Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Culture and Christianity

An interesting discussion I've had elsewhere, with a reader of this very blog, leads me to address this question: should a national culture be founded on Catholicism, or even on Christianity?

The very title of this blog, Irish Papist, reflects two of its main interests: Irishness, and Catholicism.

My Catholicism is the centre of my life, and the most important part of it. But the subject of Ireland and Irishness is also of absorbing interest to me. 

Can we simply equate the two? Is Irish Catholicism the same thing as Irishness? Does Irish Catholicism contain everything good about Irishness? Should our vision of Irishness be explicitly Catholic?

My answer to that is "No". Here I depart from many of my Catholic integralist friends.

I accept the Second Vatican Council as an authoritative act of the Magisterium. Its document on religious freedom, Dignitas Humanae, tells us:

In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind.

I think reason tells us the same thing. The only adequate reason for adhering to a religion is because you believe it is true. Adhering to a religion for any other reason-- tribalism, a reaction against the modern world, social conservatism, aesthetics, etc.-- is only adopting a pose, striking an attitude.

If Faith is a "junior partner" to patriotism, or conservatism, or social justice, or anything else, than the Faith is always going to give way when it comes to a conflict between them. You cannot serve two masters. 

And we can see this in the manner in which so many Irish left-wing nationalists ultimately rejected Catholicism when it came into conflict with their own particular brand of nationalism. (Many people in this tradition-- Sinn Féin, especially-- have ultimately rejected nationalism, as well. But they still use the term, just as they still used the term "Catholic" long after they had apostasized.)

As well as this, if we accept the primacy of conscience, then it must be expected that many people will find themselves unable, in all good conscience, to accept the Catholic faith. Should our vision of Irishness exclude them? Should it exclude Protestants and Jews and Muslims and well-intentioned agnostics and atheists?

Personally, I have no place in my vision of Irishness for those who are anti-Catholic, anti-religious, anti-clerical, and anti-traditional. After all, such people are on a journey of nihilism which logically leads them to reject national loyalties, too.

I think it's perfectly fine for Irishness to demand a respect for our Catholic history and traditions, from those who cannot in good conscience affirm the Catholic creed.

I don't believe anybody is less Irish for not being a Catholic. I don't even believe anyone is less Irish for being an atheist. But I do think somebody is less Irish for being anti-Catholic and anti-religious.

(Of course, as a Catholic, I wish every single person in Ireland was also a believing Catholic.)

I also think it was perfectly legitimate for the Irish Constitution to recognize the "special position" of the Catholic Church as the religion of the vast majority of Irish people, as it did until 1973. I believe it was perfectly legitimate for Ireland to ban alcohol sales on Good Friday, to have the Angelus bells broadcast on the state broadcaster, to censor blasphemous books and films, etc.

One needn't have been a believing Catholic to support all these things, nor do I think they constituted oppression of other religions, or of the non-religious.

Robert Briscoe, an adherent of the Jewish faith who was Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1956-57, and again in 1961-62, famously said that, the more Catholic the Irish people became, the more he liked it. Michael Medved, an American talk radio host who is also an Orthodox Jew, has said the same thing about America and Evangelical Christianity. Surely most religious people would rather live in a country whose laws and customs were influenced by religion, even if it was not their own religion-- as long as that religion was not actually imposed on them, and the free exercise of their own religion was not impeded.

Ultimately, I believe we must distinguish clearly between religious faith and national culture. They are two different things. They can be deeply intertwined, but they should not be equated with one another. Both suffer, in the long run, when that happens.


  1. For me, being non-Irish, it´s only the "deeply intertwined" areas that seem to make both your religion (Catholicism) and national culture (Irishness) fully defendable in the first place. Not equated but inseparable; the Faith stripped of its deep bonds to Irishness would also be a deviation from the truth that DO acknowledge real people and history as well as culture to be entirely essential, just as the "Irishness" in a total nihilistic void or an international hatred against Christ (arguably Love itself Who loves the Irish) would make no more sense than a lie (like saying "the typical Irish culture of-" either something common to all mankind or something utterly Polynesian, Persian, Mongolian or Metropolitan?). If most areas appear "loosely" rather than "deeply" intertwined is another thing I guess.

    1. I understand that perspective. In practice, I couldn't separate Irishness and Catholicism. But in theory, at least, I have to, to accommodate everything that isn't ANTI-Catholic, but not actually Catholic, to do with Ireland.

    2. Shouldn´t have begun with "For me, being non-Irish" but it was just to state not knowing Ireland personally. If you include things like nature or man-made common customs it somehow gets even more blurred in my view as if that hold less of Irishness than earth and mankind in general. How do you accommodate to pagan religion? It certainly must have BEEN very much in line with Irishness - AND apparently very much anti-Catholic as well. Today a different game it seems.

  2. An excellent piece: neat, well-reasoned and fair, I think.

    A Catholic nation's toleration of those who cannot in good conscience assent to the faith can actually be a sign of confidence in God's providence.