Thinking Anew– Compassion in action

Illustration: iStock

Illustration: iStock

 

The case of garda Majella Moynihan is a reminder of the shameful way women were treated in this country in the not so distant past. That she, a single woman, was disciplined by the Garda authorities for being pregnant in 1984 is bad enough but the fact that a consequence was the adoption of her infant son and his separation from his birth mother is shocking.

It is reported that church and state were involved but it is difficult to find anything to indicate that Christian compassion featured at all in its resolution. The sole objective was to protect both institutions.

The relationship between church and state is changing in today’s Ireland but not for the first time as we prepare for the 150th anniversary of the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1871. Church/state relations were a major issue in post-Reformation Europe as the authority of the papacy was questioned and even rejected. The Peace of Augsburg (1555) established the principle of Cuius regio, eius religio (Whose realm, his religion), which decreed that the religion of the ruler should decide the religion of the people.

This intent was mainly political, and injustices were done to dissenters not only in Ireland but across Europe. For example, in France in 1572 in the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre thousands of Huguenots (French Calvinist Protestants) were attacked and many killed. Thousands fled, some seeking refuge in Ireland, bringing with them skills that proved hugely beneficial to this country.

An Old Testament reading for tomorrow demonstrates how religion and politics protect shared interests. In eighth century BC Israel trade was booming and there were riches in abundance, at least for some. Formal religion flourished at the shrine at Bethel. The fact that social injustice, corruption and fraud were rampant didn’t seem to bother anyone in authority, religious or civil. Enter the prophet Amos – an insignificant herdsman from Tekoa – warning that the nation would fall because of its amoral behaviour and false piety. Amos was no diplomat and his message to King Jeroboam was blunt: “Therefore thus says the Lord: ‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parcelled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’” Amaziah the priest accused Amos of conspiracy against the king “in the very centre of the house of Israel”.

The cosy cartel of church and state prevailed for that moment and Amos was sent packing: “Never again prophesy at the shrine at Bethel for it is the king’s sanctuary and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

The House of God had become “a temple of the kingdom” – headquarters of a state religion. Incidentally the kingdom fell in 722 BC.

In his book The Shaping of Prophecy, Fr Adrian Hastings, like Amos, asserts the primacy of God’s kingdom: “We can only prophesy out of an objectivity of truth and goodness. If love is preferable to hate, truth to lies, whatever an individual chooses to think or do, then there exists over and above us a moral order, unchangeable, objective, absolute. That, as Aquinas would say, is what we call God.”

Tomorrow’s gospel reading – the parable of the Good Samaritan – shows that religious people get things badly wrong without outside help.

The priest represented the highest religious leadership among the Jews; the Levite was the designated lay associate of the priest. Both have an opportunity to live what they preach but choose to pass by on the other side. In contrast, a Samaritan, a foreigner not expected to show sympathy to Jews, had compassion and went to the assistance of the wounded man, an act beautifully captured in these words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French writer and poet: “What value has compassion that does not take its object in its arms?” And that’s what was lacking in the case of Majella Moynihan.

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