Why are people surprised that the Church is conservative?
‘All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.” There has long been a debate over who first coined that immortal phrase. Was it John F Kennedy, who certainly popularised the quote? Or was it Edmund Burke, who is widely believed to have been the first man to say it?
Well, it doesn’t matter anymore. Because from now on, whenever we hear “all it takes for evil to flourish is for good men...” we’ll surely always think of Josepha Madigan, the Fine Gaeler who invoked those words when defending herself against allegations of opportunism about her comments about women priests.
Madigan is one of the new breed of Fine Gael TDs who rather fly in the face of the party’s old image of conservative, blue rinse biddies.
A divorce lawyer in her previous career, she has climbed the greasy pole of party politics to become Culture Minister and, by and large, she’s a reasonably agreeable sort.
But she has also apparently decided that it is her mission to reform the Church.
In the past, whenever someone wanted to reform the Church, the results usually ended badly — quite often at the stake. But we live in times both more enlightened and more entitled, and Ms Madigan is a perfect encapsulation of both traits.
The row this week over her leading prayers at her local church in the cosily middle-class enclave of Mount Merrion was just the inevitable end result of a spat that has been simmering between Madigan and the hierarchy for the last few months and, I have to admit, it is intriguing, amusing and rather bizarre.
Madigan played a leading role in the abortion referendum and she is widely credited with having put in a good shift for her side. But she has also been at pains to point out that she remains a committed Catholic.
After a roster mix-up left Mass-goers without a priest for the service on Saturday evening, Madigan stepped into the breach. While she didn’t actually say the Mass, she took centre stage. Following her surprise appearance from the subs bench, she has since said that it’s time for the Church to stop messing about and start having women priests.
This led to a furious response from the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin: “Comments made by Minister Josepha Madigan... have caused parishioners in Mount Merrion and further afield considerable distress.”
Well, there’s no accounting for distress, I suppose — it’s all down to personal taste, after all.
But not for the first time in recent months, I find myself in the highly unusual and deeply uncomfortable position of actually feeling a bit sorry for the Church.
The younger me would, of course, be horrified by such an assertion. After all, I went through school in the late 1980s, which were probably closer to the 1950s than the world we live in today.
The Church was a genuinely baleful presence back then — frequently cruel, always intolerant and confident of its place as the most important power in the land. A bishop could get you sacked from your job for annoying him, and the vast majority of Irish politicians knew that they had to cosy up to the clergy or else face denunciations from the pulpit.
It was a pretty rotten time to be a non-believer and there was always the suggestion that there was something mentally wrong with atheists — something which would probably have caused me considerable teenage distress if I actually cared what they thought.
Thankfully, that institution is just a late and unlamented memory of a bygone era.
In fact, you could argue that the Church is now as much a relic as the bones of the saints they venerate.
But the rules, as they say, is the rules, and the Church has some fairly hard and fast rules — no abortions and no women priests being two of the most prominent.
As it happens, I agree with neither of those rules. Nor do I agree with any of their other rules — their repressive attitudes towards sex, for example, created successive generations of Catholic guilt which many people still struggle to shake off. So how do you respond to an organisation whose rules you don’t like? Well, you stop belonging to the organisation; particularly when that organisation is not a democracy to be changed from the inside, but an institution which genuinely believes it is carrying the word of God.
If you choose to believe such a thing, as Ms Madigan obviously does, it strikes me as a bit cheeky to suggest that maybe, y’know, God needs bit of an ideological makeover because he’s behind the times. He needs something to make him a bit more funky, a bit more down with the kids.
But here’s the thing — nobody signs up for the Church and then discovers, to their horror, that it’s not as liberal as they would like. Nobody can reasonably suggest surprise at the Church’s rules. They didn’t sucker anyone with a list of trendy causes and then betray them at the last moment. The Church is what it has always been, and that’s why I’m perfectly happy to have nothing to do with them.
If Catholics really want a Church where women become priests and all the fashionable causes are box-ticked?
Well, there’s always the Church of Ireland. How about this — the Church stays out of our business, and we stay out of theirs.
Everyone is entitled to their beliefs, even if we don’t share, agree or even understand, them
Live and let live, after all...
Nobody signs up for the Church and then discovers that it’s not as liberal as they would like
In the pulpit: Madigan has caused parishioners distress, according to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin