Dublin Review of Books: The Catholic Church

by Fergus O’Donoghue

Article recommended by Pádraig McCarthy.

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  1. Sean O'Conaill says:

    “All the commentary, and all the criticism, is based on the false premise that Irish Catholicism has been and still is a sole body.”

    Fergus O’Donoghue’s very interesting article could be expanded into a one-volume up-to-date history of the complexity of the Irish Catholic Church, properly annotated. (I did not know, for example, that ‘Sissi’, Empress of Austria – currently a fascinating focus of streaming media and the history of anorexia – was foxhunting in Ireland in 1888.) As it stands the article will provide comfort to all of us who cannot identify with the bête noire ‘Catholic Church’ of simplistic media references.

    I wondered, though, why Fergus could not apply the term ‘diaspora’ to describe our current multivariate and largely alienated and ‘through-other’ nature. Never, surely, were we as dispersed and less ‘together’ than we are today – and synodality has a long way to go if a full recovered communion is its intended end.

    I have myself objected to Patsy McGarry to the use of the term ‘the Irish Catholic Church’ as though it is still sensible to think of it as a ‘sole body’ that is spoken for by its bishops. His response, as I recall had to do with the time-honoured convention of identifying churches with their accredited and historic leadership structures, and the difficulty of justifying any other convention.

    “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me…” said Jesus (John 10:14). Knowing well now that there is no such thing as an incorrupt ecclesiastical institution, and that Christianity was never a ‘seamless robe’, we would do well to remember that Jesus’s own sense of his Gospel mission was to gather the lost sheep and that the Trinity are therefore busy doing that now also.

    The term ‘Catholic diaspora’ embraces almost all of the Christian traditions. To be conscious of belonging to it – and ready to recognise Jesus in all people of ‘good will’ – is identity enough for me for now.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    Sean, “‘Sissi’, Empress of Austria – currently a fascinating focus of streaming media and the history of anorexia – was foxhunting in Ireland in 1888)”. The dates were 1879 and 1880. There is a fascinating book on this, The Sporting Empress. https://books.google.co.jp/books/about/The_Sporting_Empress.html?id=UZq0AAAAIAAJ&redir_esc=y She burst into Maynooth chasing a stag when the wall had been breached to allow work on the new College Chapel. Invited to the refectory by the staff, she returned for High Mass the following Sunday, and again a year later. Acclaimed in Ireland as a Catholic Queen, she was resented by Queen Victoria who told Franz Joseph to recall her to Vienna. He did what he had never done — commanded — and she did what she had never done — obeyed — so that was the end of her love affair with Ireland. Her gifts to the College are in the College Museum (a statue of St George, which was a gaffe, and three chasubles bought to make up).

  3. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Oh Sean, I fear your education on Austro-Hibernian Catholic Christendom has been sadly neglected, but I see Joe has got in there before me to mend the gap. “Erin cordially welcomes the Empress” may help. https://www.historyireland.com/erin-cordially-welcomes-the-empresselizbeth-of-austria-hungary-in-ireland-1879-and-1880/
    Any empress who gets Maynooth students two free days (Professor Corish says it was three days) surely deserves to have her statue in the middle of Joe’s Square.

  4. Sean O’Conaill says:

    Three highly romanticised movies about Sissi were made in the 1950s, apparently to give post-Anschluss Austria a distinctive and also definitely not-Nazi sense of itself. Rene Girard has a fascinating article on her role as a prototype of the dangerously self-conscious and beautiful woman attempting to maintain always an image of slender youthfulness by fasting and ‘working out’ – ‘celebrated’ by the newly emerging print media of that era. He tells us that the earliest diagnoses of what we now know as eating disorders occurred in that era also – a result, he argues, of the mimetic desire aroused by this media phenomenon. Competitive slimness on its face was as dangerous as the ‘fastest gun’ fixation of the contemporary American West.


    And recently a movie entitled Corsage is reviewed as ‘a feminist dismantling of Sissiolatry’ – by placing its anti-heroine in the Princess Diana territory of the neglected trophy wife who is expected to maintain the mystique of an Empire – and is far from truly happy doing that.


    The more celebrated a person becomes the more conflicted the historical ‘take’ it seems – and – often – the greater the suffering of the subject of it all. Assassinated by an anarchist in Geneva in 1898, Sissi was probably as unfortunate to catch the eye of a ‘royal’ as was Diana Spencer – with whose family Sissi also coincidentally spent time when in England.

    God knows the truth of it all, and is far more merciful than the paparazzi. What Irish foxes may remember of Sissi is another matter altogether.

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    I went on the Sissi trail this summer — saw the beautiful statues of her in Geneva and Budapest, her rooms in the Hofburg and her sarcophagus in the Kapuzinergruft. The burial ceremony there, last performed for Zita, 1892-1989, daughter of Blessed Emperor Charles, 1887-1922 (herself declared Servant of God by Pope Benedict XVI), and eight years later for her son Otto, 1922-2007, is very touching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slcJRqox1gI

    I find that Brigitte Hamann, who is the leading Sissi biographer today, does not do justice to her. https://www.amazon.com/Reluctant-Empress-Biography-Elisabeth-Austria/dp/0571271308
    The classic biography by Egon Caesar Conte Corti (1934) leaves a more substantial impression. She was unhappily circumstanced, but was not an idle, self-indulgent person. As an Empress she was perhaps more active and industrious than Queen Victoria, Empress of India, who spent decades as a recluse in mourning. She spent a lot of time having her famous hair done up, but had her tutor read Homer to her in Greek during those hours. She was an early riser and a diligent athlete. She was also a thinker. Her last tutor, Constantin Christomanos, wrote an adoring memoir which records many of her wise sayings. The grim Romanian philosopher, Emile Cioran, sees her as a deep thinker, radically disillusioned. Henry James modelled his first major heroine, Christina Light, on her, and seems to have had a similar perception: “‘Where in the world has Miss Light been before she is twenty,’ observers asked, ‘to have left all her illusions behind?’” (see my TLS letter, 16 Dec 2022). Her poems, inspired by Heine, were enclosed in two coffers to be opened long after her death; otherwise they would have been suppressed, because they outdo Prince Harry in frankness. One of them is about meeting Victoria at her residence on the Isle of Wight: “She raises herself graciously on the toes/ And offers me full of condescension/ The sister-kiss… /She loves it when from the ends of the earth /People come on pilgrimage to her,/Devoutly to offer her reverence/ As she were an Indian idol…./ “How is your dear husband?”/ “Oh excellently, he sends his greetings”/ (But he didn’t want to torment me with her).’ The poems eventually saw the light of print in 1984. https://verlag.oeaw.ac.at/produkt/kaiserin-elisabeth-das-poetische-tagebuch/600376 https://www.projekt-gutenberg.org/elisabet/poettage/chap001.html

    Publicly, the high point of her career was her connection with the establishment of the Dual Monarchy in 1867, at which point the Romy Schneider trilogy ends conveniently on a happy note. https://www.europeana.eu/en/blog/elisabeth-queen-of-the-hungarians

    The Hungarians loved her and she mastered their language. The double suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf at Mayerling in 1889 was a blow from which she never recovered. She blamed herself for bringing the madness of her own family (seen in her cousin Ludwig II of Bavaria) into the imperial family. Her religious profile is enigmatic. She had her son educated by republicans and in religion by a disciple of Ignaz von Döllinger. Sexually she is also an enigma: she is not known to have had sexual relations with any of the men linked with her in diplomacy, hunting, or culture, and she was always surrounded by beautiful women, beginning with her four sisters who rivalled her as famous beauties. Amid the perpetual flurry of Sissimania, which now infects many Chinese tourists, it is to be feared that she did not escape a fate she probably feared: that of not being taken seriously.

  6. Sean O’Conaill says:

    Disillusioned? About the survivability of monarchy and aristocracy? The superior virtue of the class to which she belonged? The long term prospect of European peace following the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15? The Enlightenment project of Utopia based upon reason as opposed to faith? Men in general? The Church? Her husband?

    Her support for Hungarian cultural autonomy via the dual monarchy arrangement could suggest that she was not a ‘republican’ herself.

    Re her attitude to religion: a Netflix series (The Empress) has her seriously outraged by a medical inspection to make certain of her virginity on arrival in Vienna, as a teenager – to permit the royal church wedding: attended in the same room by a Catholic hierarch who insists upon the procedure. Is that mere sensational cinematic exploitation of the current clerical abuse climate or could it have had a basis in fact?

    Surely strong-minded educated women in that era would have been inclined to look askance at the clerical Catholic church in any case? And Döllinger was not an ultramontanist – is that also suggestive of her own attitude to, e.g. papal infallibility?

    As what exactly do you think she may have wanted to be ‘taken seriously’? Poet? Stateswoman? Thinker? If she was ‘enigmatic’ could this not simply be due to an imperial requirement that she be that way, rather than publicly opinionated?

  7. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Joe@5, Otto died in July 2011 aged 98. A stroll through the Kapuzinergruft is well worth the ticket, if only to contrast the relative simplicity of Otto’s 21st century coffin with all the ancestral death’s head infestation of the bronze sarcophagi the Capuchins have to keep dusted.

    …..and at this stage, both Fergus O’Donoghue and Pádraig McCarthy must be wondering why they didn’t excise those two little sentences about the Empress fox- or stag-hunting in Meath and Kildare. The article is still well worth the read.

  8. Joe O'Leary says:

    Sean asks lots of questions to which the answers may not be available I didn’t see Corsage though it was on when I was in Vienna, because I feared would be something like the Marie Antoinette film of a few years ago. Cioran was a nihilistic philosopher, so he probably meant that Sisi was disillusioned in some Nietzschean sense. If Henry James’s Christina is modelled on her, he would have meant disillusion of the kind that a girl who marries an unloved older man at her mother’s bidding in order to rise to royal status could be called disillusioned. Sisi was religious but in a way that was the despair of those who wanted her to be Catholic. I think she thought that in supporting the Hungarian monarchy, which had been under a Hapsburg bushel (she herself now becoming queen of Hungary) she was giving the Hungarian people what they wanted, and indeed earned their undying gratitude. What title had she to be taken seriously? Her many roles did not cohere into a single project, other than that of being herself, a strange woman (eine seltsame Frau, as the subtitle of the 1934 biography has it). She was at various times a famous beauty, a cultural icon, a diplomat, a philanthropic royal personage (but not enough), a huntress, an amateur poet, a scholar, a philosopher in her own way.

  9. Sean O’Conaill says:

    Thanks Joe. It’s complicated obviously, especially by the suspicion that behind ‘what people think’ of any famous person may well lie something always hidden by a real person ever fearful of ‘what people think’ and therefore ever anxious to be ‘taken seriously’ for something or other.

    That summary of the Henry James novel is especially interesting.

    In overcoming the world – i.e. the need to be taken seriously by it – Jesus did something we all need to ponder endlessly. It seems that we are all equally cared for, even if the world does not care for us. In the end that is the greatest truth.

  10. Colton Roman says:

    The post is a message we must share. Peter wrote, “In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Truth in relationships, especially between Christians, is divinely commanded and truth telling is integral to godliness.

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