In a sudden outburst unlinked to the previous conversation, my dinner companion, a Catholic businessman reflected on the church he held dear. “Did you see the business with Connell and Martin? The cardinal wanting to block the release of files on child abusers and I pick up the Irish Times and the church has protested against a reduction in VAT on condoms. Shielding abusers and then criticizing condoms, is it any wonder no-one’s listening?”
This was a man who had remained a devout, practicing Catholic even through the years he had lived in England, where it would have been easy to fall away from church attendance
“Frank”, I said, “when did the wheels come off? When did Ireland change? Was it the Brendan Smyth affair?”
“No”, he said, “for me it was before that. It was the Bishop Casey business. If that was how bishops could behave, then why should I trust any of them?”
The past has been abandoned, people now read de Valera’s speech from Saint Patrick’s Day 1943 and smile at it.
Acutely conscious though we all are of the misery and desolation in which the greater part of the world is plunged, let us turn aside for a moment to that ideal Ireland that we would have. That Ireland which we dreamed of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis of right living; of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. It would, in a word, be the home of a people living the life that God desires that man should live.
Perhaps even de Valera knew that such a land had never existed, nor ever would, but what vision has taken its place?
What “ideal” of Ireland would people now have? Protestants are too individualist to think in terms of vision for a nation – even fundamentalist Protestants would tend to think of an ideal country as being one where certain things are not done, rather than as a place where a certain form of society exists.
So if there was a Catholic expression of a vision for Ireland, what would be included? Would we return to elements of the past? It wasn’t such a great past. It was an Ireland where women had to leave their jobs in the civil service and banking when they got married in fulfilment of the constitutional place of women in the home. Divorce was banned, artificial contraception was banned. Gay and lesbian people simply didn’t exist. Would a vision based on church teaching mean a reversion to those things?
Perhaps in post-modern times the idea of vision is redundant, but there is need for some set of values, some sort of coherence, something we might all strive for; otherwise there is a danger that our politics will remain forever at the level of parish gossip and favours for people, and that my conversation with Frank will be repeated in various forms again and again.