The Authoritarianism of the Catholic Church in Ireland by Joe McVeigh


I found Pat McArt’s recent article about the Church’s treatment of the poor children as highlighted by the story of Peggy McFadden in Derry in the 1940s quite harrowing. I found his description of the response of the late Bishop Daly depressing.

The treatment of poor children in the Church -run institutions and the bias against the poor revealed a bias in favour of the respectable middle class and an authoritarianism that extended into all areas of political and social life in Ireland. That was the kind of Catholic Church that emerged in Ireland after Partition. The physical and mental punishment of pupils by clergy in Church- run schools was disgraceful.

During all of my life as a Catholic priest since 1971, the Irish Catholic hierarchy and the senior clergy have been socially and politically on the side of the respectable middle class. There were exceptions among the priests and one or two bishops. The clergy’s middle class bias was most evident to me during the long years of the war involving the British army, the RUC, UDR and loyalists on one side and the IRA which emerged in the working class Catholic population on the other. Those of us who wanted to pursue a peaceful path to achieve justice and equality were often frowned upon and regarded as ‘fellow travellers’.  We believed that the only way to end violence was by achieving justice and equality. The Bishops were fixated with the violence of the IRA and refused to deal with the root causes of republican violence. They were more concerned with respectability than with the violence of the British state and the denial of human and civil rights. Time and again, especially when Cardinal Cathal Daly was in office, the Catholic Church took the side of the British in their war against the working class.

Along with a few other priests, I objected on many occasions to the intimidation and abuse of republicans and others at British army/UDR checkpoints and in the prisons by the British authorities. We tried often to persuade the Bishops that by their silence and also by their stock condemnations of violence, the official Irish Church was seen to be supporting the British/Unionist status quo. That stance brought me and others, like the late Fr Des Wilson, into conflict with bishops and senior clergy on more than one occasion.

We were denounced in the media –especially in the Irish Times- and we were also subjected to intimidation and harassment by the British army and the RUC for many years. We got no support from the Catholic Hierarchy.

I remember especially when the MacBride Principles were introduced in the USA in the 1980s in order to bring about fair employment and an end to job discrimination, the Catholic hierarchy led by Cardinal Daly organised a campaign against Mac Bride. They even sent some clergy men to the USA to counter the Mac Bride campaign. They were applauded by the British for their stance.

The harrowing story told by Pat McArt about the treatment of Peggy McFadden and the many other harrowing stories of the abuse of children in Church -run institutions, is proof to all that the Church has little or no credibility. Many have walked away in disgust.

Pat McArt rightly asks:

“you do have to ask yourself how did the message of love and peace that Jesus preached get so mangled in our country that cruelty and sadism were acceptable as being part of that message. How did that happen? And why did none of those in clerical garb who were there to preach, allegedly, the gospel of love and tolerance, not speak out? Where were their consciences? 

There will be those who will disagree but in the great run of  Irish history I don’t think the Catholic Church has, overall, come out well.”

I have to agree with Pat McArt. The Catholic Church does not come out of it very well when you read the stories about the abuse of children and the cover ups. It does not come out of the struggle in the north for justice and equality well either. It will take a long time to recover its credibility with the ordinary people -if it ever does. The first thing the official Church must do is acknowledge its sordid past with regard to the physical and sexual abuse of children- and then acknowledge that it failed to support the oppressed people in their search for justice because of the long-standing bias in favour of the respectable middle class.

I believe the Catholic Church as a global institution will survive in some shape or form for a long time to come but the question remains , will it ever be seen in Ireland as a Church of the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed? Will it ever become “the voice of the voiceless” in Ireland? That’s a discussion for another day.

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