Ireland is struggling with Catholicism as the religion is increasing

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WHEN Pope Francis’ visit to Ireland ends this weekend, people around the world will have picked up mixed messages about a country long revered as a cradle of saints and religious scholars. . On the one hand, the republic of Ireland is much less Catholic than it was in 1979 when the previous pontiff, John Paul II, toured the island and electrified its people. On the other hand, the Catholic faith has great strength left. For better or worse, the Catholic faith or memories of the faith still influence those outside its ranks.

As we write in this week’s Charlemagne column, the proportion of Irish people who say they attend mass regularly has fallen from eight in ten to just three in ten. ten a few decades ago. But this still makes Ireland one of the most religious countries in Europe. Among Irish citizens aged 16 to 29, nearly 40% say they have no religion. But then 91% of Czechs, 75% of Swedes and 70% of Britons in that age group deny any religious affiliation. And a very high 31% of young Irish people say they pray at least once a week. Even if some are crawling, he says they will choose to make that claim.

So where exactly does Ireland stand on the spectrum between Catholic and post-Catholic?

As has happened in many countries, the decline in the reputation of the priesthood and religious orders has been much more dramatic than the decline of the religion itself. At the main conference of Ireland, the number of young people who start training for the priesthood each year has fallen to single digits; when Catholicism was at its peak in the middle of the 20th century, it was in the hundreds. The average age of Irish priests is around 70. A shortage of priests is expected.

But some forms of popular religion, especially those in which the role of priests is not central, can still attract large numbers. These include pilgrimages to holy mountains, wells and shrines. Novenas (set prayers over a nine-day period) can draw the faithful in, especially if they honor a locally popular saint. Books about angelic visits, such as those by Lorna Byrne, a Dublin woman, still command a following, even in rough parts of the city.

What about the Irish intelligentsia, a world where both piety and skepticism have deep cultural roots? It would be difficult, these days, to name many Irish cultural figures, writers or public intellectuals who are Catholics. Descriptions of Catholic theology, from the tender to the sarcastic, are common in Irish fiction and film, but Ireland has produced no Catholic writers comparable to English converts like Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene. One of the few public figures who firmly identifies as Catholic, former president Mary McAleese, is also a vocal critic of the church, saying it is “criminally” homophobic.

Much has changed at Dublin University College, Ireland’s largest venue [secular] higher education. It was founded in 1854 as a Catholic-friendly alternative to Trinity College, the old stronghold of Anglicanism in central Dublin. In the early years, Catholic philosophy overshadowed the liberal arts faculties. Today Catholic philosophy is very rare. But currents of thought that came out of European Catholicism (existentialism, for example) are still more popular in the Irish academy than they would be in most English-speaking countries. This may not be a Catholic cultural environment, but it is post-Catholic in a way that France is and England is not.

And there is one paradoxical point of agreement among many thoughtful Irish observers, Catholic and otherwise, from the older generation. On the one hand, the fall of the former Catholic democracy, with its brutality, hypocrisy and sectarianism, is welcome; but some good things may be thrown out with that dirty bath water.

Take David Norris, a senator and literary scholar who at 74 is a grand old man in the Irish gay rights movement (and, as it happens, a practicing Anglican). He has more reason than anyone to look back on the old Catholic order, which criminalized his sexuality, with horror. But he still thinks it’s a “pity” that some of the modesty and confidence in everyday behavior that Catholic education used to encourage (along with many terrible things) has disappeared existence, and has not been replaced by a definite substitute. The net result, he and many others feel, has been a coarser and more subjective tone in national life.

Peter White, a public affairs consultant also raised in Irish Anglicanism, puts it this way: “Thirty years ago, I was a stranger among teachers. [Catholic] religion; now I am a stranger among the new materialism of Ireland which is just as good as teaching. Both diminish us as moral agents.” That is not an easy sight to put on any linear spectrum, or to explain to a visiting pope. But perhaps that is what makes Ireland interesting.

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