Managing a Terminal Decline

Culture - April 29, 2024

Mixed sentiments were in evidence in Catholic circles in the West of Ireland following Pope Francis’ recent announcement of a significant restructuring within the archdiocese of Tuam, marking the most extensive diocesan reorganization in Ireland since 1111AD.

Under the new arrangement, four dioceses, including Killala and Tuam, will be amalgamated, now led by Archbishop Francis Duffy. Concurrently, Bishop Kevin Doran will assume leadership in Achonry while serving as apostolic administrator in Elphin. These changes stem from the retirement of Bishop John Fleming and the unexpected departure of Bishop Paul Dempsey to Dublin as an auxiliary bishop.

The reduction in bishops, leaving only three overseeing six Western dioceses, reflects a strategic move to address evolving challenges within the Church. Archbishop Luis Mariano Montemayor, the Papal Nuncio to Ireland, emphasized the necessity of consolidating resources to invigorate the Church’s mission.

Reactions to the restructuring vary among the affected regions, notably in Killala and Achonry. While some perceive it as a poignant symbol of the West’s decline, others view it as a pragmatic response to resource utilization needs.

Emotional reactions locally are understandable in these ancient sees. The diocese of Clonfert has been a bishopric since 550 and became a diocese in nine hundred and thirteen years ago. However even if nothing had changed in Irish society its was very questionable for a long time now if it was sensible or practical to appoint a bishop to serve twenty four parishes and thirty six thousand people. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles contains over five million baptised Catholics, more than the Island of Ireland and gets by with one Archbishop and six auxiliaries.

However things have changed in Irish society and the Irish Church and changed dramatically. A little more than a generation ago the number of faithful attending mass at least once a week were near 90%. The numbers of priests and religious had grown throughout the century peaking in the nineteen fifties and sixties, to such an extent that many aspirant candidates had to work in the ‘Home and Foreign Missions’, as local dioceses were fully if not over manned. The Irish Church exported priests nuns and brothers across the anglosphere and the developing world. When John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979 somewhere between one and quarter and one and half million people attended mass in the Phoenix park and combines attendance at all his public appearances was close to three million. The population of the Republic at the time was three million four hundred thousand. All the great moments of life were observed through the prism of faith and church ritual from birth to death.

No longer. What is happening to the dioceses in the Province of Tuam is reflection the practical impossibility of maintaining a structure that existed to serve a radically different reality. It prefigures wider and deeper changes still to comes across the whole of the Island and many inside the church feel should have come sometime ago except for a deep seated unwillingness of both parts of the hierarchy and churchgoers to face the new reality.

The numbers quoted for weekly mass as a percentage vary from mid twenties to low thirties nationally but some priests even in rural parishes express deep scepticism about theses figures and believe the reality to be far lower. Where the crisis cannot be fudged or denied in in the numbers of active priests and the their age profile.

The peak for numbers of of actively working priests and nuns occurs around 1966 when there were five thousand seven hundred and thirty active priests and thirteen thousand four hundred and nine nuns. In 1966 1 in 45 Irish women were in religious life. In 2016 1 in 2,500 adult women in Ireland were actively working as nuns. In the same year the number of actively working priests has been estimated as two thousand three hundred and seventy six, less than half the number of fifty years before. As bad as that seems the really bad news is the age pyramid of the Irish clergy. There is some debate about what is the average age today of a serving priest so we can go back to figures in 2013 where 65% of priests were over fifty five and 40% were over sixty five. In and off themselves these numbers do not have to represent catastrophe if the replacement is happening year on year with even near numbers of younger men coming in as replacements. Which they are not.

In the early nineteen nineties there were diocesan seminaries in Wexford, Kilkenny, Waterford, Carlow, Thurles and Dublin. They are all closed. There was a seminary dedicated to training priests for English speaking diocese abroad, All Hallows. It is closed. There were Irish Colleges in Paris and Rome. They are closed. The National seminary at Mammoth remains. Founded in 1795 it required an act of Parliament in Westminster to bring it into existence. Since the seventeenth century the Penal Laws had outlawed Catholic education in Ireland so anyone wishing to study for the priesthood had to go to Europe where Irish colleges were established in cities such as Salamanca, Louvain, Rome naturally and Paris. The authorities in London fearing that post revolutionary France was not the place to be training already potentially rebellious priests decided to allow for the establishment of a seminary at Mammoth on property gifted by the Duke of Leinster.

St Patrick’s College Mammoth would become in time a pontifical university, a constituent college of the Royal and then National University of Ireland and the largest seminary in the world. At its height it was home to five hundred student priests. As late as 1986 the first year intake number ninety two students and the college population was a touch over three hundred. Every Sunday the pews of the college chapel, the longest choir stalled chapel in the world, would be filled with men in choral dress and lay students come to hear Palestrina and Messiaen masses sung. Today the doors of the chapel are locked and students on the adjoining new campus of Mammoth university can pass three years there and never see the inside of one of the country’s most beautiful churches. The seminary has twenty men studying for the ministry today.

That the imagine of Catholic Ireland persists strongly outside of the country is hardly surprising. Ireland has been catholic for a very long time. More than one and a half millennia the conversion of the Irish by Patrick and Other took place. For many foreigners one of the few things they know about the Irish is the stubborn even mulish insistence on Catholicism as their denomination of choice. Cuius regio, eius religio is a principal that did not operate in Hibernia. That so old and so deep and totalising a religious culture could collapse so quickly and far is unimaginable.

The curious thing is that it was imagined. In the 1970s and 80s in certain circles in the Irish church there was a deal of talk about the “Quebec Syndrome” and speculation that the same thing could happen in Ireland. Quebec had a traditional conservative and catholic culture. The Quebecois was their Catholicism as part of their national identity, francophone and Roman in Protestant Anglo Canada. Health care, education and social supports were church run. Yet in the period 1960 to 1970 the Quiet Revolution ushered in the secularisation of Quebec and the beginning of the collapse of traditional Quebecois catholic life.

Attendance at mass, vocations to the priesthood and religious life, rise in divorce, attitudes to marriage, sex and sexuality; all changed and in a very short space of time. There is one more similarity to the Irish story which cannot be left out of any account of the decline of the church; the role of priest, nuns and brothers the physical and sexual abuse and the cover ups that followed. Orphanages, Reform schools, Industrial schools, Magdalenes and boarding schools had been historical crime scenes and sometime not so historical.

Conservatives even if not personally religious recognise the potential value of religion to the individual and the wider culture. It can tame and soften the wilder instincts, instil awe and humility through the beautiful in stone, music and ritual. It binds to our neighbours and reminds us that we in a community not mere atoms bouncing off each other. The Irish experience has lessons to teach. Conservatism Ireland was inextricably linked to the church and when the tide went out on religion it went out on all its comrades too. For sure we are reminded of that most basic conservative instinct that even the most high and mighty institutions in culture are far more fragile than they seem from outside the walls and when they fall or fail it may is to restore to their former glory.