Monday, January 20, 2020


Dr. Eamon Maher
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None of it was new. I'd lived through all of it. But there was something about seeing it all flash before me. Reeling in the years. An unholy panorama of the church decomposing before my eyes.

From the self confident hubris of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress, through the years of betrayal, the systematic undermining of Vatican II and the abuse scandals, to where we are today. An ageing church with little or no moral authority and at war with itself.

In referring to the church here, I am thinking principally of clerics, hierarchy and Pope rather than the people of God as a whole.

The talk was by Eamon Maher and his subject was “The Cultural Legacy of Irish Catholicism, from 1979 to the present day". This was in the excellent series of talks organised by "We Are Church - Ireland".

I think Eamon intended to use a Powerpoint but, for whatever reason, that didn't materialise. No matter. I'm sure when, for example, Eamon referred to those two clerical performers, Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr. Michael Cleary, with the Pope in Galway in 1979, everyone saw the picture immediately.

Soline Humbert

The meeting started as usual with a prayer. Which always reminds me that, as an unbeliever, I am an interloper.

But I do have an interest in the church as an institution and would like to see it leave behind its negative repressive nature which ruined so many lives and move forward into an institution that is positive and strives to bring out the best in people regardless of creed or colour etc.

The world is too small and the end too nigh for people to be sowing dissension and barricading themselves into ideological silos.

The welcome I receive from this community is surely a sign they are moving in the right direction.

Eamon waded straight into the betrayal of Vatican II and Paul VI's fit of funk (my words not his) in opting for the traditional teaching on contraception.

Let me divert here for a minute to check out the supremacy of the informed conscience, a view to which the church nominally subscribes. However this traditional, and apparently liberal, teaching conceals a neat circularity.

Starting from the proposition that the Church can teach no wrong, as enunciated by Vincent Twomey, then, if you come to a conclusion which does not agree with church teaching, you have not sufficiently informed your conscience.


Even at the time, many people thought Humanae Vitae was rubbish. Some left the church and others became à la carte Catholics.

But there is an aspect of Humanae Vitae which is not always fully appreciated. And it is one which helped me break out of the vicious logical circle referred to above. What Humanae Vitae proved was that the church can teach wrong, and spectacularly so.

So out the window goes the Vincent Twomey defence of the conforming informed conscience and we're back, or forward as the case may be, to Seán Fagan's supremacy of the conscience informed in good faith, a position Josef Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI Emeritus) himself subscribed to in his earlier years.

Back to Eamon who refers to the sacking of John McGahern, a teacher in Belgrove National School at the behest of Dublin's Archbishop, John Charles McQuaid. McGahern had written a dirty book. As Eamon puts it, "it describes a young male adolescent's problems with masturbation and deals with violence in the home both physical and sexual, along with a suspicion of clerical sex abuse. This was a heady cocktail for the 1960s in Ireland."

On a personal note, I am a past pupil of Belgrove though I had left some 15 years before McGahern's sacking. Not long after the banning of "The Dark" I obtained from the Minister for Justice a certificate allowing me to import a copy.

Eamon refers to McGahern describing country churches being so crowded that old and young people, fasting for communion used to pass out.

That was very vivid for me as, although I never passed out, I used to feel sick in the church from pre-communion fasting, and then, to cap it all, the host would stick to the roof of my mouth and leave me gagging. Maybe I was unique in this but I doubt it.

And while we're on the subject of masturbation, let me say that this was God's gift to a perverted church. By demonising a common and harmless activity, and forcing it onto the table in confession, the church was shamelessly playing a dangerous power game. They told us many things about masturbation but never that it kept the sperm fresh for making better babies.

But back to Eamon. He mentions the clerical child sex abuse scandals as causing a major rift between ordinary Catholics and their church. Although the offences were committed by a small minority of priests, their victims were many, and the evil was spread even further by superiors shifting perpetrators around the parishes in a shameful fear of confronting the evil in their midst.

Eamon mentioned the notorious Fr. Brendan Smyth. Well, apparently there was even worse.

Fr. Morgan Costello managed to stay below the radar from the 1960s up to around 2010 when he became the subject of an intense Garda investigation which included all the parishes he ministered in. What they found apparently outdid Smyth. Costello was brought before the court in 2012 but the case was subsequently dropped. I have a personal interest in this as I served his masses at the outset of his clerical career.

As Eamon pointed out, power and access (without supervision or accountability) is the toxic mix which facilitated abuse.

Morgan Costello celebrates mass - that's me on the left.

Eamon also refers to the abuse of children in the industrial schools. And it is here that the state has to take responsibility. Widespread use of violence in these schools was well known, but a blind eye was turned and it was tolerated. At this time there was, of course, widespread use of corporal punishment in both school and home.

He referred to the amazing journalism of the late Mary Raftery and how her exposés led to two major official reports on state and clerical abuse of children.

Eamon reminded us of Cardinal Desmond Connell's get out of jail card, the "mental reservation" which was effectively permission to lie till you're blue in the face and still keep a clear conscience. A nice one if you can manage it.

He raises the interesting question of what is to replace the morality inculcated by the church as that institution loses power and influence.

It appears that we don't yet have a developed civic morality in this country. That doesn't surprise me given the all-embracing and dictatorial nature of church morality where you did what you were told and independent thinking in this area was a mortal sin. Add into the mix our colonial past and you have a recipe for chaos.

Nevertheless, Eamon reminds us that he is operating in the education sector and in contact with lots of young people whose innate sense of morality and generosity has impressed him enormously.

He was asked in the Q&A if there was any country in existence that maintained a civic morality in the absence of a religion, and he cited France.

As for the church's future, Eamon quotes the French writer, Jean Sulivan, saying that if it is to survive, the church will have to glory in its humility and become more like what the founder had in mind at the outset.

I recollect Tony Flannery offering the bishops similar advice in advance of the 2012 Eucharistic Congress and, of course, they went and did the opposite.

I don't find Eamon's French references the least surprising. I should remind my two readers that Eamon, like my cousin Michael, is a French Knight: Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques (2008)

The points touched on above are just a few of those from Eamon's unholy panorama of the church's woes.

Eamonn points out that the message is out there that the church must reform itself and become relevant for a new generation.

You can watch the full video of his talk here. It's well worth a visit.

Kay Mulhall

Kay, who has now joined the WAC-I core group, gave some reflections of her own. In essence these boiled down to a humble church of and for the poor. She had experience of such a church while serving as a Sister in Mexico. Liberation Theology?

She presented Eamon with the customary gender/age neutral picture of the Last Supper.

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