Don’t throw baby Jesus out with bath water

By Oliver Callan in The Irish Times, 8 June 2019

Last August when I was asked to join a panel covering the Pope’s visit, I feared I was expected to be the token church-bashing gay. I explained that while there was much the Catholic Church had done wrong, I believe we need to acknowledge the importance of faith to many people.

Mass attendances have fallen sharply since the 1990s, and I wondered if that sudden drop in spending 45 minutes a week thinking about life and mortality is linked to increases in mental health problems.

With growing antidepressant dependency, a wave of anxiety and high suicide rates, there’s a fair argument that we may have a God-shaped hole in our lives. Perhaps we are also letting down young people by being so dismissive of religious practice, and portraying young believers as oddballs, living in the dark outside “advanced” society.

Recognition perhaps that our colonial oppressors did some good and an acceptance that its long dominance is an inseparable part of our identity

How far can we go in our separation from Catholicism, without losing those virtuous elements, from volunteering to providing a space to think, reflect, grieve? This became the theme of Divorcing God, my documentary about the rise of secularism.

I look at the campaign to remove all symbols and signs of the church from State services, to take down statues and change the names of schools and hospitals. In parts of our media, Catholic faith has been declared dead and, along with it, a faith tradition going back thousands of years. The rush to sever all ties feels too extreme and my trip around the country making the programme has confirmed that view.

Heritage and history

I was born in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, founded by the Medical Missionaries of Mary but now entirely owned and run by the State. Although most people in the northeast know it as ‘The Lourdes’, there are calls to change its name to something secular, a rather brutal effort to erase the heritage and history of a hospital that has served communities since 1957.

About 1.4 million people still go to Mass every Sunday, a huge constituency of faithful that too many of us pretend doesn’t exist

Recognition perhaps that our colonial oppressors did some good and an acceptance that its long dominance is an inseparable part of our identity. The tacit independence gained from the Catholic Church over the last three decades ought to be no different.

Our young State’s period under Vatican control also left a mark on our Irishness. The brand of secularism that seeks to erase and censor it now, risks mimicking the worst traits of the church they’re trying to delete. At Presentation College Secondary School in Athenry, I found a more grown-up attitude among the teenagers there.

Almost none attend Mass on a regular basis but every hand rose in opposition to removing Catholic symbols, like the school’s name, its church window logo and its motto “Moladh go deo le Dia”.

Even an atheist pupil said it was important to remember how the school came into being and the legacy of the order led by Nano Nagle. It’s a State school now, finally free of religious dominance, but the next generation are wary of ghosting its heritage.

Constituency of faithful

In my travels I found that although Mass attendances have fallen, the Catholic Church still has more followers than many of us in media and society acknowledge. From an 81 per cent weekly church-going population in 1990, that figure is now about 30 per cent.

So about 1.4 million people still go to Mass every Sunday, a huge constituency of faithful that too many of us pretend doesn’t exist. Clearly, these people don’t vote according to the wishes of their church on social issues. Perhaps if the judgmental Catholic hierarchy was influenced by its more compassionate congregation, its future would be in better shape.

On the other foot, I’ve found that those embracing the non-religious way are few and struggling. Over 90 per cent of babies born in Ireland are still baptised, even with the lifting of school Baptism barriers. And 11,000 couples get married in a Catholic church every year, almost half of all marriages.

When the Catholic Church was at its worst, it wanted to control, create moral panics and demonise

Communions and Confirmations continue to be the main milestones in our children’s lives, proving that the Catholic tradition matters more to us than we often claim. It’s so easy and fashionable to attack the church that even Cabinet Ministers merrily shoot the daft outbursts of bishops like fish in barrels. However, when bereaved, we depend on funeral services and take for granted the parish graveyards that provide a permanent place to grieve.

Some 89 per cent of people identified with a religious faith in the last census. We remain religious but how we practise faith has dramatically changed. Those claiming to be non-religious are the fastest-growing minority, but they remain a minority at under 10 per cent.

Parents going the whole way in not baptising their children nor having them join in other sacraments are still very few, for all the talk of backlash. One parent I met was made so uncomfortable for opting her kids out of sacraments, she once found herself in a hair salon describing a Communion day that never happened.

When the Catholic Church was at its worst, it wanted to control, create moral panics and demonise. At its best, it provided carers, educators and that crucial time and space to think about life’s questions.

Oliver Callan is a writer and satirist. Divorcing God is on RTÉ One on Wednesday, June 12th, at 9.35pm

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