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Irish and Catholic?: Towards an understanding of identity

30 November, 1999

This book, edited by Louise Fuller, John Littleton and Eamom Maher, examines the changed, and changing, face of Irish Catholicism, Irish identity and the Irish socio-religious landscape at the beginning of the third millennium.

256 pp, Columba Press, 2006.  To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie



1.  Catholic Identity in the Irish Context  John Littleton
2.  The Rise and Fall of Roman Catholicism in Ireland Patsy McGarry
3.  ‘Kicking Bishop Brennan up the Arse …’: Catholicism, Deconstruction and Postmodernity in Contemporary Irish Culture Eugene O’Brien
4.  New Ireland and the Undoing of the Catholic legacy: Looking Back to the Future Louise Fuller
5.  ‘God Help Us!’: The Media and Irish Catholicism Colm Kenny

6.  Representations of Catholicism in the Twentieth-Century Irish Novel Eamon Maher
7.  ‘Mulcahy taught us God’: Catholicism and Survival in the Poetry of Brendan Kennelly John McDonagh
8.  Bad Cop, Good Cop: Dualistic Theology and Stephen’s Neurotic Response to the Hellfire Sermons in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Brian Cosgrove 
9.  ‘I have looked on God and found him lacking’: Catholicism and Homosexuality in the Plays of Frank McGuinness  Kenneth Nally
10. ‘I’d like to be this family please’:Tom Murphy and the (De)construction of the Irish Catholic Family Home Sara Keating
11. Trinities of Transition: Catholicism in the Novels and Plays of Dermot Bolger Paula Murphy

12. Cultural Chameleons: Religion in the Ryan of Inch Papers Grace Neville
13. Return to Doolin: A Reflection on a Changing Irish and Catholic Identity  Patrick Claffey
14. Catholicism and Civic Identity in Ireland: Mapping Some Changes in Public Policy   Kevin Williams
15. Decoupling Catholic and National Identity: Secularisation Theories in the Irish Context Timothy J. White

Notes on the contributors


Examining the changing, face of Irish Catholicism, identity and the socio-religious landscape at the beginning of the third millennium, these essays are written by people who are both intimately associated with the Catholic Church in their role as priests and commentators, or who have an interest in the topic from a literary, theoretical or historical perspective. It is the different prisms and lenses through which the issue of Irish Catholic identity – or identities – is examined that makes this study so interesting. It avoids the danger of putting forward an apologia for the Church or of embarking on an irrational attack on perceived abuses within the institution.

This gathering of articles is an attempt to fill a void and to launch a debate that is absolutely necessary if thinkers, church leaders and teachers are to come to terms with a vastly changed Ireland that could effectively be termed as ‘post-Catholic.’  



John Littleton

What does it mean to be a Catholic today? First, what it does not mean? It surely does not mean having such a rigid sense of identity that there is no room any longer for diversity and for outreach to those with different points of view, both within and outside the Church. Nor does it mean having such a soft sense of identity that there is no longer any theological, spiritual, or doctrinal core. It is one thing to say… that there is a hierarchy of truths, such that distinctions have to be made always between the essential and the non-essential, or between the important and less important. But it is quite another matter to imply that there are no truths at all, no defining characteristics of Catholic identity, as if Catholicism is simply the sum total of its disparate parts or, worse, whatever one wishes to make of it. (l)

It is occasionally proposed that one religion is the same as another. However, that assertion is untrue because all religions – including Catholicism – make unique claims. Hence they cannot be identical and every religious tradition has a separate identity, although it may have much in common with other traditions. The American theologian Richard McBrien, in the opening quotation, acknowledges that to be Catholic means having a definite identity which, in the context of indispensable truths, incorporates diverse opinions and attitudes. Thus Catholic identity cannot be perceived as inflexible. Neither is it so vague that it lacks any precise meaning.

A long and varied history
The Catholic Church has existed for two millennia and is undoubtedly among the most enduring institutions in the history of human civilisation. During two thousand years it has evolved in countless ways, sometimes with beneficial results and at other times compromising its main purpose which is to proclaim to the entire world God’s unconditional love in Jesus Christ the Universal Lord and Saviour. In reality, the Catholic Church is a community of sinners and saints and, like all organised religions, is semper reformanda (always in need of renewal). Indeed, the more regrettable episodes of history, in addition to the teaching of Christ, have challenged the Catholic Church not to understand itself anymore as societas perfecta (the perfect society) but as an imperfect pilgrim people slowly but surely moving towards eternity with God.

While some Catholics have described what Catholicism means for them, (2) nowadays many Catholics are unsure about their faith. Consequently, there has been a serious diminution of Catholic identity. It is often said that, until two generations ago, Catholics everywhere knew exactly what was required in their relationships and activities. Likewise they knew what to expect when going into a Catholic church, especially to attend Mass that was said in Latin. Without wishing to seem trivial, Catholicism was like McDonalds restaurants, having identical menus and tastes, regardless of the local language and cuisine; there is no substantial variation and most products are pre-packaged. That is how it was for Catholics fifty years ago. There was certainty and no desire – or encouragement – to ask probing questions about their faith or to be different. Catholics had a definite sense of their identity, although they were not always able to explain it.

But time has moved on and people have changed. Contemporary society is more materialistic and pluralistic, and modern culture is characterised by questioning what was previously regarded as unquestionable and unchanging. The English sociologist Michael Hornsby-Smith has suggested that:
Like everyone else, they [Catholics] have experienced the forces of reaction against the excessively mechanistic, rigid, rational world of modernity which had dominated thinking since the Enlightenment. In the so-called ‘post-modern’ world of recent years, the dominant values have been individualism, self-determination, expression and fulfilment, personal autonomy, and instant gratification. (3)

In contemporary Ireland, as elsewhere, many Catholics are lapsed; they do not practise the faith anymore. Others have adopted an a la carte approach; they choose what suits them from Catholic doctrines and ignore the remainder. In addition, people are generally reluctant to speak about their personal religious beliefs. This makes it difficult to describe popular Catholicism with confidence, especially when, for varied reasons, there is confusion surrounding the precise differences between the mainstream Christian denominations.

Yet in the official teaching of the Catholic Church, there is certainty about its self-understanding, with conservatives arguing that progressives have watered down Catholic beliefs and values since the 1960s to the detriment of the distinctive Catholic identity. But they also argue that this dilution has been partially counteracted by the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (4) Perhaps the most challenging question is: How can the traditional and liberal understandings of Catholicism be reconciled, if at al1? (5)

Catholicism: what is it?
There are many popular descriptions of Catholicism. Some are superficial and inaccurate, presenting a distorted image of the Catholic Church. Others are helpful because they encapsulate the essence of Catholicism. No single description of the Catholic Church, however, can ever explain adequately the mystery which the Church actually is.

Without doubt, the most negative image of the Catholic Church currently prevailing, in much of the western world, is that of the child physical and sexual abuse scandals. People have abandoned the Church in large numbers, or have lost their trust in it, because of those scandals and the secrecy and lack of transparency in how the institutional Church dealt with them. In some instances, people’s faith has been destroyed by what they perceived to be a corrupt institution whose efforts at self-protection were truly shocking. While incalculable damage has been done to the credibility of the Catholic Church by the abuse scandals, they do not describe it completely. There are various dimensions to Catholicism, some more relevant and authentic than others, that cannot be neglected.

For example, when reference is made to the Catholic Church many people immediately think of the Pope who presides over one of the largest religious organisations in the world and who, through frequent pronouncements on matters of faith and morality, attempts to impose strict rules on the members’ lives. Many people judge the papacy to be inconsequential, despite the fact that huge crowds of people flocked to see Pope John Paul II during his regular overseas visits. Another image of Catholicism is the Vatican, containing priceless treasures and world-famous art and sculptures, with the serving pope as a head-of-State overseeing a complex bureaucracy of civil servants.

Other well-known facts that prompt comment during discussions about Catholicism include a central belief that Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, (6) is present in the Eucharistic species of bread and wine and that his presence there is the Real Presence. Many people, including those from different faith traditions, are familiar with the term ‘transubstantiation’ which is a technical term used to describe that Christ becomes really present under the appearances of bread and wine in the Eucharist. That term has caused difficulties in ecumenical dialogue. Aspects of Catholicism that generate heated public debate are its total opposition to abortion and euthanasia, its prohibition of divorce and remarriage, its teaching on artificial contraception (especially since Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae, in 1968), the role of the laity in the Church’s life and the non-admissibility of women to the ordained priesthood.

Numerous images are evoked when people mention Catholicism. Among them are Sunday Mass attendance, people making the Sign of the Cross when passing churches and cemeteries, people marking their foreheads with blessed ashes on Ash Wednesday, girls dressing in white dresses and boys wearing white rosettes when they celebrate First Holy Communion, the lighting of candles at shrines, the smoke rising from the burning incense at certain ceremonies and devotions, the fingering of beads as people pray the Rosary, the public display of holy pictures and statues representing the Blessed Virgin Mary and canonised saints, and the Christmas crib. All these rituals and practices are not confined to Catholicism. But more peculiar to Catholicism are pilgrimages to Marian shrines (for example, Fatima, Knock and Lourdes), and the practice of penitents confessing their sins to a priest and receiving sacramental absolution. In Catholic churches the red sanctuary lamp draws attention to the presence of the reserved Blessed Sacrament. Less evident images include the sprinkling of holy water, the mission collection boxes in shops, the wearing of devotional medals and scapulars and blue Children of Mary cloaks, and members of male and female religious orders wearing a distinctive habit.

Certain people, when asked about Catholicism, become conscious of the Catholic school and college system which arguably provides an excellent education – to the extent that in the UK and USA, for example, many non-Catholics seek to have their children educated in Catholic schools. Similarly the Catholic health care system is considered to be among the best in the world. Then, other people speak about famous Catholics whom they know or about whom they have heard and how those Catholics have influenced their lives. They may be internationally known Catholics such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta (19101997) or national public figures like Cardinal Basil Hume of Westminster (1923-1999). Alternatively, they could just as easily be Catholic neighbours or local Catholic clergy, demonstrating the witness dimension of being a Catholic. The assorted images refer either directly or indirectly to the basics of Catholicism and to its distinguishing features from different faith traditions.

What does it mean to be Catholic?
What are the central features of Catholicism that differentiate it from other Christian denominations? Or, adapting the title of one of Rosemary Haughton’s books, what is the ‘Catholic thing’? (7) There are several significant characteristics that distinguish Catholicism from other Christian denominations. Although not exclusive to Catholicism, they provide it with a particular identity because, realistically, it is possible to be a Christian without necessarily being a Catholic whereas it is impossible to be a Catholic unless one is also a Christian.

Catholic identity can best be defined using three terms: universality (or catholicity), tradition and sacramentality. These three principles describe the overlapping and interdependent, yet distinctive, strands of Catholicism. Ironically, those Catholics who do not reflect critically on their faith, and who may be described most accurately as nominally Catholic, are unable to identify these defining characteristics of Catholic identity. Other Catholics are unable to converse authoritatively about their faith. Furthermore, in many instances, Catholics do not know how to pass on the faith to their children. What, then, is meant by the terms universality, tradition and sacramentality?

By ‘universality’ (or ‘catholicity’) is meant the undivided, worldwide ecclesial community that gathers people of different nationalities, cultures and languages into one People of God.(8) The People of God, theoretically at least, readily embraces all people without discrimination although, regrettably, not all Catholic individuals and groups do so. Historically it is continuous with the apostolic Church. Jesus’s first disciples gradually understood that the Church established by him must be all inclusive. He had died on the Cross for the salvation of the whole human race. Therefore, all people from every culture and place should have the possibility of learning about the risen Lord Jesus and should also be offered the opportunity of making a personal faith commitment to him by being baptised into the community of his believers. The term ‘catholic’ was originally used to describe that community, the Church. Subsequently, the term was used to differentiate between the faithful community of disciples and heretical groups, that is, those groups whose beliefs and opinions were judged to be contrary to the revealed truths contained in orthodox (correct) doctrines of faith.

The concept of a Church that is universal implies that the Church, in and through its nature, is missionary. Thus Catholicism is convinced that the Good News about Jesus of Nazareth ought to be shared with all peoples. The Catholic Church is a universal communion of local Churches in which everyone desiring to follow Christ may find a welcome and a spiritual home. Because of its missionary nature, it continues to spread around the world in fidelity to Jesus’s command and in continuity with the apostles’ ministry.(9)

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) taught that ‘the sole Church of Christ… subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter

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