By Katie Webb Editorial Editor
“A popular Dublin priest had died after suffering a heart attack – the kicker to the story being that he died in a gay bath house.”
So David Gibson said during a lecture on religion in modern Ireland on November 19.
“The kicker to that story being that he was allowed to have last rites [prayers given before death] because there was another priest that happened to be there in the house at the same time,” said Gibson to an audience of people laughing appreciatively. The story dates back to the authoritarian Ireland of 1994, but is still relevant today.
“Somehow that issue always seemed like an intimation of unspoken issues that needed to be addressed,” said Gibson. Closeted homosexuality, however, is not as much of a problem as one might think. The annual St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin features gays without any problem. Polls from the Irish Examiner show that citizens are increasingly in favor of legalizing gay marriage.
There are other far more pressing problems plaguing the Irish. Gibson is a journalist who has been working and writing in Ireland since the turn of the millennium, and he is well aware of the prevalent issue of sexual, physical and psychological child abuse.
The grievous issue has affected America and Ireland alike, and caused much of the current controversy with organized religion.
“A global survey showed that Ireland registered almost the steepest drop worldwide in people calling themselves religious,” said Gibson. “Only 47 percent of Irish said that they were religious people; a 22 percent drop from the previous poll in 2005.”
They are now considering cutting the number of diocese in half and having priest-less parishes, an unheard of concept in Ireland until now.
“Mass attendance, which doesn’t necessarily correlate with faith or belief, is down to 50 percent and it used to be 90 percent,” said Gibson.
It seems that the Irish are abandoning the institution, if not the faith, in an increasing number. However, Gibson’s religion beat has led him to work closely with a man who has won back the favor of many Irishmen, Archbishop Dairmuid Martin of Dublin.
“You are the only reason I stay in the Church today,” a man said Martin, who is a herald of hope for the rebuilding of the Catholic Church’s foundation in Ireland.
“He was appointed just as the abuse scandal was exploding and the Catholic Church was imploding,” said Gibson. The Church in Ireland has been taking heat for the scandal, but also for not taking responsibility or doing enough to change the tragic circumstances. Archbishop Martin stands as a pillar of social responsibility and political change in opposition to corrupt religious leaders before him.
“He’s ruffled the feathers of his fellow bishops and popes; not letting them off the hook for their failings in the abuse crisis,” said Gibson. “He even sued his predecessor,” who refused to hand over thousands of files on clergy abuse to the government. He was eventually forced to give up the files. Martin also takes personal accountability.
“How do I explain to a community marked by such honesty, good neighborliness, and hard work that the Church failed many children of this parish?” asked Martin.
Though he is a man marked by virtue, not all religious leaders are so pristine. Martin sees the danger in priests seeking power of privilege over the opportunity to serve others. He calls for a church and the community that follows it to let go of fundamentalism, judgment and the sense of entitlement that leads to anger.
There are many things that need to be fixed in Irish Catholicism, but some parishioners are abandoning the faith entirely. Gibson spoke of the Americans who classify themselves as “nones,” or having no religious affiliation. Twenty percent of the voters are “nones,” according to Gibson, and they were a great contributing factor to Obama winning the election.
Some audience members asked Gibson whether the institution of religion is decreasing to the point of one day being nonexistent. Gibson sees a necessity for the institution as well as the spirituality. He said that the movement toward a secular society leaves certain gaps.
“I think the real crisis is that too many young people think ‘I don’t need that [religion],’ and I think that’s a loss for genuine community,” said Gibson. “A secular person could say, ‘I think it’s important to feed the hungry and poor’ but if you don’t act on it that’s not good enough for me. You have to find a home to live that [giving spirit] out whether it’s a religion or Amnesty United.”
Gibson does see a particular flaw in organized religion.
“The younger generation seemed to be focused on the orthodox ‘you’ve got to do this and that’ opposed to the culture of helping others and doing,” said Gibson of youth both here and in Ireland. Perhaps, from this point of view, Catholicism in both countries would not suffer as many losses of followers if people saw the good acts instead of only hearing the preaching of the priests and seeing the scandals.
In a time where people, especially the young, are questioning their faith and not following the Church, Gibson has done quite the contrary.
“There are about 100 or 200 thousand adult converts to the Church every year, but my story is kind of interesting: becoming Catholic at the age of 30 when I should know better,” Gibson joked. He was raised as a Born Again Christian, late r became Protestant, and then converted to Christianity at a late age.
“If anyone can go to the Vatican and find their faith rather than losing it,” as he did, “it’s considered a first-order miracle.”
With the many issues facing Catholicism here and in Ireland, Gibson is not turning his back on the institution of religion.
“For decades I’ve reported on all kinds of religions,” said Gibson. “Catholicism, if you take it seriously, is a wonderful thing. Buddhism is a beautiful tradition to follow. Whether you are a Muslim or a Jew, it’s wonderful if you take [the values] seriously.”