Necessary illusions

Since the mid 1950’s there had been a gradual increase in the numbers dropping out from seminaries and novitiates, but despite this the annual number of ordinations and professions continued to increase because of the very high number of entries. Within the past few years, however, the entries have dropped while the dropout rates continues to grow.

The text above is from the opening chapter of a report I came across at work recently. It outlines the numbers of priests, nuns and brothers in Ireland, home and abroad. I hope to make a scanned copy available later. At the conclusion of the report, the authors frame the question as not why vocations are in decline but why they were ever so high. It was published in 1971.

In the intervening 40 or so years, not much has changed and the question has certainly not lost its currency, for those interested in the Catholic Church in Ireland that is. I get about 6 or 7 requests every year from researchers and journalists wanting to know the latest tally of ‘total Church personnel’. Not a strange question for this job but one has to ask when this kind of information becomes irrelevant. Irrelevant not in the sense that “we’re all” post-Catholic, secularised and spend Sunday mornings on Hollyoaks’ omnibus but organizationally relevant.

38 year old document, with dust blown off it.
38 year old document, with dust blown off it.

So you go and count all of the ordained and professed people working in the Church, you tabulate the spreadsheets and make the data available. And….then… put it all to one side and put your head in your hands and measure success by how few Leaving Certificate boys want to study for the priesthood. There’s a certain courage in the document when it acknowledges that Irish society has changed and that young men and women see opportunity (their ‘vocation’?) in agricultural science, teaching and nursing and not the ordained life. You know, the kind of change that is hegemonically  termed Whittaker-change.

I am still going through Jose Casanova’s Public Religions in the Modern World and his institutional analysis of Catholicism in Brazil, Poland and Spain is fascinating, if only for the fact that I cannot seem to find a similar analysis of the Church in Ireland. JH Whyte doesn’t do it: it’s all ‘big man’ history where Noel Browne fights the Bishop and Parnell is king of the 19th century. FX Martin doesn’t do it, principally because his work  has a longer time frame. Laurence Taylor does not do it because it’s an anthropological study. Is there any scholar doing an institutional analysis of the Church’s role in Irish public and political life that could pen these words in Ireland’s case?

When the roots of backwardness are found in colonial or imperial oppression, the impulse for liberation becomes even stronger. If one adds the guilt of sense of responsibility that derives from viewing oneself as a privilieged inteelectual of a church which for so long aided in the oppression, then the personal determinants impelling individuals to assume prophetic roles or to become organic intellectuals of the oppressed fall easily into place. (p.124)

And this is about Brazil, not Ireland. Taking the numbers into account is one thing but not acting on their meaning and very real organisational implications is something entirely different.


2 thoughts on “Necessary illusions

  1. Thanks Kevin, will try. A colleague just told me about the NRM conference next weekend. I might link up with you there?

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