A priest writes to the Irish News

Letters to Editor. Irish News. Belfast. Published Monday, June 3, 2019


I always read Patrick Murphy’s column. He is a very clever writer but in some instances, he may be ‘too clever by half’ which could be the occupational hazard of clever writers.

I refer to his column ‘Time to decide if we want religious belief to take precedence over democracy’ (May 25). He begins with “I blame the Bible” and ends with “But would anyone seriously suggest that religious belief, however genuinely held, should take precedence over democracy?” Clever, eh? Well, let’s rephrase that a bit and see what happens: “Can anyone suggest that justice should take precedence over democracy.”

One of my favourite quotes is from the American Protestant scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann: “In Biblical faith, the doing of justice is the primary expectation of God.”

Why, then, is it that in some of the most Christian fundamentalist areas – Alabama/Mississippi, South Africa, Northern Ireland – social justice did not seem to be the norm? Indeed, state-sponsored discrimination was the norm.

And there’s the key term in all of this, that is often not acknowledged regarding racism and sectarianism – “state-sponsored.”

It is much easier for those in power to present the issue as one of individual failure – that individuals lack tolerance, respect and good-neighbourliness.

Individuals, of course, can be anti-black, anti-Catholic, or anti-Semitic, and some will always be, I guess, as in America. That is personal failure, a sin against the virtue of charity/love.

However, there is a world of difference between personal sin and state-sponsored racism and sectarianism – the “structures of sin,” as Pope John Paul II brilliantly terms it in his 1988 Encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis (Solicitude for social concerns). Furthermore, that is also the first Papal Encyclical to dedicate the Catholic Church to a “preferential option for the poor.” Not too shabby for a “conservative” pope.

What does that do to the sectarian slogan, ‘no pope here’? – which, anyway, was always more about insulting local Catholics and keeping them in their place than it  was about theology. It never affected the pope but always effectively showed contempt for local Catholics – the very function of sectarianism.

The fundamental (not to be confused with fundamentalist) issue in any country must be justice, which pulls down the structures of sin and abolishes state-sponsored sectarianism/racism – the twin evils of the world. Justice transcends ideology and party politics. It is the acid test of all political systems. It is also the ultimate test of religious faith, because without justice there is no love: “If anyone says, ‘I love God and hates his brother,’ he is a liar. For he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20). Let Patrick Murphy blame the Bible for that too.

Fr Sean McManus

President, Irish National Caucus

Washington DC

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