Why do we still broadcast the angelus bongs?

Silencing the bell that announces ‘this is a Catholic country’ should be easy. But it's not

Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar: has warned there might be “significant merit” in seizing the Catholic Church’s hospital and school property, but warned that the practical barriers were overwhelming. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar: has warned there might be “significant merit” in seizing the Catholic Church’s hospital and school property, but warned that the practical barriers were overwhelming. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

To Claire Byrne Live for a discussion on the Catholic Church’s place in Irish society. Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty, and David Quinn, founder of the Iona Institute, continued to remind me those two beings from an early episode of Star Trek who were condemned to wrestle for eternity in the space between universes.

There was some moving testimony of abuse. Somebody wondered why nobody ever talks about the good the church does. Somebody else wondered why nobody ever talks about the good the church does. People are always talking about how nobody talks about what good the church does.

Anyway, you didn’t need a thermometer to sense a change in temperature. Thirty years ago, secularists were brought on to The Late Late Show in cages to be prodded curiously with long poles. (Not really, but you get the drift.)

This Claire Byrne Live audibly groaned at some defences of the Catholic Church. More vigorous attacks were greeted with applause. The scandals surrounding sexual abuse and the deaths of children in care have encouraged a suspicion of a once-untouchable institution.

We already knew that. It was, however, worth attending two polls taken for the programme on attitudes to the church. Asked whether the Government should “seize church land and property to compensate victims of clerical or institutional abuse,” a full 69 per cent said “yes”. Fourteen per cent didn’t know and only 17 percent said “no”.

This seems to show an unambiguous antagonism towards the Catholic Church. But another poll on the show suggested a very different attitude. Of those questioned, 62 per cent agreed with the angelus being broadcast on RTÉ. Eleven per cent were unsure and only 27 per cent objected.

I will leave it to the statisticians to argue about how representative the polls – conducted for RTÉ by Amárach Research – really are. But we can assume the same methodology was used in both cases.

Dramatic

Viewed from one perspective, these figures are difficult to reconcile. The first proposal is by far the more dramatic of the two. Any forced seizure of assets would demonstrate an extraordinary shift in relations between church and State. A disinterred Archbishop McQuaid, fanatical campaigner against Godless communism, would surely view such a move as a belated victory for the Stalinists.

The move would also be fraught with legal difficulties. Last week, Leo Varadkar, Minister for Social Protection, admitted that there might be “significant merit” in seizing hospital and school property, but warned that the practical barriers were overwhelming.

“Governments can only operate within the law. In our Constitution there are enshrined property rights and it is not in the power of the Government to confiscate anyone’s property,” he said. Good luck passing a constitutional referendum on that more general question.

By way of contrast, quietening the angelus bell would be a small, small thing. It is paradoxical that there is enough anger to suggest finishing what Oliver Cromwell began, but not enough to trim two minutes of bongs from the national airwaves.

Many would, of course, reasonably argue that the distinction is to do with the practical benefits of the two proposed measures. True, it might be satisfying to some to see the church inconvenienced by property seizures. More important would be the confidence that the perpetrators, rather than contemporary taxpayers, would be shouldering the cost of compensation to deserving victims.

Meanwhile, we can nostalgically soak up the bells while thinking whatever it is we think before the news starts. It’s a nice old sound. Isn’t it?

That’s not good enough. There is a serious issue wound in with this apparently trivial question. The programme’s continued presence contributes to the soft power that the Catholic Church exerts over society.

Notorious

The State broadcaster is, by including an identifiably Catholic ritual in its schedule, confirming that – to reference a notorious phrase from the Savita Halappanavar case – this is “a Catholic country”.

Don’t bother explaining that the televised version now features secular images. It doesn’t matter if the bells accommodate some fisherman as he ponders a barnacle or some potter as she pauses before the kiln.

The short films are not taking place at the same time as the Islamic dawn prayer. They do not coincide with the point at which snake handlers handle their snakes or Jedi Knights mourn the passing of Obi Wan.

The angelus’s continuing, State-sponsored existence does not just argue that this is a Catholic country. It argues that this is a Christian country. It argues that this is a religious country. It argues that this is a superstitious country. Some of us strive to be none of those things.

Taking the property would be good. But it is hard. Stopping the endless bongs and the soft power they represent is easy.

Or it should be.

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