MICHAEL CLIFFORD: All views must be tolerated, even Catholic

Fr Paul Connell, president of the Association of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools.

Fr Paul Connell’s address can be interpreted as offensive, writes Michael Clifford

EARLY one morning I was cornered by Rónán Mullen. It occurred in the local Spar shop.

Rónán spotted me and approached with a complaint about media coverage in RTÉ. For those who don’t know him, Rónán Mullen is a senator and a passionate advocate for a Catholic ethos in what is known in some quarters as “family values”. He has plenty of other interests, but the family values thing is what he is best known for.

On the morning in question, he was, as is his custom, polite and precise about his subject matter. He knew I didn’t work for RTÉ, but he wanted to get his point across. I was just waking up, gently feeling my way through the dawning hour, but Rónán was going at full pelt.

He tagged after me as I picked up the bread rolls, cheese and milk, all the way to the checkout.

After I paid, I found myself with my back to the window, next to the door. He didn’t intend to corner me, but that’s how I felt as he continued to make a point. Beside me, the automatic door kept wooshing open and closed because we were in its sensory zone. For a fleeting second I thought I hadn’t woken up at all and was caught in one of those dreams that hover just on the right side of nightmare.

That morning encounter came back to me recently as I saw coverage of Mullen’s re-election to the Seanad. He was returned to the national university panel, and the result drew some shabby criticism on social media.

The main thrust of the negative comment was bemoaning how educated people could vote for somebody with Mullen’s arch-conservative views. The senator might well have responded by asking how could alleged educated people who consider themselves liberal have such contempt for other views, simply because that don’t chime with their own. But he didn’t because he’s a polite chap.

What the abuse — and some of it did descend to that level — highlighted is that some who see themselves as liberal are nothing of the sort. Instead of being open to accommodating all views, they would prefer if voices contrary to their own are silenced.

Not too long ago this was exactly how the Church ran the country.

All contra voices were silenced or marginalised. Honourable men, such as the communist Michael O’Riordan; and the once minister for health, Noel Browne; fell victim to that stuff at national level. In communities up and down the country men or women who stood up to call out what they saw as wrong in the prevailing order suffered a similar fate.

For the last decade or two we have been undergoing the cultural backlash that inevitably follows a long period of subjugation. Today, that manifests itself in some quarters as an intolerance towards those who appear to carry the flame for the values of a church that dominated for so long.

Those who profess allegiance to the values of the Church — particularly in areas of reproduction and sexual morality — now see themselves as under-represented in public life.

There is some evidence to support that view. Politicians who might be of a conservative bent are often reluctant to voice their views for fear of how it might be received in the media.

In such a milieu, a figure like Mullen is to be welcomed. He openly represents a view in the Upper House, albeit on a mandate that is confined to graduates of some of the State’s universities. It is important that voices such as his are listened to in order to discern the views of those he represents. While this is unpalatable to some, a liberal society is one in which all views are heard and tolerated.

This isn’t always easy. Last Wednesday in the Dáil, Danny Healy Rae set out his stall as a climate change denier.

“God above is in charge of the weather and we can’t do anything about it,” he said. In appearance, if not delivery of his speech, Healy Rae could have cut something of an Old Testament figure, enunciating how ‘God works in mysterious ways’.

Much of the reaction has referenced the TD as an embarrassment. Yet he is as entitled to his view as is Michael O’Leary, who vehemently disputes some of the science around climate change, yet he escaped any derision.

Perhaps it was Healy Rae invoking God that got up the noses of many. Notably, there was precious little outrage about the absence of anything on climate change in the agreement to govern reached by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

Just recently, I found my own tolerance for free speech tested to the limit when I read of an address by Fr Paul Connell, president of the Association of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools.

He told a gathering that dismantling the Catholic ethos of schools would leave children in a moral vacuum and in danger of despair. Catholic schools, he said, have been playing a vital role in helping young people grow in faith.

“The alternative is a vacuum that can express itself in nihilism and the growing phenomenon of self-harm,” he said.

The good priest appears to labour under the misapprehension that his own religion holds the exclusive keys to spiritual health and morality. This infers that children who are educated outside a religious ethos are condemned to a life less lived.

Or, as Paul Rowe, the CEO of Educate Together, responded in a blog: “At its heart is the idea that only a religious perspective can engage with the hopes, feelings, and the spiritual and emotional life of a human being. It implies that a child or person without a religious perspective is somehow deficient or less complete as a human.”

For those whose children are being educated under patrons like Educate Together and other multi or non-denominational bodies, Connell’s address can be interpreted as offensive. For anybody interested in values such as equality of treatment for all, it could be interpreted as entirely alien.

For most people, however, the view expressed is largely irrelevant in today’s world. While the Church has demonstrated excellent political skills in retaining control of the vast majority of schools in the State, its role as the ultimate authority on moral behaviour has long since disappeared.

There was a time when Connell’s kindred spirits from the old Ireland would have disseminated an identical view to his — secure in the knowledge that it would go undisputed.

Those days are gone. Today, all views must be tolerated, even those that stretch tolerance to its limits.


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