The latest utterances of Pope Francis have rather ruined the reputation he was beginning to get among liberals; suggesting that Catholic women do not have to “breed like rabbits” while continuing to forbid the use of contraception confirms that yes, the Pope is a Catholic.
The Bishop of Limerick, Brendan Leahy, has made the eminently sensible suggestion that the age of confirmation be raised to 16. Sensible and liberal, even, in that it acknowledges becoming a Catholic should be a considered choice by a sentient human, Bishop Leahy’s suggestion is worthy of some thought.
In a speech, Bishop Leahy said young people needed to realise that being Catholic is “an option”. He said confirmation “often appears like a pre-fabricated cultural package of Irish heritage we are born into – to be discarded nonchalantly later in life as part of our throwaway culture”.
Most of us were confirmed at the age of 11 or 12, an age at which we are not allowed to enter contracts, beyond a bar of chocolate in the local shop. We’re not allowed to marry, drive or buy a house – that would be absurd – but we are allowed to make a lifelong commitment that will govern how and who we may marry, how our medical treatments may be restricted (for women at least), and how we are dealt with in death. That’s a hell of a lot more commitment than an ill-advised third Curly Wurly when your school uniform is already a bit too tight.
It’s particularly worthy of discussion if you bear in mind that there is no way to leave the Church, once you are a baptised and confirmed Catholic, except to join another one. The website countmeout.ie, set up a number of years ago to give disaffected Catholics a means of formally leaving the church is no longer in operation. The provision of canon law governing defection has been withdrawn. Now, the only way the Catholic Church will recognise that you’ve left it is if you join another one.
This obviously presents a problem for atheists and agnostics. I knew at the age of 11 (after a bizarre religious phase that lasted about a month, in which I set up an altar in my bedroom and read my prayer book every night) that I probably didn’t believe in God, and certainly not the God being described to me in Mass.
I knew when I was confirmed that I didn’t mean it. But it was rural Ireland, it was 1996, and my mother was a teacher in the local, Catholic primary school. The one non-denominational child in the class – we could not get our heads around the fact that his family just had no religion, but they were “back from England”, so that explained that – was given a Confirmation card by the rest of us the day we made them in arts and crafts, because we pitied him missing out on the nervous excitement of the sweaty, giggling rehearsals in the church, the mystic smell of incense and the sense of mystery and mischief combined of a ceremonial occasion and the post-event party.
I was in the church choir because I liked singing, read at Mass because I liked showing off, and was denied my pleas to be an altar server because, given all the revelations of the mid-1990s, my parents were not comfortable with the idea of me alone with a priest, although no priest in my parish was ever even suspected of any scandal. In fact, they were lovely, gentle men, who were ill-served by their hierarchy.
But my issues with the Catholic Church came later, as I learned of institutional abuse, corruption and official attitudes to women and gay people, and are entirely separate from my inherent lack of belief. I didn’t have it then, and although I know I would be comforted by faith, I don’t have it now.
But at 11, I wasn’t old enough to make my own decisions, and because of cultural conventions I am now forever a member of an organisation I don’t believe in. Those cultural conventions are changing. Most Irish children have a schoolmate who isn’t Catholic.
That doesn’t mean parents wouldn’t pressurise 16 year olds into making a decision they don’t want – just look at the college drop-out figures, it happens all the time. But if they are wise, they will realise that they can give their almost-adult the option. They will always have the choice of opting in, but if the decision is made for them, they can never opt out.