If you’re doing the rounds of the second-hand bookshops and you come across Desmond Fennell’s Nice People and Rednecks, a collection of the great man’s Sunday Press columns from the 1980s, you could do worse than to pick it up. Des’ insights on Irish politics in the Age of Gubu haven’t aged all that badly, and some of them are strikingly relevant now.
Here’s Des writing circa 1983, apropos of a nakedly partisan campaign by Dublin liberals to pressure the Church into declaring membership of Sinn Féin to be sinful, including some aggressive media barracking of the late Cardinal Ó Fiaich:
For the past twenty years or so, since we opened the gates to consumer capitalism, there has been a sort of tacit pressure on the Catholic Church to make its teaching conform to the requirements of the secular power; and the Church has by and large collaborated. But this was the first occasion on which the demands of the secular power were expressed so openly, as if there were now a conscious intention to transform the Catholic Church in Ireland into something like the Anglican Church in England – a state church, a subordinate agency of public policy.
Gone are the days, if they ever really existed, when the secular power or liberals wanted churchmen to ‘keep out of politics’. Only some senile anti-clerical, or hillbilly Republican, would now be so naïve as to raise that slogan! During the past year and more, we have seen the frequent political interventions of the Protestant churches welcomed by the government and the media liberals with open arms, or rather, with awed prostrations. The Protestant churches have most acceptable views on the IRA/Sinn Féin, divorce, contraceptives, abortion, and so on. They want a secularist Ireland. The Taoiseach, the Labour Party, and the media liberals want the same; so naturally they are grateful when the Protestant churches call for secularism.
But the Catholic Church, too, is extremely welcome to intervene in politics, provided that it, too, says the right things. It has been active in condemning the IRA, while remaining silent about many related moral questions; and this has been appreciated. But now it must go further. It must say that divorce would not be a bad thing, and that it is sinful to be a member of Sinn Féin…
It would be something like the Italian Church, some years back, telling Italian Catholics it was immoral to support the Communist Party, or the Irish bishops, during the Civil War, excommunicating the Republicans. Or again, to take a fair analogy, it would be as if the Church, in the late 1920s or early ’30s, had declared it a sin to be a member of Fianna Fáil – for Fianna Fáil, and its leader de Valera, seemed every bit as impious to respectable Ireland in those days as Sinn Féin and Gerry Adams do now. Strange that the self-same people who tell us we have moved far from the bad old days when it was thinkable for the Church to do that sort of thing, should be urging that the Church do precisely that sort of thing now.
Well, Des has always been good at skewering the strange phenomenology of the Dublin liberal mind. But let’s leave behind the Ireland of FitzGerald and return to the Ireland of Cowen. Specifically, we have the Lisbon II referendum coming up in a matter of days. What brought Des’ old piece to mind was that, both prior to and following the defeat of Lisbon I, there were a lot of recriminations going around, and the Catholic Church was not missed out. I direct readers to this discussion during the campaign at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs. Of particular interest is the intervention of Labour’s Joe Costello:
The media, and RTE in particular, are providing imbalanced coverage. The Labour Party launched its campaign on Sunday, subsequent to which Sinn Féin spokesperson, Ms Mary Lou McDonald, MEP, was interviewed and countered every argument put by the Labour Party. Yesterday Fianna Fáil launched its campaign and, again, Ms McDonald was allowed to make her criticisms. That is not balance, it is imbalance. A party with four Deputies is allowed to speak every time coverage is given to parties representing 180 Members. Surely it is time RTE considered the way in which it provides balanced coverage.
I love that because of the way Joe identifies “balance” with “reflecting the Leinster House consensus”, which is precisely the attitude that pisses people off, especially on the Europe issue. But immediately before that Joe stated:
Alive has some connection in that it is published by a religious order, the Dominicans in Tallaght, although I am not sure of the extent to which it has that order’s imprimatur. The literature is entirely politicised and one-sided. It is not religious. As I remarked at our last meeting, I picked up copies of Libertas literature in the Pro-Cathedral. Church leaders need to examine the literature being distributed within churches. The danger arises that ordinary church-goers will accept without question that the information is accurate and has the support of the church leadership.
Joe is here referring to the rambunctious little Catholic tabloid Alive!, which has been vociferously anti-Lisbon. Then and now, other elected representatives have expressed themselves along similar lines – demanding that the Catholic authorities take tough action against anti-Lisbon activism within the Church, or that the bishops should come out strongly in favour of Lisbon. This is precisely the sort of thing Des was talking about all those years ago. It’s not that the bishops shouldn’t intervene in politics, but that they should intervene on the right side.
Actually, on this issue, the transnational progressivists have little to fear from the institutional Church. The thing you have to realise in sociological terms is that, while the Catholic bishops are intimately linked to the Irish establishment, they’re also state bureaucrats – only not appointed by the Irish state but by the Vatican state. As a result, they toe the Vatican line on Europe as on other issues. And the Vatican line on the EU is cautiously positive – as enunciated by Pope Benny, and by JP2 before him, the Vatican has tended to view European integration as a great thing for world peace, while having reservations about the actually existing EU, particularly the untrammelled capitalism bit of it.
This is not an anti-EU stance by any means, but it’s a long way removed from the uncritical cargo-cult Europhilia of most of the Irish political-media-business strata. It means that, if you stick a microphone in front of a bishop, he’ll mumble something positive about Lisbon, but it’s not like the Catholic Church is going to come out and campaign for a Yes vote.
On the other hand, they do like to keep their hand in with the politicos. Most readers of this blog are probably not regular readers of the Irish Catholic, but that organ has been worth watching of late as it’s been doing a fair bit of the government’s job for it. For one thing, it’s been reassuring its readers that Lisbon will in no way put a question mark over Irish abortion laws. For another, it’s been lining up senior clergymen to get stuck into Cóir with gay abandon. In fact, bearing in mind all the republicans, communists and wife-swapping sodomites in the No camp, it’s striking that the Church honchos are more concerned about Cóir. Possibly the hierarchy are working on the theory that Irish political radicalism is pretty much on a Mickey Mouse level and doesn’t pose a realistic threat to the Church – after all, this is a country where most atheists won’t even admit they’re atheists but just join the Church of Ireland. A group of headbanging Catholic ultras, on the other hand, do represent a challenge to the hierarchy on their own turf, even if a numerically small challenge.
Perhaps this is something that we need to take into consideration. There’s a lazy mode of thought on the Irish left that assumes a community of interest, or at least a community of sentiment, between the institutional Church and whatever ultra tendencies pop up at the grassroots. But it ain’t necessarily so. Back when the Hibernian was a going concern, what immediately jumped out from its pages was its antagonism towards the institutional Church, and its frequent excoriations of the “useless” Irish bishops. In fact, these Catholic ultras were as uncompromising in their anti-clericalism as any member of the Irish Humanist Association – just anti-clerical in a different way.
Which calls into question the whole concept of “clericalism” as applied to these tendencies, although there isn’t an alternative descriptor readily to hand. As for secular liberals wanting the bishops to speak out in support of their favoured policies, well, here’s Des again:
The whole affair – which is really about party politics and pretends to be about morality – reeks of the most loathsome hypocrisy.
Yes it does.