Presentation of Book THE BIBLE WARS IN IRELAND
Speaking Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin, Primate of Ireland
Trinity College, Dublin, 13th January 2006
I took up Irene Whelan’s book The Bible Wars in Ireland – the ‘Second Reformation’ and the Polarization of Protestant Catholic Relations, 1800-1840 with little knowledge about just what it was all about.
It turned out to be a fascinating work on the social and religious history of Ireland in a critical period in Irish history, after 1798, after the Act of Union and during the immediate pre- and post Emancipation period. It is a period about which we know too little and much of what we non-specialists, Protestant and Catholic alike, know is coloured by the tribal colour from which each of us sets out.
The book traces the activities of very disparate people, Catholics and Protestants, who were active during a period not just merely of strong religious sentiment, but of strong religious renewal located within a complex political situation. The personalities involved were at times larger than life. They were strong personalities, strongly motivated, often with little in common. Their business was polarization and polarization was inevitably going to be the product of their interaction.
Their differences were so great that one stage in reading the book I felt that some of these personages could still be sparring with each other up in heaven two hundred years later, and that probably the only thing that they would be able to agree on would be that it is not right that the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin should be speaking tonight in Trinity College.
The “Second Reformation” among evangelical Protestant traditions in Ireland came perhaps just at the wrong time. The genuine zeal of evangelical Protestant societies to bring education to all in Ireland, but especially to the most deprived catholic children, came – no matter what the intentions were – from an established Church which was in a privileged position, and was linked with a Protestant ascendancy. On the one hand, that ascendancy was in one sense under challenge, with the fear of impending emancipation. On the other hand, the Act of Union had created a situation in which Catholicism had become a minority religion within a broader Union, thus opening apparent new possibilities for the established Church.
The reaction of the Catholic community after Emancipation, on its part, fostered the emergence of a fortress mentality. There was a determination to defend its own rights and interests, especially through the religious education of children of the Catholic flock. The Catholic community, especially under the leadership of O’Connell, achieved remarkable unity in its purpose and the years after emancipation released enormous forces for Catholic religious renewal.
The book draws out many examples of well intentioned -indeed genuinely enlightened and for the time far-sightedly tolerant – relief action by Protestant church leaders. These were however inevitably going to be tainted by the efforts of a smaller, but not insignificant number of instances of proselytism or “quick conversion”. Certainly it would seem that such conversions were not accompanied by lengthy religious instruction, but it must also be said that, despite modest economic benefit, it took courage to remain a convert to Protestantism when such people were singled out and ostracised at times in a brutal manner.
There are also interesting accounts of how religious controversy at the time was as newsworthy and entertaining as any Late Late Show of our day. Churches provided extraordinary spectacles of controversy, debate and polemics. There are examples in the book of the controversies going on for six days non-stop, with every kind of weapon being fair in such battles, including false allegations on a personal, professional or on a financial level.
What remains with me about this book is its relevance to today’s world. I mean this in two ways. There is a reference in the final words of the book to fundamentalism in today’s religious culture worldwide. There are also the wider questions of “what, if…?” What would Irish society be like today if the national school system had come earlier in a less confessionalised context? How would Ireland have been if this University had been more open to Catholics at that time and had third level education in Ireland become pluralist from an early stage?
The context today is in many senses very different. At the level of Church leadership there is certainly a much more enlightened understanding of differences between confessions and the superficial caricatures of each other’s positions have long vanished from official circles. But we would be foolish to think that fundamentalist misunderstandings could not arise again in Ireland, especially today regarding Islam and regarding the religious sentiments of people from different cultural backgrounds. We must realise that a genuinely multicultural Ireland will not emerge simply on its own. It is important that the challenges of achieving a new peaceful ethnic composition in Ireland be a matter of open and mature debate in public opinion.
The book should provoke lessons for all the Churches to learn, especially in relations to the State and society. Church and State are not Siamese Twins. Part of a mature, healthy interaction between Church and State is a healthy separation. A healthy separation between Church and State is better than any form of establishment by Act or by fact. The book reflects on how much the polarization of the early eighteen hundreds may have contributed to a reinforcement of Catholic political identity and thus to what many Irish Protestants felt to be a confessional State. The answer to the temptations towards confessionalism in the past is not however the domination by a new secularist confessionalism. It is much more about learning the ability to live together in mutual respect.
Here and there throughout the book personalities emerge who took what must be considered remarkably enlightened stands and who were able to appreciate the positions of others, even those with whom there was not much social interaction. There were those of liberal Protestant tradition who played an important part in supporting Catholic Emancipation and there were examples of cooperation between Catholic leaders and their Church of Ireland colleagues that would have been unrivalled in their correctness and cordiality until recent times.
At times such people – as often happens – were criticised by both sides and considered either “Castle Catholics” or “sell-outs” to Rome. It shows that courage is needed among religious leaders not just about what they should say but about what they should not be saying. Religious fundamentalism is still a danger today and it can emerge in new forms, both on the progressive and conservative wings of religious thinking. Indeed fundamentalism is a little like original sin; it is there within each of us without us knowing.
For all the difficulties which may have emerged in the past, it is the biblical tradition and biblical language which can curiously be most effective in communicating even with the most secularised. Today’s religious leader must be more and more one who can offer nourishment which springs from the richness of the scriptures and the wealth of our different religious traditions and which can inculcate judgement and discernment into the lives of mature Christians called to live in a pluralist culture. The sad thing about the “Bible Wars” depicted in the book is that the wars became polemics and distracted the readers on both sides from the true and lasting challenge which the Word of God can pose day by day to the believer living out a mature faith. The truth never requires polemics.
Ireland today, like the period under consideration in our book is changing and is, you might say, moving from one cultural ascendancy to another. It is moving from one where religious values were very often dominant in society into one where religious culture through by no means extinct or irrelevant is challenged by other visions.
Our book looks at the negative polarization which emerged from the “Bible Wars” of the early eighteen hundreds. It should spur us all on to realise that today substituting “Bible Wars” with fruitless “Cultural Wars” would probably be an equally negative activity. We all have to learn to live together, and to respect the many cultures present in our Ireland of today.