Critics of the church are becoming as oppressive as the institution they attack, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Pope Francis leaving Knock Airport yesterday

Pope Francis leaving Knock Airport yesterday

Published: 26 August 2018

‘It was a censorious, bleak, closed-minded, unforgiving society of squinting windows and banned books and hellfire sermons. Dissent was difficult, differences deemed threatening, a society where even The Irish Times endorsed the 1930s clampdown on dances.”

That quote comes from a powerful article of a few months ago by Gerard Moloney, a free-thinking Redemptorist priest who has been badly treated by the Vatican censors, headlined ”Beware the new Ireland does not become as oppressive as the old”.

The 1950s and 1960s weren’t as bad as the 1930s – but the Roman Catholic Church I turned against as I grew up was certainly oppressive.

I used to stay with my aunt in a small Cork village for the summer holidays: the parish priest ruled the community, policed the dances and beat at the ditches with his blackthorn stick looking for courting couples.

Mind you, later I saw his point of view. A large proportion of local women married suddenly at 14 or 15, or went to England and didn’t return, and there were whispered rumours about babies’ bodies being found on the mountain.

Censorship was ridiculous. I remember puzzling through films trying to make sense of narratives from which any references to extra-marital sex or illegitimacy had been edited out.

I was lucky: my parents were on the sceptical wing of Catholicism and were pretty anti-clerical. On my first visit to England, my mother taught me how to smuggle banned books and although the convent school was stifling, there was no reign of terror, unlike that pertaining in some boys’ schools and orphanages that I heard stories about.

On the other hand, as a child listening over meals at the kitchen table to my father – a UCD professor – describing academic wars, I learned much that was alarming about the control exercised in an allegedly non-denominational institution by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid – a man whose ring the citizens of Dublin knelt to kiss at every opportunity.

The Philosophy Department at UCD was staffed exclusively by priests, and my father’s efforts to hire non-Catholics were frustrated at every turn.

He also had terrible trouble getting a promotion for a brilliant female lecturer because she was married and therefore generally considered to be lucky to be allowed to work at all.

And the president of UCD, Michael Tierney, son-in-law of Eoin MacNeill, was at one with McQuaid on the importance not only of forbidding Catholics from going to Trinity College, but of discouraging them from socialising in any way with Trinity students because of the danger to faith and morals.

I not only ceased to be a Catholic at around 16, I became for a long time so hostile that in the 1980s a young friend said to me: “You’re not an atheist. You’re a practising anti-Catholic.”

That brought me up sharply. I realised that replacing one bigotry with another did no one any good, and tried to open my mind – and over the past few decades, as sexual scandals began the erosion of trust in the church and public opinion underwent a massive shift, I found myself often defending the clergy against the new wave of bigots.

We forget conveniently that large numbers of young people were effectively forced into the arms of the church because their families didn’t want them, but liked the social status of being related to a priest or nun.

Worst off were the teenagers effectively press-ganged into the Christian Brothers, where they were in religious terms second-class citizens, while being required to be celibate, live in dreary institutions and teach, whether they had any talent for the job or not.

And, of course, we also gloss over the fact that the State and society pushed on to the clergy the responsibility for dealing with children, the sick, the abandoned and social outcasts, and made no effort to put in a system of inspection. And we forget, too, that many clergy lived lives of sacrifice and service.

I’m increasingly fed up with decent people being hysterically accused of being bigots or dinosaurs because they believe what nearly everyone in the island believed only recently.

Most do it for honourable reasons. To think that single-sex marriage and abortion are wrong does not make you a bad person. Buying up tickets to Papal events in order to leave empty seats is mean-spirited. And, of course, there’s massive hypocrisy among those who now classify themselves as “progressives”.

As SDLP councillor Mairia Cahill pointed out last week, it is an outrage to hear Sinn Fein representatives condemning the Catholic Church for doing exactly what the IRA and Sinn Fein did: covering up sexual abuse and moving perpetrators around the country. And worse.

There’s a particularly fine example of sickening hypocrisy from MEP Martina Anderson – who will be a guest at the reception for the Pope and is lambasting the Church over the cover-up of child abuse. She was convicted of conspiring to let off 12 bombs in English seaside towns – where children would have been particularly vulnerable – and also, of course, stoutly defended Gerry Adams’s appalling behaviour over child abuse by members of his movement, including his rapist brother Liam.

The truth is that, as a people, we have a herd mentality.

As Father Moloney put it: “The culture wars of the last 35 years have also shown that we Irish are intolerant people… Now there is a sense that we have replaced one form of intolerance with another. Just as it was difficult to speak out against the cosy religious, social and moral consensus of 50 years ago, it is difficult to speak out against the dominant cultural mindset of today.”

As we savage the papacy we worshipped in the past, we might remember that no religion, cause or country flourishes when its leaders go unchallenged.

Like Father Moloney, I find our arbiters of opinion as censorious and unforgiving as they were in my childhood, and I yearn for a society that celebrates diversity of opinion rather than virtue-signalling mobs.

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