Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In the prologue to his acclaimed book The Best Catholics in the World, Derek Scally observes the mood in Dublin when Pope Francis said Mass in Phoenix Park in 2018. Living abroad had given Scally a heightened awareness of changes in his hometown’s atmosphere. He remarks upon the “easy, gentle demeanour of the Mass-going crowd” and recounts a little joke by a tram driver at the last stop on his route—“I can't get you no closer to the Pope”—which makes everyone onboard chuckle. Scally then adds: “Like the sing-song voices of the street traders, this softer spirit is part of the atmosphere of my childhood, something that I didn’t notice disappearing.” He moves on from this brief reverie to examine the causes, course, and consequences of the decline of the faith in Ireland in a way that, in measured tones, spares the Church nothing.

Scally’s prologue returned to my mind in recent weeks. Ireland has been roiled by debate about the state of Dublin’s city center. Words like “easy,” “gentle,” and “soft” form no part of the discussion. Instead, all the talk has been about how dangerous it has become to simply walk down the street in parts of Ireland’s capital.

The catalyst for the debate was an attack on an American tourist, Stephen Termini, close to O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main thoroughfare, which put the visitor in a coma. The alleged attackers, all teenagers, have been remanded on bail. The assault on Termini is part of a larger trend. In June, a Ukrainian actor was bitten and hit in the head with a glass bottle outside the Abbey Theatre. The American Embassy in Dublin recently issued an alert advising visitors to avoid walking alone and to keep a “low profile.”

In the Irish media, the tone surrounding the debate shifts between the uncompromising (“Failure to address crime is handing control of our streets to thugs and louts”) to the personal (“I am proud to be an Irish citizen, but Dublin is an embarrassment”) and the more cerebral (“O’Connell Street represents a spectacular failure of what our Republic should be”). Residents of the complex near where Termini was attacked are reportedly afraid to come out of their apartments.

The political response has been sticky. At the top, government leaders are walking the line between acknowledging that something may be very wrong while, understandably, stressing the need for perspective. Lower down the chain, the response has been more bullish and sometimes more idiosyncratic: The Lord Mayor of Dublin is reportedly developing plans for “a city of kindness.” The debate as a whole seems to be oscillating between, on the one hand, appeals for greater police presence on the streets and harsher enforcement of the law; and, on the other, calls for more investment in drug treatment programs and diversionary activities for young people.

But is something else going on? Something less amenable to external fixes because the problem is an interior one? Are people no longer governed by a firm, inherited sense of right and wrong? And, if so, does this have anything to do with the demise of religion in Ireland?

If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then Ireland cannot claim that it wasn’t warned. And many of these warnings came from within the country’s revered literary community and from writers otherwise fiercely critical of the Catholic Church. 

For instance: Following the publication of the Ryan Report on sexual abuse in the Dublin archdiocese, poet Theo Dorgan noted that the presence of the Catholic Church in Irish institutions and mores was now “smoke in a gale, dust in the wind.” However, there was a danger that with Catholicism would go “the foundational ideals of justice, charity, compassion and mercy. We can already see the damage done in our country’s short-lived flirtation with mammon.” The people of Ireland, Dorgan concluded, “would do well to begin thinking clearly, and very soon, about what we will choose for the moral foundations of a post-Catholic Ireland.”

That was in 2009. Six years ago, novelist Sally Rooney, currently the brightest star in the Irish literary firmament, sounded a similar note to Dorgan:

It seems to me that . . . free-market ideology has replaced Catholic ideology. We see that as liberating because we have things like the contraceptive pill now, which is good, but what has replaced the values we had on community, family and things like that? The free market has nothing to say about, no concern for, and in fact has even open hostility towards these things. To me, it doesn't seem like straightforward progress. We got rid of the Catholic Church and replaced it with predatory capitalism. In some ways that was a good trade off, and in other ways, really bad.

Ireland may have arrived at its Böckenförde moment. Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde was a German constitutional theorist and judge. Back in the sixties, he described a critical paradox at the heart of modern Western democracies:

The liberal, secularized state lives by prerequisites which it cannot guarantee itself. This is the great adventure it has undertaken for freedom's sake. As a liberal state it can endure only if the freedom it bestows on its citizens takes some regulation from the interior, both from a moral substance of the individuals and a certain homogeneity of society at large. On the other hand, it cannot by itself procure these interior forces of regulation, that is not with its own means such as legal compulsion and authoritative decree. Doing so, it would surrender its liberal character . . .

In modern Ireland, the casting off of the yoke of Catholicism is still seen as a matter of great pride among the governing and opinion-forming classes and indeed among much of the wider public. However, discussion of the loosening of interior regulation tends to focus on liberation from the Church’s sexual rules. But there were other rules too; and the urges being repressed were not solely urges of the sexual kind. Growing up in Ireland in the 1970s and 80s, materialism was, by a long chalk, the sin I heard preached against most often. (And that in a parish full of people of fairly modest means.)

All this is past and now the liberal Irish state may find itself, as Böckenförde would have it—and as Dorgan warned and Rooney intuited—more and more stripped of certain moral prerequisites among the population. Yet the state is at a loss to secure these prerequisites in any reliable way that is compatible with its own dearest principles. Liberal states cannot instill moral force among their diverse, autonomous citizens; they must instead, in the words of Benedict XVI, “presuppose it and construct upon it.” But what if there is nothing to presuppose or construct upon? 

Some version of this dilemma may currently be manifesting itself in fear and predation on the streets of Dublin. 

John Duggan writes from Surrey, ­England.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Image by John Baker licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles