Why Ireland is Godless: Secularism as Divine Retribution

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish Times 1998

Recently Joe Foyle wondered why ‘God is missing but not missed’ from the common discourse of Ireland. The reasons he gave were interesting but came nowhere near the nub of the matter. Although the advance of liberal secularism is clearly God’s verdict on Catholic hierarchical paternalism, we simply haven’t woken up to this yet. We still blame God for this paternalism instead of crediting Him with its demise.

In the seventeenth century the Catholic hierarchy alienated the scientists of Europe by silencing Galileo. In the eighteenth it alienated most other intellectuals by indiscriminately rejecting the Enlightenment. From 1789 it alienated the disciples of liberal democracy by opposing the perfectly Christian notion of political and social equality. Having identified Christ with obscurantism, tyranny, inequality and selfishness it made sure He would be (almost) rejected by history itself. Since the future lay with science and democracy the hierarchy was effectively secularising the future. Anticlerical secularism would inevitably take its revenge in Ireland also. What’s surprising is that it should take so long to do so.

The delay is largely down to British imperialism and the Protestant ascendancy. While Europe’s Catholic intelligentsia were being alienated from the Church from the mid 1600s, Ireland’s were being alienated by Protestant England. Ireland’s history was therefore dominated until this century by political separatism rather than by ideological secularism. As the Catholic clergy shared the exclusion of the Catholic masses they were not alienated from them by privilege as in Catholic France. Instead, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, they gained a position of unexampled influence. Their services to the cause of schooling the Catholic masses, deliberately deprived of education by a frightened Protestant ascendancy, will never be forgotten.

However, the political liberation of Ireland in the 20th century was the beginning of the end of Catholic clerical domination. The reason was simple. At independence the Church gained a position of fatal dominance over the intellectual and political life of Ireland, putting itself in the invidious position of the French Catholic Church in the eighteenth century. In occupying the position of intellectual conservatism and dominance previously held by a Protestant and English ascendancy it was setting itself up as the bête noir of the next phase of Irish liberation.

And meanwhile the Enlightenment had brought a political, social and economic revolution to the rest of western Europe. This eventually revolutionised the content of Irish education also. The Church might control the ethos of most Irish schools, but it could not prevent the secularisation of the curriculum. This eventually enabled an economic revolution and a growth of intellectual independence and sophistication.

Fatally, although Ireland had thrown off a ‘Big House’ social and political system in the 1920s, the Irish Catholic Church retained a ‘Big House’ clerical structure. The opportunity to abandon this with the 2nd Vatican Council in the 1960s was thrown away by the arch- obscurantist John Charles McQuaid. Irish Catholicism remained, at its summit, paternalistic – as Cardinal Conway admitted at the time.

However, clerical paternalism functions by maintaining a mystique of moral superiority around the clergy themselves. So it is peculiarly vulnerable to sexual scandal, and in the 1990s a series of these struck the Irish Church with the force of a hurricane. Just as Voltaire and others had destroyed the mystique of French clericalism by satirising the sexual peccadillos of churchmen in the 1700s, the Irish fourth estate luxuriated in a series of Irish clerical own – goals, beginning with the revelation of Bishop Casey’s fertile affair with Annie Murphy in 1992. In the five years since then the wider attack upon the church which began with the Enlightenment has left the Irish hierarchy shell-shocked and disorientated.

The most recent example of this was Archbishop Desmond Connell’s lament for Ireland’s old political and intellectual order in the Irish Times on October 14th last. That he should propose the return of Ireland’s legislative sovereignty to God – or, by implication, to himself and the rest of the Irish Catholic hierarchy as God’s representatives – is a measure of how rapidly Ireland has changed, and changed forever, in five years. Now we would no sooner return to Europe’s intellectual Ancien Régime than we would to its economic and social system.

Yet there is retributive element in all of this that justifies rather than undermines a belief in the Christian God. Humanity, driven by the irrepressible human desire for freedom and equality, has seen off a whole series of tyrannies these past three hundred years. Would the Christ of the Sermon on the Mount really identify with the social hierarchy of the Ancien Regime? Would the Christ who washed the feet of the apostles regret the advance of social and political equality? Would the Christ who lambasted the hypocrisy of the Pharisees have wanted that of Bishop Casey and other clerics to remain forever secret?

And the truth is also that although the Catholic hierarchy has fought tooth and nail against the reduction of its worldly power in this period, it is far healthier morally as a consequence. Had not Napoleon I and Italian nationalism weakened the Papacy’s territorial control of central Italy when would the Papacy on its own have released the Jews from their ghettoes there? At the end of the 20th century who could take seriously the Church’s claim to identify with the weak and the poor globally were it still a serious European political power, even possibly a full member of the EU?

In fact, if the church is to regain its credibility generally it should explicitly recognise the contradiction inherent in seeking worldly power through its bishops while seeking to serve and to evangelise through its priests and its laity. Christ was unequivocal about worldly power: it was the temptation of the devil. That is why his choice of crucifixion rather than domination still guides the history of the church. If the Irish Catholic Church is to restore God to centre stage in Ireland it must be faithful to the Mass rather than to Peter’s weakness – the tendency to reach for the sword. There is a mass of misery in Ireland today, and it is there, as originally, Christ will be found – not in verbal exhortations aimed at the empowerment of an elite – however well intentioned.

Were Ireland’s Catholic hierarchy instead to recognise that the Church’s greatest historical mistakes resulted from a mistaken search for worldly power, this could free Ireland from the fear of Catholicism that lies at the root of Unionist obduracy in Ireland. It could also make the faith as bright and new as it was when Ireland was an example to Europe – helping to free many throughout the world from the fear that the Christian God is in the end a God of coercion. What an event that would be to mark the new millennium!

In the end Christ and history are in agreement. Both rebuke Peter’s inclination to power, and both tend towards the empowerment of the weak. Why should this be a reason for disbelief?

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