The sacred and the profane

“History is written by the winners” is a trite adage which was probably first circulated by some losers. Ever since, it has been used to cast a shadow of doubt over every account of struggles between human beings of which history purports to tell us.

Searching through our past is a sacred pursuit. It is the pursuit of truth and, regardless of whether or not the goal is attained, if ever the pursuer veers from that course, seeking to serve ulterior motives, the sacred is profaned.

There is, sadly, a surfeit of this kind of profanity for us to contend with in our time. Pseudo historians and journalists – on the pretext that their work is the first draft of history – constantly try to pass off as a true account of the past, narratives which are nothing more than the whitewashing of the victors and the blacklisting of the vanquished.

In the ebb and flow of that cold conflict which we call the culture wars – particularly in the theatre of war where religion and secularism are the protagonists – the secularists seem currently to be the in the ascendant. Their ascendancy is partly the fruit of their committing this very kind of sacrilege – the representation, or misrepresentation, of facts in a wilfully selective way, serving an ulterior purpose.

Christian belief and the Catholic Church in particular are being vilified with every opportunity which presents itself to blacken the name of those who adhere to them. The shelves of our bookstores, the pages – hard or soft – of our news media, our broadcast services, all carry ample evidence of this. The callous indifference of the liberal West to the violent persecution of Christians and the burning of their churches in many parts of the world is just another dimension of their hidden – or not so hidden – agenda.

The consequences of this hostility are felt by ordinary Christians on our streets, in their workplaces and on college campuses every day. How about this, from David Quinn, director of Ireland’s Iona Institute, a secular Ireland’s bête noir in that country?

“It’s getting nastier out there. In the last couple of weeks, I have had a Sinn Fein supporter say on Twitter that I will be paying for my ‘crimes’, and sooner than expected. The University Observer at UCD tried to have me barred from taking part in a debate there and a guy from the paper accosted me afterwards. There was the protest against me the other night in Enniscorthy by People before Profit members. ” (Facebook post)

Even Dublin City Council, in its recent three-week-long Festival of History did not escape the reach of the secular culture warriors. A great deal of its programme was good, some of it very good, but a little too many of its presentations were no more than an opportunity for the ground troops of progressivism to gloat on their victories at the expense of the vanquished.

Black legends passing themselves off as the history of Christianity are nothing new. Each era seems to seek to generate its own to contribute to this destructive campaign. Here and now history is being used to pass judgement on and blacken the reputation of a generation of Irish people and of the Catholic Church, past and present. At the Festival Professor Frank McDonagh, in answer to a question related to his colloquy on his new book on Nazi Germany, wisely reminded us, History is an investigation of the past, not a judgement on it. Too many writers about the past undertake their work as counsels for the prosecution or the defence. They should be neither.

The destructive campaign against religion and religious institutions is being pursued ostensibly by some under the cover if investigating sad injustices perpetrated in the past by individuals and some institutions. In the way this is being done they are only piling injustice upon injustice.

This doubling of injustice is being perpetrated firstly by presenting fractions of truth as the whole truth; secondly by judging the deficiencies of another time in dealing with social problems by the mores, standards and circumstances of our own time; and thirdly – in the case of some at least – by weaponising the victims of past injustices in pursuit of the ulterior goal of destroying a targeted institution and its adherents.

Caelainn Hogan is a journalist who has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times, The Guardian, among others, chronicling for the whole world the injustices she claims the entire Irish State and the entire Catholic Church has inflicted on the people of this island. She has now written her first book, entitled Republic of Shame: Stories from Ireland’s institutions for ‘Fallen Women’. She contributed to the last weekend of this festival in an event where she was ‘in conversation with Tuam survivors.’ This was billed in the published programme as follows:

Until recently, the Catholic Church, in concert with the Irish state, operated a network of institutions for the concealment, punishment and exploitation of ‘fallen women’. In the Magdalene laundries, girls and women were incarcerated and condemned to servitude. And in the mother—and—baby homes, women who had become pregnant out of wedlock were hidden from view, and in most cases their babies were adopted — sometimes illegally. Mortality rates in these institutions were high, and the discovery of a mass infant grave at the mother—and—baby home in Tuam made news all over the world. The Irish state has commissioned investigations, but for countless people, a search for answers continues.

That may be good sensational journalism – if you like that sort of thing. But it has nothing to do with history. It was sad to see this rubbing shoulders with the contributions of people like Tom Holland and Margaret Macmillan and Jung Chang – all of whose presentations were filled with the nuance which the complexity of the past demands.

There is no doubt but that we need to hear the sad accounts of people who have suffered injustice. We need to hear it because we need to help heal the wounds inflicted on them. We need to hear it because we all need to reform what needs reform in ourselves and in our institutions. But when our response to this moves us to general judgements on whole populations and everyone serving in institutions, this does not serve any concept of truthfulness, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, which honest historical narrative seeks.

To identify the faltering but earnest efforts of the entire Irish state to serve its people in those decades with the tragic mistakes made in some of those efforts, is to portray it as a monster. To identify the Catholic Church in a similar manner is equally gross. This is the institution which for millennia has nurtured our civilization from the rough justice of pagan times, through era after era when new forms of barbarism threatened to swamp it.

In our own time the Catholic Church is the only global institution standing firm against the new barbarism which manifests itself in the daily slaughter of thousands of unborn children.

The writing of tendentious historical narratives seems to be just one more weapon in an arsenal assembled for the destruction of all semblances of Christian values in our civilization.

History gives us many examples of justice warriors who have felt it necessary to destroy their flawed but workable institutions to establish what they saw as justice. Most of them, in doing so, have left trails of pain and suffering in their wakes, until Christian inspired restorations brought the world back to some semblance of justice, even if only of the faltering kind which our race is capable of achieving.

Constantine reformed a Roman regime which brutally tried but failed to destroy the Christian religion; throughout the Middle Ages the Catholic Church resisted repeated incursions of barbaric forces, eventually converting them and with them laying the foundations for what we today call Western Civilization; honest historian now recognise that even the much maligned Inquisition was in fact and effort to ameliorate the kind of summary treatment of dissent which had been standard practice prior to that; nearer our own time came the French Revolution, whose reign of terror held sway until eventually a fragile Christian order brought the Enlightenment back to its sense of humanity; the sad history of the twentieth century’s blood-soaked efforts to supplant Christianity bled itself right into our own time

The Catholic Church has battled on through all these storms and for anyone who wants to question its perennial commitment to justice and truth and the ultimate welfare of mankind, let them start by taking up that seminal document, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is by this compendium of all the teaching of its Founder, as found in the scriptures, its traditions and its explicit pronouncements down through the 2000 years of its history, that it should be judged. The faltering efforts of its adherents can of course often be found wanting, sometimes gravely wanting – and indeed be occasion for scandal. They should not however, be a pretext for condemning that which the Catholic Church works constantly for, and which it insistently asks and encourages us to aspire to and strive for.

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