This week marks the beginning of the Clonard Novena, Belfast’s hugely popular annual manifestation of folk Catholicism. Therefore it seems fitting that we resume our series on things about Ireland that the Irish left don’t get, with a brief look at religion. Here too we see a congruence between the Anglocentric Irish left and the South Dublin neo-democrats, really on the level of Britain being taken as normative and those aspects of Irish society that are deemed un-British, as symptoms of Irish backwardness. Which is sometimes true, but you can’t put together an analysis of Irish society on that basis.
First, let us take the separation of church and state. This is a demand you often hear, and you’re as likely to read it in the Irish Times as the Socialist Worker. Trouble is, this betrays a deep constitutional illiteracy. Under the 1937 Bunreacht, there is in fact already a separation between church and state, which is why the Vatican withheld its endorsement at the time. Article 44 asserts that “The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.” Bearing in mind the intellectual climate in 1937, this is rather minimalist, and bears comparison with the Free State constitution of 1922 as enacted by the British parliament. The original sections 2 and 3 of the article, deleted by the Fifth Amendment in 1973, went on to recognise the various Protestant and Jewish denominations by name and to give a special nod to the Catholic Church as the denomination embracing the large majority of citizens.
The reader will note, and I believe the Supreme Court will bear me out on this, that the Church has no role in the direction of the State, nor vice versa. Both are kept to their particular spheres. And, although I would happily delete all religious references, nor does the religious flummery in the Preamble or the presidential oath of office have any administrative importance – we know this because we know from experience that there can be a Protestant president. Admittedly, this isn’t nearly as good as the succinct provision in the US constitution’s First Amendment that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
It is, however, better than the situation in the metropolis, where both England and Scotland (though not Wales) have established churches. Actually, the Banana Republic is somewhat unusual amongst European states in not having a constitutional link between church and state, such as exists in Spain or the Scandinavian countries. One would have thought that, to be logically consistent, our Anglophiles would be demanding a constitutional link. After all, D4’s grand project for the 26 counties is to turn it into a sort of expanded version of the Isle of Man, with all that that implies. Only maybe without the Manxmen’s ornery sense of independence.
The demand for separation of church and state is actually a misnomer, the same way that Irish bien-pensants say “pluralism” when they mean “secularism”, because they fear they couldn’t get support for secularism. When we hear the demand for separation of church and state, what’s usually involved is the wish that the churches, and specifically the Catholic Church, should be turfed out of the education system. I actually agree with that, it’s just that I wish the advocates of that perspective would say so.
A similar misnomer is in the frequent call for the Catholic bishops to “stay out of politics”. If memory serves, the last time the bishops entered party politics in a serious way was during the Civil War, when they came down firmly on the Treatyite side. Since then, interventions on referenda or specific bits of legislation have pretty much been restricted to issues touching on Catholic moral teaching, and specifically sexual morality. It really shouldn’t be surprising that Catholic bishops would speak out on issues of Catholic morality – one suspects that our bien-pensants are more pained by the tendency of lay Catholics to follow Catholic doctrine.
In fact, as far as D4 goes, there is a large dollop of hypocrisy here. The neo-democrats have been more than happy in the past for Catholic clergy to speak out on the correct issues, as for instance condemning armed struggle in the North, in contradiction to Catholic “just war” doctrine. The more thinking elements are also aware of the Catholic Church’s history of adaptation to power, including the imperial power (the Church’s leading role in the abandonment of the Irish language in favour of English springs to mind). Our leftist burger-flippers have the merit of being less hypocritical: they just want the Church to shut up and go away. Again, I’d be quite sympathetic to that if at least they would state their case openly.
The point here, I think, is that England, except for a few marginal areas, is basically a post-religious society while Ireland is not. Weekly church attendance is well under 10% in England, while even in Dublin you would be talking about 50-60%, and more like 80-90% in rural areas. Nobody really takes the Church of England seriously, while Irish people – and not just Catholics – do have a tendency to take their religion extremely seriously. There is a reason beyond style why Father Ted has a sharp satirical edge, at least to the Irish eye, while The Vicar of Dibley is just light joshing.
Not that this holds back our historical materialists. For decades now Swiss Toni has been proclaiming that the Catholic Church is finished as a force in Irish society, the wish being father to the thought. The corollary of that is that Catholicism is in all circumstances a reactionary force. I’m not sure that is true even in the historical sense – the major ideological challenge to McQuaidism back in the day came not from the tiny Communist movement nor from whatever was the analogue to the Irish Humanist Association, but from the Social Justice Thomists. Even today, most of the reports on poverty and inequality in the Celtic Tiger emanate not from the left, nor from trendy NGOs, but from the religious orders. I believe Swiss has been modulating his line of late, but that derives not from an improved understanding of Ireland, but from the pro-Islamic line of the parent company in London. Hence Richard Boyd Barrett, at Marxism a couple of years back, arguing that there were “positive aspects” to Islamic fundamentalism – can you imagine him claiming positive aspects for Catholic fundamentalism?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not by any means a defender of the Catholic Church. But it’s worth remarking that a fair slice of our body politic, not to mention the radical movement, have attitudes to Catholicism that closely parallel Paisleyism. Except they don’t have Big Ian’s theological justifications to fall back on.