It’s a bit of a joke in our house, but I’m a Catholic.
After years wrestling with my beliefs, railing up against the Church and scalding my mother’s heart, I only had to go out with a Protestant to understand how dyed-in-the-wool Catholic I was. You really can’t imagine what a shock it was finding out. After I disagreed with the Catholic hierarchy’s view of women, and their ideas about priests and celibacy, and after I had rejected their views on homosexuality and contraception, it really did seem hypocritical to still think that I could be a Catholic.
A first year introduction to an anthropology course sent me completely off the rails. I clearly remember being shown video clips of religious rituals in the jungle (I don’t remember which one or where), which most of my class found very funny: I found it hard to see a great deal of difference between a priest in purple robes wafting incense and a shaman doing much the same thing in a jungle. I concluded that religion was really more of a human need than a godly one and took the Bertrand Russell line on faith. When he was asked what he would do if he died and discovered there was a god, he answered: “I should tell him, he is a very shoddy god”.
I forget Bertrand Russell’s reasoning, but my own was that surely if I lived as good and moral a life as I was able, I had no reason to worry about meeting a just God – and if s/he wasn’t just, I had no interest in serving a capricious one. (I mean, what kind of a God leaves millions to die in one part of the world and then answers a prayer to pass a driving test in another?).
After expending a good deal of logical and intellectual effort on where I stood in relation to my own religion, and after concluding that there was no god that especially needed my attention every Sunday, I have since acknowledged that for most practical social and political purposes, I am a Catholic. This is because always when faced with a strong and overwhelming experience, my first intuitive response – before I do all the logical and moral calculations of my own – typically relies on those learned ways of understanding emotions, ideas and issues that take their reference points from the Catholic faith that I was brought up with. It’s in the way that I react to ideas about community, or family; in the ideals that I hold about what is right and what is wrong; it’s how I behave when someone is ill, or when someone dies.
I’ve known this for a while, but was reminded of it again last week when reading John Bruton’s address to the Eucharistic Congress about Catholic values and politics. What he seemed to be suggesting is that we cannot escape the source of our political values and that we cannot practice politics without a strong sense of what our values are, from which I deduce that Irish Catholicism and politics are deeply inter-twined. The issue is to understand how, and to what effect? Because whilst we are all busy trotting out the line that Irish Catholicism is not important anymore, we are also suppressing a discussion of something that is intrinsic to our sense of Irish identity, which is intrinsic to our core communal beliefs, and which therefore ought to be intrinsic to our government.
There is a discourse in Ireland that we are now less Catholic than we once were, or that Catholicism is diminishing. Irish people go to Mass less, and are more likely to reject Church articles of doctrine, particularly on sex, women and the family. Looking at these statistics in recent opinion polls, retired Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Oxford University, Richard Dawkins (described elsewhere as ‘an evangelical atheist’) suggested that Catholics who do not accept key teachings of the Church should be ‘honest’ and admit that they no longer belong to the faith. This is what someone who seems to have devoted his latter years to public god bashing might be expected to say. Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga looked at the same survey result (showing that only 26% of Irish Catholics believe that the bread and wine turns into the body and blood of Christ) and concluded that it was because the mystery of the Eucharist is a difficult concept that many Catholics are “not catechised enough” to know about. I think the answer lies somewhere in between. It is not that we are no longer Catholics and it is not that we are not Catholic enough. The catastrophic fall from grace of the institutionalised Church and its inability to handle public scrutiny or hurt over abuse scandals has left a generalised disillusionment with the Catholic Church. But this doesn’t mean that we are not still for the most part Catholics.
Catholicism is still a basic reference point. In a completely anecdotal and non-scientific survey of my own I have uncovered many different Irish approaches to Catholicism and I think they tell us quite a lot about who we are, and how we think. I remember reeling from my mother’s suggestion that the virgin birth was surely a mistake and that Jesus may well have been a woman ‘because they all wore long skirts in those days’. Harbouring these suspicions did nothing to diminish her faith and when I asked why, she answered: “There are no atheists in foxholes!” Although, I’ve often pondered what part of this First World War trench metaphor resonated most with my mother, I think that what she simply meant is that she believed because she felt that there was no other option.
Not believing would be a far more uncomfortable prospect than finding out that some of the detail of the Gospel was mixed up over the years. Another practising Catholic told me: “To be honest, I don’t really know if there is a God, but I do think that there is something and I find a great deal of comfort and support from the family and community of the Church”. My favourite answer belongs to a former colleague, second generation London Irish and lesbian: “I’m always grateful to the Catholic Church for giving me guilt”, she mischievously explained; “I never really know that I’m enjoying myself until the guilt kicks in”.
Admittedly, believing in God and Church doctrine is probably a fairly big part of Catholicism and I’m willing to accept that my sample may not be entirely representative, but you can’t deny some of the unquestionably Irish traits that are exhibited in the answers. Humour, humility, an absence of ideological zeal, bordering on the insanely pragmatic, and a common recognition of core values such as faith, family and fun.
There is much talk that Irish society has lost its moral compass and that Catholicism no longer provides us with the direction it once did. Many committed Catholics at the Eucharistic Congress have demonstrated that the former is not true and that the institution of the Church needs reform if it is to provide the direction it once did. In some ways these Catholics have made a head-start in tackling the question of what it is to be an Irish Catholic.
Now the rest of us have to do the same. You can as easily be a Catholic and answer this as not – if someone like me, who has made quite a job of work out of ‘not being Catholic’ still feels so very Catholic, don’t be surprised if you find out that I’m really not that different to you.
• Maura Adshead, BA, MA (Limerick), PhD (Liverpool), is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Administration and Head of the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Limerick.