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After Scandals, Ireland Is No Longer 'Most Catholic Country In The World'


Pope Paul VI had a phrase for Ireland. Back in 1946, he called it the most Catholic country in the world. This is the story of how Ireland has become a little less so.


Last spring, Irish voters ignored the church's opposition and approved gay marriage. This came after scandals involving priests and a major drop in attendance at Sunday mass. Miranda Kennedy reports from Dublin.


JOE MCGEE: Let's praise God together.

MIRANDA KENNEDY, BYLINE: In a small Catholic church in the north of Dublin, a few dozen regulars are gathered for a Sunday mass. Most of the congregation is over the age of 50. But as usual, there are very few of them sitting in the pews.


MCGEE: The Lord, who lives and reigns forever and ever.



KENNEDY: After mass, father Joe McGee takes me back to the presbytery for a cup of tea.

MCGEE: For a huge number of people in Ireland now, the church has become irrelevant. I mean, 30 years ago, the culture was that everybody went to some church on a Sunday. Now the culture has shifted. And we have to, in some sense, jettison the hope that one day all our churches will be packed to overflowing again. I don't think that's going to happen.

KENNEDY: Once, more than 90 percent of Irish people attended church each week. Now it's only about 30 percent. That's lower than in the U.S. One major reason is the avalanche of sex abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church in Ireland in the '90s. Maeve Lewis runs an organization for victims of priest sexual abuse.

MAEVE LEWIS: What you find is, on any moral issue now, when a bishop or a priest or somebody attempts to speak out, that people will quite cynically say, you know, how could you listen to that with what they've done? And, I mean, really, the most damaging thing to the Catholic Church here was not the fact that priests actually abused children. It was the wide-scaled cover-ups that went on at very senior levels. That's what people find unforgivable.

KENNEDY: Lisa McLoughlin is among those who found it unforgivable. She teaches dance at the University of Limerick.

LISA MCLOUGHLIN: We got married in a Catholic Church. We, you know, baptized our first child in a Catholic Church. And then all the scandals came out. And literally, it was just like, oh, get me away from this power-hungry, disgusting institution that hasn't ever - still, to this day - adequately apologized. That was just the end.

KENNEDY: Lisa and her husband even tried to officially sever ties with the Catholic Church. But the law was changed to make that impossible. So when she cast her vote in favor of same-sex marriage, she says she was voting against the Catholic Church.

DIARMUID MARTIN: Hello, how are you?


That's what worries the archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin. He was sent to Ireland by Pope Benedict to clean up the mess after the child-abuse scandals. He admits he's still struggling to cope with Ireland's defiant secularism.

MARTIN: The church hasn't been able to bring its teaching and an understanding of that to young people - not just about gay marriage but maybe about marriage altogether and many other things. Despite the fact that most Irish spend many years in a Catholic school, they come out with a very vague commitment to their faith.

KENNEDY: At a community center in north Dublin, a dozen homeless people are gathered on a patio, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and drinking milky cups of tea. They argue over how much money the Vatican has. Adam Skinner, who is in his 20s, is toweling off his hair after his free shower. He tells the priest who runs this place, Peter McVerry, that the Catholic Church is corrupting the world with its moral code.

PETER MCVERRY: Oh, they still have enough money to fund all of them missions into Africa to tell people not to use contraception, which I really don't agree with at all.

KENNEDY: Not long ago, it would have been unthinkable to talk to a priest that way. But Peter McVerry expects it now. He says the church has lost its authority.

MCVERRY: For centuries now, the church has been preaching a God of the law. And young people - and I think rightly - have rejected such a God. Irish people will no longer accept what the church has to say just because the church says it.

KENNEDY: Politicians and the people shouldn't make all their decisions, he says, based on the dictates of the Catholic Church. For NPR News, I'm Miranda Kennedy in Dublin.

INSKEEP: Miranda Kennedy did that reporting as part of a fellowship with the International Reporting Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miranda Kennedy
Miranda Kennedy is a supervising editor on Morning Edition. She leads political coverage, manages the show's editorial content, and plans stories for the daily program. In her role, she has led live coverage with David Greene following the 2015 Paris attacks and reported from China with Steve Inskeep for two weeks in 2017.