This week’s election of a pope fell between two momentous events, each showing how the world has tilted ever so slightly on its axis.
Francis’s election came at a consistory provoked by his predecessor Benedict’s resignation. Benedict’s decision came because he was weakened by age and was all but unprecedented in modern history. That Francis is not a European much less an Italian added to the sense that a momentous shift, the kind that defines era change, was afoot.
Even half a century ago — no more distant than 1963 — geopolitical change of that depth, especially in an organisation as rigidly and as enthusiastically conservative as the Catholic Church, would have been beyond the imagination even of that Church’s most ambitious innovators.
If an organisation as committed to time-honoured disciplines as the Catholic Church can countenance such profound change, maybe it’s an opportunity, on the eve of our national day which celebrates a Catholic saint, to wonder if Irish society is as open to real change as the Catholic Church has been in the last two weeks.
We seem to be happiest with the kind of visceral conservatism promoted by the Catholic Church but equally comfortable barely paying lip service to ideas we proclaim particularly Irish and closest to our hearts. A great number of Irish Catholics — if not the majority — are today baptism, communion, wedding, and funeral Catholics and have little interaction of any real meaning with the Church outside of those events.
Our position on the Irish language is similarly conflicted. We assert a great love of it and pledge a determination to promote it, but barely speak a word of it. This €1bn-a-year silliness must indicate some sort of a phobia about embracing a future where the old certainties are not longer certain.
Since the foundation of the State, our political system has been dominated by two conservative parties so similar that it would be very difficult for anyone unfamiliar with divisions defined by a civil war that ended 90 years ago to tell them apart. Indeed they are so similar that they barely disagree in any fundamental way. However, they agree absolutely on one thing — the impossibility of a merger. At a moment when Ireland is so very weakened, so utterly dependent on the kindness of strangers, it is worth taking a moment to consider how this artificial — in today’s terms at least — division has diminished our politics. If that may be disheartening, then consider for a moment the potential and energy squandered, consider all of the storms in teacups that distracted from the big picture because of this bloody-mindedness. This is surely the very definition of conservatism bordering on political stasis.
Events, those great intruders, may be a catalyst for change though. The rise of Sinn Féin and left-leaning independents may eventually force a marriage between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil that should have been consummated decades ago.
It is indeed ironic and sad that this institutional intransigence hangs over a society open to great change and great inward migration.
Tomorrow, millions of Irish people and millions more of their descendants will wear if not drown in the shamrock. Despite everything, those celebrations will be happy and heartfelt. It is hard not to think though that if the conflict between our official conservatism and our social tolerance and liberalism was not so great, that those celebrations would be even more joyous.
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