Others today, however, would be highly critical of aspects of the vision of Cullen’s reform. Cullen’s was a reform from above, but perhaps only an outsider could have done it. His was a Roman reform, but at that time the elements for a more Irish reform were not easily at hand. Newman himself was dismayed at the lack of an Irish Catholic elite, due to the fact that Irish Catholics on the whole were excluded from university education.
Cullen’s predecessor, Archbishop Daniel Murray had a different vision. He would have been in favour of a greater participation Catholics in the public life of the day. He was almost the only Irish Bishop to be favourable to the participation of Catholics in the Queens Colleges and in the national school system as originally proposed. One can really ask “what if” Archbishop Murray’s idea had prevailed and the Catholic Church had become a different style of partner in the Irish educational system. But the “what if” analysis can easily be superficial because it tends to look at the question of the past in the light of the culture of today. One would have to remember that Archbishop Murray was universally regarded by his Episcopal colleagues as being a very holy man, but they thought of him as a little politically naïve, underestimating the intentions of Dublin Castle and of the not entirely unfounded suspicion of proselytising that was current.
It is interesting that a good deal of the reflection on the history of the Catholic Church in Ireland focuses above all on Church-State and Church-Society relations. This is even more true of current commentary of the life of the Church in Ireland. This is not a criticism of historians or the social commentators of our day. It is a real and at times unique dimension of the history of Irish Catholicism that as the history of a demographically dominant religious confession, there would inevitably be an intense interaction of interests on the part of both the Church and the State, especially at moments of great change.
Interestingly, at the moment of Catholic emancipation there was no Irish Government. Through the Act of Union Irish Catholicism had become a minority confession in the larger United Kingdom, which had its own established Church. This was to have its repercussions as the subsequent struggle for Home Rule was not just political but touched the aspirations of Irish Catholics. It was to have repercussions further anon with the establishment of the Irish independent State where Catholics who had been excluded from participation in the public administration inevitably took up their new political and administrative roles in a climate of a certain re-vindication also for Catholicism.
The change that is taking place in the Irish Church today is much more significant than many imagine. The change that will take place between now and the year 2020 – just eight years away – will be enormous. I am more and more convinced that these years will be the most challenging years that the Irish Church has had to face since Catholic Emancipation. The goal posts have changed and changed definitively.
These are difficult times in the Church; day after day there are those within the Church and outside it who prophecy the end of the Church as a significant factor in Irish society. There are others who feel that the Catholic Church in Ireland is on a suicide path created by its own internal culture. We must realistically recognise the critical situation of the Church, but we should never give in to pessimism and negativism.