Book review by Elizabeth McKenzie
Conn Mac Gabhan (Editor): Dissonant Voices: Faith and the Irish Diaspora. Institute of Theological Partnerships Publishing (ITPP). 2015
The collection of essays presented in Dissonant Voices: Faith and the Irish Diaspora, edited by Dr Conn Mac Gabhann present the Catholic Church in Ireland as a complex, often troubled, challenged institution.
The chapters in the book range from historical perspectives of the Irish Church from the eighth century, to the role of Church institutions and scholars in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It chronicles the part played by several Catholic clergymen during the Northern Ireland Troubles’ in the last century and raises challenging issues facing the institution as it deals with the myriad of scandals and the risk of irrelevance in a modern, twenty-first century secularist world. The publication is the product of a conference of the same name, Dissonant Voices: Faith and the Irish Diaspora, which was held at the London Irish Centre in March 2014.
The institutional Church doesn’t fare too badly in the early chapters, which deal with the historical role of the Church in Irish society. It is clear however that there was no shortage of dissonant voices in the ongoing struggle for power and dominance in the Church by various factions within it –regular clergy versus monastic influence is but one example. The defeat and ‘flight of the Earls’ in the early seventeenth century and the subsequent introduction of the Penal Laws later in that century, forced many clergymen, particularly those belonging to the religious orders, to flee to the Continent mainly Spain and the Spanish Netherlands. Their subsequent role as members of a clerical diaspora, in establishing highly regarded, scholarly Irish Colleges to train Irish clergy is admirable. ‘The significance of Irish scholars and scholarship at the Irish Colleges of continental Europe is inestimable.’ They were also responsible for preserving the Irish language by recording, adding and where necessary changing it – a lexicography by Micheál Ó Cléirigh was published in 1643 – their legacy evident in the survival of Gaelic, through years of sabotage by successive British governments.
The clergy of the diaspora were to play quite a different role in the eighteenth century as advisers, spiritual directors and spies for the exiled Stuart court. Indeed the chapter in Dissonant Voices –‘ On His Majesty’s Secret Service: Irish Catholic Clerics and the Exiled Stuarts’ is worthy of a Walter Scott novel or perhaps, as the author himself suggests, a James Bond movie – starring Pierce Brosnan, of course! In this case they belonged to a ‘diaspora’ which did not impose complete exile but allowed them to move freely if cautiously to and from Ireland to the Continent. And they were certainly dissonant voices as far as the British government was concerned. But their influence waned as the fortunes of the Stuart dynasty evaporated.
The nineteenth century saw a radical change of direction for the Catholic Church in Ireland. The building of Maynooth College to train ‘native Irish’ clergy, the establishment of a Catholic Hierarchy and National Schools education system, and the sad demise of Gaelic as the language of choice for the Irish population produced a clerical mindset of conformity with the political Establishment and an increasingly conservative Ultramontane/Tridentine Catholicism emanating from the Vatican. The nineteenth century also saw the establishment of the now infamous diaspora of poor, uneducated, criminal and apparently odorous Irish who migrated in huge numbers to England. Dr Oliver P Rafferty SJ points out that not only were they rejected by their more prosperous English Catholic brethren, English attitudes to them laid the foundation of an anti-Irish racism which persisted well into the1980s. Their pastors – Irishmen trained at Maynooth for the most part – often had no choice but to take on the role of dissenting voices against the English Catholic as well as secular establishments as they fought for social justice and the human rights of their beleaguered flock.
The tone of Dissonant Voices changes as the narratives move from historical to contemporary issues. There is also a distinct shift from objective, historical perspectives to personal hands-on accounts of the challenges facing clergymen in the modern Catholic Church in Ireland. The struggle for the priest is no longer how to survive and serve his downtrodden, oppressed flock but rather how to survive and serve his diminishing flock as the Church struggles between maintaining its power and control or finding new and more relevant ways of expressing the Gospel message. Perhaps an even more urgent issue is how to survive in a hierarchial Church which often seems to value control and power over Gospel values. It is here that the voices are at their most dissonant!
The personal stories of life as a priest in the twentieth and twenty-first century are no less heroic and enthralling than the clerical spy narratives of the eighteenth century. But the focus has changed. Then enemy is now within. It is the contemporary institutional Church and its almost desperate tactics to hold on to the power and prestige it enjoyed in recent centuries that must now be put under scrutiny.
The ‘dissonance’ expressed in the chapters recording the contemporary lives of priests in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is muted rather than strident. Criticism of the role of the institutional Church is implied rather than made explicit. There is an implication that the, sometimes heroic, actions of individual priests involved in the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ displayed true Gospel values rather than the actions or proclamations of the hierarchy.
For Fr Séamus Ó Fógartaigh, Fr Joe McVeigh and Fr Gerry McFlynn, the Liberation Theology of Fr Gustavo Gutiérrez provides, if not an answer to the dilemma of ‘incarnating’ the Gospel, at least a path in the right direction. Of course, Liberation Theology fell out of favour in the 1980s under the papacy of John Paul II so continuing to promulgate it as a solution to the myriad problems of the institutional Church in this day and age is itself problematic. For Fr Gerry Flynn in his quest to find a spiritual meaning in the vexed question of how to best to demonstrate the Gospel imperative of ‘preferential option for the poor’ joined and became an active member of Pax Christi. Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, Paolo Freire and of course Gutiérrez are cited and obviously inspirational and admired for their commitment to the poor and marginalised. The ongoing issues of social justice and human rights – or the lack of either in a Church in survival mode, – tax the minds and commitment (to the hierarchical Church) of these priests; ‘I now believe that the spiritual life is deeply political’ p 175.
There is of course much to be quietly proud of if you are a Catholic priest in today’s secular society. The ongoing achievements of Irish missionary orders and priests – and nuns – in the alleviation of poverty and sickness and powerlessness of the oppressed in many Third World countries cannot be gainsaid. Likewise the ongoing theological debates, critiquing of the role of the Church, insistence of many Catholic Christians, including the clergy, to return to and implement the message of Jesus in the Gospels is a dissonance that is gaining volume. Perhaps it is time to overlook John Henry Newman’s dislike of the poor Irish being members of his Birmingham parish and resurrect his championing of the ‘sensus fideliuim’ – the good sense of the faithful– as an antidote to the elitism of a hierarchical Church.
The publication is attractively presented and the end notes to each chapter are impressive. But I have a few plaints. The use of Gaelic accents and spelling for the names of the authors in the text – undoubtedly admirable – was something of a distraction for this reviewer (reminiscent of reading the opening pages of Dr Zhivago for the first time!) The title of the publication is attention-grabbing but does it reflect accurately the main concerns of the content? Is the book not a chronicle of dissent rather then dissonance? And although the tag, ‘Faith and Irish Diaspora’ features as both the sub-title and a chapter heading, this points to a much wider range for discussion than the one presented here. The focus of the book is essentially a fairly narrow one – the experience of Irish clergymen as they struggle to make sense of their priestly vocation both in Ireland and abroad (with only passing references to significant women). But it is hardly representative of what is generally understood as the ‘Irish Diaspora’ – or the faith of its members. But these are minor quibbles. Much of what is discussed here – albeit from the margins of the both religious and secular Institutions – will find resonance with the persevering congregations who in spite of everything have kept the Faith.
Elizabeth MacKenzie is a member of the Tinteán Editorial team