The World Meeting of Families has become a microcosm of the broader Catholic culture wars

Pope Francis will be greeted by large and enthusiastic crowds when he visits Dublin to attend the 2018 World Meeting of Families (WMOF). The papal Mass in the city’s Phoenix Park, which concludes the event, is expected to be well attended, and the Pope himself remains popular in a country that has been rapidly moving away from its traditional Catholic identity. It’s a rare opportunity for the embattled Irish Church to have a good news story.

But that opportunity has turned out to be a serious challenge. Irish Catholicism has been so weakened by sexual scandals that holding an event in Ireland to celebrate the Church’s teaching on the family was always going to be difficult. There will be demonstrations, prominent speakers have pulled out, and the WMOF risks being either overshadowed by scandals around the world, or else highlighting the Church’s internal divisions.

The only previous papal visit to Ireland, by Pope John Paul II in 1979, was the largest public event in the nation’s history. It was estimated that 1.25 million people attended the papal Mass in Phoenix Park, and 2.5 million attended at least one of the events on his tour. This was a majority of the population of the island – an enormous proportion of the Catholic population – and seemed to underscore the Irish people’s devotion to their religious traditions. There was even a baby boom following the papal visit, leading economist David McWilliams to write a bestseller called The Pope’s Children, on the generation growing up during the pre-2008 economic boom.

But in retrospect the 1979 visit looks like the end of traditional Catholic Ireland. John Waters has written that the Irish people responded to Pope John Paul’s rock star charisma without paying attention to his message.

Since then, the decline in Catholic tradition and observance has been constant and accelerating – with the generations of 1979 and after in the lead. Same-sex marriage was passed comfortably in a 2015 referendum, and the country’s abortion laws liberalised by an even larger margin this year. A country that used to be a virtual Catholic theocracy has now become one where politicians openly demand that the Vatican should change doctrine to fit public opinion. One of the main reasons for the shift has of course been the scandals that have rocked the Irish Church since the 1990s, particularly the mishandling of sex abuse cases and the exposure of Dickensian conditions in care homes. In the view of most Irish people, the Church has betrayed the trust placed in it and forfeited any claim to speak on sexual morality. The old deference has gone forever.

And at least part of the explanation for Pope Francis’s popularity in Ireland is the perception that he talks less about sex and more about climate change and poverty than his predecessors.

But the issue of sexual abuse is still explosive for the Church in Ireland. There will be abuse survivors participating in the WMOF and meeting the Pope, though even those, like Marie Collins, who want to work with the Church to improve its handling of abuse are frustrated by how difficult this is in practice. There are others who will be joining a rally organised by Amnesty’s executive director Colm O’Gorman, who argues that the WMOF and papal visit are by their very nature a whitewash. Many more have simply turned their back on the Church.

And the fresh outbreak of scandals in the United States this summer has drawn much attention in Ireland. The disgrace of the former Archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick – long one of the American Church’s most influential fixers – has been followed by the devastating Pennsylvania grand jury report into the mishandling of abuse claims by the state’s dioceses over many decades.

This is what led Belfast priest Fr Patrick McCafferty, himself a sexual abuse survivor, to call for Pope Francis to cancel his trip. Citing the McCarrick scandal and the Karadima case in Chile, which has led all that country’s bishops to offer their resignations, Fr McCafferty argued that there would be too many people present with questions to answer about what they had known, and there was a danger that the Pope would compromise himself by taking part.

There is no chance that Pope Francis will pull out of his visit at this point. But there have been last-minute withdrawals from two prominent American cardinals, Donald Wuerl of Washington, who has been under fire for his response to the McCarrick scandal and the grand jury report, and Seán O’Malley of Boston.

Cardinal O’Malley has explained that he has urgent matters to attend to in his own archdiocese. But, given his reputation for taking a zero-tolerance approach to cleaning up Boston, that he is president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and that he led the apostolic visitation to Dublin in 2011, his absence is a major blow.

Aside from the abuse issue, the WMOF has also faced the problem that, rather than being an event where the Church can speak with one voice, it has become a microcosm of the broader Catholic culture wars. A roster of speakers which aimed to include different viewpoints has inevitably upset observers more than bringing them together; the event has been criticised as anti-gay due to the presence of outspoken figures such as the Italian philosopher Rocco Buttiglione, while conservatives have been unhappy that prominent liberals such as Fr James Martin – who is leading a workshop on LGBT issues – are taking part.

More seriously, the WMOF’s theme is based on Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s exhortation on marriage, which has been one of the Church’s most contentious documents in recent memory. The most controversial section of Amoris – the ambiguous footnote on Communion for civilly remarried divorcees – has seen dioceses and bishops’ conferences around the world issuing contradictory guidelines, while Rome has been unwilling to clear up the question of what the footnote actually means. This has spilled over into the move by a majority of German bishops to allow Communion for Protestant spouses in mixed marriages.

As a result of the Amoris Laetitia controversy, the whole event is so unacceptable to some conservative Catholics that a parallel conference promoting traditional Catholic teaching on the family is taking place just outside Dublin at the same time. The conference has attracted some prominent speakers, such as Bishop Athanasius Schneider, with Cardinal Raymond Burke scheduled to take part via video link.

However, it is unlikely to attract much popular support in Ireland. The dominant narrative is that conservatives are to blame for both the scandals and for blocking efforts to clean up the Church, though evidence from around the world suggests that the abuse issue does not follow ideological lines.

So Pope Francis faces a huge task in Ireland. He must try to bridge divisions in the Church which have been growing for decades but have become much sharper in recent years. He also needs to reach out to a secular world that is unreceptive to Catholic teaching on moral and family issues. And Ireland is possibly the most challenging country where he could try to do this. It will be extremely difficult.

Jon Anderson is a freelance writer

This article first appeared in the August 24 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here