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The debt Ireland owes the Catholic Church

30 November, 1999

John Bruton TD acknowledges the faults of the Church in Ireland but argues that the benefits which Ireland has gleaned from its Catholic culture outweighs them.

I wish to speak in favour of the motion that “Ireland owes a debt of gratitude to the Catholic Church.”

What criteria should we use to judge this question? Should we judge the Catholic Church solely in temporal terms?

Given that the church, by its own self-definition, exists to serve purposes that are not only temporal, but also ones that are eternal, it would be limiting and unfair to judge the church solely by the material things it does or does not do in this world, without reference to its greater purpose, which is to provide a means whereby believers can find eternal salvation.

Obviously, many people do not believe in the possibility of eternal salvation, but most people actually do.

Obviously, the Catholic Church is not just the priests, the brothers, the nuns, and the pope. The Catholic Church is all its members.

While the Catholic Church is far from being a democracy, the historical fact is that the clergy are deeply influenced in what they do, or fail to do, by the laity. In turn, the church as a whole is influenced by the secular world in which it works. Some of the best things the church has done, and some of the worst, have been influenced by the needs, demands, ideals and the prejudices of the wider world.

Acknowledge its faults 
Before dealing with the good things the church has done, one has to acknowledge its faults, some that have to do with pride, and others that have to do with a weakening of the generous impulse that originally inspired its work.

In my view, the Catholic Church in Ireland identified itself, at times, too closely with politics, just as it did in other countries.

Even earlier in history, the Catholic Church got too close to the state in the declining years of the Roman Empire, and later developed a siege mentality and an intolerance of dissent in its reaction to the Reformation. Arising from all this, it pursued status and power to a degree inappropriate to an organization whose mission was eternal, and not temporal.

We see this, for example, in its seeking of a special position in the Irish Constitution, in its exercise of undue influence over health policy in the 1950s, and its pursuit of a semi-monopoly in certain fields of education. Of course, this may have been a reaction to the dominance of the established Protestant church in Ireland up to 1869, but that is hardly a justification.

On the other hand, the Catholic Church provided a vehicle for the restoration of morale among the people after the terrible trauma of the Famine, and tried, sincerely if unsuccessfully, to oppose violence in politics in the 1919-1923 period, and during the recent Northern Troubles.

Like many political movements and ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Catholic Church engaged in social engineering, trying to create a “Catholic Ireland,” even though that was an almost impossible task. In making this mistake, it was acting in a similar fashion to many “isms” of the era – including even liberalism to some extent.

The clergy had the support in these projects of the majority of Irish public opinion and politicians of the time, even sometimes of politicians of other faiths.

It is out of this excess of power, that important abuses in the church arose. The most notable is child sexual abuse, a horrible crime, a crime committed in church-run institutions by members of the church, both clerical and lay, but also let it be said, a crime committed over generations in many Irish families, by people of every belief and of none. Power is prone to be abused, whether in family or religious life, and sexual abuse of children is one of the worst forms of abuse of power.

The tolerance of these abuses over the years is as much a commentary on the faults, timidities and blindness of Irish society as a whole, as it is a commentary on anyone particular institution.

A fundamentally true message
Given all these failings, how then can one say that Ireland owes a debt of gratitude to the Catholic Church?

In my view, it all comes back to the fact that the church is preaching a message which is fundamentally true. A message of humility. A belief in something greater than humankind. A message of hope. A message that puts life, and the life of individuals and all their vanities, back into proportion. A belief that stands up for the right to life of human individuals, in circumstances where utilitarians and non-believers might have cast such human life aside.

Even more importantly, the Catholic Church has preached and practiced a doctrine of forgiveness. The Sacrament of Confession, not as fashionable nowadays as it was, emphasizes and elevates a value that is very important, a value forgotten in the blame-lust that often grips modem media-driven Ireland. That is the value that says that those who do wrong should, having been punished, be forgiven.

The stories told in the gospels show that Christ emphasized the need to forgive even the most socially unacceptable sinners prostitutes, foreign tax collectors, and the like. It is almost as if he went out of his way to pick the least popular sinners, in order to underline his point about the importance of forgiveness. Freely granting forgiveness, even more than retribution or compensation, is probably what allows any victim of a great offence to heal him or herself. This is a profoundly liberating idea.

The Catholic Church has also emphasized the need for self-sacrifice. Celibacy in the clergy is controversial, and may well be quite unjustifiable, but it is a visible form of self-sacrifice, and self-sacrifice is something that should be part of any attempt at giving leadership, and probably part of any attempt to live a good life.

Social capital
We hear a lot nowadays, in the writings of people like Puttnam and Fukuyama, about social capital, about how important trust is to a healthy society.

These moral values of the church, which I have just described, are social capital. They are the accumulated wisdom of more than 2000 years. They are the accumulated insight of 60 generations of our ancestors, passed down to us through the institution of the church.

If the church, and other churches, were to disappear tomorrow, who then would be the educator of these values? Would we have to create a Godless state church like the French revolutionaries tried to do in the 1790s?

Furthermore, the Catholic Church has provided social services in Ireland, over the past two centuries, on a scale and of a kind that would otherwise have been impossible.

If it had not provided education in many parts of Ireland in the 19th century, the population of those areas would never have escaped from illiteracy, and their brighter members would never have gone on to the successes they attained in later life.

Indeed, it is interesting that many people in other countries seek out Catholic schools, even though they are not Catholics themselves. This happens, I think, because the church provides a buffer between State management and the student, and that buffer allows for flexibility, for the pursuit of excellence, and for innovation that might not be possible under direct State management. This has contributed to the internationally recognised cost effectiveness, and excellence, of Irish primary and secondary education.

Likewise the church has provided hospitals, beyond what would have happened if this had been left to the State. Do not forget that the State actually asked the religious to take on hospitals like the Mater and Vincents.

When times were exceptionally difficult for this country, brothers nuns and priests provided social services at negligible cost, services which the State could not have afforded otherwise. Remember the tiny capitation grants paid by the State to residential homes for children.

Remember, too, the role that the Irish Catholic Church played overseas. The lot of the succession of lost generations of Irish exiles would have been much bleaker and lonelier were it not for Irish priests and nuns working with them in foreign countries. Irish Catholic missionaries also provided immense social services – in education and health – in the desperately poor countries of the world.

Church’s real purpose
But, of course, the purpose of the missionaries was not simply to provide social services. As I said at the outset, their purpose and the purpose of the Catholic Church is not primarily temporal, but eternal.

Its purpose is to provide a window through which people can glimpse the possibility of life beyond death. That is a window to people’s emotions as well as to their intellects. That is where the church’s real success is to be found.

That success is probably best understood when one observes that most inevitable of all events a death amongst one’s family or friends in Ireland. Belief gives death meaning. Belief brings acceptance.

I had the privilege of being one of a number of people at the deathbed of a friend I had known all my life, a man who had a hard life, whose brother had died of tuberculosis in the 1940s, and who felt he could never afford to marry because of other responsibilities. He had been dying of lung cancer for months. As he slipped briefly back into consciousness in his last hour of life, he said, with seriousness but also with serenity, that he could already hear the angels welcoming him home. He could not have had that sense of calm acceptance of the transition he was going through were it not for the work of his church. That is something that he, and countless other Irish people, owe to the church.

That success far outweighs the many great faults which, unfortunately, as to other human institutions, have adhered to the Catholic Church in Ireland.

This article first appeared in

Reality (February, 2004), a publication of the Irish Redemptorists.