Saturday 17 February 2018

We must also be mindful of new liberal orthodoxy

Same-sex marriage result heralds an end to Catholic church authority but new insiders and elites have also failed, says Jody Corcoran

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny voting in the Marriage referendum at St. Anthony's National School, Castlebar. Photo : Keith Heneghan.
An Taoiseach Enda Kenny voting in the Marriage referendum at St. Anthony's National School, Castlebar. Photo : Keith Heneghan.
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

The overwhelming Yes vote in favour of same-sex marriage must represent an end to the influence and power of the Catholic church over the political and social trajectory of politics and society.

But as the country embarks on a new era, post Celtic Tiger, economic collapse and austerity, this is a good time to ask: With what have we replaced the overbearing authority of that discredited church?

The decline of the church's influence over the nation's morals, more specifically over education, health and, to a lesser extent, social services, has been evident for more than three decades.

That diminished authority is more often than not associated with revelations to do with the sexual abuse of children, which began to emerge in the mid-1990s.

It can be pinpointed, however, to the first in a series of scandals when the Bishop of Galway, Eamon Casey, resigned in 1992 after it was discovered that he was the father of a teenage son.

That revelation may have exposed the hypocrisy of the church; but it was the sex-abuse scandals, specifically the controversy in 1995 over the extradition of a paedophile priest, Brendan Smyth, which also brought down the government, that accelerated the decline of the church.

It would be equally relevant, however, to associate its faded authority with the emergence of what has been called a newer power bloc - the social partners - born out of economic and political necessity in the late 1980s.

In many ways, we have come full circle this weekend.

Social partnership, a term used for the tripartite, triennial national pay agreements, was initiated in 1987 in a period not unlike that which currently exists.

At the time, the country was wracked by high inflation and weak economic growth, which led to increased emigration, unsustainable government borrowing and ballooning national debt.

In the early part of that decade, the country had faced into two referendums, more divisive than the same-sex marriage poll, but with balance of power tipped in favour of the church.

Those referendums were the Eighth Amendment in 1983, to introduce a constitutional ban on abortion; and the Tenth Amendment in 1986, to remove the prohibition on divorce.

The church's influence was evident in the outcome of both: abortion was banned on a vote share of 67pc to 33pc, and divorce prohibited by 63.5pc to 36.5pc.

We will never know, but it may also be that contraception was only introduced (by legislation) in 1985, despite opposition from the church, because the decision did not go to referendum.

Last week, I outlined the significant role played by Enda Kenny in the separation of church and State, a relationship that Mr Kenny has described as "interchangeable" since the foundation of the State.

In his seminal speech on the Cloyne sex-abuse report, Mr Kenny spoke of how the swish of a soutane had smothered conscience and humanity and the swing of a thurible had ruled the Irish-Catholic world.

There is authoritative academic research to suggest that that interchangeable relationship, in fact, preceded the foundation of the State.

This research asserts a consistent feature of the State's approach to social policy - its willingness to share institutional responsibility for the welfare of citizens with private, that is, non-state organisations.

This was, in fact, formally started under British rule in the 19th Century, when the welfare of citizens was largely given over to the Catholic church.

Through such acquiescence, the church gained increasing control over the Catholic Irish in many facets of their lives, including education, health, welfare and especially their morals.

Among the key reasons was fear in Britain of the potential harm the impoverished Irish would cause if they were not controlled and retained in their own cities, towns, villages and rural settings.

At the time, the early part of the 19th Century, the poor Irish were beginning to invade the burgeoning cities of Britain in search of work. In the 20th Century, the newly established Irish Free State allowed the Catholic Church to continue its domination over moral and welfare matters, which in turn led to the establishment of many schools and hospitals.

When Enda Kenny issued an apology on behalf of the State to the Magdalene women in 2013, he said he was struck that for generations "Ireland had created a particular portrait of itself as a good living, God-fearing nation".

He spoke of a moral code that was fostered in the 1930s, 40s and 50s: "We lived with the damaging idea that what was desirable and acceptable in the eyes of the Church and the State was the same and interchangeable."

This weekend, the new liberal orthodoxy, which I contend ascended in the guise of social partnership, will celebrate what many will see as the final fall of the moral authority of the church.

But that would be to risk dismissal of those many facets of our lives - education, health, and welfare - where "good priests", also acknowledged by Mr Kenny, had acted with good authority.

It would be also to overlook the time and place from which the country has progressed.

During the 1913 Dublin Lockout one of the strikers, a young girl Mary Ellen Murphy, was sentenced to a month in custody for assaulting a "scab".

She was 15 and could not be sent to Mountjoy Jail so instead she was committed to High Park Convent in Drumcondra, where the nuns ran an industrial school and Magdalen laundry.

In demanding her release, James Connolly and Jim Larkin used the language of priests against the women of the Magdalen institution: they complained she would be forced to mix with "fallen women".

Connolly said: "When that girl was sent into that institution her character was foully besmirched and a damnable outrage committed".

In the same year that the government fell over the extradition of a paedophile priest, the country voted again to repeal the constitutional prohibition on divorce: this time the referendum was narrowly carried by 50.28pc to 49.72pc.

Then in 1999 the government announced the establishment of a commission to investigate physical and sexual abuse that had been widespread until the 1970s in industrial and reformatory schools.

Similar inquiries conducted during the following decade culminated in the publication of the Murphy Report in 2009.

That report reached devastating conclusions on the extent of concealment of clerical paedophilia in the Dublin archdiocese and led to multiple episcopal resignations.

Throughout this period the Catholic Church, while apologetic on the one hand, seemed to fail to fully grasp the gravity of its situation.

However, as Enda Kenny said in his Cloyne speech, far from listening to the evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St Benedict's 'ear of the heart'...the Vatican's reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer.

Also in this decade, the country underwent a period of unprecedented economic growth, during which money was available for every problem, perceived or real.

The social partners, which involved employers and trades unions, also included since 1997 voluntary and community pillars.

Behind closed doors, they set about carving up a new country for a new millennium.

That process gave rise to a form of extravagance, the scale of which was only to later emerge: unknown to the masses, these new insiders and elites lived a lifestyle which, when the details did come out, gave rise to public outrage.

Even the holier-than-thou charity sector, which had taken on much of the work foisted upon the church as far back as 1845, was subsequently found to be indulging in the excesses of the age.

Few had cried stop: but the then Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly in 2005 lamented the vulgarity of modern Ireland and suggested: "It would be good if we recognised the new religions of sex and drink and shopping for what they are, and tip-toed back to the churches."

Another decade on, the consequences of decisions taken by the new liberal orthodoxy, the political, administrative and economic elites, have been laid bare.

They may answer that at least no child was raped, and they are correct insofar as we know, but there have been other consequences, devastating for all that.

Today's post-Catholic church society, for many, is more unfair and unequal, arguably, than ever before. Those two legacies of the church, education and health, have borne the brunt: school classrooms are overcrowded; hospital patients left to languish. You might say the civil rights of a generation have been denied.

Furthermore, the economic recovery has been shown to be lopsided, skewed strongly in favour of urban Yes voters and against those who, to a large extent, continue to resist the new liberal agenda.

Regardless, or in tandem, the Government has pressed ahead: the Children and Family Relations Bill was enacted into law this year, introducing a form of abortion for the first time, with further liberalisation still to come, more than 30 years after that first rejection at the behest of then still almighty Catholic Church described by Enda Kenny in his seismic speech, but with no little irony, as narcissistic and elite.

Sunday Independent

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