Sunday 23 October 2016

Colum Kenny: God forbid Michael D loses the plot

In a multicultural society a president should be able to speak freely and so too should its citizens, writes Colum Kenny

Published 12/01/2014 | 00:25

TIME TO REFLECT: President Michael D Higgins at Mass in the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
TIME TO REFLECT: President Michael D Higgins at Mass in the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

OH God. It looks more like point- scoring, than religion. Army chaplain Eoin Thynne has been rapped over the knuckles by the military top brass for saying what he thought of the Christmas address to the nation by Pres- ident Michael D Higgins.

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And Michael D has declined to discuss his spiritu- al views.

Surely a man of the Presi- dent’s intellect is willing to say what he thinks of Chris- tianity? He does not need the Defence Force’s chief-of-staff apologising for the views of the head army chaplain.

Lieutenant General Conor O’Boyle, chief of staff, said sorry for any embarrassment caused to Michael D. Why on earth should the President be embarrassed by a citizen saying what he thinks?

The President of Ireland is commander-in-chief of the Irish Defence Forces. This is not quite the same as being US president and commander- in-chief of the American armed forces.

Michael D cannot order our lads to attack Ballina, never mind Baghdad. Get a grip, guys.

So why did Michael D so annoy the head chaplain? Because he made no explicit reference to the Christian faith. Which to many of us is a relief. Other heads of state pay lip service to Christianity at Christmas. At least Michael D could not be accused of that.

In fact his Christmas mes- sage was deeply coloured by Christianity and by the spirit of Christianity. Anyone read- ing it on the website of Aras an Uactarain will see an explicit Christmas image above it, in the form of a Christmas card showing the Nativity scene with Jesus and Mary.

And the wording of his message implies a Christian influence, repeatedly. It is headed “Blessing for Christ- mas and the New Year”. One assumes that Michael D him- self is not purporting to bless us, but is wishing the blessing of God on citizens.

He continues: “Christmas, however, reminds us that true hospitality endures and reach- es beyond kin and one’s own community; it extends to the stranger, the newcomer, the outsider.”

And he adds: “Christmas is a time to reflect on what binds us together, as members of he same family, as neigh- bours, as fellow-citizens and as human beings.

“The message of Christmas invites us to care for one another and to be — in an eth- ical sense — one another’s keeper.”

What else is all this but an implicit reference to the Chris- tian faith and its values?

So why get upset about the absence of an explicit men- tion of the faith? Is it for the president of a multicultural and secular state to affirm one

tradition by mentioning it par- ticularly? Such a box-ticking exercise would seem to be more about bowing the knee to bishops than about bow- ing the head in respect.

Irish Catholic authorities have lost much of their polit- ical power, even if their grip on educational and health facili- ties is still considerable. Their soldiers should be looking to support the sort of communal and ethical values espoused by the President in his Christ- mas homily and not be demanding some kind of metaphorical kissing of an episcopal ring. Substance is more important than gesture.

Some people in the secular media share with some Catholics a very old-fashioned and theological basic view of what constitutes religion. These understand it in terms of the kind of religion they were schooled in, and struggle when a president like Mary McAleese or Michael D Hig- gins demonstrates a broader view of spirituality than that which makes some bishops comfortable.

When Michael D Higgins ran for President he was asked about his religious views in a way that other candidates were not. Perhaps people were trying to draw out differences between him and the bishops, but the spiritual views of other candidates were of little inter- est to anyone.

Such interest in the views of Michael D was a backward compliment to the present President. Now that he is in office, why would he not share his views about such matters? After all, he is happy to be feted internationally for his opinions on the global econo- my, and to promote a dis- course about ethics.

Monsignor Thynne is enti- tled to his view, and it scarce- ly merited the sort of repri- mand involved in a top-ranking apology for his remarks. Hopefully, the Pres- ident sought no apology and did not welcome it.

It would be a shame to think that Michael D might be getting so accustomed to liv- ing in a big house, with his special advisers and fancy French speech-writer, that he thinks he is above criticism. God forbid.

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