There are many in Ireland today – and indeed more beyond her shores – who see a formerly Catholic country where religion is now decidedly on the back foot.
Last year her people, in a popular vote consigned the Christian definition of marriage and the natural definition of conjugality to the rubbish heap. In the previous year the country’s elected parliament compromised the life of unborn children by a law permitting abortion in certain circumstances, rejecting the moral guidance of Ireland’s Catholic hierarchy in the process. The same Government is now in the process of neutering the Christian churches and hobbling them in their traditional roles in the country’s education system. Just last month the left-wing Minister for Education announced that she was going to abolish a rule by which faith schools devote 30 minutes per day to the subject of religion in the school timetable.
Against this wave of secularization there has been some resistance, heroic at times but ultimately, to all appearances, ineffective. The redefinition of marriage in the name of equality – a false concept of equality which without a blush of embarrassment insists on proclaiming things which are different to be the same and demanding that they be treated in the same way – will have far-reaching consequences. In its aftermath many are now anticipating the prosecution of those who beg to differ. Ireland’s justice system is now administered by a government department entitled the Department of Justice and Equality – the self-same flawed concept of equality now enshrined in the country’s constitution.
Ireland now may well be in the throes of a new religious reformation, driven by a secularist State and acquiesced in by a lax and apathetic population. Ireland’s people might resist this if it were awake but does not do so because in all probability it does not really comprehend what is going on. It acquiesces because it has succumbed to the mantra of “Ireland must move with the times”, not recognizing that what is going on is a subversion of the Christian faith which has characterized the soul of Ireland for more than 1500 years.
Tom Holland, the English scholar and popular historian has asserted that “Liberalism is essentially Christianity-lite, and you can include atheism and secularism in that bracket too—these are basically Christian heresies. The ethics involved are really New Testament ones.” It would seem that Christian Ireland has now fallen victim to this latest wave of religious reformation while still thinking of itself as Christian or Catholic – just about. Those driving this “reformation” will soon be forcibly imposing their doctrines on all, not with the bloody ferocity of the State-led ideologies of former times but not any less draconian for all that.
Those Christians in Ireland who wish to hold on to the “Faith of Our Fathers” but who are now being marginalized by the Irish State must be asking themselves what hope is there of a new “counter reformation” as their ancestors did in the 16th century?
But perhaps Ireland’s Christian people and their leaders could do worse than look across the Celtic Sea for inspiration. There they might find a model for a revival of the faith in their land, the only antidote to the poisonous ideology now seeping into its political life and culture.
In France, the First Daughter of the Catholic Church, there is now talk of a Catholic Revolution. In Paris, on October 30 last, the iconic Le Figaro ran the headline “La révolution silencieuse des catholiques de France.” The article described how what the paper called France’s néocatholiques are now forming a new generation of leaders in the nation’s political, cultural, and economic debates.
America’s Catholic World Report noted, in commenting on the Le Figaro story:
Significantly, the new Catholics’ idea of dialogue isn’t about listening to secular intellectuals and responding by nodding sagely and not saying anything that might offend others. Instead, younger observant Catholics have moved beyond—way, way beyond—what was called the “Catholicism of openness” that dominated post-Vatican II French Catholic life. While the néocatholiques are happy to listen, they also want to debate and even critique reigning secular orthodoxies. For them, discussion isn’t a one-way street. This is a generation of French Catholics who are, as Le Figaro put it, “afraid of nothing.”
(These peple) are… skilled at bringing the insights of Catholic orthodoxy to bear in fresh and powerful ways. Certainly, la bien-pensance (political correctness) continues to suffocate French cultural life. That culture also remains dominated by a left that tends to label its critics as “un reactionaire” or anything to which the word “phobic” can serve as a suffix. The point, however, is that Catholics in the public eye are increasingly unintimidated by this. That’s a mindset which French secular thinkers are simply unused to encountering.
All this will be uncomfortably familiar to the Irish who tried to resist the tsunami of media and political orthodoxy which persuaded – if that’s not too neutral a term – 62% of the Irish electorate into accepting gay “marriage” last May. Not since the aftermath of Ireland’s Civil War in the first half of the 20th century did such acrimony result from a political campaign as did in this case. But if the brave French can resist and overcome the intimidation which their laicist ideology has generated perhaps the Irish can do the same.
What is happening in France? Catholic World Report traces this development over the past 50 years, noting how remarkable the change has been in French Catholicism since the Second Vatican Council.
In the years immediately following the Council, it says, there was a turn to the left among some French Catholics, especially clergy. This resulted, for instance, in an emphasis upon Catholic-Marxist dialogue and weakened resistance to changes in France’s abortion laws. Such trends were matched by some of the worst progressivist experimentation within the universal Church, whether in terms of liturgy, pastoral practice, or how one approached the modern world. Many men left the active priesthood, while others, including the Jesuit editor of the prominent journal Études, exited the Church altogether.
By the late 1970s in France, things had degenerated to the point whereby the well-known Jesuit philosopher Gaston Fessard, openly criticized the social statements issued by the French episcopate in that decade, effectively accusing it of being an unwitting fellow-traveller with the French left and endorsing its ideological program and wider tendencies to distort the faith into socialist, even Marxist ideology.
Nothing quite as bad as this happened in Ireland. Or perhaps it did. Ireland did not fall victim to Marxist ideology but it did fall to a consumerist hedonism. It largely turned a blind eye to the Catholic Church’s moral teaching on sexuality and many its clergy were no exception. The sexual scandals, deviant and abusive or not, rocked the population’s trust in the clergy and filled the ammunition dumps of the anti-Catholic politicians and the media for decades of warfare against the Church. The Catholic World Report article speaks of “low-energy Catholicism” in France of 70s. By the year 2000 Ireland’s Catholicism could not be described as anything else. But, CWR asserts, with reference to France:
It was into this atmosphere of “low-energy Catholicism” that a man whose nickname was ‘le bulldozer’ was appointed first bishop of Orléans and then archbishop of Paris in 1981. Called by one biographer ‘le cardinal prophète’, the late Jean-Marie Lustiger was anything but typical. The son of two secular Jews—one of whom was murdered in Auschwitz—Lustiger converted to Catholicism as a teenager during World War II and entered the seminary after the war. As chaplain at the Sorbonne’s Centre Richelieu and then parish priest at a suburban Paris church, Lustiger led particularly dynamic ministries that attracted the attention of people in the bishop-making business. These included Saint John Paul II. He would have noted Lustiger’s ancestral roots in Polish Judaism. More generally, John Paul was looking for men who could shift French Catholicism out of the accomodationist rut into which he believed it had fallen—a point the Pope made clear during his first visit to France in 1980 when he pointedly asked: “France, Fille aînée de l’Eglise, es-tu fidèle aux promesses de ton baptême?” (France, eldest daughter of the Church, are you faithful to the promises of your baptism?).
Upon becoming archbishop, Lustiger didn’t stop upending things in Paris. Whether it was opening his own seminary and new schools, starting Catholic radio and television stations, or creating venues and opportunities for himself and other Catholics to engage and argue with secular thinkers, Cardinal Lustiger presented a different way for Catholics to interact with French society. A critic of progressivism and Lefebvrism (which he saw as two sides of the same problem), Lustiger’s agenda was that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI: one that recognized there was no going-back to a pre-Vatican II, non-existent golden age, but that was also clear-eyed about just how dysfunctional much of modernity was turning out to be.
Perhaps most importantly, Lustiger attracted many vocations. Often called La génération Lustiger, many of these priests have assumed leadership in significant dioceses and subsequently adopted a distinctly Lustigerian-style. This breaks decisively with the diffident, ever-so-anxious-not-to-give-offense mentality that once prevailed among the French episcopate, which gave the impression of having read too much Karl Rahner in the 1970s and not much else since.
And now, it seems, the post-Lustiger bishops are shaking up French Catholicism. While not aggressive, they still refuse to be overawed by secular France. They are described as free of the disease of clericalism and they happily empower lay people to spread the Gospel. They are primarily interested in one thing: the Church’s central business: i.e., evangelizing and finding creative ways of doing so. It’s a model replicated by many young French priests. Not surprisingly, their parishes and ministries are the ones attracting people, converts, and vocations. Are there not signs that something similar may be beginning to happen in Ireland? In Ireland there may be hope that it might happen more quickly than in France where 200 years of secularist heresy – to borrow Tom Holland’s thinking – has been corroding the deposit of its Christian faith. Ireland’s secularism is probably only skin deep and the infra-structure of the Church has only begun to be attacked by the State. The vast majority of Ireland’s people are baptized Christians.
Put this into perspective relative to France, where only about 56 percent of the total population has been baptized Catholic and where weekly Mass-going Catholics are about 6 percent of the overall population. Ireland’s Catholic practice, while declining sharply among the young and while also harbouring a good number of practitioners of what the French call “catholicisme zombie”, is still considerably stronger than that. The most recent reliable survey shows that 42.1% of Catholics in the Republic of Ireland attend Mass once per week.
Le Figaro maintains that the momentum in French Catholicism is with the néocatholiques. Liberal and lax Catholicism has faded into lapsed status and has failed as any kind of serious religion. The same process is at work in Ireland. As Cardinal Robert Sarah has said in a recent book, it is really a matter of “God or nothing”. Now, in France, the God option is increasingly subscribed to. If you attend Sunday Mass in Paris, for example, Le Figaro says, it’s hard not to notice the growth in numbers attending middle-class and working-class parishes, but also, as one French commentator, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry points out, you notice just how many Mass-goers are married couples with young children.
It is again noted by Catholic World Report that in recent years there has been much talk about the Church as a field-hospital. It’s true that the French Church finds itself providing much help to the many people damaged by the culture of cynicism, economic statism, self-loathing, and hedonism bequeathed by France’s May 1968 generation.
The generation of Irish politicians now quietly exiting the Irish public square into retirement are from the exact same era. It is they who, by and large, have left Ireland’s social policies in the secularist mess in which they now rest – bequeathing to future generations the crowded Accident and Emergency department of social problems which policies encouraging divorce, single parenthood, ambiguous marriage laws etc, always bequeath. That this happened on the watch of some of them was the result of their apathy. For an influential minority it was deliberate. As they do so they clap themselves on the back and consider that they have achieved their goal of modernizing their backward country.
But it is not over yet.
The new Catholics in France, it seems, are now entering an era in which they recognize that no-one is supposed to remain perpetually in a field-hospital. They are saying good-bye to mediocre Catholicism and seem to have chosen, according to the view of Catholic World Report, to live out what Benedict XVI suggested would be Western European Catholics’ role for the foreseeable future: a creative minority—one that imaginatively engages culture from an orthodox Catholic standpoint in order to draw society closer to the truth, instead of meekly relegating Catholics to the role of bit-players in various secular-progressive agendas.
There are signs of a leadership emerging among Irish Catholics with a similar vision, some who really are determined that the country will not descend into that graveyard of the Faith, Christianity-lite. These are those who believe and take to heart the words of St. Paul in his letter to the beleaguered Romans of his day:
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.