DUBLIN, Ireland – A nation whose very independence is rooted in its Catholic faith, Ireland is questioning its longtime devotion to the Roman Catholic Church and the conservative bent of its newly elected pope, Benedict XVI.
Irish from various age groups say they view the church increasingly as a relic of a bygone era, and that it is losing meaning in their daily lives. The Vatican acknowledges that one of its major challenges is reversing the rapid decline in church attendance throughout Western Europe.
Reflecting the views of Catholics across the continent, many Irish complain that church services tend to be repetitive and uninspiring, and that church teachings are falling out of touch with the modern world. On issues such as gay rights and women in the clergy, Dubliners said in interviews, the church is driving away members by refusing to adapt to today’s political reality.
“I just got really angry when I saw they had picked [Cardinal Joseph] Ratzinger as pope,” said Clare Delargy, 15, who attends a Catholic girl’s school in Dublin. “He’s such a polarizing figure” to elevate at a time when the church already faces serious divisions, she said.
Ms. Delargy wrote a harshly critical letter to the editor of The Irish Times, saying the new pope’s “conservative views on many issues, such as clerical celibacy and homosexuality, alienate many members of the church and also discourage people with more liberal views (such as myself) from practicing their faith.”
Halting such disaffection and finding ways to bring Catholics back into the fold are chief among the “daunting” tasks that await Pope Benedict, said the archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin.
“Obviously, a decline in participation in church life and practices is a concern,” he said. Whereas the 1.1 billion-member church is experiencing boom times in Latin America and Africa, across the church’s traditional base in Europe, a crisis of faith is brewing. The archbishop was quick to note, however, that most Irish still profess strong satisfaction and devotion to their faith.
“There is a strong presence toward religious belief, but there also is a strong rejection of religious belief, or at least an indifference to it,” the archbishop said.
“The new pope has to face the challenge of inspiring the church,” he said, adding that the task won’t be easy. “He can’t just turn on a control tap and say that everybody has to start practicing again.”
Evidence of the church’s decline is everywhere in Europe. Thirty-five years ago, Austria was more than 87 percent Catholic. By 1991, the figure had dropped to 78 percent; and by 2001, to 74 percent.
In Spain, where 81 percent of the population is Catholic, two-thirds of respondents in a 2002 survey said they rarely or never attend services. Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela has said that half of Spaniards ignore church teachings altogether.
As if to drive home the point, only two days after Benedict’s election, the lower house of Spain’s legislature approved a bill to grant legal recognition to same-sex unions – in direct contravention of Vatican doctrine.
Europeans have a consistent list of reasons for their drift from the church. They criticize the Vatican as aloof, immersed in ritual and mired in orthodoxy. They reject prohibitions against artificial birth control and the use of condoms to prevent AIDS. They say the church was too slow to respond to widespread allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
Elia Marty, a nun working in Bern, Switzerland, told the news agency Swissinfo that she was hoping for a pope who “was less dictatorial and was willing to share some of the power that has been concentrated in the Vatican.”
On a school tour in Vatican City last month, Austrian student David Imre, 16, said he finds Mass tedious and unfulfilling. “It’s too boring,” he said. “They always read the same phrases and do the same things, over and over again.”
Asked how the church would have to change to win him back, he responded, “Nothing would interest me. I don’t think I would ever go back.”
Even in Ireland – which fought for centuries to win its independence as a Catholic nation fromProtestant-ruled Britain – church attendance has declined over the past decade.
A 1990-91 University of Michigan survey listed Ireland as one of the most devout Catholic nations in the world, with 84 percent of the adult population attending services at least once a week. A 2003 poll for the Irish broadcasting network RTE found that the figure had sagged to 50 percent.
“Part of the problem is the extreme rapidity of affluence. In Ireland, you have full employment, very good wages, the lure of travel, the opportunity to buy property,” said Sister Mary MacCurtain, 76, a Catholic nun and retired historian.
“God is competing with all of this,” she added. “It’s a very subtle and corroding reason for the decline.”
In an age where young people expect immediate gratification, she said, a Mass full of rituals and chants is unlikely to hold their attention. “They’re looking for something that holds their interest and doesn’t just bore the pants off you.”
West of Dublin in the village of Lucan, David Clayton, 24, a Web page designer, agreed that the boredom factor is a big consideration. “It’s the repetition,” he said. “After you’ve heard it enough, you feel like you already know what they’re going to say, so why do you have to go there?”
The solution? “Dancing girls,” said the Rev. Eugene Kennedy, 71, a priest in the Dublin suburb of Castle Knock. “Just joking.”
He said his parish shows no signs of the disaffection seen in other areas, and he attributes his church’s full pews to the high level of autonomy he enjoys in designing services to attract the young.
“We have five musical groups,” he said, including two adult folk groups, a youth-oriented band and another small pop group. With each Mass, he prepares a PowerPoint computer display. He insures that the liturgy is lively and engaging. And when someone introduces a new idea to liven things up, he tries to keep an open mind.
Instead of opening themselves to new approaches, “a lot of Irish priests are getting in the way of the spirit,” Father Kennedy said.
For young people like Ms. Delargy, however, such innovations are coming too late and are far too rare. And it is unlikely that they would address deeper concerns she has about ordaining female priests, allowing priests to marry or recognizing same-sex unions.
“If another faith came along that offered those things and gives me everything spiritually that I’m looking for,” she said, “then I would give it a lot of thought.”
May 6, 2005