Monday, March 22, 2004

The Irish legacy

Seeing we've had a weekend to recover from our annual Irish lovefest, I figure it's a little safer for me to ponder Charles Morris' note, from his book American Catholic, that "The roots of the modern American Church are found not in Rome, or in the early Spanish missions, but in nineteenth-century Ireland." That's not terribly controversial but a review in Crisis magazine of D. Vincent Twomey's The End of Irish Catholicism picks up on a point that has bugged me ever since becoming Catholic:
He [Twomey] also became aware of the lack of seriousness with which the Irish approached theology, looking upon it as "a hurdle to be overcome before ordination." The belated imposition of Tridentine discipline (only in the second half of the 19th century) and the cultural ascendancy of Victorian puritanism left the Irish Church with "a legalistic moral theology, a highly centralized authoritarian institution, and a sentimental spirituality," but without an inclination to articulately engage and contest with modern opponents or think out the implications of Vatican II reforms.
What is true about Irish Catholicism seems to have spilled over into American Catholicism, for better and for worse. Despite being an Asian-American with little love for Guinness, I went through a phase a few years back when I became enamored with all things Celtic. Yeats is still my favorite poet, Harp one of my favorite beers, U2 one of my favorite rock bands, Michael Collins one of my favorite political figures, next to RFK. But my post-honeymoon disillusionment as a Catholic came as a direct result of living in the pop urban Catholicism of the Archdioceses of NY, Newark, and Chicago, all of which are still dominated by Irishness. I still don't fully understand all the layers of culture and history, but I feel ever more convinced that the American Church must "de-Hiberniate" itself if it is to find its way out of the theological and cultural sinkhole it's in. That isn't to blame the Irish, just our excessive attachment to Irish ways of being Catholic.