Brendan Hoban on Dedalus and the ties that bind us to the Catholic Church  

The ties that bind us to the Catholic Church  

Western People 7.09.2021

James Joyce, probably Ireland’s most lauded novelist, famously rejected Catholicism, the religion of his youth. In the autobiographical, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the main character Stephen Dedalus (Joyce) explained his renunciation to a friend. The friend had suggested that Stephen, after rejecting Catholicism, might become a Protestant instead but Stephen replied, ‘I said I had lost the faith . . . but not that I had lost my self-respect’.

To interpret this exchange as a slur on Protestantism would be to miss the point entirely. Stephen’s intention was not to disparage Protestantism but to make the point that the faith he (Joyce) was raised in could never be supplanted. (If Joyce had been raised a Protestant, the presumed insult might be to Catholicism).

The writer, Anthony Burgess, a wandering Catholic, once put it very succinctly when he wrote: ‘We are faithful to the bread of our youth’.

I thought of Burgess and Joyce the other day when I read an interview with Boy George, once (and still) a pop star, and once a cradle Catholic who has converted to Buddhism. George, whose real name is O’Dowd, and who grew up in London with his Irish Catholic parents, explained that while he had opted for Buddhism, his Catholic culture would remain the heart-beat of his life.

What ‘self-respect’ means in this context, and what Stephen Dedalus (Joyce) meant, is that there comes a point in life in which we decide what makes most sense to us – how we can be faithful to our deepest selves?

It’s a question, I suspect, that many people in Ireland – especially Catholics ­– are asking themselves now: can I be faithful to the faith of my youth? Another way of putting it is: how can I reconcile the Catholic faith I grew up in with other values that I have come to accept as an adult?

Many of us went to schools with a marked Catholic ethos. We went to Mass every week. We made our First Communions and Confirmations. We served Mass. We accepted the broad outlines of a Catholic culture and now to jettison all of that seems to deny a reality that is part of the scaffolding that holds our lives together. It can seem a bridge too far. Not owning our Catholicism is a bit like a Mayo native cheering for Tyrone next Saturday.

While few Mayo people will be conflicted in who they support in Croke Park, many Irish Catholics are conflicted over the effective discarding of their faith. It’s a dilemma that many experience, that many resist confronting but that hangs around the neck of Catholic Ireland like a bad smell. Particularly, I think, when some ardent, well-meaning Catholics are telling them that they’re either a-la-carte Catholics or not really Catholics at all.

Recently, I came across an article in the New York Times written by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. A committed Catholic, Gutting identified from his Catholic education three convictions that continue to sustain his attachment to Catholicism.

The first is the importance of knowing, to the extent that we can, the fundamental truth about human life – where it came from, what it’s meant for, how it should be lived.

The second was that this truth can in principle be supported and defended by human reasoning.

And the third was that Catholic philosophy and theology provide a fruitful context in the search for truth but only if they are combined with the best available wisdom in today’s world.

Gutting is not saying that the teachings of the Catholic Church provide the fundamental truth about human life. What he is saying is that Catholic teachings are ‘helpful’ for understanding the human condition.

It’s a key distinction because it encapsulates what we call ‘watching for the signs of the times’ – the importance of the Catholic Church recognizing the wisdom that comes from what we sometimes dismiss as ‘the secular world’. It is part of the lived reality of adult choice in today’s world.

Usually, in the past, convincing the young about Catholicism – what we call apologetics – tended to start with proofs for the existence of God. Then we moved to seeing the Church’s teachings as revealed by God and, finally, we pointed to the ethic of love that Jesus represents in the Scriptures.

Gary Gutting turns that movement upside down. First, focus on the love that Jesus represents; then look at the wisdom coming from the long history of the Church that helps to elucidate that love. And then accept that we can no more ‘prove’ God exists than anyone can prove God doesn’t exist.

Turning the old strategy upside down and starting with the love of Jesus makes sense to many Catholics today. What would Jesus say? is often the first question when Catholics ask in pondering dilemmas. What does the Church say? is the next question. And the resolution, if such there is, comes from asking whether what the Church says throws light on what Jesus says.

I’m aware that this may seem an overly simplistic view and that it‘s vulnerable to the objection that it’s not orthodox Catholicism and that it’s a diluted form of Catholicism that can end up justifying anything.

But I believe it fits, as a number of factors off-set the judgemental dismissal of very traditional Catholics of more liberal Catholics ‘not being at all Catholic’: (i) the Catholic Church now formally accepts the primacy of the individual conscience; (ii) the Church now rarely if ever excommunicates those who question or reinterpret church teaching; (iii) there are different views in the Catholic family on its central and particularly less central teachings and, (iv) there is a developing consensus that the best hope for the Church is the reform Pope Francis is leading and that (from the surveys) most Catholics seem to welcome.

Which is why Catholics today need to realise that they belong to the Catholic family, even if some Catholics take it on themselves to tell them they are not really Catholics at all.




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  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    Some novelists write in oblivion of God and religion, topics rarely surfacing in Henry James or Marcel Proust, but Joyce cannot leave those issues alone for the length of a page. His attitude to the faith is not understood by critics such as Geert Lernout, Frances Restuccia, Chrissie Van Mierlo, who see him just as a fiendishly anti-clerical freethinker or as a new atheist. I just put the final touches to a forthcoming book titled “Joysis Crisis: Rereading James Joyce, Theomasochistically” and I am happy to have him out of my life for now (it may be for years and it may be forever). Better to study Paul Claudel instead, a great Catholic artist, shamefully neglected while the secondary literature on Joyce has become crushingly voluminous.

  2. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Two reflections outside the standard box which I find stimulating.

    First, G K Chesterton:
    The Five Deaths of the Faith (from The Everlasting Man):
    “I have said that Asia and the ancient world had an air of being too old to die. Christendom has had the very opposite fate. Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave. But the first extraordinary fact which marks this history is this: that Europe has been turned upside down over and over again; and that at the end of each of these revolutions the same religion has again been found on top. The Faith is always converting the age, not as an old religion but as a new religion.”

    Second, philosopher Richard Kearney:
    Speaking (5’45”) on “Why Remain Catholic”, he tells of his experience in Glenstal when he was about 14, and the approach taken by his teacher:

  3. Sean O'Conaill says:

    So you are adding to the crush, Joe?

    Sounds a bit like Schoenberg’s explanation for taking up the composing of atonal music, something like:

    ‘Well, somebody had to – to save everyone else the chore!’

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    Sean, ironically I am listening to Schoenberg now, thanks to

    This is the source of the remark your report: ‘When an officer demanded if he was “this notorious Schoenberg”, the composer replied, “Beg to report, sir, yes. … Nobody wanted to be, someone had to be, so I let it be me.”‘

    Thomas Mann lost Schoenberg’s friendship due to his portrayal of twelve-tone music as of the Devil in Doktor Faustus.

  5. Jim Stack says:

    This was an interesting article, but I became uncomfortable when I got to “some ardent, well-meaning Catholics are telling them that they’re either a-la-carte Catholics or not really Catholics at all”.

    I am probably one of the people Fr Hoban has in mind when he writes like this – something which, let us be honest, he does quite often. Every time he does it, I have the same reaction, that he really does not understand traditional Catholics at all.

    We are not judgemental. We are aware of being sinners. We are reminded that we are sinners on about six different occasions during every Mass, and every time we say the Our Father or Hail Mary.

    Furthermore, most of us are in family situations where close relatives have abandoned the Faith, and in some cases are bitterly antagonistic. Most of us deal with this by trying to strike a balance between keeping a diplomatic silence, and quietly practising ourselves. Many an older Catholic in today’s Ireland is heart-broken at the way their children have abandoned the faith and have made up their own rules about how they live their lives.

    Speaking for myself, someone who does not have children, I thought I would die of shame when in 2018 we voted, as a nation, to legalise abortion. Three years later, I am still traumatised by it. I deal with it by writing letters to newspapers (letters which are hardly ever published), and comment articles (which are published sometimes on or, but never in mainstream media outlets). But I avoid personal judgements on those who voted for abortion.

    But I am at a complete loss to understand what some of them mean when they still describe themselves as Catholics. I have no problem understanding the position of atheists, say, and I found it interesting but not surprising when I looked up the findings of the RTE Exit Poll after the abortion referendum and saw that about 94% of atheists had voted for repeal. But I do have a problem understanding how more than 60% of Catholics in the same poll also voted for repeal. And I have a particular problem when I hear Catholic priests saying they too voted for repeal. It is beyond my understanding how anyone can believe that they are created by God and yet vote for legislation that allows a baby’s life to be terminated.

    If “What would Jesus say? is often the first question Catholics ask in pondering dilemmas” then how, on earth, did they come to vote for abortion in such large numbers? I do not see any evidence that they do, in fact, ask that question of themselves.

    It is not that I am saying to them that they are no longer Catholic, it is that they are saying it themselves. Whether it is abortion, or the Real Presence, or the Divinity of Christ, or the importance of the sacraments, or whatever, that they disagree with the Church about, their disagreement on core issues surely says, in effect, they they have parted company with the Church. It is hardly meaningful to claim to belong to an organisation when you completely reject some of its basic tenets.

    And the Church does have basic tenets. How could it be otherwise and still be faithful to the clear, strong, uncompromising teachings of Jesus? The Church of my youth had great clarity to its teachings, but often failed to show the love and compassion which were also the hallmark of Jesus’s life on earth. We are surely meant to strive both to keep the commandments and to show love and compassion. But jettisoning the commandments should not be an option, and those who think that it is an option have already parted company with the Church, surely?

  6. Ger Hopkins says:

    I enjoy your contributons on Jim. Might I suggest you notify the moderators of this site when one goes up. I suspect they’re not regular readers of and might appreciate the heads up and a chance to decide whether it could be of interest to readers here. Just a suggestion.

  7. Jim Stack says:

    Thanks for the words of support. I will post the link to my most recent article here, and then leave it with the moderator to do with as he deems appropriate.

    An earlier version of this article was sent to after they published the original article from Dr Kennedy. They did not respond. That keeps happening to me. I have reached double figures with the number of similar articles that I have submitted to the Irish Times, for example, and not one was ever acknowledged. We are supposed to be having a review of our abortion legislation in the Oireachtas this year, but the main newspapers will publish only articles which make the case for further liberalisation of an already liberal abortion regime. Everyone in the mainstream media is being very careful not to upset readers, liberal Catholics or whatever, who voted for repeal in 2018. That would not be my idea of how the media should contribute to legislative reviews. Thank God for Gript and Iona and Alive and Catholic Arena.

    (From the Moderator: For the record, The issue of the the review of abortion legislation was covered last June on this site. See link:

  8. Jo O'Sullivan says:

    Jim @5, I am truly sorry to hear how much you have suffered and are still suffering as a consequence of the 8th Amendment to the Constitution being repealed a few years ago. But as one of those practicing Catholics who voted for Repeal, I feel I would like to try to explain how I did so and feel at ease being a member of my Catholic family.
    Sometimes I wish I had the certainty, some would probably say clear-headedness, to be absolutely sure that my views and opinions on any matter were the “true” ones. But alas, it is never so. I agonise over every decision and try to look at it from every angle and pray for guidance to see the clear path ahead before I commit to any course of action. I feel I can no longer just accept the absolutes of Catholic teaching without searching my own heart and mind. I would see that as taking the easy way out – allowing someone else to form my conscience. Never was that more the case than with the referendum on repealing the 8th. Had I your certainty, I would have taken the same position as you. I cannot use the emotive language of “killing a baby in the womb” because, of course when described as such – and when thought of as such, it is an abomination. I view it as “ending unbearable pregnancy” and I ask you to bear with me as I try to explain how I see two different things here.
    First of all, I am a mother. I have had two most wanted pregnancies. I have given birth to two healthy babies and being a mother is the single biggest life-changing experience of my life. Pregnancy, birth and motherhood have changed me physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. I am blest in that despite various agonies and trauma that all stages have caused (as any mother knows) I welcomed and celebrated them all (not so sure about the teen years, mind you!) I am, and have always been, surrounded by loving family and friends whose on-going support and care through any difficulties I’ve faced I’ve never had any cause to doubt.
    Make no mistake about it – pregnancy and birth are not something that have to be “put up with” for nine months and then can be forgotten about. They bring lifelong serious changes to any woman.
    Now, put myself in other shoes. Step into the shoes of a young girl who has been raped and is pregnant as a result – terrified as to what pregnancy and birth will involve and psychologically unable to deal with it.
    Put myself into the shoes of a harassed mother of three who can barely cope with the children she has, and has no support system around her. She has to think of what the consequences for her existing children will be if she has another one.
    Put myself in the shoes of a woman who has been told that the foetus she is carrying has a fatal abnormality and may only survive, possibly in pain, for a couple of hours after birth.
    And there are many, many more possible scenarios to consider. But even one scenario where to continue with a pregnancy would cause anguish is enough for me to consider if I have the right to deny the woman the right to end it.
    Have I the right to say to those women “Because I feel it is wrong to end a pregnancy, I am not going to allow you the right to end yours, even though you may see it as the lesser of two evils?”
    The law, and even Catholic teaching, unless I am very much mistaken (please correct me if I’m wrong), allows for taking of a life in self-defence. I can certainly conceive of scenarios where ending a pregnancy is considered to be self-defence by the woman in the situation. She cannot countenance continuing with it.
    I understand, Jim, that in your way of viewing the world it is an absolute that ending a pregnancy is taking the life of a defenceless baby, and I truly do accept that, with that view, you are traumatised by the fact that the referendum to repeal the 8th amendment was passed. I don’t expect you to change your views. But can I ask, with all humility, that you allow the possibility that practicing Catholics who voted for the repeal have not excommunicated themselves, but are still being faithful in their own eyes? We have weighed up two conflicting moral principles and made our decisions in good faith. After all, we’re all just “practicing”, none of us are “perfect”.

  9. Jim Stack says:

    Jo O’Sullivan @8
    Our media were highly selctive during the abortion referendum in the hard cases they chose to highlight. Most people were content to trust the media coverage, they did not go deeper and consult pro-life websites or other sources. It might surprise you Jo to learn that, under the abortion regime we voted for, 98% of the babies we have aborted so far were healthy and so were their mothers. More than 60% of Catholics voted to allow that to happen. No reason whatever is required under our legislation to abort a baby up to 12 weeks gestation.

    The Health budget in Ireland is massive, and a very tiny percentage of that budget, probably of the order of one-tenth of one per cent, would have sufficed to cater for all the hard cases that arise in any year. Counselling for rape victims and for parents of severely disabled children, management of pain etc. Instead we spent €20m on abortion in the first two years, and nothing at all to help women to bring their babies to birth instead of aborting them. That too is what Catholics voted for. The few safeguards we have in the legislation – the 3-day reflection period which saved nearly 1000 lives in 2019, and the 12-week limit – are currently under attack, and Catholics are either ignoring this or joining in the attack.

    I do not mean to be harsh or judgemental when bringing these facts to people’s attention, I am simply trying to explain why I have great difficulty in understanding their position. I also struggle to understand how anyone can portray abortion as anything other than ending a baby’s life; I do not say this to upset or judge people, I say it because that precisely describes what abortion does.

    I have attended enough pro-life rallies to have heard from women who have had abortions and severely regretted it, and women who have brought disabled babies to term and never regretted it. You Jo and others may consider the Church’s position on abortion as being excessively harsh in the hard cases, but it would also be the Church’s position that all women in difficulty should be shown love and support.

    I am not going to use talk of excommunication. I am not qualified to do so, having neither the knowledge nor the moral authority. But I am not going to pretend that I understand how people who call themselves Catholic came to vote for this awful legislation.

    Your post Jo was kindness itself and I am sorry if my reply here seems a bit harsh.

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