Front Page Titles (by Subject) Sect. III.—: The Catholic Clergy. - Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 2
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Sect. III.—: The Catholic Clergy. - Gustave de Beaumont, Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 2 
Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, ed. W.C. Taylor (London: Richard Bentley, 1839). Vol. 2.
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The Catholic Clergy.
But of all the social elements existing in Ireland, and which, favourable to liberty, contain also the germs of democracy, there is perhaps none more fruitful, at least in the present day, than the Catholic clergy. If O’Connell is the summit of the association, the Catholic clergy may be called its base. But O’Connell is a man whose power must end with his life, if indeed the decline of his influence does not commence before his death. The clergy is a body that never dies.
The Catholic clergy is the most national body in Ireland; it belongs to the very heart of the country. We have elsewhere seen that Ireland, having been attacked at the same time in its religion and its liberties, his creed and his country were mingled in the heart of every Irishman, and became to him one and the same thing. Having been forced to struggle for his religion against the Englishman, and for his country against the Protestant, he is accustomed to see partisans of his faith only amongst the defenders of his independence, and to find devotion to independence only amongst the friends of his religion.
In the midst of the agitations of which his country and his soul have been the theatre, the Irishman who has seen so much ruin consummated within him and around him, believes that there is nothing permanent or certain in the world but his religion,—that religion which is coeval with old Ireland,—a religion superior to men, ages, and revolutions,—a religion which has survived the most terrible tempests and the most dreadful tyrannies, against which Henry VIII. was powerless, which braved Elizabeth, over which the bloody hand of Cromwell passed without destroying it, and which even a hundred and fifty years of continued persecution have failed to overthrow. To an Irishman there is nothing supremely true but his creed.
In defending his religion, the Irishman has been a hundred times invaded, conquered, driven from his native soil; he kept his faith, and lost his country. But, after the confusion made between these two things in his mind, his rescued religion became his all, and its influence on his heart was further extended by its taking there the place of independence. The altar at which he prayed was his country.
Traverse Ireland, observe its inhabitants, study their manners, passions, and habits, and you will find that even in the present day, when Ireland is politically free, its inhabitants are full of the prejudices and recollections of their ancient servitude. Look at their external appearance; they walk with their heads bowed down to the earth, their attitude is humble, their language timid; they receive as a favour what they ought to demand as a right; and they do not believe in the equality which the law ensures to them, and of which it gives them proofs. But go from the streets into the chapels. Here the humbled countenances are raised, the most lowly heads are lifted, and the most noble looks directed to heaven; man reappears in all his dignity. The Irish people exists in its church; there alone it is free; there alone it is sure of its rights; there it occupies the only ground that has never given way beneath its feet.
When the altar is thus national, why should not the priest be so likewise? Hence arises the great power of the Catholic clergy in Ireland. When it attempted to overthrow Catholicism, the English government could not destroy the creed without extirpating the clergy. We have already seen how it tried to ruin that body. Still, in spite of the penal laws, which besides sometimes slumbered, there have been always priests in Ireland. The Catholic worship, it is true, had for a long time only a mysterious and clandestine existence; it was supposed to have no legal existence, and the same fiction was extended to its clergy. Even when the Catholic worship was tolerated, it was not authorised; it was only indirectly recognised when the parliament, in 1798, voted funds to endow a college at Maynooth for the education of Catholic priests. But now the Catholic faith exists publicly in Ireland; it has built its churches, it has organised its clergy, and it celebrates its ceremonies in open day; it counts four archbishops, twenty-one bishops, two thousand one hundred places of worship, and two thousand and seventy-four parish priests or coadjutors. The law does not thus constitute it, but the law allows it to form itself; the constitution affords it express toleration; and now the Catholic clergy, the depository of the chief national power of Ireland, exercises that power under the shield of the constitution. To comprehend this power, it is not sufficient to understand what their religion is to the Irish people, but also what their priest is to them.
Survey those immense lower classes in Ireland who bear at once all the charges and all the miseries of society, oppressed by the landlord, exhausted by taxation, plundered by the Protestant minister, their ruin consummated by the agents of law. Who or what is their only support in such suffering?—The priest.—Who is it that gives them advice in their enterprises, help in their reverses, relief in their distress?—The priest.—Who is it that bestows on them, what is perhaps still more precious, that consoling sympathy, that sustaining voice of sympathy, that tear of humanity, so dear to the unfortunate? There is but one man in Ireland that mourns with the poor man who has so much to mourn, and that man is the priest. Vainly have political liberties been obtained and rights consecrated, the people still suffers. There are old social wounds, to which the remedy provided by law affords only slow and tedious cure. From these deep and hideous wounds the Catholic priests alone do not turn their eyes; they are the only persons that attempt their relief. In Ireland, the priest is the only person in perpetual relation with the people who is honoured by them.
Those in Ireland who do not oppress the people, are accustomed to despise them. I found that the Catholic clergy were the only persons in Ireland who loved the lower classes, and spoke of them in terms of esteem and affection. This fact alone would explain the power of the priests in Ireland.
The mission of the Catholic clergy in Ireland is the most magnificent that can be imagined. It is an accident, for to produce it there was required an aggregation of miseries which fortunately are peculiar to that country. But the Irish clergy have not neglected their opportunities; an admirable career was opened to the priests; they comprehended its grandeur, and entered upon it with sublime devotion: there is no longer any doubt on the continent respecting the life led in Ireland by the Catholic priest, who, in the terrible war waged by the rich against the poor, is the sole refuge of the latter, and who displays, in combating the misfortunes of his fellow man, a zeal, an ardour, and a constancy, which the most violent and selfish ambition rarely exhibits in the construction of its own fortune. It appears, besides, that everything in Ireland conspires to exhibit the virtues of the clergy in broad relief.
What must be the feelings of the people when it compares its church, humble and poor like itself, and like itself persecuted, with the haughty and splendid Anglican church, supported by the state, whose power it shares; when a severe law compels them to pay that church an enormous tribute for which it receives not a farthing’s value, whilst the little that it bestows upon its own clergy is fully paid back, with an addition of care and devotedness which cannot be remunerated; when, before the peasant’s eyes, a Protestant minister, a stranger whom he knows not, occupies a benefice where he only takes care of his family, his pleasures, and his interests; whilst the Catholic priest, who has no family, no fortune, and no estate, who is the child of Ireland, and has sprung from the popular ranks, lives only for the people, and devotes himself entirely to its service?
What must he think in the midst of his vast and deep miseries, when every day he hears the rich, almost all of them members of the Anglican church, proclaim charitable almsgiving the greatest of all evils, and a source of demoralisation to the people, whilst the Catholic priest from the pulpit denounces those “who have this world’s good, and seeing their brethren in need, shut up their bowels of compassion,” and cease not to proclaim those words of charity, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy!”
I do not here inquire whether the rich Protestant or the Catholic priest is better acquainted with political economy; but I am well assured that the mass of the people will take the language of the rich for that of an adversary, whilst the words of the priest, like the voice of a friend, will penetrate to the bottom of the heart. Who now can be astonished at the power of the Catholic priesthood in Ireland? This power has, besides, another foundation more solid than all the rest: in the same way as the Irish people has no prop but its clergy, the clergy has no support but the people. It is the people alone that pays the priesthood, and hence the double bond by which they are mutually linked together—by the bond of mutual dependence, the strongest of all possible ties. Let us add, that in this country, where all the superior and privileged classes are unpopular, the Catholic clergy is the only body more enlightened than the people, whose intelligence and power it gladly accepts. And this power is not purely social; it is furthermore essentially political. The free existence of the Catholic church in Ireland is, perhaps, the matter most directly hostile to the principle of government which has prevailed there for centuries. It is not only a church raised by the side of another church; it is not merely a corps of curates, priests, and bishops organised in rivalry to another clergy, raising altar against altar, and preaching sermon against sermon. There is, in the present free development of the Catholic church in Ireland, the mark of a new principle, victorious over the old Anglican principle, which was once the very soul of the English government; the Protestant ascendency is vanquished; it is a political, far more than a religious principle, that has triumphed.
Thus, the Irish priest does not limit himself to aiding the people in its social miseries, he also protects them against the political oppressor; he is not content to be a man and a priest, but he is furthermore a citizen, and is not less attentive to liberty than to religion.
During a long period, the Catholic clergy, subjected like their flocks to persecution, had no other care but to withdraw themselves from it, and was humbled too much to preserve any power for protection; it concealed itself from the penal laws, labouring to procure for the people the spiritual succours of religion, and when it had succeeded in this object, its task was accomplished. Thus, when oppression was at the worst, the Catholic clergy kept themselves strictly within the pale of its church, and continued to shelter itself there when Ireland fought its first battles, and gained its first victories. The priests naturally remained strangers to the agitation of 1778, which was a Protestant movement; and shortly afterwards, when the Irish Association made an appeal to the nation—they were at first deaf to its voice, and only lent it feeble aid, which was withdrawn when the clouds began to gather that presaged the storm of 1798.
When this dreadful tempest was passed, when the Irish ceased to be revolutionary and became constitutional, when ingenious modes of aggression were discovered, by which the fruits of rebellion could be obtained without encountering its perils,—immense perils, which the priest, anxious both for himself and his flock, keeps constantly in view—the Catholic priesthood in these conjunctures ended by warmly espousing the cause of the people; and from that day has been its most efficacious defender and the most formidable enemy of power. There has not been since a political crisis in Ireland, in which the Catholic clergy has not played an important part. It was the constant auxiliary of the association, whose acts and decrees it explained to the people. There has not been an election in Ireland without the Catholic priests giving their advice, not to say their commands, to the people. The priests take part in all the affairs of the country; they attend and speak at all public meetings. The priest is often changed into a tribune of the people, and the same voice that recommends, “to render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s,” loudly proclaims, that it is the duty of every good Catholic to vote against the Protestant candidate, and that the most humble tenant should brave the severities of his landlord rather than not give his vote according to his conscience. No one is now ignorant, that the success of the liberal elections in Ireland is almost entirely due to the influence which the priest possesses over the hearts of the people, and to his opposing the menaces of the rich and powerful, by the promises of heaven and the terrors of hell. It was on the proposal of the clergy that the association resolved to give an indemnity to poor tenants, ejected from their farms for an independent vote; and thus the Catholic clergy of Ireland introduced charity into politics.1
There is nothing, assuredly, in the traditions and principles of the Catholic clergy which would lead them to become enemies of established governments; and when difference of religious principle prevents an alliance, they in general abstain from hostility. Look at Prussia and Belgium. But what do we see in Ireland? Not only a Catholic clergy in presence of a government with which alliance was impossible, but a clergy against which that government waged a merciless war for three centuries, whose laws proscribed its worship and exiled its members; on which fell the most cruel persecutions, the memory of which is still alive in Ireland: a clergy, irritated not only by the evils which it endured, but perhaps still more so by the protection which the state granted to its most mortal enemy, the Anglican church; a clergy, in fine, which, always at war with the state, has never had any friend but the people, the poor people of Ireland, who, after having paid the landlord, the Anglican minister, the taxes levied by the state, the county, and the parish, found still a trifle for the proper support of its priesthood.2 Could any one desire, that when a struggle began, and continued during half a century, between the government and the people;—when, on a law, a tax, or an election, might depend the life, fortune, or liberty of all citizens;—when everything national was ranged on one side, and everything inimical to Ireland on the other;—when alternation of success and defeat invited every combatant into the lists;—could any one wish, I say, that the clergy, placed between this detested government and this affectionate people, should remain indifferent spectators of the combat?
No. Even if the Catholic clergy wished to remain neutral, it could not; but it has no need of doing violence to itself, to embrace the popular cause. The Irish priest of the present day is far removed from those doctrines of passive obedience with which the Catholic church has been often reproached, and according to which the people, bowed down under the most oppressive tyranny, has not the right to raise their head. We may judge of the spirit that animates the national clergy of Ireland, by the answer which Dr. Doyle, titular bishop of Kildare, made before the House of Commons in 1832, for there is no prelate whose name is more venerated by the clergy and people of Ireland.
Dr. Doyle had published a letter, addressed to all the Irish Catholics, exhorting them not to pay tithes to the Protestant clergy, and to maintain their resistance by all legal means.
Thus, said the members of parliament, before whom he appeared, you establish the right to resist law as a principle; and what is to be the foundation of this resistance? The individual judgment of each private man is to decide expressly, whether law shall be obeyed or not. Can there be more complete anarchy?
“I think,” replied the Catholic bishop, “that when abuses exist in a state, if individuals were forced to submit their judgment to the authority that protects these abuses, no kind of reform would be possible; and not only would the principle of passive obedience be established on the widest base, but a doctrine even worse than the divine right of kings,—the divine right of abuses. What progress was ever made in this country that was not the work of men pursuing justice in opposition to law? For my part, I know of none. The despotism of James II. was strictly legal. Even on the question of tonnage and poundage, the courts of law decided in favour of the crown. The revolution of 1688 was, beyond doubt, a violation of the British constitution, and yet it was the commencement of national prosperity. Consider Catholic emancipation. During fifty years, it was eagerly sought by Catholics, and many Protestants, and what a multitude of crimes has accompanied the opposition it has met; how many collisions, hatreds, and sanguinary fights? To speak of something still more recent, is not the present organisation of the House of Commons constitutional? No one, doubtless, will deny that it is so. Nevertheless, the king and the government are endeavouring to modify this institution which the law protects, and their plan of reform has been the cause of riots at Bristol and Nottingham. Who will impute these riots, and the consequent bloodshed, to the government? If a right must be renounced because the establishment of that right involves danger, it would be better to submit to despotism at once; you can never succeed in chaining down my intelligence to the letter of the law, so as to prevent me from pursuing the truth and justice pointed out by my conscience. Let us then take the principle of justice for our guide, and resist abuses as best we may; but let us not, because these abuses are mingled with a principle, sacrifice the principle itself. If we did so, it would be better for us to cease to live in society, and we should assuredly be unworthy of the free constitution which Providence has bestowed on these countries.”2
Such is at present the language of the priest in Ireland. Thus, an element favourable by its nature to established governments is derived from a principle pregnant with liberty to the people,—the principle of political resistance which has become so formidable in Ireland, that it is asked what authority can maintain itself against it; but yet it is a principle which its adversaries dare not touch, because it is the only social safeguard of those whose political power is attacked. The Catholic priesthood is almost the only moral authority that the people of Ireland can consult: it alone teaches the people those rules of conduct in private life, which are the surest guarantees of honesty in public life; and even where its political passions are engaged with its interests, when it adopts the cause of the people, it endeavours, while it follows, to direct the popular cause, and often succeeds. The priests have always condemned the principles and acts of the Whiteboys, and Dr. Doyle excommunicated them more than once. If, in the midst of its democratic agitation, the association succeeded in diffusing ideas of order and obedience to law amongst the people, it was because the Catholic priests were its immediate agents. If the rich landlord and the justice whom the people resist by the counsel of the priest are not robbed or murdered, it is to the priest they owe their safety. What a strange situation for an aristocracy, which, in order to preserve life and property, is in some degree obliged to abandon political power! What a singular destiny for a clergy, which, inclined towards authority by its instincts and its doctrines, has become the most formidable opponent of authority!
When the Irish priesthood, whose Catholic doctrine is not hostile to temporal power, goes beyond its first principle, it is naturally, and by an inclination peculiar to itself, the enemy of the aristocracy.
Christianity is democratic in its essence; it is the great source of the equality perpetually flowing and deluging the world. Christianity does not cease to be democratic except where it is directed from its natural course.
If the christian principle is the most democratic of all religious principles, it must be added, that of all the forms under which the christian principle is manifested to mankind, the Catholic form is also the most democratic. It alone passes the same level over all men and all nations which it subjects to the empire of one single chief, the supreme arbiter of the human race. How then does it happen that the Catholic religion is sometimes the ally and friend of aristocracy? The reason is, that the body which represents the religion, the clergy, may be so organised as to lose its original character, and to assume another which does not belong to it.
Suppose a Catholic clergy endowed with great privileges; hence will at once result, the instincts, the passions, and the interests of all privileged corporations. Suppose that, coexisting with nobility in the state, it possesses rights and advantages analogous to those of the nobility; that, like the aristocracy, it possesses great political powers, immense estates, great wealth; a natural sympathy will be established between the two bodies; a constant tendency will lead them to approximate and form a close alliance, to league for defence, to unite for attack. Then also its instincts, passions, and interests as a privileged body, will remove it as far from the people, that is to say, the great masses, as its principles of Christian and Catholic equality brought it near to them before they were adulterated: and its distance from the people will increase proportionably as the other privileged body, its equal and its ally, holds itself more aloof; so that if the aristocracy should go to war with the people, the clergy, the primitive and natural friend of the masses, will become their adversary.
But it is easy to see that nothing like this can happen in a country where the Christian and Catholic clergy possess no privilege and occupy no recognised rank in the state. Where, indeed, an aristocracy exists, but a Protestant aristocracy in the presence of a Catholic people; an aristocracy which, instead of attracting the national clergy towards it by parity of position, and thus inviting it to an alliance, on the contrary, rejects it with all the violence resulting from an assemblage of hostile passions, opposite principles, and contrary interests; in a country, finally, where all the principles, all the interests, and all the passions which sever the clergy from the aristocracy unite it to the people.
Thus, in Ireland, the clergy has complete authority over a people which recognises no authority but the clerical,—a situation very different from the case in which the clergy, united to an absolute monarch, is strictly kept within the limits of its spiritual influence, and from that where united to an aristocracy it has no political strength, but divided and unpopular. Here the Catholic clergy possesses a double authority over the priesthood, and exercises it alone. It is thus that a religious body, which we sometimes see the supporter of princes or the ally of privileged corporations, is in Ireland one of the most potent elements of liberty and democracy.
[1.]The contrast is not quite fair.
[2.]The contrast is not quite fair.