Church attempt to re-invent is an insult

Anne Mc Shane looks at the beleaguered Catholic establishment

A major damage-limitation exercise has been embarked on by church authorities to try and resolve the crisis provoked by the publication of the recent Murphy report into abuse and cover-up in the Dublin archdiocese.

Still reeling from the fallout from the Ryan report in August - which revealed endemic physical and sexual abuse of children in religious institutions - the clergy are well aware that it is only a matter of time before a fresh controversy emerges. Yet another report, this time into the Cloyne diocese, is due for publication. Pressure has now intensified on the government to extend the inquiry nationally.

This present crisis is unprecedented. Religious influence has waned significantly since revelations of abuse first surfaced in the 1990s, but now the church is institutionally discredited. De Valera, the architect of the 1937 constitution and champion of a ‘Catholic state for a Catholic people’, would be spinning in his grave. The priests and bishops who have preached their reactionary and oppressive morality for decades are themselves deeply despised.

Yet the church’s unique position within the constitution remains. And its leaders are determined to do whatever it takes to maintain the status quo. They are dutifully supported by the taoiseach, Brian Cowan, who has rushed to their rescue. He has called on church leaders to take action to “rebuild moral authority” and redeem itself in the eyes of the population. He has also tried to shirk the central issue by claiming that parents should take responsibility for making sure such abuse does not happen again. The prospect of secularism is anathema to him - his role is to safeguard the current religious establishment and the Irish state.

Conscious of the need for action, cardinal Sean Brady and archbishop Diarmaid Martin hot-footed it to the Vatican last week. After days of talks they emerged on December 11 with a statement from the pope. The “holy father” was apparently deeply traumatised and shocked by the Murphy report. But this is the same man who as head of the Vatican Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith until 2005, actually oversaw and stage-managed the cover-up (see my previous article, ‘Child abuse, the church and the Irish state’, December 3). Victim support groups have quite rightly condemned his pronouncements as self-serving and an insult to our intelligence.

Yet more significant has been the announcement that the pope will be writing a ‘pastoral letter’ to the faithful in Ireland. Such letters from the Vatican are very rare and usually reserved for emergency situations. This particular disaster recovery requires new ‘initiatives’ - which will be set out in that letter - that can allow the church to ‘renew’ itself and move on. The involvement of the laity in the affairs of the church is to be encouraged in an effort to make it appear more accountable. But there will be no retreat for the church from education - where it controls over 80% of schools - or other areas of influence within the state.

This attempt at a whitewash must be met with clear and militant secular demands. There must be nothing less than a complete separation of church and state. All religious indoctrination must be removed from the school curriculum. Children are currently instructed and prepared at school for ‘holy communion’ and ‘confirmation’ ceremonies. Parents are given little choice except to acquiesce in this religious programming of their children - it is unthinkable to object. Instead children should be liberated from all state compulsion to become practising Catholics. Religious ideas and the rites that flow from them must be a private matter.

We need a campaign to confront the 1937 constitution and in particular to eliminate articles within it that uphold the church’s dominance: eg, the ‘sanctity of the family’ and the right to life of the ‘unborn’. This implies a direct confrontation of the status quo. We must take on the clerical-state alliance and fight for a democratic, secular republic. This is not a task that can be left until socialism. Indeed we will not achieve socialism or working class rule in Ireland unless we challenge the position and influence of established religion. History should teach us just what a crucial role it has played - and continues to play - in our oppression and subjugation. We have everything to gain from the separation of church and state. The clerical state reaches deep into all aspects of our lives and self-liberation is impossible so long as it remains in place.

There are other developments that should be linked to the struggle for secular change from below. A challenge is currently before the European Court against the state ban on abortion. The case has been brought by three women who say that their human rights have been violated because they were forced to travel abroad for terminations. At the same time the Irish supreme court has refused to extend the constitutional ‘right to life’ to frozen embryos. Pro-life groups are outraged and pledge to wage an intense campaign against the ruling - but their allies within the church are perhaps more preoccupied by their own problems at present.

We in the left can link up these issues with a programme to confront how we are ruled and substitute working class democracy for the theocratic state.