The Best Catholics in the World

‘When Irish people celebrate the breaking of bread today, it is more likely to be sourdough and produced by tattooed hipsters in faux artisanal bakeries than silent nuns in convents. Passion is the word used to sell Ireland’s new holy water – coffee’.

In this blog post, I’ll be taking a look at a book that has just been published, and turned out to be a interesting read – The Best Catholics in the World (2021) by Derek Scally. Scally is originally from Dublin, and is now a journalist with the Irish Times based in Berlin. This work examines the complicated Irish relationship with Catholicism down through the centuries, assessing how and why the once all powerful Catholic Church fell from grace in this country, and what we can learn from its demise. One thing I can say about the author already however….he’s a great man for academic expressions…..ethical witness, a broad spectrum of knowing, walking the perimeter of suffering, the compass of shame, spectrum of denial, rehumanisation of the other….there’s quite a few. And what the hell is a psychogram?

The Best Catholics in the World: The Irish, the Church and the End of a  Special Relationship: Scally, Derek: 9781844885268: Books

From the start of this work, Scally describes himself as a ‘grappling Catholic’ and attempts to understand his own upbringing in Dublin in an attempt to confront the darker aspects of Ireland’s Catholic past. He wonders aloud if these were characteristically Catholic or Irish – ‘many of the toxic elements I remember were as much Irish as Catholic’. He repeatedly states that he’s not looking to apportion blame to anyone, just to try and understand our past for all our sakes. There is ‘no substitute for revisiting the past collectively, to explore how the pain and shame experienced then lingers on in us today…..the past is a process worked through in the present, probed and tested by each new generation’. That’s a sentiment that a history nerd can certainly get on board with.

Scally begins his story by looking at his hometown in Dublin. In the mid 1990s, a priest who had served in the author’s parish Edenmore when Scally was growing up was convicted of indecent assault of children. The author delivers a withering assessment of the reaction of the Catholic Church in Ireland to this revelation – ‘Archbishop Diarmuid Martin tells me he once visited (Edenmore), much later, and delivered a homily. Perhaps it helped. He seems to think so. Honouring the archdiocese’s broken promise to (abuse victim) Marie Collins – of therapists and other assistance – would have been better’. No organised religion is ever too keen to part with the cash.

God I love saying mass. - Imgur

‘Every society, and every generation, uses and abuses history for its own ends’.

Scally also analyses the Irish sense of victimhood – what he calls MOPE (Most Oppressed People Ever), a term recently attributed to Maynooth University’s Liam Kennedy. This is an opinion in some quarters that Irish history and suffering was and is unique and unprecedented throughout the world, and in modern times has led some to compare the Great Famine of the 19th century to the Holocaust and forced Irish migrations to black slavery. This the author believed is an idea that has been around for a long time, and it tied in to a simplistic narrative of Good Catholics and Evil Protestants that many Irish would have carried with them, particularly following the Famine. Scally further asserts that this Irish Catholic narrative of victimhood, with the priests supposedly at the forefront of every struggle, allowed the Church to take control of Irish society following independence without much push-back.

Christy Ring in his own words: 'I realised I was on an even par with my  schoolboy hero when I was 20'

Scally also highlights an issue that should be common knowledge to many in this county but doesn’t seem to be……that being Catholic does not necessarily mean the Irish Catholic experience…..there is more than one version of Catholicism in the world. He describes ‘a monolithic, institutional Irish Catholicism that lost its way in structure and rules and, in the end, was entrapped by its own unforgiving rigidity’. As an example, Scally mentions sacraments such as First Communion and Confirmation, and describes them as ‘these formulaic rituals’ which ‘may be doing more harm than good, blocking off the possibility of young people opening their minds to spirituality’. In other words, Irish Catholicism was more concerned with rules and control rather than spirituality, which left the hierarchy either unable or unwilling to react to abuse scandals in a more humane and compassionate manner.

‘Instead of being sold a package of doctrines and rules that is spoon-fed, Catholicism can be a self-starting approach that, by its nature, encourages a critical engagement with what you are exposing yourself and your children to’.

Reddit Moderators Lately (Not Just /r/Funny) : funny

‘But what about the rest of us, in particular my fortysomething generation? Nearly a quarter of a century later, what is standing in the way of us taking a wider, less emotive look at this painful past?’.

My only issue with this work is that despite Scally’s claim that he doesn’t wish to apportion blame, there are segments of this work where the author seems to adopt a somewhat judgemental tone – ‘everyone is somewhere on the compass of shame’. In other words, he is saying that all Irish society and all Irish people need to accept at least some level of responsibility for the sexual and physical abuse suffered by children at the hands of the Catholic Church and their institutions throughout the 20th century……and into the 21st. Furthermore, he seems to assert that Irish society was/is somehow different, and this abuse could only have happened here in our ‘culture of silence’. As if only Ireland tries to hide scandal! But this to me seems patently wrong, given that there’s been clerical sex abuse scandals throughout the world in both Catholic and non-Catholic countries. And while many people of my generation (and others) are understandably appalled by what some members of the Church have done in this country, it’s not the same as feeling responsible or even ashamed of it… many cases we were not even born or were at most very young when these events occurred.

Overall however, this is a very interesting and worthwhile read, and makes one think about how these abuses were allowed to occur and what can be done to prevent them happening again…..which is the author’s aim I believe. And it does seem sad, as the author highlights, that today’s disrespectful attitude to priests is as bad and as prevalent as the overly deferential one of the past. For many religious people, they have been able to separate the bad that the Church has done from the good, and there has been a lot of good, and they are still sustained by a strong faith. In their eyes, there is a difference between one’s own faith and the institution of the Catholic Church. Ultimately however, while I am no fan of organised religion (you kept that quiet), I think that if the Irish Catholic Church is to survive in the long term, it needs to become more open and compassionate… needs to be less about rules and control and more about humanity and spirituality. Spare us the made up rules whereby you can only have ham sandwiches on the third Sunday of every leap year or you can’t do it doggy style on a Tuesday, and focus more on Christian values such as hope, peace and charity. Personally I believe pubs should be our new places of worship……after all isn’t God supposed to be everywhere?

Spirituality vs Religion: What's the Difference? | Live and Dare

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