In the first of a series of articles for Atheist Ireland, Andrew Devine-Rattigan remembers the set-menu Irish Catholics of recent decades, argues that they are being replaced by a new generation of a la carte Irish Catholics, and says that atheists and secularists should welcome this rejection of religious authority.
The current rumblings within the Catholic Church with regards the censure and attempted silencing of priests such as Fr. Tony Flannery is indicative of a coming schism within the organisation. In fact, it is well under way, it is just being confined within the church and has not yet led to a split.
The Association of Catholic Priests is an organisation of Catholic priests who believe the Catholic Church should be accountable to its members and open to change. Members of the ACP, such as Tony Flannery, question the hierarchy’s position on many social issues and take a liberal view on areas such as sexuality and human relationships that run at odds with the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
This questioning and challenging of the dogma and doctrines of the catholic faith within the clergy is merely indicative of the changes in wider Irish society and in particular the ongoing transformation of Irish people who call themselves Catholics but who are at odds with the official teachings and stance of the Catholic hierarchy on many social and doctrinal issues.
The old set-menu Irish Catholics
I remember a time only a few decades ago when elderly relatives of mine, now deceased, said the Angelus every day and talked of Protestants, even the ones they liked, as being damned to hell for not belonging to the ‘one true faith.’ There was nothing a la carte about their Catholicism. It was a set menu and there was no deviation from it. All courses were compulsory with no meat on Fridays.
Catholics of this generation reveled in the idea that they were no good sinners. They made grovelling supplications for mercy to their ostensibly loving god to spare them from the torments of hell, despite the fact that many of them were already living in one.
In between being consumed by guilt and shame simply for existing, these set menu Catholics of only a few decades ago, spent the rest of their time trying to placate their all seeing, ever watching god by actually going to mass and fasting. They went to Lough Derg to walk around barefoot in the rain whilst sleeping on a bed of nails to curry favour with a compassionate god, who paradoxically had a penchant for the suffering of others.
In between work and religious observances they found time to conceive multiples of children through joyless shame filled sex whilst being watched over by large statues of a putative virgin and of her son and his glowing heart. This kind of iconography came at you around every corner and hung from the walls of most homes in an Ireland of only two decades ago.
Violent misogyny and submission
Whereas modern a la carte Irish Catholic women titillate themselves with the violent, sado-masochistic, submissive, misogynistic, socially accepted pornography of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, their mothers and grandmothers actually had to live in a society where violent misogyny and submission to powerful men was a reality as opposed to a trashy novel.
This aggressive patriarchal dominance expressed itself in the form of the Magdalene Laundries, as well as in surgical procedures such as symphisiotomies, where women were butchered unknowingly so they could continue to conceive multitudes of children.
Catholic women in Ireland until the early sixties also had to endure the humiliating and servile ritual of being ‘churched.’ This was a blessing they received from a priest to purify them and that allowed them back in to the church after being tainted from both the sexual act and its consequences in the form of a conception.
I wish that more Irish women would reflect on the social history of this country before they applaud the abusive, patriarchal misogyny in the pages of the aforementioned novel.
Confessing to hypocritical priests
For some variety in their religious adherence every few months they would sit in a darkened wooden box in the corner of a church and talk through a hatch to a variety of ostensibly celibate men. Some of these men actually kept by their vows, many others succumbed to understandably human desires and emotions with women they were friends with, or who came to them for support.
As well as being a shoulder to cry on to, they offered arms to run in to, and sheets to get under, whilst they hypocritically preached from the pulpit about the evils of sex outside of wedlock. Yes, I am referring to you Father Michael Cleary, Bishop Eamon Casey and Bishop Len Brennan. Let us not forget of course the many others that should have been making their own confessions in police stations for the most heinous of crimes against the most innocent.
Blind faith at Lourdes and Knock
Instead of cheap weekends away to Barcelona with Ryanair, middle class set menu Catholics of a few decades ago, spent a small fortune heading to Lourdes to watch legions of people in wheelchairs being dipped in freezing cold water in the hope of a cure. The next day they returned to watch the same unfortunate wretches being dipped again, only this time they also needed to be cured of the pneumonia they caught the day before.
Poorer Catholics of a few decades ago who couldn’t afford the trip to Lourdes had to make do with Knock in County Mayo where they would queue to kiss what must be the most contagious wall in Ireland. It has been accepted by many Catholics that the Virgin Mary did a one night guest appearance here in the 1800s. It must have been an unappreciative audience as she hasn’t been back since.
Although a few hardcore orthodox Catholics did turn up in Knock only a few years ago, to stare in to the sun alongside a Dublin man who said the Virgin Mary had told him that it would be a good idea to do that kind of thing. Not surprisingly several of the faithful went blind, giving a whole new meaning to the term ‘blind faith’. Rumour has it they are organising a trip to Lourdes to be dipped head first in the grotto with the hope of restoring their sight. A restoration to sanity would seem to me to be more pressing.
Offering up suffering for salvation
Now and again the set menu Catholics became aware of the intensely unbearable burden living according to the Catholic faith was, but instead of ever questioning the religious indoctrination they received as children they instead just ‘offered it up’. This ‘offering up’ of their suffering in this life would shave a few years off their sentence in purgatory.
When is the last time you have heard anyone that you know who calls themselves Catholic use such an expression? Or tell you that they were waiting for the hairshirt they ordered on amazon to arrive as they were eager to get started on some penance over the weekend to make up for the lustful thoughts they indulged in the weekend before?
The modern a la carte menu of beliefs
In fact, in light of a recent Irish Times survey (30/11/12) that reads like a missing script from an episode of Father Ted, many Irish people who call themselves Catholics today would have been burned at the stakes a few hundred years ago for heresy. Only a few decades ago they would have been shunned by their families and communities for expressing such opinions.
The poll found that seven percent of people who called themselves Catholics don’t even believe in God, which is a bit like saying you are a cyclist despite the fact you cant cycle and don’t even own a bike. Another twenty percent of Catholics polled don’t even believe in the resurrection of Christ or that god created the Universe.
This kind of doublethink, that is the Orwellian concept that it is possible to hold two contradictory views and believe in them both fervently is a defining characteristic of the modern Irish a la carte Catholic. They want to be Catholics without the Catholicism, like being a Jew with an intact foreskin who enjoys a bacon sandwich.
Conscience versus Catechism
An overwhelming seventy eight percent of Catholics, according to the poll, follow their own conscience on moral issues as opposed to the diktats from the Vatican. However, using one’s personal conscience on moral matters or doctrinal matters is considered heresy according to the Vatican and the official teachings of the faith.
On the Vatican’s website you can read the Catechism of the Catholic church, which is basically a rule book for Catholics. According to the catechism, “heresy is the obstinate denial of some truth which must be believed, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt….schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff.” Based on this passage alone one can conclude that many Catholics in Ireland would be considered heretics by the Vatican.
What are these truths that must be believed and who decides what the truth is? These truths are decided by the popes and the bishops that are consulted with before the pope issues an edict of faith. The pope acts on the authority of Christ, apparently, according to the catechism, but Jesus can’t be contacted to corroborate this claim. Whatever the pope decides is truth is the truth and an infallible one at that. According to the Catechism, “this infallibility extends to all those elements of doctrine including morals.”
A reading of the constitution of the Association of Catholic Priests reveals how so many clergy do not accept the Vatican and the Pope as an infallible source of moral guidance; in fact it is quite the opposite. Several polls in Ireland over the past few years reveal that although people call themselves Catholics, that in areas of morality and even doctrine, they are a very different kind of Catholic compared to only two generations ago.
Rejecting religious authority
What has any of this got to do with Atheism, Agnosticism or Secularism you might ask? Well, it is my contention that the exponential rise in the number of people who identify themselves as non-religious in the latest census is down to the fact that more and more Irish people are embracing thinking for themselves and have come to reject religious authority.
This trend has now become evident within the Catholic Church itself, as both the existence of the ACP and poll after poll of people who identify themselves as Catholic recite views complete at odds with the Vatican and Irish church hierarchy. Atheists and Agnostics should welcome this trend within the ranks of lay Catholics as once people start to shine the light of reason on to religious faith it can and has, in some cases, led to an embrace of at the very least agnosticism, if not outright atheism.
Perhaps, this is why the Catechism proclaims it a sin to even entertain doubts. They know it could logically lead to a complete rejection of faith or at the very least an embrace of secularism. This a process that to a large extent a la carte Catholics have already done by placing personal conscience as their moral guide as opposed to the diktats of the Vatican.