Editorial - October 1985

  • 1 October 1985
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On Sunday 29 September, Archbishop Kevin McNamara watched and listened as Dr Donald Caird was enthroned as Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin. He listened as Dr Caird made a careful and gentle plea to the southern state to "accommodate within its legislation the varying views and beliefs of its citizens as far as these are consistent with the good ordering of society and the freedom of the individual." Dr Caird, on the issue of divorce, tried to separate the functions of church and state: "The state's function must surely be to mark by its legislation the broadest limits of choice proffered to its subjects while the choice would be freely exercised by the individual guided by his or her accepted teaching authority within his or her community of faith or belief." The previous day, however, Dr McNamara had showed how little faith he has in the ability of the individual to exercise choice. In his address to the Knights of Columbanus, he not only reminnded them that "there is no room for a so-called pluralism which would claim to embrace both traditional and liberal views at once," he also attacked anything which might raise doubts in the minds of the faithful. The "simple faith" of a simple people, buttressed by the institutions of the state, the kind of faith which Vatican Two supposedly transcended, is staging a fierce comeback in the Ireland of the 'eighties.

The object of Dr McNamara's attack was primarily the media and those within it who presumed to speak on "cerrtain topics which have exercised the greatest minds for centuries, and on which a fund of traditional wisdom has been built up siowly and with difficulty over the years. Today, these are regarded as suitable topics for chat-shows, on radio and TV, in which speakers of little or no qualifiications parade with confidence the most varying and conntradictory opinions . . .' Doubts have been raised in the minds (of the viewers) about basic truths and values which are part of their national, Christian and human heritage." It is hardly accidental that the Archbishop coupled this attack on the spreading of doubts through the media with a hard-line condemnation of divorce legislation.

The implications of Dr McNamara's attack are clear. Not only are Catholic legislators obliged to follow the teaching of their church, but the organs of political debate in society, the media, are themselves meant to refrain from allowing doubt to be cast on traditional certainties. The equation is simple: those who have no "qualifications" should not speak' on subjects like divorce on chat-shows; the only acceptable "qualification" is loyalty to "the fund of tradiitional wisdom." The spectre is raised of a weekly Late, Late Show on which Gay Byrne would interview one archbishop after another.

Leaving aside the absurdity of Dr McNamara's logic, his speech reveals most clearly the contempt with which he regards the conscience of the laity. The concept, cen tral to Vatican Two, of the church as "the people of God", giving an equal importance to the faith of the laity as to that of the clergy, is set aside in favour of a return to pre-conciliar authoritarianism. If the laity are not to have doubts raised .•.. in their minds about the truth of traditional wisdom, and if they are so easily "confused" by chat-shows, what chance have they of exercising their consciences in a political debate on a subject like divorce? What chance has Dr Caird of seeing a society which legislates for "the broadest limits of choice"?

Dr McNamara's speech emphasised the fear which underrlies the church's opposition to pluralism in society - the belief that the Catholic laity is too immature or too "connfused" in its faith to be able to withstand any freedom of choice on personal and moral matters, and that Catholic faith therefore needs to be underpinned by legislation. That belief is not only a serious obstacle to progress towards an open and tolerant society, it is also a threat to the future of the church itself. Paradoxically, it is the refusal to offer the laity anything more than adherence to the wisdom of "the greatest minds", the refusal to take doubts seriously, which is most likely to undermine the church's own teachhing authority.

As Dr McNamara and his fellow bishops prepare for the extraordinary Synod in Rome next month, a Synod which is to consider the achievements and the implementation of Vatican Two, it is worth recalling what that Council has meant to the Irish church. Vatican Two made it official that all the members of the laity go to constitute the church together with the clergy, that the laity have competences which the ecclesiastical authorities are duty bound to accept and that dialogue is to be preferred to diktat. The Vatican Council raised the possibility of a church more concerned to enlighten the world than to preserve the minutiae of its inheritance, a church which confessed itself open to reform, far removed from a church which had "a fund of tradiitional wisdom" which was not to be cast into doubt. Archhbishop McNamara's speech seems to represent the counterrreformation against that church.

It is significant that Dr McNamara chose the Knights of Columbanus annual general meeting as the occasion for his statement of contempt for the ability of the Irish Catholic laity to make up their own minds to follow the teaching of their church without the compulsion of state legislation. The Knights represent the approved version of lay involveement in the affairs of the church - secretive, obedient and carefully selected.

If the Irish bishops, meeting this week to consider their approach to the divorce issue, endorse Dr McNamara's view of the role of the laity in the church, it bodes ill for their attitude to next month's extraordinary Synod in Rome and for any attempts to renew the spirit of Vatican Two.

Fintan 0 Toole