Damnation with Faint Praise

Cardinal Brady is comprehensively demanding the right to control the way of life of every citizen in every European country, whether Christian or not, much less Roman Catholic - Emer O'Kelly

Recently a letter appeared in the Irish Times poking through the stum in search of the usually raucous Left protesting Russian belligerence in Georgia. The silence of the Left had struck me shortly before the letter, not in relation to Georgia, however, but apropos the European Union. Sinister as the antics of Dick Roche’s Lisbon kite flying undoubtedly was, the first flak to be fired at it would do little to reassure opponents of the Lisbon Treaty that all opposition to it is necessarily a good thing.

The Catholic Primate of Ireland, Cardinal Brady, speaking at the Humber Summer School in Ballina, and later on radio, outlined a major consideration behind the thinking of those ‘committed Christians’ who voted ‘no’ in the recent referendum. The European Union in their view was too secular. ‘The prevailing culture and social agenda within the EU would at least appear to be driven by the secular tradition rather than by the Christian memory and heritage of the vast majority of member states.’ Surely, if there is anything that should want to make us consider embracing the Lisbon Treaty it is that. The Cardinal is also reported to have complained of a ‘fairly widespread culture’ in Europe whereby religious matters are pushed into the private sphere. But this is precisely where they should go of their own volition. Religion as a strictly private matter is one more positive for Europe which might lead those of us with reservations about the Lisbon Treaty to hold our noses against some of those we stand shoulder to shoulder with.

In some matters including combating poverty and the end of serious armed conflict in the North the leader of Irish Catholics sang the praises of Europe. Yet it rang hollow, a tune composed to add a soft lilt to the dirge meant to damn its secularism. He expressed difficulty with EU policy decisions that were often made without any consideration to Christian values:
despite the fact that so many European citizens have religious faith and convictions … successive decisions which have undermined the family based on marriage, the right to life from the moment of conception to natural death, the sacredness of the Sabbath, the right of Christian institutions to maintain and promote their ethos, including schools, these and other decisions have made it more difficult for committed Christians to maintain their instinctive commitment to the European project.

Apart from the blind indifference to the rational perspective that schools should promote science and not superstition, implicit in Sean Brady’s comment is the view that values should have an added status because they are Christian. Brady wants Europe to give more weight to Christian – he really means Catholic – values. The current pope from whom he takes his lead is no respecter of rival religions Christian or otherwise.

What all of the stress on Christian values blocks out of course is the existence of many good values rooted not at all in religion. At times they may be indistinguishable from Christian values, but make no claim to special privilege. Moreover, As Emer O Kelly puts it so well in an issue of the Sunday Independent in which she took the leading Catholic cleric to task:

Secularists, even atheistic secularists, are not the anti-Christ. Most of them live their lives as well or as badly as fervent Christians. They pay their taxes, they don't kill other people, and they don't molest children. They probably don't even spit on the street, much less on each other. They keep the law and behave decently because they believe that humanity is the highest form of life. And they object very strongly to being told that they are slavering monsters of depravity because they don't believe in a supernatural being.

So what if society does not care about God? Humanity has no need for a god to make good laws. And a belief in a god can certainly lead to bad laws. As the physicist Steven Weinberg observes, ‘religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.’

There is no reason for Christians, as the Cardinal may claim is happening, to lose their ‘Christian values and memory in Europe.’ That such values may be undergoing sustained erosion could have more to do with the fact that men walking on water and raising the dead are phenomenon which do not sit comfortably in the modern world where as Richard Dawkins puts it planes fly, witches don’t. Where it is on the decline in Europe Christianity is not being repressed, simply ignored. And the more it is allowed to slip into that sector reserved for fairy tales and make-believe the greater the church hierarchy feels the concomitant loss of its power.

As religion abates and societies grow more secularised, humanity stands to benefit from the success of knowledge over myth. In a secular state every body is free to live their lives with or without regard to any religion they may or may not espouse. Secularism is the freedom from religion for all. Those who wish to practice religion can but it should be their own affair. The freedom to observe exists but Cardinal Brady wants to make it an obligation, denying freedom to those who for good reason want nothing to do with religious observance. Human beings should be subjected to no religious law.

Hopefully, the Left is not once again poised to disgracefully abandon secular principle and team up with the theocrats. I would prefer to live as a citizen of an integrated and secular Europe than as a subject in an independent Christian Ireland. Opposition to a rerun of the Lisbon Treaty is a vital component of a democratic polity. But the more that opposition is championed by the religious right the weaker the content of the democratic case against Lisbon becomes.


  1. Amen ANthony. I was raised in the Catholic Church. Ove my life I have grown away from the Church or any other organized religion for several reasons..The money thing, the hypocracy, the failure to really care about nurturing the human spirit. I didn't raise my children in the Church, but they are polite, law abiding, hardworking and very caring about their fellow man. I guess you could say I just used common sense. I am proud of them all and they are proud of me. We have not missed the organized churches. Three of the held their marriages outside..under the natural sky.

    I can't vote on the Europeon Unian, but if I could, I would take in the whole picture and the consequences of joining..or the consequences of staying out.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts..


  2. My own children are free to make their own discoveries. They are not subject to any religion at home and my daughter has opted not to have it taught to her in school. I wish I had experienced a similar freedom

  3. Having finished "Cross," the latest in a series of harsh Jack Taylor mysteries from Ken Bruen set in his own secularizing, gentrifying native Galway city, there's intriguing parallels to your typically thoughtful post, AM. Taylor views the Church as crippling human endeavor, but also examines unsparingly the void left by its absence in today's harsher, greedier Irish society. The retreat of Catholicism does not appear to have advanced charity and lovingkindness upon its inhabitants, who scrabble, brawl, and perpetrate cruelty without the help or hindrance of any restraining of either kindly cleric or conniving nun.

    I'd surely disagree, as both fictional character and criminally savvy author I imagine would, however, with Weinberg's concluding phrase that good people only'll do evil if warped by religion. As one who's learned much from Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins, I'll also admit they all even in their considered critiques step into hyperbole, but Weinberg does appear to have fallen into an conceptual abyss here. Good people can do evil if twisted by any of those reliable seven deadly sins, I reckon, even if they're labelled disorders by shrinks and social workers in today's EU rather than culpable actions supposedly punished by a Nobodaddy.

  4. FionnchĂș, a thoughtful post. I am not persuaded that the demise of the church is causally linked to the 'void left by its absence'. Given the nature of society today, the prevalance of greedy bastardism, the neo liberal agenda - all of which extends much wider than Ireland - this would have existed with or without a church. Taylor it would seem also overlooks the very positive role played by secular charitable organisations doing what the church previously did or - to be fair to it - still does.

    Weinberg is useful less for the acute accuracy of his comments and more for the manner in which they allow a contrast to be set up. As a logical sequence of words I never quite followed the thread but as a polemic they are brilliant. Polemics will rarely avoid hyperbole for the purpose of making a point.