2000s >> 2006 >> no-1217-january-2006

Catholicism in disgrace

In Canada, the United States, Australia and elsewhere, but especially in Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church stands in disgrace, following the plethora of revelations about the activities of paedophiles and other types of abusers among its clergy. Obviously the structure of the Church and the often uncanny power its priests and bishops have over a subservient laity must make it a target for paedophiles and sadists. But the real and utterly appalling shame of the Church was its subsequent treatment of the abused and its frenetic efforts to cover up by lies and other deceits the contemptible behaviour of its servants.

Was it purely coincidence that the greatest abuse outside Ireland took place in Canada, the US and Australia, in mainly Irish Catholic areas and under the tutelage of the Irish Christian Brothers and Irish priests? Here we look at the historic role of Catholic priests and of Catholic institutions in Ireland over the centuries and for the source of the awesome power and the cavalier attitude of a now-disgraced Church.

The Roman Catholic Church (and, to a lesser extent, its Christian derivatives) arrogated onto itself the role of arbiter in things appertaining not only to matters of what it called ‘morality’ but to all forms of human behaviour and even juridical practice. Canon Law was the ultimate determinant superior to all other legal forms.

As feudalism yielded to capitalism in Europe and modern nation states were freed from the political hegemony of the so-called Holy Roman Empire, the Popes and their cardinals were forced to concede to widening democratic forms which were historically anathema to Rome. Still, even in countries where Roman Catholicism had been politically and morally overshadowed by various forms of Protestantism, different Popes cautioned against democratic concessions to the people.

According to Pope Leo XIII (Encyclical, Immortale Dei ‘On the Christian Constitution of States’, November 1885) canon law is effectively superior to the civil law, having derived from Jesus Christ through Peter and the apostles to the Church:

“In very truth, Jesus Christ gave his apostles unrestrained authority in sacred matters together with the genuine and most true power of making laws, as also with the duplex right of judging and punishing which flow from that power.”

By then, of course, such nonsense was a fatuous Popish aspiration which was in conflict with the material conditions of life in most of Europe. The power to make and enforce laws and the right and the power to punish in pursuit of such laws was now in the possession of the bourgeoisie and its god was profit.


Ireland nestled on the western flank of Europe, its natural development frustrated by its proximity to its powerful neighbour, England. According to legend, Ireland had been Christianised by St Patrick in the fifth century AD but, as in many other places, the Christian proselytizer appeared to have fashioned the new faith to suit the territory, or the native Celtic tribes adjusted it to suit their customs. Druidic Ireland might have accepted the Christian God but it did not give up its Druidic ways nor did it submit to the authority of Rome.

Effectively, the Celtic Christian Church was set within the organisational norms of the clan system. Each clan elected its own bishops and priests, which meant that there were a great number of clan-nominated bishops whose episcopal authority was the writ and the power of the clan.

Eventually in the 12th century Pope Adrian IV in a bull Laudabiliter gave authority to King Henry II of England to invade Ireland and “enlarge the bounds of the Christian faith to the ignorant and rude and to extirpate the roots of vice from the field of the Lord”. In the “Lord’s Field”, as perceived by Rome, the easy moral attitudes and forms of social organisation enjoyed by the Irish were proscribed and as the historian P. Beresford Ellis points out, “The Irish clergy had embraced feudalism (the social system underpinning Roman Catholicism) a system repugnant to the ordinary Irishman long before it was enforced in Ireland”. Whatever the wishes of the Church, the de facto imposition of feudalism in Ireland would take another five torturous centuries.

Outside that area of Leinster, known as “The Pale”, on the eastern side of Ireland, the native Irish clans resisted the incursion of English authority. Initially, within the Pale bishops and abbots, in accordance with the feudal system, became barons under the crown but later Anglo-Norman clerics were rewarded with appointments to Irish livings – inevitably to the chagrin of the native clergy.

In the centuries that followed ownership of land and other forms of property were increasingly denied to the native Irish. But England was still a Catholic country and thus priests and bishops in Ireland, while being denied the more influential positions within the Church, did not suffer any other forms of proscription from the government. Outside the Pale the power of the priest and the Church within the atrophying world of the clans prospered, especially within the province of education.

The war of the two kings

It is argued that it was this ‘prospering’, the strength of the Church and its priests in Ireland, that withstood the force of the Reformation when England became Protestant. Certainly, after the Reformation, and especially after the defeat of the English Catholic Stuart, King James II, in 1691, the Catholic Church and its priests were to suffer legal proscription and vicious persecution. Ironically, James’s defeat in Ireland was at the hands of the Central European powers organised under the terms of the Treaty of Augsburg, and the commander of the victorious forces was William, Prince of Orange, James’s Protestant son-in-law – the famous King Billy, who, despite the subsequent persecution of Presbyterians as well as Catholics by his government is immortalised in the folk memory of Ulster loyalists.

This persecution of Irish Protestantism’s largest denomination as well as Catholics ‘and other dissenters’ was the result of the Establishment of the Episcopalian Church, which made the practice of other religions illegal and subject to severe penalties, including confiscation of property. Later, in 1719 Parliament passed an Act of Toleration granting relief from the Penal Laws to Presbyterians but the Act made no concessions to Catholics. In the years following the formalisation of laws against the Catholic Church and its members some 5,000 Catholics became Anglicans, but the overwhelming majority of the native Irish were mere ‘tenants-at-will’ on smallholdings without either security of tenure or fixity of rents; in fact they were outlaws in the land of their birth.

It was in such conditions that the Catholic Church and its priests, not always speaking with the one voice, gained overwhelming influence over the minds of the people. All forms of agrarian unrest, inevitable under persecution, were roundly condemned by the Church. But the priests were close to the people, their only articulate ally and, almost in spite of the contempt of the hierarchy for the peasantry, their influence over the minds of the people became more telling. The English government was a brutal foreign power visibly persecuting priest and people. Inevitably the Church, in the form of its priests, became the powerful institutional stabilising factor in the bitter lives of an inarticulate, harassed and brutalised people.

Excommunicated IRA members

The Catholic Emancipation Bill of 1829 gave formal legal recognition to the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland; by then the power of the Church and its religious fraternities was awesome. It wasn’t only in matters of birth, marriage and death that the power of the church was evident; almost every sort of activity, business, political or sporting had the ubiquitous priest and in the structure and content of education the power of the Church was paramount.

As the Church-supported Irish National Party fell into decay before the burgeoning power of Sinn Fein after 1905, clerical influence was transferred to the latter party though the official organ of Irish Catholicism condemned the Republican Rising of 1916 as ‘an act of brigandage’ and supported the British execution of the rebel leadership. Similarly, during the subsequent guerrilla war (1919-22) the Church condemned the IRA and excommunicated its members, but in the main the old priestly stalwarts were there to lend support and comfort – and, perhaps, save the Church from its own error of judgement.

The guerrilla war ended with a British government-enforced partitioning of Ireland into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. For the zealots and bigots of Catholicism and Protestantism it seemed a red-letter day, for it lent to each in their respective areas virtually untrammelled political and social influence.

In the north the political agents of the linen lords and the industrial capitalists declared that they had a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people, while the Protestant churches cosied up to a system of sectarian discrimination designed to hurt workers who were Catholics and fool workers who were Protestants into believing that their slums and their miserable life styles made them superior to their even more miserable class brethren.


In the south, all the political parties surrendered to the arrogance and deceits of the Catholic Church and its institutions. The minds of the young were given over to priests, nuns and Christian Brothers for an ‘education’ unquestionably based on a morbid, insular Catholicism. As if that was not bad enough, as we now know, in many of the institutions run by Catholic religious orders children were being physically and sexually abused and the Church was tolerating this abuse.

The scandal of the Magdalene laundries, which was highlighted by BBC, ITV and to its credit RTE, demonstrated the quite remarkable power the priests had over an acutely educationally deprived people. The laundries were operated by the Sisters of Mercy (sic!) who brutally exploited slave labour to carry out their function. The slaves were young women who had been abandoned in pregnancy, or who showed promise of behaviour alien to the views of their families. In many cases a priest requested or persuaded a child’s parents to abandon their child to these institutes of brutality and slavery for ‘the good of the child’s soul’. One old woman who had only been released in the late sixties from this dreadful servitude told a television audience how the priest had approached her parents when she was young and advised them that their daughter’s good looks could “present an occasion for sin”.

When a young doctor who in his practice had experienced the ravages of tuberculosis became Minister of Health in the Coalition government of 1948 he promulgated a Bill to give free medical care to expectant mothers and children under the age of five. The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin wrote to the then Taoiseach complaining that such state interference could not be tolerated in a Catholic country. In France, Italy or any other Catholic country such absurd temerity would have been laughed at; in Catholic Ireland both the Bill and its political sponsor were dropped.

But the bishops could not control the airwaves nor could they control Irish capitalism’s demand for widening of the education curriculum. Irish Television still placates the bishops with a silence for the Angelus; it is an acknowledged embarrassment but as in all other countries the value-system and vulgarities of global capitalism’s unitary culture overshadows the morbid doctrines of the Church and sometimes even exposes its institutions for the moral cesspits they are.


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