Off the Shelf: The Best Catholics in the World

Off the Shelf: The Best Catholics in the World
The Irish, the Church and the End of a Special Relationship, By Derek Scally.
Review by Terry Kenneally
Sandycove or imprint of Penguin Books ISBN 978-1-844-88526-8 2021 336pp

I remember quite clearly on my first trip to Ireland attending Sunday mass in a small church in Cong, County Mayo, and seeing the small number of attendees, mostly older women. The date was 1997 and at that point, the clerical scandal that would convulse Ireland for the next two decades was still in its infancy, but already sending shock waves through the population.

The slump predicted by Irish Jesuit Michael Paul Gallagher in his book Help My Unbelief in 1983 came to pass, with Mass attendance in various surveys down from over 80 percent in 1990 to around 40 percent in 2010.
The Best Catholics in the World is a result of a three-year journey by Derek Scally, the Irish Times correspondent in Berlin, covering the fall of Catholic Ireland. Scally, from the perspective of twenty years of contented exile, looks at Ireland today and asks himself why there are not more signs of trauma from the foundation of the state in 1922 until well into the 1990s of the unspeakable injustices visited upon children, mostly the children of the poor, and young women who had the misfortune to become pregnant outside of marriage.

Scally covers all aspects of Catholicism in Ireland, including the clerical abuse scandals, and the monumental Ryan report, a five-volume report on sixty reformatories and industrial schools run by the Catholic orders which was dubbed by the Irish Times a “map of an Irish hell.” He extensively covers the infamous Magdalene Laundries and the ‘Magdalene Women’ a blanket term for a heterogenous group of at least 10,000 women: single mothers, victim of rape and abuse, orphans and many more.

The subject of the role of Catholic bishops warrants special mention because of the role they played in the clerical abuse scandal. Like their counterparts in the US, bishops like Sean Brady who failed to stop one of his own from committing child sexual abuse (Brendan Smythe) come in for particular derision.

The Catholic bishops in the U.S. have likewise been exposed for their hypocrisy in dealing with similar scandals while at the same tie many of the same bishops have decided to try and shame the nation’s second Catholic president by threatening to withhold Holy Communion from President Biden and other Catholic politicians who publicly advance policies (abortion) that are nor aligned with the churches.

The fall of Catholic Ireland is an extraordinary story which Derek Scally manages to illuminate from inside out and is a TOP SHELF read.

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