated as widely as possible if the Catholic Church in Ireland is to face and surmount the challenges presented by the new historical situation of our country, as she did so impressively in the past. These different subjects are all interrelated and so cannot be even vaguely adequately treated in isolation.

I am convinced that the time has come to take a look at the life of the Catholic Church in Ireland as a whole, not just aspects of it taken piecemeal. This broad enquiry must be undertaken in such a way that the major areas of concern can be examined in the light of the immediate past and against that broader vision which theology is meant to provide. It is time, in other words, to take a long, hard, and above all, critical look at where we are, how we got there, and how we might face the future. This justifies the wide canvas of this book. I am also convinced that we must be as frank, fair, and objective as possible about the ambiguities of that past, the positive achievements of the present (‘Modern Ireland’), as well as the inadequacies of the contemporary Church’s response to more recent cultural developments. If at times I may sound a bit too certain of my position, I beg the reader’s indulgence. My own excuse is that it is a by-product of my passionate love both for that religious tradition which endowed me with the inestimable gift of divine faith – the faith of our fathers – and for that Irish cultural and political heritage of which I am fiercely proud, whatever its weaknesses. If what I say, or how I say it, rouses the reader’s passion, then a constructive debate can begin. But such a debate is not to be presumed.

Irrespective of our natural love of conversation and informal discussion, the Irish Church has been singularly reticent about entering into the only kind of public debate that matters, namely one that leads to a resolution in terms of a change of heart and mind, or a change of the status quo (structures), brought about by means of reasoned argument. My main concern throughout the book is to illustrate how this lack of intellectual ferment came about, how impoverishing such a lack can be, and hopefully thereby contribute a little to overcoming that deficiency. The book could perhaps best be described as an exercise in pastoral theology, namely that branch of theology whose object is to analyse the contemporary experience of a local Church in the light of a clear theological vision with a view to articulating strategies for pastoral practice.

As already indicated, the following essays are the result of reflections sparked off by an invitation to contribute a paper to a seminar organised by the Institute of Irish Studies in Fordham University, New York, on 13 March 2001. The topic of the seminar was ‘The Irish Catholic Church Today’. These essays are the product of a lifetime’s experience as an Irish Catholic, first as a layman, later as a priest and theologian. Writing this book gave me the opportunity to test my reflections on the ‘traditional Irish Catholic heritage’ that formed the basis of my faith against the findings of those historians and thinkers, ecclesiastical and secular, who have written extensively on the Church in Ireland. But above all, I am concerned with the state of the contemporary Church and her future mission in a greatly changed Ireland. On sabbatical in Boston, I had both the necessary leisure from my duties as a lecturer and the required distance from home to reflect on the rather dramatic situation of the contemporary Irish Church in a way that would not have been possible in Ireland itself.

Being in America, I became conscious again of the quasi-identity of Irish and Catholic that is still a feature of public discourse in the United States, and so I begin my reflections by looking again at the historical origins of this fusion, which seem to be at least as much theological as sociological (chapter 1). Given this quasi-identity of Irish and Catholic, one may well ask: how Catholic was ‘traditional Irish Catholicism’? To reiterate what I said at the outset, the term ‘Catholic’ is used here to describe a cultural phenomenon rather than in its strictly doctrinal sense, though both are interrelated. Traditional Irish Catholic culture, I will argue, carried within it the seeds of its own decay despite its apparent power and splendour in days of yore. Those seeds were primarily of an intellectual, more specifically, of a theological nature, and their fruit is what amounts to a crisis of faith today (chapter 2).

The Church on earth is by its very nature a Church lurching from one crisis to another: it is after all, in more traditional parlance, the ‘Church militant’, the mystical Body at war with the evil within and without the Christian community. Christians are always a threatened species, and the Church is in every era confronted by what seem to be insurmountable difficulties. But it has always emerged renewed by the struggle. Today’s crisis, I am convinced, will in time yield a new flowering of Church life in a new environment, that of modern Ireland, though not without considerable effort and, even more, help from above. That help is assured. Less assured is our indispensable contribution. The limited task of the second part of the book is to explore what human initiatives might be undertaken to enable the Church to respond appropriately to the modern world by – among other things – tapping into the more ancient traditions of the Catholic Church, both local and universal (chapter 3). This in turn demands that we examine in all frankness the viability of the present shape of the ‘institutional Church’ in Ireland and of any possible structural changes needed to release the real potential within the body of the Church. Humanly speaking, I shall argue that this potential, in the past as at present, has largely lain dormant and is still untapped (chapter 4).

In contemporary Ireland, within and outside the Church, many forces seek to separate what previous generations thought history had indissolubly united. These forces are not exclusive to Ireland and have their parallels in other countries undergoing similar radical cultural changes. They come from the same root: modernity. The (ambiguous) phenomenon of modernity, a theme that runs through all these reflections, has had an enormous impact on Irish society – and we are still far from that collective self-consciousness which is critical of modernity, otherwise described as post-modernity. The question of Church-State relations, therefore, must be seen in this wider context. And so in the final essay, I take a brief look at the relationship between Church and State in Ireland, but doing so in such a way that we can learn some important lessons from the recent so-called Church-State controversies (on amendments to the Irish Constitution) in order to go beyond them and forge a new, constructive relationship between the two. An essential aspect of that relationship will be the development of a new pastoral strategy based on the cities rather than the countryside (chapter 5).

The effectiveness of any new pastoral strategy will depend, in the final analysis, on two interrelated factors. In the first place, there must be sufficient priests, religious, and committed laity whose vibrant faith and professional training will enable them to respond creatively to the spiritual and pastoral needs of modern Ireland. Numbers are a secondary consideration; quality alone is what counts. Secondly, there must be a shared theological vision that is at once local and universal. The so-called crisis of vocations is at root but another manifestation of the contemporary crisis of faith, this time primarily among clerics and religious, the recognition of which might be the first step towards overcoming it – and the first step towards the formation of a new kind of Catholicism suited to the twenty-first century. The second step, I argue, will involve a renewal of the theological roots of our tradition (chapter 6).

Professor Corish once warned that ‘theologians even more than other academics must be conscious of the fact that it is not their vocation to save the world’. Neither, of course, can they remain silent. One of their tasks is to ask how the Church as a human-divine community, at once local and universal, might fulfil her mission. That mission is intrinsically bound up with the salvation of the world. There is a spiritual richness within Irish society, a pearl of great price, today as yesterday, hidden in the lives of many Irish people in all walks of life. The task of the Catholic Church here as elsewhere, I shall argue throughout, is to enable that divine seed to flourish anew within the great Christian vision opened up by the Second Vatican Council. This book is offered, then, as yet another contribution to an on-going debate.

Despite the footnotes – more precisely, endnotes – this is not an academic study. The endnotes indicate the sources for information I draw on to try to clarify my own life-long experience of, and reflections on, Irish Catholicism. Though by no means exhaustive, the endnotes also point to more scholarly studies, enabling the interested reader to pursue a particular topic at a deeper level than is possible in a book of this nature, a book intended for the general reader. More precisely, the following essays are intended to provoke public debate on fundamental questions affecting all our lives. Should they also provoke scholarly disputes – in particular with regard to the chapter on Church-State relations, which is also the most expressly theological – this would be considered a bonus. But in the first instance, it is aimed at those interested in thinking about the future of Irish society and the Church’s role within it.


The following reflections are primarily (though not exclusively) concerned with the Catholic Church in the Republic of Ireland. This self-limitation simply acknowledges the fact that the cultural and social situation of the Church in the ‘North’ differs considerably from, and is in many ways even more complex than, the Church in the ‘South’, despite so much that we share in common. I should also point out that I am not immediately concerned with trying to assess the situation at ‘the grass-roots’ but rather with what might be called the public mood and, above all, the public voice of the Catholic Church in Ireland today. That public voice is somewhat muted, it seems to me, because the general framework of assumptions needed to speak and act decisively in the public forum has been weakened. That framework is itself an amalgam of historical, cultural, sociological, and economic elements. But, in the final analysis, it is theological in nature. That is my main thesis.

I wish to acknowledge my debt to Professor McCarthy, Fordham University, New York, whose initial invitation to contribute to the seminar mentioned above forced me to put on paper ideas I had been thinking about for years, and led eventually to the writing of this book. I also would like to thank the countless friends, colleagues, and library staffs who assisted me in various ways with this book in its gestation. My special thanks are due to the Divine Word Missionary Community, Beacon Street, Boston, for providing me with the perfect ambience for the study and reflection during my sabbatical, which issued in this book. Perhaps I may be pardoned in mentioning two people in particular, whose frank criticisms of the penultimate draft did much to improve the text, namely Br Paul Hurley, SVD, and Professor Emeritus Thomas Canon Finan who also suggested further literature, which I have tried to incorporate into the text. My thanks are also due to Br Paul and Lisa Tierney for their invaluable help at the proof-reading stage. All the imperfections in the text are, evidently, my own. And finally, a special word of thanks to Mr Toner Quinn, Editor of Veritas Publications, and his staff, for their patience and professionalism.

by D. Vincent Twomey SVD

Royal Catholic College of Maynooth

Feast of St Brigid, 2003



1. The Irish Catholic Identity

2. How Catholic is Irish Catholicism?

3. Which Path to Follow?

Appendix I

4. Structures for a New Millennium

5. Beyond Church v. State

Appendix II

6. Vocations and Theology

Appendix III

Instead of an Epilogue