Robust questioning of a loyal opponent of the church
Good and bad?: John XXIII photographs: ap and gabriel bouys/afp
Good and bad?: John Paul II. photographs: ap and gabriel bouys/afp
RELIGION: No Lions in the Hierarchy: An Anthology of Sorts, By Joseph Dunn, The Columba Press, 270pp, €14.99
Since its establishment, in the early 1980s, the Columba Press has produced almost 800 books, many of which openly challenged the dominant religious orthodoxy in Irish society. Joseph Dunn’s No Lions in the Hierarchy, first published in 1994, is one of the titles chosen for inclusion in the new Columba Classics series. It has lost none of its prophetic charge, and many of the issues raised, such as celibacy, the silencing of theologians, leadership in the church, birth control, liberation theology, Vatican politics and the appointment of bishops, are as relevant today as they were nearly 20 years ago.
Dunn was a Catholic priest who worked for many years in television, most notably as part of the Radharc team that was responsible for producing award-winning documentaries. Through his work, Dunn had the opportunity to meet priests in various countries, some of whom had gone so far as to take up arms against tyrannical regimes.
He was acquainted with the widely varying types of church that can be found in different parts of the globe and was friendly with several members of the Irish hierarchy, especially the Dublin archbishops John Charles McQuaid, Dermot Ryan, Kevin McNamara and Desmond Connell. It would appear that very little happened in the Irish church or in Rome that escaped Dunn’s attention.
In his preface the author acknowledges that he was freer than most to express his views, being “neither a professional theologian nor a practising parish priest”. The critical stances he adopted derived from what he terms “loyal opposition” to the church.
In an interesting introduction, Fr Tom Stack describes his friend’s “uncanny gift of being able, simultaneously, to write critically of the institutional church and still somehow retain the confidence of church authorities”. To achieve this balance requires one to be a shrewd operator, which Dunn undoubtedly was.
The book covers a broad canvas. The opening chapter deals with seminary life in the 1950s and 1960s. Dunn notes how young men contemplating the priesthood had to sacrifice a lot, such as having recourse to sex and the comfort of a wife and children. Given his rather liberal views on a number of issues, it might come as a surprise to learn that he regarded celibacy, when freely chosen, as a blessing that should not be discarded lightly. He made no attempt to downplay his own occasional struggles with loneliness and coping with normal sexual urges.
Like many Irish people, Dunn was a huge fan of the charismatic Pope John XXIII: “John for me is proof that the papacy can work. That it can be the centre of unity. That it can inspire people to believe in the goodness of God and of his creation. That it can generate optimism. And in the end help us to love God and one another better.”