Vintage pamphlets offer a glimpse at the rules of 50s-era Irish Catholicism


Pamphlets were designed to attract the attention of young Catholics.
Pamphlets were designed to attract the attention of young Catholics. 

You young ones are going to have to be a bit patient with us oldies this week.

Because this week the “Ireland Calling” column is dipping into the past, into a different time in Ireland when everyone not only said they were Catholic but behaved like real Catholics.  And in those days, real Catholics were obedient and unquestioning.

These days, Catholicism is very different. Everything is questioned.

Instead of being obedient, people pick and choose what they want to believe and which rules they want or don’t want to follow.  The church has lost its power, for reasons we all know about.  People have become a la carte Catholics.

When I was a kid growing up in midlands Ireland there was no such thing as a Catholic who treated the church’s set of rules like a menu from which you were free to choose.  You were free, of course, to follow your conscience, but it had to be what the church called an “informed conscience.”

And an informed conscience was one which was educated enough to understand and accept all of the church’s rules and teachings.  So you were free to decide as long as your conscience came to the right conclusion.  A kind of Catholic Catch-22!

A similar deal applied to the fundamental beliefs of the Catholic religion. Let’s say you had trouble believing that the little white wafer and the cheap red wine actually turned into the body and blood of Christ in the middle of Mass.  Or you had difficulty understanding how Mary could have conceived without having sex, or how later on she floated up to heaven through the clouds in a process called the Assumption.

Or you even had a problem believing that Christ had come back to life again after being dead for three days.

Well, there was no need to worry.  In fact there was no need to even think about it too much, because back in the 1950s and ‘60s when I was growing up, thinking too much was the worst thing a “good Catholic” could do.
There was no need for it, you see, as long as you had what the church called “the gift of faith.”  Having faith meant that you believed in things that you could not prove or understand, things like transubstantiation (the wafer and wine transformation), the Resurrection, the Assumption and a whole lot of other stuff that defied science, reason and logic.

The “gift of faith” enabled you to believe in these extraordinary things without having to give yourself a headache from too much thinking.  It was a great system, you have to agree.

The Pope was infallible, so he could never be wrong about the beliefs and teachings of the Catholic Church.  Whatever he decided and the bishops and priests relayed down the line to you was all you needed to know.

It wasn’t a matter of proof; it was a matter of acceptance.  If you had a problem with that, you were told to pray for “the gift of faith.”

It was a closed system of total power.  The Islamic ayatollahs these days must admire the total control the Catholic Church had over its followers back then.

This power and control filtered down to the local parish level in Ireland where the priest was rarely if ever questioned on matters of Catholic faith.  This turned many of them into mini despots who would tolerate nothing except absolute obedience to all the rules of the Catholic Church. Especially anything to do with “occasions of sin” when any form of sexual contact, no matter how minor, might be possible!

It was a different time, especially in Ireland where Catholicism and nationalism had been interwoven into the fabric of the new state. Even though many of us saw through the mind control and rejected it early on, it is still extraordinary now to look back and remember what it was like.

Memories of that time were brought back last week when a new book appeared here published by Veritas, the noted Catholic publisher in Ireland.

Anyone who grew up in Ireland in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s -- and even later -- will remember the racks of Catholic Truth Society pamphlets in the foyers of Catholic churches all over the country.  These little booklets were designed to sooth the troubled minds of young Catholics at the time who might be having “problems of faith.”