Monday 20 May 2019

Gene Kerrigan: Burning Mass tickets isn't part of the fight

Post-Traumatic Referendum Disorder might explain the various fights breaking out, writes Gene Kerrigan

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday

Maybe it's the heat. In recent days a whole lot of people have been getting pretty tetchy about religion. It's as though the referendum on the Eighth Amendment got people so riled up that some are now finding it difficult to settle back into normal life.

Post-Traumatic Referendum Disorder.

In one corner we have the Archbishop of Dublin - normally a placid man - getting worked up about remarks made by Minister Josepha Madigan.

The archbishop and the minister were on opposite sides in the referendum and now they're arguing about women priests. I'm staying out of that one.

Then there's Mary McAleese, questioning the Catholic Church's "evil" attitude to gays. And there's people having a go at her.

There are people who are so angry with the Catholic Church that they claim they have ordered hundreds of tickets for the impending Papal Mass in the Phoenix Park. And they say they're going to burn the tickets.

Pregnant women attending maternity hospitals still on occasion have to walk past No campaigners holding up massive pictures of foetuses.

Normally, this column stays away from religion. There's no need for a non-believer to get into religious controversies. However, in recent times, as a result of writing about the referendum, I've had religious people writing to me.

Some of these are patently decent, expressing a view in a thoughtful way. Some... well, some are not.

They've consulted their God and they want to let me know how I'm going to spend eternity. I won't like it, apparently.

Since these people insist on instructing me on such intimate matters, I reckon it's okay for me to have a view on how they abuse their religion.

Let's go right back to basics.

No, I don't mean the Constitution, or Canon Law. I mean absolute basics.

There's a large rock, spinning through space, with millions of people on it, and we're all trying to figure out what's going on.

We know a certain amount, thanks to science. A lot of our smartest people have carried out scientific experiments and reached speculative conclusions based on the results. They've sent people and exploratory craft off the planet to have a look around.

As a result, we know a lot about consciousness, about life and the universe.

But, everyone's pretty much agreed that what we know is just a fraction of the stuff we don't know.

Science has reached tentative conclusions based on evidence and informed speculation. Many others reached very firm conclusions based on faith alone.

And they are perfectly entitled to do so.

We are, remember, sentient beings on a spinning rock, with limited knowledge, trying to explain our existence to ourselves - and, hey, man, whatever gets you through the universe.

For millennia, humans saw sunsets and sunrises, planets and comets, they saw seasons of darkness and of light, the mysteries and logic of harvests and illnesses that came from nowhere and devastated tribes.

And they experienced all this, had no books, had no knowledge of the world beyond their immediate surroundings.

So, they explained it all as logically as they could. Some mysteries seemed explainable only in terms of gods and monsters, of beings who swallow the sun, of lords who answer - or don't answer - prayer.

Prophets appeared, who told them what prayers and religious beliefs and rituals work best. Some wrote holy books, around which great global movements developed. Today, there are countless religions.

That would all be fine - hey, man, whatever gets you though the night. Except for two things.

One: dominance.

Through the millennia, many religious people were unhappy that other religious brands regard themselves as equal or superior. It's not enough that you believe, you must believe exactly what I believe.

Two: power.

Hand in hand through the millennia, many religions everywhere have sought to use the state to assert their religious and philosophical dominance.

In Ireland, since 1922, the Catholic Church had a confidence and supply arrangement with the FF/FG/Labour cartel.

From this flowed the demonisation of the unwed mother, the Magdalene laundries, extreme censorship, bans on contraception and divorce and the oppression of gays. Laws were run past the bishops before being enacted.

The Church directed those with vocations to help run hospitals and schools. The State was grateful, and the hierarchy thereby achieved direct control over education and medicine.

Most of the people I've known and loved have been practising Catholics, people I know to be good and decent. Their religious beliefs have as much right to respect as anyone's beliefs, religious or otherwise. But increasing numbers of us - and this includes Catholics with confidence in their faith - don't want anyone's religious beliefs encased in law. They don't want to force others to live by the rules of a faith they don't share.

That's what this battle has been about, from the late 1970s, through various social conflicts including marriage equality, divorce, contraception and the original insertion of the Eighth Amendment.

What's striking is the pretence that those conflicts were not about religion.

They were all fought on social grounds - it was argued that society would fall asunder, daddies would run out on their kids, marriage would be "redefined".

No one, it seemed, had the guts to just oppose those changes on the basis that "our Pope says it's wrong".

Why this lack of confidence that people would remain true to their beliefs?

One encouraging thing about the removal of religious laws is that it couldn't have happened without the support of practising Catholics. Increasing numbers seem to have a confidence in their faith that earlier generations lacked.

As a non-believer, though, I find myself in the curious position of defending the right of Catholic believers to practice their faith without being exploited for political purposes.

The institution of the Church had a political interest in retaining the Eighth. When priests, during the recent referendum, used the pulpit to advance the No campaign, they were abusing people's faith. To call people to a church, to pray, and to then use their presence at prayer as a means of advancing a specifically political goal is to abuse that faith.

Why no outcry against this from the very public Catholics who have so much to say about everything else?

One of the last times a pope said Mass in the Ireland he was greeted by Bishop Eamonn Casey and Fr Michael Cleary, both of whom were sexually active, and had children.

Their offence was merely hypocrisy. The much more grave crimes of the hierarchy covering up child rape are now well known.

But, while we criticise the abusers and the hierarchy who protected them, the awful truth is that they couldn't have got away with it for so long without a deferential laity.

The Murphy Report noted cases where children told their parents about the abuse, where those parents complained - and were ostracised by their neighbours for daring to challenge the holy men.

Frightened, those parents didn't dare report the abuse to the guards.

We're still on that spinning rock. Still trying to figure it all out.

We're right to challenge any institution that seeks to make law of religious belief. But to burn tickets for a Mass seems to me not to challenge an institution but to gratuitously offend believers.

Then again, what do I know? I'm just sitting on a rock, spinning through the universe.

Sunday Independent

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