Ireland’s Catholic Future

images-2Responses to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin In the May 20, 2013 issue of America magazine.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin surveys the landscape of Ireland in wake of the church’s sexual abuse crisis and the country’s economic downturn. The archbishop’s article is adapted from an address presented as the Russo Family Lecture at the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture in New York on April 24, 2013.  Here we present responses to the archbishop’s lecture from two noted scholars: J. J. Lee and Theodora Hawksley.

Ireland as Missionary Country

Traditional Irish Catholicism is not something that goes back to St. Patrick. It was the result of a specific historical conjuncture in the post-famine era, roughly since 1850. That conjuncture began to falter in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is natural that there would be change as a result. The course it has taken reflects the nature of the change itself, and the response of the power holders in the church—the senior clergy. We had just before the famine, in the 1840s, one priest for about every 3,500 Catholics in Ireland; by 1900 we had one priest for every 1,000, due to a combination of a sharp drop in population, and a sharp rise in the number of priests. The number of nuns rose even more spectacularly, from about 1,000 to 10,000. This change in the clergy-to-laity ratio was the foundation for traditional Irish Catholicism, based in powerful church-run institutions until little more than a generation ago.

J. J. Lee
J. J. Lee is Director of Glucksman Ireland House and Glucksman Professor of Irish Studies and Professor of History at New York University.

Places of Renewal

I was coming to the end of an interview with a priest in Dublin, who had spoken at length about his experiences of weathering the storm of the abuse scandal in his own congregation. I decided I would ask one last question: “What do you need, and what I can I do?” And he said, “Theo, we don’t need people to write. We need people to listen, and people to pray.” These two—listening and prayer—are at the heart of my research, and at the root of my comments this evening. Without listening, any talk about the future of the church in Ireland will be up-in-the-air theological sermonizing about an ideal future. Without prayer, it will be a mere arms-length exercise in extrapolating a future from the social trends of the present.

Archbishop Martin’s lecture gives us a wealth of topics for reflection, and I have time to comment on only one. So I would like to pick up on his statement that ‘renewal must be homegrown.’

Theodora Hawksley Theodora Hawksley is Research Fellow in Divinity at the University of Edinburgh.

For the full text of  both Professor Lee’s and Theodora Hawksley’s responses to Dr Martin’s article, go to: A Post-Catholic Ireland Comments