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Irish Catholicism Since 1950: The Undoing of a Culture (review)

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 7, Number 2, Samhradh/Summer 2003
pp. 154-157 | 10.1353/nhr.2003.0046

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New Hibernia Review 7.2 (2003) 154-157

Irish Catholicism Since 1950: The Undoing of a Culture, by Louise Fuller, 380 pp. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2002. Distributed by Irish Books and Media, Minneapolis. $44.95.

Nineteenth-century alliances between Irish nationalism and Catholicism forged a symbiotic relationship between religion and nationality. Louise Fuller describes and analyzes the consequences of that interdependence and its gradual dissolution. For more than forty years following the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Ireland was a Catholic confessional state. Isolated by an Irish-Ireland nationalism exemplified by Eamon de Valéra—who projected his country as a non-materialistic, Gaelic, rural paradise—and by a Church preoccupied with denouncing the secularism and hedonism of the outside world, Irish Catholicism ignored such contemporary theological trends in the rest of Europe as, for example, the historicism and existentialism that confronted monolithic Thomism. The church controlled education, especially opposing state interference with its schools, and similarly objected to government welfare initiatives as preludes to socialism. This was one of the reasons the bishops successfully blocked the 1951 mother-and child health proposal; another was their insistence that only they could determine proper public morality, especially concerning sex.

Fuller makes clear that the vast majority of Irish Catholics—except for such intellectuals and writers as Sean O'Faolain and his colleagues at The Bell, who railed against censorship and the power of the unelected parliament that gathered at Maynooth—accepted Catholicism as the essence of their identity and their country's ethos. They signified assent by attending Mass and receiving the sacraments in massive numbers, by showing deference to bishops, priests, nuns, and brothers, and by generously contributing money to the church in Ireland, Rome, and mission territories, as well as by encouraging sons and daughters to enter seminaries and convents. A few Catholic clerics, particularly those writing in The Furrow and Doctrine and Life, warned that all was not healthy with local Catholicism, pointing to its negative, legalistic approach to spirituality, its non-intellectual and often anti-intellectual view of religion, and its stress on individualistic rather than communal worship. These writers correctly identified it as a faith that feared, more than loved, God.

Fuller examines the many forces that, beginning in the late 1950s, contributed to Irish Catholicism's fall from dominance: the impact of movies and television, especially the free-flowing discussions on RTÉ's "Late Show"; tourism and returned emigrants; Vatican II and the theological and social messages of Pope John XXIII; Ireland's involvement in the United Nations and European Union; industrial and technological changes in the economy, leading to increasing urbanization and a better educated and more prosperous laity; the conscience crisis resulting from Pope Paul VI's condemnation of contraception in Humane Vitae; the "Troubles" in the Six Counties; and the clerical sexual abuse scandals of the 1990s. In time, Ireland's economic needs, international roles, and a changing public opinion made politicians much less subservient to the will of bishops. The state took considerable control of education and expanded social services, curtailed censorship, and legalized contraceptives and divorce. Sensing a mood swing among the laity, bishops continued to insist that they had a right and duty to inform the public conscience, but denied that they expected the state to enact Catholic morality or desired to determine the choices of voters. As the church's power waned, the hierarchy held fast to traditional dogma, and continued to show the Irish Catholic obsession with sins of the flesh—but couched their pronouncements in less authoritarian prose than in the 1950s. Learning from the press and television media, the church adopted their techniques of persuasion but without much long-range effect in matters of faith and morals.

Following Vatican II, Irish bishops, priests, and nuns became interested in social issues at home and abroad, ceased resisting government activities in areas of health, education, and welfare, and urged missionaries to identify with Third World people in addition to converting them. They also made efforts to follow the ecumenical spirit of the 1960s; while some progress was made, both North and South, to communicate with other Christian groups, the sectarian conflict that has persisted in Irish history made these...