Wednesday 12 December 2018

Leo, those uppity women, and a right unholy row

The fall-out of Josepha 'saying Mass', was great fun, but did we cross another Rubicon in relation to the Catholic Church last week, asks Brendan O'Connor

Josepha Madigan led a prayer service in her local church. Photo: Tony Maxwell
Josepha Madigan led a prayer service in her local church. Photo: Tony Maxwell
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

It is a very Irish row. It even has a name. The Unholy Row. And with the country in the kind of bubble of nostalgia we get into during hot summers, and with it feeling a bit 1976 around the place, people lapped it up.

Initially people got the impression that a Government minister, and a lady one at that, had actually said Mass. Which was exactly the kind of madness people latch on to at a time like this. Only in Ireland, eh?

It turned out it wasn't quite that, but Josepha Madigan had, it seemed, led a prayer service in her local church last Saturday night when the relief priest didn't turn up for Mass. There was also pre-blessed communion given out (the women are allowed to touch the communion with their unclean hands.) It was painstakingly pointed out that Josepha did nothing illegal. She didn't even read the gospel, which we gather she would be entitled to do. But she knew her place.

It might have all passed off as a good silly season story, but Josepha decided in the telling of the story to make a point that many people would find reasonable, that if the Church would only allow those infernal women to be priests, or even include the laywomen a bit more, or allow priests to get married, then there might be more priests to say the Masses.

And it could have stopped there. Josepha would be just another one of those admirable women who are finally calling out the Church. Our mothers and our grandmothers have been muttering about the Church patriarchy for years, while being the backbone of that same church. But they never spoke out really - afraid of the priests, and of their husbands maybe. And you get the strong impression there is a sense of "You go girl" among many of these female church veterans when they see Mary McAleese and Ursula Halligan and now Josepha, sticking it up the boys.

But this skirmish didn't stop there. Because then, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who has clearly never heard of the Barbra Streisand Effect, decided to weigh in. People are surprised at Martin's intemperate response to Josepha. Martin is regarded as the sound archbishop, the guy who knows the rules can be crazy and who's not going to get in a fight about them with anyone, but who has a job to do nonetheless. He's a live-and-let-live kind of guy, and he accepts that not everyone agrees with him on many, many things.

But somehow Josepha spurred him to respond. He said this uppity woman (not his words but it was implied) had caused distress to parishioners, and further afield, and he said the notion that a mix-up in a Dublin parish on one particular Saturday evening should lead to the Universal Church changing core teachings was bizarre.

It's hard to know why Martin bothered getting involved in this. It could be as simple as that this was a Government minister who led a campaign to bring in abortion a month ago, who felt happy to get up and lead a congregation at "Mass", and who was now apparently using the story to make what kind of amounted to a Government attack on the Church.

Then Leo Varadkar got dragged into it, too. He seemed to find the whole thing mildly amusing, referencing the stories that Katherine Zappone used to be a witch, and now Josepha was saying Mass. He thought she "did a very nice thing" by getting up to say Mass one month after she led the abortion campaign. Leo also joined Josepha in urging the Church to allow priests to marry and to allow women to become priests. But rather than basing it on doctrinal grounds, Leo based this opinion on equality in the workplace.

You've got to think that if we hadn't been in the middle of a heatwave, and if people hadn't been otherwise occupied in wondering how they were going to get out of work earlier, there would potentially have been war about Leo's glib comments. Firstly, would he have made light of a similar issue if it involved Muslims? Secondly, why is the Prime Minister telling the Church that they need to change their beliefs? And also, is it not inherently disrespectful to refer to the Church as just another workplace, as if it was McDonald's?

You could see how devout Catholics and clergy might be offended and alarmed by it. But then again, there was a kind of a madness in the air with the heat, and so Leo seems to have got away with it. For the rest of the week the unholy row was a source of great craic to fill airwaves and newsprint. It could be presented as proper news, but it also had a bit of unique Irish lunacy in it, perfect for a week in which people's attention span was diminishing steadily as the temperature rose.

But actually, it would be foolish to disregard all this as harmless silly-season fun. What happened last week was, in its own way, another moment of change in the very rapidly moving story of the relationship between Irish people, the Church, and the State.

Never before had we seen a Taoiseach light-heartedly joshing, almost teasing, the Church, without fear of how many voters he might offend. Never before had we seen two Government ministers in the same week telling the Church to change its doctrine. And, of course, never before have we seen Josepha Madigan almost saying Mass.

Leo did cop himself on towards the end of his Josepha comments to stress that he believes in separation of Church and State so women priests is not something he will be legislating for. Simon Coveney went further last Friday, opting to stay out of it, pointing out that the Church should run its own business and the State could run its. Leave them at it, was his basic point.

And quietly, another Rubicon was crossed. The State was neither deferential to the Church nor really condemnatory. In a strange way, it was as if the State wasn't really taking the Church very seriously. Enda Kenny had lashed the Church once or twice, but he always did it from the point of view of a practising Catholic, speaking in sorrow as much as anger, and in speaking, he still implicitly allowed the Church its unique place in the country, still treated it as something special, and something different.

But these new guys are almost treating the Church as an irrelevance, not worth getting worked up about, a kind of curious, eccentric sideshow. The question now is, are they getting too casual about the Church? Is it more relevant than they think? And should they be more respectful?

And for the Church, is it digging in now, and deciding that it may become increasingly irrelevant in a modern world of gender equality and whatnot, but it will at least be what it is, doctrine intact, as it shrinks in a corner? And it will not be told what to do by those infernal uppity women.

Sunday Independent