Sunday, 18 December 2011
If only they had listened to the voice of the Church...
On the BBC's 'Sunday Sequence' this morning, they were talking about the extent to which churchmen had or hadn't actively worked for peace (and, you'd like to think, Virginia, justice and liberty as well, but you can forget those two, Virginia, you naive little fool you) during the Troubles. It was lively stuff and got me thinking to the early days of civil unrest. After the Battle of the Bogside, the two bishops of Derry (Catholic and Protestant) did a little tour together, picking their way through the rubble and murmuring sympathy. Had they ever been there before? I doubt it. Why were they there then? I think as they used to say "to set a good example". Look, we're not throwing petrol bombs and stones at each other, why should you? The impact of their tour was zilch. And it'd be tempting to say that the same applied right throughout the Troubles - that the various churches here were damn all help in resolving the mini-war, other than issuing condemnation (almost always directed at the IRA, practically never at the security forces). But that wouldn't be totally true. Cardinal Tómas O Fiach, for one, was a man who spoke up when he saw horror and injustice, and not just when it was attributable to republicans. Individual clergy worked behind the scenes and/or spoke out against injustice and cruelty from whatever source. But as institutions, the churches here didn't do much other than wring their hands. The Catholic Church, as personified by the late Cardinal Cahal Daly, of course, was relentlessly anti-republican.
In today's radio discussion, my old colleague at the VO, Brian Feeney, pointed out that those who called for the Catholic Church to excommunicate republicans involved in violence were misguided. Republicans had never been deterred by excommunications over the decades and centuries, and the present lot were unlikely to have their minds or politics changed by some church judgement. But where the Catholic Church was successful was in limiting, for a time, support for republicanism. Wars big and small raise questions of morality, and it's perfectly possible that when the Catholic Church urged people, in so many words, not to vote Sinn Féin, some listened. In fact, if the Church of England is the Tory Party at prayer, the Catholic Church here came close to being the SDLP at prayer. There are Catholics who, if a bishop or cardinal says something, believe it must be so. But far from everyone. When the Pope read the script written for him by Cahal Daly, and begged on his knees to the people of Ireland to stop shedding blood, as Denis Bradley pointed out, it didn't work.
Ultimately, whatever about other churches (and unlike some, I am almost totally unimpressed by the contribution of the Church of Ireland's Robin Eames), I think the Catholic Church's contributions were either unimportant or misleading. They were unimportant because they stopped, as Feeney pointed out, at condemnation; they were misleading because they helped convince outsiders and some simple people that the conflict here was essentially sectarian. I'd call that abuse of the truth.