The recent child abuse scandals are just the latest development in the Catholic Church's long retreat from its one-time stronghold.
There was a time when Irish Catholics might have been delighted to see the pope lavishing attention on their bishops. On Feb. 15 and 16, however, when Ireland's bishops were at the Vatican to discuss an ongoing child sex abuse scandal, Catholics back home were furious. Catholics were already upset about Pope Benedict's refusal to apologize to the thousands of abuse victims in Ireland or even hint that he would meet with them, as some had requested. But what really set them off seems to have been the images of their bishops kissing the pope's ring.
Photos of the traditional greeting were plastered across broadsheet front pages and TV broadcasts over the following days. These, combined with images of the Vatican's opulent Apostolic Palace -- where the bishops met the pope and senior cardinals -- as well as the regalia of all those elderly men and the complete absence of lay people or any woman, had a profoundly negative effect. The response was unqualified rage.
Andrew Madden, the first person in Ireland to go public about his abuse by a priest, described the meetings at the Vatican as "a complete waste of time" and the greatest act of window dressing he had ever seen. Abuse survivor Marie Collins said it was an insult that the resignation of bishops didn't even make the agenda. Additionally, she said it was deplorable that the pope's statement was "so far away from accepting that there was a policy of coverup."
Of course, it's not unusual for bishops to kiss the pope's ring, and the Vatican has always been heavily male and ornate. The difference now is that Irish Catholics, after decades of alienation from the church, are finally nearing a breaking point.
Not so very long ago and for the great majority of Irish people, their Catholicism was synonymous with their national identity. To be Irish was to be Catholic. It was something of which most Irish were very proud.
In the latter part of the 19th century, the church grew to become the most powerful civic institution on the island, controlling most of Ireland's schools and the greater number of its hospitals.
This allowed the church unparalleled influence throughout most of the 20th century in what is now known as the Republic of Ireland. That continued to be the case until the latter decades of the last century when its influence began to wane due to increased affluence and a better-educated population. With the events of the last few years, church leaders can no longer ignore the extent to which they've lost control of Irish society.
The most recent scandal has centered on a series of damning government reports into the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of children by clergy members. The Murphy Commission report, published last November, found that in Dublin's Catholic archdiocese, by far Ireland's largest, "clerical child sex abuse was covered up" by church authorities from 1975 to 2004. It also found that all four archbishops of Dublin over that period investigated sexual abuse complaints and that many of the auxiliary bishops handled these complaints badly. None of the four archbishops reported their knowledge of abuse to the police "throughout the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s."
The report also found that church authorities used the concept of "mental reservation," which allows clergy to mislead people without being guilty -- in the church's eyes -- of lying, and that, though some courageous priests had brought complaints to their superiors' attention, in general there was a "don't ask, don't tell" policy on the issue.
The Murphy report was been the most widely publicized investigation of sex abuse in Ireland, but it wasn't the first, and it won't be the last. The first notorious sex-abuse case in Ireland hit the headlines in 1994, when it was disclosed that church authorities had dealt with a serial abuser, Father Brendan Smyth, by moving him from parish to parish in Ireland, Scotland, and the United States -- over a period of 40 years. The attorney general's mishandling of an arrest warrant for Smyth eventually led to the collapse of the Irish government.
More recently, the Ryan Commission report, published last May, found that thousands of children suffered physical and sexual abuse over several decades in residential institutions run by 18 religious congregations during the last century. To date, almost 14,000 of those victims have been compensated by the Irish state. And the Murphy Commission is currently investigating the handling of clerical child sex abuse allegations in Cloyne diocese and will publish its results by the end of this year.
Not surprisingly, the combined effects of these sex scandals have driven Irish Catholics away from the church at a time when many were already drifting away. For instance, according to recent surveys, 43 percent of Irish Catholics attend weekly Mass, a drop of 52 percent since 1973, though still about twice the average for most Catholic countries in Europe.
Meanwhile, fewer and fewer young men are entering the priesthood. For people of a certain age, the very idea of an Ireland without Catholic priests is truly beyond imagination. The bishop of Killaloe, Willie Walsh, recently recalled that of the 50 students in his Leaving Cert class (equivalent to the U.S. 12th grade) in 1952, 20 went on for the priesthood. In 1961, Pope John XXIII even said: "Any Christian country will produce a greater or lesser number of priests. But Ireland, that beloved country, is the most fruitful of mothers in this respect."
Almost 50 years later the situation is dramatically different. The archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, has said his archdiocese will soon have barely enough priests to serve its 199 parishes. "We have 46 priests over 80 and only two less than 35 years of age. In a very short time we will just have the bare number of priests required to have one active priest for each of our 199 parishes," he said in November. The average age of Irish Catholic priests today is 63. Members of religious congregations have an average age in the early 70s. Each priest must retire at 75. As the Americans say, you do the math!
But even the lack of priests does not completely explain the falling away in religious practice. That began as far back as the 1960s, when two events heralded the death knell for what has been referred to many times as "the long 19th century of the Irish Catholic Church." Those were the Second Vatican Council, when things apparently immutable for all time were seemingly changed overnight, and the introduction of free second-level education as well as the introduction of state university grants in 1967.
Both produced skeptical Irish Catholics, less credulous than previous generations and demanding more sophisticated answers to age-old questions. Those answers were not always forthcoming.
In a 2003 article for the Irish Times, Father Vincent Twomey, a retired professor of moral theology at St. Patrick's College who studied with Pope Benedict himself at a postgraduate program in Germany, wrote, "Irish writers in the early part of the 20th century ... sensed that something was seriously wrong with 'traditional Irish Catholicism'. They saw it as narrow-minded, anti-intellectual and rigorist on morality. They were right."
In the 1960s, cultural influences also came into play -- television for instance. Irish state television, RTE, began broadcasting in 1961. Later in that decade, Oliver Flanagan, a well-known and outspoken politician, stated that "there was no sex in Ireland before television." The cultural revolutions of the second half of the 20th century hit Ireland just as hard as they did every other Western country, and so began Ireland's culture wars, known as Ireland's "moral civil war" and fought between younger liberal elements and the Catholic Church over contraceptives, divorce, and abortion, among other social issues.
Ireland's younger and more-educated Catholics began to assert independence from Rome's teaching on sexuality, particularly following Pope Paul VI's "Humanae Vitae" encyclical in 1968, which banned all artificial means of contraception. Many Irish Catholic women ignored "Humanae Vitae." They took contraceptive pills and found that the heavens didn't fall. Doctors got around Irish law, often with the tacit approval of priests, by prescribing the pill as a regulator for the menstrual cycle rather than as a contraceptive.
In 1979, contraception finally became legally available in Ireland, but only to married couples and on prescription. It was 1992 before contraceptives became freely available to everyone. That same year, coincidentally, the church had its first major sex scandal when it was revealed that the bishop of Galway, Eamonn Casey, had a 17-year-old son; a favorite T-shirt at the time featured a condom and the caption, "Just in Casey."
Divorce was also an extremely pivotal issue, not becoming legal until 1995. Abortion remains banned in Ireland despite referendums in 1983, 1992, and 2002. Although opinion poll after opinion poll over recent years has indicated a great majority now favor legalizing it, Ireland's politicians run scared from yet another bitter and divisive abortion referendum campaign.
With Irish society largely lost to it, the church's final frontier may be the primary-school system, of which it controls 92 percent. But now, the child sex abuse scandals, along with substantial immigration into Ireland over the past 10 years, have significantly increased pressure toward more pluralist control of primary education, something which -- to the surprise of many -- the Catholic bishops now say they favor. Archbishop Martin even called the Catholic control of schools a "historical hangover that doesn't reflect the realities of the times and is, in addition, in many ways detrimental to the possibility of maintaining a true Catholic identity in Catholic schools." If this is the case, it seems the last great battle of Ireland's moral civil wars -- that over control of education -- may be avoided.
And the Catholic Church in Ireland will continue its retreat from a position of unquestioned dominance in society for more than a century and a half, to a more humble role on its margins. "In the painful solitude of the desert, the church must learn how to return to its fundamental mission," Archbishop Martin has said. Some might suggest that is exactly where it belongs.
CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images