Irish spirituality undimmed by scandal, prosperity
Galway (Ireland), Mar 28: At the Franciscan abbey in Galway's city centre about 50 faithful gather for mid-afternoon mass not bad for a weekday in a country where the Catholic Church is often said to be in decline.
Falling Church attendance and an ageing clergy are often cited as proof that a series of sex-abuse scandals and Ireland's economic miracle of the 1990s have caused irreparable harm to the once-mighty status of Irish Roman Catholicism.
However, the generally warm welcome last month for a disgraced former bishop of Galway, after years in self-imposed exile, and new data suggesting church-going may be rising, show prosperity and scandal need not spell the end of spirituality.
''People don't take religion as seriously as they used to,'' said 39-year-old housewife Josephine Treacy, sheltering in the the abbey's porch during a break from shopping. ''But I think it's important it plays a role in people's lives. Definitely I would feel fairly near God in what I do.'' That, according to Professor Chris Curtin of Galway's National University of Ireland (NUI), sums up the view of many in a country that is now one of the Western world's wealthiest yet remains one of its religiously most observant.
''There's a lot of evidence emerging that you don't have to have increased secularisation with rising urbanisation and industrialisation,'' said Curtin, who is head of sociology.
''Look at the United States where religion was such an important factor in the last presidential election...and in Ireland the Church clearly retains a significance.'' Just how significant was revealed by the latest European Social Survey which showed this month that in Ireland, where nearly nine out of 10 are Catholic, 58 per cent of respondents said they attended religious services at least once a week.
That is down on levels of close to 90 per cent in the 1970s but above the 54 per cent mark recorded in the 2002/2003 survey.
It is also over three times the European average and more than eight times the weekly rate in predominantly Catholic France.
In Poland the rate is close to Ireland's, perhaps reflecting the fact that in both countries Catholicism is viewed by many as an integral part of the national identity.
''For centuries to be Irish was to be Catholic,'' said Curtin.
''While that view has been challenged, it hasn't been undermined.'' Catholicism in Ireland is intimately tied up with national identity following seven centuries of British rule which saw Catholics persecuted and deprived of property and voting rights.
While the Catholic Church lost its ''special position'' in the Irish constitution in 1972, its presence is still keenly felt.
Catholicism is both the backdrop to daily life -- national radio pauses twice a day to play the Angelus bell, a traditional call to prayer -- and the backbone, with pivotal roles in fields such as health and education. It owns most primary schools.
What has changed, however, is a willingness to challenge openly the Church's influence and abuses.
The decision by a Dublin hospital last year -- later reversed, not to trial a cancer drug because of the Catholic board's opposition to birth control provoked a public outcry. Revelations in the 1990s of systematic sexual abuse of young parishioners by priests over decades shattered the silent reverence most Irish held for the Church and its clergy.
''There is no deference to the priest or the bishop in the same way there was,'' said Tom Inglis, professor of sociology at University College Dublin (UCD).
''There has been a decline of the orthodox Catholic who accepted Church teaching without question,'' he said. Many had become ''cultural Catholics'' who no longer saw the Church as a moral guide but valued their religious heritage.
Much like Britain's royal family, another institution and national mascot tainted by scandal, Irish bishops still grab headlines, as do princesses in other countries. However, popular support at the grass roots remains strong.
''Unlike the royal family, which is a remote institution, the Catholic Church is in every parish and every school,'' said Tony Fahey, professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute.
Last month, papers published grainy photos of Eamon Casey, 78-year-old former bishop of Galway, disembarking from a ferry as he returned to Ireland 14 years after revelations that he had fathered a child forced him out of the country.
NUI's Curtin said Casey's generally warm reception back in Galway showed how much attitudes had changed, but also that local loyalties to individual clerics remained strong.
''One thing such crises have done is open up the Catholic Church and create a level of empathy that wouldn't have been possible when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s because the Church then was so distant,'' he added. ''They exposed the frailties on the human side and people have responded to that.'' What remains of Church influence is by no means secure, however. A potentially explosive investigation into charges of child sex abuse against more than 100 current and former members of the Dublin archdiocese has only just begun.
A lack of new recruits means the clergy is ageing fast.
''If the Church loses control of schools, and schools become secularised, which they will because of a lack of staff, then it will lose influence,'' said UCD's Inglis.
For retired civil servant Clare Muldoon leaving mass in Galway, the answer is clear, if unpalatable, for a hierarchy committed to clerical celibacy.
''Let priests marry,'' she said. ''I lived in London all my life and married vicars are some of the nicest men I've met.''