What it is to be a Catholic — Maura Adshead

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.

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  1. Did Maura say here clearly what she thinks makes her a Catholic? If so I wish I could see it.
    The word that resonates most with me is ‘family’. Is that it – that we even see God as a family, and tend to want to relate to all other humans as family too?
    That was the aspect of the Eucharistic Congress that got to me in the end – those visitors from everywhere – mostly oblivious of our so bitter recent experience. I had thought that holding the congress in Ireland at this time was a classic example of clericalist manipulation of the faithful: “Let’s party and move on without fixing anything!”
    So I refused to party, and I believe many others did too – and I hope that this fact has not have been lost on the patriarchs.
    But a part of me wanted to be out welcoming visitors from wherever, and I was paradoxically glad that the visitors could party a little and steer clear of our disputes, and maybe go home oblivious too.
    I have a book on my shelf called “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families”. It tells me that one of these habits is a regular never-failing meeting of all family members, with no one forbidden to speak up.
    Irish Catholicism is presently a severely dysfunctional family whose patriarchs are afraid to convene the family, for fear of what would be said. They even resent any other family member who tries to convene the family. And this is not just an Irish problem.
    In October some of those patriarchs will be heading off to a world synod of bishops on the “New Evangelisation”. They’ll then come back to tell us all the ‘Good News’: that they agree with the Vatican’s ‘promoter of justice’ that bishops must be accountable to their people, and see that this family dysfunction must finally come to an end. They’ll tell us that the family will be meeting regularly from now on, to talk honestly to itself.
    If not, what could the Good News possibly be? How can we honestly invite anyone to join our family if it remains dysfunctional, and therefore dangerous also?

  2. Martin Harran says:

    Did Maura say here clearly what she thinks makes her a Catholic? If so I wish I could see it.
    I see it in Par 5, Sean, the one that begins “After expending a good deal of logical and intellectual effort …”

  3. Thanks, Martin. Some generalisations follow in that paragraph that beg for concrete illustration. Lacking those, I’m still not quite able to focus clearly whatever it is that Maura is clinging to that she believes to be distinctively Catholic.

  4. Louise Murphy says:

    I thank Maura for her article here and her thoughts are very similiar to my own.
    While I’m very involved in my parish – as a reader and on the parish council, I sometimes wonder if I fit into the definition being used by many for ‘what defines a Catholic’.
    I continually struggle with many of the attitudes I find in my Catholic church- attitudes towards the laity and especially women.
    While I chose to be involved in parish life much of it is in the role of serving Father and I find this attitude hard to take in 2012. The people’s church is all an illusion.
    But I know too I won’t be leaving my church. My connection is too deep.
    I will continue to seek change from within.
    While I went with my parish to the Eucharistic Congress and enjoyed many of the inputs and indeed the chance to meet others- what encouraged me most there was meeting others who shared my desire for change and renewal. What worried me was that perhaps our presence there might convey that all who attended were happy with the church as it is now.
    We need courageous leadership now to bring us appreciate our faith as lived today.
    Anything else is ensuring more and more opt to leave the catholic church.

  5. graeme taylor says:

    If you choose to leave, then you will be welcomed back, make no mistake.
    Goodbye for now and God bless you.

  6. Ann Lardeur says:

    Key questions – would Jesus consider himself a catholic? In what ways do you see him fitting in with the Church? Would the Church see him as loyal member or someone under suspicion? After all he called a woman to the apostle to the apostles – to announce to them the good news of the resurrection.

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