One of Ireland’s leading historians, Dermot Keogh, Emeritus Professor of History at University College Cork, was a keynote speaker at the ‘Irish Catholicism on Trial’ conference, held 6-7 October at the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, in Dublin.
Keogh’s topic was ‘The Catholic Church and the Irish State.’ He drew on his years of scholarship to trace the complex relationship between the two and to reflect on the implications of that relationship in the present day.
There is no doubt that the church influenced the Irish state and society – often to the detriment of both. Keogh lamented that the public image of a ‘holy, Catholic Ireland’ obscured the reality underneath, where children and women bore the brunt of abuse. He referred to violence, abuse and poverty as ‘crimes against women and children’ that were ‘explained away theologically as a consequence of sin.’
These crimes were compounded because the Irish state permitted the Catholic Church, and other institutions like the Garda, to be self-regulated. He noted the many state inquiries into the abuses by the Catholic Church and asked: ‘will there be a commission of inquiry on the failure of the Irish state to protect the vulnerable?’
Keogh emphasized that throughout the early years of the Irish state there was a lack of freedom of expression within Irish Catholicism. He noted the ‘poverty of episcopal appointments’ within the church, arguing that those who became bishops did not reflect the best talent in the church but rather those who conformed.
At the same time, Keogh recognized the ‘long history of dissent in Irish and global Catholicism’ and asked whether this tradition could be revived to renew today’s church. He noted that this dissenting tradition was often more focused on social justice than social conformity and continues today through priests like Fr Peter McVerry, who has dedicated his life to working alongside those in Dublin’s most disadvantaged areas. Keogh said:
‘It is better to begin to rebuild anew than seek to preserve a Catholicism based on fear, not respect for the other.’
Keogh also observed that there is currently a prevailing narrative in the public sphere that is adversarial to the Catholic Church for its own sake.
This is perhaps an understandable, if knee-jerk, reaction given the abuse scandals. But Keogh lamented that this narrative can distort history, referencing the recent comments of Independent TD Joan Collins, who in her zeal for constitutional reform asserted that the Irish Constitution was written by a priest.
Keogh lamented that it seems such commentators ‘are not expected to familiarize themselves with basic Irish history,’ before explaining that the Constitution was drafted by senior civil servants after a broad-ranging consultation process that included the leaders of all Ireland’s major churches and the Chief Rabbi.