The National Catholic Review
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When Ireland was lagging behind other European nations, there were those who attributed its failure to a defect in Irish character and culture. I often commented in response to this allegation that it was remarkable how sea air seemed to change the Irish character.

Now that in a very short time Ireland’s standard of living has become the highest in Europe (save perhaps for Norway) and higher than that of the other island to the east, some Irish critics are finding fault with their countrymen again. Community cooperation, religious devotion and faith, generosity and concern for the poor are all deteriorating, we are told, and secularism and moral relativism dominate the country. We were better humans when we were poor.

The Blindness of Self-hatred

I sat and listened to this stuff (a euphemism for two other words) at a dinner recently at a major Irish university until I could stand no more. “I’ve had it with your sickening (a euphemistic participle) Irish self-hatred. Poverty is only good when it is voluntarily embraced.”

In ecclesiastical circles this self-hatred blames education and prosperity for the “secularization” and loss of faith in Ireland. The implicit assumption of such an allegation is that if the church had been able to keep the Irish poor and uneducated, Ireland would still be a Catholic country. That excuse may be half true, but it misses the point. Education has taught people to think. For those who value the old Ireland and the old Catholicism, that may have been a mistake.

As my colleague Mark Chaves has argued, “secularization,” if it means anything at all, means that organized religion has lost its power to impose unquestioned rules on the behavior of its members. Religious leaders are reduced from commanders who issue orders to teachers who must listen and try to persuade. It is a transition that is not without its difficulties, though one might argue that, in fact, the religious leader who is skilled at the arts of listening and persuading may have more power than the absolute leader who need only make decisions and give orders. Perhaps the turning point in this transition in the Catholic world was the birth control encyclical (Humanae Vitae, 1968).

Loss of Faith or of Blind Obedience?

People do not lose their faith or their religion in this kind of secularization. Rather, they lose their willingness to accept the apodictic rules of church authority. Work that Msgr. Conor Ward of University College Dublin and I did on religion in Ireland over the last four decades shows that the Irish are still Catholic, but now on their own terms. You cannot be Catholic on your own terms, the leaders say; you must be Catholic on our terms. Sorry lads, those days are gone forever. You should have protected your flock from higher education if you expected that to continue to work.

Yet the clergy persist in their propensity to blame the laity for their lack of faith and the overarching power of “secularization” and “relativism,” platonic labels for disembodied forces and energies that circulate around in the atmosphere and take possession of human souls. It would be more accurate—and more honest—to blame this so-called “decline in faith” on higher education.

Could the Church Be at Fault?

An alternative and dangerous strategy is to ask whether the church and its leadership might be responsible in part for the alienation of its followers. Did the sexual abuse crisis and the leadership’s shameful response to the crisis damage our credibility, perhaps permanently?

Is it possible for men who perceive themselves as sharing in the charism of infallibility to permit themselves the question: “Might we be part of the problem? Might we have caused by our style and our mistakes the very problems we are railing against?” Not many churchmen are asking that question of themselves on the public record these days.

One who does is Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin. Responding to those who lament the prosperity of the Irish people, he crosses the border from those who blame the laity and blame society to those who are willing to raise the question of blame for the structures of the church.

 

Others will say to me that is precisely the style of prosperity created within the European Union that has brought a climate of materialism and rejection of Christian values. For me, taking huge sectors of the European population out of poverty and precariousness is an achievement about which the Christian must only rejoice.

 

His next sentence is a response to the “blame the laity” mentality that currently paralyzes the church everywhere:

 

If such prosperity has been accompanied by a change in belief patterns within the E.U., then this may be due to a lack of dynamism in the churches’ own pastoral structures for evangelization in a cultural climate that is changing, just as much as a result of the economic prosperity fostered by the E.U.

 

Or as I would put it in far less graceful words than Archbishop Martin, “For the love of God—quite literally—shut up and listen!”

A Challenge Not Only for the Irish

I have described this as a situation in Ireland, since Irish prosperity has taken a beating in some recent articles in this journal. Patently the “loss of faith” in Ireland (or “secularization” of Ireland) is paradigmatic of a problem that exists in the West, in the East, and in the South—in Poland and Nigeria as well as in Ireland and in this land across the seas, which some Irish seafarers once called Great Ireland.

Like I say, shut up and listen.

The Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, with Msgr. Conor Ward, is the author of How Secularized Is the Ireland We Live In? (Doctrine & Life, December, 2000).

Comments

ROBERT TURNLEY | 8/21/2007 - 4:39pm
Fr. Andrew Greeley's article,"What Ever Happened to Ireland", America July 16-23, 2007, was "on target"; as his articles usually are. He demonstrated "The Elegance and Truth of Simplicity" is still alive, well and persuasive in defining such an issue. Yes, from the perspective of those who wish for the past, higher education probably is at least one of the culprits. It also was in the demise of the British Empire, post WWII. As the Jesuits taught me many years ago, Gonzaga 1957, history repeats itself. However, keeping people ignorant is not a solution to anything. Will the heirarchy "shut up and listen"? Well I still believe in miracles!
Patrick Hall | 7/24/2007 - 4:59pm
I had the pleasure of organizing a lecture at Elizabethtown College PA where Fr. Greeley was the guest lecturer and, as always, he was entertaining, witty, and right on target regarding the hierarchy. Fr. Greeley's article appeared at a time when I was becoming very frustrated with recent statements by some bishops and also by the Pope himself regarding his reaffirmation of infallibility. It is refreshing to read a famous sociologist examine situations that are prime fodder for close scrutiny. If Fr. Greeley has not written any recent articles regarding papal infallibility, please have him do so promptly! We need his light touch.
LOUIS DESTRYCKER MR | 7/23/2007 - 5:13pm
Fr.Greeley is right to the point, succint and funny. What a joyous and prosperous prospect for us baptized. His remarks on secularisation and relativism are all too obvious and have been brilliantly defined by K.Dobbelaere in "Secularization: An Analysis at Three levels", Brussles, 2002. Fr Greeley adds a smile to the anger of being rebuked by the leadership and to the urgency of a new start, honestly conciliar. Waiting with a smile. His article strikes the right tone after the recent Motu proprio on Tridentine liturgy. Summum Pontificorum as it titled brings us the last hiccups of Tridentne Latin in Riman liturgy. Greeley's remarks suggests usefully how to read the Motu proprio: liturgical gimmicks, rather indecent or should one dare say a ratzer-self-goal. Thanks to Fr.Greeley ! Louis de Strycker Fulbright Alumni, UCLA Brussels
RON DIRKS MR | 7/16/2007 - 5:24pm
I offer a few thoughts concerning the article by Rev. Andrew Greeley, “What Ever Happened to Ireland” (America 7/16/07). Fr. Greeley has “hit the nail on the head” when he rightly observes that “People….lose their willingness to accept the apodictic rules of church authority.” The blame “for the ‘secularization’ and loss of faith in Ireland” that is “paradigmatic of a problem that exists in the West, in the East, and the south…..and in this land across the seas…” is placed by “ecclesiastical circles” on “education and prosperity.” Prosperity provides the opportunity for receiving an education and secular, by definition, relates to interest in worldly and the temporal concerns. An important component to education is developing the ability to think critically and evaluate the truth of what is being said. By anyone, on any subject. Absolute truth claims, by ecclesiastical authorities, presented with necessary certainty (apodictic) are open to examination, critique and possible revision in a secular society. “Blind obedience” to ecclesiastical dictates does violence to intellectual clarity and honesty in the educated laity in a secular society. The secular world of education strives for and teaches truths but at the same time it limits truth to knowledge obtained by an inferential logic whose methods produce truths that are always, in principle, revisable. There is no evidence or method in secular education and the empirical sciences that can, in principle, produce absolute truths. The claims by church authorities to know absolute truths and to have unilateral authority and demand unquestioned obedience to their governance appear absurd to the secularists who have been educated to accept and subscribe only to the possibility, contextually conditioned, of ever knowing more than a relativized truth. Authority and governance, in this model of the secular world, seems to work best in a democratic government where the relative truth of all opinions is tested in open forum. The necessity to obey rules of behavior based upon truths so determined and issued by elected authority are ultimately and regularly confirmed by majority vote. This is not the Roman Catholic Church’s model of governance based upon their belief in absolute truths divinely commissioned and absolutely placed by ecclesiastical edict as being off limits to outside critique and revision. Hence the Church’s lament of relativism and secularism, as being the cause of one of the major problems and obstacles to its mission, is expressed. Now if, as you said, “People do not lose their faith or their religion in this kind of secularization” it could be because the concept of absolute truth possessing necessary certainty is not central to or needed by their held faith or religion. They do not see the need for external self-proclaimed authorities setting rules for them based upon such far reaching ecclesiastical assumptions. Rather for many, it is their perception of and personally felt need to establish a relationship they seek between their God and themselves understood and embraced in a personal “faith.” This type of faith relationship does not depend upon empirically based truths (a secular humanist, in principle and if faithful to the scientific method, can never attain knowledge of spiritual reality). Rather individual “opinions and perceptions” coupled with their existential leap of faith concerning religion and God and all matters spiritual can be quite independent of the exclusively secular. What that belief might entail in personal behavior can be held and maintained on an individual basis with no perceived contradiction with the other truths they have learned in their secular education. Of course, if “like-minded” individuals choose to associate with others holding similar beliefs and call themselves a church, the power of the democracy fortunately guarantees this association as a “right.” You state in your article that ecclesia
Paschal Scallon, CM | 7/14/2007 - 10:25pm
Fr Andrew Greeley's remarks about the nonsense spoken to berate 'secularization' as the author of the evils that appear to undermine the church in contemporary Ireland are funny and refreshing. I would have loved (and loathed I suspect) to have been a fly in someone's soup at that university dinner. Had the conversation become too unbearable I might have taken comfort in the knowledge that I stood a good chance of not making it past the first course! The Prime Minister of 'the other island to the east' once told his people that they had "never had it so good." Phrases like that are a sort of hostage to fortune but in the case of Ireland today it is possible to say that as a simple statement of fact. Progress in various fields – especially in education – and the prosperity that came eventually has changed Ireland. The ending of the conflict in the north has also contributed to a fundamentally changed environment throughout the country to the extent that the community that understands itself as the Catholic Church in Ireland simply finds itself in a new era. For over ten years, I have been a member of a team of laity and priests that conducts parish missions. Missions in Ireland now are often part of a wider celebration in the life of a parish such as the centenary of the building of the parish church. During such celebrations a parish will hold any number of different events but it is always striking to hear parishioners explain that they envision a mission or a novena as the element that celebrates the tradition of prayer and worship in the community. It is also notable how eager people participating in a mission are to talk and turn over the questions they have regarding their faith and handing it on. Some of the most worthwhile and enjoyable moments in any mission for me personally have been the town hall type meetings that take place apart from the mission liturgies in which the conversation (at which we are supposed to be so good in Ireland) airs and articulates what people are holding in their hearts. It is always possible for these conversations to veer towards the morose, as Fr Greeley experienced, but because they are integrally part of the evangelizing work of the mission itself, we try to keep sight of the faith and hope and love that have us discussing things in the first place. The key here is that people might appreciate in themselves the grace of encouragement. If nothing else these meetings may fulfil what Fr Greeley wishes would happen more often, that we ‘shut up and listen.’ The development of Ireland and its people has allowed us to take our place [more confidently] among the nations of the world, to paraphrase one of our patriots. We have not become Shang-ri-la though. Challenges persist but we have the means and the ability now to address them. Our task will be to engage our means, our ability and our will. We are a work in progress and the Catholic Church in Ireland reflects that as much as any other community on the island. Church and state are experiencing a series of purges we once imagined we could not have endured and thus refused to deal with serious failings in our society, its various institutions and its body politic. The besetting problem in Northern Ireland is often described as sectarianism, which was defined as early as the English Civil War of the 1640s as a mixture of bad politics and bad religion. In Ireland at present good politics is playing no small part in purifying bad religion as organs of the state compel elements in the church to face what was hidden and denied for too long – a deplorable failure to protect children from abuse. For its part, the mission of the church is to work for the coming of the kingdom of God and to see it reflected in the society people build for themselves. The values which our society seeks to assert through various state sponsored tribunals of investigation into corruption in business and politics derive from our Christian heritag
Jim CONNIFF FAMILY | 7/14/2007 - 10:05am
Eternal leprechaun Greeley dances the cliff-edge to avoid laying the blame where it really belongs: Right there in his own jar of Guinness and those of the clerical establishment he so artfully argues for without seeming to. He spins away from the whole idea that "higher" education, or even "lower" education if there could be such a thing, has precisely the purpose of training its beneficiaries to think. A Jesuit once said to me, "Jim, we must train them to THINK!" I said to him, "But Bob, that's so DANGEROUS!" Of course it's dangerous, but only for Greeley & Co. who slide past the fact that education worth the name has the sublime purpose of helping people to honor God's highest gift of an intellect with free will as its engine for choosing Him or -- His own divine risk of options -- rejecting Him. I'm the rare bird who has lived in rectories. The life there is too baronial and isolated, by and large, for anyone who really wants to be a spiritual leader, a shaper and winner of souls. Despite the artful Greeleys, or paradoxically perhaps because of them, I'm not arguing for clergy in saffron robes with rice bowls out there on godawful winter mornings breathing breath visible. But house boys in white jackets to answer the rectory door are a bit much. When "vocation" -- at least to the priestly way --has a subtext in the job description of must-have that includes a guaranteed housekeeper and far too much more than such basic requirements as the New Kitchen Syndrome every time there's a change of pastors, far more is amiss than educated thinking sheep are any longer willing to make cud of and swallow. Let's get off it, Andy, shall we? You chaps who were supposed to answer the call to lead, to guide, to make straight the way have missed too many turns for the sake of us all, as have your blind and guilty leaders in their palatial "private residences." Less cliff-dancing, Andy, and maybe public penance short of sackcloth and ashes for our bishops first and then you lads would be the spiritually healthier ticket for you to punch. But at least, as St. Francis said, have the graciousness to "use words if necessary" -- straight, simple, clear, honest, truly penitential words, Andy. Not these arch, parenthetically euphemized versions of "almost." Jim Conniff
Jim CONNIFF FAMILY | 7/14/2007 - 9:56am
Eternal leprechaun Greeley dances the cliff-edge to avoid laying the blame where it really belongs: Right there in his own jar of Guinness and those of the clerical establishment he so artfully argues for without seeming to. He spins away from the whole idea that "higher" education, or even "lower" education if there could be such a thing, has precisely the purpose of training its beneficiaries to think. A Jesuit once said to me, "Jim, we must train them to THINK!" I said to him, "But Bob, that's so DANGEROUS!" Of course it's dangerous, but only for Greeley & Co. who slide past the fact that education worth the name has the sublime purpose of helping people to honor God's highest gift of an intellect with free will as its engine for choosing Him or -- His own divine risk of options -- rejecting Him. I'm the rare bird who has lived in rectories. The life there is too baronial and isolated, by and large, for anyone who really wants to be a spiritual leader, a shaper and winner of souls. Despite the artful Greeleys, or paradoxically perhaps because of them, I'm not arguing for clergy in saffron robes with rice bowls out there on godawful winter mornings breathing breath visible. But house boys in white jackets to answer the rectory door are a bit much. When "vocation" -- at least to the priestly way --has a subtext in the job description of must-have includes a guaranteed housekeeper and far too much more than such basic requirements as the New Kitchen Syndrome every time there's a change of pastors, far more is amiss than educated thinking sheep are any longer willing to make cud of and swallow. Let's get off it, Andy, shall we? You chaps who were supposed to answer the call to lead, to guide, to make straight the way have missed too many turns for the sake of us all, as have your blind and guilty leaders in their palatial "private residences." Less cliff-dancing, Andy, and maybe public penance short of sackcloth and ashes for our bishops first and then you lads would be the spiritually healthier ticket for you to punch. But at least, as St. Francis said, have the graciousness to "use words if necessary" -- straight, simple, clear, honest, truly penitential words, Andy. Not these arch, parenthetically euphemized versions of "almost." Jim Conniff
TIMOTHY COLDWELL | 7/14/2007 - 9:14am
Is it possible that civilization has saved the Irish? The author has effectively shed light on how a peculiar Irish art form, the mea culpa, is an inadequate response to at least one challenge that prosperity brings: the temptation to worship at the wrong altar. Contemporary Ireland reminds us that economics plays a significant role not only in national self-identity, but in religious practice. It seems to me that social transformation will occur with or without the Catholic Church. But, the Irish are nothing if not resourceful; I have a lot of confidence that there will be religious leaders who will rise up and not only accompany social transformation but lead it. There are two questions: [1] when? [2] how? Namely, will it be led by educational leaders and institutions that are "secular" or those which are Catholic, unafraid to evangelize through speaking and listening?
TIMOTHY COLDWELL | 7/14/2007 - 9:13am
Is it possible that civilization has saved the Irish? The author has effectively shed light on how a peculiar Irish art form, the mea culpa, is an inadequate response to at least one challenge that prosperity brings: the temptation to worship at the wrong altar. Contemporary Ireland reminds us that economics plays a significant role not only in national self-identity, but in religious practice. It seems to me that social transformation will occur with or without the Catholic Church. But, the Irish are nothing if not resourceful; I have a lot of confidence that there will be religious leaders who will rise up and not only accompany social transformation but lead it. There are two questions: [1] when? [2] how? Namely, will it be led by educational leaders and institutions that are "secular" or those which are Catholic, unafraid to evangelize through speaking and listening?
TIMOTHY COLDWELL | 7/14/2007 - 9:13am
Is it possible that civilization has saved the Irish? The author has effectively shed light on how a peculiar Irish art form, the mea culpa, is an inadequate response to at least one challenge that prosperity brings: the temptation to worship at the wrong altar. Contemporary Ireland reminds us that economics plays a significant role not only in national self-identity, but in religious practice. It seems to me that social transformation will occur with or without the Catholic Church. But, the Irish are nothing if not resourceful; I have a lot of confidence that there will be religious leaders who will rise up and not only accompany social transformation but lead it. There are two questions: [1] when? [2] how? Namely, will it be led by educational leaders and institutions that are "secular" or those which are Catholic, unafraid to evangelize through speaking and listening?
CHARLES KINNAIRD | 7/12/2007 - 10:52pm
I am always glad to read anything by Father Andrew Greeley. As Catholic converts, my wife and I have been surprised at how little is expected of the Catholic laity beyond attendance at mass. We were brought up as Baptists to realize that the faithful must deliberate and hash things out. Furthermore, faith must be applicable to real life. We came as adults to the Roman Catholic Church, and I doubt that we would have entertained the notion of conversion had it not been for Vatican II. Vatican II was truly a fresh wind of the Spirit and in its wake, the church seemed to realize that it must be accountable for what it teaches. No longer could people be expected to follow blindly. Moreover, Catholic cultures other than European were recognized as having authentic modes of worship within the celebration of the mass. My wife and I have found a fuller expression of worship, and a faith grounded in history and reason. It is a big family with lots of different tastes and expressions. It is disconcerting now to see some reactionary elements within the church which want to hark back to some notion of the good old days. There is a desire to undo Vatican II to go back the past. This desire to look back is born of fear, not of faith. So let the truly faithful rejoice when there is learning and development and stretching and change. We must be just as creative in the application of 21st century faith as our forebears were in forging faith expressions in the 12th century.