Former Irish Taoiseach John Bruton has questioned the centenary commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin – on the grounds that the rising would not have satisfied the conditions for a just war required by Catholic teaching.
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As a youngster I came across the green backed “Land I love” series and the novels of Annie M. P. Smithson (“The Walk of a Queen” was one)and of course they coloured my view of the nobility of laying down one’s life for one’s country. Then as a teenager I read Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and I wept at the tragic loss of youth and was incensed at the armchair generals and the vicious hangers-on who urged them to fight. Now that I am a grown-up I realise how futile war is, how insane this romantic Ireland idea really was. It is frightening to think that young men and young women can still be fired up by a foolish idealism when they haven’t yet lived to see the horror of war and of man’s inhumanity to man.
Surely respect for human life which is what our Church preaches means respect for all life and that the taking of a life is just plainly wrong. Mind you, some of our bishops have been very outspoken in their opposition to the violence of extremists. Have we matured as a people from the 1916 days? Can we see Pearse and co in the context of the times they lived in when they had no idea of the reality of the devastation of war and how it can destroy not just the body but the soul too?
“Jesus showed no undue loyalty to his religion or to his country, but radically critiqued both of them whenever they demanded to be worshipped”. (R. Rohr, Spiral of Violence)
We who call ourselves Christians need to be prepared to do the same. Fair play to John Bruton as a public figure with reputation and popularity to loose, for having the courage to do so on this occasion.
Mr. Bruton also lavishes praise on John Redmond in the same article. This is the same Redmond who exhorted the youth of Ireland to enlist in the British Army. Presumably Mr. Bruton agrees with Redmond and thinks that the Great War satisfies the criteria for a just war. Is there anybody that now thinks that the murky origins of that war are so clear and pure?
The question of the origins of the Great War is one of the great questions of history – and historians are still debating that. What the understanding and motives of the different actors may have been in going to war is a separate question, as actors can only be held to account for what they may reasonably be expected to have known at the time they acted.
It’s not disputed, I believe, that the war began for Britain and France when Germany violated Belgian neutrality, guaranteed by a treaty that had kept the peace in Europe for many decades – and it was sincerely believed then by many both that innocent lives had been guiltily taken in Belgium, and that the war would be short and decisive. No one knew then what protracted horrors would follow. And of course the UK was also defending its imperial interests, and imperialism is never innocent when it comes to ‘the rights of small nations’.
It doesn’t follow, though, that if Redmond was mistaken those who launched the 1916 rising were not – or vice versa either. The possibility exists that after almost a century of relative peace in Europe the horror of the Napoleonic Wars was too distant a memory to prevent many, many people of that time from seeing war as the ultimate test of manhood. That seems to have been part of the thinking of Patrick Pearse especially, as late as December 1915: “The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. Heroism has come back to the earth.. . It is good for the world that such things should be done. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefield.” (Peace and the Gael)
If war was almost a moral imperative for Pearse, should we be surprised if he was not deterred by ‘just war’ theory? And is it really a matter of choosing between Pearse and Redmond when the strong possibility exists that there was a contagion at work in those years that overswept moral boundaries everywhere?