Archive for December 22nd, 2009

Binding Briars

Why did the Irish government appear so deferential to the Vatican in light of the facts exposed by the Murphy Report, as with so many past revealed instances of Church-driven abuse and torment?

There are many potential reasons, but let me focus on one: right-wing governments, as they pursue policies that privilege the rich and undermine the poor, derive legitimacy and support for their policies through religious language and teachings.

There may be individual ministers and deputies who hold strong religious beliefs, but these are not necessarily the most influential actors in government. Rather, the use of religious language and teachings are mostly a calculated action on the part of people who wish to retain support from and dominion over people whose moral and ethical language comes from religion. It was in this vein, for instance, that Margaret Thatcher opened her years as Prime Minister, quoting the words of St Francis of Assisi, and during her reign in power, she approvingly quoted Jesus’s attributed remarks that you will always have the poor with you. At the same time, she portrayed herself as a champion of the poor, rejecting notions of inequality altogether, and claiming that greater prosperity for the rich automatically led to improved conditions for the poor as well. To oppose inequality was therefore to oppose the poor.

In a country where the church has long appeared all-powerful, such rhetorical extravagance is barely necessary, since church teachings already provide moral cover for whatever the state gets up to, at those moments when the church is not indistinguishable from the state. In 20th century Ireland, children from the poorest sections of society were locked up and placed under conditions of slave labour, all under the cloak of Christian charity. This sort of thing removes the need for pious politicians altogether, allowing them to get on with the business of running the country with a mien of no-nonsense technocratic pragmatism, while ‘the priests in black gowns were doing their rounds’, ‘binding with briars’ the joys and desires of the people, as Blake would have put it.

The image of ‘binding with briars’, with its voiced plosive alliteration, suggests sadistic physical intimidation and punishment, of which there has been a great deal in Ireland, but there’s more to it than that. What is being bound in Blake’s Garden of Love
is ‘joys and desires’ -which Blake conceived as infinite- in the fashioning of a unitary subjectivity, in which ‘State Religion’, envisioned by Blake as ‘the Source of all Cruelty’ elaborates its domineering power. The ‘briars’ give an indication of how this power was not merely predicated on the threat of physical intimidation: briars -thorny plants- suggest the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’s head before his crucifixion. It seems to me that there is at the very least here a duality of purpose to this image. At one level, it stands for the church’s imposition of sin on the people, with its attendant regulatory and disciplinary functions. At another, it uses the New Testament imagery to identify the people with Jesus and the church with the oppressor, i.e. in the same way as the soldiers, the agents of empire, placed the crown of thorns on Jesus, so too does the church place the crown of thorns on the people.

Blake’s work delivers important insights when thinking about the role of the Catholic Church in Ireland. We might be inclined to consider the situation in Ireland with reference to the political and legal doctrine of separation of church and state, in terms of how Ireland fell, and continues to fall, short of that doctrinal ideal. This fits in nicely with the idea, expressed by Fintan O’Toole, among others, that Ireland never undertook its own project of modernity. However, this conception of power structures is ultimately derived from precisely the same unitary bourgeois subjectivity developed by Locke, whom Blake opposed so trenchantly (‘the abyss of the five senses’).

Whilst a ‘proper’ separation of church and state might well be an improvement on the current situation, it ought not blind us to the fact that ‘State Religion’, as a force for the generation of a unitary subjectivity, operates both inside and outside the formal political realm: it is not merely a product of the interaction of what appears as two distinct, relatively autonomous entities, but of productive forces and the relations of production. For instance, there may be a formal separation of church and state in the United States, but there is still ‘State Religion’, most obviously in the deus abscondita-cum-CEO who is habitually called on to bless the rugged individualism that produces both the ghetto and the Lear jet.

In Ireland in 2009 we are confronted with a government that for many years has, on the surface, appeared fanatically beholden to neo-liberal orthodoxy in pursuit of its ends: maintaining the financial system at all costs, making appeals to the authority of the IMF, pauperising the state as it preserves the privileged position of the rich, and so on. It doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to look beyond the political personalities who are the public faces of this, and discern those constituencies whose interests it expresses: industrialists, financial officials, shareholders, bondholders, media moguls, in no particular order. It seems reasonable to observe that none of these groups is particularly religious, and has no discernible interest in the internal workings of the Catholic Church. So why has the government been holding back?

The explanation lies, I think, in an intertwining of the interests that control state institutions, and those that control Church institutions. Were the government to adopt an antagonistic stance toward the institutional Church, it would do away with the cloak of legitmacy it garners from Church teachings, thereby weakening its own position. I’m thinking particularly here of the persistent claims the main party lays to be ‘protecting the most vulnerable’ (though this concern extends across all parliamentary parties, as these search results demonstrate), drawing on the tradition of Catholic social justice, even as it simultaneously slashes welfare payments and community sector services and programmes. As Conor McCabe notes here: ‘try to count the number of times you hear the debate about Ireland’s economic situation within the conceptual framework of Catholic social teaching on one hand, while it is defended with neoliberal syllogisms on the other. Then, try to count the times it is NOT put forward in these terms’. One could add that there is no great contradiction between ‘protecting the most vulnerable’ and orthodox neo-liberalism: even Hayek, who had little time for the idea of ‘social justice’, thought a minimum income ‘not only to be a wholly legitimate protection against a risk common to all, but a necessary part of the great society in which the individual no longer has specific claims on the members of the particular small group into which he was born’.

Even though the Catholic Church seems to be inexorably diminishing on the back of its abuse scandals, you only need to turn on the radio to see how its ‘briars’ still bind. Discussion after discussion deals with what the Church needs to do to recover, as though its repentance and recovery were somehow a matter of grave national concern. Even most criticism levelled directly at the Church by members of the public in these discussions is in terms of how far it has fallen short of its Christian teachings, and how ‘so-called men of God’ acted contrary to their espoused ideals. The point being that politics still takes place in a framework largely determined by Catholic teachings inculcated by a Catholic education system, with its bizarre concept of ‘Catholic ethos’ (which, if it means anything at the minute, means grossly unequal access to educational facilities and segregation according to religion, gender and class, producing all manner of symbolic violence) and since this framework has served ruling elites rather well until now, it is unlikely to get overturned by them at any point soon. Or ever, for that matter.

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December 2009