To read, or not read, a publication that belittles my religion?

Kevin O’Sullivan, the editor of the Irish Times (IT), addressed his readers recently on the IT website. The IT, he wrote, has 650,000 readers who enter into a contract with the paper every day. A daily paper is, I think, more than just a contract. In time it becomes a companion, a friend, part of the established pattern of a day, part of the weather of life. It becomes familiar, like a much-loved pair of slippers.
For the last 40-plus years, the IT has been a familiar part of my day. It isn’t cheap – €725 a year – but, all in all, it seemed good value to watch the changing face of Ireland through its pages. Recently, however, I’ve taken to wondering if the Grand Old Lady of D’Olier Street is worth it anymore.
I’m questioning my loyalty too, I have to say, as well as asking myself whether I’m getting value for money. And more recently my self-respect has entered the equation. I find myself asking why I should continue to buy or even to read a paper that so consistently belittles my religion.
In IT-speak, the word ‘Catholic’ has become a synonym for oppression and backwardness, even sometimes a term of derision. The question poses itself: Should I continue to buy (and support) a paper that makes so little effort to disguise the anti-Catholic group-think that progressively seems to inform its prevailing ethos?
Take two contributions from one issue of the IT a week or so ago.
Laura Kennedy wrote a column on ‘going back to Mass’. She prefaced her remarks by indicating that she formally defected from the Catholic Church in 2009, and hasn’t been back since, lamenting in passing that the formal defection process is no longer available. (It amazes me why ‘defectors’ from the Catholic Church seem to need the equivalent of a brass-band to mark their passing out. Why don’t they just go? No one is tied to the altar-rails.)
So very reluctantly she revisited a church for Mass. Predictably enough it wasn’t a good experience. Part of the problem was the residue from Catholic education which, she explains, ‘changes a person’. And, for Laura, Catholic education ‘discourages objective inquiry’ and is designed to narrow ‘intellectual scope’.
She suggests, a bit unconvincingly I have to say, that she wanted to go to Mass ‘with an open mind’ but she discovered that those attending were around 70 years of age, the priest had a dull drawl of a voice and didn’t seem to connect her with ‘any mystical undercurrent’.
She developed too an antipathy to the grey heads around her as she presumes these are the people ‘preventing young women from having a choice in their own reproductive capabilities’ and because she is accompanied by ‘a male companion who doesn’t happen to be white’ she interprets glances they receive as, presumably, racist. She won’t, she tells her readers, be going back – unless presumably she’s researching another article in the future.
Laura Kennedy is entitled to her opinion, even if it presents as supercilious, unbalanced, insubstantial and prejudiced. But should the IT publish such anti-Catholic rants? Would the IT send a disaffected Church of Ireland person to a Church of Ireland service (or a disaffected Muslim to a mosque) and publish the predicable diatribe. I don’t think so.
In the same issue of the IT, the front page had a campaigning story – presented under the guise of news – about the failure of the Catholic Church to hand over its schools to facilitate a minority of parents who are demanding schools with a secular (or non-religious) ethos.
Some years ago, Ruairí Quinn as Minister for Education announced enthusiastically (as politicians are wont to do) that about half the Catholic primary schools in Ireland would be handed over to secular groups like Educate Together. After much huffing and puffing it seems that instead of the expected 50% of Catholic schools to be transferred to secular ownership, just one has been divested.
In the front-page story the chairman of a government advisory body blamed the Catholic Church, effectively for not persuading (or forcing?) parents to give up their parish Catholic schools. He then went on to threaten Catholic school parents and authorities that unless they handed over their schools, the state contribution to the schools should be decreased!
It’s a bit much. First, Catholic church authorities were portrayed as tyrants ignoring the wishes of parents and then when the parents’ wishes became clear in surveys, the pressure is now coming on church authorities to force parents to give up their local schools and to act against what they consider to be the good of their own children.
Inside the paper on the same day was a contribution from the IT’s education correspondent effectively backing up the chairman’s proposal. The only alternative view was a Church comment that divesting schools at local level was a complex business, something that’s obvious to anyone who knows anything about people’s loyalty to their parish schools.
It’s a sorry state we’re in if Catholic clergy are being asked (via the IT) to force parents and parishioners to make decisions they don’t want to make – an approach for which Catholic clergy have been reviled for in the past, not least in the pages of the IT! A certain case of damned if we do and damned if we don’t. And, on top of that, to be threatened that if they don’t step up to the plate their schools will have their funds reduced.
What is it about this IT fetish with Catholic schools, its all-pervading support of Educate Together and its refusal to accept that Catholic parents have a right to their own views on the education of their own children, and their right to their own schools which they continue to support voluntarily and financially, despite the IT’s incessant campaigning for its own brand of educational engineering? Tiresome, at the very least.

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  1. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    On the day of the second article Brendan refers to above, I sent the following letter to the Irish Times. It was not published. Catholic Schools Week starts on 25 January. Perhaps the letter may have some thoughts to contribute.
    “I find it difficult to follow. You reported (Front Page & page 4, 2 January) that Professor John Coolahan, chairman of the forum on patronage and pluralism in schools, says the Dept of Education needs to take a stick against the Catholic Church to speed up divestment of primary schools.
    “For many years when times were hard, the people of Catholic parishes around the country provided all or part of the funding for the site to build schools, and contributed a proportion of the building costs. For many years they contributed to the running costs and maintenance. For many years they provided the time and energy of a manager, often the parish priest, and later the sterling efforts of boards of management, free of charge. Even in the era of “free education” the parents raise “voluntary contributions” since State funding is not adequate. Many members of government, of the legislature, of our justice system, of our business people, and the vast majority of the people of the country benefitted from that cooperation of Church and State.
    “In the boom years, when the demand for school places in some areas exceeded greatly the provision by our successive governments, although those governments had the information that indicated the need for non-denominational schools those governments failed to plan ahead and make adequate provision. And now it’s the Catholic Church that’s the bad guy?
    “It’s about time the government did an examination of conscience. Why didn’t governments provide when the money was there? Why did they raise expectations without doing their homework? Why did they not check in time what the parents thought? Were they not aware of the “huge local hostility” to transfer of schools to other patrons of which Fr Michael Drumm spoke? Does the government know what it’s about? We have a teacher Taoiseach. What does the government’s report card say? Not just on the National Childrens’ Hospital and on Irish Water?
    “Yes, the system in the past had its defects and difficulties. Does anyone know a perfect education system? Yes, there needs to be rationalisation and divestment of schools. Did Professor Coolahan think of taking the stick to the government? Oh, I forgot: the stick was taken out of schools in 1982. Except, it seems, when there’s an easy target.

  2. Roy Donovan says:

    Well written Brendan and once again you put words on what, I imagine a lot of us, feel on the ground especially – “Would the IT send a disaffected Church of Ireland person to a Church of Ireland service (or a disaffected Muslim to a mosque) and publish the predicable diatribe. I don’t think so”.
    On a different matter, I want to put out a sense of being left “ill-at-ease”, resulting from a young scientist at the annual Young Science Exhibition last week, who found high levels of bacteria in holy water fonts at Irish Churches. Many people up and down the country became instantly aware of this as it was given prominence in the RTE news.
    “An investigation into the cleanliness of holy water in church fonts was carried out by Conor Farrell from St Eunan’s College in Donegal. Farrell looked at the bacterial counts in holy water in fonts from four different churches in his area. He found that there were high levels of bacteria in all of the samples he took. He also took samples before and after mass and found that the bacteria levels fluctuated. This suggests that the bacteria is in fact being transferred from person to person through the water in the fonts. Of the four churches that were tested, three of the fonts were inside and one outside. The amount of bacteria was lowest in the font outside which Farrell explains is due to the cold meaning less bacteria could survive. A simple and effective method to lower the bacteria is to add some bleach to the water in the font. The University Observer does not recommend putting bleached water on your forehead. (The University Observer, Conor de Paor, 8th January 2015)
    This challenges a very important custom of Irish people blessing themselves coming in and out of Churches. This was particularly relevant for last Sunday’s celebration of the Baptism of the Lord, with the sprinkling rite for renewal of Baptismal vows and encouraging people to use holy water. It also raises questions about using water from Holy Wells.
    Maybe most people and priests are ignoring this, given that nobody has brought an insurance claim against us on this matter! However, what made me pay deeper attention was that a few younger people have told me they would be no longer blessing themselves going in and out of Churches.
    We do live in a ‘health and safety’ era. Yet it is another example of something that erodes practices of faith for a number of people and this one has very deep resonances in the psyche of Irish people. I wonder am I the only one taking note of this and has anybody got practical suggestions to help us affirm this very wonderful practice.

  3. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    I’m not sure why any newspaper would publish one person’s isolated opinion of a mass celebration. It’s not like a movie review where people from around the world are seeing the exact same thing; it’s one priest, one location, one setting. The only reason something like this would be published, in my own opinion, is that print media along with media in general has become aggressively anti-messianic.

  4. Mary Vallely says:

    I’ve often wondered about the probability of germs in holy water, Brendan #2 though I didn’t see or hear mention of it on the news. Surely however there are as many bacteria in the coins in our purses and pockets and yet we think nothing of handling them continually throughout the day. That said, I often now just make a gesture towards the font and bless myself without water. Does it really matter? The intention is there which is what counts though some of my elderly co-parishioners would be shocked at my apparent disregard for holy water and the different provenances of it, Lourdes, Knock etc; We do have to respect these old traditions but there comes a time when common sense has to be exercised. Sprinkling ourselves with old holy water from unwashed fonts in chapels around the country hasn’t done us any harm so far – as far as we know! It’s worth discussing though. What do others think/do?

  5. When the military dictatorship took power here in Brazil fifty years ago, as part of their programme of modernization, religious education in the public schools was substituted for moral and civic education. It was a covert way of neutralizing the influence of a Christian culture. Brazil is paying a high price to this day when we have neither morality nor civics nor religion in the public square and society is suffering.Social structures are crumbling around us because the building blocks have no mortar. People are desperately looking for a baby where the bath water was dumped but the baby is no more. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m talking about religious education in the sense of religious values, non-confessional and ecumenical. Catechism and preparation for the sacraments are part of the life of the ecclesial liturgical community and as such should have their own time, place and competent responsibles.
    Is Ireland undergoing a not-so-subtle dictatorship of the politically correct? Do I detect a modern version of the “Inner Pale” dictating to the rest of the “less informed” country what is good for them and how they should behave because their betters have looked into their own hearts and daddy knows best? This particular daddy has studied in the best schools far from the riff-raff with their Nuns and Brothers. Daddy wake up, we have been around this course for longer than you might want to believe.
    Tony Conry, São Paulo, Brazil.

  6. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Tony, @ 5, greetings to you and the people of São Paulo. I think what we are experiencing in the Western world is a sort of silent fascism which is continuing to creep into our societies. The State now creates the nation and has started to redirect people’s spiritual life. We know this because no faith can be practised which challenges the power and authority of the State. Our religion is as dependent on the State as private commerce is. Corporate subsidies continue to keep the ultra-wealthy rich and dependent on the State. At its heart, Christianity is against this type of oppression and perhaps this is why we see the State challenging us. When will we decide to launch our own offensive?

  7. I too found Laura Kennedy’s Mass visit unconvincing: she made no mention of having tried to engage any of the people she met there in conversation, so she gave every indication of having gone there with her mind fully made up as to what she would write subsequently. That ‘clenched fist’ conclusion was clearly manufactured beforehand.
    But why has no one mentioned here so far the fact that Breda O’Brien, a member of the Iona Institute, writes a weekly column in the Irish Times – dealing very ably with all of the issues exploited by the secularising lobby, including the dead set against Catholic education? Or that its ‘Rite and Reason’ Column has hosted theologians such as James Mackey and given space also to e.g. Kevin Hegarty and Tony Flannery?
    Or that it was the Irish Times that first revealed to Irish Catholics (in 2003) that their bishops had taken out insurance against liability for clerical child abuse as early as 1987 – eight years before they began the task of protecting Catholic children in 1995? Or that it was the same paper that revealed in 2002 the injustice perpetrated against Fr Gerard McGinnity in Maynooth in the mid 1980s, when he reported misgivings about the behaviour of Micheal Ledwith? And that the preferred Ledwith had later resigned from the presidency of Maynooth on foot of allegations?
    Yes, the primary stock-in-trade of the paper is the continuing deep anti-clericalism of the secularising lobby in Ireland, but it was the deepest Catholic clericalism that gave birth and succour to that lobby in the first place – a huge force for alienation from the deepest Christian values. Had our bishops completely given themselves to the values of accountability and transparency by now there would be less need for a paper that watches them balefully. Until they have done so we Catholics will always need a critical press in Ireland, including especially the Irish Times and people such as Patsy McGarry, Mary Raftery and Fintan O’Toole – to make sure we are not entirely ignorant of what lies under our own ecclesiastical carpet.

  8. Sean you are right we do need an investigative press, but I would argue that the IT is not investigative merely biased and brimming with an agenda. I know it is becoming something of an old chestnut but islam is in serious need of investigating and the IT would not contemplate such a job.
    In regard to Paris much publicity was rightly given, but the press did not feel driven to report on the atrocity in Nigeria.

  9. I have been thinking carefully for a wee while now how I might respond to Brendan’s piece about the Irish Times, given that my response would not be in total agreement with Brendan and most of the other comments. However, Sean@7 sums up what I feel about this much better than I could myself. We have to accept that it is the massive catalogue of awfulness that has been exposed in our church over the last 20 years which has absolutely wrecked its credibility, and which has been much more damaging than any so called secular agenda.

  10. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    So if I understand correctly, it is the fault of Catholicism if a newspaper prints an invalid argument against the religion as a whole. The message from this columnist is essentially, if you are on the fence about going, don’t bother. As one of the abused, I still haven’t gotten to a place where I can return to church but I definitely take offence to someone having the influence of a vast readership to make such a personal, random statement about an experience that is spiritual in nature. As a child I was taught that church meant different things to different people but one thing was for sure, it was/is certainly more about what you bring to the building than what you get out of it. Simply going to church doesn’t make you a good person.
    The actions of a select few priests is one thing – a creeping anti-religious agenda is another.

  11. “But should the IT publish such anti-Catholic rants? Would the IT send a disaffected Church of Ireland person to a Church of Ireland service (or a disaffected Muslim to a mosque) and publish the predicable diatribe. I don’t think so.”
    At the time of the Danish cartoons controversy in 2006, the Boston Globe refused to publish them on the grounds that they were gratuitously offensive to Muslims. A number of readers then pointed out that the Globe had THREE times published photos of Andres Serrano’s masterpiece “Piss Christ” which depicts a crucifix immersed in the artist’s urine. The Globe Ombudsman replied that two wrongs don’t make a right – something like that. You MIGHT see that as a kind of belated apology to Christians but I wouldn’t bet on it. They had to say something and that was the best they could come up with!
    I recall that an Irish Times journalist described Christians who objected to Serrano’s work as “fascists”.
    Historian Arnold Tonybee wrote that civilizations are not destroyed by outside forces; they rot from within and the outside enemy just picks up the pieces afterwards. The Boston Globe and the Irish Times are prime examples of this historical process at work. Accordingly it’s lucky that Ireland is NOT in the forefront of the fight against Islamic terrorism; unfortunately the United States is and the Globe may be all too representative!

  12. #11 That anti-religious agenda is also in need of deep critique, of course – especially because its understanding of what constitutes ‘religion’ – and what does not – is increasingly hard to determine. For example, if a secular ideology such as Communism leads to personality cults of e.g. Stalin, Mao, Kim Jong Un, is that ‘religion’. Richard Dawkins has argued that, I believe, but … isn’t there also a personality cult of Richard Dawkins? Will he eventually come to the view that even atheism is a religion?
    Newspapers are eclectic and will make mistakes. The Irish Times is still the premier Irish daily newspaper. We don’t have a Catholic newspaper that has the resources and independence to do the job of critiquing the Irish Catholic establishment in all its machinations – and it sorely behoves that establishment to cease providing sustenance for the anti-religious agenda. If we all stopped reading the Irish Times we would just become naive – and that would assist the anti-religious agenda too.
    On balance also the Irish Times has been far more friendly to the ACP than the ‘Irish Catholic’ has been. I’m sure all members of the ACP are aware of that – and that Brendan’s piece arose out of the moment, not from a full scoping of the IT’s coverage over the past few decades.

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