June 8, 2018


Catholicism and the Irish

Poor Ireland. It’s not the country it used to be.

Once described as “the most Catholic country in the world”—by Blessed Pope Paul VI, no less—today it has become as secular as the rest of Europe.

The latest example is the referendum on May 25 in which the Irish people voted to repeal Ireland’s constitutional legal protection of unborn life, as we reported on the front page of our June 1 issue. Voters opted to remove the right to life of the unborn from the country’s constitution, paving the way for abortion on demand through the first 12 weeks of an unborn child’s life. With 2.1 million votes cast, 66.4 percent supported the repeal of the ban. That’s pretty overwhelming.

Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s prime minister, tweeted, “What we’ve seen today is the culmination of a quiet revolution that’s been taking place in Ireland over the last 20 years.” That revolution has been against the Catholic Church. Sadly the Church is pretty irrelevant in Ireland these days.

The Catholic Church in the United States has historically owed a lot to the Irish. Some of our greatest leaders were immigrants from Ireland, especially Bishop John England of Charleston, S.C., Archbishop John Hughes of New York, and Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minn.

Bishop England had a reputation for defending the rights of the Irish in Ireland against the British before he was made the first Bishop of Charleston in 1820, and sent to a part of the United States where Catholics were hated. He is most noted for a two-hour talk he gave to the U.S. Congress, with President John Quincy Adams in attendance, in 1826. He answered the question, “Can a good Roman Catholic be a loyal American citizen?” in a powerful speech.

Archbishop John Hughes represented the United States when President Abraham Lincoln sent him to France to meet with Emperor Napoleon III to convince France to remain neutral during the American Civil War. The man responsible for the building of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, he also once spoke before a joint session of the U.S. Congress.

Archbishop John Ireland was the most outspoken American Catholic prelate in our history. A Medal of Honor winner as a chaplain during the Civil War, he worked closely with Cardinal James Gibbons in numerous events to promote Catholicism during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

Cardinal Gibbons, perhaps the greatest prelate in U.S. history, was not born in Ireland, but he lived there from the age of 3 until he was 19. He was Archbishop of Baltimore from 1877 until his death in 1921.

The greatest immigration of Irish to the U.S. occurred during and after the Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840s. Almost all of the migrants were Catholics, and many of them became priests, and then bishops. At the start of the 20th century, 62 percent of American bishops were Irish-Americans, more than half of whom were Irish-born. In the 1940s and 1950s, 80 percent of the priests in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles were Irish-born.

So it’s clear that the Catholic Church in the United States has been greatly influenced by the Irish. In Indiana, French and German Catholics have perhaps been more numerous, but the Irish have been influential.

Ireland was once known for supplying missionaries all over the world, including in the United States. However, during the past 20 years or so, priestly vocations in Ireland have dried up and Ireland has become mission country.

There are still Catholics in Ireland who practice their faith, attending Mass at least weekly. But even among them, exit polls discovered that 16 percent voted to repeal the ban on abortion. Most people in Ireland consider themselves Catholic, but don’t really practice the faith. And there are those who are actively anti-Catholic.

It’s sad that this has happened in Ireland. But doesn’t the same thing exist now in the United States? Studies show that more Catholics are leaving the Church than are coming in, and we are retaining our membership only because of immigration. And we have the same three categories of Catholics in the United States as they do in Ireland: devout Catholics, cultural Catholics and anti-Catholics. In both countries, too, it appears to be mainly the young people who are leaving.

The Church must find a way to combat the secularism that seems to be winning the battle.

—John F. Fink

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