Tell us this is just an early April Fools' Day hoax

Is a bishop really being investigated for inciting hatred following a complaint over his homily?

Is a bishop really being investigated for inciting hatred following a complaint over his homily?

SAY IT ain’t so, Alan.

Please, dear Minister for Justice, tell me that, in the week after the body of a tortured-then-murdered young Romanian woman was taken from a shallow grave in the Dublin mountains, the week that the body of a strangled Malawian woman was found in a suitcase on a Dublin street, the DPP was not poring over a file sent to him by An Garda Síochána after the Bishop of Raphoe was accused of incitement to hatred because he spoke of a “Godless culture” attacking the Catholic Church.

Please, Minister, at a time when one-tenth of rank-and-file gardaí and close to half of senior officers are opting for early retirement, tell us this is just an early April Fools’ Day hoax.

According to a report in this week's Sunday Independent, a homily delivered by Bishop Boyce at Knock shrine last August is being investigated by the DPP following a complaint by a "humanist".

The complaint apparently cites two passages of the homily as inciting “hatred”. One passage referred to the Catholic Church in Ireland being attacked from outside “by the arrows of a secular and godless culture”; the other was the following axiomatic observation: “For the distinguishing mark of Christian believers is the fact they have a future; it is not that they know all the details that await them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness.”

The complainant is a former Fine Gael election candidate, John Colgan, described as a “leading humanist”, who was involved in the late 1990s in the Campaign to Separate Church and State. The complaint has been made under the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act, 1989, and is reported to aver: “I believe statements of this kind are an incitement to hatred of dissidents, outsiders, secularists, within the meaning of the Act, who are perfectly good citizens within the meaning of the civil law”.

I presume that the worst that will emerge from this fatuous affair is an immense waste of official time. If anything else happens, we are in terminal trouble, for it will indicate that the Irish State has gone clinically insane and that Irish culture has finally arrived to an era that is not merely post-freedom, but post-irony, post-reason and post-common sense.

A brief perusal of Bishop Boyce’s homily confirmed my initial intuition that the only nasty sentiments on display in this episode were demonstrated by Colgan and perhaps whoever in An Garda Síochána and/or the Department of Justice was responsible for this matter being given more than 10 seconds’ worth of official attention. Like many Irish atheists, secularists and self-styled “humanists”, Colgan seeks in his complaint to reverse what the dogs in the street know to be true: that it is, in the main, religious believers who are nowadays publicly scorned by secularists and atheists, who are readily and willingly provided with various public platforms to subject believers to extreme hostility and ridicule on account of their faith.

I am not alone in believing this, nor will I ask readers to rely on my opinion. This view is shared even by some who have in the past been vocal critics of the Catholic Church. In a remarkable but largely unremarked interview with the Irish Catholiclast year, my fellow Irish Timescolumnist Fintan O'Toole said a number of interesting and unexpected things about the Irish media's recent treatment of Catholicism.

Acknowledging that he himself had been characterised as “anti-religious”, O’Toole said that, in his view, Irish journalism has of late fallen victim to snobbery and elitism in its coverage of religion in general and Catholicism in particular.

He asserted that there had been a tendency among journalists to use the subject of child abuse to “get at” Catholicism, by insinuating that the Catholic faith is fundamentally corrupt and therefore leads to the abuse of children. “This is complete rubbish,” he said, “and it’s demonstrably rubbish”.

Limited demographic representation, he said, had resulted in the disproportionately secular and irreligious character of Irish media. Whereas once it took courage to criticise the church, nowadays Catholicism is an easy target. The resulting “very hostile environment . . . for people of faith” has meant that religious-minded people have become reluctant to speak publicly about their faith because of snobbery about religion, combined with a bias “against any kind of thought”.

Perhaps I am missing something, but it seems to me that you could scarcely slip a prayer card between the views expressed by O’Toole and the argument outlined in Bishop Boyce’s homily. In view of this, it seems that, if the logic of the Colgan-initiated investigation is to be followed, the authorities must choose between the following options: 1. investigate O’Toole for sharing some of Bishop Boyce’s views; or 2. investigate all those commentators, religious correspondents and editors of whom O’Toole was implicitly speaking.

I hasten to add that I am not personally advocating either of these options, or even – interesting as it might prove – both. (In this post-ironic era, you cannot be too careful.)