(Editorial from current issue of Church & State Magazine, No. 75, Winter 2004)
Positive And Negative Secularism

Since Catholic power in Ireland has gone into decline over the last decade there has developed a positive secularism and a negative secularism. Positive secularism is instanced in the article, Row Over Church Property In Co. Sligo in this issue. The article describes how members of the local community in an area near Tubbercurry have spoken out against the proposed sale of a number of educational and community buildings by Bishop Thomas Flynn. The campaign has received sufficient local support to force the Bishop to a compromise.

This form of secularism testifies to an element of vigour in Irish civil society. Church & State has described many similar skirmishes over the years: Pat Maloney’s successful legal action to prevent the erection of a statue of Padre Pio on the grounds of a Health Board hospital in Cork in the late eighties; Dick Spicer’s legal action to force the Sisters of Mercy to repay over 2 million pounds to the State during the sale of Carysfort Teacher Training College in the early 90s; the protests of parents all over the country against the effects of the denominational structures in education on their children; the decision of a psychiatrist, Dr Ivor Browne, to breach confidentiality and confirm how Fr Michael Cleary had fathered a son; the struggle of the survivors of the industrial schools to get justice; and so on. Larger campaigns like that of the Campaign to Separate Church and State, Educate Together, and the Divorce Action Group illustrate the same phenomenon.

In all of these campaigns and skirmishes individuals and groups have had the guts and the staying power to do battle with the power of the Catholic Church. Their stories, by being publicised, helped to create a climate where criticism of the Church became socially acceptable, a climate which ultimately resulted in the avalanche of revelations about clerical sex abuse.

From the perspective of Irish society as a whole, the occurrence of conflict between elements of civil society and the Church was beneficial. The Church had been considered above criticism for at least a hundred years. The actions taken by individuals and groups referred to above were all justified: Church-run institutions exhibited all the failings of unaccountable institutions. In the interests of basic justice and of the development of society, it was necessary that the Church should be exposed to public criticism and forced to give ground on various matters.

These conflicts were also beneficial to society in the sense that the prosecution of a campaign gives confidence and experience to the prosecutors. If Catholic power was to be challenged and displaced to even a small degree it was necessary that a new force, preferably one forged in the course of the conflict, should fill the vacuum. The Catholic Church itself stood to gain from such conflict. The Irish Catholic Hierarchy has traditionally been noted for its close adherence to Vatican prescriptions. In other words it was an ideologically-driven institution. Through engagement with the elements of Irish democracy that were pushing for secular reform, the Church might have become less ideological, less amenable to Vatican direction and more open to reaching accommodations with secular interests. That would have been a positive development for the Church and for Irish society. But it was not to be. The positive Irish secularism I am describing received very little mainstream support from the political and media establishment. It was always a marginal development. It was swamped by a trend towards the deconstruction of the Irish nation. Catholic power has declined but the ensuing vacuum has not been filled by the pioneering elements who did battle with it during the seventies, eighties and nineties.

Negative secularism, on the other hand, is associated in my mind with influential figures in politics, the media and the universities who consider that the entire project of national independence was a mistake. The mindset of this anti-national tendency equates civilisation with Anglo-Saxon values: Britain and the US are the centres of a cultural empire in which Ireland is to be a mere satellite or province. One of the banners around which the brasher of these influential anti-nationalists have rallied is called the Sunday Independent; another, for people who prefer subtlety, is called the Irish Times.

To digress briefly, a recent edition of the Sunday Independent carried a front-page story referring to the publication of archive material which showed that De Valera had been worried about his pension in the final year of his Presidency and was also prone to anxiety. The journalist, Anne Harris, gleefully reported all this as yet more evidence as to the rottenness of yet another national icon. In the same article she referred to the principled stand against fascism made by Winston Churchill. Now anyone familiar with the details of Winston Churchill’s life will know that he drank too much and was prone to depression, both factors which adversely affected his political judgement and caused real concern to his loyal entourage. The personal problems of De Valera pale into insignificance in comparison. Even at the political level, De Valera bears favourable comparison with Churchill in terms of the achievement of life-long objectives. It is typical of the Sunday Independent that its journalists can see only weakness in a figure from the Irish national tradition and only strength in a loyal servant of the Empire.

The Sunday Independent has embraced the free market principles which have won out in Britain and the US. Its editors and columnists want the Republic to become even more of a receptacle of globalised consumerism than it is already. The traditions inherited from patriots like Patrick Pearse are deeply flawed according to Emer O’Kelly and her colleagues. And so the horrors of Catholic nationalism must give way to the attractions of twenty-four hour shopping, high tech entertainments that numb the mind, and slavish adherence to whatever is fashionable in London, New York and Los Angeles.

Oddly enough, the secularism of the Sunday Independent rarely succeeded in engaging with the forces of the Catholic Church. It was never the ‘Sindo’s’ style to make a reasonable case against a particular policy of the Church based on specifics. Rather it sought to cultivate among its readers a British view of Ireland. The appropriate way to tackle the Church, therefore was to sneer at it, to make extreme denunciations of it and generally treat it as an incomprehensible survival from the feudal era.

So, in the extraordinary circumstances of contemporary Ireland, we have a vacuum created by the decline of Catholicism; we have a media intelligentsia actively promoting free market fundamentalism and the repudiation of the entire national tradition; and we have a political class who have embraced pragmatism to the point where politics has become debased. In these circumstances the spirit of the age favours the negative secularism I have referred to, and the anti-national agenda of the media is steadily gaining ground. But, even in these hostile and discouraging circumstances, it comes as a breadth of fresh air to hear of a local community forcing an accommodation on a still powerful Bishop. The predominance of anti-national secularism should not be allowed to blind us to the number of positive campaigns still being generated out of Irish civil society.


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Row Over Church Property In Co. Sligo
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