Suicide or self-sacrifice: Catholics debate hunger strikes

The hunger strikes divided the Catholic Church along national lines, with the Irish hierarchy taking a markedly different approach to their English counterparts

Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, the Catholic Primate of All Ireland, spoke out after the deaths of Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara, asking the British government to acquiesce to the hunger strikers’ basic demands, and that the strikers in return end their protest

Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, the Catholic Primate of All Ireland, spoke out after the deaths of Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara, asking the British government to acquiesce to the hunger strikers’ basic demands, and that the strikers in return end their protest

 

In her book, The Catholics of Ulster, Marianne Elliott described the Catholic Church in Northern Ireland as being “stuck between a rock and a hard place” when it came to the Troubles.

No matter how vociferously it denounced violence, (and in Catholic, but perhaps not secular, terms it was at times startlingly direct) it was either seen to be betraying its community by speaking out at all or not being tough enough by refusing to excommunicate the “men and women of violence”. Nowhere was this seen more clearly than during the period of the 1981 hunger strikes. The events and debates surrounding the hunger strikes shone a blinding spotlight on the hierarchies of the Irish, and English and Welsh Catholic Churches, who were expected to provide the moral leadership and guidance necessary to secure justice for all involved.

The rallying point for all of this was the issue of suicide. Or, to put it more precisely, whether those on hunger strike were dying by suicide or not, and consequently if they should be given a full Catholic funeral consisting of a Requiem Mass, public funeral and ecclesial burial. Over a period of six weeks, an intense debate erupted within the Catholic press, and one that sometimes spilt over into mainstream publications such as the Spectator, the Times, and the Daily Express.

Although the row had been rumbling for some time, the catalyst for its eruption was a letter from Cardinal Basil Hume (leader of England and Wales’ Catholics) to Bishop Edward Daly of Derry, which the former released to the press. This letter, written in the aftermath of Hume’s visit to Derry in April 1981 to conduct an ordination, ended with the observation that “a hunger strike to death is a form of violence to one’s self and violence leads to violence”.

Although Hume’s analysis of the situation in the rest of the letter was much more nuanced than this phrase would suggest, it was this comment that the press and public picked up on – an issue compounded by the fact that members of the Irish Catholic hierarchy presented an alternative view of the matter.

It wasn’t until the death of Sands, on May 5th, that any statement was made by the Irish hierarchy regarding the morality of the action when Edward Daly stated: “Whilst I think that the British Government has been intransigent, I find it very difficult – in my own conscience – to morally justify a hunger strike. I would not describe Bobby Sands’ death as a suicide. I could not accept that. I don’t think he intended to bring about his own death. I think that he thought there was a possibility, that he hoped that something would be achieved” (The Tablet, May 16th, 1981).

The Irish bishops also issued a statement after Sands’ death saying that “the Church teaches that suicide is a great evil”. However, they added that “there is some dispute about whether or not political hunger striking is suicide, or more precisely, about the circumstances in which it is suicide” (Quoted in the New York Times, June 8th , 1981).

Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, the Catholic Primate of All Ireland, remained silent for over a fortnight after this. After the deaths of Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara, he spoke out, asking the British government to acquiesce to the hunger strikers’ basic demands, and that the strikers in return end their protest. The focus was therefore on the context in which these protests were being carried out rather than the hunger strikes themselves.

A week later, in the aftermath of the highly-politicised funerals of McCreesh and O’Hara, politics and religion intertwined in a uniquely Northern Irish way. The Sunday Express published a cartoon accompanied by an editorial that portrayed Ó Fiaich as a “recruiting sergeant for the IRA” (May 31st , 1981). As the Tablet, the progressive Catholic weekly periodical and site of much of this debate through its editorials and letters page, noted: “We are witnessing a mobilisation of Catholic moral theology for an essentially political purpose. Moral teaching is sought as a way of condemning and discrediting the hunger strikers, or as an apologetic for them” (May 30th, 1981).

Although the Catholic Church’s teaching on suicide appears fixed and fairly straightforward, there is an ambiguity to it. The Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law as it stood in 1981 refused a Requiem Mass, public funeral, and ecclesial burial to any suicide, unless he or she had shown remorse (§1240-41). If there was any doubt, these ceremonies had to be conducted in a manner that did not cause scandal.

For many the answer was black and white: under the terms of Canon Law, the hunger strikers had died by suicide: “He chose to take his own life in a way that did violence to his own faculties and his mind” (The Tablet, May 16th , 1981). However, the role of individual conscience played a part in people’s assessment of the issue. Canon law did not state that one could not do something that might cause death and it is to this justification that Waugh and others referred in their critique of the Irish hierarchy. In Catholic moral theology this was known as the “double effect principle”, an idea borrowed from philosophy. This quickly became known as the Captain Oates question whereby the individual undertakes an action, such as a hunger strike, in the spirit of self-sacrifice for others.

Such subjectivism, especially in a political context such as Northern Ireland, meant that a number of factors needed to be taken into account when determining whether the strikers were suicidal or not. This was the fundamental role of the Catholic Church in this situation. These questions included asking whether there was a truly proportional reason for such an act, and whether the protest was conceived as a refusal to co-operate with the regime in order to improve conditions. Underlying all of this was just-war theory, which taught that force could rarely be totally avoided. Central to this was the issue of justice, which provided the context in which the hunger strikes occurred.

The Catholic hierarchies in both England and Wales, and Ireland approached this task in different ways. The English bishops had discussed hunger striking and decided that there were three categories: the first was an exercise in brinkmanship where death was accidental; the second was where the person deliberately intended to die if necessary; and the third was where a person refused all kinds of co-operation including food but death was not intended and occurred indirectly. Their statement included the caveat that “It is no use condemning a crime if we do not find a solution and this can only be done by politicians” (The Universe, May 8th, 1981).

By constantly condemning violence, and asking the British government to agree to the strikers’ requests, the Irish Catholic Church by contrast sought to highlight the injustices that were causing the protests, and in doing so were displaying the mercy and forgiveness that is fundamental to Catholicism. Neither group of bishops offered an answer to the questions but sought instead to exercise their teaching function and guide people in developing their own conclusions.

Under the terms of Canon Law, we will never know whether the hunger strikers’ deaths were suicides or not, as such matters are protected under the seal of the confessional. The question and people’s reactions to it, however, tells us much about Catholicism both in Ireland, and in England and Wales. The Catholic Church was undergoing a period of massive flux as it came to terms with the changes brought by Vatican II. This meant that some still expected it to act as a nation-state, making unequivocal demands and pronouncements as it had done in the past. The reality was that the Catholic Church’s attitude to politics had changed. As an institution it was no longer a political actor. Instead, it provided the moral guidance necessary for its members to make informed choices that influenced their behaviour in the world. It needed to create a balance between its teaching and prophetic functions. When it came to the hunger strikes, the church didn’t achieve the balance necessary. It became side-tracked by points of moral theology regarding the issue of suicide, and in doing so allowed these to obscure the real issue of justice.

Dr Maria Power is a lecturer in religion and peace building at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool

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