Is Ireland Heading for Islam?

(The Furrow, November 2006, pp.602-608)


In the twentieth century, the Catholic church in Ireland built the faith into a control system underpinned by guilt and fear. Vatican II and its aftermath undid much of that, putting responsibility for behaviour on people’s shoulders, encouraging greater freedom of choice and responsibility. Many Irish Catholics responded immaturely: ‘I don’t have to do X or Y, so I won’t do it’. At present, the attitude of many Irish Catholics towards the church is one of adolescent rebellion: ‘Why can’t I do what I like? Why do I have to do this or that? Nobody is going to tell me what to do’. Many Catholics do their own thing, and still call themselves Catholics. The journalist, Róisín Ingle, wrote that the church is becoming like a society of steak-eating vegetarians, where you are still considered a Catholic, as long as you don’t formally deny being one, even though you do as you please, happily breaking every commandment in the book, and with no intention of doing otherwise. That diminishes respect for the faith and undermines a sense of Catholic identity.

Irish people are extremists, and we’ve swung from one extreme to the other, from faith as a control system to rejecting control, especially self-control. We still have some residual respect for imposed control, illustrated by the success of the levy on plastic bags where previous appeals to civic spirit had failed. We see the results of this lack of self-control in the permissiveness of our society, the figures for violent crimes such as murder and rape, the breakdown of marriage and family life, the incidence of suicide among young men, the level of abuse of alcohol and illegal drugs, the dissolution of some city suburbs into no-go areas under the control of gangs, and the directionless drift of much of society, where the clamour for more rights is often accompanied by a refusal to accept the responsibilities that are inseparable from them.


These recent developments have been accompanied by, and associated with, the growth of secularism in Ireland. Secularism is a practical denial of the relevance of God. It is an alternative ideology (not the best term, admittedly) to Christianity, Islam, communism or other ideologies. But it poses as ideologically neutral, and looks down its nose on religions, especially the monotheistic ones, seeing them as sectarian, divisive, dangerous, and potentially or actually fanatical. (It is not short of ammunition to back up such a view.) While forecasting the demise of religion, and gleefully welcoming the evidence that suggests it, secularism proposes itself as the middle ground, a haven of sanity among fanatics, of unity among dividers, of inclusiveness among excluders. Thus secularism in Ireland claims for itself an Establishment position greater than the Catholic church claimed in its heyday. This confidence trick has substantially succeeded. To take a minor example: despite secularism’s claim to speak for diversity, pluralism, and minority rights, it broils at the Angelus bell on RTÉ, branding it as sectarian and implicitly a claim by the Catholic church to privileged status. Beaumont Hospital removed the Christmas crib from the foyer ‘lest it offend Muslims’, though Muslims – were they consulted? – revere Jesus as a prophet, and the Qur’ân holds Mary in honour. (A Muslim commented, ‘If people are really concerned about not offending us, they could remove in-your-face advertisements of naked boobs and butts’.)

Secularism does not provide an adequate basis for moral cohesion in society; indeed, it undercuts it. For instance, experience suggests that law needs morals and morals need faith. What answer is to be given to a child in a secular school who objects to the argument that, while you are free to do what you like, you must respect the rights of others? What if the child replies, ‘That’s your view, not mine. You are free to profess it, but don’t try to shove it down my throat. I don’t accept it’. A teacher could (rightly) point out that, if every child followed such reasoning, a school (or indeed society in general) could not avoid breakdown: ‘If everyone took that point of view, where would we be…? That pragmatic argument is valid, but how persuasive, how motivating, is it? It is logically strong but psychologically weak. Fundamentally, what answer can an atheist give to the question, ‘Why should anyone care about anyone else?’ Pragmatism doesn’t carry a person very far in answering that. Religion does. Secularism is vacuous: a “value-free education” is a valueless education. A society where words like true, good, and just are regarded as subjective – ‘What’s true for you may not be true for me’ – deprives itself of shared values, and undercuts a common language for dialogue. Where then is community?

Secularism is like the prodigal son, living off the accumulated riches of the (Christian) past, but it fails to recognize, as Sartre came to, that humanity is not self-explanatory or self-sufficient. If secularism succeeds in wiping out Christianity, it will wipe itself out in the process; that is what parasites do. Secularism does not offer a basis of hope for the individual or society. It is a cul de sac which will come to be recognized as such – but probably at the cost of great suffering. It will fail, as communism failed before it, because it does not correspond to the totality of the human person. Perhaps, like the prodigal son, it may come to its senses and return to the Father’s house, where it will be welcomed, even if it has come only because there’s good food there.

If secularism fails, what then?

In Ireland, we are moving towards a situation where society is breaking down, with widespread materialism and selfishness – call it individualism if you will – where the old and the mentally ill are often virtually abandoned, where the family, nuclear or extended, means little, where children are left to fend for themselves without parental direction, where Friends and Neighbours are little more than names of TV programmes, and where community is a half-forgotten memory. With our tendency to extremes, will Irish people at some point see in Islam, with its prescriptive and punitive societal code – including rules on how to wash, dress, eat, and walk, for example – a desirable alternative to lawlessness, isolation, and near disintegration?

Why not instead a return to Catholic faith and practice? At present, many Catholics feel ashamed of the faith, and also of the church. The latter substantially results from the sex abuse cases and their (continuing) mishandling by church authorities; the former predates that. Some aspects of the church’s teaching are seen as untrue, unjust, or even stupid. There is a doctrinal credibility gap. It centres around, but is not confined to, questions such as:  Humanae Vitae, and the prohibition on condoms to help diminish the spread of AIDS; homosexuality; the church’s seeming fear of sexuality, especially the feminine; the role of women, including their ordination to the priesthood; the low level of priority accorded to the protection of the environment, to mention some. Church structures are seen as undemocratic, sexist, and self-serving – and determined to remain so – and church hierarchy not enabling, but disabling.

Some Catholics, including some senior church leaders, are aware of this problem, and respond by advocating a return to the trenches. They want to batten down the hatches, and they quietly damn Vatican II and all its works and pomps to the devil. I believe that is the wrong direction in which to move, a sure formula for the ghettoization and rejection of Christianity. In Ireland, Vatican II represented a hope, one that died the death of a thousand cuts, through a failure of leadership at all levels, a lack of courage and imagination, and a dogged, determined, fear-driven, (and successful) resistance to change. Those who might have brought about change have mostly given up and gone, to the relief of those who remain, who see themselves as the faithful few upholding the tradition. Vatican II was a vision but not an experience – an opportunity thrown away. Too many false dawns have dissipated the hope that a Vatican III of whatever sort might help. That approach would no longer work.

So where does that leave us?

At the moment, the church in Ireland is drifting rudderless through a storm which has yet to run its course. The present model of the church is collapsing, and must collapse, before there can be a basis for a revival of Catholic faith. The present model of church is an obstacle to grace. The longer it clings on grimly, deluding itself on many fronts, as it is, the larger the opportunity it creates for Islam to offer Irish people an alternative to the present drift.

One thing we could do – but likely won’t do until it is too late to make a difference (forgive my cynicism) – is to drop infant baptism and opt instead for adult baptism after a Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. That would be one step towards getting away from the numbers game, the self-deluding myth that infant baptisms means the faith is being communicated from one generation to the next. For many parents, the sacraments are no more than quasi-rites of passage, an excuse for a family get-together, or – especially with baptism – something done to get the child into a particular school, or to stop the grandparents complaining. For many, more noteworthy rites would be passing an exam or driving test, or having one’s first drink, sex, or joint.

Does it not commonly happen in baptisms that when the priest asks the parents if they are prepared to bring their child up in the faith, they say yes, even though they have given little recognizable indication of practising it? Sometimes they do not join in saying the Our Father, through ignorance, shame, or embarrassment. Their older children, whom they also promised to bring up in the faith, have grown up in ignorance of it, because the parents have done nothing to teach them. Can the parents’ promise to educate this particular child in the faith then be taken seriously? Should such a baptism take place at all? Who is the more dishonest, the parents who make a promise they have shown no intention of fulfilling, or the priest who pretends to take their promise seriously by baptizing the child? Such a situation belittles baptism, demoralizes the priest, and reinforces the parents’ perception that, in matters of faith, a token will do.

Tokenism, or formalism, in faith we have much of. For a moment, imagine you are a hospital chaplain bringing Communion to the sick. As you walk along a corridor, a visitor, seeing you dressed in vestments and carrying a ciborium, asks for Communion on the spot. A patient surrounded by a large number of visitors asks for Communion; the visitors seem to resent your presence as an intruder on their conversation. If you give Communion, all resume the conversation the moment the patient has swallowed the host. A patient emerging from a toilet sees you, and comes forward, a damp hand open for Communion. A patient, lying on top of a bed in pyjamas, genitalia exposed through the open flap of his trousers, extends a hand for a host. During a baptism, children climb over seats and run around screaming, one of them imitating an ambulance klaxon, all unhindered by parental control. You ask the parents to call their children and calm them, so that the ceremony can proceed in an atmosphere of prayer, to the advantage of everyone. But the noise level is so high that, even though you have the advantage of a public address system, you cannot be heard and your request goes unnoticed, so the noise continues unabated, while a man of sixty-something years chews gum throughout. These examples are not exercises in imagination; I have experienced each of them.

Would it not be more honest, and pastorally realistic, to leave the Catholic education of children in the hands of parents, who, in terms of our own teaching, are the primary educators of their children, with a little – only a little – support from the parish, and let the children make a decision to ask, or not, for baptism and the other sacraments, when they reach maturity? That would result in a large loss of numbers, but would that not be better than the games of unreality we are playing at present?

Catholic schools

Catholic schools should go, too, and for the same reason. We see them as the jewel in the pastoral crown but, if we would open our eyes, we would recognize them as a millstone around our necks. The effect of Catholic schools has been that most Irish parents have abdicated almost entirely their responsibility for the Catholic upbringing of their children. The two school systems, the Republic’s and Northern Ireland’s, are similar in that respect. This has led to a self-fulfilling situation where people argue for the retention of Catholic schools, saying, ‘If it wasn’t for them, the children would have nothing; so we should keep them for as long as possible’. We have put all our eggs in one basket, the school, a basket which, in terms of our educational philosophy, was never meant to have more than a supplementary role. Children leave school after twelve years of Catholic education with a level of ignorance of the faith that is sometimes startling. More importantly, though, they have usually been inoculated against it and want nothing more to do with it. The school is often blamed for that, though – if we want to consider the question in terms of blame – that should surely be more accurately laid at the feet of parents who undermine the school – in other areas no less than this – by their lack of support for it in what they do or don’t do at home. Religion has come to be seen as a school subject to be dropped immediately afterwards, or before, if possible, as has increasingly been the case. I think of the seven-year-old saying to his parents, ‘Who says I want to make first Communion?’ Religion is seen as something hypocritical, because children are expected by parents to go through rites such as the sacraments in which they, the parents, seemingly no longer believe. Our faith education system, and our church structures, breed an infantilism in which people, adult in every other respect, are childish in their attitude to the faith. This is a no-win situation, and the longer we remain wedded to it, the weaker we will become. It is permeated by a demeaning and self-defeating dishonesty, which surely cannot be the basis for pastoral action.

Where do we go from there?

The time to change from one model of church, and one model of pastoral action, to another, is while there is still some strength left in the older models. To wait until they have collapsed before making a move is to leave it too late. There is still life left in the present situation, so we should not wait until the pastoral situation declines further, or until schools are taken from us, when we will find ourselves left with nothing. There is still time, energy, and goodwill in the local church to develop alternatives, if we have the courage and imagination to use it. But why does church leadership so often seem like a testosterone-free zone?

As a church, our normal way of acting is not to act until circumstances force us. That line-of-least-resistance style of leadership is easy for leaders. They don’t have to do anything until everyone is screaming at them to move. There is then little risk of resistance to movement, and going with the flow can be presented as listening to the people. Such an approach is an abdication of leadership: it means waiting until the moment of greatest weakness, when ground and goodwill have already been lost, to begin to change; it increases the risk of change coming too little, too late; it locks us into a situation where we have little choice about the direction or timing of change. Keeping the existing system going for another while might seem like a prudent course of action – ‘Wait and see’, ‘Don’t cross your bridges until you come to them’, or other clichés that can be passed off as the voice of wisdom and experience – just as remaining on the Titanic after the iceberg struck seemed prudent to many. Better to launch a few lifeboats, risky and cold though they be.

We say of the schools, ‘We should keep them for as long as possible’. That last phrase suggests that people expect the schools to be lost to church control sooner or later, and in that they are probably right. It is a pity that the courageous and imaginative speech of Liz O’Donnell, the Progressive Democrat TD, on this topic some two years ago, when she questioned the continuing role of the church in schools, did not lead to a wider debate. She let the cat out of the bag by speaking the truth, an unpardonable offence in Irish public life, and was told to shut up. ‘The truth shall make you free’ is too daring for us. Truly we are a nation of hypocrites.

The above does not mean that Catholic education should go. It means we should get the equation Education = Schools out of our heads. It does not take a great deal of knowledge to be a good Christian. Parents cannot pass on “the faith” to their children, but they can, if they so choose, communicate the faith they hold and live by. They can say what they believe, and why. They can teach their children to pray, and pray with them. They can go to Mass and the sacraments, and bring their children with them. They can work with other parents to build small Christian communities. Christian bookshops are bursting at the seams with books on any and every aspect of Christian life, which are more likely to be read if believers have a faith based on personal commitment. People become responsible by having responsibility placed on their shoulders, not by having it removed from them. If children were left to make their choice when mature, that would bring a measure of realism into what the church is doing pastorally. That is not the case at present.

Back to the start

This brings me back to the original question: Is Ireland heading for Islam? It could be. In the long term, people will opt for the real rather than the pretended, for certainties (I don’t say truths) rather than drift, for the demanding rather than tokenism or playing games. The latter is what we are doing.


Supplementary material on Baptism of Infants

‘One should try to eradicate the idea that the sacraments are automatic, quasi-magical things, detached from life.’ n.8 of Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Pastoral Guide for Diocesan Priests in Churches dependent on the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, 1 October 1989.