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The end of ‘Christian Ireland’

19 November 2021

Crawford Gribben plots the shift towards an increasingly post-Christian nation


FAILURE has not only marked modern Catholic social institutions, or efforts at Protestant reformation, of course — it has marked the entire history of Christian Ireland. By definition, it could not be otherwise. “Christian Ireland” was never all that it should have been.

As the French sociologist and historian Jacques Ellul recognised, everything that Jesus said about the future of his disciples assumed that they would remain a “little flock”, while acting as “salt” and “light” in their host societies.

Jesus’s teachings made no provision for the elaboration of Christian culture, and gave no warrant for that culture to co-opt the structures of pagan religion or the strategies of earthly power. Measured by the standards of the Gospels and epistles, the Church was in ruins long before it became the religion of the Roman Empire, or crossed beyond its boundaries into Ireland.

This ruin was caused by distortions and even denials of the gospel, was manifest in the development of architectural forms, sacramental theories, and structures of governance that elevated clergy over laity, and in the turns to persecution that shored up competing quests for power. The source of this failure may be traced to the possibility that culture — rather than scripture — set so much of the Church’s agenda.

Early missionaries aligned the structures of the Church with local and regional kingdoms. The Gregorian reforms of the later medieval period drew the Irish Church to adopt the structures of an empire. The Protestant Reformation replaced one problematic authority structure with another, and moved from an initial indifference to specific theological claims to the persecution of those who would not accept them.

Penal laws impoverished those whose religious opinions would not be forced. In the later 20th century, preaching politicians and politically active priests brought this long tradition to a head. Loyalists gave their lives “for God and Ulster” just as much as Republicans gave theirs “dochum glóire Dé agus onóra na hÉireann” (“for the glory of God and the honour of Ireland”). Again and again, throughout 1500 years of history, the community of believers that Jesus described as being “not of this world” committed themselves to competing struggles for power.


OF COURSE, this history contains inspiring examples of faith and self-sacrifice. Yet in many respects, as discoveries of abuse and violence attest, cultures that were built up in the name of Jesus Christ turned out to be doing the “works of the devil”. For, as William Kelly, the 19th-century County Down biblical scholar, put it, “Christendom fell away . . . into the dream of the Church triumphant.”

What passed as Christian Ireland is finally over — and Christians should be glad; for Christians should not be astonished at this long history of failure, or the horrors to which it has given birth. After all, the letter that Paul wrote to the Celtic Christians in Galatia warned that the gospel would be manipulated as much as it would be denied.

Paul predicted that leaders within the Church would distort the gospel with horrific consequences for everyone who accepted their teaching. Their distortion of the gospel would be marked by a powerful and hypocritical religious moralism, he warned, in which believers would “fall from grace” by attempting to earn their salvation.

Against these dangers, Paul called for Christians to remember that “a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”, who came to “deliver us from the present evil age”, rather than to dominate it.

Paul encouraged the Galatians to look beyond their ethnic and cultural particulars to recognise the identity that their baptism revealed: an identity that transcended earthly differences, in which believers from every background would find themselves “one in Christ”, and set free to serve one other in love. Paul’s letter suggests some new approaches to the history of the Irish Church — and suggests what its prospects might be.

So, what might come next? What should come next? These questions are particularly acute in terms of the Republic, where it is not clear what will replace the Catholic Church as the principal arbiter of morality. Without the guidance of clergy or institutional religion, either pushing for or effectively resisting this broader cultural change, the new moral centre is being constructed by other means.

As elsewhere in the post-Christian West, Ireland’s new moral consensus is proving to be flexible, adaptable, and malleable, an “Overton window” that will move without a fixed centre and far beyond what were once impermissible boundaries. And the boundaries of permissible opinion are moving fast.

Same-sex sexual activity was decriminalised only in 1993 in the Republic, for example, although gay identities continued to be stigmatised — but little more than 25 years later, an openly gay man was serving as taoiseach, and practitioners of “gay conversion therapy” could face up to one year in prison and a very hefty fine. Leo Varadkar may be criticised for many things — but his sexuality is not up for discussion.

As younger people make up an increasing proportion of voters, their hashtags dismantle what remains of the Irish Catholic consensus. As this example suggests, Ireland’s new moral consensus will not likely be constructed by politics or by means of democratic institutions. As elsewhere in the West, as religious organisations retreat from cultural formation, the new moral centre will be shaped by a constantly changing culture.

But political change, like any other change led by majorities, occurs as a consequence of culture and in response to those who shape it, and so the cultural brokers who will determine the moral expectations of post-Christian Ireland will be those who can most effectively disseminate their opinions through media, either by means of editorial control or through buying some form of advertising.

This new hegemony should worry the Churches. Not for nothing does one leading Catholic theologian describe the Irish media as “the most hostile . . . in the developed world”.

And, as elsewhere in the post-Christian West, those who obtain influence over public opinion will be those who are wealthy enough to purchase it. The corruption of Church and State will be replaced by the authority of an unaccountable financial elite, whose preferences become the preferences of the majority, and eventually those of their legislators. In terms of the evolution of ethics, there is everything to play for — and pay for.

This marketisation of ethics represents not so much the liberalisation as the neo-liberalisation of Irish public opinion. In other words, the moral centre that will emerge in post-Christian Ireland will be created not by the hegemony of religious or philosophical organisations, but by the creativity and enterprise of international business with the support of major philanthropic organisations.

In recent referenda, business and philanthropic organisations demonstrated their capacity to make significant and effective political interventions. In the referenda of 2015 and 2018, debates about same-sex marriage and abortion were energised by interventions from ostensibly non-political organisations.

During the abortion referendum, for example, Amnesty International received a donation of €137,000 from George Soros’s organisation, Open Society Foundations, which was ruled illegal by the Standards in Public Office Commission under the terms of the Electoral Act, which prohibits overseas organisations and individuals from making political donations in Ireland — but not before that money had bought some significant public influence.

The “long march through the institutions” that was proposed by an older generation of Marxists has now more or less succeeded, as advocates of various forms of social change have taken up positions of leadership in education, law, and politics, through which their once revolutionary commitments have been normalised in popular culture and have — perhaps unexpectedly — become neo-liberal commodities. The logic of late capitalism means that even criticisms of its system can be bought and sold. Capitalism commodifies even its discontents and turns liberation into a product.

During the referenda, businesses entered the arena of public debate to an unprecedented degree, advocating in favour of constitutional change on the sides of buses and advertising hoardings. And when big business begins to project its social conscience, no other institution can afford to be left behind.

This explains why non-political institutions, including universities, came out publicly in favour of same-sex marriage during the referendum in 2015. Across what might in other circumstances be regarded as a political spectrum, organisations combined to promote progressive causes, disagreeing about the speed but not about the direction of social change, while consolidating the new consensus that public opinion, politics, and law should contribute to the fashioning of a post-national and post-religious future. The referenda agreed new social mores at the same time as they established the means by which those convictions would be shaped.

Of course, after it had enabled over decades the systemic abuse and exploitation of children and vulnerable adults, voters agreed, what passed as Christian Ireland did not deserve to continue to exist. But, if the marketisation of ethics continues, and if public opinion does in fact become a neo-liberal commodity, to be bought and sold by the highest and most influential bidder, it is not clear that any real improvement will have been made.

The revolution will have corporate sponsorship. But it is not clear that the opinion-formers who will create a new social consensus will be any more representative of, or accountable to, the people, than were the religious organisations whose influence they have so effectively replaced, shaping decision-making in the name of progress and freedom.

This is an edited extract from The Rise and Fall of Christian Ireland by Crawford Gribben, published by Oxford University Press, £25 (Church Times Bookshop, £22.50). © Oxford University Press

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