The Whole Hog: Are We Witnessing a More Combative Catholic Church?

A more strident, aggressive tone has emerged in the way the Roman Catholic Church is going about its business in Ireland, since the people decided to Repeal the 8th Amendment. Might we be witnessing a drift back towards the old Catholic empathy with fascism?

Those who take the N11 out of Dublin city centre will be familiar with Donnybrook Bus Garage. It sits on a key site, immediately to the south of the Dodder river. A further hundred metres brings you, on the opposite side of the road, to RTE’s grounds and you reach UCD’s campus in less than a kilometre.

The Bus garage is a most unusual looking building, especially the roof which is, according to online blurb for the annual architecture exposition Open House, a “barrel-vault structure.” It dates from 1952 and has rough plaster and contrasting smooth plaster bands designed by the celebrated artist Patrick Scott.

On another web page, we learn that it was the first building in the world to have a concrete shell roof lit by natural light from one end to the other. Each shell was poured in situ with large wooden moulds that were dismantled, and moved on to form the next one.

Whatever, it’s a remarkable modernist design and ground-breaking technology was deployed in its construction. And it’s an important piece of our architectural heritage.

Directly across the N11 from the bus garage sits the Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart. This has no such claim to architectural significance or modernism. Quite the contrary, though its size and strategic location have made it a useful south-side location for large-scale funerals…

HOMOPHOBIA AND XENOPHOBIA

Very recently this particular church has featured three large signs strapped to its N11 frontage. They’re not quite billboards but they’re pretty big. They proclaim that “Life is God’s Gift; All Life is Sacred”, with the subtext “”In God we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28)”.

Of course, one acknowledges the right of an individual or organisation to have and to express views, and to use their property for that purpose. You could argue that these signs do just that. One might interpret them as a message to the flock – that is, as having a spiritual or pastoral objective. But their appearance and positioning, and the timing of their appearance, suggest more.

Frankly, it’s hard not to see them as a response to the overwhelming vote to repeal the 8th Amendment – and if that’s part of the intent, then they’re also political.

Whether political or pastoral or both, they are part of a pattern. The Catholic Church appears to have become much more combative of late. Take, for example, the stern rebuke issued by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin to the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage Josepha Madigan for her temerity in leading prayers in her local church, which sits a few kilometres south of the three billboards, and for commenting that without women priests the church was unlikely to survive.

It was quite a whack of the crozier. In earlier times, it would have had the Minister and all her associates cowering in fear and shame. Not this time. Madigan wasn’t fazed at all. And a lot of women have waded in on her behalf. The old days are gone and they won’t be back.

Well, not here at any rate. But such is not the case in many parts of the world. In Europe you have far right parties in, or sharing power, in Austria, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Italy. Abortion rights are under threat in all of these countries – as indeed they also are in the United States as the character of the Supreme Court is set to change.

It is no coincidence that these countries are also characterised by homophobia, xenophobia and human rights abuse. There’s no ducking this. The anti-abortion movement is a core strand of the global far-right. And this places the Roman Catholic Church in an interesting, not to say challenging, scenario.

They have been loud and occasionally eloquent in their demands for social justice over many years. But they have also ducked and dodged their responsibilities regarding the myriad abuses that characterised their institutions.

IRRATIONALITY AND AUTHORITARIANISM

To this history of contradictions, we can now add that their political position regarding the 8th Amendment links them with some truly unsavoury nasties. Said nasties include, of course, many of Trump’s acolytes, amongst whom we may number those responsible for the hugely distressing treatment of migrants and their children, which has so tarnished the global reputation of the United States (as many of its own citizens have pointed out).

Catholic spokespersons were forthright in their condemnation of Trump’s policy of child separation, and rightly so. But they seem unable to connect the dots. There is an old saying: lie down with dogs and you will catch fleas. Consort with the far right and your norms change. What might be seen as a new assertiveness can also be interpreted as a lurching reflex, to get back to old certainties, as well as the defensiveness and authoritarianism that go with them.

Of course, post-modern politics works in very weird ways. Issues can cut across old lines of thought. Each political party had its dissenters on the 8th. One gets that. So the Catholic hierarchy aren’t the only ones regressing to old behaviours. And faith, by its very nature, wafts towards certainty, irrationality and authoritarianism.

We all have to be very careful. Despite all the problems we face here, Ireland has taken great strides towards being an open and tolerant society and very powerful forces want that to change. The Catholic Church is either with us or it’s against us. If the honeyed words are just honeyed words, then the old Roman Catholic empathy with fascism and authoritarianism lingers yet.

Make no mistake, Franco, Salazar and Mussolini couldn’t have become what they became without their mutually reinforcing alliance with the Catholic Church. They still have many admirers in the church, and in the byzantine quarters of murky, secretive groups like Opus Dei. Their tentacles may be less powerful than they were here, but muscle memory is tenacious and resilient.

We don’t want to go back to the horrors that the Catholic Church still seems to find it hard to admit occurred. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

 

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