Thursday 22 March 2018

The bishops had their say but not in the way people like to think...

It was not a bowing of the knee to the crozier, writes Dr Dermot Keogh

The influence of the Catholic Church on the drafting of the Constitution is a subject that has continued to pre-occupy many who have written on, and more who continue to write on, it nowadays. It is very clear that the draft document was substantially the work of senior civil servants who operated to a very tight deadline between 1935 and mid-1937 (I have described this process elsewhere in this supplement).

Nobody will deny that the Catholic Church and Catholic thinking had an influence on aspects of the document. But to argue that much of the Constitution was drafted by Jesuits and other clerical advisers flies in the face of evidence, which has been available in the public domain since 1987.

The new Constitution was not a retreat to confessionalism, and the article on religion did not fall 'just short of church establishment,' as one historian has written as late as 1998 – 10 years after the De Valera papers on the Constitution had been released.

But first, I will deal with the role of the Irish Jesuits in the drafting process. Fr Edward Cahill, was, like De Valera, a Limerick man. He was an Irish speaker and a popular author of articles and books on Catholic social action.

De Valera knew him in both capacities, writing as he did to De Valera quite frequently in the early 1930s. Although the drafting of the new Constitution was a closely guarded secret, Cahill got to hear of it and offered to help De Valera.

When the Jesuits were made aware by Cahill of his intentions, the Provincial set up a committee, which submitted a report – through Cahill – to De Valera later that autumn. That report was forwarded by De Valera to Hearne and the small drafting committee. The level of its influence should not be minimised. But it was not extensive.

The idea that the future Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, and the Jesuits – ah! Where would we be today without Jesuit conspirators – sat at De Valera's right hand as he put the document together is not in accordance with what is to be found in personal papers and national archives.

It is true that McQuaid was a neighbour and very friendly with the De Valera family. De Valera himself had attended Blackrock College, where McQuaid was principal between 1931 and 1939. The president's sons were attending the college at the time of the drafting of the Constitution.

McQuaid, like Cahill, had also got to hear about the drafting of the new Constitution. Perhaps encouraged at first by De Valera to pass on his thoughts, he found that he was soon being buried under an avalanche of submissions based on papal encyclicals and church teachings.

While De Valera fielded the material and was the conduit through which documents went to the drafting committee, McQuaid sought to influence the drafting of articles on education, on the family, divorce and directive social principles. His thinking was very strongly confessional and resisted by members of the drafting team, who had the responsibility to produce a document of enduring worth and value, which would apply equally to all citizens.

Article 44 – the article on religious – was where McQuaid appeared to score his most spectacular success.

In the first draft – circulated in the second week in March 1937 to a handful of De Valera's most valued senior civil servants and ministers – the draft article on religion (then numbered article 43) did make the Catholic Church the established church. Reaction among De Valera's 'focus group' was undoubtedly negative. The next revise of the Constitution, circulated to all the secretaries of government departments, found that the religious clause had been left 'in blank'.

Thus De Valera began a process of secret 'shuttle diplomacy' throughout April 1937, seeking to find a formula that would prove satisfactory to all the churches. He moved between the Catholic archbishops of Dublin and Armagh, keeping in touch with the papal nuncio, Paschal Robinson. He met the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Gregg, and a leading Presbyterian, Methodist and member of the Society of Friends.

He most certainly also met leading members of the Jewish community. He found it easy to gain agreement with his new descriptive formula from the non-Roman Catholic churches.

But divisions continued over those like McQuaid and Cardinal Joseph MacRory of Armagh, who wanted 'a one true church' formula, and those who were prepared to settle for a more muted wording similar to what eventually found its way into the Constitution.

Fearing a church-state crisis over the matter, De Valera sent the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Joseph Walshe, to Rome armed with a number of draft articles. This was an effort to stave off a crisis with Irish bishops, which might result in the Constitution being voted down in a plebiscite.

In Rome, Walshe was permitted to consult the Cardinal Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli. The matter was treated by the papacy with due seriousness and great urgency. If pressed to make a public statement, Pope Pius XI would have been obliged to uphold inclusion of the 'one true church formula'. But – thanks partially to the intervention of the papal nuncio, who argued about the specificity of the Irish case and presence of a large Protestant population on the island – the Pope decided to maintain his silence.

That left the way open for De Valera to publish the Constitution with the reference to the 'special position' of the Catholic Church, which remained in the document until January 5, 1973, when it was removed in a referendum.

De Valera had to ward off one bid just before the document was published by a Jesuit to have the reference the Church of Ireland removed on the grounds that it was not a church. That bid fell on deaf ears.

In the end, the Constitution as published, was not a confessional document. It had the support of the leadership of all churches and faiths in the country.

Imperfect it may have been, but it was not a bowing of the knee to the crosier. The Jesuits may rest easy! Conspiracy theories find no support in the archives.

The author is Emeritus Professor of History and Emeritus Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration Studies, University College Cork

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