On Sunday the 26th of August, Pope Francis will begin his two-day visit to Ireland, the first visit of the head of the Catholic Church to the country since that of Pope John Paul II in October 1979. The Pope will attend the World Meeting of Families in Dublin and give an open-air mass in Phoenix Park along with a visit to the Holy Shrine in Knock. It is estimated that half a million people will travel to see the Pontiff in Phoenix Park, while 45,000 will travel west to Knock in Mayo. While this will not match the numbers that flocked to see Pope John Paul II forty years ago, where it was estimated 1.5 million caught a glimpse of the Pope during his 1979 visit, there remains a strong cohort of committed Catholics who will travel and even walk miles to see “the Vicar of Christ”. One thing is irrefutable however, the Ireland that gave such a fawning reception to the Pope in 1979 is a very different nation, both demographically and in ideologically, in 2018 than it was in 1979.
Pope Francis has implemented a series of reforms since taking over the Papacy and is viewed as modern and progressive Pontiff. Prior to becoming Pope, Cardinal Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was not a typical member of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Before joining the priesthood, Jorge Mario Bergoglio graduated as a technical engineer, he even worked as a nightclub bouncer and janitor before becoming a Jesuit Priest. Cardinal Bergoglio’s election as the 266th head of the Catholic Church in March 2013 saw both the first Jesuit and Latin American to lead the Catholic Church. Bergoglio’s unconventional background has undeniably appeared in his approach as the sovereign of the Vatican City, which is a clear change in direction from his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI.
In July, Francis’ accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick following a string of accusations of sexual abuse cover ups. This marked the first time a priest has vacated the College of Cardinals due to sexual abuse allegations. Prior to the resignation of the disgraced McCarrick, the Pontiff also accepted the resignation of Australian archbishop Philip Wilson who was convicted in a criminal court of concealing sexual abuse. The fall of members of the church’s hierarchy is evidence that the Pope is pursuing a “zero tolerance” stance against those accused of sexual abuse. To prevent any future repetition of these scandals, the Pope established the Pontifical commission for the protection of minors and announced a new legal mechanism for trying bishops accused of negligence in dealing with accusations of abuse. The Pope has shown a clear intent to tackle these issues and his decisive action is to be commended.
However, Pope Francis has faced an uphill battle in his efforts to implement decisive reforms. Within the church, staunch opposition has come from the conventional wing of the Vatican. Many of the establishment members of the College of Cardinals have expressed uneasiness at Francis’s liberal statement. Especially regarding issues such as his stance on homosexuality. In a conversation with Juan Carlos Cruz, who is gay, it was reported that the Pope told Cruz that “God made you like this, God loves you like this”. Further controversy came in March, when the Pope possibly denied the existence of hell, which would be a major contradiction of the traditional teachings of the church. Francis has also shown signs of softening the church’s position on contraception and the issue of Priests being allowed to marry. In pursuing these reforms, the Pope has admitted his frustrations at the dogmatic ideology of many within the church and the difficulty he has faced in trying to implement reform. He compared reforming the Church to cleaning Egypt’s Sphinx “with a toothbrush”.
Despite these reforms, the influence of the church in Ireland has sharply declined, with more non-religious schools opening and the removal of the baptism barrier, which gave Catholic children precedence over non-Catholics in primary education. As well at this, the passing of the marriage equality in 2015 and the repeal of the Eighth Amendment is further proof that the Catholic Church’s influence over social and political affairs in Ireland is becoming nonexistent. Further, the church’s disturbing past with Ireland, from the Tuam mother and baby home to the atrocities of the Magdalene laundries, have left an irremovable blemish on one of the most powerful institution in Ireland.
One of the strongest signs of the church’s political decline was in 2013 when then Taoiseach Enda Kenny told Dail Eireann that he is “not a Catholic Taoiseach” following the release of the Cloyne report into abuse by the Catholic Church in Ireland. In that speech Kenny also slated the church by highlighting its growing disconnect with the people of Ireland. In years gone by an Irish Taoiseach would never have contemplated making such a public condemnation of the church. It is a stark contrast to the Ireland of 1937, when then President of the Executive Council, Eamon De Valera, allocated a special position for the church in the Irish Constitution, an article which was later repealed. There is no doubt that Dev’s Ireland will well and truly remain only in the history books.
The Church in Ireland has failed to repair the disconnect amongst its hierarchy and the Irish public. Comments by leading members of the church have furthered the decline in the perception of the church in our country. Following the 8th Amendment referendum, Bishop Kevin Doran advised those who voted to repeal to attend confession, stating that Catholics who voted yes “committed a sin”. This week the loquacious Bishop Doran again caused head scratching when he told an event in Dublin marking the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which banned artificial means of contraception, that it has ‘been ignored for too long’. This disconnect between the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and their unwillingness to embrace modern Ireland is one of the churches monumental problems. Some members of the church wish to bring Ireland back to the early 20th century, a time when religious doctrine was given precedence over logical fact and reasoning. In response to the Bishop’s comments, Health Minister Simon Harris encapsulated the thoughts of most of the nation by simply responding “please make it stop”.
Perhaps’ the highest profile critic of the church has been former President Mary Mcaleese. The President has spoken out publicly against what she states as the rampant misogyny within the church and the lack of effort to heal the wounds of the scandals that have plagued the church in Ireland. Mcaleese stated that the Pope’s visit in August will be a make or break moment for Francis’s Papacy and that he must meet the victims of the abuse the Holy See failed to act on in Ireland. However, the Archbishop of Dublin cast doubt last week on whether the Pope will meet the victims of the scandals, due to, as he put it, time constraints on the Pope’s schedule. It would certainly be in the Pope’s interest to meet with the victims. He must go beyond rhetoric and commit to action or the Catholic Church’s troubled history with Ireland may become the defining issue of Francis’s time as the Bishop of Rome.
At a time when it is becoming unfashionable to be religious, the Pope must make concessions to those broad minded and compassionate Catholic’s whom make up the majority of the church’s membership and have defended the Holy See through its toughest period. Those Priests who give mass in rural parishes to declining congregations and who contribute a huge amount of time engaging in charitable acts. These people are the glimmer of light in a house with otherwise eroding foundations.
At a time when there are 20% fewer Catholics as recorded in the last census and with numbers attending Mass in freefall, it appears Ireland is moving closer to a secular society. Pope Francis’s visit later this month will shine a light on the future of the Catholic Church within Irish life. While Francis is seen as a reforming Pope and his efforts to make the church more transparent and inclusive are welcomed, Francis’s biggest challenge is to control those members of the church administration who show detachment and an unwillingness to change. While the church hierarchy have every right to express their views and protest the changing of traditions, it does make an observation by the late Irish Times journalist Dick Walsh even more relevant. Walsh observed; “The Church is imploding and their lordships are in Maynooth, episcopating against the wind”.