WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Book review: Irish Catholicism since 1950

Irish Catholicism since 1950: The undoing of a culture

Louise Fuller, Gill and McMillan, Dublin, 2004.

Reviewer: Dermot Byrne

The title of this book sets the scene for an in-depth study of the Irish Catholic Church over a period of 30 years. The author presents the Church in Ireland as it existed before Vatican II when the power and influence of the Irish Church was at its peak – secure and unchallenged by whatever standard one wishes to apply.

Dr Fuller then traces the changes with all of the stresses and strains which followed the council – a time of rapid, almost mind-boggling change. Finally the reader is presented with the image of the post Vatican II Church – tentative, uncertain, feeling its way, a Church exposed to criticism, challenge and scandal as the earlier Church never was.

The Irish Church of the 1950s was a time of sodalities, pilgrimages and Rosary crusades. The word of the priest was law while that of the bishop was a direct line from God. Everything was laid down; there was no questioning of Church authority by anybody and that included those in government.

It was a time of strong parental authority reflected in the attitudes and conduct of the clerical Church towards the person in the pews. It was also a time of beautiful but rigidly structured liturgies, lots of candles and incense – liturgies at which the parishioner was there as a spectator.

I remember the changes simply as one day the priest had his back to us, the next he was facing us and using English. The reality was much more profound of course. Vatican II changed the climate completely. The liturgy was only an outward sign of the transformation of the Irish Church and the Church worldwide.

In her book Louise Fuller traces the transformation of liturgy from being fixed, ritualised and lacking in vitality to a flowering of expression in worship and praise. The author reveals just how much has changed and shows that what we take for granted today was hardly dreamed of in 1950. She charts similar developments in the relationship of clergy and congregation, Church and state, the Church and the world; in addition developments in theology, education and social justice.

The image which the reader is presented with is truly an amazing one. If one reflects for a moment – what other organisation of the power and prestige as that enjoyed by the Catholic Church at that time could have envisaged and carried out the changes which it did?

The story of the Irish Church was repeated in New Zealand. We too went though a similar process, perhaps not as traumatic as that of the Irish Church since the Church in New Zealand was not as dominant.

As a backdrop to the story of the Irish Catholic Church this book touches on the coming of age of the Irish State as it emerged from the violence of the independence period followed by a bloody and divisive civil war. It is really two stories. Parallel to the story of the Church the reader is presented with a snapshot of the development of modern Ireland. The foundations of the modern Celtic tiger state were laid in the period covered by this book.

This is a scholarly and well researched work. The author could have been forgiven for allowing personal opinion to intrude into descriptions of people and situations – attitudes to birth control for example. Instead she maintains a scholarly objectivity to her subject allowing the reader to judge the facts for themselves. There are almost 100 pages of appendices, notes and bibliographies.

As a student of Church and Irish history I found Louise Fuller’s book a treasure trove of detail and description. It will be of interest to anybody interested in recent Church history and to those nostalgic for the pre-Vatican II days who may consider things have changed too much, or to those who think the Church has not changed enough.

For distribution details, contact Cecily McNeill, 04 4961759.