Priests and People in Ireland
Posted by shane
The following lecture was given to the annual Maynooth Union Summer School in 1957 by Rev. Kevin Smyth, S.J., Professor of Fundamental Theology at Milltown Park, Dublin.
Dr. Samuel Johnson said that the Irish were a very fair-minded people: he never heard one Irishman speaking well of another. The same sentiment was echoed unconsciously by an Irish priest when he was asked was there any prospect of the beatification of Father Willie Doyle: “No….you’ll never get one Irishman to swear to the sanctity of another.” This attitude causes a grave difficulty to anyone taking a Gallup poll about how people regard their priests in Ireland: the first thing that the subject thinks of is criticism. “The bitther word” rises only too readily to the lips of the Irishman, and if you were fool enough to ask a straight question of a layman, he would probably begin by translating your question into: “What have I got against the priests?”
On the other hand, just as the first reaction is one-sided, it is also often superficial, and the Irishman is as insincere in his blame as he is extravagant with it. Loose talk does not represent the permanent and deep-seated attitude of people towards priests, and most people are incapable of valid generalisations, and inarticulate about their most vital and fundamental loyalties. Our difficulty is therefore to assess the real relationship on its merits, apart from conventions and habits, and to distinguish glib criticism, which people do not really stand over, from the real discontent which may be as potentially explosive as it is silent and unformulated.
My own effort to get some facts, to relate particulars to the universal, to interpret such generalisations as I dared to form, has been haunted by misgivings. Ever since I accepted the invitation to read this paper I have been saying to myself: who am I to draw up the indictment of a nation? How does one take the pulse and the temperature of a people? My only excuse and encouragement is that each of you in the audience is better informed than myself, and therefore that each of you is even more keenly conscious of the difficulty of describing “the present position of Catholics in Ireland” than I am, so that I can count on your sympathy. The best I hope to do is to spark off discussion or contradiction on some points, so that you yourselves may complete and balance the picture, out of your better judgement and wider experience. At any rate, we shall be dwelling on matters about which we all care deeply: our own purposes are involved, as well as the great issues of Ireland’s Catholic future and her almost indispensable contribution to the Church in England and overseas.
The solidarity of priest and people in Ireland, the intense loyalty of the layman to the Church, his steady generosity, his zeal for the foreign missions — in short, the healthy state of the Church is so obvious that anything like an orgy of self-criticism would be unbalanced and pointless. Whatever may be called for in Latin-America, in Italy or France, there is no need here for a dirge to a decaying priesthood, an estranged and dechristianised people. However, we priests are perfectionists; we look beyond our age, and we echo Mao Tse-tung in China recently: “Let a hundred flowers of criticism bloom, let schools of thought contend.” There may be some defects in what continental Catholic intellectuals call “le catholicisme du type irlandais.” There may be certain manifestations of anti-clericalism in our country which are depressing if not terrifying. There may be instances of a lack of soundness in the moral fibre and religious sense of the Catholics whom we produce. While listening for the discords, we must not be deaf to the great fundamental harmonies, which have produced what is perhaps the most solid achievement of Catholic culture in the world, an achievement hard to parallel elsewhere, except in the Catholic bodies which are precisely modelled on the “type irlandais” namely, the Church in England, America and Australia.
Our churches are filled to overflowing, our schools are all Catholic; and not merely does religious practice testify to the solidarity of priest and people, but the morals of the country are by modern standards, almost irreproachable. In any given year, the number of suicides in the Republic is less than 70; in England and Wales, about 5,000; we average about 3 murders known to the police each year; across the Channel, they count almost 125; illegitimate births here are 1.8% of the total, in England and Wales, 4.7%, in spite of the factors that conceal the facts in England. (Note: the fact that some Irish girls go to England to have their babies does not account for the low rate; it was just as low for the last fifty years.) Sexual offences known to the police total here about 200; across the Channel, there are 6,000 convictions; our juvenile delinquents, under 18 years of age, number some 2,400; in England and Wales, under 17 years of age, there are 60,000. On the whole, the number of crimes in England is about three times that of Ireland, in proportion to the population: three murders in England for every one in Ireland and so on. We would be near the bottom of the Third Division in the English crime league. And as England is one of the most law-abiding countries in the world, we would hardly qualify for the preliminary rounds of the World Cup.
What are the main reproaches addressed by the Catholics of Ireland to their priests? What are the latent sources of disaffection, which Catholics sometimes voice in the hope of seeing their priests better, and which anti-Catholic propagandists exploit, in the hope of driving a wedge between priests and people?
The standard objection is: there are too many priests in Ireland. No references needed. But it is interesting to see how this objection was put fifty years ago in Michael F.J. McCarthy’s Priests and People in Ireland — an anti-clerical manifesto which should be required reading for all Irish clergy [a detailed critique of Mr McCarthy’s book, combined with reminsciences of priests and people in Ireland, was published contemporaneously in Examiner Press – shane]. The author pointed out that while from 1875 to 1900, the Catholic population of Ireland fell from 4,150,000 to 3,500,000, the number of the priests rose from 3,136 to 3,711. In recent years, we have heard the banshees bewailing the vanishing Irish. The population has in fact fallen slightly, and in the last five years, 40,000 a year, not finding opportunities at home, have emigrated to England. But once more in thirty years of standstill, to say the least, economic and demographic, one profession and one part of the population has flourished and expanded: the clergy and their adjutants, the brothers and nuns. The only other group that has thriven is the Jews. The figures are:
1926 — Professed clergymen, nuns and brothers: 14,000
1936 — “” “” “” “” “” 15,000
1946 — “” “” “” “” “” 18,700
1956 — “” “” “” “” “” 18,300
that is, in a period where nearly 600,000 emigrated, the “Church-men” grew from 14,000 to over 18,000; increased by nearly a quarter. The proportions have remained steady: about 2 brothers to every 5 priests and 11 nuns; twice as many nuns as priests, over twice as many priests as brothers.
As the commonest criticism of Ireland abroad it is that is a priest-ridden country, and as many non-Catholics and even Catholics in Ireland are under the impression that the country is carrying a dead weight of clergy far beyond its needs and resources, our numbers are worth examining. We omit nuns and brothers, because they are mostly engaged in teaching or nursing and are less readily ranked in the minds of our critics among the non-productive social elements.
There are a little more than 5,000 priests, diocesan and regular, in the Republic; I reckon 3,600 secular to 1,400 religious. They cater for a Catholic population of 2,750,000; that is, one priest to every 550 Catholics. Or, since the Church, like the G.A.A. and the Rugby Union, ignores the Border, one to every 600 of the whole Catholic population. Roughly speaking we have 5,000 priests for 3 million Catholics; but in France there are 49,000 priests or nearly 10 times as many as in Ireland. Few will maintain that there are ten times as many Catholics in France, clamouring for priestly ministration as in Ireland. Few will say that France is priest-ridden; ever since Doncoeur’s book, La crise du sacerdoce, in 1932, the shortage of priests in France has been constantly lamented. And yet there are nearly as many priests per head of the total population — to a great extent pagan — of France, as there are per head of the Catholic population of Ireland.
It should be noted also that the diocesan clergy in Ireland number less than 4,000; which means one priest directly ministering to every 900 Catholics. In France, the proportion is very different: the diocesan clergy numbers about 42,000, the religious only 7,000: the Irish army is composed of a far larger proportion (two-sevenths) of light-armed auxiliaries. There are 61,000 priests in Italy, 30,000 in Spain, 40,000 in Germany, 15,000 in Belgium. Given the fact that the whole Catholic population of Ireland is practising, that the number of priests per head of the total population is much the same as in France, Italy and Belgium, where the whole population is by no means Catholic, Ireland is hardly a priest-ridden country by normal standards.
The statistics for England and Wales are worth recalling: diocesan 4,453, regular 2,588, total in 1956, 7,041, catering for an estimated Catholic population of 3,200,000. There are as many Catholics in England and Wales as in Ireland, but they have nearly 2,000 more priests to look after them. Yet it is generally agreed that there are not nearly enough priests in England to cater effectively for the Catholics. Difficulties of distribution must be taken into account. Even Paris is not so badly off, with 2,000 priests for a liberal estimate of 1½ million Catholics. We make do, of course, through the nuns, Christian brothers, national school teachers.
Statistics are, of course, tricky guides, but like examination results, they are all we have to go on; and statistically, the last people to reproach us with being priest-ridden should be our separated brethren. There are no more than 170,000 non-Catholics in the Republic. But the Protestant Episcopalians have 640 clergymen for a flock of 120,000, that is, one minister to every 180 Church of Ireland adherents. The total number of non-Catholic ministers is nearly 850, making one pastor for every 200 non-Catholics, or nearly three Protestant clergymen to every one Catholic priest, in respect of the total flock in each case. Numerically, it is the Protestants of Ireland who are priest-ridden.
Thoughtful Catholics have urged that while there are perhaps enough priests in England to look after the Catholics who are stabilised around church and school, there are not enough to stem the constant leakage, with its disastrous effects on the growth of the Church. In the last thirty years, nearly 600,000 Irish have migrated to England, 200,000 in the last five years. They are largely left to their own devices, and not properly absorbed into the parish life of the English towns. Bad example and precept, mixed marriages and non-Catholic schools play their part in the loss of many of our emigrants, if not at once to the Catholic faith, at least to Catholic practice. Of this, more later. But it raises a question. If the clergy of England, on the basis of comparison with numbers in other countries, are just adequate to meet the need of their flocks, who is to shepherd the half-million new arrivals? Allowing the absolute need of one priest to a thousand (in Ireland, there is one to every 600), it has been suggested that 600 priests should have followed the emigrants, and in the last five years, 40 priests per annum should have gone — over and above the usual supply of priests from Ireland to English dioceses. There are of course grave practical difficulties, and some personal ones. But since Spain, which is actually short of priests, with only one to every 950, is sending perhaps 250 a year to Latin America, the challenge is there, and laymen have said that the Irish priests are not meeting that challenge. Some laymen maintain that the numbers we send on the foreign missions are unduly high compared with what we are doing for our Irish in England. No man is an island, and we are becoming more and more aware of the fact that Ireland is not an island.
The second general source of uneasiness is that too many priests of Ireland are too well off compared to the bulk of their country-men. This is an aspect of a commonplace grievance which we have all heard ad nauseam: that priests press too hard on the people for money, endless collections for building and renovating churches, for schools, for diocesan and religious seminaries, for Peter’s Pence, for foreign missions and so on. We have to face the question: does the Church with all its works and pomps cost the people too much? I omit consideration of the fact that this complaint is usually made by people whom the Church costs practically nothing; also the consideration that such critics allow a high standard of living say to bookies, who do not offer as much heart’s ease to the people as do the priests. I ask your attention for some statistics.
The average household expenditure in the Republic, when the Household Budget inquiry was made in 1952, was nearly £11 per week: Central Statistics Office pointed out that this sum seems unduly high, until it is noted that most households contain more than one-wage-earner. Of this average sum of 216 shillings per week
81/- went on food (omitting fractions)
28/- “” “” clothing
15/- “” “” fuel and light
15/- “” “” housing
76/- “” “” sundries.
It is the sundries — almost one-third of the average weekly expenditure — that will interest us. The biggest items were:
Drink and tobacco 13/- per week; travel and holidays 12/- per week. That leaves 50/-, roughly a quarter, of 216/- to be accounted for. It goes this way:
Household non-durable goods (matches, soap, etc.) about 2/4
Personal care (shaving, cosmetics, etc.) … 1/6
Household durable goods (furniture, hardware) … 5/6
Miscellaneous goods (e.g. umbrellas, toys, books) … 4/2
Entertainment (cinema, football, etc.) … 5/6
Education … 3/2
Medical (doctors, medicines, spectacles, etc.) … 3/6
Social security (National Health, Unions, assurance) … 8/2
Services (haircuts, laundry, shoe repairs, etc.) … 10/-
Other expenditure … 6/9
With this, having spent 210 shillings a week on food, clothing, fuel, light, housing, drink, tobacco, travel and holidays, household goods, personal care and services, entertainment, education, medicine and social security, we are down to the 6/9 a week “other expenditure”. It goes like this
Postage, telephones, telegrams … 1⁄2
Subscriptions to societies … 3d.
Licences … 1/-
Pocket money to children … 9d.
Various … 1/3
Total … 4/5
Left over, for church contributions and charities, is exactly 2·19 shillings per week, as returned by Central Statistics. That is, out of an average household expenditure of nearly £11 per week, 2/2½ is devoted to church and charity. And since the experts allow for what they call the halo effect, whereby the figures returned for “discreditable” expenditure like drink and tobacco are lower than the reality, and the figures returned for “creditable” expenditure are higher than the reality, we can be absolutely sure that not more than 2/2 out of every 220 shillings went to religious purposes, that is, almost exactly one per cent, or less than 2½d in every pound spent. As this single shilling out of every five guineas spent was distributed between church and charities, a fair amount of it went back directly to the poor and ailing in the form of subscriptions to hospitals, orphanages, etc., or indirectly via the employment given in building churches. It will be seen that whatever English juries think to the contrary, or whatever anti-clerical propagandists say to the contrary, the Irish clergy is not exploiting the Catholics of the country, rich or poor.
It is well to note that in the lowest income groups (£5 16s per week per household) the expenditure on church and charities falls to 6d a week, that is, to less than ½ of 1 per cent. In the highest income group (nearly £17 per week) it rises to 5/- per week, or 1¾ per cent (on average 338/- per week). Putting it more clearly:
Average family expenditure:
£5 16s per week: Church and charities 6d
£9 “ “ “ “ “ 1/3
£12-£15 “ “ “ “ “ 2/1
£17 “ “ “ “ “ 5/2
Allowing half of the total given to church and charities to the priests personally, we find that the poorest families, who spend nearly £6 a week, give 3d a week per family to the priest; families spending £17 give 2/6. So that while we still live to some extent on the pennies of the poor, who are proud and happy to support the Church and its missions, no grievous burden is laid on them, collectively or individually. 3d a week out of £5 16s will leave no one hungry, or short of more than two cigarettes or one ice-cream. These records cover 148 towns and villages, including Dublin, and embody the best modern statistical research. They have not been questioned.
No doubt these figures do not represent the total wealth of the clergy; they show the current donations of the faithful, but they omit special donations and real property in lands, houses, investments. I am not an economist or statistician, and it may be said that I have not reckoned all the angles; that one could become a millionaire on pennies, if there were enough of them. And no doubt the clergy of Ireland have a prosperous air: few of us show signs of malnutrition. God forbid that the figures provided by the Central Statistics Office should be used as a stick to hammer money out of the people, or that any individual priest should think of the Family Budget, and not of Christ and His poor, when reckoning how much of his surplus, if any, should go back to those in want. But it is no harm to have the facts when it comes to refuting such loudly-trumpeted attacks as those of Miss Honor Tracy. In her famous lawsuit against the Sunday Times, Justice Glyn-Jones put it to an English jury this way: “Her views were that there were too many priests, and they lived on a scale which was quite disproportionately high, having regard to the comparative poverty of the majority of their parishioners; and that, in fact, too much money was being taken from the pockets of the poor to pay for so many priests to live on the standard on which they did live.” (8/4/54)
A jury of British business men should have understood the answer: the comparatively poor — families spending £5 16s a week — are asked for and given no more than 6d a week to church and charities, possibly 3d a week per family to the priest. While, for the record, the same comparatively poor spend 2/- a week on cinemas and dances, and nearly 7/- a week on drink and tobacco; which nobody grudges them and of which nobody deprives them.
The people of Ireland have a more objective view of the priests’ standard of living. One reason is that they do not consider any priests at all as too many. Another reason is that the Irishman is by nature not envious of money. He simply does not mind his priests’ being better off than the poor, or having enough to maintain his professional needs; the priest’s own conscience is enough for him. It may be noticed that none of these reproaches are addressed to the Protestant clergy of Ireland, whose fine rectories in the gracious style of the English cathedral town, were really built on the oppression of the Irish poor. None of the English jury that tried the Honor Tracy case thought of asking what type of house the Protestant rector lived in, compared with the houses of the poor Irish who had paid his tithes for centuries. This I say, not to add bitterness to an already strained situation as between Catholic and Protestant in Ireland, but to point out that so-called anti-clericalism is often straight if not straightforward anti-Catholicism.
Theoretically, anti-clericalism is an objection to the undue influence of priests outside the sphere of their religious duties, especially in politics. Theoretically, anti-clericalism is a fine thing, just as anti-bureaucracy is good and anti-militarism is good. Because all power, especially absolute power, tends not only to corrupt but tends to be aggressive and expansive, always trying to claim as its own the no-man’s-land that borders its rightful sphere of influence. Sometimes, no doubt, temporal power has been forced upon the Church, as in the Middle Ages, and we make no apology for Hildebrand. Sometimes priests, especially in Ireland, where the laity had to some extent lost initiative and responsibility, had to take the lead in everything, from founding football clubs to driving County Councils from the back seat. But as a legendary Jesuit Superior said in his old age, as he relinquished office for the last time, no one ever lays down power without a pang. And even priests are vexed when the day comes that their word is not law in picking a football team or in deciding the site of the parish pump. And some priests are only too ready to treat the lawful independence of the adult layman as an insult to the cloth and lack of respect for his priestly authority.
There are spheres in which the priest is all-powerful, those namely which have to do with Christ’s way to heaven. But there are the famous mixed spheres, where morals impinge on economics and politics. And there the priest is sometimes quick and arrogant in claiming absolute and certain jurisdiction where he should be very slow, reluctant and cautious. When priests are over-aggressive, the Irish layman in fact obeys, or has done so on the whole hitherto. But if we cry “wolf, wolf” too often, he may turn a deaf ear in the end when the gravest issues may be at stake. People object, for instance, when a priest suggests a tax on bachelors to adjust the late marriage situation; they object when a priest uses backstairs intrigues against shopkeepers to pay out someone for not supporting his motion in the fixing of a car park. This sort of anti-clericalism is in itself an effort to confine the priest’s authority to the sphere where it will be always safe; it is only dangerous in as much as it creates personal resentments which may be later exploited to drive a wedge between priest and people.
And there are in this country not unimportant elements who pounce on and misrepresent nearly every clerical pronouncement, so that we owe it to the Church of Christ never to stretch our legitimate authority too much, and never to issue pronouncements in press or pulpit which have not been slowly and critically pondered. We have against the Church in Ireland a well-educated, highly articulate group of non-Catholics, with good equipment of press and publicity. They are, socially and economically, out of the top drawer, and they command a fair following of what were once called Castle Catholics, who are anxious to show how liberal they are in contrast to the peasant intolerance of the mass of their fellow-Catholics. Some of these non-Catholics seem unfortunately bent on misrepresenting the Church, possibly in the hope of ultimately turning people against priest.
Some of their campaigns have been very successful, as on the occasion of the Mother and Child Scheme and that success can only be due to some readiness on the part of some Catholics to think the worst of their pastors. As we all know, the question raised by the Irish bishops was whether the rich should have free maternity services. But the story actually put out, and widely, almost ineradicably believed, was that the bishops denied free medical services to the poor mother and her child. In point of fact, free maternity services for the poor were never questioned at all. But to this very day, most people seem convinced that the Church opposed free medicine and care for the poor. The moral is that there are skilful propagandists in the country, who will distort our views and actions even when they are irreproachable, and God help us if we put a foot wrong.
There is another wing of anti-clericalism, which verges on the anti-Catholic, in some extreme nationalist circles. The Church is decried as the enemy of Irish liberty, the destroyer of Parnell, and this forms the basis of some anti-clerical indoctrination which can be read, for instance, in O’Callaghan’s Easter Lily. The bulk of their followers are, for all their blind spots, idealistic and religious; they want the priest with them and they say the rosary for want of a priest. They are not a direct menace to the unity of priest and people, and they are much easier to explain than the Catholics who take out the Communist party card in Italy. Since the proper authorities have spoken on this sad subject, there is no more to be said, except that few priests would behave as described in the above-mentioned History of the I.R.A., published in London last November. Here, for instance, is the burial of an I.R.A. man:
The priest jumped out of his chair as if he had been shot. “The I.R.A.” he screamed. “What have the I.R.A. to do with it? Was Danny in the I.R.A.?” “Yes, Father,” Tom answered. “Then he can’t be buried in Monanimy, he can’t be buried anywhere in my parish, ‘tis out of the question.” “But what will we do, Father?” poor Tom asked. “Do? I don’t care what you’ll do,” the priest shouted, “bury him where you like, with a rock round his neck and throw him into the river. ‘Tis where all such scum belong.” “And you,” he shouted, “how dare you come in here to desecrate the house of God’s minister. If I had my way I would have you horse-whipped, you young cur. You have led astray….you and that godless cut-throat W—, the whole of the parish. No wonder they are begetting bastards every day. Get out of my house and don’t ever desecrate the house of God again. If I ever see you there, I shall have you thrown out.” (p. 143)
The following description of collection dues (p.96 f) also belongs to “The Priest in Irish Fiction” rather than to this paper. But it has relevance. The P.P. is reading the list at the Stations:
“Mrs W., £5. Ah sure, then, God bless you, Mrs. W., you were always the wan to give generously to mother Church. Con O’Callaghan, £3. Thank you, Con. We will remember you in our prayers. Johnnie O’Brien, £1. I thought you could do better than that, Johnnie, you got a good price for the bullock you sold last Michaelmas Fair. Paddy Crowly, 10/-. A dacent man, Paddy, we know you can ill afford it,” and so on with varying comments down to “Owney O’Brien, 1/-. Wisha bad luck to you, Owney, if you didn’t give so much to the publican you could always contribute more to the support of your clergy” — which always created a gale of laughter from the assembled farm labourers and farmers.
Bill hated this imposition, but could do nothing to prevent the Stations being held at his house. But he determined to effectively silence the priest’s jokes during the reading of the “Clergy’s List.” He arranged with his young brother to kneel near a window of the lounge where Mass was being celebrated. When the priest faced the audience to read the list, the brother signalled Bill. Bill immediately commenced shooting with a double-barreled shotgun at the crows which … nested in a rookery around the house. The startled crows set up a terrific din, squalling and cawing as they circled their nests … It was as good as a pantomime …. The priest tried to make himself heard above the din of the shots and the cawing crows … then flew into a terribly fury, snatched the Mass-cloth and crucifix from the table and rushed out the house without waiting for the breakfast and the bottle of whiskey old Mrs. W. always provided. He never held Stations at that house again.
These are Second Nocturns from the anti-clerical breviary and as in all legend, the motifs recur: one, the priests, the upholders of the status quo against national aspirations; the priests prying money from the people by trick and threat and blackmail; the priests rude and domineering, abusing their position. Such legends presumably can only thrive because they magnify and distort real memories of priestly greed, arrogance and reaction. The story-tellers may love the Faith, but if they show the priest as so unlovely, the Faith will suffer undue strain. We simply have to register the existence of such misrepresentation — and live it down, not shout it down.
The third group of anti-clericals is to be found among some left-wing socialists, who are not confined to, or characteristic of, any one stratum of society or political party or religion. This anti-clericalism is based on the charge that the Church has always stood in the way of social progress, either by the disintegrating influence of its other-world inertia, in contrast to the business and social enterprise, say, of the Presbyterians; or by positive reactionary and capitalist affinities. We find such charges in the well-meaning writings of such conservative Protestants as Sir Horace Plunkett; see his Ireland in the New Century (1904), where he criticises extravagant church-building among people who need factories and co-operatives; or in James Connolly’s Labour in Irish History, or in Michael J.F. McCarthy’s series of tirades, of which Priests and People in Ireland (1902) is the best known; you will hear it on the lips of many progressives today. Good Catholics say: “We’ll build a church. But why a basilica?”
Not long ago Radio Eireann broadcast a play about Jim Larkin and the great strike of 1913. The strike caused great hardship to the workers, and efforts were made to send children to England so that the stage of siege could be borne. In the play, a rather maudlin priest is brought on, and all he has to do and say is to “uphold the sacred rights of property” — against the starving people. In response, we point to all the schools of social study set up in recent years; they answer that we are of course trying to jump on the band-wagon, now that we see the age of the worker has come to stay. They say we soft-pedalled “Rerum Novarum” until we saw that the rich were not our soundest allies, and that every effort at a radical solution of social ills has been hampered or ruined by the timid and conservative attitude of the Church. That we have not produced any social conscience in the people; that we have not developed any sensitivity to social injustice; otherwise, with 60,000 unemployed and 40,000 migrating every year, a Catholic people could not sleep of nights.
There is no need for an apologia here: I would be preaching to the converted. There is rather need to see what are the elements in the priestly code that may have — unwittingly and unreasonably? — given rise to such complaints. The first point is that we are in fact and of necessity conservative: The Church moves with the speed of a glacier, and it is quite true that its social and moral doctrines — which may be patient of development as much as dogma — can only clarify and harden slowly, in a world fermenting with rapid changes of astonishing extent, in technology, administration and social exigencies. We are therefore right in being cautious, and not hailing nationalisation, for instance, as the panacea for every ill. Where we may have given offence is perhaps in declaring and defining as “Catholic social doctrine” — to which the Church was supposed to be as much committed as to the decrees of Trent — certain propositions, or particular applications of propositions, which may have no more behind them than tentative Papal suggestions or infant schools of Catholic sociology. Good and earnest Catholics are often shocked by the naïve assurance with which some priests lay down so-called Catholic laws of social and economic relations; or by the way they throw their priestly authority into the scales of a purely neutral economic debate.
Another point urged against the priests in the same quarters, and also by good Catholic laymen, is that we are simply not abreast of the modern techniques of social service. To give an example: how to run an orphanage. We, via our nuns and brothers, always herded children into age groups. It was only recently that some of our adjutants learned from England’s Welfare State that orphanages should be organised vertically, the elder children having to nurse and care for younger members, based on groups of varying ages modelled on real families. So too, they say, our industrial schools, our after-care of mental cases, our rehabilitation of unsocial elements, marriage guidance and so on, all lag far behind the skilled and specialised work done by trained social workers in America and England. They say we hope for a deus ex machina, via the sacraments, to supply for trained effort. In brief, they accuse us of being dogs-in-the-manger; we do not learn comprehensive social guidance ourselves, and yet we prevent the State’s taking over and doing a practical and thorough job. This is being said: “You’ve had your chance and failed! Now don’t hinder us.”
Of course, in this matter of social justice, we are up against it. If we preach the just wage, the employers denounce us for not insisting on an honest day’s work from the employee. If we urge the working man to be punctual and industrious, to abhor petty thefts and waste of time, we are told that we were always on the side of the capitalist exploiters of labour. But we may ask ourselves was there perhaps on our side a tendency to stress the rights of capital? First because we ourselves are employers of labour, rather than employees; and our friends will be more often among the contractors than among the builder’s labourers. Secondly, because most of us are connected by family and upbringing with the professional, landlord, shop-keeping or strong farmer class, and may unconsciously feel threatened when these classes are attacked. This may have, in the past at least, retarded our efforts at social improvements, and have made some priests too quick to denounce all change as the herald of anarchy and chaos; just as in the salad days of our philosophy we dismissed adversaries by hanging on them such emotionally-charged tags as Nominalist.
Are we less than alert, supple and well-informed? This introduces my last three points: the objections made by contemporary Catholic continental observers against Irish Catholicism:
(1) That from here to Sunset Boulevard and Sydney, it is anti-intellectual, obscurantist, mentally sub-adult, without theology or true culture, artistic or literary or scientific — in fact just backward and in a backwater.
(2) that it imposes on the faithful a superficial devotional piety, unfed by the true well-springs of the liturgy, with a Jansenist, moralist emphasis on the sixth commandment as the norm of life.
(3) that it holds “Schools must be Catholic” as an article of faith, and relying too much on school religion, which is mostly mechanical catechism or nuns talking about Fatima, leaves the people without deep personal instruction and conviction; proof of which is to be seen in the lapse of Irish Catholics in England, as soon as they leave the hot-house conditions of Irish society.
One. The people as a whole do not miss in the priests the culture of a Graham Greene or the intellectualism of the French theologians. But even the simple people complain of rambling and repetitious platitudes, whilst the better educated complain of sermons that have been too hastily prepared, if at all, that are couched in inaccurate and ungrammatical language, where they sometimes recognise that Catholic doctrine is rashly or inadequately stated. Perhaps it is true that we could do more to fit ourselves for the instruction of the people. When “Humani Generis” came out in 1950, a priest came to me to ask for a short and simple explanation of polygenism, eirenism and existentialism, which he could use in Sunday’s sermon. Maybe he misjudged the interests of his audience; but after all, we are educating to some extent for export — 200,000 in five years — and maybe some of our seminary speculation is obsolete and does not give our young priests the mental framework into which actualities may be fitted. One thing is certain: we have the ear of the people, the children in schools and the adults at Mass. If the Communists had such access to them, they would soon be indoctrinated with Marxism. And if we ever feel that the people are slipping, we can always go down to the primary schools and see to it personally that the children really understand the catechism and its moral and religious implications. There are fifty priests giving religious instruction in the Technical Schools of Dublin; not a glamorous job. But who will say that they are not at the heart of things?
The more general grief — that we are betraying the people by not being more intellectual, I do not take too seriously. Most intellectuals are specialists, and therefore one-sided; being in the game myself, I distrust them, and remember with masochistic pleasure a sentence in Time magazine: “The difference between an intellectual and an ostrich is that the ostrich cannot make its own sand.” Religion came by revelation, partly because it is mystery, and partly because most of mankind have neither time, taste nor ability for speculation. And historically speaking, according to authorities as diverse as Arnold Toynbee, the psychiatrist C.G. Jung and Christopher Dawson, it is “the much-derided silent folk of the land, those who are least infected with academic prejudice, who are the true sources of spiritual vitality” (see Tablet 23/3/57). There is more hope for the Church in the faith and mystique of the simple Irish people and priest, than in all their dialectic. At least it has worked better so far; but of course things are moving fast.
The second point: do we over-emphasise the sixth commandment? Maybe, but both Voltaire and Newman saw in chastity a hall-mark of the Catholic Church. Maybe we frighten some girls so much off company-keeping that they miss the chance of courtship and marriage. I hope that is rare. The marriage rate of non-Catholics is still later and lower! Maybe we deprive the people of the joys of life, as Sean O’Casey says. But the fact is the country where sex is most uninhibited, where children in the primary schools are instructed in contraception — Sweden — has the highest suicide rate in the world. And from the point of view of the reverence of the people for the priest, we have done a good job, because the celibacy of the clergy, thought not of the essence, is of the well-being of the Church. And priestly purity would not last if the people were not chaste: we depend more perhaps than we realise on the goodness of our people, and we are right in keeping them so good. But the whole criticism is weird: I should not have mentioned it if it were not so popular; and it is found even in Catholic writings (Orientierung, Zurich, 30/9/56: “only one sin is recognised in Ireland: against the sixth.)”
Next comes our betrayal of the liturgy, and the consequent defects of popular piety: Mass mumbled and rushed irreverently by the priest; Mass not understood of the people, except perhaps as a means of installing the Real Presence; most of them minus missal or prayerbook; some of them even saying their beads; and when social and family pressure is lifted, as in England, going to Mass no more. Hence the appeal for a vernacular liturgy, and attempts to turn Mass into something like the community hymn-singing of the B.B.C. services. Perhaps our critics have got something there; but I wouldn’t squeeze it too hard. No one can hear Mass properly without an act of contrition and at least we have developed among priests and people one highly personal and complete liturgy act: the sacrament of Penance, where the people provide by their examination of conscience, humble confession, contrition and satisfaction as much of a liturgy as is humanly possible and divinely ordained. At half past nine, on the eve of the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption, I looked out of the confessional of a church in a Dublin suburb. My heart fell, though it sang at the same time, to see the church still packed, after two and a half hours’ hard going, with people waiting to go to confession. We may have some way to go with the liturgy; but in one part of it, the sacrament of Penance, we are second to none. And that gives us the inside track. It is the Mass that matters, and — it is confession that counts.
The last point is that the ecclesiastical system of Ireland, staunch though it may seem, is artificial and unstable, because when our faithful go to England, it is seen at once that the system has given them nothing that lasts. They lapse because we have not really given them the faith but propped them up with a social structure that made Catholic externals inevitable, putting as many practical difficulties in the way of missing Mass as of committing adultery but there was no solid core of resistant religion.
Such are the facts, according to the English Catholic. But he may be prejudiced. I put more store by an Irish labourer, who was shocked at the morals of the English and then volunteered the information that “the twenty Irishmen in his lodging house were no better: no Mass, no prayers, all pubs and — everything.” At the other end of the social scale, I heard the Irish wife of an Irish surgeon working in London as sharply condemnatory of the Irish working girls. Dr. Heenan’s defence of the Irish probably gives a more balanced picture: defections are comparatively few, often only temporary, a yielding to temptation rather than apostasy from the faith. The damage is done in the children of mixed marriages and among children who in general grow up in a pagan atmosphere. The moral is that it is hard to be a good Catholic except in a Catholic society.
Or that maybe Catholic schools ought to be an article of faith. If so, fanfare for our teachers, who do the hardest work, the indispensable work, who are the cement binding priests and people; fanfare for our nuns, Christian Brothers, National school teachers, without whom the priests might one day be offering the sacraments to empty churches.
Posted on April 7, 2011, in Alcoholism, Anglicanism, Apologetics, Catholic Education, Catholic Social Teaching, Celibacy, Communism, Confession, Dating, Economics, Emigration, English Literature, France, Irish History, Jansenism, Liturgy, Mass, Maynooth Union Summer School, Mixed Marriages, Mother and Child Scheme, Persecution, Sweden, Vocations. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.