Bad Antelopes: Thoughts on the collapse of Catholicism in Ireland

Updated: Jan 13

Catholicism in Ireland is whipped. Bet. Done. A poll this week shows that Sinn Fein, a pro-abortion political party, are the most popular in the country. Studies into why the Catholic Church in Ireland has collapsed abound. These studies aim at producing measurable data to detail the process of decline. They’re valuable. In this post, however, I want to suggest a non-measurable factor that has facilitated the collapse.

To make sense of this factor, we must first dispel the idea that Christianity in the West was uniformly dominant until the later stages of the 20th century. This is false. For example, Religion played a relatively small role at the battle of Waterloo in 1815. Chaplains were few, prayer was relatively scarce, and soldiers died with very few trappings of religious faith on their bodies (such as crucifixes or religious medals). Compare that to the battle of the Somme in 1916 when Chaplains abounded, prayer punctuated every advance, and the soldiers died adorned with signs of their religious faith. This reminds us that the faith in 1916 was far healthier than it was in 1815. Rather than steady dominance from Constantine until 1968, Christian faith in the West has always waxed and waned. There are ups and downs. The first three quarters of the 1800s were a “down” while the first three quarters of the 1900s were a massive “up”. When we see the collapse of Catholicism in Ireland, we need to think in terms of a short-term development within a longer term struggle and not in terms of the collapse of a 2000 year old success story. The interplay of periods of decline and periods of growth is the reality that must frame our thinking about the recent decline of the Church in Ireland.

Ecosystem success and the failure it engenders

I want to argue that the collapse now is connected to the unprecedented level of “success” that Catholicism in Ireland had for most of the 20th century. A series of factors made conditions in Ireland unusually hospitable to the Church. They created an ecosystem in which unhealthy elements within the Church grew alongside healthy ones. The growth of these unhealthy elements is a factor in the decline now. Let me explain.

Ireland achieved independence in 1921. This came after centuries of British rule in which Catholicism was under attack and suffered wave after wave of attempts to wipe it out. The nationalist movement that led to independence was cultural as well as political and military and Catholicism played a significant role in it. With the establishment of the Irish republic in 1937, Catholicism became enshrined as the culturally dominant state religion. To be Irish was to be Catholic. Because of this, Catholicism wasn’t entirely about faith, it was about identity, patriotism, and cultural acceptance. It had no opposition and adopting the trappings of faith was a compulsory part of being seen as Irish.

To use an analogy from natural science, Catholicism in independent Ireland existed in an ecosystem without any predators to attack it. It’s as if antelopes found themselves with a limitless supply of food and without big cats, hyenas, or disease, to prey on them. In one sense this would be really good for the Antelope. Their numbers would multiply exponentially. They would dominate the savannahs as Catholicism dominated the cultural landscape of post-independence Ireland. But such a situation would have disastrous consequences for antelopes from one key perspective. It would lead to a massive amount of very poor quality antelopes, slow, witless, antelopes. This is because predators are vital for the evolutionary health of the prey.

Really bad antelopes

Antelopes have evolved to be fast, cautious, and capable of springing away from danger in an instant. The ones that are slower and less cautious don’t live that long and therefore don’t pass on their genes. But imagine Antelopes in a world without prey, like Catholicism was in mid 20th century Ireland. Picture aged and obese antelopes, slow, knee deep in mud, cluelessly gulping down water without a care in the world. At their ripe old age these slow, dimwitted, creatures would have passed on their genes to generations of slow, dimwitted, offspring. Slow, dimwitted, offspring that would be annihilated in short order were any kind of predator to be reintroduced to the ecosystem.

It may seem trite but, in one important sense, something similar happened in Ireland. To be a priest or lay Catholic leader in Ireland in 1770 was to risk death and persecution. Thus, only those radically committed to the faith became priests. Only men and women so passionate about the faith that death was seen as a small price to pay for it entered religious life. To be Catholic in such a context was to be capable of responding to critiques and challenges with courage and intelligence. It required the kinds of virtues that kept the faith alive in spite, literally, of dungeon, fire, and sword. It was a faith surrounded by savage predators on all sides.

In contrast, in 1970, to be a priest was to be a quasi-divine symbol of Irishness, intelligence, holiness, and class. It was a career choice guaranteed to provide social status, adulation, and standing. It was an easy choice to make, a desirable and comfortable career move. There was nothing, literally nothing, a priest could do to stop his Church being full. No Catholic, whether they had faith or not, would dare stay away from Mass on a Sunday. Alongside people of faith, filled with the Holy Spirit, others were attracted to what was an easy path to adulation, power and social standing.

You probably see where my analogy is going. Of course, and this can’t be stressed enough, we all know great priests, nuns, and lay leaders from this era. But so too, alongside the corpulent, feckless, antelopes you would have had fast and sprightly antelopes, bolting from the lake at the breaking of every bubble. Alongside these wonderful Churchmen and women there were swathes who, in a different cultural context, without the comfort, power, and status afforded by the favorable ecosystem would never have even considered becoming priests and nuns. People who should never have become priests and nuns. And as lethargic Antelope produced progeny ill-suited to a less comfortable habitat, so too the Church that this generation led was marked by incompetence, faithlessness, and moral failure.

Corollories of really bad antelopes

The faithlessness of these “bad antelopes” could not fail to drive people away and as the evidence shows, it did. As Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book Talking to Strangers notes, we’re hardwired to be, not just suspicious, but actually repulsed by disingenuousness. When we see that people’s words and expressions are not authentic to what they actually think and feel we instinctively want to get away from them as this situation may not be safe.

I see a curious example of this on a daily basis when I pick up my daughters from school. Parents gather in a space and meet their children surrounded by other parents. This, however, leads to “public parent mode” where parents speak to their children more like the children’s TV character “Barney” than they would in the privacy of their home. No matter how anarchic the child’s behavior, no hint of anger darkens the parent’s voice, as, instead, surrounded by other parents, they parent their children with a cloying, saccharine obsequiousness. The children’s reaction to this is fascinating. It’s frequently disgust. The child sees the disingenuousness in their parent’s speech and will often respond with rude words or aggression. And understandably so. They no longer know where they stand as the parent they love is acting in a strange and inauthentic way that they struggle to understand. They no longer feel safe.

The cost of (bad) discipleship

You may have experienced something analogous to this in a Church setting, maybe even at Mass? When we see someone who does not seem to hold the faith with passion but instead wants only to ingratiate himself to us, we feel repulsed. When we see someone using the prayers of the faithful, not to speak to the real and living God (whom they no longer seem to believe in) but, instead, to grandstand and aggrandize themselves through self-righteous, politically correct pronouncements, we feel repulsed. When we hear the choir accompany the inbreaking of the real presence of Christ with a Disney style, saccharine tune, we know – they’re bluffing, they’re lying. They do not actually believe that this is God, really present, here and now. They no longer believe that the God proclaimed in Jesus Christ is listening to our prayers. If they did their words and actions would match this faith. When it doesn’t we know that they’re bluffing. And this repulses us as assuredly it has repulsed a generation of Irish people and convinced them that the faith is a fraud.

With many admirable exceptions, the Church in Ireland was run for decades by a faithless, feckless, group of bluffers and charlatans. The inauthenticity of their prayer, of their music, of their preaching, and of their actions has driven generations to see the faith as inauthentic, bluffing, nonsense. And such generations, understandably, have left. Worse, by far, is that this faithless, feckless Church instrumentalized the prejudice and pathologies of the society encouraged it. It ran Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes. It was marked by a brutal, violent, lack of Christian faith and action.

People have left the Church in recent decades for the exact same reasons that people in the early Church joined. In the early Church people saw the authenticity, courage, and faith of the martyrs. They saw that the empire itself could not cause these men and women to bow. Because of this the sand of the coliseum, as Tertullian noted, became the seed of the faith. In stark contrast, in recent decades the power of the secular world was enforced at every Christian gathering where appealing to secular power, rather than acknowledging the power that is God, is the purpose behind the music, the preaching, and the prayers.

This painful situation, however, is, as I stated at the outset, a cause for hope. The decline is caused, at least in part, by the faithlessness and fecklessness of a generation of leaders. Leaders who grew fat and slow in the 20th century conflation of Christianity with civic power. But the ecological context has changed, and different kinds of Catholics and different kinds of leaders are emerging. To be a Catholic is, increasingly, to be more like the Catholics of 1770 than those of 1970. It is to be radically faithful and authentic. And as faithless and inauthenticity led to the collapse of the faith, faithfulness and authenticity will, assuredly, lead to its renewal.

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