Book Review: ‘Unholy Catholic Ireland’ by Hugh Turpin

Unholy Catholic Ireland: Religious Hypocrisy, Secular Morality, and Irish Irreligion by Hugh Turpin (published this week by Stanford University Press) is a must-read book for anyone interested in the changing role of religion in Ireland.

Unholy Catholic Ireland responds to longstanding gaps in our knowledge about the ‘irreligious’ in Ireland, to echo the term from the book’s subtitle. In scholarly literature, this rather disparate group is often referred to as those with ‘no religion’ or the ‘nones’. (In the text, Turpin also refers to such folks as ‘ethno-Catholic nones’).

Prior to Turpin’s research, there had been no systematic, in-depth studies of those who could be classified as nones in the Republic of Ireland. Unholy Catholic Ireland is a first and important step in what I hope and anticipate will become a topic of further research – by Turpin and by other scholars. Based on both qualitative and quantitative research, it lays a strong foundation for future studies.

In the book, Turpin is right to point out that while many scholars of religion in Ireland have explored the reasons for its rapid secularization in recent decades, they also have emphasized religious persistence. Indeed, by measures like the national Census, European Social Surveys, and Pew surveys, the Republic remains one of the least secular nations of Europe. So some scholars, myself included, have explored the dynamics of religious persistence within this context.

But what Turpin’s book highlights in admirable clarity are tensions between the persistence of Catholic practice and the outright rejection of it, played out in a context of clerical abuse scandals. He paints a picture of a highly charged moral battle in which the devout and the irreligious are locked in a power struggle for societal influence, especially during periods when scandal is thrust into the public spotlight, such as revelations about the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, the McAleese report on the Magdalene Laundries, or Pope Francis’ visit in 2018. Both sides vie to convince a vast swathe of rather apathetic ‘cultural Catholics’ about the morality of their own positions, in a context in which the once powerful Catholic Church has lost almost all moral authority.

Social scientists in Ireland in general – not just those of us who specialize in religion – have not really begun to grapple with the meaning and implications of the Catholic Church’s loss of moral authority. Unholy Catholic Ireland is a worthy contribution to this much-needed conversation, demonstrating how Irish people have constructed alternative moralities.

The book is also a contribution to international debates on the impact of clerical abuse scandals. In general, scholars have emphasized macro-level processes such as modernization and economic growth as drivers of secularization. These processes were underway long before the horror and extent of clerical abuse became clear, in Ireland and elsewhere. This has meant that the impact of clerical abuse scandals, especially in majority Catholic or culturally Catholic counties, have been under-analysed. Yet the scandals are central to Turpin’s analysis and his argument that increasingly what it means to be a ‘good Irish person’ is to reject the Catholic Church on moral grounds.

One of the alternative moralities Turpin describes in Unholy Catholic Ireland stems from research in an inner-city Dublin parish, where the Catholic Church in some ways remains a focal point of community life, especially for rites of passage. In a chapter titled, ‘“A load of shite”: hidden cultures of Catholic unbelief’, Turpin explores how men in this working class district navigate (and often hide) their unbelief to preserve social harmony. This can be understood as an act of compassion for the sake of elderly relatives, or others they consider weak or anxious. At the same time, these men (while at times willing to call themselves Catholic) often speak of the church itself as an immoral institution, concerned with its own preservation.

Another example are those people who proudly proclaim their ex-Catholicism and explicitly name this as a moral stance. Turpin calls this position ‘anti-nostalgic moralized authenticity’. These people are convinced that the sins of the Catholic Church are such that to remain even a cultural Catholic, availing of the church as a rites of passage service provider, is a deeply immoral position and an affront to all those who have been abused. For them, to be truly authentic is to reject the Catholic Church and to challenge its residual social and cultural influences. This stance can manifest privately; for example, by challenging relatives who choose to have their children baptized, believing it will get them into a better school; or in public campaigns, such as the Repeal the Eighth, which resulted in a referendum in 2018 that overturned the Republic’s constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion.

These alternative moralities are powerful counterpoints to sociologist Tom Inglis’ characterization of the ‘good Irish person’ of the twentieth century as an observant Catholic. While it is by no means clear that this ‘ex-Catholicism as anti-nostalgic moralized authenticity’ is a majority position among citizens of the Republic, Turpin has convincingly described a new model of the ‘good Irish person’ – one who is secular by conviction. He also explores ex-Catholic zeal to convert cultural Catholics to this position – while acknowledging that their enthusiasm waxes and wanes over time, especially in response to scandal.

Another important observation in Unholy Catholic Ireland relates to women. In most Western nations, women who identify as Christian are more religiously observant than men. In the Republic, except among the older age cohorts, this is not the case – younger women’s and men’s levels of religiosity (or non-religiosity) are similar. (In case you are wondering, in Northern Ireland, Christian women demonstrate higher levels of religiosity than men – in line with other Western nations.)

Turpin points out that in the Republic, women’s incarceration in mother and baby homes and Magdalene Laundries in past decades meant that they were somewhat more likely to be victimized by the Catholic Church. He also observes that women were more active in some of the ex-Catholic online groups that he frequented in his research. Given that Tom Inglis once described Irish women, especially in their role as mothers, as the chief agents of Catholic socialization, women’s disproportionate disaffiliation is a promising direction for future research in the Republic.

Finally, Unholy Catholic Ireland is remarkably free of academic jargon. Even discussions of CREDS (credibility enhancing displays) and CRUDS (credibility undermining displays) and their role in the passing on (or not) of religiosity are clear and careful enough to be grasped by audiences not already familiar with these concepts. As an academic, I am self-aware enough to recognize that the phrase ‘anti-nostalgic moralized authenticity’ has a ring of jargon to it, but rest assured, this also is well-explained.

Many of the chapters abound with compelling descriptions of the people Turpin spoke and interacted with. He conveys people’s harsh judgements about the Catholic Church with unflinching prose and a certain irreverence that reflects the minds of the men and women who shared their thoughts. There are  flashes of humour, including  analysis of the Fr Ted sitcom’s contributions to secularization. Beyond scholarly audiences, these chapters will be difficult reading for people who identify with Catholicism/Christianity, and hope that churches have a future on the island.

At £20 (the last time I checked on the world’s major book-selling website), Unholy Catholic Ireland is  affordable for those without access to university libraries. For me, this book is indispensable for understanding momentous changes in religious (and non-religious) life in the Republic in recent decades.

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