WHAT with the Taoiseach being compared to Hitler, the Vatican throwing a hissy fit and the rest of the world enthralled at little Catholic Ireland standing up to the big boys in Rome, perhaps it's time we asked: "What would St Patrick do?"
Not the snake-slaying, shamrock-waving bishop of later invention, but the Patrick of humanity and pragmatism, with all his foibles, failings, loss of faith, love of women and bloody awful Latin.
Because, since the Taoiseach fired the first official salvo against Rome, the Irish Church seems to have been mobilising itself for a schismatic war. As Catholic commentator David Quinn noted: "It is as though we are now being asked to choose between the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, and the Irish Catholic Church. Catholics in the past have had to make a similar choice. How will we choose?"
Bishop Willie Walsh, Fr Enda McDonagh, and the Jesuit theologian Fr Gerry O'Hanlon, among others, have advocated the idea of an Irish synod involving clergy and laity -- and, God bless us, women too -- to map out the future of the church. As O'Hanlon has noted: "It will not do any more for priests, bishops, cardinals, the Pope to simply tell us what to think, what to do. People rightly want a say." Is this heresy, or just a return to the church of our ancestors?
Well, it's probably fair to say that the idea would go down like a cup of cold sick in the Vatican. God knows what would happen if some of those more outspoken Irish clergy (like the ones who called the new translation of the missal sent from Rome "elitist" and "sexist") got together with a disillusioned, increasingly secular and very angry Irish populace. Ninety-five theses? I bet they could come up with 195. Are we about to have our own Reformation?
Well, we weren't always good Roman Catholics. Though historians no more accept the idea of a unified "Celtic Church" than they do a united Celtic people, it wasn't until the Synod of Whitby in 664, about 150 years after the death of St Patrick (who, if he was sent to "Romanise" us -- very doubtful, he was later confused with Bishop Palladius who got short shrift from the Irish -- failed miserably) that the highly individual, monastic, forgiving and relatively egalitarian Irish Church submitted somewhat to Roman law.
According to one historian: "Irish Christianity was pure, spiritual, intensely personal, dedicated only to the absolute word of God. Rome's was materialistic, tightly organised, widely social in intent, intolerantly conformist."
But after the decline of the Roman Empire, the so-called Golden Age of Irish monasticism blossomed when we modestly declared that our monks, abbots and abbesses (mixed religious communities existed) "saved civilisation". Celibacy was a choice, not a necessity, and many church offices were handed from father to son -- and even sometimes, it was rumoured, to daughter.
But then came the Vikings, disorder, disruption and the implementation of Gregorian reforms. From 1111 a series of synods changed the monastic Irish Church into a parish-based system. They still weren't overfond of celibacy though, or of sending cash to Rome. And consequently the (forged?) papal bull of Pope Adrian I was used by the Angevin King Henry II as an excuse to invade Ireland.
Chronicler Gerald of Wales complained: "Of all peoples it [Irish Catholics] is the least instructed in the rudiments of the Faith. They do not pay tithes or first fruits or contract marriages. They do not avoid incest. They do not attend God's church with holy reverence."
Oh dear. Well, Gerald had a habit of exaggerating, but it can still be said quite truthfully that the official reason for the Norman invasion of Ireland was to turn us all into good Roman Catholics. Now, how ironic is that?
Did it succeed? Well yes, up to a point -- in that the hierarchical structure of the
Roman Church most definitely replaced the Irish monastic one. But now that the great days of the learned monks had ended, the general mass of people never bothered with all that Roman theological stuff, preferring a mix of ancient pagan beliefs and rituals combined with an Irish style Catholicism. Celebrations at holy wells, harvest bonfires and wild Irish wakes co-existed with a soft Catholicism practised under the Penal Laws. Mass and confession weren't such a big deal for the average Irish peasant. And anyway, there were never enough priests to go around. Hanging was a pretty good deterrent to vocations.
It wasn't until after the great famine that Roman Catholic Ireland as we know it was eventually established. The old superstitions had failed to protect the people from catastrophe, and the newly emancipated, increasingly middle-class Roman Church (heavily influenced by Victorian attitudes to sexuality) was well set to step into the breach.
The "devotional revolution" commandeered by the Roman-trained Cardinal Paul Cullen revolutionised the Irish Church. The British cheerfully handed control of new schools and hospitals to the clergy -- a cynical move as they knew the threat of eternal damnation from a bishop was a most excellent deterrent against sin.
We became the "Jewel in the Vatican Crown" as impoverished mothers gave their younger children -- whether they wanted to go or not -- to the Church in the hope of earning honour and prestige for the family.
We had so many "Mammy vocations" that we began to export our religious abroad. Mass attendance increased exponentially. And national identity became inextricably linked with Roman Catholicism. So when the British finally left, the real victor was not so much the Irish people but the Roman Catholic Church.
Perhaps future historians will look back on the 20th century as an unfortunate period when the Irish replaced one foreign overlord for another, with disastrous consequences.
Perhaps the Irish clergy calling for a national synod to discuss the future of the Catholic Church will realise that whereas Ireland has given so much to Rome, Rome has given little in return -- bar contempt for our laws, our women and children and our young, struggling Republic.
There are still many Irish people who sincerely desire to maintain a spiritual, Catholic religion. Yet they are finding it impossible to do so under the weight of Roman pomp, power and stubborn patriarchy.
Yet community, spirituality and ritual are still very important to many Irish Catholics. Do Wiccans Have Hymns? asked writer Barbara Scully in a blog post last week where she articulated the innate desire of many lapsed Catholics to be members of a church that valued community, equality, spirituality, ritual and support rather than the inflexible "doctrinal truths", invented over the centuries by Rome.
She is not a "secular-atheist or pseudo-rationalist", and neither are the majority of the Roman Church's critics in Ireland and abroad. Nor are they so ignorant as to be blindly led by some imagined "hysterical anti-Catholic media agenda".
What would the humble, nomadic Patrick we know from his Confession do? Would he support the Church of Rome in its attempts to retain control of its empire? Or would he advocate a return to the simple, spiritual yet pragmatic practices of the early Irish Church?
What do you think?