Dublin, Ireland — The recent resignation of Tim Farron, the Christian leader of the Liberal Democrat party in the U.K., and the increasingly frequent references, in recent times, by the bishops of Ireland to what one has called “a kind of persecution” have brought a new degree of visibility to an ongoing reality.
But what “kind of persecution” was Bishop Leo O’Reilly of Kilmore referring to when he spoke in Drogheda at the welcome Mass for the relics of Ireland’s martyred primate, St. Oliver Plunkett?
Viewed from a distance, anti-Christian activity might seem to have undergone merely an increase in intensity. But a closer inspection reveals that something more fundamental may have changed.
In words reminiscent of St. John Paul II’s analysis of Western persecution of the Church in the Iron Curtain era, Bishop O’Reilly said:
The Church here is not subject to the kind of persecution that it experienced in the 17th century during St. Oliver’s ministry, nor as it is in many other parts of the world today. But I don’t think you have to be paranoid to believe that there is a kind of persecution of the Church taking place here all the same. It is not physical persecution but it is no less real for that.
It is more subtle. It takes the form of gradual exclusion of Church people or activities from the public space. There is denigration of religious beliefs, practices and institutions on radio, television and on social and other media. There is often a focus on bad news about the Church to the almost total exclusion of any good news.
For a long time, Irish and British Catholics who might be described as orthodox or “conservative,” have been running into difficulties for their beliefs, both inside and outside the Church.
What may be hinted at, here, but is not immediately apparent from the text, is that the latest wave of persecution is, by no means, confined to the orthodox and outspoken.
For some time now, Catholics who publicly voiced concerns about any localized ambiguity in Church teaching— over, for example, the Divinity of Jesus or the sinfulness of contraception and homosexual acts—have been derided both by the media and within certain quarters of the Church.
The carefully crafted media image of the “ideal Catholic” — from an aggressive secularist point of view — therefore, was exemplified by the former Catholic Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in 2009, when fielding a challenge about plans to legalize same-sex civil unions, from then Drogheda-based priest Father John Hogan.
Minister Dermot Ahern said, that he didn’t “bring whatever religion he has to the table,” when he legislated, particularly as a Government minister.
This sort of position used to be applauded by what Bishop William Crean of Cloyne, has referred to as Ireland’s “political and media establishments.”
Fast forward eight years, and the very philosophy of “tolerance” once lauded by the establishment in 2009 and earlier, is no longer tolerated in 2017.
It would be very unfair to Tim Farron, to suggest that, in common with the Irish former minister, he didn’t “bring whatever religion he has to the table” (in fact, Farron has a record of either abstaining or voting with anti-abortion groups in Parliament).
But, by making it clear in his resignation speech that he was “a liberal to (his) fingertips” who did not consider himself to be one of those “Christians in politics who take the view that they should impose the tenets of their faith on society,” the Evangelical Christian was certainly promoting a position which, just a short time ago, would have been far more acceptable to the media establishment than it clearly is today.
Indeed, in April of this year, an apparently exasperated Farron, defending himself in Parliament, claimed that he was “very proud” to have voted in favor of the U.K.’s Gay Marriage Bill in 2013, adding that the then government “did not go as far as it should have done in terms of recognizing transgender rights.”
But it is not only British politicians who appear bewildered by the new turn of events. In Ireland, priests and religious not known for their conservative views have expressed shock, not only at the extent but also at the focus of much of the recent anti-Catholic sentiment.
Sister Stanislaus Kennedy a well-known popular figure with the Irish media had, for example, very publicly expressed her support for a ‘Yes’ vote in the gay marriage or so-called “equality” referendum in 2015. She is also in favor of contraception. But Sister Stanislaus is also a member of the Religious Sisters of Charity, an order which until recently owned and controlled three major hospitals in Ireland.
Following a relentless media campaign against plans to allow the sisters to own the planned new National Maternity Hospital, which was to be built on their grounds, the order, in spite of having the effective support of some abortion advocates, decided to end their involvement in the management of all three of their Dublin hospitals and announced their intention to hand over control and ownership to a new group that would formally comply with Irish laws rather than Catholic medical ethics.
Later, a surprised and hurt sounding Sister Stanislaus, told the national broadcaster RTÉ that “it was unfair to the Sisters of Charity, a lot of things that were said” and “it’s not nice to hear your order criticized wrongly, really, accused wrongly. It’s not nice.”
Significantly, she added, “it was very much media lead all that stuff … absolutely.”
The recognition of the media agenda against the Church by someone who would be seen as a “liberal/progressive” voice in the Church is marking an unusual point of unity between “liberals” and “conservatives”, in Ireland.
A similar trend can be seen in religious education in Ireland.
While conservative Catholics have long had much to complain about in terms of the poor standards of religious formation in Catholic schools, there is now a strong media campaign against laws decried as ‘discriminatory’ which, in reality, help protect the ethos of such schools, even where much of the damage to this ethos has already been done and has been self-inflicted — a Catholic school for girls in Dublin, for example, recently, decided to remove the cross from its insignia lest it would cause offence.
This campaign is in parallel with moves to divest Catholic schools and transfer ownership to groups with a secular ideology.
The message is clear, in Ireland and in Britain, alike, the persecution of the Christian faith has just been ratcheted up a notch. Christianity, no matter what form it takes, has now become unacceptable to the political and media establishments.
Does this represent a scorched earth policy by the forces of secularism to pre-empt even the possibility of the return of an overwhelmingly faith-filled “Catholic Ireland” or “Dowry of Mary,” for example? It would certainly seem so.
In any case, after several years of seeing people of faith not bringing their religious beliefs to the table of public policy, and being put to the top of the class for their tolerance, it now appears that not just the publicly expressed beliefs of Christians but Christians themselves, “domesticated” or otherwise, are no longer welcome at that table either.