Humanism and "The Priest in Politics": Sean O'Faolain, Edward Said and John Henry Newman

By Markey, Alfred | Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

Humanism and "The Priest in Politics": Sean O'Faolain, Edward Said and John Henry Newman


Markey, Alfred, Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies


Since the foundation of the Irish State, and particularly since the writing of de Valera's 1937 constitution, the desire for the separation of Church and State has been a central concern for many of the country's more prominent intellectuals. (1) Chief among these was Sean O'Faolain. In his address at the May 1991 memorial service held for O'Faolain, Conor Cruise O'Brien, himself a notable critic of what he called "The Catholic State", (2) offered a nuanced picture:

   Sean was often referred to as anti-clerical, but
   that is a misleading description. Sean was
   incapable of humping together so disparate a
   body as the Irish clergy, whether for the
   purposes of condemnation or commendation.
   What Sean was against was what Burke was
   against: abuse of power, whether by Right or
   Left, Catholics or Protestants, laity or clergy. In
   Sean's day, the senior Irish clergy commanded a
   great deal of authority, even in what are thought
   of elsewhere as purely secular affairs and they
   sometimes abused that authority (1991: 95).

In this paper I wish to examine how O'Faolain contested the abuse of power of the Church while doing so with a view to stressing, in line with the subtle intellectual politics not of Burke but of Edward Said, the important role to be played by the individual intellectual in bringing about change, and the potential value of the utilization of a renewed language of humanism. By revisiting O'Faolain, and by invoking his presence in dialogue with Said's humanistic idiom, we can reappraise the worth of his ground-breaking challenge to Church authority and consider it particularly in relation to ongoing tension in Ireland around Church and State relations and the consequent fallout with regards to individual and gender rights. To illustrate the character of O'Faolain's interventions, a close reading, in the manner advocated by Said, will be undertaken of his article "The Priest in Politics" which was published in 1947 in The Bell, that key magazine often attributed with offering the first important challenge to the terms of national self-definition which had become hegemonic in the decades following independence. (3)

Following the above quotation, O'Brien went on to claim that it was in fact his own cousin, Owen Sheehy Skeffington, who had been the most aggressive in critiquing the abuses of clerical power before then recalling how O'Faolain himself had ended his memorial address at Skeffington's funeral declaring: "you won, Owen, you won" (1991: 96). The words had been articulated in 1970 in relation to the broad mood of liberalisation which had marked the 60s and the perception that the "Catholic State" had, in effect, fallen to the secular tide of modernisation, part of which involved the increasing acknowledgement of a humanist charter of rights and liberties not modelled to the exclusive prerogative of the Catholic Church. In the light of the recent controversy in Ireland following the death from septicaemia of Ms Savita Halappanavar, and the subsequent claim from her husband that, according to The Irish Times, she had repeatedly asked for a termination of her pregnancy over a three-day period but was refused as there was still a foetal heartbeat, while also being told "this is a Catholic country", the celebratory words of O'Faolain do perhaps appear somewhat premature (Holland and Cullen 2012). Indeed, O'Brien himself had been notably less sanguine than O'Faolain, remarking that following the results of the two referenda held in the 1980s, the words of victory would have to be spoken without the same confidence, while still concluding that "Yet basically, Sean was right" (1991: 96).

If the degree to which Ireland has moved away from a Catholic identity remains as issue of debate, it is unquestionably true that the change has been considerable since the mid-century period, and it is equally important that, particularly in view of the contemporary controversy, attention be placed once more on the seminal role played in promoting change by individual intellectuals who, in the parlance of humanism and the language of human rights, 'speak truth to power'. …

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