When is a catholic not a ‘real’ catholic?

I’m not sure when the 2016 Census results will be available but no doubt they will make interesting reading. Not least the percentages indicating religious affiliation. In the last census (2011), much to the disappointment of those who campaigned to minimise the over-all Catholic percentage, 84% ticked the Catholic box.
This time around a similar campaign was launched and with the head-wind generated by the 62% vote in favour of same-sex marriage in 2015, the expectation was that the 84%  Catholic figure would be significantly lower this time around. Let’s wait and see.
This time again columnists in The Irish Times (IT) were leading lights in the campaign, justifying it on the grounds that if the Catholic population was seen to have diminished, the argument for alternative (for example, Educate Together) schools will have been enhanced.
Róisín Ingle, for example, wrote that only real Catholics should describe themselves as Catholics in the census. If you don’t go to Mass or say the Rosary or go to Confession regularly, she argued, then you’re not a Catholic so you should write ‘No religion’ on the census form. Even if you were a ‘cultural Catholic’, Róisín helpfully explained, in other words even if Catholicism is ‘a system you were born into’ and may still use ‘to commemorate important rituals around marriage, birth and death’ you shouldn’t tick the Catholic box because, well, you’re not a real Catholic. Or as Róisín’s colleague, Donald Clarke, argued in the same edition ‘those no longer sincerely adhering to Catholicism should stop bearing false witness’ by claiming to be Catholic on the census form.
That Catholics who no longer go to Mass or Confession are no longer ‘Catholics’ in the eyes of the IT will be news to thousands and thousands of people (among them many Irish Times readers) who, I imagine, will feel more than a tad insulted by this casual disenfranchisement. Or at least they would if a pope, bishop or priest said it. Imagine the outrage that would provoke in the letters page of the IT.
Usually this rigid definition of what constitutes a Catholic – this dismissal of what some call ‘a la carte Catholicism’ – comes not from agnostic or atheistic sources but from very conservative, ultra-traditional Catholics who are impatient with what they regard as any perceived diminution in Catholicism. Usually liberal media like the IT tend to be more amenable to those who fail to reach the ideal, apart obviously from Catholics, for whom a new and worrying intolerance is developing.
Coincidentally, as I was reading the IT columnists pontificating on who in their judgement is or is not a Catholic, I was also reading Bishop Willie Walsh’s recent book, No Crusader. In discussing the God question, he wrote: ‘There is a continuum from the totally convinced believer and the totally convinced non-believer and I suggest that the number of people at either end of that scale is quite small. The vast majority of us are somewhere in between the extremes and we move at least a little along that scale at different times in life’.
With all due respect to Róisín and Donald, I think Willie has nailed it here. The truth is that the extreme positions represented by both ultra-conservative Catholics and IT columnists are not representative of the reality of Catholic life and don’t do justice to the twists and turns that life’s experience brings. Most of us, including Pope Francis, are somewhere in between.
The history of the Catholic Church is full of people who keep narrowing the pegs of the tent of Catholicism, and those who keep widening them, because a lived Catholicism, despite what the extremists on either side would say, is often much less than everything.
It may be news to Donald Clarke that the blanket of Catholicism is spread much wider than the narrow definition that suits his ideological purposes and it may be news to Róisín Ingle that there are people who describe themselves as Catholics who never go to Mass or say the rosary and to dismiss them as ‘not Catholics’ is not just to adjudicate infallibly on their status or perversely patronise them but effectively to insult them.
If I were to accuse Róisín of, say, moral confusion in some of the values she represents in her column it could justifiably be said that I was guilty of patronising and insulting her. And that would be true. (Who am I to judge? as Pope Francis famously asked in a different context). I have no right to sit in judgement on her beliefs or to slot them into handy pre-packaged disposal units.
But likewise she has no right to dismiss the lived experience of thousands and thousands of Irish people (and IT readers) who despite the fact that they are uncomfortable with aspects of Catholicism are not prepared to jettison a religion, a spirituality and a culture on the say-so of a journalist who makes no apology for her ideological stance.
I often wonder why the IT seems gloriously unaware of a bias that’s so obvious in its militant espousal of particular religious issues, an example of what Baroness Nuala O’Loan recently described in Boston College as the ‘virulent anti-Catholicism’ of the Irish media. What kind of parallel universe does the IT inhabit that a policy of aggressive hostility to Catholicism is condoned and presumably encouraged? At a time of decreasing sales why does the IT seemingly strive to alienate a considerable constituency of its readers?
As I say, the census results in terms of religious affiliation – and how they are interpreted – will make interesting reading. Last time around when the Catholic box produced an unexpected 84%, the IT greeted the news with a stunned silence. This time there may be more worthwhile fodder. But a word of advice to Róisín and Donald, this time leave the religion to Patsy McGarry.

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  1. One good thing the Irish Times did recently was to only allow those who are subscribers to comment. This may help to give more balance to debates. What strikes me is that there are two topics that seem to attract the most comments , Abortion and Religion. And if you are not in favour of Abortion or are a Cathoilc be prepared to be insulted for you beliefs.
    Last week an article on Mental Health which one would think is a very serious subject affecting a lot of people attracted only a few comments.
    Your article is spot on. One young woman on a T.V. Chat show recently said, when tragedy comes to our doors what is the first thing that people do, they go for the priest. I heard a priest say once that is is better to keep the flame burning than to put out the candle.

  2. Con Devree says:

    Anyone who is baptised in the Catholic Church is a Catholic. The vast majority of Irish residents are baptised.
    • There are Catholics who go to Mass and those who go sometimes and those who never go.
    • There may be some from all of these three groups who say the rosary
    • There are some who believe in the Real Presence; most in Ireland don’t.
    • There are some who put money “on the plate”; most in Ireland don’t
    • Some give to every beggar in the street; most don’t
    • Some canvass for the protection of human life; others vote against it; others promote abortion on demand.
    • Some believe in the teaching authority of the Church; others deny it.
    • Some publicly leave the church; some become atheists; some revert.
    • Some laity sexually abuse children; most don’t
    • Some testify to their Catholicism; some are coy about it; some mock it
    • Some lead, some are furtive.
    • Some want catholic schools; others are indifferent
    • Some catechise their children; others wouldn’t
    • Some believe in water charges; others march against it
    • Some pollute the environment; some do a bit
    • Some pay their taxes; some evade it
    • Most believe in God; I’ve known one teaching religion who didn’t.
    …. And so on.
    Some time back an Anglican Bishop justified the status of Anglicanism as the State Church on the grounds that every resident automatically belongs to it legally. Irish Catholicism while not as embracing seems little different. Willie Walsh’s spectrum suggests that the “yes tick” is a matter of no great significance. Roisin Ingle, Donal Clarke, et al have a point.

  3. Padraig McCarthy says:

    The population of Israel is about 81% Jewish.
    “A recent survey by the Pew Research Center in Washington, conducted among the citizens of Israel, revealed that participation at the Seder supper is 100 percent among the Haredim, commonly called the “ultra-Orthodox,” 97 percent among the Masortim, the “traditional,” and even 87 percent among the “Hilonim,” the “secular,” 40 percent of whom are atheists, who all year long neither pray nor go to the synagogue nor observe the Sabbath rest, although most of them, 83 percent, fast on the day of Yom Kippur.
    The Pesach Seder and Yom Kippur are the two observances that unite all Jews, for reasons of tradition and culture if not of religion. But in everything else the differences among the various forms of Judaism are numerous and profound.”
    See: http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1351285?eng=y
    Follow the link there: “> Israel’s Religiously Divided Society.”
    Perhaps the Irish Times will have some words of advice for the Israel at its next Census?
    Brendan writes: “this time leave the religion to Patsy McGarry.” There could be a debate about that.

  4. Peter Shore says:

    Where does Brendan Hoban get the idea that “very conservative, ultra-traditional Catholics” agree with the pontifications of IT journalists about who is or is not a Catholic? Why does he think they would reject the Catechism definition that the Church is “the whole universal community of believers” that “will receive its perfection only in the glory of heaven” (CCC 751-790).
    Surely it’s the liberals who “are uncomfortable with aspects of Catholicism” that need to tell us whether those bits of the Catechism are among the ones they reject.

  5. Brendan Cafferty says:

    There are two questions on census form that sort of concern me. One is the question of religion ,the other is about the Irish language.Religion may be more difficult to define-if one is baptised a catholic but does not attend mass regularly,one hardly ceases to be catholic. But perhaps it might be refined further-for example question might be asked about monetary and other practical support for the church of choice,its associated schools etc. Perhaps its a cultural thing,and maybe churches own surveys might be more revealing. As regards Irish language question is asked as to whether person can speak Irish with no effort made to quantify proficiency in it. As many Irish folk think that having a cúpla focal from school makes them think they are Irish speakers,we thus had a former Minister for Gaeltacht announce a few years ago that we have 1.5 million Irish speakers here !
    Something similar is reputed to to occur with number of foreign nationals here especially illegals. A census return some years ago indicted there were about 11k Chinese here,when in fact the number is known to be in region of 90k plus ! So census may be part guess work and not to be taken too seriously ?

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