For decades, the central narrative around Irish Catholicism has focused on decline: falling Mass attendance, collapsed vocations and diminishing attachment to the institution.
Discussions about the recent Census included the now-standard appeals by activists for people not to declare themselves Catholic, and Census 2022 will surely show another sharp decline from the 78% who identified as Catholic in 2016.
What is more remarkable than the change unfolding is the reluctance of many to consider seriously what this means for the physical infrastructure of Ireland’s Catholic Church.
Instead of discussing what changes are necessary, and managing this process in a manner that paves the way for renewal, the Church has too often been reactive or passive in the face of flashpoint disputes like that relating to the ownership of the National Maternity Hospital.
By not planning for what physical and organisational infrastructure is actually useful for fulfilling the Church’s mission, this policy of inertia is exacerbating the discrepancy between the Church’s actual role in Irish life and the abundance of bricks-and-mortar which has been bequeathed to it. This creates a risk that this physical infrastructure will become a millstone around our necks.
The Ireland which existed a half-century ago was almost uniformly Catholic, with clergy and religious orders providing education, healthcare and social services which the impoverished State could not provide, or did not want to.
A country like this could easily sustain an enormous number of churches – more than 2,600 of them spread across more than 1,300 parishes nationwide. Added to that are the various other properties owned by dioceses or orders.
To see any church closed is sad, but the reality of secularisation makes this number of church buildings unnecessary, particularly given the cost of keeping them open.
While many churches are protected structures, the sale of more recently-constructed buildings could generate much-needed revenue.
One example of how this can work was the demolition of a 3,500-capacity church in Finglas, and its planned replacement with a more modest-sized church – although it could be asked whether this new building was really necessary.
Similar decisions are indeed being taken in some areas, as shown by the Archdiocese of Dublin selling 20 acres of land to the GAA for €95m.
More of this is needed and possible across all dioceses, and the Archdiocese of Dublin is entirely correct to seek rezoning of church sites which would maximise their social value while providing the financial resources to support the Church’s work across all areas: from providing for an ageing clergy to funding effective youth evangelisation.
Church control of education in a secularising Ireland is a bone of contention, and even though a large majority of parents support the Church having a role in this area, maintaining a system where 90% of primary schools are Catholic is hardly tenable.
A mass handover of schools to a hostile State would not be wise or just. Although demanding market value for the sale of many school properties is tempting, such a policy would exacerbate anti-Catholic prejudice in a country where mainstream political figures already call for the theft of Church property.
Long-term agreements ensuring that the Church gains rental income from properties being transferred to other patrons is a far better option, and this policy should be expanded.
Similarly, in the health sector, when it is guaranteed that the new National Maternity Hospital will provide abortions, it would be far better for the Sisters of Charity to sell the site to the State, and invest those resources in Catholic healthcare in other parts of the world.
Moreover, just as some buildings and land needs to be disposed of, Church leaders would do well to consider what parts of the nominally Catholic NGO sector should be retained.
Hard questions need to be asked about whether groups like St. Vincent de Paul – which owes its existence to the Church, utilises church buildings and targets practising Catholics in their fundraising while undermining Church teaching on the right to life – should be allowed to retain their privileged position.
Considering all these issues properly will put Catholics in the best possible position to continue to play a vital role in Ireland’s future, not as a shadow welfare state in perpetual decline, but as a “creative minority” which Pope Benedict XVI has spoken about.
In order to get there, smart decisions will need to be made about what the modern Irish Church can do and what it cannot, and about what is really essential and what is not.