MR. JOSEPH HOPE of Dundalk, in his letter to the CATHOLIC Hal...km, picks an imaginary quarrel with me when he implies that I asked "to hear more from the Irish bishops." Admittedly, the heading to my piece was provocative, but in fact I concluded quite clearly that the best course for the bishops at present would probably be to take a holiday from public statements!
My reason for this was that the pattern of their publicised concerns and of their silences, taken together, tends to make "the Church" seem at variance with the actual moral sense of the Catholic people —or at best to be groping along behind it instead of expressing and leading it. For, of course, despitelhe Council, we all continue to feel that "the Church" is equivalent to the bishops, or at most to the clergy.
Only a week ago a Dublin daily ran the heading "Making Iktter Links for Church and Laity" and three days later a letter to the editor in another newspaper contained the sentence: "In this respect, the Church has made. greater strides in rectifying its backwardness than the laity." Such typical items reflect the general feeling that the laity is distinct from, and a mere appendage to "The Church."
This feeling, which is in accordance neither with God's will nor with the Council's express desire, can be changed, not by words, but by institutional reform. It can be changed by giving the laity an actual "say" in the Church through the establishment of representative parish councils and of diocesan assemblies based on them. But the bishops, from whom the initiative must come, have not done this. So the feeling persists among the laity that the Church is something separate "from us" and "from our real life together."
In a modified form, this feeling has been there for a long time. That is why, though a Christian people, we decided Jong ago that "religion" or "the Church" should not provide the nouns by which we conducted our affairs in our major social institutions.
It also explains why we have pioduced no positively Christian literature or thought. This split in our lives, this tacit secularism, has been consistently ignored by foreigners who writes articles or books about us, because they are so taken in by current preconceived ideas about the way things must be where Catholics wield political power; they fail to open their eyes and ears. But the relationship of the American Kennedys to religion is nothing new to Irish Catholics.
Throughout our modern history, this feeling that the Church was alien to most of our real life was softened in various ways. Catholicism was once our only principle of cohesion and collective identity. In default of adequate civil and cultural leadership of other kinds, priests provided such leadership.
Things are different now, and the feeling that the Church is alien to life is becoming, for an increasing number, a feeling of alienation from the Church. In other words, a development which first acquired substantial proportions among Irish Catholics in Britain is now affecting Irish Catholics in Ireland, too.
Fr. Sean O'Riordan. the distinguished theologian, can write in this month's. Reality: "It is a fact that at the present time one can meet a very considerable number of young Irish men and women, welleducated—in many cases sincerely religious at heart--who have to a greater or lesser extent broken their ties with the Church." And when the deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin says that "3,000 active Communists are infiltrating into all walks of life in Dublin," knowledgeable people hesitate to contradict him.
Obviously the role of the bishops is to be authentic spokesmen and teachers of the Church in Ireland. They can become this by getting in touch with the Church in Ireland, by hearing it and consulting with it, through orderly procedures, in representative assemblies Which will reveal its mind. At present its mind is unknown.
1 part ways with Mr. Hope when he says that "the bishops must not again intervene in politics or any kindred subject" if by that he means (as he does mean) "speak their minds on such matters." This is the voice of totalitarianism —it could come straight out of Soviet Russia.
It is the same bullying attitude towards the clergy which led two Government ministers in the Dail a few days. ago to attack Fr. Austin Flannery for his television agitation about the Dublin housing situation
on the grounds, among other thing. that he was a priest. "A gullible priest," "a so-called cleric," "under the cloak of religion," "he should solve the problems he was trained to solve"—such was the ministerial line.
There is a very mean kind of Catholic who thinks of the Church as something that is there for him to use as a sort of insurance policy for the next life, but who will deny its official spokesman the right to offer him Christian guidance in the affairs of the world. That is not the Vatican Council's idea of the Christian layman. The Council saw the laity as primarily concerned with the transformation of the temporal sphere in the spirit of Christ, as found in the Church, and as interpreted pre-eminently by the clergy.
At the same time, Catholic laymen are morally responsible for their own actions as men—they are not chronic babies to whom bishops "do" things. Mr. Hope writes: "History will probably decide that the greatest mistake the Irish hierarchy ever made was to oppose the Mother and Child Bill . . . and bring down the Costello Government in the process."
The hierarchy did not "bring down" the Costello Government — that is baby-talk: it fell by its own bungling. And it will be a sad day for the rights of man in Ireland when bishops may not state in private what they in conscience believe, as they did on that occasion. (Needless to say, it will also be sad when they cannot state it in public.)