Archives for posts with tag: Catholic Church

A few days ago, I asked this question on Twitter: when you take humanism from Christian teachings, is there anything left worth conveying to kids in school? This was in response to Joe Humphreys’ article in the Irish Times this week, where he wrote that elements of Christian teaching had a value in addressing the religious schooling problem in Ireland.

Joe has written some interesting thoughts on the issue over the past few months. This article wasn’t one of them, unfortunately. His was a ‘baby with the bathwater’ argument that did not address the problem of privilege within the Catholic Church. It sought to bolster the Church’s special place in education without giving solid arguments about why this should be. Appealing to tradition and creating straw men doesn’t cut it.

Many people in Ireland have a love-hate relationship with the Catholic Church. It has been an opponent of almost every progressive reform in the last half century, not to mention having presided over the greatest cover-up (and worst abuses) we have seen in our lifetimes. Many would argue, with ample justification, that the Church’s primary concern is its own survival. Still, we all know nice church people. We know clerics who have said the right things at the death bed of a loved one and taken principled stances on difficult issues when nobody else was addressing it. Even the Pope has his moments. 

Excellent though this is, the Church has no monopoly on such good works. Much of the same can be found within Protestant, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and non religious communities, or in any situation where people are compelled to help others. When Christians behave admirably, they are acting from a strong sense of human compassion. Religious principles may inform good actions, but it is not something only seen among Christians. Every day in China, India, Nigeria, Iran and all around the world; you will find good, kind, thoughtful, principled people doing good, kind, thoughtful, principled things, mainly because that’s the kind of people they are.

There is great humanism in Christianity. But back to my question: if you take this basic humanism from Christianity, what’s left?

Honestly – and quite possibly I’m missing some things- but it doesn’t seem terribly impressive to me. There is a strong appeal to prayer, which quite overlooks the fact that praying has a particularly poor record in solving most of the basic problems of the world. There is the belief in a deity who consistently eludes detection in any reasonable sense. There are all the rituals that seek to make this deity happy or at least smooth the way to an afterlife, the outcome of which this deity already knows. Is this even remotely on the same level as maths, history and geography?

It’s the area of sexual morality where the differences with humanism are greatest. Instead of looking at the complexity and variety of sexual practices and sexual preferences, Christian thinking often seems to reduce it down to disgust, shame and a desire to control other people’s basic freedoms. Sex is rarely seen as healthy, positive or worthy of proper discussion. Some Christian views, such as the stance on contraception and homosexuality are positively anti-human in their effects. A side effect of their absolutist views on abortion are to silence the voices of millions of women and to reduce them to a second class within society. It’s difficult to see how such simplistic thinking is at all helpful for children who will soon experience the massive complexities of adulthood for themselves.

I don’t have a problem with dedicated, devoted Christians being part of a new educational dispensation, but I do not think that this should be some sort of compromise between equals. It’s not. Humanism has developed from Christian thinking, but it’s also been able to benefit from the views of many other great thinkers, using science to validate these views. If people insist on educating their kids within their faith, then that is still their right, but I doubt if such an education will be greatly superior. It may even be detrimental if there is a strong emphasis on the non-humanistic parts of the curriculum.

A STATEMENT FROM Catholic bishops that it would be a “grave injustice” for instant porridge to be sold in supermarkets is being distributed parishes all around Ireland.

A document entitled “The Meaning of Porridge” argues that, “Porridge provides for the continuation of the human race and shur, aren’t there lots of poor craturs in Africa just dying for a bit of Flahavans”? They argue that “to redefine the nature of porridge would be to undermine it as the fundamental breakfast cereal of our society” and that “Children have a right to natural breakfast cereal, not that icky unnatural instant stuff or, heavens preserve us, Coco Pops”. 

The statement outlines the Irish Catholic Church’s definition of what it considers to be “real” porridge, backed up by strict biblical interpretations, i.e. when Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back at Odlums and Gomorrah.

Launching the document today at Saint Patrick’s College today, Bishops Liam MacDaid and Kevin Doran said that the document was prepared in the context of the upcoming referendum on the state recognition of instant porridge. “Porridge is, of its nature, a wonderful breakfast meal eaten by both men and women throughout the country. Whoever heard of men making porridge? That’s a woman’s job.” Doran claimed.

“Won’t someone think of the children?” MacDaid spluttered. “Next thing they’ll be sowing their wild oats all over the place. And then we’ll have instant toast and instant marmalade all sorts of feckin’ abominations”.

A new advertising campaign “Hello Ready Brek, Goodbye Eternal Happiness” is planned to shock the faithful into siding with the Bishops.  

This article has been stolen from The and unmercifully mangled into something altogether different, less expensive and tastier. I mean, do you want same-sex marriage instead of porridge for breakfast? Do you? Ha. I thought not.

Every so often I am obliged to go to a Catholic Mass ceremony. This is something I try strenuously to avoid, but sometimes I have little choice. Such are the complex demands of middle parenthood.

Little has changed in the ceremony in the quarter century since I forsook the weekly ritual. What has changed are the congregations. On this occasion, the pews were full, but populated in the main by parents like me – uncertain about what they should be doing and registering a timid protest by not attending communion with their children. If it were not for the nature of the ceremony, the attendance would have been a great deal smaller and greyer.

The priest, a young curate from a part of the country where “th’s” are banned, didn’t bother to alter his style in the midst of this gathering of heathens. Instead, his sermon was all about the nihilism of secularism and a call for us to return to the religion of our youth lest we fall prey to decadence. He blamed atheism for hardship, a diagnosis equivalent to not flossing or washing between one’s toes – satisfactory to some, but ultimately irrelevant.

As I said, not much has changed. If anything, some priests are getting more hardline as the collection plates dry up. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, they still believe they hold the monopoly on ethical behaviour and are fearful of the loss of pomp and privilege. There is still an unwillingness to engage into a dialogue with the real world. It’s all a bit sad, and while I believe that ethics is as important now as it ever was, it seems the Catholic Church is getting less qualified each year to inform us on ethical behaviour.

In the meantime, here is a delightful video from Stephen Fry on humanism and happiness. Judge for yourself what is a better role to live by.

Let’s face it. The Catholic Church has a homophobia problem. Despite all the evidence that’s out there showing that it is as much part of a person’s makeup as the colour of their eyes, many people within the church can’t reconcile themselves to a the fact that a homosexuality is a normal part of the diverse tapestry of humanity. They find all kinds of excuses why homosexual people should not be entitled to the same expectations of happiness and reward as other ‘normal’ folks. Somehow, according to some, it’s just not right.

It’s a big problem. You see, because of their inability to accept homosexuals fully into the fold, and in some cases their outright hostility to the idea of equal rights for homosexuals, other, less restrained folks, have decided that they have approval to discriminate against their own gay communities to a far greater extent, secure in the knowledge that they won’t hear much opposition from any powerful religious leaders.

By giving homophobia a cover and a degree of respectability, they have provided an intellectual underpinning to the assault, imprisonment and killing of homosexuals in Russia, in Nigeria, in Ghana, in Uganda and other countries. In their insistence on keeping homosexuals at arms length, they are fuelling violent bigots across the globe. This fire of bigotry gets stronger by the month – having already reached alarming levels in some of the aforementioned countries.

I am not saying that the Catholic Church is directly responsible for this, but there are great violations of human rights happening right now. Instead of coming to the aid of the downtrodden, they have prevented themselves from taking any sort of leadership position. Indeed, by their silence and opposition to the cause of gay rights, they are making matters worse, not better. It’s a negation of everything they claim to be about.

It’s not just the Roman Catholic Church, of course. The greater Christian church, including Protestantism and Eastern Orthodox, not to mention Islam, is blighted by homophobia, often to a much greater extent. No major religion, to my knowledge, has come to the defence of the LGBT community. None of them have revised their thinking sufficiently to shout ‘stop’. Instead, the task has been largely left to secular groups.

A sea change is urgently required. Some of the bigger churches need to alter their stances. They need to stop giving succour and support to the bigots and those who provide them with ready arguments. They need to start campaigning against discrimination and bigotry based on sexual orientation. The leadership needs to come from the top, if they are not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Let’s say you were watching a TV debate, and one of the debaters claimed that it might be better for the children if black people and white people could not get married. Let’s say they couched it in claims that some of their best friends were black and that they saw nothing wrong with black people themselves, and by the way, that they felt that black people were of course entitled to all the same privileges as white people, except in this one small matter of marriage.

Would you call that person a racist?

Let’s say you were listening to a radio show, where one of the panelists asserted that French people and Irish people were better off not marrying. Now, she had nothing bad to say about the French, and had vacationed in France a few times, but, alas, marriage between French and Irish people was not such a good idea, thinking about how the children might be affected.

Would you call that person a xenophobe?

Maybe they thought small people were excellent, but marrying tall people was unconscionable.

Would you be entitled to call such people heightist?

So what do you call people who think that gay people are great, life and soul of the party and all, but there’s just this small thing about marriage that they wish they could refrain from?

I wonder. What words could you apply to such people? Any ideas?

“The color line is distinctly drawn by Jehovah himself; it is drawn in nature and in history in such a form as to make it a sin and a crime to undertake to obliterate it. “

– Rev. Benjamin Palmer, 1887

“It is certainly a matter of faith that this sort of slavery in which a man serves his master as his slave, is altogether lawful. This is proved from Holy Scripture…”

Leander, Catholic Theologian, 1692

“Christianity confirms the subordinate position of woman, by allotting to man the headship in plain language and by positive precept. []  But, while conferring on her these priceless blessings, it also enjoins the submission of the wife to the husband, and allots a subordinate position to the whole sex while here on earth. No woman calling herself a Christian, acknowledging her duties as such, can, therefore, consistently deny the obligation of a limited subordination laid upon her by her Lord and His Church.”

Susan F. Cooper, 1870

“According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed. []  But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation. Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him.”

– Pope Benedict XVI, 2012

In a speech to the Vatican Curia today, Pope Benedict made what is considered to be one of his strongest attacks yet on gay marriage. Over the past few years, the Pope has made known his opposition to homosexual conduct in no uncertain terms, previously describing it as an “objective disorder“. This view has been repeated by numerous representatives of his senior executive team throughout the world.

A few days before, the news came through of a major breakthrough in the Philippines. After years of opposition by the Catholic Church, women in this country are now one small step away from government subsidised contraception and the right to family planning choices previously only available to those who could afford it.

Around the same time, Catholic bishops in Ireland came out forcefully against government plans to introduce abortion legislation in 2013. Even though most commentators expect the legislation to be restrictive and limited – merely clarifying the conditions by which a termination can be conducted in a medical context – it didn’t stop some more hysterical bishops announcing the onset of a “culture of death” in Ireland.

The Church’s priority does not seem to be common human compassion, nor the alleviation of poverty, nor the highlighting of injustice, nor calling the powerful to account. No. Instead the Church is preoccupied by the imposition of an absolute, unbending version of morality. Having no regard to the inevitable complexities and contradictions at the extremes, the Catholic Church shows itself to lack compassion. Its moral stance has become an immoral one, imposing suffering where alleviation is possible. By choosing not to accept reality, it has lost touch with common humanity.

This is the Catholic Church leadership in the early 21st Century, holding fast to positions that are becoming less tenable with each passing year. Through the stories of people whose lives have been blighted by injurious Church attitudes, it finds itself on the wrong side of history, playing the wounded soldier as the demands for greater liberty and common respect rise ever stronger. The point is missed entirely when these demands are rejected as nothing more than rampant secularism in the ascendent.

We are witnessing, in real time, the demise of this once powerful organisation. Should it choose to adhere to the course it is on, it will cease to exist as a force for change within our own lifetimes. The stance of this church is one of defensiveness, elitism, and deafness to a growing public clamour for renewal. By choosing to ignore the real desires of women, the poor, homosexuals, transexuals and those who clamour for meaningful change within the organisation, it is consigning itself to terminal irrelevance.

I am an atheist, so I am under no illusions as to how this essay will be taken by many people of faith. I am unconvinced, however, that religion is, necessarily, a manifest force of evil. In a free society, people must be permitted their beliefs and the comfort that they may derive from them. Religion provides breathing space to millions of people across the world, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. Through acts of selflessness, charity and compassion, many deeply religious people across the world deliver encouragement to the needy of this world with no expectation of compensation, material or otherwise.

For a religion to thrive in this century, it needs to accept and understand the real world, with all its conundrums, confusions and contradictions. It needs to reach out to people, listening to their stories, walking in their shoes before setting forth an opinion. Despite axiomatic differences, there are no good reasons why humanists and convinced Catholics cannot share many similar values and work together on common causes. Right now, however, by elevating moral absolutes over what is practical, fair and achievable, a gulf exists where it need not be. Like those religious people who used their holy scriptures to justify slavery, segregation and the subjugation of women, its only a matter of time before the harm caused by these stances will be plain for all to see.

ImageSay we didn’t split from the UK in 1922. Say a Home Rule formula was worked out, and instead Ireland became a semi-autonomous region within the British state. Our history would have turned out very differently. The question is: would we have been better off?

We have some insight into how our country might have turned out, because part of our island is still part of the UK. There are some differences between Northern Ireland and the Republic, so the analogy only goes so far. For example, the Republic is bigger; it’s had a more homogenous population, a strongly Catholic identity, and it’s been more rural and less developed for most of its recent history. Comparing the Republic to the North is instructive, but it only tells us so much.

Ireland’s post-independence history can be summarised into two main phases:  Isolation and Integration. During our period of isolation, Ireland effectively removed itself from world affairs, preferring an “ourselves alone” strategy that sought to forge its destiny utterly separate from Britain. Under isolationist politicians such as Eamonn De Valera, the economy was consigned to the margins: a rural backwater, totally in thrall to the Catholic Church. Poverty was endemic and emigration was the norm. Ireland stayed out of World War II, and effectively missed out on the industrialisation and social changes that accompanied and followed this period. People left in their droves. By 1961, its population, at 2.8 million, was 200,000 people lower than it was when it seceded from Britain in 1922.

Had we remained under British rule, it’s probable that Ireland would have industrialised and developed faster during this period. We would have been part of the war effort. This would have meant greater numbers of Irishmen enlisting with the British armed forces, greater involvement by Irish women in war-time production and significant occupation by Allied forces in the run up to D-Day. Ireland would possibly have benefitted from the Britain’s post-war recovery. It is likely that Ireland might have been better off remaining within Britain between the 1920s and 1960s.

From the 1960’s onwards, Ireland opened its door to the world. It sought out foreign investment, entered the European Community, and forged links with US multinationals in specific high-growth sectors such as pharmaceuticals and computers. Domestic businesses became internationally competitive and the population decline was soon arrested. In the last 50 years, Ireland has liberalised, secularised, industrialised and urbanised. It hasn’t all been plain sailing and despite deep recessions in the 1980’s and 2010’s, the trajectory has been broadly upwards.

It’s not easy to see how Ireland would have benefited in the same way under Britain as we have done as an independent state. Britain would have controlled our corporate tax rate, thereby hampering our attractiveness towards foreign investors. Much funding and investment would likely have been diverted towards London and the major population centres of England than elsewhere. Although Britain has many agencies promoting rural development, none have matched IDA Ireland in terms of the successful relationships it has forged and its capacity to attract inward investment.

A key consideration would be the extent to which low-level guerrilla warfare, the likes of which occurred in Northern Ireland, might have damaged Ireland’s prospects within a British state. Given our long history, animosity between Britain and Ireland would have continued and occasionally deepened, particularly during recessions and times of social change. It’s very probable, therefore, that Ireland’s fate as an economic region within the UK might have been badly affected by paramilitary operations both in Ireland and in Great Britain, even if they were eventually to be resolved by new forms of governance.

Finally, there is Britain’s rocky relationship with the EU. While we have delegated much of our economic sovereignty to Brussels and are under the watchful eye of the Troika, Ireland has largely benefitted as a member of the EU and the Eurozone, through regional subsidies, a seat at the table, the lifting of trade barriers or access to new markets. Britain’s relationship remains lukewarm, and there have been suggestions of late that it might leave the EU altogether. For a small, sparsely populated island on the western edge of Britain, this would bode badly for our long-term economic prospects.

The economy aside, it is less clear how Ireland would have developed socially and culturally under British rule. Differences between ourselves and people from Northern Ireland or most other regions of Britain are marginal at best. Ireland’s cultural life is similar in many ways to Britain: we follow similar music, watch the similar TV shows, follow similar celebrities and read similar newspapers and magazines. Our high street shops are broadly the same, so fashion trends tend to match our counterparts across the sea. We have our national sports of Hurling and Gaelic Football, but these games (particularly the latter) are followed on both parts of the island with equal devotion and fanaticism. Neither should we forget that UK soccer teams enjoy far more support here than do teams in our local football leagues. Religion is possibly a wash either way also. While religion can hugely important in terms of ethnic and cultural identity – it unquestionably played a role in Northern Ireland during the Troubles – extreme devotion to Catholicism was the norm in Ireland for long periods of independence. It’s current decline is more likely due to self-inflicted wounds and increasing levels of secularism than anything else.

Few people outside Ireland know of Mary Raftery, but they should.

To appreciate the kind of person she was, you need to appreciate what Irish society was like just a few decades ago. Most things of importance in Ireland were controlled by the Catholic Church. Because of their power and influence, nothing happened in the country without the imprimatur of the bishops. They had ways of making their views known. What displeased them quickly came to an end. Priests were seen as minor nobility: to be revered, not to be crossed, no matter what their personal qualities and vices. The Church had their backs. So long as you followed the system, you could get on with your life.

And what of those who didn’t fit? The Church had solutions for them, too. They ran Industrial Schools to deal with poor and unruly children. They ran slave laundries to deal with unmarried mothers. Within these walls, they beat troublemakers into submission. For others, they had more effective means of gaining the upper hand, practically guaranteeing that they would never speak up for the shame of it.

Much of this took place behind closed gates and closed doors. Most people never heard of it. If you heard something, you were far better off staying quiet. Life would be easier for you. From the highest statesmen to the keenest of media investigators, the monster that lay at the heart of the Catholic Church in Ireland lay hidden for decades; all the while growing, gathering tentacles, feeding off its most vulnerable, corrupting those who came in contact with it.

This was the country in which Mary Raftery began her career in investigative journalism. Things weren’t right. A heroin epidemic was raging in Dublin. Mary began to inquire into its causes. Her inquiries lead to broken people, their dreams destroyed long before they ever took drugs. Ireland had a horrible secret, and it was behind a lock that would require several years of dogged determination to open. Mary helped to unpick that lock.

The 1990’s were not great years for the Catholic Church in Ireland. Bishops and priests were discovered to have had children in secret. Damaging books were being written. Pederasts in clerical garb were being exposed. It was possible to look upon these incidents as aberrations and the protagonists as bad apples. Easily excused and dismissed. It would take something much bigger to rock the sensibilities of official Ireland.

In 1999, Mary Raftery’s RTE documentary series, “States of Fear”, did just that. It exposed a widespread system of institutional abuse, through which thousands of children were processed, for over half a century. The system functioned through deprivation, starvation, overwork and violence: both physical and sexual. What this documentary had in abundance was evidence. After her programme, it wasn’t so easy to make excuses.

Mary went on to produce more documentaries that set out the scale of the problem. “Cardinal Secrets” (2002) showed how senior bishops “managed” the crisis, often compounding the horror and injury for victims. More recently, “Behind the Walls” (2011) shone a light into the Government run psychiatric hospitals. At one time, Ireland lead the world in terms of the number of people detained in mental institutions.

For those still in denial, the subsequent years have been torrid indeed. The scale of the problem has been revealed to be enormous and manifest. A succession of official reports have backed up, with compound interest, the original allegations. The rot within the Catholic Church has been laid bare. We now live in an Ireland that looks at the past and our past masters, and says “never again”.

We knew Mary Raftery from her regular media appearances and for her great faculty to put words to the intense anger we all felt when the latest stories came to light. She was not someone to be trifled with in a debate, as apologists found quickly to their cost. She came across as brave and ruthless in the face of grave injustice. Mary epitomised a new type of morality, based on compassion, truth and justice. She was a role model for a new, more secular generation. Mary Raftery was a sceptic, a rationalist and a humanist. Her name and her work deserves widespread recognition.

Mary Raftery died last week at the age of 54, after a battle with ovarian cancer.

"La Rogativa" (Trevor Huxham)

Two church leaders, Archbishop Michael Neary and Bishop Patrick Rooke, strongly attacked secularism in Tuesday’s Mayo News. They called secularism a cult, and defined it as a philosophy defined by selfishness and greed. It was seen as the “common enemy” – the implication being that secularism was responsible, among other things, for the Celtic Tiger debacle.

These comments completely miss what secularism is about. The basis behind secularism is an acknowledgement that in a free society, people believe all kinds of things and are entitled to believe all kinds of things. It notes, therefore, that it is not the job of government to dictate beliefs to anyone, or to promote a particular set of beliefs above others. Public society should operate on a neutral setting with regard to belief systems, in order to provide a flat playing pitch to everyone. We expect that our schools, our hospitals, our local and national governments, and all offices underwritten by the tax payer, do not discriminate or unduly benefit people, simply on the basis of a particular belief system.

What is self-serving, greedy or cultish about that?

Core to secularism is freedom of speech, and however the churches might object, this includes the freedom to criticise religious beliefs – to expose them to public scrutiny and debate. Despite what it may seem to clerics unused to such questioning, this is the complete opposite of how a cult works – there is no control, no censure, no subjects that are out of bounds. There is no central authority figure. Secularism is called a cult by the clerical establishment because their beliefs are challenged, criticised and occasionally ridiculed.

What happened to Ireland’s economy during the 2000’s was lamentable, but I cannot see how it can be linked to secularism. It’s a safe bet that many of the property developers, regulators, speculators and bankers involved in the boom were practicing Catholics, coming, by and large, from a generation that had much a stronger Catholic influence than we do today. Implying that “they were really closet secularists” is simply a feeble attempt to redefine, for the sake of convenience, what “secularism” and “Catholicism” actually mean.

So I say to these men, grow up. You are living in a society where many different beliefs, and none, coexist. You live in a society where the entitlement and power given to you and your followers is eroding; where people are free to challenge you and to criticise your views, no matter how sacred you think they are; and where greed crosses all mindsets, all cultural boundaries, including your own, yet you see fit to conveniently blame it all on secularism, with no basis whatsoever.

Photo: “La Rogativa”, Trevor Huxham, 2007, (CC Licenced).

The latest report on child abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese does not fail to shock. The abuse itself is chilling, depressing and appalling, but compounding it is the behaviour of senior bishops and cardinals as they conspired – over a 40 year period – to cover up the scale of the scandal throughout the Dublin area. A new word has been added to the common lexicon – “mental reservation“: where bishops could freely excuse themselves from telling the truth when under pressure to do so. The welfare of children was of little importance to these men, and the resultant suffering is incalculable.

Mary Raftery neatly sums up the gravity of this report and it’s implications for the Catholic Church in Ireland. One passage in particular stands out:

What emerges most clearly from the report is that priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals had the greatest difficulty in telling right from wrong, and crucially that their determination of what constituted wrongdoing was vastly different from that of the population at large.

Let’s think about that, for a second. The Catholic Church, like most religions, believes that the greatest value it confers to society is its ability to guide people in distinguishing right from wrong. And yet, it’s most eminent leaders and scholars behaved – and still behave – in a way that would lead you to the firm conclusion that, despite their years of learning, refinement and experience, they have no clue as to what is commonly accepted as morally acceptable or morally abhorrent behaviour. If the very leaders of this church can’t distinguish between right and wrong, what use is Catholicism at all? Why should any sane society uncritically accept the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in our schools? What real benefit does it offer our children?

The implications of the report are clear: The Church badly needs to be removed from the affairs of the Irish State. Let the parents and teachers teach our children right from wrong – they will do a better job. The churchmen had their chance for long time and they blew it. Enough is enough.

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