Pope Francis Can’t Redeem Irish Catholicism
If the Church doesn't embrace the people's demand for change, it'll wither away.
The official reason for Pope Francis’s visit to Ireland over the weekend was the Roman Catholic Church’s World Meeting of Families, an international event held every three years to celebrate the importance of family in church life. But by the time Francis left, the visit had taken on a far greater significance. It had become an unofficial referendum on the papal handling of clerical sexual abuse—and on the future of a church that once dominated almost every aspect of Irish life.
Francis’s visit raised hopes that the church would be more compassionate toward survivors and more transparent about what is perceived as a worldwide cover-up of abuse.
These hopes intensified in the week leading up to the event with the publication of a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing decades of abuse and cover-up. Ireland is familiar with such investigations: There have been six major state-funded inquiries into church abuses since 2005, each confirming the horrifying scope of predation.
Yet the day after Francis left, an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll asked if during his visit the pope had done enough to address child sex abuse within the church. A majority—55 percent—said he had not, while 31 percent said he had gone far enough, and 14 percent had no opinion.
That wasn’t necessarily a failure on Francis’s part. Instead, it speaks to just how much damage sexual abuse and other scandals has done to the church’s reputation. For many in Ireland, Francis is the church’s last best hope to address clerical sexual abuse justly and humanely. One of the most memorable moments of his visit was during his Mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, where his prayers for forgiveness for abuse were more specific and contrite than those previously offered by Irish Church leaders.
In a private meeting with survivors the day before, Francis had been told how church-run institutions had routinely taken children away from single mothers. If those mothers and children tried to find each other, they were told that this was a mortal sin. When Francis said, “It is not a mortal sin. It is the Fourth Commandment,” the Massgoers applauded.
The applause was not as loud as it might have been. Although organizers had distributed 500,000 free tickets, some estimates put the crowd at just 130,000. Strong winds and heavy rain may have discouraged attendance, but it is also possible that Irish Catholics are just discouraged about the church.
Francis is popular in Ireland: He was voted the country’s favorite world leader in a 2017 poll. If even he cannot convince most people that the church is serious about abuse, then the crisis in the Irish Church may finally be reaching a breaking point.
In the run-up to Francis’s arrival, comparisons to John Paul II’s 1979 papal visit were common. Then, the future of the church in Ireland seemed secure. Catholic social teaching was enshrined in state law. Contraception could not be bought or sold, it was illegal to get a divorce or have an abortion, and homosexuality was a crime. The state had entrusted the church with control of the health and education systems. And people were pious; 90 percent called themselves Catholic, and nearly as many attended Mass weekly. More than 1 million people flocked to John Paul’s Mass in Phoenix Park, then about a third of the population of Ireland.
Now, 78 percent still identify as Catholic, but Mass attendance is 35 percent, with attendance in some inner-city Dublin parishes in the single digits. Contraception became legal in 1980, and the restrictive laws on divorce and abortion were overturned in referendums in 1995 and 2018, respectively, even as the church’s position has remained rigidly unchanged. In 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage in a popular referendum. Popular opinion is in favor of dismantling the church’s remaining influence in health and education, and the political will is there to see it through.
Yet the speed of this change isn’t the result of scandal alone. The steepest declines in religiosity took place during the 1990s and early 2000s, coinciding with revelations about abuse but also with an unprecedented economic boom. The Celtic Tiger era came to a stop in 2008 but not before it had transformed Ireland from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest. This new wealth, accompanied by more women entering the workforce, greater access to tertiary education, and increased openness to the outside world, meant that Ireland rapidly conformed to the patterns of secularization familiar to the rest of Europe.
At the same time, the Irish did not shake off their faith entirely. In a 2018 Pew Research Center report, Ireland ranked the third-most religiously observant country in Western Europe, with 24 percent showing high levels of religious commitment.
But Ireland’s levels of religious commitment do not necessarily translate into support for official church teachings. The same Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll that found a majority was dissatisfied with Francis’s handling of abuse also revealed that 89 percent thought priests should be allowed to marry, 85 percent wanted women priests, 91 percent thought contraception was permissible in all circumstances, and 76 percent thought the church should recognize same-sex marriage. These figures did not vary significantly for practicing Catholics and for the population as a whole.
Recent qualitative academic research, including my own, confirms that many practicing Catholics are disillusioned with what they call the “institutional” church of the bishops and the Vatican. They want the church to change so that laypeople, including women, are heard and heeded.
In previous generations, Irish women organized family life around Catholic rituals and practices and encouraged their children to vocations in the priesthood and religious orders. The Irish Constitution still retains a reference to a woman’s place in the home, asserting that this is for “the common good”—likely to be removed after a referendum this October. While women’s religious practice outstrips that of men, the church has yet to really come to grips with modern Irish women who balance family and careers and ask hard questions about why their contributions to the church do not seem to be valued.
Changes of such scale require structural reforms, such as creating forums where lay participation is meaningful and can contribute to change in church teachings and policies. It reflects the Second Vatican Council’s idea that the spirit of God is present in all the people of God. The Jesuit theologian Gerry O’Hanlon has suggested that a first step could be a national synod of the Irish Church that includes laypeople. Reform groups such as the Association of Catholic Priests have offered to facilitate a national dialogue on the abuse crisis.
Less than a week before his visit to Ireland, Francis responded to the Pennsylvania report with a worldwide “Letter to the People of God.” He condemned clericalism—idealizing priests as a superior caste above laypeople, which drove many of the cover-ups of abuse—and urged “the active participation of all the members of God’s People” in addressing the abuse crisis.
Yet such words leave many faithful feeling frustrated because they are not yet convinced that their participation matters. Last year, Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins resigned from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors that Francis established, claiming that the Vatican had ignored its recommendations.
Few doubt that Francis wants change. But he has been stymied by a Vatican bureaucracy staffed with aging clerics who resist almost all attempts to create new structures or challenge its overly clerical culture. In 2015, Francis backed a commission recommendation that would have established a tribunal to hold bishops accountable for ignoring reports of abuse, only to have this rejected by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Bishops’ conferences around the world also have failed to disseminate the commission’s safeguarding guidelines.
In his remarks at Francis’s papal Mass, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin spoke of “hope of a spring for the Irish Church.” But the failure of even a spectacularly popular pope to turn public opinion around confirms that such hopes are premature. The institutional church in Ireland has a limited window of opportunity to make real change—or to doom itself to the margins of Irish life.