Being an avid reader of detective fiction, C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels provide hours of enjoyment, weighty tomes telling of a Lincoln’s Inn barrister practicing law in Sixteenth Century London and becoming involved in the intrigues of the Tudor court. Political conspiracy five centuries ago differs little from political conspiracy in the Twenty-First Century, plotting how to do down one’s enemies and how to occupy and retain positions of power, the difference is that bishops are no longer at the heart of those conspiracies. Reading Sansom’s tales of mid-Sixteenth Century London life, tales that omit none of the seaminess or horror of the times, it is strange to read of the extent of ecclesiastical power, to read that the Bishop of London might have people arrested and tried for their life, to read that someone might be burned alive for denying the presence of Christ in a wafer.
Perhaps in times when the church was inseparable from the political establishment, and when the holders of political power feared the disfavour of the hierarchy, it was understandable how men, who professed to be followers of a humble Galilean carpenter, could exert the sort of power that he would neither have recognized nor embraced. How did that power persist, even in contexts where the church possessed no formal political authority?
Driving through Portlaoise on a Saturday evening, half listening to the radio, a culture file piece on Lyric FM discussed traditional music in a rural community. In the years before the Famine, a place had become known as a “dance house”, a place where local people gathered for traditional music and dancing. It was Nineteenth Century Ireland, hardly a place where social norms were likely to be set aside, but the person interviewed said the place had been “closed by the church”. The interviewer did not even pass comment on clerical influence. How, in an Ireland still ruled from London, did the church exert such power? Did politicians fear the pulpit? Did civil magistrates accept the bidding of ecclesiastical authorities?
By the mid-Twentieth Century, the church in Ireland seemed as authoritative as the church had been in the days of Matthew Shardlake. Certainly the 1937 Constitution gave the Roman Catholic church a special place, but even in the preceding years, from the 1920s onward, the Free State government had begun to enact legislation that was approved by the bishops, outlawing divorce in 1925 and contraception in 1935. The unionist slogan “Home Rule is Rome Rule” was not without substance, but why did the politicians simply surrender? Had the government taken a firm stand in 1922, what might have happened?
Asking “what if?” may be as fruitless as revisiting the times of Matthew Shardlake, but in an Ireland where church and state are still undergoing a process of redefinition, and will continue to do so in the years approaching the centenary of independence, it would be useful to ask, if given the opportunity, how much influence would the bishops exert?