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Religion and Politics in Ireland

At the Turn of the Millennium

ISBN13: 9781856073813

ISBN10: 1856073815


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  • Sixteen of Irelands leading theologians and academics review the relationship between the states in Ireland and the churches in Ireland at the beginning of the 21st century.
  • Enda McDonagh

    The Reverend Professor Enda McDonagh is a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Tuam. He was born in Bekan, near Clanmorris, Co Mayo and had a distinguished academic career at St Jarlaths College, Tuam and at Maynooth, where he was ordained in 1955. Following subsequent graduate work in Maynooth, he was awarded a Doctorate in Divinity and a Doctorate in Canon Law. He was appointed Professor of Moral Theology and Canon Law at the Pontifical University at Maynooth in 1958, a post which he held until his retirement from full time teaching in 1995.


    He has written sixteen books and contributed to sixteen more. In the early 1960s, he founded the InterChurch Association of Moral Theology, and he is also involved with the conducting of ecumenical retreats with Church of Ireland and other Anglican clergy. In 2007 he was appointed an Ecumenical Canon at St. Patricks Cathedral, Dublin.

    James Mackey

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  • CHAPTER 1: The internal politics and policies of the Roman Catholic Church at the turn of the millennium

    The manner in which a Christian church, any Christian church, relates to the broader society, to any particular society, will depend as much on its prevalent vision of itself - of its structures, its rituals, its credo, its ethos, its mission and purpose - as on any other set of factors one might imagine. That probably goes without saying. But what probably does not go quite so well without saying is this: that the prevalent vision in question is most evident at any point of time in the current form of the foundation myth of the society in question, and thereafter on current understandings of related elements within that myth, such as government, credo, ethos and ritual.

    Two points perhaps in passing:

    First, myth is used here, if that is still possible, in a non-pejorative sense, to refer to a story which presents not only the facts of what a founder said and did and the forms in which the founder then embodied the formative vision, but the changed forms in which changed time and circumstance demand that the vision be re-embodied, if it is to remain both efficacious and true to the founder. Second, and consequently, foundation myths change with change of time and place and culture. This change or, rather, series of changes, can be ascertained in the case of any church or nation state or other form of society that preserves some memory of the history of its foundation myth; and it can be accepted on grounds of its very necessity for continuing fidelity to the founder , that is, of course, where there are foundation myths and founders to be seen. In the case of Christianity both have been visible from the beginning.

    The fulcrum of the Christian foundation myth, on which all its other features must be balanced, is expressed in one of its earliest forms at the outset of the gospel according to John: And the Word (through which the world is created and which therefore enlightens everyone in that world) became flesh and dwelt amongst us, full of grace and truth ... and from his fullness we have all received ... For grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (Jn 1: 2, 9, 14, 16, 17) Fast-forward now to the form which that foundation myth has taken late in the twentieth century, and in particular to those parts of it which envisage how the fullness of grace and of truth that came with Jesus of Nazareth is made available to be received by all of us down to the present day; and take the account of this from the Second Vatican Council, for Roman Catholics the most authoritative account available in and for our time.

    This twentieth-century Roman Catholic version of the Christian foundation myth, long centuries in the making, focuses upon a priestly caste which is said to be distinct in essence, and not just in degree, from what is more generally known as the priesthood of the people, that is to say, of the laity, the faithful. Priesthood properly so called is a cultic, indeed hierarchical priesthood , the bishop rather than the ordinary parish priest enjoys the fullness of this priesthood. And its distinctive essence results from the conferring upon its members of a sacred power, the nature and effects of which are illustrated in the assertion that it enables the men who receive it , women need not apply , to do two things: to bring about the eucharistic sacrifice and to rule the priestly people. A sacred power, then, which when conferred on certain men sets them apart as a distinct clerical caste, whose role it is to rule the rest of the followers of Jesus and to provide these with eucharist. (See Vatican IIs Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, nos 10, 18,21,28; the Decree on Bishops, no 15; and the Decree on Priests, nos 2, 3)

    Now the eucharist is the principal sacrament instituted by the founder of Christianity. To it the six other sacraments are ordered, in the manner in which the preparatory or partial is ordered to the complete. And as the sacraments, as any Roman Catholic textbook of theology will say, are the primary instruments or channels of the fullness of grace which came with Christ, then it must follow that the eucharist is given us as the ordained or ordinary instrument or channel by which the fullness of grace is made available to human kind. Another way of saying the same thing: the eucharist symbolises, and by symbolising makes present ... the eucharist represents and therefore makes present, for a symbol participates in the reality it symbolises ... the Christ with whom the fullness of divine grace came, and still comes, to sanctify and save human kind. (Decree on Priests, no 5)

    So, then, the sacred power to bring about the eucharist, conferred on some and by these passed on to others, results in the selection of those thereby ordained to make the fullness of divine grace available to human kind. But the same sacred power, in the current Roman Catholic version of the Christian foundation myth, it has already been indicated, enabled this same hierarchical group which is empowered to bring about the eucharist, also to rule the laity. And in this latter respect, if one studies the detail of the myth, the sacred power turns out to be both a power of jurisdiction, that is to say, a power to promulgate and enforce laws, and a power to teach, a magisterium as it is called in Latin. This means, to make a long story short, that the fullness of truth which came with Jesus the Christ, though presented from the outset to all who would hear and heed, is entrusted especially to those ordained by Jesus himself to the fullness of priesthood, that is to say, to the apostles whose successors would be bishops under the leadership of Peter, first Bishop of Rome, and his successors, the popes. These further related elements of the Roman Catholic foundation myth cannot be afforded more space here, though they do make plain why this is a Roman Catholic foundation myth. All that it is necessary to note for present purposes is this: that the same hierarchical group which can make available the fullness of grace in the eucharist, is also the privileged custodian of the fullness of truth, final court of appeal for or against anyone else who would claim to be expressing any part of that truth, and so, when acting as a group under the reigning pope, this hierarchical group is to be considered the privileged repository of the fullness of truth entrusted to it by Jesus, with the ruling authority to teach that truth to the faithful of every age. (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, esp no 10)

    Two points perhaps about this grace and this truth, before considering further this particular version of the Christian foundation myth: First, the connection between grace and truth. Briefly, in the textbooks of the time leading up to Vatican II Roman Catholic theology defined grace as a supernatural entity infused by God into the soul in order to enable the recipients to lead good lives in imitation of Christ, and in general to save and sanctify them. The life of grace was correspondingly deemed a supernatural life, that is to say, a life over and above that natural life that we live and experience from cradle to grave. Hence of course we could not know about it as we know our natural lives, through exercise of our natural faculties of experience and knowledge; we need to be told about it. Thence the necessity of having the fullness of truth transmitted together with the fullness of grace.

    Second, then, the extent of the claim that is made concerning the proprietorship of the fullness of grace and truth. This contemporary Roman Catholic foundation myth does not claim this church to be the sole proprietor of divine grace and truth. In the Decree on Ecumenism from Vatican II it is allowed that truly Christian endowments from our common heritage ... are to be found amongst our separated brethren (no 4), and it goes on to enumerate the elements of grace and truth that are to be found in other Christian churches and ecclesial communities. Indeed almost all of the fullness of grace and truth are said to be found in those Eastern churches closest in structure and theology to the Roman Catholic Church. Further, this foundation myth of course allows that God dispenses grace and revelation outside of Christianity altogether, in other religions and most particularly in Judaism, and even through the natural world and its history.

    But the official and prevailing Roman Catholic view of all of this is best summed up in a part or kind of Roman Catholic theology which can best be described as a theology of franchise. God has given to the Roman Catholic Church, and entrusted in particular to its clerical hierarchy, the one and only franchise to the fullness of grace and truth that came in Jesus the Christ. And if there is evidence , and there is , that recognisable elements of this grace and truth were and still are available to peoples before Christianity came or comes to them, the purpose of such distribution of these elements is the dual purpose of helping to bring people to God in the absence of Christianity in their places and times, and to prepare them for the coming of Christianity; a distribution of sample goods, as it were, before the sole franchise has come to your area, in preparation for its extension to your area, a preparatio evangelica. On the other hand, in the case of these Christian churches and ecclesial communities, other than the Roman Catholic Church, the image is of groups who have broken away from the sole franchise, the one and only authorised holder of the fullness of grace and truth. These groups have taken some of the goods away with them and are still trading in these. All of which is to be welcomed, not only because God is thereby active through all these groups, churches and religions for human healing and eternal blessedness, but because friendly dialogue is thereby facilitated which can bring all back, or in, to the fullness of grace and truth, or as the Decree on Ecumenism puts it, back or in under the rule of the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, (to which) we believe Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who already belong in any way to Gods people. (no 3; see also the Declaration on the Relations of the Church with non-Christian Religions)

    What is to be said about this current version of the Roman Catholic foundation myth, and of current understandings of elements within it such as the theologies of grace and of (the revelation of) truth? Well, that depends largely upon one point in particular: whether or not it considers itself to be the one and only true foundation myth. For if it does, it is already engaged in the propagation of falsehood. For one thing, the foundation myth(s) of the New Testament, which most Christians take to be authoritative, differ quite radically from our current Roman Catholic foundation myth in some of its definitive elements. For example, the church(es) of the New Testament times, let us say the first two or three generations of Jesus followers, knew nothing of a priesthood different in essence from some general priesthood of all the faithful and in consequence, in the earliest centuries of Christian history, neither was such a priesthood thought necessary in order to bring about the eucharist. In fact, the one New Testament document which has a good deal to say about priesthood argues quite strenuously that a cultic priesthood acting as intermediary between the rest of us and God, bringing our gifts and prayers and returning with Gods grace, was abolished by Jesus who gave his life to blaze the trail that showed all of us our direct access to the throne of grace. (1) Jesus did not ordain anyone to priesthood in the proper and essentially distinct sense, nor any group to whom could then be confined the process of making really present in the eucharist the risen Jesus, the life-giving Spirit, as Paul called him (1 Cor 15:45) and with that presence the fullness of grace which the creative Word focused through his flesh in this world. Nor is there any New Testament evidence to suggest in the least adequate degree that Jesus confined to such a priestly caste a proprietory possession of and power over the fullness of truth which was focused in this world through Jesus perishable humanity (see Paul again, 1 Cor 15:50; Rom 1 :3-4, for the meaning of being flesh, hence of becoming flesh). The principal incarnation text in the New Testament, the opening of the fourth gospel, is the very text which proclaims that the life which the creator Word continually pours out to the world, then seen through the image of light, enlightens everyone in all the world and at all times, only the darkness within the world and in human hearts could not comprehend it.

    All of this does not mean that the current Roman Catholic foundation myth is a falsehood through and through. But neither does it mean that no false or discordant notes have crept into it over the long course of its composition. Myths are visions of reality fashioned from the very praxis by which we come to know it, and to know its prospects and ours within it, visions which then influence our further and future praxis. The issue of the truth of a myth is therefore neither as simple nor as straightforward as that of so-called assertions of fact. The truth of myth has much more to do with the most adequate perception of and prescription for emergent well-being, for the salving and saving of humanity and its world in the course of their co-creative praxis, than with any simple correlation of image or idea with bare and value-free fact. Furthermore, since myth, like language, is always communal or public and never purely private, its content emerges and can be judged from everything from the structures of the carrying community to that communitys ritual, ethos and, of course, verbal or other artistic formulations of the practical vision by which it lives. Any communitys myth is perceptible from its institutional shape and its characteristic behaviour patterns, both moral and ritual, as much as it is from its verbal and artistic productions. Further still, since we live in a continuously co-created, hence evolving world, the categories of social structures, ritual, mores, philosophy and art change from time to time and from place to place. So the myth will change with these category changes in order to remain true , well, that is to say, if it wishes to remain true , to an original vision-in-praxis.

    To make a long story short once again, when expanding in or into societies that had cultic priesthoods, it was wise of Christians to select, educate and ordain particular people to preside over the local Christian communities in the celebration of the eucharist, and eventually even to call these priests. But it would then be necessary, in fidelity to the vision seen in the life, death and raising of Jesus, to show that this and especially trained group was simply serving the whole people in their bringing about eucharist, in the eucharistic offering of their lives in imitation of Christ to their neighbours and thereby to God, in this way healing the alienation, the discord and the divisions between each other and God, brought about by their wrong-doing , in short, inviting the real presence of the life-giving Spirit, the risen Jesus, to the point where they become the body of Christ in the world. The best way to improve a society, if that is what as a follower of Jesus you are bold enough to think you can do, is to adopt the categories in which that society operates, and infuse these with the vision of Jesus from within. This is what Jesus would have wanted his followers to do , as we often say of those who have gone before us but whose presence and influence upon us we want to acknowledge , though he did not himself ordain priests, nor did his followers for some considerable time after his death.

    This particular part of a foundation myth, the part which brought a specialised priesthood into it, was then true even when people, in times with far less knowledge of their past, or indeed very much of a sense of history, told it as a story of what Jesus did. But it would only be and remain true to Jesus and to what he did, as long as this special priesthood was understood, not as a cultic priesthood which stood as intermediary between a priestly people and God, but as a function or office that convened the priestly people for their priestly eucharistic function and led them in the exercise of that function. Just as Jesus himself was a priest, not of the essentially distinctive cultic kind that was confined to members of a particular Jewish family to which he did not belong , but of the general priesthood-of-the-laity kind, offering his life to God for others. For this reason also, then, the myth was only true to the point at which it understood Christian priesthood as a priesthood of all the faithful, exercised as explained just now, in all of those gathered together bringing about the eucharist. Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst. Real presence? Of course, and never more so than when they break to each other the bread, staff and symbol of life, and pour out the wine in willingness to pour out their very lives for others, all the while in memory of Jesus own action and words and as a means, the prime means, of having his Spirit mould them into his body in the world.

    Later followers were wise also to construe the leadership, the government of an expanding community, along the lines of the government structures of the Roman Empire, the natural aid and space for that expansion. That this is what Jesus would have wanted is expressed this time by cobbling together some words of Jesus on Peters leadership of the twelve (a group incidentally that did not have any successors as such, and could scarcely have had after the break with Judaism, which neither Jesus nor his early followers intended or foresaw) with a legend about Peters (and Pauls) death in Rome. And the real rationale for this move is the same as in the previous example of priesthood: in respect of government also one can best improve the human condition, infuse it with the Spirit of Jesus, by imitating its structures, thereby providing a powerful example of how such structures can embody a spirit of service to all, rather than a spirit of the power of lording-it-over, of command and corresponding obedience.

    It was also wise of later followers, in the course of these early centuries, to express the fullness of truth that came in Jesus the Christ in terms of the linguistic, imaginative and conceptual currency of the times and places to which Christianity expanded. This early cultural currency was summed up and critically developed by the Platonised Stoicism of the time and the succeeding Neo-Platonism. The former, a Platonised Stoicism which held a dominant position in the empire at the time of the origins of Christianity, described what it also called the Word as the continuous creator of the world, ever working within it, and particularly within and through those sparks from its own fire, the creative minds and consciences of human beings, who were thereby invited to co-create the world with it, co-creating simultaneously under the instress, inspiration and illustrations of the Word working constantly within them and their world the ever developing visions, ideals, principles, guidelines, rules, norms even, necessary for the task; and, yes, acting destructively sometimes instead, causing offence, in the sense of an offensive against other co-creators and especially against the Supreme Co-Creator working for and within all; then having to suffer the damage done to themselves in the process, as well as re-doubling their creativity in order, at whatever additional expense to themselves, to repair the damage done to others to whom they should have continued to break the bread of life and life more abundant, in the first place. (Real redemption from evil and its effects is always a new or re-creation.) By adopting and adapting to what they had to tell about Jesus this dominant, profoundly religious morality of their time, these early Christians gave to succeeding centuries a model of developing morals, known as the natural law model , the very model which was so misleadingly misapplied in the case of contraception by the papal encyclical of 1968, Humanae Vitae.

    The latter, the Neo-Platonists, then placed this Creator Word , the one through whom, the opening of Johns gospel proclaims, God created the world - they placed this Word (or Nous, mind) in a trinitarian theology of which one called Soul or Spirit formed the third member. These three hypostaseis of the one Being of God (Greek-speaking Christians borrowed that term also from these non-Christian Neo-Platonic trinitarian theologies, whereas Latin-speaking Christians used of the Three what was potentially a much more misleading term, personae, persons), were revealed and therefore known from the overflow of that creative and infinite Goodness which characterises the One true God. That one Being was thereby known, according to these Neo-Platonists, to be a primordial Source of all (Father) and also and simultaneously a Mind (Word) and Soul (Spirit). By this further adoption and adaptation these early Christians illustrated the similarity of their foundation myths to those of other religions , later Platonists called Plato a divine man who had a human mother but no human father, and commented on his extant dialogues as inspired writings , and incidentally endorsed the view of the opening of Johns gospel, to the effect that the Creator Word enlightens everyone who comes into the world. They illustrated the deep similarity in what pagan and Christian theologians believe is to be known about God, and what is to be done about morals in order to have a continuing destiny with God; a destiny which one could then hope, with Socrates and Plato and every other human being, might involve such homoiosis theou in Platos own phrase for our human calling, such likeness to God as to entail a future with God and others across even that dissolution of our present bodily form, that death with which a spacetime continuum now necessarily marks our finiteness. (Jesus Sermon on the Mount refers to the same human calling in his words: Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.)

    In this evolution of the Roman Catholic foundation myth, is there any unavoidable and invasive falsehood to the founder and the faith that formed round his life, death and destiny? No, there is not. But did falsifications creep in nevertheless and have these accumulated in the current version of the myth? Undoubtedly, yes; and it is increasingly obvious that these falsifications are at the root of the self-destructive decline of the Roman Catholic Church, even in such traditionally staunch Roman Catholic populations as that of the Republic of Ireland, and not least in the manner in which the Roman Catholic version of the Christian religion has interacted with civic and political society in that country. It is difficult to set out in the context of a short essay any well-argued account of these intrusive falsifications, their origins, nature, number and unfortunate practical consequences. So let the following be a brief suggestive account, offered for the sake of a more extensive argument, one that has actually been going on since before Vatican II, but in scattered efforts over various areas of modern Roman Catholic theology, so that it all still badly needs to be pulled together and critically considered as a whole, if Roman Catholic theologians are to render to their church the full and thorough service demanded of them by their very vocation.

    Observe first the fairly obvious fact that, together with the clear advantages of formulating your faith in general and your foundation myth in particular , its constitutive elements of creed, cult, code and constitutional structures , in the corresponding cultural categories of those with whom you wish to share it, there goes the danger of importing into that faith some elements of these cultures which are simply not adaptable to the faith of the founder. When this danger is not averted, you end up losing sight of some of the very elements in the lived vision of Jesus which would actually improve the lives of those you wish to enrich, and you yourselves become impoverished in precise proportion to your failure to offer such improvement to others. A net loss to you, no gain to them, and the ground gone from under you on which you presumed to preach to others in the first place.

    Examples? Look no further than the list of features of the Roman Catholic foundation myth already so briefly set out above. Take priesthood first. The current official form of the Roman Catholic foundation myth persists in interpreting its priesthood in such a way as to suggest the re-instalment of a cultic priesthood, comprised of intermediaries between Gods people and the unconditionally gracious God. By doing so, it goes back on the first entailment of what Christians call the incarnation, namely, that Gods grace is poured in and through the ordinary human being; that neither the fullness of grace itself nor the means of its pouring out is first confined to any particular group of people, male or female. So if in the matter of access to the throne of grace the Roman Catholic Church thinks it has something to say to Judaism, for example, then we find ourselves in the ironic, but potentially salutary position of having to note that it is in Judaism today that we find a people, Jesus people, relating to the God Jesus called Father, without any go-between priesthood. This state of affairs may have come about more by historical accident than design , the ancient destruction of their temple with the ensuing redundancy of its priesthood , but only an extreme unbeliever would deny that history at times might coincide with providence and, in this instance, bring his own people back to their original calling as the people of God, as Jesus tried to do. In this instance at least, Judaism today has a lesson for Catholics from Jesus the Jew, rather than the other way round.

    Something very similar must be said about the leadership structures necessary for the Christian church(es), as for any other community, and developed by the Christian community in the world at first on the model of government in the Roman Empire. The personnel involved in this leadership soon came to be identical with those who had taken over presidency of the eucharistic ritual. Now this very coincidence of personnel should have copper-fastened the process by which the newly forming government in the church gave an example of self-sacrificing service of their fellows to all who would lead in all human societies, thereby weaning these also away from their tendency to lord it over their fellows and make the latter feel their power. The constitutive spirit of eucharist, the life-giving Spirit that enables each and all to take life and all the supports of life as gift from God and in overflow of thanksgiving (eucharist in Greek) to break and pour ones life out to enrich the lives of all, that spirit should have acted for this dual leadership to corroborate the words of Jesus who specifically defined their governmental style by insisting that their leadership should take the form of service to all (in the language and culture of Jesus time the word used referred to slavery), adding specifically that these governmental leaders should not lord it over the rest, not make the rest feel their power.

    Yet here also in this twinned factor of the Roman Catholic version of the foundation myth of the Christian religion (constitutional structure twinned with the structures of the cult), it was the spirit of Roman imperium that slowly influenced and re-informed the Christian structures of leadership modelled upon them. To that extent the flow of influence was reversed, and the real presence of the life-giving Spirit of service in the world, as well as in the sacrificial sacrament, was robbed of its efficacy, if not ousted altogether.

    The long process by which the spirit of lording-it-over-others weakened and on occasion even replaced the spirit of loving service cannot be chronicled here. It probably reached its theoretical apogee in medieval times when Boniface VIII formulated the foundations for claims that popes should anoint emperors, and could depose them. But it is seen in practice to this day (still?) in the imagery of members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy adopting the feudal titles of lordship and expecting people to kneel before their sacred persons and kiss their hands, as serfs would in feudal times who depended for their means of livelihood on their lords temporal. It is not that these titles or rituals in themselves do the damage: in themselves, like the robes the hierarchs wear, these need represent no more that a piece of pageantry, part entertainment and part educational survivals of a distant past, much like the pageantry that still surrounds a modem monarchy, signifying continuity across great cultural changes in form and substance. What does damage, once again, is the re-entry, retention and on occasion the increase of the spirit, formally expressed in the theology of franchise, of exclusive power over the means of livelihood, the fullness of grace which this misleading theology holds the rest must normally receive only from the hands of these lords or from those less-than-fullness-of-the-priesthood priests who are now said to merely make the bishops present in the ordinary parishes.

    Perhaps, however, in lieu of a comprehensive chronicle of how a leadership of willing slaves and of service came to be infected by the quite different model of overlordship and power, a concrete example should suffice of the manner in which the contemporary Roman Catholic leadership has dealt, not now with the channelling of the fullness of grace, but with the presentation of the fullness of truth. Recall, only for the purposes of this example, the charism (that is to say, the grace) of infallibility with which the modern Roman Catholic foundation myth maintains Jesus endowed his church. This is thought to be entailed in Jesus promise to be with his followers in their mission to the world, so they could believe they would never betray the fullness of truth he showed to them. It is this infallibility with which Jesus endowed his church that the modern version of the Roman Catholic foundation myth claims is enjoyed in a special manner by its hierarchy, and in an even more special manner by the pope. (Constitution on the Church, esp. no 25)

    From this way of putting the matter, one would assume that if the pope were of a mind to pronounce on some particular element in the fullness of truth, one particular item from creed or code, he would be bound to listen to the church, the whole people of God, before attempting to decide the issue for them. For, to repeat, his is a share, a special share perhaps in view of his leadership position, but a share nevertheless in the infallibility with which Jesus endows his followers in the world. Yet in the now infamous case of the morality of the use of contraception in marriage, Paul VI did consult a commission comprised in part of lay people, but he went against their witness to the truth and, worse still, successive popes have since ignored the moral decision in this matter of the use of contraceptives by the vast majority of married Catholics in the world, and have sought instead to impose a false moral precept upon them. It would be difficult to find a starker example of overlording power-play in lieu of the service which Christian leadership should supply, a service in this case of discerning the way the Spirit was moving in the lives of the faithful, to whom, after all, Vatican II had attributed the primacy in the function of infusing with Christian values the ideals and norms for all communal modes of living in the world , and that certainly comprises married life.

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