The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin has said he does not believe that people here have a true sense of the crisis of faith in Ireland.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said he hopes the Catholic Church on the island will truly learn from the arrogance of its past and rediscover a fragility which will allow hearts to be changed, enabling Catholics to encounter something of Jesus' compassion and faith.
He also lamented the increasing alienation of many women on the question of church leadership, and urged the Government to open talks on the Taoiseach's proposal for a new covenant between Church and State.
Dr Martin called for the implementation of a long-standing proposal by Vatican advisors for a reduction in the number of dioceses here.
And he warned that "cultural warriors of certainty" in the Church can manipulate its leadership into taking wrong decisions.
Addressing a Church of Ireland gathering in Limerick city's St Michael's Church, the head of the country's largest diocese quoted what he called the 'unforgettable phrase' his predecessor, John Charles McQuaid, over half a century ago, when he returned from the reform-centred Second Vatican Council.
Dr McQuaid reassured his flock that "no change" would "worry the tranquility" of their "Christian lives".
Dr Martin said he himself was taught the importance of recognising change and coming out of it always looking dispassionately to the future while also identifying what is essential to the Catholic faith.
He said Pope John XXIII, who had summoned the Council in 1962, recognised that human progress, with all its ambiguities, could also bring new insights into how we understand received Catholic doctrine.
‘Cultural warriors of certainty’
"Not everyone in our Church understands this even today," he observed, warning that, in some cases, the fear of change can be exploited into an ideology that distorts the message of Jesus. He quoted at length Pope John's disagreement with what that pontiff described as "those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand."
Dr Martin continued: "Constantly repeating truths can in itself be a sign of fearfulness and a retreat from realities. This is the problem with 'cultural warriors of certainty' who focus perhaps on one aspect of the truth and affirm a certainty in a way which comes from human assertion and from within a personally defined safe space.
He said such warriors "can become a source of division and partiality and polarisation and can, in their own way, manipulate Church leadership into a certain sympathy with them and into taking wrong decisions".
But he asserted that Pope John was no moral relativist and did not intend "just to accept modernity as simply good and positive".
Crisis of faith
He said 48% of Catholics between the ages of 24 to 29 in the Archdiocese of Dublin registered at the 2016 census as "of no religion".
But he said there are parishes and communities in the diocese "that have never been as vibrant at any time in their history as they are today".
"Numbers may be reduced but perhaps in the past we placed far too much trust in our numerical presence," he said.
He said Irish culture had drifted from being that of an enlarged faith community into a heavily secularised one.
"For many, faith no longer plays a major role in their lives and they feel that this in no way compromises their ability to be good, honest and caring people. Believers, albeit unknowingly to themselves, often view the reality of faith through a secularised lens of modern media," Dr Martin said.
He recalled the Taoiseach's "important speech in Dublin Castle" during the visit of Pope Francis last August. He underlined Mr Varadkar's stated belief that "that the time has now come for us to build a new relationship between Church and State in Ireland - a new covenant for the 21st Century."
He cited Mr Varadkar's reference to an Ireland "in which religion is no longer at the centre of our society, but in which it still has an important place".
"I do not believe that people have a true sense of the crisis of faith that exists in Ireland"
He said the Taoiseach had noted that "modern Ireland is still a country with faith and spirit and values. Family, community, enterprise, social justice, diversity, openness and internationalism, equality before the law, and individual liberty - these values describe the Republic we aspire to be".
Dr Martin commented: "I believe that these are the values to which believers also aspire and wish to bring their specific contribution in building a future Ireland".
He lamented that, so far, no progress had been made by the Government in developing the Taoiseach's idea of a covenant. But he acknowledged that the demands of addressing the challenges of Brexit had "justifiably taken up the time of politicians". He underlined that the proposed dialogue is important and not just for the interests of churches and government, "but rather for the good of Irish society".
"Such dialogue will involve a change in the attitude of our churches," Archbishop Martin observed.
"I do not believe that people have a true sense of the crisis of faith that exists in Ireland. Yes, there are many residual elements of faith in our society and they are deep-rooted. These elements, however, are weakened with the passage of each generation."
He said the churches had invested in structures of school-based religious education that, despite enormous goodwill, are not producing the results that they set out to achieve.
Describing himself as "a strong proponent of denominational education" he said Catholic education had "a solid track record".
"I see an important future for Catholic education alongside and in dialogue with other vibrant forms of education, including that of minority churches. The real level of parents' interest in Catholic education will be objectively measurable only when they have real choice," he added.
This appears to be a reference to his slow-moving initiative to divest of a significant number of Catholic primary schools in his diocese to facilitate other educational providers.
"We have great teachers in our faith schools," he said cautioning that "the system is also such that teachers who do not share the faith find themselves at times teaching something of which they are not convinced."
"The real level of parents' interest in Catholic education will be objectively measurable only when they have real choice"
"There are fundamental fault-lines within the current structure for Catholic schools that are not being addressed and unattended fault-lines inevitably generate destructive energies," Dr Martin warned.
He said a major challenge for the future of the Catholic Church lies in the area of women's issues and questions of sexual morality, where the Church's teaching is either not understood or is simply rejected as out of tune with contemporary culture.
"The manner in which the moral teaching of the Church is presented to believers is far too often not adequately situated within the overall context of the teaching of Jesus, which is both compassionate and demanding," he commented.
He said the Catholic Church must take a critical look at the dominant role it assumed in Irish society, while at the same time not renouncing what he called its prophetic role here.
"We need to take a radical new look at the formation of future priests. A culture of clericalism is hard to eliminate. It did not come out of nowhere and so we have to address its roots in seminary training. There is no way we can put off decisions regarding the future," he warned.
He said the term "synodality" is a buzzword for the kind of leadership required in the Catholic Church here and that it must represent its various charisms - or gifts - be they lay, clerical and religious, or present among its women and men, its young and old believers.
"We need to take a radical new look at the formation of future priests"
"We all agree on this, but nothing seems to happen," he lamented. "The alienation of so many women only increases."
He said bishops play a vital role in the Catholic tradition. But he recalled that an Apostolic Visitation of the Irish dioceses ordered by Pope Benedict had frozen the renewal of the Irish Church for some years, while it waited years for the results of the Vatican-led inspection which "were disappointing" despite good intentions.
"A number of dioceses were left vacant (without bishops) for years. Some of the ideas of the visitation were then put back into the freezer, such as a reduction and rationalisation in the number of dioceses. I believe that this is still necessary, as is the revision of the arcane workings of the Irish Episcopal Conference," Archbishop Martin said.
Turning to the clerical child abuse scandals, the archbishop said the church here "is coming out of one of the most difficult moments in its history" and that "the light at the end of the tunnel is still a long way off".
He said it "will have to live with the fruits of its actions and is inaction and with the grief of its past, which can and should never be forgotten or overlooked. There is no simple way of wiping the slate of the past clean, just to ease our feelings. Yet the Catholic Church in Ireland cannot be imprisoned in its past," he warned.
"In my years as Archbishop," he continued, "I have learned enormously from survivors of abuse as they allowed me to know something of their pain and of their hopes and also of the spiritual void which many experience as a result of betrayal by their Church.
In my encounters with survivors, however, I have found their spiritual fragility somehow has given them in fact a deep spiritual strength, from which I have profited. For that, I thank them.
"My hope is that the future of the Church in Ireland will be one where we truly learn from the arrogance of our past and find anew a fragility which will allow the mercy and the compassion of Jesus to give us a change of heart and allow others through a very different Church to encounter something of that compassion and faith for their lives."
He said he was delighted to be speaking in St Michael's Church of Ireland in Limerick as part of its 175th anniversary celebrations.
He said his Church of Ireland contemporaries in the See of Dublin, John Neill and the current incumbent, Michael Jackson, had been "a true support" at "moments of real difficulties for me personally".
"We are very much at home in each other's cathedrals. We are seen together on the streets of Dublin," he added. But on the ecumenical front - the process of bringing Christian churches towards unity – he said they "had to ask where differences between the two denominations might be becoming more acute".
He singled out what he called "the different estimation of certain moral questions and a difference between our church traditions on how we speak or cannot speak on social morality".
Calling for a more assertive theological dialogue on the areas that still divide them, he called for both churches' theological institutions to do more research and reflection together and expressed his happiness with relatively recent developments at Dublin City University, "where both Catholic and Church of Ireland student teachers are trained in a common faculty of education while being rooted in their own traditions".
He urged the two churches to co-operate in discovering new ways of reaching out to young people and of helping them develop a strong faith that can be authentically lived out in a more pluralist Ireland.
He highlighted what he called "interesting ecumenical initiatives within many of our universities", some of which were strongly devotional.
"Strong rooting in prayer and scripture are important," Archbishop Martin said, "but they should not produce young believers who use devotion to opt out of commitment within society."