THE decision by the Taoiseach to publicly support same-sex marriage will mean he is about to have a fight on his hands, firstly from conservative Fine Gael backbenchers but, more volubly, from the leaders of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
These groups have indicated they will oppose the referendum, saying any change to the nature of marriage would “undermine” it as the fundamental building block of society.
In a statement from the Catholic Communications Office, Bishop Denis Nulty said the Church will continue to assert that the differences between a man and woman are “not accidental to marriage but fundamental to it”.
Although a regular Mass-goer, Kenny has insisted he is “a Taoiseach who happens to be Catholic but not a Catholic Taoiseach”.
He first made that clear in Jun 2011 when he condemned the Vatican for its role in the Cloyne diocese scandal, stating that the Church’s role in obstructing an investigation into clerical child sex abuse was a serious infringement on Irish sovereignty and the scandal revealed “the dysfunction, disconnection, and elitism that dominates the culture of the Vatican to this day”.
He added that “the historic relationship between Church and State in Ireland could not be the same again”.
That relationship has not always been cosy and the perception of widespread collusion between Church and State in decades past is wide of the mark.
There is little doubt, though, that the readiness of the Catholic Church hierarchy to engage in power politics has been evident since the foundation of the State. An early example is the spat between the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Edward Byrne, and WT Cosgrave who was president of the executive council of the Free State during the Civil War.
It involved Mary MacSwiney, sister of the martyred Terence McSwiney. She was on hunger strike in Mountjoy Jail following her detention for anti-treaty activities.
Archbishop Byrne pressured Cosgrave to release her but he resisted. There were bigger issues at stake than the fate of the sister of the lord mayor of Cork who died on hunger strike during the War of Independence.
As Tim Pat Coogan explains in his book, Ireland in the Twentieth Century: “WT Cosgrave was a devout Catholic and a personal friend of Archbishop Byrne but he was prepared to defy him in this case when he thought that the security of the State was at stake.”
The previous day, Cosgrave and his cabinet had sanctioned the execution of four young Dublin anti-treaty men found in possession of guns; a capital offence at the time. “The executions, although Byrne didn’t know it, were in preparation for the execution six days later of the much higher-profile Erskine Childers.”
On Nov 18, 1922, Cosgrave wrote to Archbishop Byrne turning down his request. In his letter, Cosgrave said that the government was preparing to act “in the spirit of the solemn teaching of our highest moral authority and recalling in the grave words of the pastoral letter of the 11th October, that in all this there is no question of mere politics, but what is morally wrong according to the divine law”.
As Coogan put it: “The archbishop was being given a belt of his own crozier!”
Perhaps he had it coming.
Historian Joseph Lee, in his book, Ireland, 1912-1985: Politics and Society, recalls: “It is true that the 1922 Free State constitution had no sectarian bias. Nevertheless, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin insisted to Cosgrave that the Catholic Church had not merely the right, but the duty, to control Protestant consciences.”
That overbearing self-righteousness reached absurd levels in the case of the appointment of a librarian in Mayo in 1930. Hardly a critical appointment, yet it managed to set Church against State, county council against government department, and even members of the same political party against one another.
Pat Walsh’s book, The Curious Case of the Mayo Librarian, published in 2009, is a timely reminder of a time when religion and politics formed an entangled web.
In Jul 1930, Letitia Dunbar Harrison, a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, was appointed to the post of Mayo county librarian, setting in motion a chain of events that resulted in a full-scale political crisis.
Mayo priests and politicians attempted to have her removed, and organised a boycott of the library service.
Walsh writes: “The Mayo library row, as it was commonly known, became news far outside the confines of the county. Not only had it made headlines in Ireland, it had caught the attention of newspapers in places as far away as Boston and London.
“Why would such a seemingly unassuming appointment drive a government to the brink, and clash Church and State against each other so heavily?
“Letitia was a Protestant.”
In Nov 1930, the Mayo Library Committee, a subcommittee of the county council composed mainly of Catholic clerics, rejected her appointment. The full council endorsed this decision.
The stated reason was that Ms Harrison could not speak Irish, which was considered a fatal flaw in dealing with residents of Mayo’s Gaeltacht area.
However, this masked the real reason which was that, as a Protestant, she “could not be trusted with providing a proper library service for the Catholic people of Mayo”.
Richard Mulcahy, the local government minister, was not about to take this lying down. He was no walkover either, having succeeded Michael Collins as commander in chief of the Army after Collins’s death.
He instructed the council to reverse its decision and, on refusal, disbanded it and replaced it with a commissioner who immediately endorsed Harrison’s appointment.
However, Cumann na nGaedheal politicians in Mayo came under severe pressure to force the government to restore the council and went so far as to oppose a government bill in order to force the issue.
Cosgrave’s administration barely survived but finally won the battle.
MUCH has been made of Éamon de Valera’s subservience to Catholic Church doctrine, evidenced by the recognition of its special position in his 1937 Constitution and the prohibition on divorce, both clauses since removed.
Attention has been drawn to his friendship with and acquiescence to Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, but there were limits to this. McQuaid took part in the drafting of Bunreacht na hÉireann but when he insisted that it include the clause that “the State acknowledges that the Church of Christ is the Catholic Church”, Dev stoutly refused, much to his grace’s displeasure.
The pompous, censorious, and seemingly all-powerful McQuaid’s influence on Dev undoubtedly coloured social policy, particularly from the 1930s to the end of the 1950s. The fate of the “mother and child” scheme and its champion, Noel Browne, is an example of this dynamic at work.
He effectively controlled everything from the publication of books to theatre, film, and broadcasting. Gay Byrne was constantly on his radar. McQuaid’s influence declined and was mostly over by the 1960s.
Since then, concerns over political interference by the Catholic Church hierarchy have persisted, occasionally becoming hysterical. Witness the fall of Albert Reynolds’ government in 1994 which was precipitated by the delay in the attorney general’s office in processing the papers to extradite the convicted paedophile Fr Brendan Smyth to the North.
Pat Rabbitte, then a member of Democratic Left, claimed there was collusion between the Irish Primate, Cardinal Cahal Daly, and attorney general Harry Whelehan to prevent the extradition. This was denied by the cardinal and subsequently found to be without foundation, yet it gained enormous political traction at the time.
Enda Kenny is not the first Irish political leader to take on the Catholic Church and is unlikely to be the last.
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