‘Faith Formation and Fear of Shame’: History of an Article

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin defending faith schools in 2017

“Given what we know about the falling away in church attendance of teenagers, ongoing for over a decade – as well as the availability of our school-going teenagers for research that would probe the reasons for this – what research has been sponsored, or is currently projected, by the Irish Bishops’ Conference on this issue?”

This query from me to the ‘Contact’ address of the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference on December 31st, 2016 had not received a response by May 2017.

Concluding that no such research had been undertaken in the 21st century, and that none was projected,  I set out to explore the reasons for this strange reluctance of Ireland’s bishops to research the effectiveness of Ireland’s Catholic schools in forming the faith of Irish Catholic children.

Arguing that it is most likely fear of the results of such research, this article – Faith Formation and Fear of Shame – appeared in the July /August 2017 issue of ‘The Furrow, published at Maynooth.   The Furrow‘s editor has also kindly allowed it to appear on the website of the Association of Catholics in Ireland (ACI).  (Click here to read the complete article on the ACI site.)

The article also appeared in the Irish News (Belfast) on Thursday Sep 7th, 2017.

If you wish to comment on the article, please do that on the ACI site rather than here – as there is an urgent need for a conversation in Ireland about the multi-faceted crisis the Irish Catholic Church is now facing.

I emphasise strongly that I do not fault Catholic schools for the alienation of younger generations from the church, or doubt the commitment of the many teachers who conscientiously prepare children for the sacraments or set out to advance their faith in secondary schools.  I argue instead for a new realism about the typical story of faith development – an acknowledgement that adult faith develops through a sequence of stages, may be severely tested in the teenage years, and is rarely an immediate result of school instruction.

I strongly believe that the problem of alienation from the church at all ages in Ireland  is a consequence of two things:

  • first, decades of non-communication between clergy and people, originating in a clerical inability to dialogue directly with lay people over, especially, family matters;
  • second, a series of clerical sex-related scandals, beginning in 1992 – these too have not yet been fully ‘put behind’ us by frank, open dialogue.

Future historians will wonder why faith formation was one of the critical issues that parish clergy and parents were never convened to discuss together following the second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968).  The campaign by bishops to defend faith schools is still completely ignoring this crucial failure.  Against that reality, to pretend any longer that responsibility for faith formation can effectively be discharged by schools in the absence of an open dialogical culture in the Irish church is to be in critical denial at a time of huge challenge.

It is time to end that culture of denial – while there are still many grandparents ready to speak wisely about faith to younger generations.

(I also help out at the website of the Association of Catholics in Ireland.)

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About Sean O'Conaill

Retired teacher of high school history and author. Now editing here and on acireland.ie - and campaigning for immediate implementation of Article 37 of Vatican II's 'Lumen Gentium'. A fuller profile can be found at 'About / Author' from the navigation menu above.

2 thoughts on “‘Faith Formation and Fear of Shame’: History of an Article

  1. Thanks very much for your thought provoking article. I read it last week in The Irish News. Never thought of things in terms of shame before so it was a new perspective for me. Fear I have often focused on as a cause of paralysis for the Church in Ireland and especially the hierarchy, but when thinking about ‘fear of what or whom?’ I never made the connection with shame… media & public ridicule yes, but underlying these shame! I’ll need a bit of time to reflect more on it – never was a quick thinker!

    I honestly do wonder about possible solutions and the possible shape of a more ‘healthy’ Church in Ireland. I do and have for many years worked in the South Korean Church, it is held up as a success story, and as a result carries considerable weight in the murky world of church politics. However, I have my doubts as to how ‘success’ is being defined. Even here in Korea the number of young people leaving, or at least ignoring, the church is growing year on year. But there has been a failure to acknowledge this… perhaps as a result of feeling shame at letting down the image of an ever growing Korean Church?

    My own opinion is that things will never be the same again! Dialogue is badly needed between all sectors of the Irish church – as is also needed in Korea. The question goes deeper than the role of the Church. The role of religion needs to be dealt with at the same time… Young and not so young, European and Asian, pious and not so pious… things have changed and are changing for all of us, but we are failing, it seems to me, to listen and share so as to move forwards. There is a crying need to start working on a Church and religion with many rooms in the mansion… the day of just one room or path has gone. However, we still refuse to acknowledge this fact – on all sides – from liberation theologians to Latin Mass supporters. Dialogue is central, I believe. And in light of your article perhaps a dialogue about shame and our individual & collective fear of it might be a very positive place from where to start.

    Sean, sorry for the long ramble! I just wanted to acknowledge your fine article….. But it has set me thinking, hence the ramble.

    Thanks again & God bless, Eamon

    1. Much appreciated, Eamon. I suppose ‘shame’ at the simplest level is the experiencing of loss of public esteem – of the respect of an unknown number of folk out there – if they get to know something possibly discreditable about me – or about my ‘club’ or family. That loss of public esteem has been very hard for clergy in Ireland – but as you say ‘things will never be the same again’ and dialogue is sorely needed. ‘Fear of the hornets’ nest’ is another way of putting that – and that very fear was expressed by a cleric known to me once, when dialogue was called for and didn’t happen. Expert facilitation could indeed begin by raising that very issue.

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