It’s probably not too much of a stretch to say that Irish people have a complicated relationship with religion. Most of us nowadays have little or no interest in organised religion, and tend to stay as far away from the Catholic Church as possible (and not without good reason). We go to mass at Christmas and Easter, if at all, and I personally don’t think I know a single young person who actually owns a Bible. So, yes, the traditional Catholic Ireland of our parents and grandparents is dead and gone, and few people wept at the (non-denominational) funeral.
Ours is a different kind of country, and yet we’ve never really escaped that “Catholic Hangover”. It’s still there in our education system, in our abortion laws, and in our over-the-top reactions to Stephen Fry’s opinions on God. It’s there when we bless ourselves as we pass churches or graveyards, it’s there when we jokingly tell people we’ll “say a prayer” for them rather than just wishing them luck. Have you ever gone abroad and felt conspicuous when you realised no-one else used “Jesus Christ” as a swearword? Excuse me, your Catholicism is showing.
It’s not like it’s surprising that we do these things. After all, most of us were educated in Catholic primary, and even secondary schools, and have been baptised, communion-ised, and confirmed. Roughly 99.99999% of those who were raised Catholic will still have their children baptised, because that’s just the done thing. It’s all just a bit of fun and ritual, right? Something you do to please your parents, or so your child can go to the Catholic school that’s so much closer to your house and has the nicest facilities. It is, as Douglas Adams might have said, “mostly harmless”.
Though we still practise them, these Catholic milestones are no longer about being embraced into the bosom of Christ (that was the point, yeah? I didn’t pay much attention), but are now just a fun day out with the family, an excuse to get dressed up, and, if we’re honest, a way to squeeze your extended family for all they’re worth. That’s fairly harmless, right? We’ve done away with the worst aspects of Irish Catholicism – we’re educated now, we’re liberal, we are progressive – and we’ve kept the easy bits, the rituals that are so ingrained in our culture that it would be more effort to abolish them than we can be bothered with.
There’s something a bit off, though, something disquieting, in continuing to practise these rites despite our lack of faith. Yes, our grandparents’ generation may have been repressed, oppressed, and every other kind of pressed, but at least when they went to mass or said their rosaries, they actually believed in what they were doing. Who among us really believes that when they take Communion, they are literally eating the body of Christ, or that priests shouldn’t be allowed to marry? (I’m going to assume the answer is “not many”.) These are some of the core tenets that separate us from Protestants, and most of us don’t even believe them. So why do we still think we’re Catholic?
We are Catholics, if only in name – but that name is apparently important enough to us that over 3.5 million of the 3.9 million Irish nationals living in Ireland still chose “Roman Catholic” as their religion on the 2011 census.
Catholicism is no more a part of our national identity than shillelaghs and little green top hats, so why is this the one stereotype we stick to? Hollywood would have us believe that the Irish are drunk, provincial, and above all, religious. (Anyone else remember that scene in Marley and Me, where they stayed in an Irish B&B decked out in portraits of saints, and had to sleep in twin beds?) We’ve tried to fight the image of the violent drunk, or the farmer with the stupid accent with varying degrees of success, but when it comes to religion, you can’t really argue with census figures. We are Catholics, if only in name – but that name is apparently important enough to us that over 3.5 million of the 3.9 million Irish nationals living in Ireland still chose “Roman Catholic” as their religion on the 2011 census. You can’t exactly rant and rave at films “misrepresenting” Ireland when, according to the Irish people themselves, almost 90% of them are Catholic.
Funnily enough, the census results don’t have a category for “lapsed Catholic”. What did they do with those who wrote that (or similar) on their forms back in 2011? Did they lump them in with the rest of the Catholics, the “No Religion” group (173,180), or the enigmatic “Not Stated” (29,888) category? Either way, both these categories combined still make up only about 5% of Irish citizens, despite being more realistic representations of the country as a whole. Why are we so reluctant to be honest about our religious beliefs? Most people, if pressed on the issue, will say something along the lines of, “Well, I was raised Catholic, but…”
Just because you’re technically a member of an organisation does not mean you have to follow its practices, especially if you don’t actually believe in them. Being a member of a political party does not make you a politician, and being a member of the Roman Catholic Church does not make you Roman Catholic in any meaningful sense of the term unless you actually share that Church’s beliefs. And yet we can’t let go of that label, one that most of us didn’t have a choice in, that was stuck on us by our parents as babies, just as it was stuck on them by theirs. Back in the days when both infant mortality rates and genuine religious faith were much higher, it made some sense to baptise babies early, but that’s no longer much of an issue in deciding to baptise a child. Some parents will wait months, even a year or two, before they do so, but we never seem to wait long enough to let the child decide for themselves. In any other situation, if we were asked if a child should have a choice in being inducted, for life, into an organisation that is almost impossible to leave and that will shape most of their lives, the answer would be a resounding yes. But this is only a bit of fun and ritual, right?
Every time a child is born
Every time a baby is baptised into a religion it has no concept of; every time a child is sent to a Catholic school because it’s the nearest; every time a teenager is confirmed because they want the money, the pressure on them to identify as Catholic increases, and that 90% census figure creeps gradually upwards. Anyone who looked at that census would, logically, consider Ireland a Catholic country – which it’s not. It’s a country of half-empty churches, an elderly priesthood that struggles to recruit new members, and over three million “Catholics” who couldn’t name the twelve apostles if ten of them were standing in front of them wearing nametags. It’s misleading, and more importantly, it’s just wrong. Granted, it’s not something that affects most of us in our day-to-day lives. Maybe you only think of every month or so when an elderly relative asks you when you last went to mass. But it’s a lie. When we claim we’re Catholics – even lapsed ones, even nominally – when in reality most of us have little faith in God and no faith in a Church that has held us back for years, we are lying. We’re lying to others and we’re lying to ourselves, and when did that last work out well for anyone?
Illustration: Daniel Tatlow