A middle-class Church would not be a broad one

Compared to our English neighbours, Ireland is mercifully free of class distinctions separating nobles from commoners.

That does not mean that social class is not a dividing feature of life here however, and nor does it mean that the Church is immune to class cleavages.

In 2020, the former Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin warned of the prospect of a “middle-class church” developing, and while detailed statistical breakdowns are not easily accessible, observers in Dublin and elsewhere have long noticed that working-class parishes have Mass attendance rates far below those seen in more affluent parishes.

As is often the case, America is ahead of the curve when it comes to both social changes and intelligent sociological analysis.

There is overwhelming evidence in the US that the most disadvantaged segments of society are also the least religious.

In 2012, in his profound work, ‘Coming Apart,’ Charles Murray made clear that while Americans had become more irreligious in general, a new gap had developed due to the fact that church attendance in poorer communities had declined far more sharply.

Murray linked this to the widening divide in social capital between rich and poor communities, along with the lifestyle divide which means that people in disadvantaged cohorts have more frequent instances of family breakdown, lower marriage rates and so on.

Charles Murray has been sounding the alarm about the collapse of community in America for many years

Three years later, the ‘Bowling Alone’ author Robert Putnam addressed similar topics in ‘Our Kids.’

“Religious engagement has traditionally been less class-biased than virtually any other sort of community or extracurricular activity. Nowadays, however, poor families are generally less involved in religious communities than affluent families and this class gap, too, is growing…If you listen carefully, hymns in American houses of worship are increasingly sung in upper-class accents,” Putnam wrote.

Charles Murray and Robert Putnam are arguably the two most distinguished social scientists in America: with Murray being on the libertarian Right and Putnam being more associated with the statist Left.

Political views aside, they are united in highlighting the precipitous decline in churchgoing among America’s lower-class, while also being in wholehearted agreement about the adverse effects of this when it comes to the weakening of family and community.

In spite of the same societal breakdown being evident in Ireland’s more disadvantaged communities, there has been little close analysis thus far about the implications for Church and society alike.

Priests, brothers and nuns continue to carry out crucial charitable work and community activism every day, and especially heroic figures like the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in Limerick or Brother Kevin Crowley are rightly acknowledged for their moral example.

Yet Ireland is secularising fast, and there will be fewer clergy to do this in future. Parish-based activities and the work of Catholic organisations will continue to be important, but a more unchurched populace may be even harder to reach.

The temptation of more economically advantaged Catholics to retreat inwards should be resisted, as even a smaller Church can play a role in helping to create a more just society.

America’s dysfunctional society is not an example to follow, but it is one to learn from, particularly one new and interesting project in Ohio.

Along with religious formation, the Catholic College of St. Joseph the Worker set to open soon will provide education in areas such as carpentry and electrical work. As with other forms of vocational education, it promises to be more affordable than traditional college, and it will offer students more practical work experience too.

Those behind the new project explain what they aim to achieve

The advantages of this kind of education and career are manifold, not least in terms of opening doors to a way of earning a living which does not depend on subservience to major corporations in thrall to a Woke social agenda: indeed, Rod Dreher highlighted the importance of believing Christians rediscovering the trades in ‘The Benedict Option.’

Faced with an overcrowded and underfunded third-level sector, the Irish Government has been rapidly expanding apprenticeship opportunities in recent times, but as of yet, there is nothing akin to the planned Ohio school in place here.

Establishing a new Catholic educational sector may appear paradoxical at a time when the Church is trying to divest control from many schools.

Yet a Catholic vocational school (or better yet, a Catholic vocational sector) which would likely cater mostly to people from working-class backgrounds, could be a worthy addition to the Catholic education.

It would also be an important resource for young learners and a major tool for bringing together those who should not be separated in the pews, or anywhere else.

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