Really? This was my reaction, upon hearing that Ellen Coyne's first book would be about her desire to return to the Catholic Church. The staunch feminist Ellen Coyne? The Ellen Coyne who broke the story about the dispute over ownership of the National Maternity Hospital? Who reported on the marriage referendum and the referendum of the Eighth Amendment? Who told the story of many a person persecuted by the Catholic Church?
Well, as she points out, “no one ever bothered to ask what my own view was”.
With its slightly on-the-nose title, pinched from the Judy Blume book of (almost) the same name, Are You There, God? It's Me, Ellen begins with a niggling suspicion - "I think...I might be Catholic". She goes on to explore in earnest the idea of reverting to Catholicism, taking into account everything from the church's homophobic and sexist attitudes to its mishandling of abuse ("I wasn't even sure if going back to Catholicism was the Christian thing to do", she laments at one point), alongside Catholicism's good points: the comfort of the afterlife, the assurance of prayer, and "the best part of faith: the magic bit".
It’s an odd one. Reading this book is a bit like watching a top debater argue for the wrong side of the motion. She doesn’t really mean it, does she? Are you there, Ellen? It’s me, the 21st century.
Let me park my cynicism for a moment. What I liked about this book was that it was radical. These days, the popular view is that “the Church is an obsolete institution” and “identifying yourself as non-religious is a virtue signal”. The book might have gone down easier were it a polemic on the church’s failings, but it would also have been more boring.
I found the conclusion Coyne came to quite strange
The main thrust of Coyne’s argument is that “I would rather be inside the Church and watching it try to change than outside and bitching about why it isn’t bothering to”. It’s understandable to her that people chose to leave the institution, but she can’t square the fact that our cultural and spiritual heritage was bequeathed to a group of, well, right-wingers. “We all left, and we let the church keep the faith. Literally.”
Coyne goes back and forth over whether modern left-wing values can fit with Catholicism. The contrasting opinions of those she interviews pull the reader in many directions. Mary McAleese is “unapologetic...in her agitation for change [from within]”. A priest called Fr McDonald urges her to stay for the right reasons: “stay to be part of the reform. Don’t let the bastards write you out.” And Fr Peter McVerry talks and acts “in a way that makes the values of the Gospel feel more relevant to today.”
There are others, such as journalist Justine McCarthy and LGBT+ rights campaigner Justin McAleese, who after much soul searching can’t bring themselves to be part of an organisation that is so broken. “Why would any of us, in this day and age, join an institution which is basically a dictatorship?” asks Justin McAleese.
I found the conclusion Coyne came to quite strange. I was more convinced by her moments of doubt – “The more I learn, the more certain I feel that the place in a church for a woman is down on her hands and knees, in a pair of rubber gloves, cleaning the floor of the altar” – than her moments of faith. Indeed, she acknowledges that, “someone could have gone through the same considerations I did...and easily come out on the other side deciding to walk away from the Catholic Church”.
Moreover, I’m not entirely sure it’s Catholicism she wants to go back to. Even putting more contentious issues aside, the religion she proposes is very a la carte. Despite listing a belief in the afterlife as one of the positive aspects of faith, she later admits that “I don’t really believe in heaven.”
But aren’t Catholics supposed to believe in heaven? Can you just decide to be a Catholic, and thus become one? Or is there more to it than that? And can you decide to change an institution from the inside before you really go back inside? Ah, the mystery of faith.
Still, I admired the courage it took to take on these issues – to argue for a side that quite possibly won’t be on hers. I appreciated a take on the Catholic Church that doesn’t make it the butt of every joke, nor an object of indubitable veneration.
I’m not sure I can think of anyone out there who will be on board with everything in this book. That might be its best quality. It will get people talking. Coyne does things her own way and doesn’t (excuse the blasphemy) give a blessed damn.