DESPITE some silly-season aspects, the debates arising out of Archbishop Brady's Knock sermon and, in particular, out of the Sikh turban question, are now revealing issues of large significance.
The crozier ain't what it used to be and the Archbishop's petulant complaints about tarot cards and astrologers are a far cry from the self-assured, dogmatic pronouncements of prelates such as John Charles McQuaid, Cornelius Lucey and Jeremiah Newman, a generation ago. Of course, Irish bishops have always condemned popular beliefs and customs outside their control, such as various rural piseogs and the lively wake amusements of our ancestors.
In a sign of the changing times, letter-writers and media presenters have been quick to note the perceived inconsistency of a spokesman for one faith-system criticising alternative beliefs and practices as irrational. One correspondent tartly noted that "the remarks on astrology leave one with the distinct impression of a salesman worried by new competition''. But, of course, the competition -- and the incon-sistency -- have always been there. I remember our school catechism sternly warning us against "incantations, charms and spells''. Which, ironically, I regularly enjoyed as an altar boy serving High Mass!
At any rate, every belief is up for questioning today. In Voltaire's mordant phrase, "once the people start to reason all is lost''. The Archbishop found himself on RTE Radio 1 facing Keelin Shanly, who suggested to him, with all the insouciance of her generation, that Catholics are required to make the same irrational suspension of disbelief in regard to various dogmas as those who believe that our lives are shaped by planetary movements. There was no convincing rebuttal from a taken-aback prelate.
But the debate generated by the Knock sermon is old hat; in-house, past-tense stuff, and nowhere near as significant as the turban issue. The longer this latter argument is teased out, the greater its implications for our new, religiously diverse Irish society. This controversy will move to other areas -- to religious symbolism and appropriate attire in schools and hospitals, for example. It is important, therefore, that the Justice Minister and the Garda Commissioner should hold fast to their present line on the Sikh turban. The Garda Siochana, like all other agencies and organs of the State, must be neutral and secular. And the logic of this position should be faced unflinchingly -- no Pioneer badges or fainnes on uniforms. And no sporting of ashes on Ash Wednesdays -- a protocol which should also extend to the chambers of the Oireachtas. The Taoiseach should take the lead here rather than wait for the Ceann Comhairle to politely request the removal of the ostentatiously pietistic smudge, growing larger by the year. But I won't hold my breath!
A secular parliament should also dispense with the Christian prayer read by the clerk before each sitting. This court "beseeches'' the deity to "direct our actions . . . every word and work of ours''. Once, in the Seanad, I pointed out that the prayer was inappropriate in a secular political context: besides, I questioned its efficacy, there being no evidence that the deity was taking any notice of our proceedings. The Cathaoirleach was less than amused.
On another occasion, I brought up the impropriety of army attendance at religious ceremonies, such as Corpus Christi processions. Thankfully, this practice has now ceased, and State has been symbolically separated from Church in this area. Only older readers will recall the days when army detachments in church sounded a trumpet fanfare and flashed a ceremonial sword-salute during the consecration of the Mass. Our triumphalist bishops of the time had long since forgotten, if they were ever aware of, the wise words of Bishop Kinsella of Ossory in 1835: "Who wants a military show as part of a religious feast?''
Church and State are still intermeshed in health and education. The outmoded concept of ecclesiastical patronage is in conflict with the growing demand for multi-denominational schools. Most of our schools are denomin--ationally controlled, though publicly funded. There is also the vexed and unresolved question of ethos observance in the appointment of teachers, and indeed of the relevance of religious "ethos'' in the modern, secular curriculum.
At the heart of this confused complexity is a Constitution drafted in the Thirties for the racially homogeneous and 95 per cent practising Roman Catholic population of the 26-county State.
In some respects, the Constitution has served us well. We have modernised the "fundamental rights'' section and removed the clause specifying the "special position'' of the Catholic Church, though that was really a cosmetic gesture. But Bunreacht na hEireann remains, at heart, a Catholic period piece. The "Directive Principles of Social Policy'' section (Art.45) reflects Catholic social teaching of that time. It enshrines some worthy values, but has remained only a council of perfection since (hypocritically) it is not "cognisable by any court''.
Elsewhere, "the publication of . . . blasphemous matter is an offence'' (Art.40.6.1). Even more bizarre is Art.44.1 -- "the State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to almighty God''. If these sentiments were taken seriously, they would suggest an Irish sharia regime. The strongest Catholic note of all is sounded in the preamble which, far from being a decorative overture, has been taken into account in judicial decisions. Here, "the people of Eire'', or the 57 per cent majority of the 65 per cent turnout in 1937, identified themselves blatantly with the Irish Catholic nation and with a partisan, denominational interpretation of Irish history.
Now, the high-powered Constitution Review Group (1996) were obviously embarrassed by all these "religious'' passages, and rather timorously suggested some deletions or amendments -- for example, Art.44.1 should simply say: "The State guarantees to respect religion." In any case, the Review Group's report has been effectively ignored since then. Governments avoid constitutional reform like the plague, and citizens remain largely indifferent. Irish Catholics today increasingly resemble Victorian Protestants in the mid-19th Century, in Matthew Arnold's words, "Light half believers in our casual creeds." And so we have brought a sure-this-will-do approach to the stagnant anomalies of the Constitution.
But it won't do us much longer in the rapidly changing Irish society, as the turban controversy illustrates. We need to separate faith -- all faiths -- from fatherland, now more than ever. The business of a secular Constitution should be to guarantee religious freedom, and no more. That should have been the common-sense position all along, in a religiously divided country, and more so now in the new pluralist Ireland. It was always the secular republican tradition. The Labour Party, now in search of a new mission, might well make constitutional reform their special project. Their founding father, James Connolly, would strongly approve.