Is Irish Catholicism an Irrelevant Minority Culture? Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s Cambridge Speech

UCD sociologist Tom Inglis’ 1987 book on Irish Catholicism was called Moral Monopoly: The Catholic Church in Irish Society. The next edition of the book, published in 1998, had a different subtitle: Moral Monopoly: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Modern Ireland.

In remarks made on Tuesday to the Cambridge Group for Irish Studies in Magdalene College, Cambridge, the Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin starkly confirmed what Inglis meant when changed the subtitle of his book to reflect the ‘fall’ of the Catholic Church in Ireland. In a speech titled ‘Keeping the Show on the Road: Is this the Future of the Irish Catholic Church?’, Martin said that the Catholic Church in Ireland would:

“inevitably become more a minority culture. The challenge is to ensure that it is not an irrelevant minority culture”.

Martin’s remarks were wide ranging, and included recommendations such as ceasing Catholic patronage of the Republic of Ireland’s primary schools, encouraging young people in their faith, developing a genuinely intellectual Catholic culture, and engaging more deeply with the Bible.

The story of the fall from a culturally dominant institution to a minority culture might be considered for some a surprising, sad or a tragic one. Or for others, who felt abused, stifled or oppressed by Irish Catholicism, it might be considered a happy story.

But the story is more complex one. Secularisation has occurred in Ireland not because it is some inevitable sociological process related to modernisation and industrialisation, but also because the church itself fell away from its core mission.

Archbishop Martin admits this, relating this story about a conversation he had with Pope John Paul II:

…Pope John Paul II asked me “how is it that secularisation came to Ireland so quickly?”  My answer to that question was quite simple: “Your Holiness is wrong”, though my Vatican training did not allow me to express myself quite in those exact words.   The Pope was wrong.  Secularisation, whatever that means exactly, had been on the Irish radar screen for many years.  It was not all negative but it was not an overnight wonder.   It was there, but not recognised.  It was there but the answer of the Irish Church was for far too long to keep the same show on the road, not noticing that there were problems with the show and that the road was changing.

To put this more specifically, Martin is saying that the Irish Catholic Church achieved social and political power, but at a great cost. Its powerful position compromised its ability to proclaim the good news of the gospel in a way that was radical, meaningful and positively life-changing.

Martin goes on to say that reforms recommended after Vatican II could not do much to help the Irish church, because they were being imposed on structures that were faulty in too many ways. He says:

Not only was the Church culture of the time inadequate to face the challenge of change, but that  culture was in itself something that made real and realistic change more difficult. … Changes were introduced.  The presumption was that they were being introduced into a healthy structure.   The emptiness and the faulty structure which was already undermining the tradition of Irish Catholicism may not have been addressed sufficiently at the time and may have undermined the long-term success of reform.

And Martin admits that the changes that are now required of the Irish Catholic Church are even more wide-ranging and complex, so much so that he feels inadequate for the task:

The change that has taken place in Irish culture requires radical change in the life of the Church of such an extent that in the face of it even experts in change management would feel daunted. Certainly I would have to say that despite all my efforts I am failing in my attempts to lead such change.  Change management has to have the patience and the strategy to bring everyone along with it and that may not be my talent.

Martin’s diagnosis of the Irish Catholic Church’s critical state probably won’t surprise those who have watched that Irish Catholic Church’s fall from grace, especially as it has accelerated over the last year in the wake of the Murphy Report.

But Martin does offer some ways to renew the church. Briefly:

  • Abandon the idea that the Catholic Church could or should return to a dominant cultural position. Martin thinks that this is good neither for the church, nor for society – the temptations for the church to abuse power, rather than to call those who abuse it to account, are too great.
  • Seriously attempt to contribute to the healing of those who have been abused by the church. Martin’s participation in Sunday’s service of lament and repentance for clerical sex abuse is evidence that he himself is at least willing to try and do this.
  • Encourage lay people to take on more active and meaningful roles in the life of the church.
  • Make Christian discipleship less about ‘rules and regulations or about ethical standards against which we have to measure our own moral behaviour’ and more ‘about a God who is generous and whose followers should witness in their lives to the fact that being truly human has much more to do with giving and sharing and loving than with possession and power and dominance.’
  • Prioritise ecumenical collaboration based on a careful examination of the Bible and introducing ‘people into a real relationship with Jesus and his life and teaching.’

If those changes happen, could Irish Catholicism  become a ‘minority culture’ that is not only not ‘irrelevant,’ but that could actually make a valuable contribution to public life?

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at