In losing prestige and power in recent decades the Catholic church in Ireland must come to terms with that. One option is to recall the political powerlessness of Jesus and to welcome the same ‘cross’. Another, called ‘integralism’, is to idealise a past era when the Church was powerfully connected to the state and capable of directing governments – and then to pursue that goal. This ‘fork in the road’ may well divide the Irish Catholic church of the future.
What if the third temptation of Jesus – as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew for the first Sunday of Lent – the temptation to desire ‘the kingdoms of the world and their splendour’ – was now to be interpreted as a temptation to break the ninth and tenth commandments, the temptation to ‘covet’ what was possessed by those ‘neighbours’ who are supposedly ‘splendid’ on earth?
And what if Jesus’s followers had always rigorously followed his example, as advised by the apostle James – renouncing above all the coveting of the power and status of social elites?
Certain it is that from c. 312 CE the Christian bishops who accepted the patronage of Emperors and kings were charting a very different course – a course that led directly to the embarrassment of Pope Francis in 2023. Currently pondering what to do about the ‘doctrine of discovery‘ – the 15th and 16th century Catholic church documents that encouraged European monarchs and adventurers to seize hold of the lands of their non-Christian inhabitants globally – Pope Francis could well be rethinking Matthew 4:8-10 these days.
Christian imperialism and colonialism – and enslavement – are surely but three of the many scandals of Christendom that the church needs to ‘repent’ if it is truly to take up the cross that Jesus offered.
And yet in this year of 2023 there are western Catholics, the ‘integralists’, who also reject the option of the imitation of Jesus in his refusal of worldly power. Instead they idealise the French monarchy of the thirteenth century, in which church and state were joined at the hip – and blithely embarked already upon the Inquisition. Their idealised King Louis IX was an enthusiastic crusader against Islam, supporter of the Inquisition to suppress the Cathars and mutilator of blasphemers.
Even stranger to relate there are Irish Catholic integralists who currently extol an Irish influence on US Catholic integralists, including the anti-Semitic radio demagogue Fr Charles Coughlin who opposed the government of Franklin Roosevelt and whipped up a paranoia that saw conspiracy everywhere in the 1930s, especially between Wall Street, freemasonry and ‘international Zionism’ – and supported the regime of General Franco in Spain.
This Irish influence on Coughlin was one Fr Denis Fahey CSSp, also an anti-Semite – who wanted the Irish constitution of 1937 to declare Catholicism to be the established church of the new Irish state – in spite of what was euphemistically called Ireland’s ‘northern problem’. Coughlin quoted Fahey’s copious and rambling medievalism frequently on his radio programme in the US – and Fahey went on to found the organisation Maria Duce in Ireland in 1942 to change Article 44 of the Irish constitution to make Eire an explicitly Catholic state.
Maria Duce languished after Fahey’s death in 1954. Presumably our Irish integralists, to be consistent, could seek to revive that cause in some form.
Turning the Clock Back by Eight Centuries
To illustrate the Catholic integralist view of the present moment, the following passage may help. Extolling a view of the kingdom of Louis IX (1226-1270 CE) as the ideal society towards which the church should aspire, Edmund Waldstein, O. Cist, tells us in ‘First Things’:
Even a short time ago—with the ascendancy of the “religious right” in the Reagan and Bush years—it was plausible to argue that the separation of church and state was good for religion. The accelerating pace of secularization manifested, for instance, in the legalization of homosexual marriage, makes that position much less plausible today. (The 13th century kingdom of King Louis IX) offers an alternative vision, a vision that could be realized only by a profound and fundamental transformation of the whole of our society. I am convinced that in working toward such a transformation, we have nothing to lose.
The ‘we’ who would have least to lose would presumably be the future Catholic equivalent of Iran’s current morality police. That the deepest corruption of our hierarchical church – the concealing from Catholic families of the sexual abuse of children by clergy – was revealed first in the pluralist US democracy that integralists want to undermine, will never be recalled by them. In the cause of turning the clock back by eight centuries the most embarrassing evidence of the corruptibility of politically empowered Christians can easily be airbrushed from the record. So can the fact that the separation of church and state in the US has been hugely successful in preventing the religious strife that would certainly break out if US Catholic integralism was ever to seem likely to replace the present constitution with a Catholic state.
How Irish Catholic integralism could ever assist the cause of Irish constitutional unity is another puzzle!
The integralists won’t be of much help to Pope Francis either, in dealing with the ‘doctrine of discovery’ and in the cause of a humbler servant church – but then they don’t want to be.
Just what part of Jesus’s solemn injunction to the apostles not to ‘Lord it’ over anyone (Matthew 20:25-26) do Catholic integralists not understand?
23rd February 2023