The Best Catholics in the World

by Derek Scally Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.


The author states that he has very mixed feelings towards the Irish Catholic Church, but he is no longer angry with it. That has taken a while, too. It is as it is, in seemingly terminal decline, and he has the luxury, living in Berlin, of not being exposed to it every day. He didn’t have to get children baptized just to get them into a local school. Away from the daily reality of life in Ireland, and its Church, he is what you would call a grappling Catholic: unsure of church doctrine and uneasy about its effect on my life, yet bet able now to appreciate the beauty, and see how many of the toxic elements He remembers were as much Irish as Catholic. The years in Germany, where systems are imposed and must be obeyed regardless of need or common sense, have left their mark. In contrast, Ireland likes to devise systems and rules that are rarely enforced, or so flowed they are abandoned when the collective embarrassment or chaos outweighs the collective value.


These deep deposits of common sense and pragmatism in our national DNA didn’t prevent the Catholic Church from being able to dominate this land completely and absolutely for most of the twentieth century. Why, I wonder, did we, as a nation, let it? How did the Church establish and consolidate power with its rules and systems? Were we browbeaten into obedience, in all places, at all times, as a modern narrative goes? Or did we accommodate ourselves with it because, often it suited us? Was our unquestioning difference to the bishop a Catholic thing or a part of our inherited colonial difference to power? Even in the modern age, by which time humans had learned to split the atom and splice DNA, why was it impossible for so long to separate the Catholic and Irish elements of our identity?


The author met a shop-owner acquaintance who stayed as far away from Pope Francis as he did from his Polish predecessor. However, unlike in 1979, when strangers came in to berate him for keeping his shop open, business was brisk during the 2018 Mass. “I wonder’ he says, laughing, ‘how many of those who went along in 1979 are acting as moral arbiters of those who choose to go now? The second ever visit of a Pope to Ireland has none of the significance of the first. Pope John Paul II’s visit was staged as a triumphalist celebration of Irish spiritual exceptionalism. This visit is turning out to be more of an attestation of Irish spiritual indifference. Apart from those who have bothered to get out and protest, that is, those angry about the Church’s abuse legacy its treatment of women and the World Meeting of Families organizers’ views of family that, in their eyes, excludes those who identify as LBBTI. Still many Irish Catholics have embraced the five-day WMOF event as a chance to take stock and meet like-minded people in what many find an increasingly hostile atmosphere. ‘Practicing Catholics in Ireland are a minority now’ says a woman from Mayo sitting between the author and her nodding husband. There are prayers, more songs and videos of traditional families discussing Catholic faith in their lives. But the final, loudest cheers of the evening is for a stirring performance of Riverdance. And exactly a year after the Riverdance spectacle, in April 1995, Andrew Madden became the first victim of clerical child sexual abuse to go public in Ireland. Neither Ireland nor the Catholic Church were ever the same again.


Catholic Ireland shaped us as a people more than we will ever know. In the last twenty-five rancorous years of scandals pursuing overdue justice for victims and survivors of abusive clerics and religious there hs been little time or capacity to reflect on the trauma that remains. Two decades living in Germany has given me distance and an idea. I wonder if it would be possible to apply to our Irish Catholic story some principles of the process of coming to terms with the past? The basic rule underlying that tongue-twister of a word was learned the hard way by Germany in the last century: you cannot be blamed for a past beyond your reach, but that does not absolve you of responsibility to try and understand it either.