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Catholics’ indifference to faith poses greatest threat

(Tom Kelly, Irish News)

The latest exchange of salvoes between the Northern Bishops and the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) is hardly surprising in the context of an increasingly secular society.

Holding true to a Christian, or worse still, a Catholic ethos in modern Northern Ireland is highly unfashionable. Already in the Republic of Ireland, organised Catholicism seems to play little more than a ritualistic role in society with increased wealth and cynicism combining to detach the nearly co terminus phrase of ‘Irish- Catholic’. The mighty Mitres who once wielded disproportionate influence over political Ireland are now much weaker and perhaps more humble in the exercise of their extended temporal authority.

However, being Irish and Catholic has always had an a la carte ring to it. The independence of the Irish Church from papal authority often caused angst to many Popes. It’s a source of irony that one of the greatest insults often thrown by Dr Paisley at Catholics in Ireland is the allegation that we are sons and daughters of Rome. The term Roman Catholic often jars with us not because of its overtones of misplaced foreign fealty but because we valued our independence and identity as Irish Catholics.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the greatest threat to the modern Irish Catholic Church comes from the now nominally, indifferent Irish catholic. Once the cornerstone of Irish Catholicism was founded on the three ‘legs’ of Church, community and education and these three ‘legs’ were interdependent in terms of building social cohesion and faith based witness. In modern society the Church is no longer the focal point of people’s lives – even on a Sunday as Shopping Centres now compete with them for pundits through the door. Of course, ritually and instinctively many Catholics still want to have their children baptised, confirmed and wed in the Church; they still have a preference for Catholic schools and, of course, on death expect the full Monty in terms of final absolution. But ask them to defend these rights and they cower away as if they were asked to defend the Holocaust.

Since the revelations of child abuse in clerical institutions and the duplicity of some clergy between the preaching and practise of their lives, some of the detachment from all things Catholic is understandable, but if we continue our detachment, we risk committing a more grievous sin against our faith than mere outrage at the institutional failings of the very human led Church.

Less than 200 years ago, Catholics in Ireland won religious emancipation and it was Catholic based religious who stepped up to the mark in terms of providing an education to the masses who would never have found opportunity without their commitment. Today we have gone full circle; the commitment of religious to the well being of Irish society and development, both in terms of health and education is being airbrushed out of history to make way for a contemporary and contemptuous tabloid version based on salacious events and corrupt individuals.

It is not unfair or xenophobic to want to prevent Ireland, north or south, becoming as secular as Britain. Yet that does not mean that Irish bishops should ever get as close to the type of privileged position allowed by De Valera and that was once mistakenly recognised in the Irish Constitution. Indeed, there are a wide range of social issues which the catholic hierarchy need to recognise and deal with compassionately, in the same way as ordinary catholic families and individuals cope with the everyday practicalities of divorce, contraception, heterosexual or homosexual cohabitation and single mothers in their lives and the lives of those around them.

The promotion of a Catholic or Christian ethos in education is no bad thing, providing the outcome is well rounded, tolerant and balanced individuals with a broad view of the world. The Marxist view of religion is not only unhealthy but unbalanced.

The extreme Christian situation in the USA is equally unhealthy, where Darwinism cannot be taught and where the Bible is interpreted literally to the point of ridicule.

Being an Irish Catholic is fraught with complexities and at times seems subliminally sectarian; therefore it can appear easier to ditch it and its perceived baggage than try to work out its meaning, not just in a modern world but in a divided Northern Ireland still trying to heal its wounds.

Being an Irish Catholic is about independence and tradition so as it says in Philippians 3:16 ‘Let us go forward on the road which has brought us to where we are’.

September 9, 2006

This article appeared first in the September 4, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

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