Sixty years into the 20th century, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Quebec were among the most intensely Catholic nations on the planet. Fifty years later, Quebec is the most religiously arid space between Point Barrow and Tierra del Fuego; Portuguese Catholicism, outside the pilgrimage shrine of Fatima, is hardly robust; Spain has the most self-consciously secularist government in Europe; and Ireland has now become the epicenter of European anti-Catholicism. What happened?
Perhaps some comparative history and sociology suggest an answer. In each of these cases, the state, through the agency of an authoritarian government, deliberately delayed the nation’s confrontation with modernity. In each of these cases, the Catholic Church was closely allied to state power (or, in the case of Quebec, to the power of the dominant Liberal party). In each of these cases, Catholic intellectual life withered, largely untouched by the mid-20th-century Catholic renaissance in biblical, historical, philosophical, and theological studies that paved the way toward the Second Vatican Council. And in each of these cases, the local Catholicism was highly clerical, with ordination to the priesthood and the episcopate being understood by everyone, clergy and laity alike, as conferring membership in a higher caste.
Then came le déluge
: the deluge of Vatican II, the deluge that Europeans refer to as “1968,” and the deluge of the “Quiet Revolution” in la Belle Province
. Once breached, the fortifications of Counter-Reformation Catholicism in Spain, Portugal, Quebec, and Ireland quickly crumbled. And absent the intellectual resources to resist the flood-tides of secularism, these four once-hyper-Catholic nations flipped, undergoing an accelerated course of radical secularization that has now, in each case, given birth to a serious problem of Christophobia: not mere indifference to the Church, but active hostility to it, not infrequently manifested through coercive state power.
This, then, is the blunt fact that must be faced by bishops, priests, and lay Catholics who want to build the Church of Vatican II, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI — the Church of a New Evangelization — out of the wreckage of the recent Irish past: In Ireland, as in the other three cases, the Church’s close relationship with secular power reinforced internal patterns of clericalism and irresponsibility that put young people at risk, that impeded the proclamation of the Gospel, and that made the Church in these places easy prey for the secularist cultural (and political) wolves, once they emerged on the scene.
And that is why the leadership that Catholic Ireland needs may have to be imported, at least in part. Men of indisputable integrity and evangelical passion who have no linkage to this sad, and in some instances tawdry, history are needed to lead the Irish Catholic reform for which Benedict XVI has called. I know no serious observer of the Irish Catholic scene, anywhere, who disputes the necessity of clearing the current bench of bishops; I also know no one who thinks that a reconfigured Irish episcopate, even one leading fewer dioceses, can be drawn entirely from the resident clergy of Ireland today. This may be one factor leading to the current languid pace in reforming the Irish hierarchy; and that lassitude is what gave Taoiseach Kenny the opening for his latest rabid attack on the Church, the Holy See, and the Pope. All the more reason, then, to make the reform of the Church in Ireland truly radical by looking outside Ireland for men capable of helping lead this once-great Church back to evangelical health.
— George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.