A Challenge to Democracy candidly examines the role, the activities and the influence of Catholic lay organisations and militant Catholicism on politics and Irish society. Militant Catholicism was one of the most powerful and influential forces operating in Ireland throughout the twentieth century. The movement was pivotal in helping to direct and consolidate public opinion, in copper-fastening the Catholic-Irish identity and in helping to enshrine the moral code in Irish law. It also had a resounding impact on the drafting of the 1937 Constitutionof Ireland. And, long after its heyday, it continues to have a particualr influence on Irish politics, as was seen in the run up to the Lisbon Treaty.
Dr Maurice Curtis is a graduate of the National University of Ireland/UCD and is based in Dublin. He is an Historian, Writer and Reviewer with a particular interest in Irish social history, including ideology, identity and change.
Catholic lay organisations played a significant role from the emergence of the Irish Free State at the beginning of the last century right through to the present day.
Given the extent to which Catholic Action was inspired by papal encyclicals, one might be forgiven for thinking that there would have been a close relationship between it and the Irish Church.
However, this was not the case: The activities of the various strands of Catholic Action working in the late 1930s persuaded the Catholic hierarchy that closer supervision was needed if the organisations were to act in strict accordance with the mandate given to them by the bishops. Stated in bald terms, the Catholic Church was happy to employ the forces of militant Catholicism provided that they could exercise strict control over them.
Independence of mind was viewed in a negative light. Witness the complaints of Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary in Ireland, in a letter to Archbishop Byrne, in 1928:
For a long time past, Your Grace has regarded me with considerable disfavour. I have exhausted every effort to get in touch with you in order to bridge the misunderstanding, but without avail. Of late, some particularly injurious statements have been made about me, ascribable to Your Graces attitude toward me.
The Catholic Church had every reason to feel insecure in the last century. The modernist threat, the wave of secularism sweeping over Europe, the emergence of socialism, and then communism, the collapse of capitalism, all these were a source of serious disquiet in Rome.
Encyclicals like Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno put forward a radical reorganisation of social structures at parish and national level. Groups such as An Rioghacht, the CYMS, Muintir na T?¡re, the Legion of Mary, the Knights of St Columbanus and the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland took the contents of these documents seriously and sought to involve themselves in the promotion of Catholic social principles.
They were also adept at lobbying politicians through the various pamphlets they published and the annual conferences they organised. Their publications were massively influential, as can be gauged by the observation made by the Ulster writer Lynn Doyle, long resident in Dublin, in his book The Spirit of Ireland (1935):
There are half a dozen Catholic weeklies - their circulation in the aggregate is enormous. All are militantly Catholic - some of them exhibiting a little more zeal than meekness - buttresses of the Church, and allies to the clergy. The Irish are justified of their boast that they are today the most Catholic people in the world. Their religion is part of their daily life.
This domination of the print media would fade as the century progressed and Ireland was exposed to the arrival of television, the popularity of cinema, enhanced travel opportunities, increasing material prosperity, the dance halls, better educational opportunities, the rise of the Irish Womens Liberation Movement.
Gradually, a more critical appraisal of Catholic dogma would take hold. Close censorship of literature and publications also eased with time. That said, writers like Kate OBrien, John Broderick, Brian Moore and John McGahern could be excused for thinking that it took far too long. Similarly, Dr Noel Browne may well have had reason to regret the opposition of certain influential Catholic groups to his failed Mother and Child Scheme legislation that would subsequently lead to his resignation as Minister for Health in 1951. Change was slow, but it was inexorable.
The huge debate surrounding the issues of contraception, abortion and divorce dominated the 1970s, 80s and 90s. These were divisive topics at the time. Militant Catholic movements like the Pro-Life Movement and the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) were in the vanguard when it came to defending Catholic interests. While they undoubtedly enjoyed some success initially, ultimately Ireland would legalise contraception and divorce, while maintaining a more conservative position on abortion.
Dr Maurice Curtis is to be commended for producing such a readable and intellectually rigorous account of the impact of militant Catholicism in modern Ireland. His research is meticulous and he maintains an objective stance at all times.
In case we should think Catholic Action has gone away, the author cites a host of new lay organisations that have emerged in recent years, most notably Youth Defence, the John Paul II Society and the Iona Institute.
At a time when there is a strong tendency to think that it is the States responsibility to undertake all social and remedial activity, Curtis reminds us that in the earlier decades of the last century, many conservative Catholics in Ireland believed that the role of the State should be restricted, that the extension of its power sapped the morale, let alone the morals, of the nation.
- The Irish Catholic, 1st July, 2010