- 15 Mar 17
In 1986, Liam Mackey had a frank and extensive discussion with Bishop Eamonn Casey about sexuality, the nature of religion, and the role of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Many of the Bishop's comments went on to become more poignant following the revelations of his sexual relationship in 1992.
Bishop Eamonn Casey was born in Firies in North Kerry but grew up in Adare, Co. Limerick where his family moved in 1932.
His father, a creamery manager, was a very religious man who attended mass every morning of his life – and expected his sons to do likewise. At 10 past seven each day, a knock would come on the door of the boy’s bedrooms. “Out we’d all hop”, recalls Bishop Casey, “but he never called the girls – strange. If they wanted to come they came. He was unusual for his time. He’d spend forty minutes at prayer every evening, up and down the back-yard. We’d always want to say the Rosary with my mother because he had so many trimmings and we’d want to get it over with”.
Bishop Casey’s mother was ill for many years – “I’m not sure what was wrong but it was some kind of blood problem”, he says – and spent a lot of time in hospital in Dublin. When at home she was regularly attended by local priests, visits which made a profound impact on young Eamonn Casey. “In so far as it was human things that drew me to the priesthood – obviously I was an altar boy as well – I’d say it was their visits, because you love your mother, and when they were in, she was always unbelievable peaceful and tranquil. I’d say subconsciously that drew me to the priesthood though I’d never have articulated it at the time”.
As a child, he didn’t even have to travel as far as the proverbial school around the corner, attending the Christian Brothers ‘second next door’ in Adare. In the absence of a local secondary school he went on to do what was called ‘secondary top’ with the Christian Brothers: a crash course, involving early evening grinds that saw him completing the 6th class in February and doing his Inter Cert in June of the following year.
Originally the plan was for Eamonn Casey to complete his second-level education at Blackrock College in Dublin but the intervention of a local priest, whom he respected a great deal, was persuasion enough for him to attend instead St. Munchin’s seminary in Limerick. From there he went on to Maynooth as a clerical student.
The affairs of his childhood and youth weren’t wholly dictated by religious considerations of course. There were sporting interests too like hurling and football (and later St. Munchin’s rugby, despite the ban), holidays in Ballybunion, hooleys and girlfriends. He says, however, that he never attended a public dance, preferring instead the parties in the Casey household which could sometimes see up to fifty people singing and dancing ‘till the wee small hours.
Thinking back on his parents – both now deceased – his family, and the atmosphere of the time and the place in which he grew up Bishop Eamonn Casey now says this: “We had a sheltered life. It was idyllic in one sense. Young people today wouldn’t see it as idyllic because, as they would see it, it lacked excitement and challenge. But they have to face up to issues which I, as a young person, never had to face up to: the nuclear issue, poverty – which was equally there in my time but I didn’t know it. I didn’t have to face it on my television, like Bob Geldof. Growing up I never had to question the future in the sense that I had my part to play, my job was to get on with it and get it done. Now some young people have to ask themselves: is there going to be a future?”
Eamonn Casey had long since made up his mind that he wanted to be a priest. Though he intentionally found Maynooth an alien environment – “I’d never been in a place like this before – high walls, dark… seven years looked like it would be an eternity” – and though he admits that the study workload, occasionally, made him feel like “throwing the books out the window”, he adapted well to the disciplined life-style. “Because of the time and because of your commitment and belief you accepted that discipline was an instrument to train you for your future role as a priest”.
As a priest he began his ministry in Limerick in the 50’s on what he likes to term “the ground-floor”. He became very involved with the then huge problem of emigration, in particular the welfare of the Irish in Britain.
At the beginning of the 60’s he made the move to Britain himself, to take up a position in Slough working among the 10,000 strong Irish Community. It was there he established the Catholic Housing Aid Society which despite its title was a non-denominational organisation providing a service to people who found it difficult to get accommodation. A few years later he was asked to move to London to set up the organisation on a national basis, and subsequently too was a founder-member of Shelter.
It was while based in London that he was first seen on television when the BBC did a report on his work in the area of housing. “I got 650 letters”, he recalls. “Of course I hoped there’d be money in it – instead there were 650 problems, a high percentage of them from unsupported mothers, either divorced, deserted or unmarried.
In 1969, Eamonn Casey became Bishop of Kerry, thereby re-establishing his long connection with the Kingdom which is still audibly evident in his lilting melodic accent. In 1976 he was installed as Bishop of Galway, the present year thus marking his tenth anniversary in the City of the Tribes.
An international as well as a national figure, as Chairman of Trocaire, Bishop Casey has been actively involved in Third World affairs and an outspoken critic of the attitudes of the governments of developed countries. To take a notable example in June 1984, he boycotted the visit of Ronald Reagan to Galway. His reasons for doing so are clear. “I’ve sat with people in El Salvador, in Nicaragua, in Guatamala with people who saw American foreign policy as the major factor in their oppression and sorrow and I believe it is”.
Asked if the effective snubbing of the President of the United States brought him into conflict with Rome he replies: “My attitude to that is it’s only where faith and morals are concerned that I’m obligated to be totally at one with Rome. But I think the manner in which they supported Romero and his successor means I’m merely articulating what they’re saying. Obviously of course taking a stand on issues like that will bring cold winds from other quarters”.
This is a reference to the letters he received from Irish-Americans in the States, about 40 of which expressed distaste at his stand in no uncertain terms. “It’s one thing a fellow loses his temper and uses a bit of language”, he says, “but to write it down…”
Our interview was taking place in the Bishop’s residence on Taylor’s Hill in Galway, a large, attractive house – but by no means a palace – which was left in trust to the Church by a well-to-do Catholic family a century ago. The Church now pays a nominal rent for its use.
Showing us around the landscaped garden, the Bishop points out the circular pad where the Pope’s helicopter landed, though Colm’s photo session there is abruptly terminated by the reeking stench of some decomposing animal which has recently met his death on the lawn.
Inside the house, the Bishop, a man for whom the terms amiable and jovial are well-suited, points out various personal momentoes, paintings and gifts – including a large glass in the shape of a boot from which he drank his first beer in Rome at the age of 47. These days, he insists he prefers a glass of wine. In a corner of the room, a copy of a recent Hot Press lies folded up. The Bishop has been doing a spot of homework…•
Liam Mackey: What was your reaction to the divorce referendum? Were you pleased?
Bishop Eamonn Casey: I suppose I was. But I want to say very honestly and very truly, as a Bishop and as a member of the Church, if the will of the people had been otherwise, I wouldn’t have questioned it nor would I have worried. The Church has to survive in whatever milieu it finds itself.
But was I pleased? I’d have to say gut-wise, yes, because I have seen the effect it ultimately has on children. They get no choice in the matter. They end up so confused. You could look, say, ten or twenty or even fifty years ahead and see the hurt it is to children. You have to weight that up against the hurt that can exist in the marriage. And I don’t deny that that hurt exists and I think we have a grave obligation to do everything possible we can to try to support them.
But I was quite clear, however, in my approach to the referendum that there was no way that anyone was obliged to vote either yes or no. That’s very important. If you’re a practising Catholic I can say to you ‘I oblige you not to take advantage of a divorce law’ but as a citizen I cannot say to you – ‘you must or must not vote for this or that.’
What about these priests who made it clear that they felt people should vote yes, who believed divorce would be a positive thing. Were they not told they shouldn’t have said that by the Church?
Firstly it’s very hard for me to comment about priests who are not in my diocese. But a priest was quite entitled to say that. Even in my own sermons I told Catholics that you could vote yes. I said – and this was true – that I could meet a Catholic below at the polling booth who’d say ‘I’m after going in to vote yes’ and I’d say ‘God bless you.’ You could vote yes, none of us said you couldn’t. Equally, I think a priest would have been entitled to have a conviction that voting yes was the right thing to do.
If divorce had been introduced and an individual Catholic came to you – say, a woman whose marriage had completely broken down – and said ‘Bishop, I want to avail of divorce.’ What would be your response?
Well that’s quite clear. There’s no way she could have a divorce as a Catholic.
Do you not think there are Catholics who would like to get divorced?
I presume there are. Their position, Liam, is quite clear, and as far as the teachings of Christ is concerned – and he was so clear about this – the church has no choice in the matter. I mean, I can’t be unfaithful to the teaching of Jesus Christ – if I am, I shouldn’t be a Bishop. It doesn’t give me any pleasure, let me tell you. My heart would want to say ‘Girl, go ahead’ but I can’t if I’m to be faithful to the truth that’s been placed in me. One of the most important services the Church has to give to man, is to give them the truth that Christ taught. Now that’s my most sacred responsibility. And no matter what my heart says to me – and my heart would say yes – no, I can’t.
But is that not a source of frustration for you? Here, your essential compassion as a human being is for this person who really wants to get a divorce and, yet, the constrains of the church you represent mean you can’t follow your own heart.
But, you see, that would be my feeling to the person as an individual. Apart from the Church at all, I’d still be caught because I believe that the introduction of divorce would result in sixty times more heart cases that I couldn’t respond to either, do you understand me?
No matter what you do in life you’re going to meet people who are in difficulties and sometimes there’s just nothing that can be done. So you’ve just got to support them in it. I have friends, many friends, who are in that kind of situation. I have many friends who are living in situations that they know I don’t approve of – but that doesn’t mean I withdraw my affection or my support from them. I don’t. But they know exactly what my views are.
Many people have pointed out that while Catholic marriage is a sacrament, so too is a priest’s vow. Yet not only can a man leave the priesthood, he can subsequently marry if he wishes. The argument, therefore, is that the Church allows a freedom to its clergy which it doesn’t allow to its lay-people.
First of all there’s a difference in the case of the priest in that there’s only one person if you know what I mean. In the marriage situation there’s two people and the other person, say, mightn’t want you out at all. Now I’m just making that point – it is different. There’s a whole series of questions of justice to a second person involved in a marriage which are not in existence at all in the case of a priest.
But, certainly, my genuine feeling is that the only way in which a priest should be allowed to be released from his vows is in the same way as an annulment is granted – that is, if it can be shown that there was something present at the point in time at which he undertook the responsibility that in some way meant it was invalid. I’m only giving you my own personal view now but I think that’s the kind of view the present pope is taking actually.
The observation has been made, with the present pope in Rome and Archbishop McNamara in Dublin, to take just two examples, that there’s a move within the church to a more hard-line form of Catholicism. Previously, people might have hoped for further liberalizations of certain Catholic teachings. Is that now impossible?
I think it’s only where you’re talking about core, dogmatic teaching that that is true – and that was always true. Otherwise there will always be debate. Take, for instance, what’s my friend’s name from Brazil… Boff, Fr. Boff. When he was brought to Rome everyone threw up their arms – ‘this was terrible, this was awful.’ But it wasn’t. That’s the only way his teaching will get into the mainstream of Catholic theology. And if it doesn’t get into the mainstream, it’s going to remain out in the wilderness. I was delighted he was brought in because it meant he was being taken seriously. The whole thing was resoled within nine months and now he’s in the mainstream. And that process has always to go on.
Can I say that change in an institution like ours – and I don’t want to be talking as if I’m always defending… because we’re a positive church, we really are. (Emotionally) I’ve been positive all my life… (here, Bishop Casey fell suddenly silent, placed his hand over his mouth and seemed, to both Colm and myself, to be on the verge of tears. After nearly 15 seconds he broke the silence with an apology, before regaining his composure). Sorry. (Pause). This process whereby it appears… can I take an example?
As chairman of Trocaire I’ve a very, very definite understanding and feeling about issues of justice with regard to the Third World. Now if I don’t bring my bishops with me, I’m going nowhere. Eamonn Casey is nobody, do you understand? When I say it causes frustration – all development causes frustration. It’s the same as I say to a couple getting married. If you’re going to grow into one being it’s going to hurt and if it doesn’t hurt it’s not happening. A process of development always involves pain, always involves frustration, always involves positive confrontation.
And I certainly do not see the Church, in any way, getting more hardline. I’ll make myself clear however – that where we’re talking about plain dogmatic teaching, there’s no way we can depart from it. Not a hope.
On a specific issue, what about the debate as to whether women should or shouldn’t be ordained as priests within the Catholic Church?
I would say that’s a symptom of a deeper thing and that’s the role of women in the Church. There’s no question but that the whole area of women in the church has to be looked at. And in fact that’s one of our five main themes when we’re having our meeting of the Bishops in September. And it needs to be addressed.
Now, I can say however, that women are, in fact, the Church in a far bigger way than men are. We may be the people who are out front, as it were, but when you look at the Church as a serving community, as a loving community, as a witnessing community – I mean, nuns give witness, they give love, they give service to the Nth degree. So women are very much the Church.
But isn't that all the more reason that they should have a direct role in decision-making at the top?
Quite honestly, I agree with you. I think those structures will have to come.
But would you like to see women as priests? - A specific question.
That’s a very specific question and I want to say this: if it was the decision of the Church that women should be priests it would cause me no problem at all. In other words in so far as I would have any hesitation – in so far as I would – it has nothing to do with male/female, it has to do with the historic reality of the Church and being faithful to that. But once the Church said ‘yes’ I would have no problem with that.
But say the issue was now very much on the horizon within the Church. Would yours be a voice for that move or a voice against?
Well, I would certainly be open and that's all I’d be prepared to say at this point.
Call me what you like but it’s the truth – I would be open. But I’ll be honest… If the decision was in my hands at this point in time in history, I would find it hard to say yes. Nothing to do with male/female but to do with the fact that for 1900 years, sensible people have been in the Church and some of the greatest of them were women: the Little Flower, in our own country St Brigid, Nano Nagle – people who did more for Ireland than fifty-five men or priests put together. But I couldn’t overnight say yes.
But the broader issue is more important – the sharing in policy, the sharing in decision-making. This (women as priests) isn't as important – it’s become a status thing now, whatever word you’d like to give it. That’s my honest response. But certainly in the broader situation, in terms of structures to allow them to participate in policy – unquestionably so.
I said a few years ago in Killarney at the ordination of a priest that if I wanted to change something tomorrow morning, I’d go to a woman because they have a far greater commitment than men. Men would begin by saying ‘Oh but this…’ and ‘Oh but that...’ but if a woman believes in a particular value she doesn't count the cost. And that’s shown right across the board.
Presumably then you wouldn't accept the charge that the Catholic Church is anti-women?
Oh I don't accept that. There’s an awful lot of women who are in the church and who love the church and it’s because they love the Church that they’ve put up with its imperfections – which it has – but there’s no way whatsoever that I could accept that. Can I also say that it would appear to me that if you look at politics or industry or any of these areas, women have far less say than they have in the Church. So it’s not just the Church – it’s a symptom of society as such.
There seems to have been a falling off in young people’s interest in the Catholic Church in recent years. Do you agree that’s the case and, if so, why?
I don't know if that’s the case but there is an appearance of it certainly. I’d say, first of all, there’s a general alienation from a whole lot of traditional and cultural things. There’s the same alienation, if not more so, from politics. Secondly right trough the generations, young people have always gone through periods of their lives when they’re questioning and it’s not always a negative thing. Suddenly for some reason they begin to query or question something they’ve always taken for granted. Sometimes they can do that and continue within the Church – and that’s happening of course, there’s a lot of young people worshipping in this country, let me tell you.
But however. Change in the world has been unbelievably rapid in the last 50 years and the point I want to make is that institutions are always going to be behind. So young people today are living in a very different world with all the pressures I articulated earlier, and which the Church as an institution is only beginning to come to terms with.
One of the key areas in which young people would, I think, find themselves alienated from the Church is that of sexuality and personal morality. Obviously the Church doesn't approve of the idea, say, of a couple sleeping together outside marriage or using contraception. But could you not, personally, accept that that can be a responsible, loving way to behave?
We’re in an era of time when self-control seems to have been put aside as a value. Like sometimes even, sexuality is nearly presented as a natural urge that ought to be fulfilled in whatever way it demands and that it might be hurtful in fact to repress it. Here the Church must preserve the integrity of the Truth but we must try to do that without totally pushing away those who can’t see what we’re trying to say. I have forty-four nieces and nephews and there’s been many circumstances when I've had to – confront is not the word- talk through with them the very things you’re talking about. There was no question of them being alienated from me – but we sat down and we talked it through because I have such a deep conviction that it’s for their own happiness and fulfilment in time and I cannot but be true and faithful to what has been handed to me within the Church, and to my own deep, deep conviction.
But I still understand that, because of a thousand different pressures, people might end up in a situation that isn't all I might like it to be.
The opposing argument would be the reason, for example, unmarried couples didn't sleep or live together as openly in the past as they do now, was because church pressure not to do so was greater.
I think there’s another factor. I think it wasn't the pressure of the Catholic Church – it was the conviction of many young people. In my own personal life – I wasn’t always a priest – ‘twas my own conviction and my relationship with God. But I would say as well that you can’t compare one generation with another, because the pressures – I go back to pressures – that are on young people today with the regard to the expression of their sexuality are very, very great. You have a lot of economic factors, whether ’tis people who have a vested interest in getting people to use certain things or live in a certain way. Also the protections that were there in the past – which weren't imposed by the Church but were imposed by society itself – have gone.
If you wanted to sleep together forty or fifty years ago – where could you do it? Whereas today you can book into any hotel you like. The opportunities weren't there.
So you can’t say that one generation is worse than the other. Because its’ in a man’s heart that the truth alone is. You can’t ultimately judge a person’s values or convictions solely from the way they act. Because sometimes a person would have acted much differently if they had an option they didn't have. So then from the fact they didn't do this, to conclude that they wouldn't have, is a different point. Equally, I've talked to kids who’ve been convinced by certain interests that, whatever else you do, you must ensure your sexual relationships is right with a man before you marry him. And the kid was convinced by this.
Who are these ‘certain interests’?
I would say the international culture at the moment. It’s the influence of other cultures, other beliefs, free-thinkers and liberals. All I'm saying is the kids is convinced of this, ignoring totally the fact that no matter how good that is, if its not an expression of love, and a union of mind and of heart and of interest, then it’s false.
I think this is where a lot of people would find the church’s attitude patronising. Again, take an example of a couple who have a relationship – including a sexual one – that they both feel is good and loving and certainly better than many relationships inside marriage. How could the Church frown on that?
I’m not frowning. There are certain observations which are not just Church observations – they’re observations from sociologists, of psychologists, of those who’ve studied human behaviour. Sexuality is at the core of every being. It’s at my core & it’s at your core. If that isn't right in your life, little is right. And all we’re saying is those who’ve studied human behaviour – let’s leave the Church out of it now – would say that, from a human point of view, it’s a zenith when it is the ultimate giving of one to each other that’s built on a total relationship. When the Church talks about marriage, though, that’s a different thing. Christ said that the unity of the marriage band ties the sexual union to life-long commitment and to life-giving. That’s how Christ saw the role of sexuality in human behaviour, that's the Christian concept. Now I’m not talking down to you, I’m saying, Liam, that all I can do is articulate for you what Christ said. But you have the choice of not accepting it. And I'm not going to run after you. I'm not going to badger you. And, please, I would want young people to understand that. There is no way, I will badger anybody and there is no way I'm talking down. I’d like to say to young people this: Jesus Christ is somebody worth knowing. And I'm not talking about the historic Jesus Christ only. Because – and I know this always sounds preachy; it’s not – Jesus is alive. Jesus lives in the Church. But if they can’t see that, for whatever reason – maybe they’ve had a witness of the Church that wasn't true to what the Church should be – I’d ask them not to put Jesus Christ out of their lives. He’s alive and available to them.
To take an up an earlier point which I think is interesting – and I'm not harping on it for any other reason – how, can celibacy be deemed a good thing if, as you agree, the sexual urge is natural? And, as a follow-up to that, if priests were allowed to marry, would that not give them a greater insight into the relationship and problems they often find themselves dealing with?
Well, of course, you’ll appreciate that expressing sexuality in the sexual union is only one form of sexuality. Within marriage particularly there are a whole series of expressions – shaking hands, an embrace, putting up with each other, listening, being silent, being tender. There’s a thousand ways in which you express sexuality other than sexual union. So celibacy doesn't in any shape or form say that sexuality isn't a good thing or that it must not expressed. What it does say is that since sexual union is related to life-long commitment to a partner and to life-giving, and since celibacy is part of being a priest, then one may not have a sexual union. But in no way does it reject sexuality. I’m as sexual as anybody else and there are a thousand ways in which to express that sexuality. On the question of ‘wouldn't it give us greater insight’ – I doubt it. I’d say it’s because I've been privileged to be privy too the deepest thoughts and feelings of thousands of people in marriage, it has given me an insight. And I honestly think that being a celibate, because of the tremendous openness of people to us in their deepest problems, that I've been privy to far more knowledge about how people act and react within marriage than any other couple would in their own personal, particular relationship. And I think this too – ‘it’s to give rather than to keep that I'm a celibate. Let me put it this way: if celibacy doesn't mean that I give myself in a very broad way to my people, then it’s of no value. The other aspect of celibacy is saying this as well: there’s no pleasure or human enjoyment that’s absolute as far as fulfilment is concerned because our fulfilment is ultimately with God. There’s that witness as well that it gives.
Earlier on, you used the phrase ‘the ground-floor’ to describe where you did most of your work as a priest. You're not there any longer. Do you find it hard to square your life now, and your surroundings here, with the ‘social work’ aspects of your life?
A fella said something similar to me about the house. I said I didn't build it and I wouldn't build it. But it’s there. So what am I going to do about it? You must remember, of course, that this is both a office and living house and conference centre – in other words a priest’s house is not just a home. But however – we wouldn't build this today. And even if I sold it I couldn't use the money because it’s into the trust it would go. When I first came here as a bishop ten years ago I was already very busy. I was involved nationally and internationally and the thought of having to sell it… and anyway I’d have to live some place. I’d have to have a bedroom, I’d have to have a bathroom, I’d have to have a kitchen, I’d have to have a dining room… But I live frugally here. I look after myself – I used to have a housekeeper for many years but I don't now. Still I eat well and I don't deny that. But I'm not very interested in possessions. For instance, now, I swore I would never have a colour TV. I swore it and I didn't – until the pope came. We wanted a record of the Pope’s visit, so what could I do? Let me explain it this way: it’s a question of detachment, of being prepared to do without. You could break the most precious thing I have in this room and I’d put in it in the dustbin and say ‘good luck’. I use what I have. If it’s there to be used and it’s broken forget it.
Because of a recent case that’s been very much in the news, I wondered what you thought of priests with business interests.
You can’t stop them but I don't approve of it, and I don't like it. On the other hand, when I came here ten years ago, the income of the clergy was appalling – so I brought in a salary. Equally, now, I insist that a priest’s house be comfortable. I always want to love to come back to my room. And I mean comfort in the healthiest sense. We're human beings and we choose to live as secular priests in the world which is totally different from living in a monastery. So I insist for all my priests that they have proper circumstances in which to live. But there’s no way the average clergyman is wealthy or could be. In certain instances there may be priests whose parents left them money or whatever. But a few years ago I came up with the phrase that any clergyman who has more than four figures in the bank has lost his faith. (Laughing) That’s my attitude to money.