End Notes: Erring Erin

You would have thought that the day was long since past when the ability to get easily out of lifetime promises would be regarded as progress, but the reaction to the Irish vote on divorce says otherwise. Poor Ireland was pictured as catching up with the modern world, and one fears that this is all too true. Reporters found voters who blamed the outcome on the misbehavior of the clergy, which had undermined their authority.

There must be a good deal of truth in this. Of course the percentage of priests and religious who engage in immoral activities—sexual, that is—is infinitesimal, but one is too many for most Catholics. The messenger and the message become identified, and a scandal is taken to discredit both. If a bishop has an illegitimate child, it must be all right to desert my spouse.

Not exactly an airtight argument, of course, but the logic is of the emotions rather than of the mind. And who are we to throw rocks at the Irish?

Under Paul VI there was a great exodus from the priesthood and religious life. This seemed almost to be encouraged. And there was the scandal of easy annulments to complement the clerical departures. It was all legitimate, of course. Laicizations were granted and annulments after all are official decisions. Very early on in his papacy, when he made abandoning religious vows and priestly celibacy more difficult, Pope John Paul II made the obvious connection. How were spouses to see their promises as permanent when the priest who married them ran off with the housekeeper and in short order was in good standing because of an ex post facto laicization?

There are not many heroes or heroines in the decadent West. Catholics divorce, we are told, at about the same rate as everyone else—not that I want to make marital fidelity a matter of heroism; it just seems that way in a crumbling culture. The magisterium has continued to put sound doctrine before us, in season and out of season, but there is rebellion in the ranks. Theologians, as a class, have an antipapist tinge to them, and one or two, usually more, can always be found to scoff at Church doctrine as hopelessly outmoded for the modern mind.

An ancient Benedictine named Kaufman has issued a second edition—Father McCormick, S.J., provides the preface— of his shameful book in which he advises the laity that they can reject Church doctrine and still be good Catholics. Sure they can. The old fellow’s only half right. The apostate can continue to claim the title Catholic, but of course it no longer means what it did. It no longer means what the Holy Roman Catholic Church means by it, and that is the only standard that matters. The modern mind, ancient Benedictines, and Jesuits seem to have lost the notion of the millstone, in the sense of punitive neckwear.

Catholics are urged from all sides to make up their own minds, to decide for themselves, what being Catholic means for them. This is of course the Protestant principle: Don’t let anyone tell you what Christianity is; that’s a matter between you and God. Once upon a time those who embraced this principle understood that they were breaking with the Catholic Church. Now they are congratulated by theologians for their independence of mind and told they are as Catholic as the pope.

There is no need to wonder what divorce will do for Ireland. It will do there what it has done everywhere else, destroy the family, produce generations of children who have no model of fidelity or lasting love. And turn marriage into an arrangement that lasts as long as spouses amuse one another, with children a menace rather than a blessing.

Making up one’s own mind and following one’s conscience have come to mean that one gets to make up the moral law as well as apply it. Of course, each person must decide for himself, but some of those decisions are good and others bad, and the measure of the difference is the moral law and Christian faith, which are what they are.

Years ago I had a clerical colleague who wrote a witty little book called How to Start Your Own Religion. Unfortunately, he followed his own advice, and he is no longer either clerical or my colleague. At least he never suggested that you could start your own religion and call it the one you were repudiating.

Well, you can tell that I took the Irish vote hard. Mother Ireland has always functioned for me as a bastion of the faith, doubtless because I only visited once. I was truly shocked to hear the outcome of the vote. My feeling is akin to what the Irish felt when they heard of a naughty priest or philandering prelate. It is tempting to tell all the Irish to go soak their heads.

But half voted against divorce. Fifty percent. Ten just men once would have sufficed to save a city. May God save Ireland.

  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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