Troubled future of the Church in Ireland

Troubled future of the Church in Ireland

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

This is the edited text of an address given by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin and Primate of Ireland on 10 May 2010. While much of his address is set in the Irish context in light of the appalling sex abuse scandals, much of it has relevance for other Western nations like Australia where the Church faces the same challenges of secularism.

What do I say about the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland? The sociological data send us mixed signals. Public opinion varies from those who would like the Catholic Church slowly, through its own implosion, to fade into the social irrelevance of private individual choice, to those who would like reform on their own terms, to those who would blindly stay with things as they are, to those who call for renewal through repentance. And there are many other viewpoints.

The Church is a reality of faith. As a person of faith I know that the future of the Church in Ireland is not in my hands, but that its future will be guided by the Lord, who is with his Church at all times.

On the other hand, as one entrusted with the responsibility of pastoral leadership I have the mission to guide that portion of the Church entrusted to my care along a path of renewal and conversion which ensures that what grows and matures into the future truly is the Church of Jesus Christ and not something of our own creation.

Path of renewal

On a purely personal level, I have never since becoming Archbishop of Dublin felt so disheartened and discouraged about the level of willingness to really begin what is going to be a painful path of renewal and of what is involved in that renewal.

I sometimes worry when I hear those with institutional responsibility stress the role of the institution and others then in reaction saying that "we are the Church". Perhaps on both sides there may be an underlying feeling that "I am the Church", that the Church must be modelled on my way of thinking or on my position. Renewal is never our own creation. Renewal will only come through returning to the Church which we have received from the Lord.

Why am I discouraged? The most obvious reason is the drip-by-drip never-ending revelation about child sexual abuse and the disastrous way it was handled. There are still strong forces which would prefer that the truth did not emerge. But the truth will make us free, even when that truth is uncomfortable.

There are signs of subconscious denial on the part of many about the extent of the abuse which occurred within the Church of Jesus Christ in Ireland and how it was covered up. There are other signs of rejection of a sense of responsibility for what had happened. There are worrying signs that despite solid regulations and norms these are not being followed with the rigour required.

Why such discouragement? The second and deeper root of my discouragement is that I do not believe people have a true sense of the crisis of faith that exists in Ireland. We have invested in structures of religious education which despite enormous goodwill are not producing the results that they set out to do. Our young people are among the most catechised in Europe but among the least evangelised.

I am not sure however that we all really have an understanding of what Catholic education entails. Many people send their children to what is today a Catholic school not primarily because it is a Catholic school but because it is a good school.

We are also deluding ourselves if we think that what is in fact presented as a curriculum for religious education and formation in faith is actually being applied everywhere. There are clear indications that in the face of so many other curriculum pressures and extracurricular activities religious education is in fact being shifted to the margins of school life in many Catholic schools.

We have great teachers, teachers committed to Catholic education. But the system is also such that teachers who do not share the Catholic faith find themselves teaching something of which they are not convinced. Catholic identity is more than a vague ethos; it is also about witness.

There are fundamental fault-lines within the current structure for Catholic schools that are not being addressed, and unattended fault-lines inevitably generate destructive energies. Our system of religious education - especially at secondary level, but also at primary level in urban areas - more and more bypasses our parishes, which should together with the family be the primary focal points for faith formation and membership of a worshipping community.

Contemporary culture

There are further challenges to be addressed regarding Church teaching. Within the Church and outside of it discussion focuses around challenges in the area of sexual morality where the Church's teaching is either not understood or is simply rejected as out of tune with contemporary culture.

There is on the other hand very little critical examination of some of the roots of that contemporary culture and its compatibility with the teaching of Jesus. The moral teaching of the Church cannot simply be a blessing for, a toleration of, or an adaptation to the cultural climate of the day.

The manner in which the moral teaching of the Church is presented to believers is far too often not adequately situated within the overall context of the teaching of Jesus, which is both compassionate and demanding. Christian moral rules and norms belong within a broader vision of the teaching of Jesus Christ.

This immediately brings us to the deeper question about the level of understanding of the message of Jesus Christ which exists in our Catholic Church and in our society in Ireland today. What do we really know of the message of Jesus? The Irish Catholic tradition has greatly neglected the place of the Scriptures.

One of the initiatives in which I place much trust in the pastoral program of the Archdiocese of Dublin is the distribution this year of the Gospel of Saint Luke throughout the Archdiocese. We have distributed 250,000 copies of the Gospel and are backing up the distribution with email support material month by month.

The world around us and the culture of Irish life have changed. Yet the Church still continues in many ways to live in a way which fails to recognise that culture has indeed changed so much. Irish culture has drifted from being the culture of an enlarged faith community into a heavily secularised culture.

For many, faith no longer plays a major role in their lives and they feel that this in no way compromises their ability to be good, honest and caring people. Believers, albeit unknowingly to themselves, often view the reality of faith through a secularised lens.

Mass attendance

The information collected on the ground in parishes in the Archdiocese of Dublin indicates that regular Church attendance has dropped, in some cases dramatically. Certainly Mass attendance is not the only criterion for measuring the faith of individuals and their belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ.

The Church is not however just a collection of individuals. The proclamation of the Gospel cannot adequately be carried out by correspondence course among people who never meet. The Church is not a collection of individuals who worship when they feel the need; the Church is fundamentally a worshipping community, founded in and nourished by the Eucharist.

I have spoken about the need for accountability regarding the scandal of sexual abuse. I am struck by the level of disassociation by people from any sense of responsibility. While people rightly question the concept of collective responsibility, this does not mean that one is not responsible for one's personal share in the decisions of the collective structures to which one was part.

I am surprised at the manner in which Church academics and Church publicists can today calmly act as pundits on the roots of the sexual abuse scandals in the Church as if they were totally extraneous to the scandal. Where did responsibility lie for a culture of seminary institutions which produced both those who abused and those who mismanaged the abuse? Where were the pundit-publicists while a Church culture failed to recognise what was happening?

We need to take a radical new look at the formation of future priests. I am working on plans to ensure that for the future in Dublin our seminarians, our prospective deacons and our trainee lay pastoral workers in the Archdiocese of Dublin will share some sections of their studies together, in order to create a better culture of collaborative ministry. The narrow culture of clericalism has to be eliminated. It did not come out of nowhere and so we have to address its roots in seminary training.

Probably my greatest discouragement comes from the failure of interaction between the Church and young people. I visit parishes where I encounter no young people. I enquire what is being done to attract young people to parish life and the answers are vague. Everyone knows that there is a missing generation and perhaps more than one, yet there are very few pastoral initiatives to reach out to young people.

Parishes offer very little outreach and I feel that an increasing number of young people find parishes a little like alien territory. A form of religious education which is separated from the parish will inevitably collapse - for most the day that school ends. Sacramental formation belongs within the Christian community which welcomes and supports each of us on our journey. We need a more demanding catechesis, within a parish framework, for those who wish to come forward for admission to the sacraments. Admission to the sacraments is not something which is automatically acquired when one reaches a certain class in school.

The Church will continue to provide services for the poor and recognises the need for professionalism in its services. Hopefully the Church has learned the lesson that it should not allow itself to be involved in providing poor quality services for the poor.

But when Church services become simply ancillary to State then they run the risk of losing their ecclesial originality and will one day end up being incorporated into the public service structure and subordinated to its goals. Already the structures of some Catholic services are being altered to respond to financial policies of the State.

The Catholic Church in Ireland in the future will have to find its place in a very different, much more secularised culture, at times even in a hostile culture. The Catholic Church has to look again at the dominant role it assumed in Irish society, while at the same time not renouncing its prophetic role in society and in the formation of consciences through opening to the teaching of Jesus Christ.


This will involve a much greater degree of parish-based catechesis and evangelisation within our parishes. There is no way that this will take place without a very extensive program of training for volunteer catechists, as is the case in most European countries. Parishes must become real centres of ongoing faith formation. A more parish-centred church life does not however mean retreat into the sacristy.

In our pastoral planning we have to start out from hard facts, which are inevitably today troubling facts. Already in the Archdiocese of Dublin we have ten times more priests over 70 than under 40.

The Catholic Church in Ireland is coming out of one of its most difficult moments in its history and the light at the end of the tunnel is still a long way off. The Church will have to live with the grief of its past, which can and should never be forgotten or overlooked. There is no simple way of wiping the slate of the past clean, just to ease our feelings.

We all have reasons to be discouraged and to be angry. There is a sense, however, in which true reform will spring only from those who love the Church, with a love like that of Jesus which is prepared also to suffer for the Church and to give oneself for the Church.

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