Tag Archives: John Charles McQuaid

The Story of the West: III – The Origins of Freedom

Sean O’Conaill © Reality Dec 2007

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ” (US Declaration of Independence 1776)

Everywhere in the world in the time of Christ, slavery existed – in countries as far apart as Ireland and China. Two thousand years later the right to personal freedom is inscribed in the world’s great documents, and protected by most of the world’s governments.

The scourge of enslavement still exists for far too many, of course – but there is a global consensus that slavery is not only morally wrong but economically indefensible. While the ancient Greeks and Romans considered slavery essential to their success, the educated world now knows that slavery makes people unproductive – that we are most industrious when we are personally free.

Where did the idea of freedom come from? Most languages do not even have a word for the idea. It arose in one civilisation only – western Europe, in the Middle Ages. Catholic Europe, that is.

Here again, those who see Christianity as the root of all evil will deny that the Catholic Church could have had anything to do with the ending of slavery. They will point out that Jesus did not directly condemn it, that St Paul taught slaves to be obedient, that popes owned galley slaves as late as 1796, and that it was not until the 1800s that the papacy came finally to declare slavery immoral.

All of this is true – but the historical record is nevertheless clear: all effective anti-slavery movements were deeply influenced by another idea – an idea that developed in Catholic Europe alone, long before the Protestant Reformation: the idea that everyone is essentially equal in dignity.

That idea could not have come from Plato or Aristotle, the great philosophers of ancient Greece. Both believed that some peoples were superior to others, and that the slavery of many was essential to the prosperity and power of the Greek city state. Plato personally owned slaves. The ‘democracy’ of Athens was not based on the principle of ‘one man one vote’, but on the superiority of ethnic Greeks, all of them free to own slaves, who could not vote. In Plato’s ideal ‘Republic’ this elitism would have been retained.

The seed for the overthrow of slavery is to be found in the New Testament alone. St Paul did indeed teach slaves to be obedient, but he also taught masters to treat slaves well “knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with Him”. In other words, in the eyes of God we are all equal: “In Christ Jesus …there is neither slave nor free”.

It was for this very reason that slaves too were to receive the sacrament of baptism. Sacramental equality inevitably slowly undermined civil inequality. After an exhaustive study of the sources the agnostic secular sociologist Rodney Stark insists:

“Slavery ended in medieval (i.e. Catholic) Europe [only] because the church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then managed to impose a ban on the enslavement of Christians.”

By the third century the church had a pope, Callistus (d. 236) who had himself been a slave. With the fall of the western Roman empire in the fifth century, the pressure to end slavery increased. Priests began to urge the freeing of slaves as an “infinitely commendable act”. By the late 700s Charlemagne opposed slavery. By the 800s slavery was declared by some theologians to be “against divine law”.

Another scandalous era of slavery opened in the West with the voyages of exploration of the 1400s that gave European ships access to black Africa, and the incentive to ship slaves to imperial territories in north and south America. This too the papacy was far too slow to condemn unequivocally, yet even in the 1500s, some popes angrily condemned slavery in the Americas.

By now many Christians held that slavery was positively sinful. Here again we see the possibility for progress in Christian theology – as St Augustine had predicted. And it was this conviction that provided most fuel for the victories of the anti-slavery movement in the 1800s.

Uniquely among the world’s Religions, Christianity had not simply argued that all were equal in the sight of God, but provided most of the political momentum for the eventual overthrow of slavery. While the church is often pilloried for the slow progress of freedom in Europe, few secularist intellectuals have faced the reality that elsewhere in the world there was no progress at all. This was true especially of Islam. It was true even of China – often held up by secularists as a more advanced civilisation because its intelligentsia was irreligious.

And it was from these Christian principles of human dignity and human equality that another key modern principle emerged also: the principle of equal human rights.

Secularist opponents of Christianity will deny this, of course. They will argue that the principle of human rights was the child of the Enlightenment, an anti-Christian movement of the 1600s and 1700s.

But we now know that the US Declaration of Independence of 1776 owed its theory of human rights to the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). And that Locke frankly admitted his own debt to Catholic moral theologians of the Middle Ages who had developed the Christian principle of equal human dignity. If all are equal in dignity, it followed that Christians have binding obligations to all other humans. From these binding obligations, and from no other source, proceeds the principle that all humans are owed – i.e.have a right to – e.g. freedom

A further embarrassment for those who want to see the Enlightenment as the original source of freedom and human rights is the fact that the great Voltaire, high priest of the Enlightenment, invested the considerable profits of his own writings in the 18th century French slave trade, based at Nantes.

It was a vast tragedy for the Catholic church that the Christian origins of freedom became hidden even from the papacy in the period after the Enlightenment. Fearing the rise of democracy and the principle of religious freedom, Catholic bishops and popes, usually the sons of aristocratic Catholic families, mistakenly often condemned these. The belief that “error has no rights” was adhered to by Catholic churchmen well into the lifetime of many of us.

It was also a great tragedy for Catholicism in Ireland that when our church did eventually embrace the principle of religious freedom at Vatican II in 1965, our most powerful churchman was Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin. He too believed that error had no rights, and that it was perfectly legitimate for him and his fellow bishops to seek to control the Irish state directly. His extraordinary determination to control every aspect of Irish life until his resignation in 1971 earned for Irish Catholicism a reputation for clericalism and authoritarianism that virtually guaranteed the victory of secularism in the generation that followed.

Archbishop McQuaid mistakenly obliged every Catholic in his diocese to define Catholic loyalty in terms of unquestioning obedience and intellectual deference to him personally. This clericalist spirit still pervaded Catholic Ireland in the era of the council, and sabotaged its liberating potential here. Forced to choose between the role of ‘lackey to the bishop’ and the supposedly secular principle of freedom, many, many Irish people felt obliged, even in conscience, to choose the latter and to reject Catholic belief.

This is one of the most important reasons for the growth of Irish secularism and anticlericalism in recent decades. It explains why our media constantly exploit church scandals and why it is now so difficult for Irish Catholic churchmen to get a fair public hearing, especially in matters like stem cell research.

Catholic authoritarianism has always played into the hands of those who want to argue that the greater freedom of western culture is an entirely secular achievement, and that religion and freedom must always be opposed. And this in turn has led to a situation in Ireland where secularism is now so powerful that many Catholics feel ashamed to identify themselves as Catholics in public.

The solution is not to seek to restore the ‘Catholic Ireland’ of Archbishop McQuaid but to understand the Catholic roots of western freedom and to take pride, publicly, in that fact. We need to make ourselves entirely at home in neutral secular space and to educate ourselves to the facts of western history – refusing to take for granted secularist propaganda aimed at shaming us and driving Catholicism out of the public square entirely.

In particular we need to point out to secularists that the Catholic roots of western civilisation are far more than a matter of Catholic opinion. They are now confirmed by globally renowned scholars who are not even Christian. One of the most important is Rodney Stark, the ground-breaking American sociologist. I have used his recent book Victory of Reason as my most important source for these articles. Written with great clarity and honesty, it should be read by every educated Catholic.

Another is the German atheist philosopher Jurgen Habermas. Disturbed by various decadent tendencies in western society, and by the growing threat of terrorism since 9/11, he made the following declaration in a 2004 essay A Time of Transition:

“Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilisation. To this day, we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is post-modern chatter.”

Armed with this same knowledge, Irish Catholics of tomorrow will have no need to feel defensive about their faith or ashamed to proclaim it as the source of their own idealism in the secular world.

Claiming our own place in pluralist Irish secular society we must now also be unafraid to ask anti-Catholic secularists if they really know the origins of the values, and especially the freedom, they hold sacred.

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: VIII – Division in the Church

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

“Where in the Gospels does the Lord say: ‘Thou shalt be right?'”
Fr Richard Rohr O.F.M.

When I was going through Catholic secondary school in Dublin in the 1950s I was never taught that there could be serious disagreement within our Church. The notion that there could be different schools of thought in an infallible institution never surfaced.

The often-repeated phrase ‘the church teaches’ implied that it could speak with only one voice – on everything.

The intention behind this ‘single voice’ theory of the church was to reinforce for us young people the church’s authority. Our teachers thought back then that if the church was believed to have just one voice – on everything – we would then know exactly what to believe. The church was a rock – and all the atoms in a rock move together, like well-trained soldiers. There was a fear that if we all started thinking for ourselves the rock would crumble into dust.

However, the effect of this kind of education was to send my mind to sleep. If all of the most important questions had already been answered by theologians and philosophers long dead – and those answers were now as fixed and final as the multiplication tables – then what could I ever hope to discover for myself? I went to university in the early 1960s expecting, with no great enthusiasm, to have the dull certitudes of secondary school reinforced.

Instead I found people of my own age arguing over virtually everything – and my mind woke up.

And then I learned that in a great council of the Catholic church taking place at that very time in Rome, there was deep disagreement between conservative and liberal church leaders and theologians. I became totally fascinated by those disagreements, and tended to take the liberal side.

I have never since lost that fascination, and never stopped thinking about the great questions the council raised. Had I gone on supposing that Catholicism was all about everyone thinking the same about everything, I would certainly have abandoned it long ago – because asking questions is obviously what our minds are for. And finding the answers – or at least some of them – for oneself – is by far the most exciting thing anyone can ever do.

I became a liberal then because I believed in freedom, especially the freedom to think my own thoughts. My main subject was history – and I loved the story of my own era – the story of the triumph of freedom and democracy. I was appalled that Catholic church leaders could ever have sided with the cause of an unequal society, ruled by aristocrats who inherited wealth and power. The God who freed the Jews from the Egyptians must surely be the same God who was at that very moment, through Martin Luther King, teaching African Americans to sing  Let My People Go and We Shall Overcome.

So I was deeply disappointed when Irish church leaders, led by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin, took a negative view of the council and told us that it should not disturb “the tranquillity of our Christian lives”. For me no pope since John XXIII has come close to matching his confidence that the Holy Spirit is busy renewing the church.

Yet now I find myself arguing vigorously with Christian liberals who go too far towards an accommodation with modern secular ideas, belittling the faith of past eras, and especially the faith of the earliest Christians. My questioning, and the deepest experiences of my life, have led me to the conviction that the fundamental statements made in the creeds are essentially true and need to be upheld: Christian identity and freedom depend upon them.

What is it that divides liberals and conservatives in the church?

The best answer I can come up with goes as follows. Conservatives hold to the notion of an unchanging church – a church that has always been the same. Changing anything means tampering with what we have received – and that is to endanger what God has given us.

Liberals insist the church must change if it is to survive. The worldview of the early Christians included beliefs that have been scientifically disproved (for example that the earth was fixed centrally in the universe, and everything else, including the sun, revolved around it). To hold to that worldview is to invite the ridicule of educated people, the liberals insist – so our Christianity must change to include what science teaches.

How Christians react to the word progress can often tell us which camp they belong to. Liberals have no problem with it, often terming themselves progressives. Conservatives, however, often associate progress with the abandonment of what they wish to retain. It is almost the equivalent of apostasy – the rejection of their faith.

Another key phrase to which liberals and conservatives usually react differently is ‘the modern world’. Conservatives want no accommodation with the modern world, because this too smacks of an abandonment of what the church has always been – a critic of the world. Liberals, on the other hand insist that if it is to survive in the modern world the church must adapt itself to that world – otherwise it will not be taken seriously.

I am now convinced that conservatives are quite right to complain about the modern world – and that liberals are perfectly correct to say we must adapt to it. Let me explain.

When Jesus said I have overcome the world I believe he meant that he had resisted the temptation to be a success as success was defined in that world: in military, political and religious terms. He was not to be just another David who would declare a new independent Jewish kingdom, and precipitate another war with Rome. He was a messiah sent to lead us – all of us – to a peaceful world that lies beyond any we can imagine – because our understanding of success is the acclaim of our own era , and our era – led by the media – will acclaim virtually anything.

To adapt our faith to our own era I believe that we must see the potential that contemporary culture presents for raising questions about the meaning of success today – understood especially as the acquisition of wealth and celebrity.

We must also do what true Christians have always done: challenge contemporary culture by identifying the human flaw of mere mindless conformity – and choose to be different.

We are at a moment in time when true freedom – Gospel freedom – is both possible and needed by the world. It is a moment when the minds of many people are open and searching. We must seize that moment.

One example of seizing the moment lies in the language of secularism itself. For example, many educated people today have been influenced by the ideas of a great psychologist called Abraham Maslow. His work on human motivation suggests that beyond the satisfaction of material human needs, and even the need for success, lies the need for self-actualization – the full realization of one’s personal gifts and potential.

There is absolutely no reason why Christians should not define this need in Christian terms. We need above all to become our true selves – the persons that God wants us to be – making full use of the talents he has given us.

In Christian spirituality, human gifts are not simply the possession of the one who has been gifted: they belong to the community also. To fully realize our gifts, and to become truly free, we must understand the freedom that lies in voluntary service.

And conservatives are right to insist that the church can never change: it must be centred on its founder. Yet liberals are also right to insist that the church must learn to speak to the modern world in a language that it understands – because Jesus would have done that too.

He would not have said “forget self-actualisation and seek salvation instead”. He would instead have asked: Can you truly fulfil all of your gifts without seeking first the greatest of all – the gift of love?

By a remarkable coincidence the word salvation is very close in meaning to the word salutary meaning conducive to health. And the word holy is very close to the word whole . We cannot be whole – self-actualised – or healthy , or saved , until we are centred upon the source of all love and all truth: the being we Christians know as God.

And while conservatives are right to insist that there can be no progress in moving away from the truth, liberals are right to say that we can make progress towards understanding and expressing that truth more clearly.

Stupid Christian evangelism – the kind that talks about being saved as though the meaning of that word had not been almost bankrupted by mere repetition – has done enormous damage to Christianity by failing to connect its convictions with the language, and thought, of our time.

How many saved people have we met who have a clear idea of what they mean by the word? They usually remind us of nothing more clearly than those daft young Chinese fanatics who waved the little red book of Mao Zedong during the cultural revolution in the 1960s.

I spent the first ten days of June 2004 in the close company of someone who has a completely different take on Vatican II – Tom Lennon, founder of United Christian Aid. Just a few years younger than I, he reacted strongly against the liturgical changes introduced after the council, and decided it was part of a vast Masonic conspiracy to overthrow the church.

I am quite convinced, on the other hand, that the theory of a global Masonic anti-Christian conspiracy began with elitist Catholic clerics who opposed democratic ideas – especially the idea of human equality – at the time of the French Revolution. To see Vatican II as part of a Masonic plot is, I believe, deeply mistaken, even perverse.

So I sometimes found Tom uncomfortable company. Yet I deeply respect him for something that we liberals too often lack – a commitment to helping people who do not have the luxury of being able to discuss great questions on the Internet or anywhere else – the poor of Eastern Europe. He founded a charity for that purpose, and gave me the priceless gift of an experience of that work.

Because I have spent time with Tom I now know why he did it. He believes that God is a pure spirit of love who wishes to rebuild the world on that principle. That, for me, is a Vatican II principle – so Tom and I can work together on that shared principle. All our disagreements are secondary to it

That, I believe, is why Jesus made loving, not knowing, the highest priority for all of us. He never told us to be right – to spend our lives amassing so much knowledge that we can tell everyone else where they are wrong.

Life is a pilgrimage that will end only when we die. An essential element of that pilgrimage is the road our minds travel, asking and re-asking the great questions. We must never suppose that we have understood everything, and must be constantly open to the questions and answers of others. To suppose that the point we have now reached is our final position – an exalted platform from which we can now criticize the ideas of everyone else – is to declare our pilgrimage at an end prematurely. There is always something more to learn – so intellectual arrogance is always unwise.

It is time we liberals and conservatives learned to continue our disagreements while we travel together as pilgrims, doing our utmost as we travel to lift the burdens that lie so heavily on others – co-operating for that purpose. It is time to put Christian love above everything else – even the need to be right.

Catholic conservatives and liberals will both be right if we obey the great commandment of the Lord – to love one another. We will all be wrong if we don’t.

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?