The Brandsma Review

Pro Vita, pro Ecclesia Dei et pro Hibernia – A journal of conservative Catholic opinion from Ireland

Issue 134, September-October 2014


BECAUSE OF FAMILY REASONS, I get to visit my country of birth rather regularly these days.  Having resided here for more than twenty years, Ireland is very much home now, but I have, of course, kept an interest in my country of birth, namely Flanders, the northern part of Belgium. I do not like saying that I am “Belgian”, for there is no such thing as a “Belgian identity”; the country is an artificial nineteenth century conglomerate of Flemish (Dutch-speaking) and Walloons (French-speaking), with Brussels, the capital, officially bi-lingual but in reality overwhelmingly French-speaking. As a deeply detraditionalised country without its own identity it is only the Belgian football team which gives a sense of cohesion to a country riddled with deep socio-economic, political, linguistic, and cultural divisions between North and South. Flanders, now numbering six million people, used to be a deeply Catholic region, whereas the Walloons (four million) traditionally had a stronger socialist tradition. In the last forty years or so, however, Flanders too has become deeply secularised. Church attendance is at an all-time low–well below 5%–whereas fifty years ago it would have been at levels still currently enjoyed in Ireland.

Supreme indifference

The most disconcerting development is the disappearance of the Catholic voice from the public sphere. The Christian presence has become so marginalised that it does not even evoke hot-tempered opposition from quaint atheists of the old school.  Rather, a lukewarm indifference reigns supreme. This absence was particularly noticeable during the public debates—insofar as they took place at all—regarding the introduction of euthanasia for minors. Indeed, it is ironic that only one major political party genuinely opposed this law: the Flemish Interest Party (Vlaams Belang), a party that aims for independence of Flanders, and is shunned by the political establishment as “extreme right” or even “neo-fascist”. The Christian Democratic party opposed the law as well, but this was a rather hypocritical political manoeuvre; after all, they were in government, and were therefore in a position to veto the introduction of the law at government level.

It is fair to say that more discussion about this controversial law took place in English papers than in Belgian media. There was almost consternation that foreign media took an interest, and generally reported negatively. (I witnessed one TV interview in which a journalist asked a minister whether the law might perhaps negatively impact on the profile of Belgium abroad, and thereby perhaps have adverse implications for trade relations. The minister set the viewers at ease by explaining that foreign countries would eventually see the wisdom of the new law, if properly informed of its merits.)

As indicated, Belgium is a country without identity, which has become utterly estranged from its Christian past. This has led to the introduction of abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage—the second country in the world to do so—and now euthanasia for minors with almost universal support. I found it both revealing and worrying that the Rector of the Catholic University of Leuven, Rik Torfs, came out in favour of the law as well. The religious leaders of the three monotheistic faiths wrote an Open Letter in which they denounced the trivialisation of life and death the new law promoted, but this brave initiative received only scant attention in the media.

A silent Catholic university

How has this indifference towards the Catholic tradition come about? And more importantly, how can we avoid a “Belgian” scenario in Ireland? How can we avoid a similar detraditionalisation and growing indifference to Catholicism?

First of all, I think we need to nurture a Catholic intelligentsia, who are willing to voice their Christian views in the public sphere and in other positions of influence. Even a handful of people can make a real difference, as the example of John Waters, David Quinn, Ronan Mullen, amongst others, has shown in an Irish context. The absence from public discourse in Flanders of people like those mentioned is reflected in the “cosy consensus” on major societal issues (abortion, euthanasia, etc). Ideally, the Christian voice should have its own forum (a Catholic daily, on-line perhaps). In relation to third-level, the Catholic University of Leuven, and its Faculty of Theology in particular, has been conspicuous in its absence from participation in public debates in Flanders. In Ireland we cannot afford to make the same mistake. In general, the institutional Church in Ireland needs to take a real interest in the theological development of lay-people. Academics and bishops need to work together and support each other. At present, this is simply not happening: bishops are at times, it seems to me, reluctant to engage with the world of academia, and academics have an entrenched and at times perhaps understandable scepticism about alleged “interference” from the institutional Church. Nonetheless, financial support for theological departments that see themselves at the service of the Church, as well as the academic world, is much needed (e.g., scholarships for students, development of programmes geared towards educating people to occupy leading roles in parishes and schools…).

Secondly, we need to challenge the relegation of faith from the public sphere and the world of politics.  (Enda Kenny has the dubious honour of having expressed the quintessence of a secular Prime Minister: “I am a Taoiseach who happens to be Catholic, not a Catholic Taoiseach.”) Nobody, however, relates to public issues in a “neutral” manner or without presuppositions; anyone who brackets out his Catholic worldview effectively adopts another worldview (i.e., an implicitly secularist one). We therefore need a Christian (not merely Catholic) political party that can prove a thorn in the side of traditional parties that increasingly alienate those voters who still cherish the values of “traditional” Ireland. The debacle of the introduction of the abortion on the grounds of “suicidal ideation” would not have occurred, had there been a Christian pressure party in the Dáil.  Indeed, at a time when frustration with the traditional parties is at an all-time high, there has never been a better opportunity to attract voters to an intelligent, alternative, independent party, inspired by a Christian vision. Sadly, it does not seem to be happening.

Thirdly, we need to take a stand on the integrity of our Catholic schools. In Flanders the only way inwhich the Faith is being transmitted (no matter how poorly or thinly) is via the school, for it no longer occurs through the family. It is fair to say that the Catholic school is an essential part of maintaining a flourishing faith in society, but not a sufficient one. Indeed, half the number of school-going children attend nominally Catholic schools. Of course, students are exposed to a “Catholic-lite” variety of education, a mere cultural Catholicism which has understood itself mainly in terms of civic values. In an Irish context, then, it is of paramount importance to resist the policy of Ruairí Quinn who would like to divest fifty percent of Catholic schools, despite the fact that the majority of parents in almost all schools surveyed are quite happy with present patronage arrangements. As indicated, this will not suffice; Catholic schools on their own cannot offer sufficient protection against the eroding effect of detraditionalisation and indifference towards organised religion. Even so, the onus is on patrons to take their role seriously in safeguarding the Christian identity of their schools and colleges. Again, anecdotal evidence suggests this is very much a hit-and-miss affair, and depends almost entirely on the ethos of the individual principal of the school. Similarly, at third level it is probably fair to say that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has proved himself equally ineffectual in safeguarding the Catholic ethos of Mater Dei and St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra during negotiations which have led to their integration into DCU.

Authentic witness

Fourthly, we need to witness in a more authentic manner as Christians. We need to shed our timidity, and dare to proclaim with confidence our story. In our schools we need to expose our children to a living witness of the Christian faith. The Religious Education programme is in need of radical revision, and should be more content-driven, Scripture-based, and Christocentric. (Thankfully, steps are being undertaken at present to abolish the Alive-O programme, and introduce a more solid course). In our parishes, priests need to welcome and encourage more lay-involvement, thereby perhaps freeing themfrom some of their more managerial tasks in the parish, allowing them to nurture their specific liturgical role. Is it not unforgivable that all too often Sunday Mass is a dreary affair, a mere going through the motions? How often do the faithful have to suffer a poor liturgy and an indifferent service, with priests who did not even bother to prepare a proper sermon?

In short, we will need a not-so-quiet revolution to stem the tide of indifference and increasing alienation. It will require the collaboration of all the faithful, religious and lay. If we are merely pursuing the path of routine, and do not dare to allow ourselves to be challenged by the Gospel, or if we are too fainthearted to witness to others, the frightening words of the Book of Revelation (3: 15) may prove disturbingly applicable to the Irish Church: “I know all about you: how you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were one or the other, but since you are neither, but only lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove is a lecturer in theology in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.


In the same issue:


The Media Two-Step and the Latest Abortion Heave
Why I am Staying with the SVP Despite the Scandal
Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove
Dr Éanna Johnson
Dr Patrick Maume
Joe Aston
Rev Dr David Jones
Rev Dáithí Ó Murchú CC
Peadar Laighléis

From the Editor’s Desk, ‘My apologies’ and ‘Could this happen here?’; Hibernia Hibernici on ‘Fr Flannery’s Website’; and Hurling Shots comments on ‘A Raw Nerve’ and ‘Golden Opportunity’.



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