My essay about the critical role of Irish women to the future of the Catholic church is to appear (alongside an essay by Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland) in the book below which is to be launched in Rome next month. 189 Irish women responded to a questionnaire about their feelings and experiences with Catholicism. Their thoughtful responses informed this essay and should be heard by the Catholic hierarchy if they have any interest in structural change to prevent future abuses of women and children at the hands of Catholic clerics. Chances are they won’t listen so I urge you to buy a copy and deliver to the parish priest and bishops in your area.
Book can be pre-ordered here for its September 30th release.
Visions, Vocations and the Voices of Women, Edited by Catholic Women Speak
(Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 2018)
I recently attended a packed funeral mass in Boston to celebrate the life of a cousin who had died at 62 from cancer. She was raised in an Irish-American Catholic family, attended Catholic school and, like most women in my extended family, she had turned away from the institution of Catholicism decades earlier. When the cancer became untreatable she reached out to a hospital chaplain and found a renewed faith that gave her a sense of peace while dying. She was always a Catholic but in the end, she had to find a way to live with her faith, despite her alienation from the Catholic clergy, institutions and hierarchy. That is a critical issue for Catholicism.
The parish priest celebrating the Mass spoke of my cousin’s faith, but something was missing. Her husband’s eulogy soared with love. He saw her Catholic faith in her love for her family, in her work as a special education teacher in Boston for almost 30 years, in her love for her neighbors and for the women whose friendships she had nurtured through marriages, children, sickness, and grief.
Irish-American parishes in the United States are struggling with a decline in membership. The parishes in which these family’s ancestors worshiped in Ireland are in trouble too. The pews, parish councils and altars are filled with people over 60. 57 percent of priests in the Dublin archdiocese are over 60 years old. St. Patrick’s Seminary in Maynooth, once the largest seminary in the world, enrolled only six first year seminarians in 2017.
I am a Catholic-American who lived in Ireland for ten years. I was confirmed, married and had my children in Ireland. I was amazed at how Catholicism remains intertwined with the Irish state, education, healthcare and community, in such a way that the Church has been able to control people’s lives for generations. Most Irish people remain Catholic in name and culture, but the latest census results from 2016 show a continued decline in the population who identify as Catholic,[i] and a corresponding increase in the number with no religion which grew by 73.6 percent since 2011. Just as telling is the growing movement for the separation of healthcare,[ii] law,[iii] and education[iv] from control by the Catholic institutions that have betrayed their communities.
Irish women were betrayed in the worst way. Catholic priests, bishops, nuns and cardinals abused and neglected their children and babies. They shamed women for sexual and reproductive behaviour over which the women themselves had little control. They stole the joy of motherhood and betrayed women’s loyalty by failing to protect their families.
Women today, myself included, struggle to reconcile their Catholicism with their identity as women, mothers, professionals and activists. My expertise is in community development and social inclusion. I decided to conduct a survey by way of an online questionnaire as to why the Church is failing to engage with Irish women and retain their loyalty. I received 189 responses from women. While this result cannot claim to be a representative sample, it does offer an insight into the how some Irish women define their relationship with Catholicism.
I asked twenty questions about their relationship with the Catholic Church and its role in Irish society. The questions were a combination of closed and open-ended questions. While 98.2 percent of the respondents were baptised Catholics, less than half had baptised their own children or intended to baptise future children. Only 27 percent affirmatively identified as Catholic now, while the rest either did not identify as Catholic or were unsure about their Catholic identity.
When the women were asked to explain their attitudes towards baptism and the other sacraments, responses were age dependant. Younger women (aged 15 to 44) expressed little interest in the sacraments for themselves or for their children, while the vast majority of older women said they supported baptism and participated in the sacraments in order to ensure access to schools and avoid exclusion in the community.
Nearly all the respondents thought that gender equality is an important issue professionally and personally. Only 6 percent thought that the Catholic Church as an institution values women today, and a further 15 percent said that it sometimes values women. Perhaps more importantly, only 2 percent replied that they do believe that Catholicism values women in its teaching and principles. I believe this is the crux of the membership crisis in Ireland.
Most respondents believed it was impossible to be a Catholic and a feminist, and all reported that news about the Church made them angry on a regular basis (daily and weekly). Their advice to young women was focused on the importance of personal conscience, and many warned that participating in the rituals of the Catholic Church would damage young women’s self-esteem.
On respondent wrote: “For many years, I was asked to be a reader in the church. I was also asked on a number of occasions for a reference for male deacons. I find both requests insulting and demeaning considering that women have no role whatsoever in the institution, and there appears to be no vision for this. The fact that it does not matter to the institution is the biggest insult. My daughters’ generations will not accept this.”
The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) in Ireland has recently taken a halting first step to address the crisis precipitated by the alienation and exodus of women from the Church. It has asked every diocese to refrain from creating a permanent male diaconate until the Vatican commission on women in the diaconate, set up by Pope Francis, shares its findings. In a statement issued on 11 August, 2017, the ACP explained:
We believe that proceeding with the introduction of a male permanent diaconate at this time, and thereby adding another male clerical layer to ministry, is insensitive, disrespectful of women, and counter-productive at this present critical time.[v]
The ACP statement shows sensitivity to the current level of disrespect felt by Irish Catholic women. However, the need to integrate women more fully into Catholic institutions also relates to another looming crisis, which is the growing shortage of parish priests in Ireland.[vi] I believe this could be an opportunity rather than a threat for the Church today. The parish priest should ensure that all the faithful in his parish are nourished through the celebration of sacraments, and therefore he has a responsibility to ensure that women feel welcomed and respected as equals in his parish. Irish priests do not need to wait for the Vatican commission findings to do this. They could start now by engaging with women and seeking to understand and respond to their concerns.
Catholic institutions and clergy need to develop parishes as places that strengthen individual faith through communal beliefs and practice. They need to approach this through community development principles of increasing the participation and inclusion of the most marginalized of their members. The tools are simple but the trust between women and clergy will only be built through humility and respect. The process of asking about, listening to, and acknowledging women’s experiences and understanding of parish politics could be as important as any resulting change in policy.
[i] Central Statistics Office, 2016 Census, Chapter 8, “Religion,” http://www.cso.ie/en/media/csoie/releasespublications/documents/population/2017/Chapter_8_Religion.pdf
[ii] Cf Sarah MacDonald, “Confusion arises over using sisters’ land for Irish national maternity hospital,’ Global Sisters Report, May 22, 2017, at http://globalsistersreport.org/news/trends/confusion-arises-over-using-sisters-land-irish-national-maternity-hospital-46811.
[iii] For example, there is widespread support for the liberalisation of Ireland’s abortion laws, despite strong opposition from the Catholic hierarchy. Cf. Sarah Bardon, “Eighth Amendment committee agrees to recommend abortion law changes,” The Irish Times, Wednesday, December 13, 2017, at https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/eighth-amendment-committee-agrees-to-recommend-abortion-law-changes-1.3326063.
[iv] In a 2017 survey, 72% of parents surveyed agreed that law should be changed so baptism cannot be an admission requirement for state-funded schools. See https://www.equateireland.ie/educationandresearch.
[v] Association of Catholic Priests Statement on the Permanent Diaconate, 11 August, 2017 at https://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie/2017/08/association-of-catholic-priests-statement-on-the-permanent-diaconate/.
[vi] Cf. “Lack of priests in Irish Catholic Church: The problem is becoming more acute,” The Irish Times, Tuesday, August 25, 2015, at https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/editorial/lack-of-priests-in-irish-catholic-church-the-problem-is-becoming-more-acute-1.2327089.