Beliefs Opinion

COMMENTARY: Religion in the belly of the Celtic Tiger

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at, or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

DUBLIN _”Well, here you are in the belly of the Celtic Tiger,”said my friend.”Our economy is the healthiest in Europe. Our inflation rate is the lowest, our GNP growth rate is the highest and we have the best balance of payments rate.””Is that all?”I said. He failed to mention that twice as many new cars were purchased in Dublin last year as five years ago.

He thought for a moment.”Oh, yes, one other thing: Our standard of living is now higher than Britain’s. Mind you,”he winked,”we don’t get excited about that.” Not at all, at all.”And what about religion here in the belly of the Celtic Tiger?”I asked.

He nodded in the general direction of Drumcondra, where the Roman Catholic archbishop of Dublin lives.”Your man will tell you that Ireland is now a post-Catholic country.” Archbishop Robin Eames is a melancholy man, given to frequent expressions of self-pity in front of TV cameras. No matter what he does, he confides to the nation, he’ll be criticized by someone. No one says in public what is obvious: that goes with the territory. If you can’t make tough decisions and take the heat that comes with them, you don’t belong in the episcopal kitchen.

Last week Eames faced the question of whether a priest who was forbidden to say Mass in public (because he had been marrying divorced people) could preside over the funeral of a nephew. Naturally, he said no. At the same time he informed the priest’s mother, about to undergo heart surgery, that should she die, her son would not preside over her funeral Eucharist either.

Such decisions will not win him or the church any points for those who think Christianity is supposed to be a religion of compassion.

The Irish church is, to put the matter cautiously, in disarray.

Last Sunday, for example, Mayo played Kerry here in Dublin in the Irish equivalent of the super bowl. The president of the Mayo Gaelic Athletic Association is a priest who has left the ministry and is alleged to be living with his girlfriend. They both were at the game and the frequent target of the TV camera.

Twenty five years ago this could not have happened. Fifteen years ago it would have been covered up. This year it was a matter for laughter: It was a Kerry trick, said the Dubliners, to”de-stabilize”the Mayo team. (Mayo lost in a close contest). One more example, the pessimists here say, of Ireland as a post-Catholic country.

Prosperity, one is told, has destroyed the faith of the Irish people. It would be more accurate _ and less self-serving _ to say education has changed the relationship between the Irish people and their church.

The church no longer dominates Irish life; it no longer enforces its will on the people who now know what it is to make choices of their own.

If post-Catholic means the clergy no longer run the country, then Ireland is post-Catholic. If post-Catholic means the Irish laity are now Catholic on their own terms _ as happens in every country where the laity get an education _ then Ireland is post-Catholic.

However, if post-Catholic means the ancient Catholic heritage is dead or dying on this island, then Ireland is not post-Catholic and probably never will be.

The Irish hierarchy and clergy _ with some notable and impressive exceptions _ were not prepared for the enormous social and religious changes of the past three decades and responded often simply by denouncing them, which is a little like denouncing the Gulf Stream.

In effect, as they lament”the end of Catholic Ireland”they are wishing the education and prosperity would go away and that a mostly poor and docile peasantry would once again return to its dependence on them.

Yet Ireland remains incurably Catholic _ in its stunning literary revival, the volunteer generosity of its young people, and, most recently, in its quest for a rediscovered Celtic spirituality.

Instead of lamenting the loss of Catholic Ireland, Catholic leaders here should ask why they have lost the opportunities of the exciting transitional age in which they live.

But so too should the Catholic leadership in the United States.