A synodal Church requires people to take responsibility for their Faith

Irish Catholics need to prioritise having a grown-up Faith, writes editor of The Irish Catholic, Michael Kelly.

One of the many pitfalls of discussing religion in Ireland is the assumed expertise almost everyone professes to have on the subject. Such has been the cultural dominance of Catholicism – particularly in the south – that everyone feels absolutely qualified to talk with great authority on the subject.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have been at dinners and parties and been lectured at great length about all the problems my interlocutor has with the Catholic Church…the only issue being that many of the points raised are based on false assumptions.

I remember on one occasion being described as a fascist by a particularly hot-headed young woman who told me that the Catholic Church was anti-science. I pointed out that Fr Roger Bacon was a Franciscan friar and the forefather of the scientific method, and that he might have something to say on the idea that the Catholic Church was anti-science. This being news to her, she told me she had been to Catholic schools and never heard of him therefore I must’ve been making it up and that made me a fascist. I politely excused myself before the conversation descended any further.

Much is made of the description of Ireland as a post-Catholic country, but as controversy around the recent comments of Fr Seán Sheehy on homosexuality prove, Irish people have not lost their interest in religion or their appetite for a discussion around it.


But, what too often hamstrings conversations is the fact that for most people their religious education stopped at the age of ten or 11. Few people, even practising Catholics, read about their Faith and while bishops dutifully welcome papal pronouncements on a regular basis, few people in the pews are reading what the Pope has to say.

Pope Francis, like Benedict XVI and John Paul II are mediated to most people through the lens of secular media coverage. The media didn’t particularly like Benedict XVI, so the predominant slant was negative. From day one, journalists took to Pope Francis, and so the coverage is universally popular.

In late November, Francis again repeated his line that a woman deciding to terminate her pregnancy was effectively hiring a hitman. It’s powerful stuff and you’d imagine hard to resist for a headline-writer, but it passed unnoticed.

Now, think if Benedict XVI had made such a pronouncement. It’s one of the reasons why I think media literacy is such an important subject that children should learn at school, but that’s an argument for a different day.

The national synthesis that pulled together the various diocesan synodal reports was frank when it discussed how difficult the actual synodal process was because many people lacked the formation and language to engage fully. This is not to blame people.

Whether through arrogance or neglect, the Church in Ireland has not prioritised Faith formation in recent decades. Based on my research – admittedly anecdotal – many young people leave school unaware of basic facts about the Faith. I know parents who are devout and want their children to continue in the Faith, but the parents themselves feel inadequately formed to transmit the Faith and don’t know where to look. Most people don’t need a degree in theology, but many are crying out for some solid foundations in the Faith.

Practising Catholic

I met a man recently – a very successful businessman employing dozens of people. He is an impressive individual and a practising Catholic – but he admitted to me privately that he feels like a child when it comes to religion when his co-workers ask him anything.

The national synthesis summarised the issue: “The synodal process highlighted the serious weaknesses in adult Faith development in Ireland. “Many of the submissions reported that people found it hard to engage with the questions, the concepts and the language relating to communion and mission. “There is a felt need among many respondents for safe and dynamic spaces where people can come together to talk deeply about their Faith and increase their knowledge of it,” the document said.


I was lucky to be part of such a ‘safe and dynamic’ space in November when I travelled to the University of Notre Dame in the US to participate in a conference with an array of distinguished speakers. Known as the ‘Fall Conference’ (utilising the American word for autumn) the get-together is an initiative of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the university.

The conference was entitled ‘And It Was Very Good: On Creation’ and brought together over a thousand people for fascinating talks from 147 speakers from a wide range of disciplines who explored the many facets of the created world and the act of creation.

The talks I attended were fascinating and as varied as a keynote from philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre on the foreknowledge of God and from Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison on Dante. As interesting and important as the talks were, the atmosphere was also stimulated by the fact that there were plenty of occasions to mingle with speakers and other participants in an atmosphere of genuine seeking to deepen our understanding of the Faith and the interaction of Catholicism with the world around us.

There were people from different backgrounds and some people who would describe themselves as liberal and others who would describe themselves as conservative…and yet, it did not descend into polemics or a desire to better one another. There was a genuine sense of people journeying together synodically and trying to deepen understanding in order to better serve Catholicism and to have better discussions.

I think everyone came away feeling that they had been refreshed and challenged in their thinking and their Faith. Above all, it was an excellent model of Catholics seeking understanding to grow. A grown-up Church requires grown-ups to equip themselves for grown-up conversations, the Church in Ireland has already seen enough juvenile ‘Punch and Judy’ rows. It’s time to grow up.

Michael Kelly is Editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper.

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