Archive for June 30th, 2010

Tiny But Vocal Minorities

It would be tempting to dismiss as hysteria those accusations, made by Church officials and lay enthusiasts, that ‘tiny but vocal minorities of secularists’ want to silence the Church. But I happen to think they are sort of correct.

Like Vincent Twomey says here:

When the Irish Bishops’ Conference issued its statement recently on the proposed legislation, there was an outcry from a handful of members of the Oireachtas. A tiny but very vocal minority were outraged at the audacity of the bishops to express any opinion on this or, presumably, on any other matter. They effectively claimed that the church – in particular, in the wake of the Ferns, the Ryan and the Murphy reports – should remain silent.

This, of course, would leave the way free for that tiny but vocal minority of secularists to impose their views on the whole of society, views that are repugnant to the sincere convictions of most citizens. These same citizens are being increasingly intimidated by a media that has adopted these “liberal-progressive” views. Is this democracy, Irish style?

Let me qualify that. I believe it’s true that a tiny but vocal minority of ‘secularists’ wishes to impose its views on the whole of society. It just so happens that their ‘secularism’ is but one element of their view of the world. And it is not so much that they wish to silence the church but that they wish to subject it to eternal ridicule.

Marx pointed out with relish that the bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, ‘has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”’.

Of course, Marx wasn’t writing about 20th Century Ireland way back in 1848, and you could hardly have expected him to clog up the thrilling sweep of the Communist Manifesto by introducing a whole pile of qualifiers about what happens when the interests of the bourgeoisie are intimately intertwined with those of the Church in post-colonial spaces predominantly geared toward agricultural production.

But what Marx goes on to say next is more to the point: ‘(the bourgeoisie) has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.’

All of which was all rather spiffing, but unfortunately curtains in the end for the idea that the church authorities occupied a privileged position in the natural order. And, to simplify most grossly, as is my privilege on this website, whilst the fighting Irish priests put up a doughty resistance, the Celtic Tiger put a few reducers into them, as Big Ron might say.

In Ireland these days, influence over public opinion no longer flows from the pulpit, but from media institutions. Since media ownership and control is concentrated in the hands of a relatively small élite, the views expressed through those institutions on the whole tend to reflect the views of that élite, which are indeed “liberal-progressive” in character, as Twomey calls it.

But let’s decouple ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’, since they mean two different things, however much the right-wing government of the United Kingdom might claim otherwise.

The views of the tiny but vocal minority (which are by no means confined to the tiny but vocal minority, by the way) are ‘liberal’ at least in as far as they coincide with the dominant conception of equality under neoliberalism, which is to say, equality of opportunity in the market and before the law. Clearly, privileges on account of sexual preference contradict this conception, and it is therefore no surprise that there is broad support for the Civil Partnership Bill among élite opinion, much to the chagrin of prominent churchmen.

As for ‘progressive’. The view is progressive only in so far as the removal of state discrimination against people on account of their sexual preference amounts to progress (as I believe it does). But élite opinion in this case is only ‘progressive’ in so far as it supports measures associated with the realisation of formal bourgeois equality, but nothing more. Generally speaking, it has no difficulty applauding the use of state power to maintain and deepen economic inequality.

I sense this sort of thing is not likely to be what Vincent Twomey has in mind when he uses “liberal-progressive”. Perhaps in his eyes ‘liberal’ means ‘namby’ and ‘progressive’ means ‘pamby’. On the other hand, he may not see it as a sort of insult at all. He may just think that the best engine for progress is a society grounded in feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations.

Let me crack on, as I’m scarcely any nearer to the point than when I started. The ending of ‘feudal, patriotic idyllic relations’ in Ireland, in terms of the progressive loss of Church power and influence, has, as long as I have been living here, been celebrated in media as one more chapter of liberation in the history of the nation, with the shackles of religious authoritarianism being gradually cast off and a new secular order introduced.

What this ‘liberation’ entails, in fact, is not much more than the removal of ‘any other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest’, with a few improvements here and there (as is the case with the civil partnership bill). But it makes for some great Sindo storylines.

Against their loss of power and influence, church authorities are fighting a rearguard action, quite uselessly. When they claim a privileged position for the institution of heterosexual marriage, they stand athwart the tracks shouting stop! in the face of the oncoming locomotive of neoliberal progress. The reaction of most people, mindful of content of the Ferns, Ryan and Murphy reports, is to call for more coal.

It seems safe to say that it is fairly commonplace for people educated and formed in institutions run by the Catholic Church to consider occasionally the yawning and blindingly obvious gap between core Christian teachings and texts and how people of authority in the Catholic Church express that church’s priorities, both in word and in deed.

My own pet example is the Church’s position on the family. Gospel accounts of Jesus’s position on the family are pretty instructive. Jesus was anti-family, big time.

He said “if anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke) and also “I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Matthew).

But the Church grinds on with its project of sustaining the family as the foundation of the social order, resisting anything and everything that it sees as militating against its sanctity.

It does so seemingly blind to, or willfully ignorant of, how, as Marx put it, “the bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parents and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of Modern Industry, all the family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour”.

In fact, it is the foremost peddler of this bourgeois clap-trap. In response to the transformation of human beings into mere instruments of labour, the Church promotes ‘family values’, because it is on a tidy retainer from the very forces out to tear asunder all family ties, and it never shies away from throwing its full weight behind extreme reactionary political forces.

Many in Ireland who are aware of the content of the Ferns, Ryan and Murphy reports are aghast at the continued power and influence of the Church, particularly in the realm of education. It is perfectly understandable that they should be inclined to see the Church as an absolutely corrupt organisation, devoid of any moral authority whatever, and one that ought to be consigned to the trash can of history. For my part, I tend share that position. But because the Church plays a useful role as a bogeyman out to derail the neoliberal locomotive of freedom, it will not be leaving the stage any time soon.


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June 2010