Exploring Ireland’s ‘emancipation’ from faith

The Best Catholics in the World: The Irish, the Church and the End of a Special Relationship 
by Derek Scally, 2021, 335 pages

Derek Scally has been the Berlin correspondent of The Irish Times for the last 20 years. Somewhat surprisingly, his first book is not about his experiences in Germany, but about the recent dramatic changes at home.

The Best Catholics in the World: The Irish, the Church and the End of a Special Relationship examines the fallout from the abuse scandals, but also the history of the Church in Ireland: how it rose to a position of such great power and how the public’s apparent devotion has declined so precipitously.

Scally’s interest in this was partially sparked by knowing a priest in his own parish in Raheny who was later convicted of sexual abuse.


His years of living in Germany have also clearly had a major influence. Vergangenheitsbewältigung is the German word which refers to the process of coming to terms with the past - a past which in their case includes a recent history of militarism, Nazism and Communism.

While the author makes it clear that there can be no equating this totalitarianism with what occurred in Ireland, he does detect a reluctance within the Irish public to explore societal complicity with past abuses, including the confinement of many vulnerable women to institutions.

As part of an extensive process of research, Scally engages with a range of figures while considering questions about the closeness of the early Church to Rome, the true extent to which Catholics were persecuted under the Penal Laws and how the 19th century Church led by Cardinal Paul Cullen consolidated its control over a society still traumatised by the Famine.

Naturally enough, a large part of the book deals with the abuse scandals -- particularly Part Two, which includes a chapter focusing on interviews with the former Primate of All Ireland Seán Brady.

Though difficult to read at times, these sections are insightful, not least due to Scally’s constant probing about the issue of societal responsibility. What is more interesting, however, is what he writes about the intellectual climate within Irish Catholicism prior to the dramatic collapse in the Church’s public standing.

Many accounts of Ireland’s rapid secularisation follow a simplistic course in describing how a uniformly devout nation was so shocked by revelations of clerical abuse and cover-ups that a rapid falling-off in religious practice occurred almost overnight.

This narrative ignores the general decline in church attendance long before the first scandals came to light, which is addressed here.

Discussing the sharp drop-off in practice in the wake of a scandal, a fellow parishioner tells him that “[p]eople were looking for an opportunity to put their coats on and go.”

Elsewhere, Cardinal Brady observes that the religion of his youth was “more mechanical than mature,” while Bishop Paul Tighe, an Irishman within the Curia, says that the Irish Church he grew up in had become “lazy” and uninterested in helping people to reconcile faith and reason.

Far from being an enthusiast for the new-found irreligiosity, Scally appears concerned, writing that many Irish people become immediately defensive when challenged about the need for a belief system, and observing that many now “lack the language to explore their inner feelings about spirituality and faith.”

Most interesting of all is Scally’s examination of the sort of faith formation which failed his generation.

On a visit to Dublin’s Central Catholic Library, he re-examines the religion textbooks which he found so unsatisfying as a child and teenager -- featuring ridiculous scenarios such as Jesus appearing to astronauts in outer space -- and ponders why he once laughed aloud when a Polish friend referred to “Catholic intellectuals,” being unaware that this intellectual tradition had provided the bedrock of the resistance to Marxism.

Over time, he came to be aware that there was much more to the faith, which led to further reflection. “Catholicism was a mental prison to be endured, then fled, not a belief system thinkers embraced or to which writers converted. How, then, to explain Catholic intellectual writers like Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene?” he writes.

He contrasts the indifference and apathy of post-Catholic Ireland with the greater intellectual depth within philosophical discourse in modern Germany, citing the well-known debate between Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Jürgen Habermas as an example of this.

Unfortunately, as with any analogy, the German one breaks down when pushed too far by what Scally proposes in relation to how Ireland should come to terms with its religious past. Scally suggests that a series of museums dealing with Catholic Ireland should be established, and points to the Citizens’ Assembly on the Eighth Amendment as an example of how contentious issues can be addressed.

As Melanie McDonagh pointed out in her review in The Irish Catholic, however, there is no chance of such museums dealing with the influence of Catholicism on Irish life in an even-handed manner.

Scally writes about the need for the two dominant strands of Irish Catholic history (on the one hand, the provider of ritual, meaning and hope, not to mention healthcare and education; on the other hand, the force which helped to create a harsh, shame-based society) but recent public and political debate indicates that this is an impossible task.

Anti-Catholic bigotry has become normalised, and those who used Citizens’ Assemblies and other forums to advocate abortion have made it clear that they see no place for Christianity in public life.

As part of his conversational tone of writing, the author even speculates that the Irish people may have replaced their attachment to Rome with a new deference to Silicon Valley and the European Union, but does not expand on the thought, perhaps for fear of where it may lead.

As with all history, the history of Irish Catholicism is a contested one, and the even-handed discussion contained in the pages of this work would not be replicated in the contents of a museum created by the current political and cultural leadership class.

In spite of this, The Best Catholics in the World is an exceptional book which should be widely studied.

The best journalism shows evidence of deep consideration and provokes the reader to reflect on the issues raised. Derek Scally succeeds here on both counts.


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