Fry blasphemy brouhaha has exposed our post-Catholic neurosis

The backlash was mostly about acting out the ritualised shame of being from a persecuted, backward little country

Stephen Fry gives his views on the existence of God during an appearance on 'The Meaning of Life with Gay Byrne' in February 2015. Video: RTÉ

 

Dispatches from Ireland, a peculiar rain-drenched outcrop at the edge of civilised Europe, indicate that John Charles McQuaid himself has returned from the grave to personally oversee the continuing oppression of the Irish people.

Or so you might think listening into the national conversation from afar these days. It seems that a week doesn’t go by without a bout of collective handwringing about the influence of bad old Catholic Ireland, which, judging by the news, stalks the land, zombie-like, as menacingly as ever.

Take the kerfuffle over Stephen Fry and Ireland’s outdated blasphemy law, the latest example of the Irish chattering classes earnestly trying to convince themselves and anyone who’ll listen that the country is a theocratic backwater. Think Saudi Arabia, but wetter.

To be clear, the law – breathlessly described as “Taliban-like”– is a nonsense. There is no justification for religiously-inspired legal restrictions on speech in a liberal democracy. Although An Garda Síochána’s so-called “investigation” predictably went nowhere, comments such as those in which Fry railed against a “capricious, mean-minded, stupid God” shouldn’t be a matter for the police in the first place.

Simply stating this, though, wasn’t enough. Better to wallow in our own sense of Catholic oppression, which, if rooted in genuine grievances, is becoming increasingly divorced (not like that, Father) from reality. Cue the national self-flagellation. “Mortified,” we were. Was Father Ted really a comedy or a documentary?

But the most embarrassing aspect of the whole episode, which made international headlines, wasn’t the laying bare of a legal relic from our religion-steeped past. It was the sight of Irish people prostrating themselves before a foreign celebrity such as Fry and the world at large to seek forgiveness – absolution if you will – and proclaim their embarrassment with their country.

The obnoxiously patronising comments from quarters such as the British Humanist Association – Ireland, the silly girl, “still has a long way to go” – were matched only by the self-loathing hysteria at home.

Never mind that numerous Western nations, from Denmark to Greece, still have blasphemy laws. Or that the UK – which has a state church headed by a queen – only repealed similar laws in 2008, and New Zealand moved to do the same just this week. Such laws don’t make sense anywhere, but Ireland’s mortification clearly wasn’t driven by any steadfast commitment to the principle of free expression. No comparable wails of shame accompanied the Garda investigation of Bishop Philip Boyce in 2012 for “hate speech” following a fairly banal sermon decrying secularism. Or the incitement to hatred investigation of RTÉ the following year over its use of the words “Roma, blue eyes, blonde hair” to accurately describe two Roma children who were removed from their family without justification.

No, the backlash was mostly about acting out the ritualised shame of being from a persecuted, backward little country like ours.

Crude reductionism

In 2017, Ireland, or a loud section of it, appears positively neurotic about Catholicism, the influence of which any reasonable person would concede has been checkered at best. Everything seems to lead back to the church. If a discussion can be linked in any way to religion, a crude reductionism takes hold, making our thinking the hostage of ghosts. Trivial issues such as the Good Friday ban on alcohol sales are inflated out of all proportion. A serious topic such as abortion, on the other hand, is framed in cartoonish terms in which all opposition and unease are the mere symptoms of religious brainwashing. Some Catholic-inspired indignation is simply incoherent: When the Sisters of Charity indicated they might pull out of the National Maternity Hospital following an understandable public backlash over religious ownership, they were duly accused of threatening the future of the institution – as if the site wasn’t theirs to begin with. At the present rate, it won’t be long before we are linking tailbacks on the M50 and the God-awful (pardon me, Father) weather to the slippery tentacles of Rome.

It’s tempting to think that Ireland simply has a psychological need to feel oppressed. For a long time, Britain nicely filled that role. Now, it’s the church playing the part. At least until we glimpse the next bogeyman lurking in the shadows.

John Power is an Irish journalist based in Australia

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