The Irish Referendum

Some may have hoped the outcome would be otherwise, but it is difficult to see how anyone could actually expect Irish voters to reject same-sex “marriage”. If there was a surprise about the outcome it was that the “Yes” votes were not higher than 67 percent. I expected something nearer to 75 percent. But, then, my view of Irish Catholicism, and especially its historically dominating influence in the life of the Church in the U.S., has always been dim.

To begin, it was Irish-born U.S. bishops who decided in the nineteenth century to confine, as near as they could, Catholic immigrants and thus the Faith to eastern-seaboard big-city ghettoes (in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore) rather than see them fan out across the country. When Orestes Brownson objected publicly that the country would never be evangelized that way, these Irish prelates turned on him, especially the powerful Archbishop John Hughes of New York, a native of Ireland. They didn’t break him, but he died isolated and poor.

It is not clear to me whether Brownson, who hailed from the heartland of American Puritanism, New England, recognized that the bishops’ policy was born of their Irish Jansenism. The bishops said, and probably thought to themselves, that what they were doing by keeping the faithful under their immediate control was protecting them from the country’s dominant Protestantism, but underneath lay the Jansenist fear of the world. Instead of seeing its goods as gifts the All-Good Creator provided for their enjoyment, and some of them, like beauty, as portals to the divine, they saw them as snares ready to entrap men in a life of sin. It was and is a recrudescence of that Manicheanism which too often leads (as with the Cathars and several recent Irish bishops) to the regular practice of the very sins they denounce the most loudly.

How had this twisted and pinched form of the religion ever taken hold in Ireland? It was when the island’s English Protestant rulers suppressed the practice of the Faith. Young Irish men aspiring to the priesthood had to go to seminaries in France for their formation, and French seminaries were then full of Jansenism as American ones in more recent years have been full of universalism. Fortunately for the French, they would be rescued by St. Louis de Montfort, but the Irish were already back home. Geographically cut off from the larger body of the Church, they stayed stuck in the Jansenist mold.

At the end of the nineteenth century a new generation of Irish prelates, exemplified by men like John Ireland and Dennis O’Connell and the primate himself, James Cardinal Gibbons, would lead the Church in this country into the heresy of Americanism. When Pope Leo XIII condemned it in 1899 they all feigned horror that His Holiness could think anyone in the U.S. guilty of such error, but it simply went underground with strains of it to reemerge in Modernism, which would then be condemned by Pope St. Pius X.

The so-called Golden Age of the Church in the U.S., when it was led by Irish-American prelates like Francis Spellman and Richard Cushing, great fund-raisers and builders who paid no attention to what was being taught in their seminaries, was a dress rehearsal for Vatican II with its fad for interfaith religious services and Cardinal Cushing bragging about his Jewish brother-in-law. At the Council some of the earlier errors would surface full-blown, most notably with the Declaration on Religious Liberty, virtually dictated by New York-born theologian John Courtney Murray. Reference to the document brings us back to the Irish Referendum. How?

On the very day of the vote I knocked over a stack of old magazines and newspapers under my desk. This brought to light an issue of the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, dated May 25, 1995. The paper was open at its op-ed page with a Q&A column, “Question Box,” that was headlined “Can Only Catholics Go to Heaven?”

Priests now in their prime would have been ordained in about 1995, meaning that they had their formation when notions ventilated by the priest-writer of the column were general throughout the Church in the U.S., which would be precisely why he was given the job of writing the column.

A reader in suburban Maryland had written this priest-writer that “it is my absolute and certain belief that only Catholics dying in the state of grace will go to heaven.”

In his answer, the priest conceded that “many self-proclaimed ‘real Catholics,’ lay people and even some priests, firmly insist on this kind of rigid position, with great damage to the reputation of the Church.” Such Catholics “should be aware that many people of other faiths and religions hear, and are understandably and unjustly hurt and confused by this type of message.” Finally, “the belief expressed by this reader is not now official Church doctrine.”

The word that leaps out is “now”. The priest, writing about Church doctrine in an official Catholic publication, does not claim it was never Church doctrine. He has even conceded that many Catholics, presumably ones taught Church doctrine in the past, still (in 1995) believe it, but “now” they are wrong. In other words, he is saying, Church doctrine has changed.

The trouble, of course, is that Church doctrine is true, and truth does not change. If something was proclaimed as true by Our Lord during His life on earth, it had to be true in 1015, in 1515, in 1995, and in 2015. If somehow it could be untrue “now,” it can never have been true, and if it never was, what else wasn’t?

You can see where I’m going with this. If the Church was wrong when she taught that outside herself there is no salvation, how can anybody be certain that it is true when she holds that only sacramental marriage between a man and woman is true marriage? Besides, the question before voters in Ireland wasn’t about sacramental marriage, and hasn’t the Church in Europe accepted civil marriage since the Revolution of 1789, as she always has in the U.S.?

Well, why not civil same-sex “marriage”? Remember, also, she will “hurt” the feelings of some and “damage the reputation of the Church” if she persists in opposing it.

I see two more questions: 1) Pope Emeritus Benedict bemoaned the “dictatorship of relativism,” but given that since Vatican II there has been no authoritative, unequivocal denunciation of the notion that “now” can change Church doctrine, how could the Irish bishops, or anybody else, believe that their opposition to “Yes” might prevail, especially after so many of the bishops had been caught in their own sexual scandals? 2) On what grounds can Catholic teaching on any matter be taught as true and, more to the point, be accepted as such, until it is finally and unequivocally admitted that not she, but leading circles of the Church (as at some other times in history) succeeded at Vatican II and for years afterward in directing her affairs in such a way as to permit everlasting truth to be presented as “now” changed?

Anyway, while saddened and outraged by the phenomenon of Éire’s national apostasy, I for one am happy that Catholics in the U.S. can now dispense with the fiction of Ireland as a bastion of the Faith. We shall be much better off recognizing there is no such bastion left anywhere in ex-Christendom, which is to say no formerly Catholic nation whose laws any longer conform to Church teaching, whether or not that teaching is neglected, ignored or forgotten by a majority of remaining Catholics. The U.S., of course, has never been a Catholic nation. These lines began with the recollection that Irish bishops decided not to evangelize it.