Winning Battles, Losing the War
There was a time when we thought we had a fair chance of shaping a new Ireland where, despite the great flux of change, different opinions, values and perspectives would be respected and accepted.
It was a time when we had a sense of the richness that we could draw from our traditions, religious and otherwise, that huge resource that comes under the label ‘Irish heritage’.
It was a time when we believed that change, obvious and inevitable, could be delivered that would draw on the best we could offer as a people.
That emblematic time, the 1960s, was just when Ireland was beginning to flex its economic muscles, communication was developing in spades, travel was making the world a smaller place, and it was clear to every thinking person in Ireland that survival, in every sense and for everyone, meant dealing with change.
This included survival for the Catholic Church too because the dogs in the street could see that the Catholic Church faced an uncertain future, and that a refusal to change would mean that the Church, the dominant institution in the Irish State, would be marginalised and sidelined and, as we know now, its very future threatened.
It was at this critical point that Vatican Two, fortuitously, offered both a vision and a strategy. While older Catholics had been raised on a diet of opposing the sinful wiles of the World, the Flesh and the Devil – usually delivered in stark capitals – younger Catholics were being offered a more tenable menu, the need to greet the instincts of the age in a positive and respectful spirit.
It took time for the Catholic Church to get its head about the emerging truth that if Catholicism didn’t make its peace with the modern world, it would condemn itself to the periphery of Irish life and condemn its adherents to marginal status in the Irish State.
Effectively, the Vatican Council had proposed a way forward that would deliver a workable balance between the freedom of the Church and the freedom of those whose rights could be protected by constitutional law.
Wise heads could see that this harmony between competing values and rights, difficult and all as it might be to achieve it, was not just in the interests of those who rejected Catholicism and were demanding their civil rights but even more so in the interests of the Church. In shaping a new Ireland it was clear that a generous and accommodating spirit would benefit everyone.
Twenty years ago, in a prophetic article in Doctrine and Life, the respected commentator Louis McRedmond wrote that confrontation between the two perspectives imperiled the Irish Catholic Church ‘more than any other phenomenon of our society today’. How right he was.
At the time it was clear to everyone that the dominant and controlling approach of the Catholic Church would be confronted by those who demanded the kind of social legislation – the availability of contraception, divorce, abortion – that as non-Catholics (excuse the term) they felt entitled to in law.
Looking back on the debates (on contraception, divorce, abortion) that divided the nation, neither side was prepared to take a long and respectful approach to the issues. Debates around difficult subjects and competing rights were marked by an absence of generosity on both sides.
Those who argued for liberalisation refused to consider positive elements of Catholic tradition, like the ‘common good’ and, in the cut and thrust of debate, sought to demean and disparage anything that smacked of Catholic life or tradition.
The Catholic side, adopting a similarly confessional attitude, refused to admit or accept the rights of ‘non-Catholics’ (excuse the term, again) to be incorporated into Irish law, when much of the argument, as McRedmond saw it, was ‘selfish nostalgia masquerading as loyalty to the Catholic tradition’.
In the debates, because of the uncompromising and hostile attitudes adopted by both sides, everyone, including the Catholic Church, was diminished.
Neither side would accept that the other had any point. And, in the process, everyone lost.
Remember the pro-life referendum in 1983? Even though it was clear that there was huge support for it – including from Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil – the Irish bishops (or most of them) instinctively realised the collateral damage to Catholicism that it would cause, and wise owls like Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich and Archbishop Joe Cassidy, the spokesman for the Catholic bishops at the time, clearly acknowledged the right of Catholics to oppose the referendum, if their consciences allowed them – and also that such a course, voting No, did not represent a position that favoured abortion.
Even though a few maverick bishops went on solo-runs unilaterally conferring infallibility on their own interpretation of what Catholicism required of civil law, the official position of the bishops was clear, any Catholic had the right to vote No.
Unfortunately, among the ranks of the bishops now, there are no figures with the gumption of Tom Fee or Joe Cassidy, who can see the fall-out from the upcoming same-sex marriage referendum or, if there are, they haven’t the courage to say it.
The presumption is that there is unanimity among the Irish bishops that the referendum needs to be defeated, a conclusion they share with the members of the ultra-Catholic Iona Institute and no doubt later on in the campaign with hard-line Catholic fundamentalists who bring their own brand of unique intolerance to bear on such campaigns.
Individually or collectively has that triumvirate – the bishops, Iona and the hard-line fundamentalists – any idea of the damage they’re doing to the Church they profess to serve with such devotion?
For the Catholic Church, it can be argued that the result of the referendum on same-sex marriage will matter less than the fall-out afterwards. A positive result for ‘Catholic’ forces (the defeat of the referendum) could do huge damage to the Irish Catholic Church.
In every Catholic congregation, for instance, there are gay people and straight people who have gay members of their family and straight people who have gay friends. And haranguing them into voting No in the referendum, regardless of the substance of the arguments offered, will have the effect of driving more and more of them out of the church and out of the Church.
Is there no voice of any substance or any sanity in the Catholic Church in Ireland that has the foresight and the credibility to articulate the wisdom once offered by Tom Fee, Joe Cassidy and their colleagues in 1983? Can someone in authority not say that Catholics follow their own teaching but that legislators have to legislate?
Will the Irish Catholic Church once again ignore the tide offered to it in the Vatican Council and once again continue to contribute so spectacularly to its own demise?