Michael McDowell: Archbishop in no position to talk about groupthink

Those who argue for infallibility now find themselves marginalised in public debate

Archbishop of Tuam Dr Michael Neary drew attention to what he views as media and political groupthink. Photograph: James Forde

It would be grossly unfair to dismiss out of hand the words of the Archbishop of Tuam, Dr Michael Neary, spoken by way of homily last Saturday in Westport ahead of Reek Sunday.

He drew attention to what he views as media and political groupthink that tends to view and debate matters of religion primarily in through a political prism and in a political context. When someone challenges groupthink, their words usually merit consideration.

Organised denominational religions, particularly the Christian churches, are struggling to be heard and listened to in modern Irish discourse. And, as the archbishop pointed out, they make the news not for the positive values they espouse but for their shortcomings – sometimes extreme.

The Catholic Church is visibly withering and struggling for institutional survival

This situation is a comparative novelty, especially for the Roman Catholic institutional church which achieved a political and moral pre-eminence over most of this island and nearly all of independent Ireland which it had exercised in its own political way from the Act of Union until the 1970s. And the post-Norman church held a different form of pre-eminence up until the 17th century.


Dr Neary argued that gospel values are intended “to bind people together and to God rather than to divide and conquer”. He claims that religion as a “counter-cultural force” is nonetheless being marginalised. If the prevailing popular culture – national or international – is division and conquest, then one would assume that a unifying and liberating counter force would be a good and wholesome thing valued and accepted as such. Why would it be marginalised?

Growing chasm

As I see it, the problem is a growing chasm between values shared by the great majority and particular claimed values and positions espoused by the Roman Catholic Church. To take an obvious example, Humane Vitae – Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical reaffirming opposition to artificial contraception – “hasn’t gone away, you know”.

Dr Neary must understand that most thinking people on this island not only disagree profoundly with that position to which he is morally handcuffed – but reject that position as verging on the unstateable and untenable.

They certainly don’t see that church teaching as having anything to do with gospel values which unify but as an indefensible assertion of a divisive and misguided view of sexuality and the human condition – and of the authority of the churchmen who just hope that people would forget about it.

For the younger generation, that issue is as strange as it is irrelevant.

In the 1950s, the Catholic Church boldly condemned as morally wrong the provision of maternity health by the state while claiming its own right to do so

Contraception is no longer the controversy. But the Catholic Church is visibly withering and struggling for institutional survival precisely because it cannot address that type of issue in a way that seems rooted in gospel values as distinct from dogmatic theological theory.

It could be argued with greater force, I venture to suggest, that the failures of the churches to deal with such matters and with the status of women and gay people is the result of a far more obvious and dubious non-gospel based groupthink on their part. Those who argue for infallibility and moral magisterium might well ponder whether they are in any strong position to single out groupthink among others as the real cause of their present marginalisation.

Admittedly, it is easy to take cheap potshots at organised religion in our present social and political environment. Liberal republicans should remember that freedom of thought, belief and religious practice are liberal values which need to be protected just as strongly as the rights of religious dissenters. Liberal republican values include respect for the individual – not glorification of the individual – and respect for the other.

Espousal of corporatism

Thinking people might ask how, in 1931, it was not merely the business of the Catholic Church to condemn communism and capitalism but even to condemn socialism as morally wrong and inherently anti-Christian. (Liberalism and modernism had been equally condemned by previous papacies.)

But that is precisely what was done in the great social encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, seen by many as a rejection of liberal capitalism in the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street crash and as an unfortunate espousal of corporatism as the solution to the problems of humanity.

And in the 1950s, the Catholic Church (aided by the medical establishment) boldly condemned as morally wrong the provision of maternity health by the state while claiming its own right to do so.

The Roman Catholic Church, like most Christian denominations, has never actively sought to be found on the margins of political discourse. Its self-perception as being marginalised does reflect the truth of its present parlous position in Ireland and in much of Europe. With ageing clergy and ageing and dwindling congregations, its presence in the political agora is becoming exiguous.

That does not mean that what people really believe to be core gospel values have been discarded. It means, I think, that Dr Neary, like us all, has a lot of thinking to do.