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Dublin: 14 °C Monday 20 October, 2014

Column: You, Me and the Holy See

Lisa McInerney on the “sickly, complicated” relationship Ireland has with Catholicism: “It’s completely wrong for Irish Catholics to demand the State be run to their spiritual stipulations.

Lisa McInerney

OH, WHAT A thicket. What a mess of thorns and branches, criss-crossed. Ireland, the ground. Catholicism, the weed it sustains, despite itself, the foreign growth that’s come to define it.

It’s a sickly, complicated relationship, isn’t it? It’s not a good thing that any state can be intertwined with a particular doctrine. A state is a nation of allsorts, and a faith is a personal comfort, a moral code internal and intangible. It makes no sense to grow a state and a religion together. Any rational person should see that.

What’s surprised me, in the wake of the latest revelations about the Catholic church’s cover-up of sexual abuse perpetuated by its own, anointed monsters, is that so many of us seem completely unable to distinguish between morals, religion and tradition. You’d be lucky, I think, if you found your own one-size-fits-all system for the three – if your morals mirrored those of your chosen religious organisation, and your personal or family traditions complemented. For most Irish Catholics, this isn’t the case.

The overwhelming majority pick and choose from the church’s teachings to best match their own sense of right and wrong, a unique code influenced by experience, domestic set-up, and personal prejudice over vague whatsits from a puzzling, millennia-old tome (we all know Catholics don’t need to read the Bible, anyway. That’s what the old men in Rome are for).

Holy Joes are wide-eyed and chin-cocked and scary

Many Irish Catholics, for example, don’t believe that being gay is the same as being a wanton aberration. Lots of Irish Catholics choose contraception, believing celibate men really shouldn’t have any say-so in the reproductive choices of anybody. Plenty of people who identify themselves as Catholic do not attend Mass regularly, lumping instead for special occasions, when they feel they’re more likely to enjoy the soporific mumblings and stained glass vista. In fact, as someone who’s been Irish all her life, I have to say that I don’t know a single devout, rigid Catholic. Not one.

Not only that, but the majority of Irish Catholics I know are deeply mistrustful of the devout, figuring them to be unreasonable weirdos with so many screws loose you need a Risk Assessment catalogued before you can approach them. Holy Joes are wide-eyed and chin-cocked and scary. And, I suppose, Irish people are wary of them to a pavlovian degree. We associate the devout with nothing good, nothing good at all, and there’s deep truth to that irony.

What I’m saying is that faith is a personal belief system, not a rigid societal structure. The amount of pick ‘n’ choose Catholics out there will tell you that. Does that make them less Catholic, then, if they still define themselves as Catholic?

Well, that’s the fun part. Maybe pick ‘n’ choose Catholics don’t have the right to call themselves Catholics, if they don’t toe the church’s line on its core teachings, which seem to be that everyone has to suffer on in ignorance if they can’t afford to sit on a golden throne.

A lot of people are dismayed at the latest attacks on the Catholic church, which aren’t attacks at all. They’re challenges to the sleepy compliance that’s allowed the golden church get away with so much for so long.

In Ireland, the Catholic church has done disproportionate damage

People ask, But what about the good works the church has done? What good works? Good priests have their own individual courage and determination to thank for the work they’ve done, not their swaddled cardinals. In Ireland, the Catholic church has done disproportionate damage; it’s fostered a fearful, patriarchal society which doesn’t prize intellectualism, new ideas, or collective empathy.

It created a political culture where first allegiance was to a hypocritical “faith”, not to the State itself. It made women second-class citizens; it taught them that their sexuality was something to be feared, and that giving into it would lead to degradation and punishment, in this life as well as the next. It convinced a brittle nation to throw these girls in hard labour camps, presided over by women who knew their place, whose sexuality was throttled, and safe.

It took advantage of a people who, stripped of their national identity by an occupying force, had accepted a religious identity as a binding current instead. It muscled in when the new state was born, and ensured that her laws would echo its ancient dogma as much as possible.

It encountered a rot in its hierarchy, and its response was to cover it up, to dismiss people affected as collateral damage, people who were not clergy, not chosen men, so were not as important as the morals and rituals and traditions of the great, old, elite organisation that failed them totally. This is the Catholic church.

Not the individuals within, plenty of whom are good, reasonable, empathic people. The organisation in its totality. Its collective contempt, bolstered by bureaucracy.

A church so afraid of women that it can only give worth to a virgin?

But where would we be without moral guidance? ask the conservatives who don’t trust others to think for themselves and come up with parallel and therefore acceptable conclusions. To which I ask, Couldn’t we do without that kind of moral guidance? A church so afraid of women that it can only give worth to a virgin? A cabal of withered men, presiding over immense wealth, while children starve in Somalia? We get pissy when tax-savvy Bono asks us to donate to charity, yet we accept moral guidance from the Vatican City?

But ours is this lot, a mess of thorns and branches criss-crossed. Without Catholicism, what would we be? Without our traditions? Weddings. Baptisms. Christmas! Not-being-Protestants!

Well, here’s the thing. You can keep traditions. You can distil the good from the tradition, the same way Irish Catholics have been distilling the good from the religion for these past few years. Change the traditions, mould them to what suits you and your loved ones best, leave the hateful, fearful tenets behind. What’s a baptism, but a baby-naming party with a bit of pledging allegiance to an organisation that covers up the rape of babies tacked on? What’s a wedding, but a party to celebrate a deep union with a load of guff about signing over your reproductive rights to an ethereal (yet somehow still male) concept tacked on? What’s Christmas, but an ancient mid-winter festival with a half-hour mass tacked on?

And so, pick ‘n’ choose Catholics: Can you choose to move away from this?

I shouldn’t attack anyone’s beliefs, I know. I should state instead: You can weld yourself to whatever makes your world that bit more stable, see if I care. So long as you’re not using your beliefs to frighten, or bully others, or lay claim to the rights they are entitled to alongside you. It’s completely wrong, completely, for Irish Catholics to demand the State be run to their spiritual stipulations. Worship or pray or pontificate however you want to; do not demand others join in. Such demands are only ever born of fear, anyway.

But I am attacking beliefs. I’m attacking commitment, subconscious though it may be, to an organisation that has little to do with love, kindness, charity and spirituality. I’m attacking the confusion of rituals for tradition, and dogma for morals, and faith for hope.

What about this choice – and it’s not an ultimatum, just a distilled belief of my own, one I, who once was a pick ‘n’ choose Catholic, distilled not all that long ago:

You can choose to remain part of a criminal organisation … or you can choose not to.

First published on lisamcinerney.com. Lisa McInerney is an award-winning Irish blogger who writes for The Anti Room and Culch.ie as well as on her own website.

Column: No matter what, we still need the Church>

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