In 1932 a Eucharistic Congress in Ireland was testament to the power of the country's Catholic faith in freeing them from British rule. Today's Eucharistic Congress marks an attempt to staunch the bleeding from the Church's self-inflicted wounds.
An international conference celebrating Roman Catholicism opened Sunday in Ireland against a backdrop of anger over child abuse cover-ups and evidence of declining faith in core church beliefs.
More than 20,000 Catholics, many from overseas, gathered for an open-air Mass in a Dublin stadium at the start of the Eucharistic Congress, a weeklong event organized by the Vatican every four years in a different part of the world. The global gathering, begun in the 19th century and last held in Quebec in 2008, highlights the Catholic Church's belief in transubstantiation, the idea that bread and wine transforms during Mass into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ.
An opinion poll of Irish Catholics found that two-thirds of Irish Catholics don't believe this, nor do they attend Mass weekly. The survey, published last week in The Irish Times with an error margin of 3 points, also found that just 38 percent believe Ireland today would be in worse shape without its dominant church. And just three-fifths even knew the Eucharistic Congress was coming to Ireland.
Ireland is becoming a secular country where the Church's big, international event has been eclipsed by Sunday's soccer game. What a difference eighty years and a sex abuse scandal of epic proportions makes.
Today's Ireland is a country with a closed Vatican embassy, an abruptly pulled Vatican ambassador, and where an angry rant against the Church from the Prime Minister only increased his popularity.
A far cry from the triumphalism of the 1932 event, this week's festivities are marked by protests from survivor groups and a "healing stone" ritual of atonement to include a poem from a victim of a pedophile priest. The effort seems modest and disproportionate to the outrage of an Irish public, more than half of which now abstain from weekly Mass.
As per the Irish Times, the Church in Ireland faces a choice between continuing its doctrinaire policies and shedding members, and embracing a kinder, gentler future of "cultural Catholicism." It's moral dominance of Ireland has reached a bitter end, say the editors.
That world is dead. Ireland will never again be a monolithic culture in which a single hierarchical institution can enjoy such power and prestige. And nor should it be – the darker consequences of that culture are now all too well known. So how, if not through nostalgic fantasy, is the church to find its bearings in the new Ireland?
There are two possible reactions. One is to build high defensive walls around a hard core of doctrinal certainty and institutional obedience. Jettison the “cultural Catholics” who are theologically unsound, devotionally lax and increasingly at odds with church positions on sexuality and reproduction. Accept instead that there is a trade-off between the number of the faithful and the intensity of the faith. This new Irish Catholicism will be smaller but steelier. Such a view seems to be the dominant one at the moment, expressed most clearly in the silencing or censoring of even mildly dissident priests.
There is, though, an alternative to this vision of a rather dour, self-protective minority, increasingly at odds with secular society. Another way to look at the Irish Times poll, for instance, would be to marvel at the fact that, even when they’ve given up believing in some core Catholic doctrines, so many people still retain a connection to the church. What’s so terrible about “cultural Catholicism” – the idea that the broad church is deeply intertwined with the way Irish people think and feel and, however occasionally, pray?
What is happening in Ireland is emblematic of the crossroads the Church faces more broadly. Ultimately, it must decide whether it will remain an authoritarian, top-down organization determined to crush apparent insurrections, or become responsive to a changing Church body. With an overwhelming majority rejecting its policies on things like birth control, my hunch is that they would be wise to do the latter. To continue as they are only dooms them to extinction. It should be clear that Catholics are no longer so accepting of being throttled. American nuns certainly aren't.
When publicly reprimanded by some of the most powerful men in the Vatican, one is expected to respond, "Yes, Your Excellencies. Very sorry, your Excellencies." American nuns are trying something different.
Respectfully and clearly, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is calling the recent Vatican indictment against them "unsubstantiated" and "flawed."
The Vatican, as everyone knows by now, was troubled that U.S. sisters have failed to give a loud enough voice against abortion and gay marriage while giving too much voice to left-of-center social justice causes. Rome is now proposing to remake LCWR in its own image, and the sisters object.
After four days of meetings, the LCWR board -- which represents 80 percent of American Catholic sisters -- on Friday (June 1) issued a four-paragraph statement that, in stunningly clear language, called the Vatican to "openness, honesty, and integrity."
Also here in the States, secular authorities are no longer making allowances for the Church to settle its little abuse problem internally -- not if prosecutions in Philadelphia and Kansas City are any indication.
The chief criticism of the 2002 reforms was that they did not include any means of disciplining bishops who fail to follow the charter. Each bishop still answers only to the pope -- and Benedict XVI has so far declined to penalize any of them.
But that hasn't stopped law enforcement officials from pursuing churchmen when the church will not -- a marked change from the deference that police and district attorneys once showed the hierarchy.
Witness the ongoing trial of Monsignor William Lynn, the longtime head of priest personnel for the Philadelphia archdiocese and the first cleric ever to face trial for covering up for abusers. The headline-making story was in many ways a trial in absentia of former Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who died shortly before the trial started, and Cardinal Justin Rigali, who retired under a cloud last year after a grand jury indicted Lynn and others.
Similarly, in Missouri, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph is facing trial in September on charges that he failed to report credible allegations that one of his priests had a trove of child pornography and a suspicious interest in young children. The priest was arrested and charged, and Finn could become the first bishop ever convicted of a crime in connection with the scandal.
Ireland has gone from Catholic stronghold to bellweather of international change. Like any living thing, the Church will either adapt or die.