OVER the years the media and politicians exhibited an unhealthy deference towards the Catholic clergy and hierarchy in this country.
Last week I quoted Taoiseach John A Costello telling the Dáil that he had actually sought and secured the permission of the Archbishop of Dublin to talk to his Minister for Health, Noel Browne, about pending legislation.
Ger Colleran, editor of the Irish Daily Star, used the same quote on the Tonight with Vincent Browne TV3 programme on Tuesday night. He went on to quote Costello saying he obeyed the Catholic Church authorities. There ensued an intriguing discussion with Bishop Willie Walsh of Killaloe.
The church hierarchy had written to the Taoiseach on October 10, 1950, objecting to the Mother and Child Bill, which was introduced by Browne to tackle the country’s appalling infant mortality rate, which was the highest in western Europe. The legislation would provide free medical care for all young mothers and children. Some in the hierarchy thought this amounted to socialised medicine, which they considered akin to godless communism.
The hierarchy raised other objections. “Education in regard to motherhood includes instruction in regard to sex relations, chastity and marriage,” Bishop James Staunton of Ferns wrote on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference. “The State has no competence to give instruction in such matter.”
The bishops – all purportedly celibate men – were contending that they were more competent to deal with sexual relations and marriage than political or civil authorities. The level of contemptible arrogance exhibited by the bishops was stultifying. Without a woman in their midst they were claiming more competence to deal with matters relating strictly to women and girls than even the medical profession.
“We regard with the greatest apprehension the proposal to give to local medical officers the right to tell Catholic girls and women how they should behave in regard to this sphere of conduct at once so delicate and sacred,” Bishop Staunton added.
Noel Browne was forced to resign from the cabinet because he would not surrender to the demands of the hierarchy. He promptly sparked a controversy by giving copies of the correspondence with the bishops to the Irish Times, which was then seen as a Protestant newspaper. It may have been the only Irish newspaper that would have published the correspondence at the time.
“I am not in the least bit afraid of the Irish Times or any other newspaper,” Costello told the Dáil that day. “I, as a Catholic, obey my Church authorities and will continue to do so, in spite of the Irish Times or anything else, in spite of the fact that they may take votes from me or my party, or anything else of that kind. ”
He was actually contending that – regardless of what any newspaper printed, or what voters might desire – he was going to obey the Catholic authorities. That provides an appalling reflection of his concept of democracy and the will of the people.
“Ye were handed the country on a plate, weren’t ye?” Ger Colleran said to Bishop Walsh on Tuesday night.
“There was an extraordinary alliance developed between church and state after the foundation of the state,” the bishop replied.
“Would you accept that Paisley was right all along when he said that this state is Rome-ruled?” Colleran asked.
“I would say there was some truth in it, certainly in the earlier part of the last century,” Bishop Walsh admitted. In the past 10 or 15 years, however, he said, “the whole situation has changed greatly”.
The bishop welcomed the changes from when the church was dominant and oppressive. “I’m much happier with the broken church that’s in Ireland today,” he said. And so say all of us.
Bishop Walsh is obviously not persuaded by the church’s current position in regard to women. “I have always found it particularly difficult to be convinced by the reasons we advance for not allowing women their place in ministry,” he explained on Tuesday night. “Certainly our church is diminished by the very small role that women have been allowed to play in decision-making in the church.”
The church comprises of not just hierarchy and clergy, but all members. An amount of change has already taken place in that people will no longer tolerate the kind of contemptible arrogance that bishops were allowed to get away with for so long.
In 1956, Bishop Walsh’s predecessor, Bishop Joseph Rodgers, complained to the Taoiseach that a local curate and 10 other people were prosecuted for assaulting two Jehovah’s Witnesses and burning their religious literature because they had the temerity to try to distribute their material in Clonlara, Co Clare.
District Justice Gordon Hurley convicted the priest and his 10 accomplices but let them go without penalty under the Probation Act. He penalised the two Jehovah’s Witnesses instead, even though they had not even been charged with anything. They had appeared merely as witnesses for the state. The judge ruled that they had sought to destroy the Catholic religion by engaging in blasphemy in the eyes of Catholics. He bound them to the peace on their own sureties of £100 each and two independent sureties of £100 each, or three months in jail.
“Your worship’s decision is unprecedented and contrary to the law of this country,” solicitor Gerald Goldberg protested. “I say that without fear of contradiction.”
The whole thing was a travesty of justice, but Bishop Rodgers, who was in court that day, protested to the Taoiseach about the conviction of the curate and his gang. “We censor obscene literature, your Attorney General prosecutes one of my priests for doing what I, and all good Catholics here, regard as his bounden duty and right,” Bishop Rodgers wrote. “The matter cannot rest.”
IF they believed the Witnesses were guilty of blasphemy, the Taoiseach replied, they should have complained to the gardaí. “The action they took was prima facie contrary to law,” he explained. “The authorities had no choice but to allow the machinery of law to take its course.” But he added that he appreciated “the just indignation aroused among the clergy and the people by the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses”.
In an interview last week Clare-born writer Edna O’Brien talked about the banning of her debut novel, The Country Girls, in 1960. She said she felt like she “had committed a crime and I did not know what the crime was”. Two years later her second novel, The Lonely Girl, was also banned after Archbishop John Charles McQuaid complained personally to Justice Minister Charles Haughey that the book “was particularly bad”.
“I did not think such stuff would be printed,” McQuaid wrote. “So, I gave it to the Minister for Justice, who came to me next day to express his disgust and revulsion. Like many decent Catholic men with growing families he was just beaten by the outlook and description.”
If the archbishop really thought that Charlie Haughey was disgusted and repulsed by the level of sex in Edna O’Brien’s book, it shows how out of touch McQuaid was with reality. He was as dim-witted as he was arrogant. Haughey had many failings, but McQuaid must have been the only one in the country who ever thought he was a closet prude.
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