Thursday, August 30, 2012

Pussy Riot? Not required, just better politicians

Pat Rabbitte
Irish Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte, made an ill-advised remark on RTÉ radio on Sunday, drawing headlines such as “Rabbitte orders Brady to stay out of abortion row” (

So who actually said what?

It started when Cardinal Brady told RTÉ’s This Week radio programme "We would have a media campaign, we would be lobbying public representatives and also hope to write a pastoral letter on this situation … We would want to inform people of the ills of abortion."  He was responding to the question how the church would react if the Government decided to legalise abortion.

Pat Rabbitte then came on and said he was "surprised" when he heard "the cardinal's reference to lobbying and engaging, canvassing public representatives … I don't welcome the cardinal promising to engage in the political campaign."


“I don’t have any objection to any of the churches stating its position and making it clear, but I think it would be a retrogressive step if we were to go back to the days of the Catholic Church dictating to elected public representatives how [they] should address an issue.”

Responding to these remarks, Dr John Murray of the Catholic Iona Institute said: “It is Minister Rabbitte’s comment that is actually retrograde. First of all, lobbying is not the same as dictating.  Secondly, why should business organisations or farming organisations or trades unions be allowed to lobby politicians but the churches cannot do this?”

Too easily swayed

I don't often agree with the Iona Institute but this time it's hard to quarrel.

A blogger (describing himself as “an atheist with no time for the Church”) put it well;  he agreed with the Catholic Dr John Murray, and added:

“ I'm sure that Pat Rabbitte isn't suggesting that the Church shouldn't be allowed to lobby, but nevertheless it's a bit ill-advised for a cabinet minister to single out one organisation and tell them to shut up. They're perfectly entitled to lobby politicians if they want. It's up to the politicians to have enough moral courage to make hard decisions regardless of what the Church says. If the politicians are too easily swayed by their Bishop, then we need better politicians.”

Cardinal Sean Brady
So Pat Rabbitte has got himself into a bit of a mess with these remarks. Even his friends can't really support him, and the opposition Fianna Fáil has accused him of a divisive attack on the Church which has poisoned the debate around abortion.

The Fianna Fáil spokesman on health Billy Kelleher TD said Mr Rabbitte’s rejection of the Church’s right to campaign on the issue “was neither restrained nor respectful” and “While his comments may have went down well with Labour Party activists, they will have served only to antagonise many thousands of others who will correctly feel that their position, as articulated by Cardinal Brady, deserves the same respect as any other voice”.

So what was Rabbitte up to in this interview?

There's a explanation as to why he confused lobbying with dictating.  Within living memory the Catholic church really did dictate to the Irish government.  The celebrated instance of this is the 1951 Mother and Child affair. The health minister Noel Browne wanted to introduce a limited version of the NHS in Ireland, but the bishops said this would be a sin  (if you think I'm exaggerating read my essay on the subject) and none of the cabinet would support the scheme.

At a cabinet meeting where the archbishop’s letter denouncing the Mother and Child Scheme was read out, Browne asked each minister in turn if they assented to the church's ruling that the scheme be dropped. One Labour Party minister muttered "They shouldn't be allowed to do this" but nonetheless nodded assent.  Another minister blustered angrily “How dare you invite me to disobey my church!”

I'm sure this history is what Rabbitte had in mind in the RTÉ interview.  But the blogger was the one who put his finger on it when he said “If the politicians are too easily swayed by their Bishop, then we need better politicians.”

Constantinian church

Russia: defiant Pussy Riot protester
I'll finish with the observation that 1950’s Ireland had the opposite of the Constantinian church.  The Constantinian church is what they have in Russia, it's what the Pussy Riot protest was about: the church at the service of the state.

Here in Ireland we had the state at the service of the church.

The Constantinian church is a reference to the emperor Constantine legalising the previously persecuted Christians and making the church in effect an arm of government. The Greek Orthodox Church remained this way much longer than the Roman Catholic Church, because the Greek emperors lasted almost a thousand years longer than the Roman emperors - hence the Roman Catholic isn't really a Constantinian church (though the Church of England is).

And the Russian Orthodox Church is an offshoot of the Greek Orthodox, and was from the beginning at the service of the Tsars. Hence it was suppressed by the Communists. Now it's been reinstated, and is back at Putin's right hand. 

A word of caution about those last few paragraphs. They may read as if I know what I'm talking about but actually I don't. This Constantinian church stuff is something I haven't quite got to grips with.  And what I know of the history of the Byzantine Empire, and Russia under the Tsars, would fit on the back of a small envelope.  But as a broad brush picture, I hope I've painted it right.