‘Secularisation’ – too easy a scapegoat for the sidelining of religion in Ireland

Every in-group – like solicitors, computer geeks, medical people and clergy – tends, in the process of communicating, to use a form of short-hand that makes absolute sense within their own circle but no sense at all to the ordinary punter.
It’s not too bad when people use technical terms, as in indecipherable computer manuals, because you know you don’t know, as one famous politician said. But if the terms seem vaguely familiar, it’s easier to imagine that people know what they mean, even when they don’t.
For instance, Church people love using the word ‘evangelisation’. It means spreading the Good News about Jesus Christ. But when people hear the word it sounds like ‘evangelical’, which has connotations of extreme people suggesting extreme ideas – the sort of people you’d cross the street to avoid. Some version of a man in the street wearing a placard proclaiming the dismal legend, ‘The end of the world is nigh’.
Irish Catholics have a built-in resistance to the heavy sell in religion.
People knocking on doors handing out religious leaflets doesn’t work in Ireland which is why Jehovah Witnesses are turned away so often and why Irish Catholic newspapers have little influence (and few sales). For most Irish Catholics the hard sell, resonant of pressure and domination, simply doesn’t work and may even be counter-productive. ‘Evangelisation’, whatever about changing the word, needs be packaged differently within the parameters of Irish culture.
For instance, American-style evangelisation, if tried in Ireland, would generate enormous resistance, if not outright ridicule. The policy of Catholic culture warriors in American, as seen this week again with the hapless Cardinal Raymond Burke demanding that Communion be refused to Catholic politicians not up to the mark, would generate a huge negative reaction among Irish Catholics generally, if anyone dared to implement it.
Irish people are turned off by religious enthusiasm. In common parlance, people say, ‘You can be too religious’. Reason and balance are two essential building blocks in ‘evangelisation’, Irish style. The nuances of a culture matter.
Another term that church people love to throw around is ‘secularisation’, which is a catch-all word for the weakening of the role and power of religion in public life, often attributed to the impact of science, technology and reason, coupled with the decline of beliefs and of institutional belonging.
Great philosophers, like the Catholic Canadian, Charles Taylor, point to a growing secularisation across the world, especially in developed countries and, in recent years, the word ‘secularisation’ has been applied indiscriminately to Ireland and used to explain the decline of religion in
Irish society.
But what’s popularly termed ‘secularisation’ doesn’t really do justice to the complexity of religious experience in Ireland today. Secularisation’ is one of those short-hand boxes that church people tick to spread the blame for the decline of religion, even to explain away situations that are often their own fault. But it’s too heavy a brush to paint in the shades and counter shades of an accurate portrait of the place of religion in Irish life today.
It would be foolish to deny that the influence of the prevailing secular ethos of the developed world is present in Ireland. But the ‘decline’ of religion In Ireland is much more complex than that. For instance, the sense of belonging to the Catholic Church, what historians of culture call ‘institutional belonging’, has declined immeasurably in Ireland, for a multiplicity of reasons, not least because of the sex abuse scandals and the way they were handled. But an even more compelling reason for the flight from the Church is that the Church has not kept pace with its people.
The Catholic Church in Ireland is widely regarded, even by its still committed members, as out of touch with life, in huge need of reform, reluctant to come to terms with the modern world or to learn from the experience of its people and, effectively, contributing to its own demise.
For example, people who regard democracy as a given look askance at an institution controlled by a clerical elite and find it incredible that it would continue to justify effectively sidelining half of its members (women).
Or that it would ignore insights of modern medicine and psychology in insisting on ‘teachings’ being unchangeable.
While it may be convenient to dismiss the sidelining of religion in Ireland as evidence of a growing secularisation, a simpler truth may be that our inability as a Church to retain the support of our members can be more easily explained. We lack the vision and the leadership to become a Church that will retain the support of our people in a very different Ireland.
Repeating the old answers to questions people don’t have while refusing to address the new questions is a strategy that is contributing to the ongoing decline of our Church, even though so many are still holding grimly to the vestiges of their religion.
We need to start opening doors, not closing them; not standing like sentries defending the indefensible but pointing a direction along the way; to be not, in Pope John XXIII’s famous words, curators of museums but tillers of gardens with all the variety and colour of God’s world.
We need respect rather than condescension, encouraging debate rather than telling people what to do, hearing what people are saying rather than just pretending that we’re listening, walking the walk instead of just talking the talk. In essence the Church Pope Francis is opening up for us.
We need, in every sense, to start changing the words.

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  1. Prodigal Son says:

    “Indeed it is ‘only’ in and through these material realities that we can even encounter the invisible God.”
    Can the term “only” be expanded on a bit.
    Similarly # 11, note the word “amongst,” line 3

  2. Clare Hannigan says:

    In a recent post re Homily of Archbishop of Tuam, Michael Neary, to the Association of Papal Knights, Archbishop Neary told the Knights and Dames that they are “among the most committed people we have in the Church”. According to the association of Papal Order’s web site ‘The Pontifical Orders of Knighthood are secular orders of merit whose membership is conferred on a direct decision of the Pontiff as Head of the Catholic Church and Sovereign of the Vatican City State. The web site also states that of the 80 people who are currently members only 9 are female. I used to think that the contribution made by so many committed and inspiring women to the church in Ireland counted for something but apparently this is not the case. The contribution women make to Church often goes unnoticed.
    Perhaps part of the reason why so many people turn away from the Church is that their contribution to society and to the Church is not considered of any real value. Each year as Christmas approaches we are asked to reject secularism, to put Christ back into Christmas implying that the efforts we make to create a happy holiday for family and friends, to give toys, food and money to the Vincent de Paul and other charities, to gather family together to attend Mass even if they are proclaimed agnostics, to set aside difficulties in relationships in order to enter into the spirit of the season of good will, all belong to a secular non-Christian way of life. It would be wonderful if this Christmas sermons were given which are addressed to teenagers and young adults who are present and for whom this Christmas may mark the last time they attend Mass apart from Weddings and Funerals.

  3. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Even more important than changing the words is simply changing the meaning of those words. What does being a Roman Catholic mean to you? Have you all asked yourself this question? Does being a Roman Catholic afford us the ability to shape these material realities or are we simply pawns in a chess match? Sean @ 5, a pre-mass dialogue is good but why do we feel like we are hindering the masses by telling them the truth about the world we all live in. Isn’t that the real definition of evangelize – to speak the truth. The truth is, Jesus didn’t support the militarization of society. Are we now judged on our support of the most marginalized? We’ve reached an environmental tipping point and questions are not being asked by the most influential people in our communities. People do not appreciate being preached to but they certainly don’t mind showing their intelligence when they are asked important questions that affect society at large. We have the Pope who can lead a revolution, but clearly, there are some who may not be ready for the challenge.

  4. I posted this comment on December 24th to an article from CRUX – Francis poised for Era of Good Feelings with secularism – that I linked to on my Facebook page.
    John Quinn…. where is Luther when we need him?….
    The sacred-secular dichotomy surely is no longer in vogue…the Middle Ages have come and gone…our universe (multiverses?) began some 4+ billion years ago and according to the catechism I was taught in St. James Catholic Primary and Junior schools in Chestnut Grove, Bootle “God is everywhere” and has never not been with us during those 4+ billion years, including the 200,000 years of human development
    … or as Richard McBrien puts it:
    No theological principle or focus is more characteristic of Catholicism or more central to its identity than the principle of sacramentality. The Catholic vision sees God in and through all things : in other people, communities, movements, events, places, objects, the world at large, the whole cosmos. The visible, the tangible, the finite, the historical – all these are actual or potential carriers of the divine presence.
    Indeed it is only in and through these material realities that we can even encounter the invisible God.”
    Catholicism: Richard McBrien

  5. Noisy Gongs and Clanging Symbols dominate the RC Church landscape, making it next to impossible to identify and apply the Lord’s Word and Remedies! I still maintain Hope that the Lord’s Word does not return to him empty, and that, the Universal RC Church truly reflects the Glory of God. That such Glory abides, means there will always be heavenly Feast Days!

  6. Soline Humbert says:

    @3,Mary Vallely,
    Your quoting Dorothy Day reminded me that tomorrow,29th November is the anniversary day of her death in 1980.Many already anticipate and celebrate it as her feast day!

  7. Agreeing with most of this I was thrown in the end by: ‘We need, in every sense, to start changing the words.’
    Which words exactly? ‘Evangelisation’? Surely no alternative for ‘spreading the good news’ will suffice until there is actual good news to spread – fervent, joyful faith, and joyful Christian community.
    A precondition for the latter is an Irish Catholic equivalent of 1989 in Germany, when the Berlin Wall, and the wall between east and west, came down. That would require the breaking down, from the clerical side, of the Monological Clericalist Wall – the fatal convention that we are assembled regularly only to listen to clerical monologues on ancient texts with no right of reply or discussion.
    Increasingly in my long experience these soporific and perfunctory monological events have lost fervent connection with anything going on outside – from workplace bullying to administrative corruption to rampant addiction (and the related violence) to the fetishisation of ‘celebrity’, the abuse of children, the onward march of clinical depression and the related obsession with personal portable video screens.
    None of this has ever been referenced in my hearing. I get an increasing sense of internal faithless and hopeless 1st century make-believe – a convention that we agree to suspend disbelief just for the half-hour duration, to keep up appearances – certainly not to think we could ever change what’s going on outside.
    What chance is there that the ACP could take a steam hammer to the Monological Clericalist Wall (MCW) – simply by scheduling pre-Mass dialogue on the scripture readings for anyone interested in relating those to what’s going on outside for them? Must it be eventually written on the tombstone of the Irish RC church that it died of an inability to communicate with itself – even though the latter was in no way hindered by ‘secularism’ – and huge, heated buildings were always available for the purpose?
    What a mystery that will be for the archaeologists of 3000 CE, if humans last that long.

  8. Prodigal Son says:

    Secularism and Catholicism are not discrete categories. Most Catholics, even those who are quite devout in some sense, are secular to some degree in attitude and behaviour. It resembles in a way the condition where one is unclear as to whether one is satisfied or dissatisfied with something. There are two polar opposites. The area in the middle is grey.
    In the Bible both Saints Peter Paul distinguish between both polar opposites. In regard to the grey area Revelation 3:16 says “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.”
    Gratefully none of us act as judges in this scenario. But this and other verses in the chapter command that we self-reflect. The chapter seems to make a distinction between three categories: being a “pillar in the temple God” (12); a range of negative categories mentioned in verses 17 and 18; and thirdly having the name of being alive, but in effect being dead (1).
    All this of course leaves room for the reason and balance the article asserts “are two essential building blocks in ‘evangelization’, Irish style.” In fact any style. “The nuances of a culture” do matter for the evangelizer. After all, the anticipation of a long sermon on a Sunday may, in Ireland, generate the same reaction as that to the street evangeliser.
    There remains the responsibility of the evangelized in verse 20:”Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” Culture is important but listening to the “Voice” seems to trump it. By inference this notion of ”Voice” has implications for the evangeliser as well, irrespective of cultural leanings or the recent history of the Church.
    The Pope seems to favour an evangelical Catholicism, – the biggest challenge is to preach the Gospel, to have confidence in the Gospel, to live it faithfully, and to live it without compromise and with great joy. This continues the approach of recent popes to get away from the Counter-Reformation Church of institutional maintenance, run with looser rules, too closely aligned with the ambient culture.
    Many in the latter of course are wise as serpents and gentle as doves, and perceive little need for the Church irrespective of how cuddly it appears.

  9. Mary Vallely says:

    I agree with Paddy @1. Well said, Brendan Hoban. The best way to evangelise is to do exactly what we were asked to do, love God and one’s neighbour as oneself without discrimination. No hierarchies, because all, as we believe, are equal in God’s eyes. As Dorothy Day reminded us, “The Gospel takes away our right forever to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” Pope Francis is leading the way and we can see the effect he has had on many who had felt unloved in the church. It’s a simple message though not so easy to execute and it begins with admitting to one’s mistakes in that lack of love in the past.

  10. One’s faith that is grounded in institutional Catholicism, is likely to be, for lack of better words…sterile. God is not depressed, is not sullen, is not boring, is not political, and most definitely…is not aloof. For one to know Jesus Christ personally, is to be excited about God. Therefore, our faith can only be bold and animated. It is an affective and reasonable relationship with God. I consider the Catholicism prior to Vatican II to be one that created the lead feet faith, we experience everywhere. Look at the New Testament apostles and preachers….they weren’t subdued….they were doing hard sell…In fact, I’d say…so was St. Patrick and others…No, it’s the kind of Institutional Religion that evolved that has created paralysation of faith. Vatican II was intended to kick start a new expression of faith, the world over….We need new fire…and believe…that’s both the verb and noun of evangelization. Will I see it,…yet..in my lifetime?…I don’t know…I hold out much hope for Ireland’s renewal….The first Sunday of Advent is pretty much upon us….The first Sunday…being about HOPE…I hope there is a future for the Catholic people of the world, but, particularly, of Ireland. The world has always been secular. Christ was and is the light that came into that same darkness. No, we need to return to some “original” apostolic work….I’m thinking, of the song…The First Noel…Perhaps, the song, could be, The First Evangelization! That’s why Bishop Neary’s words…that we need full and part-time evangelists appealed to me.
    I sent him an email…asking him…if he would share what he was thinking…unfortunately…he didn’t respond…It is imperative…that there is a new thrust…a new fire…of spreading the Gospel…

  11. Thank you for an excellent piece, Brendan and a very accurate analysis. It drives me crazy when I hear defenders of the Church blame everything but the Church itself for our current decline.

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