Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s address at the Fordham Centre of Religion and Culture, New York,

24 Apr 2013

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s address at the Fordham Centre of Religion and Culture, New York, 24 April 2013

The Russo Family Lecture : Catholic Ireland: Past, Present and Future

Ireland has changed and Ireland is changing.  The other evening I was at a lecture in the Italian Embassy in Dublin about Ireland in renaissance times.  I was struck by two quotes chosen by the lecturer.  The first was from Pope Pius II, Piccolomini, written in 1458 looking at the situation of Europe at the time.  He concluded his three sentences on Ireland writing: “since nothing worth remembering took place there during the period we write about, we hurry on to matters Spanish”.  I can tell you, much worth remembering and much that we would prefer not to remember has taken place in the Ireland of recent times.

The second quote was from Petrarch who, in the latter part of the 12th century, noted about Ireland: “in one year you will hardly hear it thunder once.  No thunderbolts cause terror here, no lightening ever strikes”.  That quote should make anyone who still had lingering doubts recognise that climate change is a reality!

I entered the seminary in Dublin in October 1962 just one week before the opening of Vatican II.  The winter of 1962/63 was one of the bleakest winters for decades and our seminary was a very cold place in more ways than one.  My memory of the seminary is of a building and a routine, a discipline and a way of life which seemed to have been like that for decades.   Even to someone who was not a revolutionary, it all seemed so out of touch with the world from which I had just come, and in which my friends were thriving.   But you were not supposed to think that way.  Things were to be done as they had always been done.  The Catholic Church was unchanging, but that was about to change.


For years now people looked to Ireland as a vibrant and sustainable model for strong economic growth.  Countries were told to follow the Irish example.  Today the economic situation of Ireland is full of uncertainties, precisely at a moment when confidence and trust are urgently needed.  On the other hand, for decades Ireland was looked on as one of the world’s most deeply and stably Catholic countries and today Ireland finds itself along with other parts of Europe being classified as “post-Catholic”.

I would issue here my first warning.  Everyone has his or her own definition of “post-Catholic”.  You can only fully define post-Catholic in terms of the Catholicism that has been displaced.  Irish Catholicism has its own unique history and culture.  Renewal in the Irish Church will not come simply from imported plans and programmes.  Renewal must be home-grown.  You must understand where Irish Catholicism is coming from.

Ireland does of course share the same currents of secularization with other counties of the Western world and thus shares many of the same challenges. There are specific challenges within Europe; there are specific challenges which are common to the English-speaking world.  There is however a danger that people think that because Ireland is an English-speaking country it can be put into the same category as the United States and Great Britain.

Ireland is different.  Neither the United States nor Great Britain was ever a predominantly, much less a dominantly, Catholic country.  The demographics and the cultural presence of Catholicism in society were different and still remain different.  Indeed one would have to say that today Northern-Irish Catholicism is different to that in the Republic of Ireland.  There are some who feel that all the answers to the problems of the Church in Ireland might be solved by learning from Northern Ireland where years of conflict forged a tighter Catholic identity.   There may be some truth in that but it could also be misleading as Northern Ireland itself is changing.

Curiously if anything there is a growing difference between the social realities in Ireland North and South because of the evolving differences in social policy and the emergence of a possible unforeseen consequence of the peace process: a new Northern Ireland identity.  You can no longer simplistically equate Catholicism and nationalism in Northern Ireland.  A very large number of Northern Irish Catholics would favour staying in the United Kingdom.

What happened?  Why did so much happen so quickly? How can the overall economic climate of a country change almost overnight?  Who was asleep or were we all asleep?  The deeper question is: what were the underlying values that underpinned the better-times-Ireland?  How did we underestimate the fact that the success of an economic model ought to have been evaluated in terms of long-term social sustainability of jobs, mortgages and borrowing, of life style, education and health care as well as sustainable opportunities for young people?  What was going on in the way “Catholic Ireland” was thinking?

Ireland is today picking up the pieces economically and paying the price socially.  The social effects are dramatic.  I was talking to teachers at recent confirmations and they tell me of the, often, unseen hardships that some of their young pupils are facing.  In modern Ireland many children come to school without having had breakfast; in some schools the level of under-nourishment is such that children’s learning ability is being hindered.

There is growing anxiety that the austerity measures introduced to respond to the economic crisis are now coming to a social breaking point.  At a time of rapid change, ownership of social change is vital if change is to be accepted and fully embraced. Who however wants to own policies of austerity?  There is a certain flight from political ownership.  In Ireland it is easy to put the blame on the previous government.  It is too easy simply to say that it is being imposed from the outside or by necessity and that we would really prefer to do it somehow differently.   You will not generate ownership if the measures imposed are applied arbitrarily across the board and do not appear to differentiate according to real situations, especially the situation of those already vulnerable.  We see that in Ireland in some policies regarding education or healthcare or the care of the elderly.

Only two days ago I attended a national Congress of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul where it was noted that people who one year ago were contributors to the society are one year later turning to the Society for help.     Patience is wearing thin; it is hard for some to hope.

What happened the Church?  When I was asked to return to Dublin, Pope John Paul asked me why secularisation had taken place so rapidly in Ireland.   It was one of the rare occasions when I told a Pope he was wrong!  The roots of change in Ireland were there but were not seen.  It is not that Ireland is today in a momentary out-of-the ordinary period in its history, somehow temporarily adrift from what is really the default position. There is no default position anymore and there has not been such a position for some time.  In many ways the Church in Ireland had been trapped in an illusory self-image.  The demographic majority which the Church enjoyed hid many structural weaknesses and the Church became insensitive to such weakness.  In the immediate post Vatican II period there was a moment of enthusiastic renewal in the Irish Church and the positive acceptance of change probably indicated that there was already a deep dissatisfaction and a desire for change in the Irish Church and the Church leadership was out of touch with the religious sentiment of the people.

The Catholic Church in Ireland had for far too long felt that it was safely ensconced in a “Catholic country”.  The Church had become conformist and controlling not just with its faithful, but in society in general.  I was at a seminar last week about the Church’s self-understanding as a “perfect society”.  All I can say is that anyone who might have thought that “Catholic Ireland” was anything like a perfect society must now be very disillusioned.

Faith in Jesus Christ must open us out beyond human horizons.  Christian faith requires changing our way of thinking, of trusting in God’s love rather than in the tangible securities of day to day life.  When faith leads to conformism it has betrayed the very nature of faith.  Conformism falsely feels that it has attained certainty.  Faith is always a leap into the unknown and a challenge to go beyond our own limits and beyond our own narrow certainties and the distorted understanding that comes from them.

In the comments he made at the congregation of the Cardinals just before the Conclave, Pope Francis spoke about the need for the Church to break out, to break out into what he called the outskirts – the frontiers – of human existence.    And he added when the Church does not break out of herself to evangelise she becomes auto-referential and so shuts herself in.  “The evils which as time passes afflict ecclesial institutions are rooted in self-reference, a sort of theological narcissism”. One of the keys to understanding the mismanagement of the recent child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland must be precisely the measure in which the Church in Ireland had become auto-referential.

The effects of the child abuse scandals have had a demoralising effect on the entire Church in Ireland and continue to have.  In one sense the scandals could not have come at a worse time, in that confidence in the Church was well on the wane and when the scandals broke their effects were devastating.  Today, Ireland has strong child protection measures in place and the Irish Church is a much safer place for children than in the past. I would like to pay tribute to National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church and in particular, Ian Elliot, for their extraordinary contribution in helping make the Church a safer place for children, as can be seen with the publication today of the latest NSBCCC reports.

One still however has to ask where the roots of this scandal and its mismanagement were to be found within the Church.  Was the issue simply the action of a few deviant priests who did not represent the Church, or was there something deeper?

Certainly the overwhelming majority of priests in Ireland led and lead an exemplary moral life, they carry out their ministry with great dedication and enjoy great support and affection from their people and contribute and support the new ethos of child safeguarding.

What are extraordinarily high are the numbers of children that were abused, and we are talking thousands, and in the case of the Archdiocese of Dublin, the number of priests who were serial paedophiles.   There is no way you can simply explain away the huge number of those who were abused and the fact that this took place undetected and unrecognised within the Church of Jesus Christ.   Today we are in a safer place, but it took decades to attain this.

One of the great challenges the Irish Catholic Church still has to face is that of strong remnants of inherited clericalism.  The days of the dominant or at times domineering role of clergy within what people call the “institutional Church” have changed, but part of the culture still remains and from time to time reappears in new forms.   We often overlook the fact that the very term “institutional Church” only has meaning in a context of clericalism.

Clericalism will only be eliminated by fostering a deeper sense of the meaning of the Church and that understanding of the nature of the Church will come not from media strategies or simply by structural reforms, but by genuine renewal in what faith in Jesus Christ is about.  If we focus only on structures and power there is a risk that clericalism might be replaced by neo-clericalism.

The Christian presence in society is not achieved by the imposition of a manifesto or simply by high profile social criticism.  It is more about the witness which people give to Christian principles, mediated within the particular responsibilities they carry.

For generations now the Irish Catholic Church relied on Irish society in general to be the principal instrument for the passing on of the faith. Day by day that becomes less and less the case. The religious culture of Ireland has changed.  Many people say to me that they reject the Church but still consider themselves believers in Jesus Christ.  The difficulty is that in such a situation, without a personal and rigorous intellectual encounter with the scriptures and Christian tradition, a person can drift into something which is their own, rather than a challenging encounter with their faith.  The realities of faith if viewed, consciously or unconsciously, through secularised lenses, can easily end up with a distortion of faith or an inability to understand the logic of belief.

I am not saying that reform of structures is not necessary within the Church.  Anything but!  What I am saying is that such reform without on-going radical renewal in the faith will end up with the wrong structures and indeed might end up just answering yesterday’s unanswered questions tomorrow.   Clericalism will to some extent vanish when a new culture of co-responsibility and collaboration develops.

There is a further and more vital need: that of charting a new path to allow the Church once again to impact on society and mediate the Christian message into the broad culture of the Ireland of tomorrow.  Reform is not just an inner-Church reality.   A Church trapped in inner Church squabbles will never be attractive to others.

The Church will relinquish many of the institutional roles it has held in Ireland.  But it does not mean that the Church should retreat into sacristies or into the private values systems. If anything its presence must become even more vigorous within society. I am not advocating here imposing one’s belief on others nor of establishing a sort of Catholic mafia to manipulate society. I am not thinking just of the area of sexual morality.  I am talking about the place of faith and of believers in the social, economic and political and cultural world.   I am talking about the type of person I have so often encountered in international life.  These were people who are recognised by their colleagues as people whose religious faith brought an added dimension to the quality of their professional life and to their broad humanitarian concern.

The Catholic Church requires lay man and women whose faith enables them to dare to hope and who will challenge us to expand the parameters of our hope beyond the narrow confines that each of us individually and as communities consciously or unconsciously fix for ourselves. The Church has to re-find its ability to form leaders in an Ireland which is facing new challenges culturally economically, politically and religiously.

Where do we find these new leaders who will be in the forefront of the presence of the Christian message in the society of tomorrow?  How will they be educated and prepared for their task?  Where are the points of contact between the Church and the new culture of Irish society?

We have men and women who take this task on in the media world.  Much of our Catholic punditry is as ideological as much of the punditry of the other side.   Catholic punditry of this kind will only appear to the other side as narrow defensiveness, while the analogous secular punditry will be perceived as entrenched anti-Catholicism.  Why is it that the type of mature dialogue between believers and atheists and non-believers that we find in other European societies – in the academic world, in the media and indeed in Churches – does not happen in Ireland?

Let me take brief look at the changed demographics of Catholic Ireland. Church attendance is very low in some areas, especially in socially deprived areas.  In Dublin, Mass attendance is generally highest in middle class parishes, where parishioners are middle class economically and liberal middle-of-the-road on matters of Church teaching.  They are parishes however where there is a sense of community and activity.  There is a growing interest in adult faith formation, but as yet generally on an irregular basis. Irish Catholics are generous to the Church even in hard times.  The Dublin Eucharistic Congress was financed above all by the voluntary contribution of ordinary Catholics.   The presence of young people in the life of these parishes is however minimal. The strong backbone of good Catholics in Ireland is an aging group.

Where there are signs of youth participation in the Irish Church it is among more conservative young Catholics.  Is this where the future of the Irish Church lies?  I am not sure.  Many of these movements of young, more traditional Catholics are very limited in numbers and make little inroads into the lives of their peers.  When it comes to New Evangelisation the Irish Church has to ask radical questions as to where it should be directing its resources.

On the question of vocations, numbers are low and the seminarians are divided between two establishments, one in Ireland and one in Rome, neither of which can really achieve its aims on the basis of such small numbers.  There are religious congregation which have not had an ordination for fifteen years and more.  There are dioceses which have currently no seminarians.  No one from West of the River Shannon entered the seminary this year.  It is not the case of a secularised urban Ireland and a healthy rural Ireland.  The same cultural processes are at work across the country.

With regard to the Archdiocese of Dublin we have been able to carry out detailed research on the basis of the most recent census figures of 2011, matching them to parish boundaries and to the boundaries of the entire diocese.   There are a number of interesting facts.  The population of the diocese has gone up significantly, but the numbers of those who registered as Catholics has remained at about 1,200,000.  About one quarter of the population of the Archdiocese registered as something other than Catholic, well above the national average.  It is very clear that of the three quarters who ticked the “Catholic box” on the census form many would not be practicing or even in any real contact with the Church.  This gives a very different demographic picture than the one at times presented or presumed.  There are already parishes in Dublin where Catholics are in a minority and it is clear that the cultural Catholicism which today still exists will not continue for ever.

Another significant fact is that the numbers of those under 6 years of age is higher than those over 70.  Ours is a young diocese.  The cohort of one year olds and two year olds is larger than that of six and seven year olds.   Demographers estimate that the population of the island of Ireland will once again reach the 8,000,000 of pre-famine Ireland and that 50% of that population will live on a narrow strip of land along the East Coast of Ireland from Gorey to Dundalk most of which will be within the territory of the Archdiocese of Dublin.  Will that emerging demographic reality still be “Catholic Ireland”?

How should the Church be looking at the faith formation of this growing number of young people?   Until now the formation of young Catholics depended in great measure on the schools. The specific preparation for the sacraments of First Communion and for Confirmation took place within the schools and at times the link between family, school and parish was problematic.

Almost all Irish education at elementary level has traditionally been denominational, with Catholic schools making up well over 90% of all such schools  These schools  are fully funded by the State and were thus until very recently the only form of State school that existed.  With greater pluralism there is growing demand for other forms of school patronage.

All the indications are however that a sizeable number of parents wish to see high-quality denominational education remain an essential pillar, alongside other models, of our national educational system to help young people to grow and flourish within the religious tradition to which they belong.  Obviously such denominational education should not become divisive or exclusivist, but neither should religious education be reduced simply a colourless presentation of the history or the sociology of religion.

The presence of the Catholic Church in the educational landscape of the United States is quite extraordinary.  At times in Ireland there is a latent fear that Catholic schools and Catholic higher academic institutions are somehow a little outdate in a pluralist and increasingly secularised world. There is an ambiguity about how to define their Catholic specificity.  I am uneasy when I hear of Catholic education being defined somehow as a service of quality education with religious veneer offered in general to society and within which anyone can feel fully at home.

I fear that in the current debates about divesting patronage of a substantial number of Catholic schools, the argument is being presented that Catholic schools are so “open” that that there is really no need for schools of different patronage:  we Catholics can really do it all and better, so there is no need to divest.  The Catholic Church in Ireland has to focus its energies more clearly on how it wishes to ensure a presence, in a more pluralist educational system, of schools and institutions which are truly Catholic.

The contribution of Catholic academic institutions to the good of society is not something that extinguishes the ecclesial nature and vocation of those institutions.  Their Catholic identity is an essential part of the package which has built their excellence.   Indeed one could rather say that any downplaying of their Catholic vocation and identity could well result in a downgrading of their academic excellence.

In the past if one was talking about renewal of the Church in Ireland one would in the first place have looked towards the seminaries. That is still the case and the crisis of vocations has to be addressed.  But vocations spring from within the life of believing families and communities.  The renewal of the Church in Ireland and the challenge of creating a new Christian presence in Irish society tomorrow will come from a renewed generation of lay men and women who fell confident to witness to the meaning that their Christian faith brings to their lives.

One of the great surprises of the recent International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin was the extraordinary interest that the various seminars and catechesis aroused.  In many cases the talks had to be repeated two or three times in order to facilitate all those who wanted to attend.

There is a strong desire within Irish Catholics for a deep renewal in formation in faith and in prayer and this is not being responded to sufficiently.  We have a first class National Directory for Catechesis Share the Good News which indicates what is needed at every stage.  But its implementation is slow and it encounters resistance to change.  Our school system and our teachers have made an immense contribution to the transmission of the faith.  But many teachers no longer practice and there is a growing danger that, due to curriculum pressures, catechesis will be limited to two events, first communion and confirmation and stop there.  Young people have in many cases already drifted away from religious practice already before they enter second level education.   The Church’s presence at third level education is often limited to pastoral care with minimal faith formation.

All this is taking place at a time in which there is a growing secularization of culture and of politics.  I could list many examples of the distance between politics and the Church examples of unbalanced media coverage.  But to do that would probably be interpreted as saying that it is politicians and journalists and the media who are to blame for the crisis that exists in the Irish Church.  The causes of the crisis lie within the Church itself.   Much of the heritage of Catholic dominated Ireland still entraps us from being free witnesses to the Christian message within a secular society which is seeking meaning.

It is not a time to be lamenting; it is a time to be rising to the challenge with courage and Christian enthusiasm.”