Fr Seamus Enright, rector of the Redemptorists at Mount St Alphonsus in the city Picture: Alan Place
GREATER separation of Church and State is needed, but members of the Catholic clergy still deserve to be respected in spite of a series of religious scandals, a Limerick priest has urged.
Fr Seamus Enright, rector of the Redemptorists at Mount St Alphonsus in the city, said he feels the level of abuse directed at the Sisters of Charity over their ownership of the proposed €300 million new national maternity hospital was unwarranted, even given the context of a wider “dark background” of the Church’s role in other State institutions.
“The abuse that was directed at the Sisters of Charity and the demonising of them, I’m not sure that you could do it to any other group in Irish society and get away with it,” he told the Limerick Leader.
“I don’t think the Sisters of Charity merited the abuse that was directed at them. I thought it was ageist and sexist, and for all the weaknesses there have been and the difficulties there have been, and what has gone on in Magdalene homes and orphanages, which we wouldn’t want to stand over, you have to balance that with the good which has been achieved by the Sisters of Charity, and others like them.”
Construction of the new NMH, which is to be located on the campus of St Vincent’s Hospital, will be paid for by the State, but – according to terms of the current agreement – will be gifted to the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group, owned by the Sisters of Charity because it owns the land.
Fr Enright said he does not have a view on whether the hospital should be owned by the order given the “very complex issues” at stake, but can appreciate the arguments for “why it should be State owned”.
“There is no doubt that there is an argument to be had over its ownership, but what disappointed me was that we couldn’t seem able to have a rational debate about the ownership without descending into vitriolic abuse being directed at the Sisters. I would have thought they merited more respect than they were given.”
“It’s the same with the prayer in the Dail and the blasphemy law, I’m not sure that we’re able to have respectful conversations without becoming abusive of each other.”
Fr Enright said that while “Catholics are not entitled to special treatment or special legal protection”, in terms of the controversial blasphemy law, which he feels should be abolished, “we are entitled to respect and courtesy.”
“The quality of political discourse in Ireland today seems to be quite negative and abusive. In a society that it as complex as ours is I think we need to discover a polite, respectful way of engaging in conversations from different perspectives. The real challenge in Irish society today is finding common ground, and we won’t find it if we abuse each other.”
Fr Enright added that he has “mixed views” about prayer in the Dail.
“It wouldn’t bother me if they didn’t pray in the Dail really. In a society which has changed as much as Irish society has changed, I would wonder is it appropriate, when austerity legislation is passed which has had an extraordinary impact upon the poor, and I’d wonder about those incompatibilities.
“I can understand why in the 1930s when the Constitution was adopted we lived in a much more homogenous society, but now there are other people in the Dail who are not comfortable with these prayers, so why should they be put in that position.”
He is also in favour of the abolition of the blasphemy law, echoing the view of the Bishop of Elfin, Kevin Doran, that “God is well able to look after himself.”
“When I look at a country like Pakistan and see how blasphemy laws are badly used there to persecute minorities, you wouldn’t like to think that Ireland was keeping company with that type of a country. When I think of blasphemy laws I think of very repressive countries, like Indonesia, and I don’t think that’s where Ireland belongs as a society. I wouldn’t like to think that we’re remotely in the same league as those backward countries.
“Obviously you have to have freedom of speech, but there should be some sensitivity for people’s feelings as well, and sensitivity for the feelings of religious believers.”
He said the remarks made during The Late Late Show by Blindboy Boatclub of the Rubberbandits, who referred to Communion as “haunted bread”, was “not blasphemous, but it was extraordinarily disrespectful.”
Fianna Fail deputy Willie O’Dea agrees that the “outdated” blasphemy law should be removed. “I don’t think the Lord needs protection from the law, and the gardai are busy trying to fight enough crimes as it is,” he said.
Blindboy Boatclub of the Rubberbandits described Ireland’s blasphemy law as “an embarrassment”, following a garda investigation under the law into comments made about God and faith made by the British actor Stephen Fry.
Gardaí decided not to proceed with the investigation into comments made by Fry during a television interview with Gay Byrne in February 2015, on the grounds that not enough people had been offended by the remarks.
“Countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have very strict blasphemy laws, where people go to jail and get stoned. They can say ‘Well, Ireland has a blasphemy law in its Constitution, and they’re supposed to be the civilised West.’ We have to stand up to that,” Blindboy said in an interview with the Oonagh and Aidan show on iRadio.
Blindboy, who has been accused of making “blasphemous” remarks in relation to the Eucharist, said that as long as he wears a plastic bag on his head he’s “engaged in a continual act of artistic performance, so I can say what I like. It’s art.”
“At the end of the day, you’d have to be seriously offended by a man who thinks it’s right to wear a plastic bag on his head. Everybody has a right to be offended, that’s a healthy part of free speech. But people’s feelings of hurt doesn’t mean that they are right, and that’s where it becomes tricky. It’s legitimate if your feelings are hurt but that doesn’t give you a right to silence another person.”
The last time there was a prosecution for blasphemy was in 1855 and there had been none under the 2009 Act.