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Abstract

This dissertation examines efforts to transform and revitalize Catholicism in the Republic of Ireland, which over the past thirty years has largely discarded its historic reputation for devotion and deference to the Roman Catholic Church. While the Catholic hierarchy wielded considerable power in Irish society for much of the twentieth century, its political influence and moral authority have been greatly diminished by two phenomena: a shift in popular attitudes and values associated with Ireland’s economic growth; and, the revelation of widespread abuse of children and women in Church-run institutions. In recent years, the Church’s diminished influence over Irish society has been seen in the public’s support for laws that conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church. For example, in 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular referendum; just three years later, Irish citizens voted in a landslide to expand legal access to abortion. Although international news media have interpreted these votes as a rejection of Catholicism, this dissertation contends that what is occurring is not a rejection at all; rather, Irish people are remaining Catholic, but they are living their Catholicism in new ways. The dissertation draws on sixteen months of ethnographic research at a variety of sites, including a Catholic faith formation group, a series of abortion rights workshops, and the civil society campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, Ireland’s constitutional prohibition on abortion. I show that across these sites, Irish people are striving to change popular and deeply-entrenched understandings of Catholic morality and ethical action that emphasize unquestioning adherence to the Church’s moral teachings by challenging the moral authority of the Catholic hierarchy and by reconfiguring relationships between the laity, the hierarchy, and the Irish state. The dissertation makes three interrelated arguments. First, lay Catholics are mobilizing and sometimes creatively reworking Catholic sources to make the questioning of the hierarchy’s moral teachings, including those on moral authority itself, a legitimate part of being a “good Catholic”. Second, lay Catholics are framing the historic entanglement of the hierarchy’s regime of moral discipline with Irish state governance as an impediment to the transformations in the Catholic Church they desire to bring about. They have two ways of challenging that entanglement: seizing the work of providing moral education from the hierarchy; and, separating Catholic moral teachings from Irish law. Finally, because Church authority in Ireland was historically secured and maintained through the control of social and biological reproduction, it is in the domain of reproduction that Catholicism is being remade.

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