BOOK REVIEW: The Best Catholics in the World by Derek Scally

Review by John L. Murphy

In 1979, a million folks witnessed a Papal Mass in Dublin celebrated by John Paul II. Back then, he faced an enthusiastic throng totaling about one out of four citizens in the Republic of Ireland. Almost 40 years later, Francis arrived from the Vatican to convene similarly. Despite the population since having grown by at least a million, only around 250,000 tickets were sold. How one of the most Catholic nations under the eye of Rome imploded during the intervening years spurs Derek Scally to return from Berlin to his native city after two decades abroad. He’s a “grappling” member of the Church: unsure about its doctrine “and uneasy about its effect on my life, yet better now to appreciate the beauty, and see how many of the toxic elements I remember were as much Irish as Catholic.” This astute phrasing demonstrates this veteran journalist’s skillful means of inquiry.

The subtitle of The Best Catholics in the World: The Irish, the Church and the End of a Special Relationship alludes to the fawning attitude that a vast majority of the Irish at least tolerated; many embraced this obsequiousness as their tribal loyalty. As Scally notes (if in only an aside, eliding an issue meriting more attention), the diplomatic ties forged during the 19th century tightened when an Irish government emerged from guerrilla and civil warfare in 1922. Inextricably, a censorious moral code obsessed with patrolling sex bonded with “a uniquely Irish model of education with in-built religious indoctrination.” Furthermore, hospitals and social services which Ireland had established as a parallel support system under the rule of the Crown meant that the Church had preceded the Republic as to their control in an impoverished post-World War I, rural-dependent economy.

The author intersperses his own “special relationship” as he surveys sad stories all too familiar to Catholics in many nations over the past couple of generations; while these have in part been exposed, centuries of the same patterns of abuse must have silenced countless victims, ancestors of these present-day defectors. When Scally visits his suburban northside-Dublin parish, he finds it nearly desolate. Such that “at some Masses, the brass memorial plaques outnumber the attendees. People come and go, as much out of habit and social outlets as faith.”

Although any analogy remains absent in this book, Scally shares many tales over drink. In this milieu, one may match this with the enduring pull of the pub for so many compatriots: ideally, a “public house” for camaraderie rather than a place to simply get hammered, at least for some communicants. In both cases, the shift from conviviality to discomfort, as society grows more punitive as to speech but less admonitory as to sexuality, represents the Church’s predicament. Boldly trying to please the modern world since circa 1960, now its structures, whether functional dreary parish sanctuaries from that decade of confident expansion, or lofty naves from fervent eras, echo rather than resound with eager congregants.

The juxtaposition of Scally’s own struggles to understand the collapse of this most formidable and stereotypical of institutions long ruling over the Irish imagination and its expression in daily actions, with the series of emerging and—at least for a current Irish audience—already, alas, too-familiar perpetrations of injustice makes painful reading. Scally sprinkles in his own deft research from an impressively varied array of media documenting his sources. This feature may assist future scholars as well as inquirers into how Irish became no longer synonymous with Catholic among what once was about a 94% majority, within memory of millions, many of whom have sharply turned away from this mythic “faith of their fathers.”


The author intersperses his own “special relationship” with the Church as he surveys sad stories all too familiar to Catholics over the past couple generations.

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John L. Murphy


Medievalist turned humanities professor; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica. Review eagerly and eclectically in academic journals and for online media. Born and raised in Los Angeles where he just missed being a native of Ireland, where his complexion and he belong. He blogs at, logically, Blogtrotter (

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