The Second Vatican Council and the Irish Church

If any local Church was ripe for renewal – and could have achieved it – it was the Irish Catholic Church. Practice was at record levels for both Sunday and daily Mass-going. Devotions and confraternities flourished, Seminaries, Religious and missionary congregations were bursting at the seams


Today vocations have reached rock-bottom. Mass attendance has dropped significantly – though (with the exception of some Dublin inner-city parishes) not as dramatically as in other countries. Too many laity, their questions unanswered and their offers of involvement largely ignored, have simply drifted away. These developments happened after Vatican II. Is the Council the cause

The short answer must be: No – well, not entirely.

More precisely, the downward spiral of the Church was, it seems to me, in large part due to the way the Council was interpreted and implemented, not only in Ireland but in most countries in Western Europe and North America.


The Council was perceived by many to have broken almost entirely with past tradition. It introduced a new era of “freedom, progress and openness to the modern world” in contrast with the restrictive and defensive, if not actually hostile, attitude to modernity that had marked the Church since the Counter-Reformation. There is no denying that the pre-Conciliar Church was in need of reform. In Ireland, for example, the Ryan Report revealed how far many religious had, to put it mildly, departed from the ideals of their founders, with tragic results.

The changes that were immediately felt were those introduced to the Mass, such as replacing Latin with the vernacular and the radical simplification of the rubrics with the priest facing the congregation (not, in fact, mentioned by the Council).

These changes were inspired by the Liturgical Movement which began in the latter part of the 19th Century. Interest in reforming the liturgy flourished during the inter-war and post-World War II periods in Europe – but not in Ireland, which was totally unprepared for the radical changes.

The same could be said for the other great breakthrough at the Council: namely, its full endorsement of the ecumenical movement of rapprochement with non-Catholic Churches and ecclesial communities.

That movement began for the Catholic Church with ‘conversations’ between Catholic and Anglican representative in Malines, Belgium (1921-1927). In Ireland, Catholic-Protestant relations were bedevilled by political overtones foreign to faith, while the ban on even attending a Protestant funeral service was strictly enforced.

Even more radical was the effect on Irish Catholicism of the way the Council’s teaching on the relationship between the Church and the non-Christian World Religions was interpreted in the light of Karl Rahner’s theory of anonymous Christianity. It effectively put an end to the Irish missionary movement.

Another breakthrough was the attention paid to the lay faithful. This fell on deaf ears in the heavily clericalised Irish Church that had at best tolerated the most important lay Catholic movement in recent history, the Legion of Mary.

The list could go on.

The young Churches in what were known as the foreign missions coped more easily with all these changes, thanks to the embrace of the Council teaching by missionaries and local clergy alike, as well as the role played by lay catechists and the Legion of Mary. They were ripe for liturgical renewal, embraced the use of the local language in the Mass, and were already reaching out to the other denominations and the non-Christian religions in whose midst they found themselves as a minority.


But the radical changes to the Church’s self-perception endorsed by the Council caused upheaval in the so-called developed world, not least because of the way the Council was interpreted.

The effect was fairly dramatic in some countries, such as Holland, which imploded within a decade. Most other European and North American Churches went through various stages of adjustment. Theological debates raged fiercely not only within faculties of theology but in dioceses and parishes that had some degree of theological sophistication.


Very soon divisions were established along the lines of the new categories of ‘conservative/traditional’ and ‘liberal/progressive’. This terminology arose from the way the Council was interpreted by commentators as marking a radical break with tradition. What went before the Council was considered passé; after the Council, it was assumed, a whole new understanding of Christianity had been produced – notwithstanding the fact that the Council’s teachings were based on a recovery of the theology of the Fathers of the early Church!

The watershed after the Council, it seems to me, came with the publication of the encyclical, Humanae Vitae, by Pope Paul VI in 1968. Prominent Catholic theologians publicly dissented from its teaching. They justified their dissent on the basis of their renewal of moral theology called for by the Council.

More specifically, they claimed that their dissent was based on the authority of the Council, namely the new understanding of marriage to be found in Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

A new moral theology on sexual and bioethical issues was quickly developed in opposition to traditional teachings of the Church. In principle, no sexual deviation could be considered intrinsically evil. Is it any wonder that clerical sexual abuse peaked in the 1970s and 1980s


Soon dissent entered into dogmatic theology, questioning such traditional teachings as that on the infallibility of the Pope. For the first time in the history of the Church, theologians en masse publicly rejected the Church’s authoritative teaching not only on a specific moral issue but on the underlying principles of moral theology.

And they rejected the binding authority of the Church’s teaching authority – unless it was infallibly defined (and even that was not excluded by some).

Those who defended the Church’s position were initially in the minority – but they soon had the support of the rich philosophical and theological teaching of Blessed Pope John Paul II. That teaching is now bearing fruit in the universal Church.

Schism became explicit when the extreme traditionalists under Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, rejected various teachings of the Council and the reformed Roman Missal. They set up their own training for priests, went on to ordain bishops without the approval of Rome, and so were excommunicated. Discussions to resolve the difference seem to have collapsed.


Initially, Ireland was largely spared the fractious divisions arising from the interpretation of the Council that marked many of the Churches in Europe and North America.

This was, paradoxically, thanks to the real weakness of Irish Catholicism: her existential disregard for theology (see: The End of Irish Catholicism ). Because of the outward calm – and the large-scale practice by Irish Catholics up to the 1980s – the impression was given that everything was rosy in the garden. But, to quote one ‘conservative’ cleric: “There was no garden.” This was an exaggeration, but it did contain a certain truth.

Theology courses

There was a sudden flurry of interest in theology after the Council. Teachers of theology in the various seminaries (especially Maynooth) toured the county giving lectures on the ‘new theology’. Religious began to flock to theology courses. But soon the steam went out of these courses. Now the few religious that are left tend to opt for courses in justice, peace and the integrity of the environment – fading more and more into vaguely New-Age-type creationism, various self-fulfilment courses, mindfulness courses or – aromatherapy.

Why did the steam go out of these courses For one thing, theology cannot be picked up by hearing the occasional lecture, subscribing to a theology-lite pastoral review, or reading a popular book by a theologian. Like any discipline, theology only delivers its rewards after serious study. Furthermore, it requires specialist institutes that are engaged not only in teaching future clerics and catechists but have invested in genuine, scholarly research.

Ireland has not even one such institute. The malaise of modern Irish Catholicism is its inability to take theology seriously or enter into serious debate on theological issues. In sum, the fall-off in interest was probably due to the poor quality of the theological input – the liberal, soft-sell Christianity that is nice to everybody. It is simply boring.

Because of the lack of any serious critical theological tradition, the theology taught in seminaries in the training of priests was mostly of a vaguely liberal bent. Once numerous, the seminaries now are reduced to two. In Ireland, it seems, we can change from one kind of conformity to another almost overnight. Once we were traditional to a fault; soon after the Council, we became vaguely liberal to a man (or woman).

There were, of course, some exceptions, tolerated but side-lined. In my judgement, we have few real liberals in Ireland. Most senior clerics are simply reluctant to be perceived as conservative. They are indifferent to theology. The result is lack of vision or leadership.

In European Churches with a rich theological tradition, such as France and Italy, the ferocious debates in the wake of the Council are now leading to a genuine renewal. There is a theological ferment. It has resulted in a renewal of religious life, the founding of new lay movements, and such initiatives as the Collège des Bernardins, a locus for dialogue with contemporary society.

In North America, a new springtime can be observed thanks to the Catholic colleges and universities that take seriously theology of every shade, while seminaries that have embraced the Second Vatican Council in the light of the traditional teaching of the Church are once again filling up with seminarians.

In Ireland, not only do we have nothing comparable but we have created a very dangerous situation by promoting a catechesis that, if not used very critically, erodes the precious vestiges of the Faith children might pick up from their parents and grandparents. Training colleges set up to train Catholic primary school teachers are, at best, Catholic only in name. Symptomatic of the rot is the fact that, in at least one of the colleges, an atheist could become head of one of the major departments.


Relativistic moral theology infiltrated the Catholic Marriage Care Service (ACCORD) which prepares couples for marriage.

The ‘Letterkenny Four’, expelled from the pregnancy counselling service, CURA, for drawing public attention to its moral fuzziness, were (reluctantly) reinstated almost two years later – only after intense public pressure.

But all is not lost. There is still a significant critical mass of believers in Ireland, whose faith has survived weak sermons, weaker catechesis, and the appalling clerical scandals and attendant cover-ups.

They have been tried and tested. They are often highly educated. They are neither conservative nor progressive, but appreciate good, theologically rich but clearly expressed homilies and talks, delivered not rarely by clerics in the younger-age bracket. Many Catholic teachers at primary and secondary level did manage to pass on the faith. At Mass, all can now hear the Word of God in their own language. The task is to lead both clerics and laity into the depth of its message and so encounter the Lord Jesus Christ.

There is a new openness among the younger generation to issues relating to faith. Growing numbers of young Catholics have recovered their faith, thanks to such movements as Youth 2000, Pure in Heart, NET Ministries, etc.

The International Eucharistic Congress was an eye-opener: people thronged to hear theologians speak; people wanted to know more about their faith. Genuine catechesis based on the teaching of the Church is the first, indispensable step towards theology.

The Year of Faith is a God-given opportunity to renew the Church in Ireland, not least by a study of the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The catechism is the indispensable key to an interpretation of the Council in harmony with the Church’s apostolic tradition.


Fr Vincent Twomey, SVD, is emeritus professor of Moral Theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. He is author, among other books, of The end of Irish Catholicism and Moral Theology after Humanae Vitae.