Some advantages of persecution…

Earlier today, I read some of Homage to Catalonia before discussing Christmas celebrations in Korea with my mother. As it happens these activities proved more related than I would have thought.

The discussion of religion in Korea led to a discussion of Ireland’s high level of religious observance compared to other developed nations, with both my mother and I agreeing that in decades to come it would fall to the low levels seen in other European countries. When she complained about the hold that the Catholic Church once had over Irish peoples lives, I made the point that this was the voluntary choice of majority of Irish people themselves- after all, Ireland has been a parliamentary democracy since independence and while literary censorship was once fierce in the country, people were free to organize politically and campaign against the repressive tendencies of the state. Diverse political parties deeply opposed to the Catholic ruling elite ran in several elections- there is no reason Irish people could not have voted for socially liberal candidates. The reason that they did not and that socially repressive policies were enacted in their names, was that they voluntarily chose to support deeply reactionary policies for much of the twentieth century. I do not accept arguments that they were ‘brainwashed’- many of the most conservative elderly people I know spent years living abroad in more liberal societies such as Britain or the US and so they were certainly not ignorant of the possibility of a less repressive social order. Nor do I accept arguments that Ireland was not a democracy during this time- for all its faults, Ireland remained a democracy throughout the twentieth century. How the politically unstable, priest-ridden, economically stagnant Ireland of the 1930’s did not go the way of most of the better nations of Europe and fall to fascism may never be adequately explained, but somehow the democratic system managed to remain more or less intact. That Ireland was in fact a democracy (Although one suffering from a tyranny of the majority) rather than a theocracy, is evidenced by how quickly church domination has collapsed over the past two decades or so, solely through people voluntarily choosing to ignore the dictates of clergy.

Thinking about the democratically enacted Catholic domination of Ireland, made me think about the contrasting example of Spain, where Catholicism was the religion permitted throughout most of the countries history. The Spanish Inquistion was only abolished in 1834 and between 1851 and 1931 priest’s salaries were paid by the state. Similar practices resumed under Franco but during the brief rule of the Second Spanish Republic between 1931 and 1939 we saw what many Spaniards thought of the religion which had been imposed on them. The church was rapidly disestablished and Catholic schools ceased to receive state support. During the resulting Civil War, in which the church supported a Fascist coup, 7’000 priests and nuns were killed by Republican forces. The peasantry of some regions, particularly Catalonia and Aragon, appear to have been supportive of the secularization of Spain- Orwell remarks that

To the Spanish people, at any rate in Catalonia and Aragon, the Church was a racket pure and simple.

Examples of anti-clerical sentiment in republican revolutions can also be seen in France, Portugal and various Latin American nation but never in Ireland. Why is this? Because the Catholic Church had a history of official persecution in Ireland and therefore many Irish Republicans saw practicing the Catholic faith as being an integral part of rebellion against Britain. Although the Catholic hierarchy never supported armed rebellion against Britain (And in previous centuries had often support British invasions, from Pope Adrian IV’s Laudabiliter bull to Pope Alexander VIII’s support for William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne) the Catholic faith became an integral part of the Irish national identity. And so, the Irish church found it unnecessary to impose its will upon anyone. While in countries such as Spain the supporters of Catholic repression found it necessary to violently coerce their countrymen, those in Ireland who wished for Catholic repression merely had to go to the polls and vote for it.

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