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

by derek scally
penguin sandycove, 352 pages, $25.74

Ireland nowadays seems filled with people who are content to ignore, forget, or step around what’s left of Catholicism, including the actual church buildings themselves. Don’t be fooled by the shaky residual attachment to things like First Holy Communion. As I write, almost uniquely in Europe under COVID, Ireland has made offering or attending Mass a criminal offense. Even outdoor confession is illegal. This is the true measure of how things stand. 

Nevertheless, some in the opinion-forming classes and on social media continue (to borrow a phrase from Niall Gooch) to run bombing missions over the rubble of Catholic Ireland. The thrill seems to come in finding new warheads: a 2019 article in the nation’s newspaper of record, the Irish Times, deployed Maura Higgins, a young woman from County Longford who had shot to fame as a contestant on the British television series Love Island—in part thanks to a frankness about her sex life that stood out even in a show predicated on exhibitionism—and whose stock with the English tabloids continues to run high. The Times writer, an expert in mindfulness, heaped praise on Higgins for “pulverising into dust” Catholic stereotypes of Irish womanhood.

Derek Scally, though, is more of a comber and sifter of the rubble than a bomber. In The Best Catholics in the World he tries to work out how the Church assumed and then lost its icy grip on the nation; how monstrous deeds were carried out by those meant, literally, to be on the side of the angels; and how the balance of losses-and-gains now stands for post-Catholic Ireland.

Scally doesn’t pretend to be a completely neutral observer—he seems ultimately to be yearning for a Catholicism that resembles the more liberal varieties of contemporary Protestantism. But despite a few lapses—he seems content to leave all of the nuns who ran the Magdalene laundries sealed off under a blanket reputation for sadism—his desire to be impartial and fair serves this thoughtful and thought-provoking book well. It even allows him to pause now and then to acknowledge an “unwritten history” of priests and nuns who were “kind, patient and selfless.” On a train carrying massgoers toward the Phoenix Park on the occasion of Pope Francis’s visit in 2018, he is caught off guard by the atmosphere, softer than anything to be found on the streets of Dublin now and redolent of his childhood. And, late on, he offers a short but panoramic account of the best of Irish Catholicism that stretches beyond the kindness of individuals here and there and recognizes social and civilizational achievement.

As it happens, Derek Scally and I both grew up in 1970s and 1980s Ireland. It was a place that sooner or later was going to fall into step with both the onward march of Western secularism and the hasty, stumbling retreat of traditional religion. The Best Catholics offers an excellent primer on the confusions and inconsistencies of Ireland before everything imploded, and especially the flimsiness of what was on offer in its schools. An elderly woman who still sells Catholic newspapers and magazines at the back of her local church tells Scally: “People were looking for the opportunity to put their coats on and go.” 

Scally goes on to burrow into some of the most notorious scandals, abuses, and cover-ups that triggered the implosion. He shows how victims, before they were abandoned to their anguish, were first rendered helpless and voiceless as the power of the few coalesced with the docility of the many. And he widens the lens away from just victims, perpetrators, and complicit superiors to those one might call the bystanders—everybody else, more or less. Scally’s reflections on the shifting burdens of shame and guilt are subtle and persistent. He speculates on whether habits of deferring to authority, or looking the other way, or avoiding too much fuss, are still at large in post-Catholic Ireland, in how the legacy of old scandals and the eruption of new ones are handled.

On one level, The Best Catholics is an outworking of some of the dysfunctions listed in Benedict XVI’s 2010 pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland; namely,

inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life; insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation in seminaries and novitiates; a tendency in society to favour the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal, resulting in failure to apply existing canonical penalties and to safeguard the dignity of every person.

(This same letter infuriated Scally, by the way. He thought it evaded the Holy See’s own responsibility.)

Casting a cold eye over the deeper past, Scally provides an excellent analysis of the ways in which Ireland’s calamitous nineteenth century provided the impetus for Church and people to embrace a form of moral perfectionism: it seemed the country’s best stay against returning to the abyss. A new Catholic Ireland, emancipated but highly disciplined, in possession of both the land and a watertight moral code, would never again succumb to squalor.  

I finished this chapter confirmed in things I have long believed. The Irish Church provided a precious gateway to the transcendent. However, it often enforced a severe price of entry in terms of behavior and compliance—a price that many could not or would not pay, and that others only pretended to (itself a recipe for all kinds of nasty pathologies). Irish Catholicism was unable to find its way to being both orthodox and humane, both popular and intellectual; to both engaging and withstanding modernity. 

There is much in this book that could only have happened under Irish skies. Equally, however, there is something about the country’s position—geographical, historical, cultural—that can make it feel more unique than it truly is. In England, for instance, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has been turning up a sorry trail of horrors and cover-ups. In institutions that were entirely secular, with not a priest or nun in sight, countless abusers assumed the cloak of one or other caring profession and wreaked their havoc. Over a recent nine-year period, there were, for example, 1,070 alleged incidents of child sexual abuse within custodial institutions in England and Wales. Five hundred and seventy-eight of these incidents were described in terms equating to sexual assault or rape. In the small town of Rotherham, 1400 children were brutally sexually exploited between 1997 to 2013, right under the noses of complacent or compromised secular authorities.

The Irish Times found in the Ryan Report on reformatory and industrial schools “the map of an Irish hell,” a map that is now known the world over and internalized by Irish people of mine and Scally’s generation. One could also draw without any difficulty a corresponding map of an English hell. But, of course, no one does.

Could it be, therefore, that something else that marks Ireland out is that its reckoning with past cruelties has, for all its flaws, been more open, more forensic, more unrelenting—the Ryan Report, it turned out, overestimated the number of children placed in industrial schools by a factor of four—and has occasioned more soul-searching, than that of many other places?

In any case, here we are. The best Catholics in the world have become some of the worst. A country whose heroic age in world affairs, during the Dark and Early Middle Ages, revolved around the preservation and spread of Catholic Christianity and its tradition of learning, whose founding fathers dreamed (however foolishly) of a frugal, spiritual people “living the life that God desires that men should live,” whose constitution invokes the Most Holy Trinity in its opening clauses, now faces the future having discarded all such thoughts and fancies. 

Ireland has instead become a society that is, in the upbeat words of the national airline, “open, progressive, liberal, outward-looking and dynamic.” All of these claims are true. But they are claims that might equally and interchangeably be made for Canada, or Amsterdam, or California, or New Zealand. With people queuing from 3 a.m. on St. Stephen’s Day to begin their post-Christmas shopping sprees, and blindfolded guests on morning television playing guess-the-sex-toy, Ireland has also become brashly, crassly materialistic—the sin that the priests of my childhood warned us against more than any other. But this would not sit so well within Aer Lingus’s outburst of swaggering self-congratulation. 

Observing developments in other European countries much further down the road of secularization, Scally wonders whether Ireland might eventually wind backward toward some form of re-acquaintance with Catholicism. Certainly there are some younger Irish Catholics (who do not make it into this book) who have begun a process of rescue and restoration that will only bear its full fruit many, many years from now, if at all. 

Nevertheless, Ireland has ripped the Church from the social fabric and the Church can hardly complain. Scally, though, worries about the knotty legacy of religion remaining deep inside the Irish mind and argues for a citizens’ assembly that would untie this knot over the course of a “calm airing.” Perhaps such an assembly would also address a certain paradoxical feeling that seeps into his narrative here and there—the feeling that, along with much that had to go, a certain kind of gentleness has also now departed Irish society, and that it isn’t coming back. 

John Duggan is a freelance writer based in Surrey, England.

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