The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has had several decades of bad press, and scandals, which have resulted in widespread public alienation and falling mass attendances. Those who have kept faith with it during these hard decades cannot be accused of swimming with the cultural, or political tides. The Church in Ireland is resolutely on the back foot, with smaller parishes, fewer priests, and infinitely less cultural influence.
But it’s not all bad news – the faithful in Dublin can at least count on being shepherded by an Archbishop who knows exactly what to say, and when to say it, to get a good headline in The Irish Times:
“The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin has expressed horror at what he describes as “traces of racism” among Ireland’s Roman Catholic community.
In a sermon delivered to mark the beginning of Advent on Saturday he expressed grave concern about the “emergence of a new language of racism” in Ireland.
He said although it was “at times understated in its expression” it was “nasty in its effects on men and women who need our help, our care and our respect”.
He said he was “horrified to find traces of such racism among believers” and suggested that terms including “refugee” and “asylum seeker” should “only arouse heartfelt concern among Christians”.
The Archbishop can rely on the law of averages to be certain that there are, indeed, some racist Catholics, as there are racist Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and Atheists. But he’s suggesting something more than that here, implying that there is a systemic racism problem in the mass-going faithful. That’s an impossible claim to prove, without data, and unless he’s secretly commissioned an opinion poll and several focus groups, we can be reasonably certain that he is speaking based on personal, anecdotal, experience. Is he right? Who knows?
The answer to that question depends entirely on what you already believe. If you’re a faithful catholic, you’re likely horrified and upset that your own Archbishop has implied that there’s a significant chance that you’re a racist, or at least more likely a racist than your agnostic neighbour. If you’re a left-wing cultural warrior, you’re probably delighted. Sure, the Archbishop of Dublin himself has just confirmed what you already knew to be true.
The truth, of course, is that Archbishop Martin is talking nonsense, and pointless nonsense at that. If his job is to be the PR spokesman for the church as a political institution, as he seems to believe, then it’s entirely stupid to announce to the world that as well as being, in your enemies eyes, full of sex offenders and criminals, it’s also riddled with racism. That’s not likely to bring the masses running to Christmas services, is it?
If is job, on the other hand, is (and apparently the Church thinks this is, in fact, what it is) to save souls, then it doesn’t make much sense either, for much the same reason.
If the Archbishop wanted to talk to Catholics about the dangers of racism, he could very easily have delivered a tremendously nice and powerful sermon about the undoubted importance for every believer to see the value, and worth, in every human being regardless of race, colour, creed, or orientation. He could have used the example of those who come here in the backs of lorries, risking their lives and travelling in great indignity, just for a chance at the life we in Ireland already have.
He could have said that for all that immigration is a political debate, human dignity must be at the centre of it.
Without wishing to write his sermon for him, Archbishop Martin could have sent a powerful signal of leadership to his people, and reminded them and anyone else listening of the importance of compassion towards those who we disagree with.
He did not.
What he did instead will, of course, have the opposite effect to that which he wants us to believe he intended. Rather than bringing people together, he’s dividing them, and playing for approval to people who have no interest whatever in anything else that he might say.
This wasn’t a sermon intended for mass-going Catholics. It was a sermon intended for those who already think mass-going Catholics are terrible.
The Archbishop may as well have stood up on the altar and said “I just want to be clear for the reporters in the back – I’m not one of these people”.
And of course, they loved it.
“Vanity”, says Al Pacino’s Satan in the 1997 movie “Devil’s Advocate”, “is definitely my favourite sin”.