Love’s Betrayal: The Decline of Catholicism and the Rise of New Religions in Ireland by Peter Mulholland: New Insights on Recent Religious History

In Love’s Betrayal: The Decline of Catholicism and the Rise of New Religions in Ireland (Peter Lang Publishers, 2019) Peter Mulholland offers a frank and often bruising account of the decline of the authority of the Catholic Church in Ireland since the middle of the twentieth century.

Mulholland follows in the footsteps of ground-breaking studies, such as those by Tom Inglis (Moral Monopoly, 1987, 1998) and Louise Fuller (Irish Catholicism Since 1950, 2002). What sets Mulholland’s work apart is how he links the decline of Catholicism with a rise of New Religious Movements (NRMs), which are usually associated with New Age spirituality.

The book’s title, Love’s Betrayal, refers to former President Mary McAleese’s response to the 2009 Ryan Report on clerical child abuse. This title is evocative and provocative, asserting that the Catholic Church in Ireland has betrayed the basic Christian commandment to love.

Mulholland argues that a surge in popularity of NRMs between the late 1950s and late 1980s was directly related to the damaging effects of an authoritarian form of faith which justified and enabled corporal punishment in schools, domestic abuse, and abuse in industrial schools and other church-run institutions.

Mulholland makes his case by delving into the centuries-long after-effects of Augustinian theology, as well as social-psychological studies which have indicated that people turn to NRMs as a result of psychological stress. There have been few previous studies of NRMs in Ireland (for an exception, see Cosgrove et al, 2011), so in this Mulholland relies on research from other contexts.

Mulholland also discusses Marian apparitions – a rather prominent feature of Irish life in the 1980s – and the Catholic Charismatic Renewal Movement as examples of responses to Catholic authoritarianism and the psychological stresses of rapid social change. These are important inclusions, demonstrating that a range of religious choices was available.

Mulholland focuses on the presentation of NRMs in the media, analysing reports in the Sunday Independent and Sunday Press. Direct quotes from newspaper reports in the text and in a fascinating appendix of excerpts provide a sense of the tenor of the coverage, and the pervasiveness of clerical voices in journalism.

It is important that Mulholland ends his analysis in 1990, prior to the period when the media began to expose the most harrowing stories of clerical child sexual abuse. This drives home the point that Irish Catholicism was troubled and its authority was unravelling well before the headlines of the 1990s, which are often considered the starting point of decline.

Indeed, Mulholland is at his best when describing the reform campaign to end corporal punishment in schools, a subject that has received scant attention in other analyses. The campaign began in the mid-1950s and was led by Senator Owen Sheehy Skeffington. Mulholland details the disbelief and resistance Sheehy Skeffington and his allies faced, and notes that he encouraged Peter Tyrell, who was held in Letterfrack for seven years, to write an account of his experiences. Four decades later, in 1967, Tyrell committed suicide by setting himself on fire on London’s Hampstead Heath. Tyrell’s account of Letterfrack was published posthumously.

Mulholland also profiles the remarkable work of Dr Paddy Randles, a medical doctor based in Navan, who campaigned against recruiting boys as young as twelve into religious orders. Mulholland quotes from Randles’s letters to the press and an interview he conducted with him in 2010.

Campaigners like Sheehy Skeffington and Randles were convinced that corporeal punishment in schools was not only cruel and inhumane but was stunting Irish children psychologically. They then reproduced patterns of abuse in their own homes. Mulholland notes that there were glimmers of dissent among parents, some of whom began to question the severity and efficacy of corporal punishment, although campaigners faced stiff opposition.

Mulholland also shows how corporal punishment in schools had a disproportionate impact on the poor. The poor had little means of avoiding or subverting abusive educational institutions, which had the overwhelming support of church and state.

But questions remain.

We know that NRMs expanded in other parts of the world during this time, including Britain and the United States. If the rise of NRMs in Ireland is linked to the failings of Irish Catholicism, what accounts for their popularity elsewhere? Mulholland acknowledges this issue but does not fully address it.

And given the ‘love’s betrayal’ that Mulholland describes, why did comparatively few Irish people turn to NRMs? NRMs numbers were and remain small; indeed, their influence has been more important and pervasive in Britain, as outlined by Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead in their boldly titled The Spiritual Revolution (2005).

Further, while the book is primarily historical, more contextual information about NRMs in Ireland today would have been welcome.

Nevertheless, Love’s Betrayal covers new ground and offers valuable insights on recent religious history in Ireland.

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