Judging the Catholic Church

Published in Editorial, Issue 2 (March/April 2018), Volume 26


In his review of Fintan O’Toole’s Judging Shaw (Big Book, pp 60–1) Peter Gahan observes that ‘Shaw’s sceptical, questioning mode of thinking has become so much part of the intellectual air we breathe, the culture we imbue, as to have rendered him practically invisible: a victim of his own success as slayer of the idols of Victorian conformity’.

In Ireland there has been no greater upholder of Victorian conformity than the Catholic Church. Catriona Crowe (Platform, pp 16–17) reminds us of the darker side of that phenomonen, as evidenced by the various commissions of inquiry into institutional abuse. However, in her plea for public access to institutional records she also points out that ‘the history of the Catholic Church in Ireland is intensely bound up with the social, economic and political history of the country’. It’s a multi-faceted picture with elements of light as well as shade; Padraig Yeates reminds us (pp 34–7) that that history has also included (regardless of motives) progressive anti-imperial stands such as the opposition to conscription in 1918.

The Irish Catholic Church presents something of an enigma—a mixture of the authoritarian and the demotic. Shavian scepticism should not give way to, or be confused with, secular ‘group-think’. Glib assumptions that its influence in the Irish Free State amounted to a form of ‘fascism’ are wide of the mark, particularly when contrasted with actual Catholic/authoritarian/fascist regimes established at the time in Portugal, Spain, Slovakia and Croatia.

By any objective measure—vocations or church attendance, for example—the influence of the Catholic Church has been in decline over the past generation, with a corresponding decline in its political and social influence. This has given rise to a new narrative, particularly in the context of the forthcoming referendum on the Eighth Amendment, that we have entered a new ‘penal era’ of Catholic victimhood. Hardly. The Catholic Church enjoys the same rights and responsibilities as other institutions in a democratic society, if not more, judging by its now anachronistic control of the education system. And judging by the recent barring of former president Mary McAleese and a Ugandan LGBT activist from an International Women’s Day conference in the Vatican, the Catholic Church has not yet entirely abandoned its place on the other side of the victimhood fence.

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