Fr Fahey and Irish Catholicism


Fr. Denis Fahey, C.S.Sp. (1883–1954)

The following article by Doris Manly was published in the January-February issue of the Ballintrillick Review in 1990. The Ballintrillick Review was a precursor of the modern Brandsma Review.

Fr Fahey had an influence on Irish Catholicism, but it does not seem to have been either wide or enduring. The fact that the Legion of Mary proved far more popular and lasting than Maria Duce suggests that his philosophy had limited appeal. The contrast is relevant because Frank Duff very firmly rejected Fr Fahey’s ideas about the Jews: in fact, he actually expelled from the Legion some people who insisted on putting those views forward under its auspices.

Sister Mary Christine Athans interviewed Frank Duff about the matter in 1979, and he told her about the incident. From the start Mr Duff had believed that Fr Fahey was “writing and teaching views that were dangerous”. Legionaries were instructed to refrain from attacks on Jews, and to aim at dialogue instead.


This brought the Legion into conflict with some Maria Duce people. Mr Duff told Sister about the difficulties he had with some of Fr Fahey’s adherents who:

tried to capitalise on the similarity of their title with that of the Legion of Mary. Indeed, at one point, two branches of the Legion became “infiltrated” with Maria Duce adherents. It was learned that Legionaries from these groups who were making home visitations were attacking the Jews, and that the “book barrows” set up by the Legion operated by these two groups placed “Maria Duce” signs above them, and were giving out anti-Jewish literature.

Expelled from the Legion

Clearly, the problem had to be dealt with. Mr Duff told Sister what happened in the end:

I happened to be President at that time, and I was deputed to send for the two presidents of those two branches, and to ask them to desist. They must not do that under the auspices of the Legion…They were very fine fellows, you know; of course, that was the trouble. They were trained to believe that all evil was proceeding from the Jews…

The two Legionaries claimed that they were acting according to their consciences, and refused to desist — so Mr Duff asked them to leave the Legion.

Asked if he had ever talked to Fr Fahey about the problem, Mr Duff replied: “No, I never did…you could not reason with him.”

Episcopal reactions

How were Fr Fahey’s ideas received by the Irish bishops? The point is debatable, but it appears that the bishops found those ideas increasingly embarrassing. Yet it was difficult to do anything about the matter. Fr Fahey was clearly devout, well-meaning, devoted to his duties, and (despite his increasing use of suspect sources) learned. He was also a professor in an Irish Catholic institution, above reproach in his personal life, who had a relatively small but immensely devoted following among the laity. And, in addition, he was one of those people who accept criticism with difficulty.

The latter idea was expressed by several Holy Ghost priests interviewed by Sister Mary Christine while researching her thesis. She says that these men, who had known Fr Fahey well, agreed that he

so completely identified the plan of Christ with his own interpretation of that plan, that he saw criticism of his description as somehow criticism of Christ Himself. That wounded Fahey deeply, because he truly believed that it wounded Christ. It was therefore impossible, because of his temperament, to criticise his published works.

The imprimatur

Those who wonder how Fr Fahey so long escaped serious criticism in Ireland must bear all these difficulties in mind. Additionally, we must remember that the imprimatur does not signify ecclesiastical approval of political ideas, or authentication of claimed historical facts, but only a judgement (by a fallible censor) that a work contains no doctrinal or moral error. At the start, no one apparently saw his treatment of sacred history as doctrinally unorthodox. However, as time passed ecclesiastical authorities apparently became more and more alarmed at the moral and doctrinal implications of Fr Fahey’s way of attributing virtually all evils in modern history to the “organised naturalism” of the Jews. Sister Mary Christine refers to

his problem, as the years wore on, of obtaining an imprimatur for his books. He had great difficulty…in finding any Bishop who would agree to lend his name to [The Kingship of Christ and the Conversion of the Jewish Nation].

In that final book, Sister says

he exposed his own prejudices beyond the point where many of those who had accepted his ideas (even with qualifications) were willing or able to follow. His efforts to obtain an imprimatur were met with negatives from those among the hierarchy who had previously given their names. The book was eventually published with the imprimatur of the Bishop of Ferns, but it is still unclear as to whether the episcopal approval was actually received. One story is that…the publishers presumed the imprimatur. Whatever the case, Bishop James Staunton was summoned for a conversation with Archbishop McQuaid on the issue. Because the book was in circulation, there was little that could be done, but the Archbishop of Dublin let it be known that he did not want any copies sold in the bookstores in his archdiocese…

Over the top

Somewhere in Enthusiasm, Mgr Ronald Knox makes a small joke about a religious thinker who, after trembling on the brink of theological disaster for a number of years, finally went over the top, succumbing to the temptation to write a commentary on the Book of Revelation. One could apply the same thought to Fr Fahey. In his final book, he not only continued with his charges of “Jewish naturalism”, but went a step further: he accepted that it was “probable” that in the last days, the “Jews will acclaim Antichrist as the Messias and will help to set up his Kingdom”.

This proved too much even for those who had supported him hitherto. When KCCJN appeared, the Irish Ecclesiastical Record could not even find anyone to review it. Eventually a review appeared — but only after Fr Fahey himself found a young priest, one of his ex-students and by heavy persuasion got him to do it. He told Sister Mary Christine how this was accomplished.


Irish bishops do not normally give their own priests public criticism; that is simply not the Irish way. In this country, the preference is for “having the quiet word”. In Ireland, a subtle society, a nod is as good as a wink.

Those familiar with the Irish episcopal idiom will see that in their way, the Irish bishops were probably signalling a greater distancing from these theories, even while they tried not to hurt Fr Fahey’s feelings. It would appear that this attitude got across to the clergy, most of whom seem to have kept their distance also.

In America, where life is less subtle, ecclesiastical idiom is different. Starting in 1938, Fr Charles Coughlin began spreading the Fahey theories via his radio programme, which had millions of listeners. Being an American, Fr Coughlin expressed himself in robust terms. All this made him a lot more visible in America than Fr Fahey was in Ireland.

Alarmed at the spread of objectionable ideas about the Jews, US prelates expressed strong and explicit public disapproval. Fr Coughlin’s bishop, Archbishop Mooney of Detroit, made a statement which appeared in most Catholic papers (and also in the 16 December 1938 issue of Commonweal, from which I quote). The Archbishop pointed out that permission to publish a piece of work did not imply ecclesiastical approval of its contents, and referred those who wanted to know where the Church stood on the Jews to “the widely-publicised statements of Pope Pius XI”.

Cardinal Mundelein

On 19 December 1938, Cardinal George Mundelein of Chicago issued an even blunter statement:

As an American citizen Father Coughlin has the right to express his personal views on current events, but he is not authorised to speak for the Catholic Church, nor does he represent the doctrine or sentiments of the Church.

The extinction of Maria Duce

When Fr Fahey died in 1954, Archbishop McQuaid sent a note expressing his regret that he “must be absent” from the funeral. It would seem that the continued existence of the Maria Duce movement, to which most of Fr Fahey’s followers belonged, was perceived by Dr McQuaid as something of a problem. Dr McQuaid did not reveal his views to the world, but Sister Mary Christine says that certain correspondence in the Fahey papers “provides evidence that McQuaid, while accepting Maria Duce while Fahey was alive, wanted them to curtail their activities after his death”. It seems significant that after Fr Fahey died, the Archbishop asked the group to change its name. It complied, and in 1955 began calling itself “Fírinne”: the Irish word for “truth”. Gradually, the movement dwindled. It is now extinct.

No following within his Congregation

Sister Mary Christine says that the Fírinne people formed the habit of making an annual pilgrimage to Fr Fahey’s grave at Kimmage, and this displeased the Holy Ghost Congregation, which connected the group with an unwillingness to accept changes after the Council. Therefore, “people were asked to make small and private visits to the cemetery rather than coming en masse“.

From her interviews with Holy Ghost priests, Sister concluded that Fr Fahey had had very little influence within the Congregation. Community solidarity was such that his fellow religious did not publicly criticise his works, but neither did they admire or promote them. One priest interviewed said, “His contemporaries did not go along with him. No one in the Irish Province would have gone on with him, except maybe some students”. Another said, “If you could get him away from his hobby-horses, he was a wonderful man, and had a good wit” — but the problem was that he “was incapable of dialogue…If you questioned him, or disagreed with him, he was grieved.”

Generally, the view Sister met was that it was a great pity that a man of Fr Fahey’s undoubted piety and gifts had got himself entangled with objectionable ideas about the Jews. More than one of his former students declared that Fr Fahey “always thought there was a Jew in the bushes ready to kill him”.

A complex character

And yet — such is the complexity of human nature — all were sure that he really loved God. Some described him as “a man of personal asceticism and piety” who, as a spiritual director, had been “the essence of kindness and patience”. Pondering such testimony, one thinks of the passage in All’s Well:

The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues.

I suppose the best answer to these contradictions was given by the priest who described Fr Fahey as “an a priori historian”. Sister Mary Christine, paraphrasing this priest, said that Fr Fahey

began with very definite Christian theological presuppositions and constructed a system through which he explained all the events of history…He came to conclusions in the practical order as if he were doing a syllogism.

Where this a priori reasoning led

We cannot know exactly how Fr Fahey came to fit together the various elements in his schematisation of history. But somehow, he came to believe that a huge human group, without territorial boundaries or a national government, constituted a “nation” which was enlisted in support of a “programme” opposed to the “Programme of Christ the King”. In his schematisation, these two “programmes” were seen as total and inclusive. Therefore, despite the obvious conflict between their philosophies, the Freemasons and the communists were presumed to be combined under some hidden leadership dedicated to a shared end. And despite the cruel way the communists treated Jewish believers, communism was seen as “Jewish”.

Identifying the presumed leadership

Assuming a unified “programme”, running through history, of opposition to “the Programme of Christ the King”, Fr Fahey looked around for an identifiable set of leaders. For a variety of reasons, he fastened on some shadowy figures he assumed were the leaders of a mythical entity he called the “Jewish nation”.

Why did he light upon “the Jews” for this role? We cannot know. Possibly it was because as a young man, he had been influenced by the thinking of Louis Cardinal Billot, S.J., and Henri L’Floch, C.S.Sp, two clerics involved with Action française (which was eventually condemned by the Pope). Possibly he got the idea in some other way. But whatever the idea’s origin, it seems clear that it was a theoretical reason. That is, Fr Fahey’s views did not stem from personal malice toward actual Jews. He had, apparently, little acquaintance with living, breathing, Jewish human beings. Rather, his ideas were the product of abstract rumination.

All agreed that he was not a bad man, but simply a man deceived by his own theorising. We all can be mistaken, so let us pray for him.

Posted on February 12, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I read this article and understood nothing.

  2. I have just deleted a comment claiming a connection between Freemasonry, communism and “world Jewry”. While I prefer to keep a free and open discussion on this blog, comments of that nature aren’t welcome and won’t be published.

  3. But Wolfrano, if I may ask, with respect, what is difficult to understand? It’s a straightforward narrative explaining the influence of a priest who founded a controversial movement in the 1940s, which to some extent was a parallel to the well-known Legion of Mary (founded in Ireland in the 1920s) but to a much greater extent certainly did not share the ideals of the Legion. Whatever its popularity might have been had it been founded in the 1930s, any movement espousing anti-semitism (even if that was only one of its planks) in the late 40s was just plain weird, to put it charitably, in the light of the events of the preceeding years.

    Admittedly, if you were to ask any ordinary educated person, even those who had studied modern Irish history, the chances are that about one in ten might recognise the name Maria Duce (let alone be able to prononce it properly!). Nevertheless I don’t think you actually have to know anything much about the organisation itself to be able to appreciate what the article is all about. On a personal note, I do recall my parents (who were young adults in the 1940s) mentioning it once or twice but usually in tones of rather amused mild contempt. I think that view was probably the one most widely held among “ordinary” Catholics of the time.

  4. Dominic Doyle

    Wow! My father is a “disciple” of Fr Fahey and a former enthusiastic member of Maria Duce. This excellent article sheds an important light on his views, which have always been troublesome for his progeny!

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