“The media also have their pathologies: disinformation, defamation, and a fascination with scandal. Some media are caught up in the post-truth culture, where facts matter much less than impact, seizing narratives as a way to wield power. The most corrupt media are those that pander to their readers and viewers, twisting the facts to suit their prejudices and fears.”
These are the words of Pope Francis in his 2017 book, ‘Let Us Dream: the Path to a Better Future’, spoken early in the coronavirus panicdemic, in an overall assessment that may not age too well as the Pope joined the popular approach of discrediting and deplatforming anyone that questioned the official narrative. His words were more likely aimed at publications such as Gript rather than the Irish Times and the Irish Independent.
But those words never held more truth than they have in the last few weeks as RTÉ, Newstalk and every quality (self-referential replacement of broadsheet) repudiated the standards of their profession in their witch-hunt of Fr Seán Sheehy.
At one stage, on the independent.ie app ‘Top Stories’ there were five in relation to a Catholic priest, preaching Catholic teaching, in a Catholic Church while at the same time, there was one brief story about the nine-month old baby seriously assaulted in her home in Louth, with her parents arrested.
Little was the apoplexy by journalists and politicians for this girl’s life. There was no uproar on Twitter. What was far more important in the national conversation were the words of Fr Sean Sheehy in Listowel, teaching nothing more than the what the Church teaches. Real crimes, unless they are of instrumental value and contribute to the desired narrative, become little more than a footnote.
There is no scandal in the story about the baby. There is no narrative to be wielded, no prejudices and fears to be stoked. In a story of a Catholic priest, there are always prejudices and fears to be stoked. Make no bones about it, there was a fundamental dishonesty at the heart of the story.
The words of Pope Benedict XVI from 2008 seem prophetic. “Today, communication seems increasingly to claim not simply to represent reality, but to determine it, owing to the power and the force of suggestion that it possesses. It is clear, for example, that in certain situations the media are used not for the proper purpose of disseminating information, but to ‘create’ events.”
Every commentator, whether Brian Dobson or Joe Duffy, or any of the politicians who expressed outrage and demanded an apology, whether they like it or not, has been brought up in an Ireland where there was no confusion about Catholic teaching. They are misleading their audience if they pretend they did not know what Fr Sean Sheehy preached was Church teaching.
Of course they did. They all did.
Does anyone really believe that Brian Dobson thinks Fr Sheehy gave himself authority to decide who sinners are? Not at all. Mr Dobson is well-informed on such matters, but it suited a line of questioning to give the impression that he did. Did he really think Fr Sheehy was defining what sin is, in his Homily? Not at all. Catechesis in Ireland has been poor over the last fifty years, but not so poor that this fundamental position of the Church was every misunderstood by anyone over the age of thirty.
It was an opportunity that was not to be missed. It was a chance to wield a little bit more power over a Church that has become small in Ireland. Fr Sheehy was not the target. He was merely collateral damage. The real target was the Church and its teaching. The narrative was seized, just has been done frequently in the past. Newsworthiness is established to pander to a particular cohort; to create scandal for the Church.
Yes, it is also click-bait, but that is not the real objective. The aim is to whip up the mob into a frenzy. To reframe the discussion. To push Catholic teaching to the margins. To make it unacceptable in this civilised society. Columnists in the Irish Times can write with freedom that Catholic teaching is ‘repugnant’ yet no Catholic priest would dare use such language about liberal mores.
The words of Fr Sean Sheehy were milder than many of the descriptions of the Church, priests, its adherents and its beliefs that have come after he raised his voice. Yet, it is Fr Sheehy who is accused of preaching hate. There are some hates that are acceptable in modern Ireland, which points toward where we are going as a society with the Hate Speech Bill that is before the Oireachtas. What will be defined as hate will be dependent on what way the wind is blowing.
When values collide, when protected characteristics, clash, how is the law to be interpreted? Whose hate is to be considered legal and whose illegal? Or is everything verboten? But if nothing can be criticised, how can we ever have a conversation? How can we put forward views that may be rebutted if we all live in fear of someone being offended? Who would the law have protected in this instance? To read comments on social media, often in response to articles and positions put forward by the media and some of its best known commentators, all the hate was directed in one way.
But for the majority, it seems that Fr Sheehy and Church are fair game. An acceptable target. Minister McEntee, talking about the rationale for the proposed Hate Speech law: “Hate speech is designed to shut people down, to shut them up, to make them afraid to say who they are and to exclude and isolate them”. If that is the case, the Fr Sheehy, and his fellow Catholics, should look forward to enjoying great protection under the law.
Does anyone believe that is how the Law will work out? Not at all.
In a clash of cultures, under such a subjective and vague law, it is the ascendent culture that will crush that which is in retreat. Media commentators will continue to engage in disinformation and defamation and manufacture scandal where there is none. Ending with the words of Pope Francis, ‘there are politicians who peddle […] narrative for their own gain. But they could not succeed without some media creating and spreading them … the media in this way cease to mediate and become intermediaries, obscuring our view of reality.”