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.


3 Responses to “Tiny But Vocal Minorities”

  1. 1 Eoin July 1, 2010 at 9:43 am

    It can be unsettling when you find yourself in agreement, if only partially, with Benedict’s best theological buddy. Twomey’s argument that this underdeveloped form of mediated public discussion about who has or has not the right to communicate their message is bound by a sense of the ‘level playing field’. However, that field is ever so slightly tilted toward the very institution he defends. The sooner that humility can be faced up to, the easier it will be for the local institutional Church to square up to the seemingly unresolvable questions of this polity. This is happening right now in certain areas.

    Bellah’s notion of a ‘civil religion’ is well developed theoretically but the literature points continually to a contextualising and localisation in almost every instance which makes its universalisation next to impossible. Bellah sought the recognition of hegemonic religious positions inside and outside of those institutions. This involved the renting aside of the veil of ‘formal equality of faiths’.

    But this is beside my main point which is that the replacement of one hegemonic discourse with another will only heighten the ideological conflict amongst those whose position on Church-State relations relies mostly on Madam Editor and the Sindo. After Ryan, some asked for the State to replace the Church as the patron of our schools, misunderstanding the fact that the State was as culpable as the instituional Church in these regards. But we don’t see this because we want to believe that the State acts in all of our interests despite the fact that, by its policies, it destroys communities and steamrolls over collective decision making.

    The mathematics of a ‘civil society’ model (or active citizenship as Bertie would have it) where the sum of equality and rights based organisations equals democracy is equally dangerous but that’s another rambling comment. I should start a blog….

    • 2 Hugh Green July 1, 2010 at 11:11 am

      Thanks for the comment. One of the things I didn’t pick up on was how Twomey -who is a moral theologian of some renown, after all- places sexual habit at the forefront of what determines ‘the wellbeing of society as a whole’. I am no moral theologian, but I find that sort of move utterly incomprehensible, unless I ascribe it to some sort of hygienic-disciplinary ideology.

      When he points to ‘the right of citizens to make conscientious objections on the basis of their moral convictions or religious beliefs’ (a right I could not oppose myself), is he really willing to take this to its fullest realisation, which is to say, if what they are engaged in is immoral (let’s say working in a hedge fund), they have a right to withdraw their labour without fear of discipline? Because, if we take morality beyond the bedroom, this has massive implications. So I think it is only with regard to the bedroom that he is developing his argument.

      And there lies the problem with the institutional church: I get the sense that, in the round, it sees no real problem with State power as currently configured, beyond its failure to regulate adequately how people relate to one another sexually, and perhaps its failure to ‘protect the most vulnerable’, which usually amounts to little more than preserving the status of the poor.

      I imagine you’re better placed than me to see what course (if any) different consituencies within the church are likely to adopt on these questions, but I would imagine that the institutional church will always tack closely to state power because that is the only thing it knows.

      So, as you say, even if the State were to become patron of all the church schools, that’s hardly going to change anything because the church was only ever operating at the behest of, or with the approval of, the State anyway. You see this widespread idea in Ireland that the State is the force of modernity and progress and the Church is merely the opposite. It’s certainly a useful illusion.

  2. 3 Wally Burns July 4, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    I am glad to see someone stopping to consider hackneyed media words like ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ and how they play into the hands of the realigned secular bourgeoisie and its international ideology of neo-liberalism. Didn’t something like this happen in post-revolution France during the 19th century? The progressives struggled, in the media and in novels and nonfictional books, against the ‘clerge refractoire’ and succeeded in putting the Church in its place with the laïcité law of 1905. Socialist groups struggled for socialism (the realist novelist Zola lent his articulate support) and against demeaning abuse of labour throughout that century of industrialisation. Well yes, but the bourgeoisie expanded with France’s growth of imperial wealth, and the embourgeoisement of French society benefited the upwardly mobile while leaving the lower peasantry and urban proletariat in their place. The immigrant population in the ‘banlieux’ form part of the contemporary underclass. Anticlerical embourgeoisement doesn’t lead to socialism. The anticlericalism of the nouvelle bourgeoisie is just a new form of intellectual snobbery: people with B.A. and B.Comm. degrees considering themselves to be a cut above the local parish priest. I met the republican socialist novelist, the late Peadar O’Donnell, in the mid-1960s and he remarked in such terms to me. He saw nothing particularly progressive in bourgeois anticlericalism. [Nevertheless he instructed that no politicians or clergy should attend his funeral – and they didn’t.]

    The op-ed writers of the print media and they and other television pundits form the new Order of Preachers who have the whip hand in the western world. Some of them may consider themselves to be left-wingers, but in toto they promote the cultural and economic aims of a secular neoliberal world agenda. Is there a novelist with the passion and perspicacity of Orwell who might write bitingly about the musical chairs that’s been happening?

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