You have to hand it to the Irish bishops, priests, and religious. It’s not easy to de-Christianize a whole people. Yet they managed, in about a generation, to help detach an almost entirely Catholic population from its 1500-year-old religious and social roots. Social “scientists” are going to have to closely study this phenomenon, which far exceeds what has happened even in what used to be thought of as bellwether secularizing states like Germany and France.
The media have been touting the massive popular support, over 60 percent, for gay marriage in Ireland’s referendum last Friday. It’s clear that they regard it as a harbinger of things to come: if that can happen in Ireland, what’s next? And at the superficial, incurious level of media-driven discourse, it is remarkable. But more remarkable by far – and something to consider for the future – is the 40 percent who did not go along, which is, at the very least, a minor miracle in our day.
It’s all too easy – and misleading – to list the usual “secular” reasons for “secularization.” Yes, there were sexual and financial scandals in the hierarchy and several religious orders. Yes, the “Celtic Tiger” experienced rapid economic growth and social change. Yes, some think science eliminates the need for religion. Yes, the political leadership in Ireland caved in to gay propaganda and intimidation – not a single political party or major public figure urged “No.”
But to think that these things explain the outcome is not to think like a Christian. A Christian starts from a different place. How is it that the Irish, like others who have left the Catholic Church, have not, in large numbers, become atheists – which is to say outright non-believers – but in their spirituality and religiosity have turned to something other than classic Christianity? And where did many get the idea that they’re Christian, and even that their “openness” and “tolerance” are more Christian than Catholicism? (Look carefully at all those faces in the photos.)
Here’s part of an answer. Over the past few years, I’ve been tangentially involved through the Catholic Distance University (an orthodox, online institution) with setting up a formation program for catechists in Ireland. Nota bene, this is not an effort to teach the Irish directly, but to form teachers who would have to convey the faith to them.
Why was such a program necessary – and why is it that it took an American woman, living in Ireland, to come up with the idea and promote it to various dioceses? Simply put, in the past few decades there was no longer anything reliably Catholic in education programs on the Emerald Isle. It was easier to bring something from outside, from the fabled shores of America.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, a decent man but not a very vigorous leader, noted as the vote approached how odd it was that many young people supported gay marriage, even though they had attended Catholic schools for twelve years or more. Many people, including perhaps the archbishop himself, regard this as a “rejection” of Catholic moral teaching. But that assumes teachers in those schools were strongly presenting that teaching. As we know, from San Francisco to Dublin, that is not necessarily the case.
In fact, the archbishop himself, perhaps thinking it would avoid a political backlash, said last week that he personally was voting “No,” but would not tell anyone else how to vote. (Some commentators have claimed he was following Pope Francis, who was silent about the Irish vote and recently told the Italian bishops that they should trust their own people to do the right thing, not try to tell them what to do.)
People will choose different approaches to hard questions, and we owe some deference to an archbishop in such a situation. But people notice when a Church leader is triangulating for support like a politician, rather than boldly preaching the Gospel, like a follower of Jesus.
I myself would have risked the backlash and would even have preferred sounding like a fundamentalist preaching fire and brimstone – which, after all, Jesus Himself did quite often. All that stuff about unquenched fire and Gehenna, and the salt losing its savor.
The longer game now, however, must be to renew real Christian teaching and to woo people back to the love of Christ’s Church. The two, as Pope Francis has emphasized, must go together. It’s a sound Thomistic insight that most people are not and cannot become philosophers and theologians. Most people who want to think themselves Christian have to be confident that there are people they trust – and revere – who have Christian answers to difficult moral and spiritual questions, even if most Christians don’t know the arguments themselves.
That connection and confidence have been lacking in Ireland – and many other places – for a generation or two now.
In the wake of the Irish vote, a priest sent me a passage from St. Augustine’s Enchiridion, which describes how “crimes were not only not punished, but were openly committed, as if under the protection of the law. And so in our own times: many forms of sin, though not just the same as those of Sodom and Gomorrah, are now so openly and habitually practiced, that not only dare we not excommunicate a layman, we dare not even degrade a clergyman, for the commission of them.”
After decades of dithering, it will be a long way back from where we are now. Despite everything, let’s take heart from the almost 40 percent who did right in Ireland, under heavy pressure and facing long odds. As Chesterton’s Virgin puts it to King Alfred, facing a barbarian horde, in The Ballad of the White Horse:
I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?