Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A failed quest for a Catholic Ireland (Book Commentary)

Dr Thomas Morrissey, himself a Jesuit priest, has chosen for his latest work of historical biography one of the foremost Jesuit proponents of the Catholic Action Movement in Ireland between the War of Independence and the Second World War. 

His choice is justified.

Cahill’s role in that era is well known as a founder of An Ríoghacht (The League of the Kingship of Christ) and as a member of the Jesuit committee established to have an input into the drafting of the 1937 constitution, Bunreacht na h-Éireann.

But much less is known of Cahill the man and Cahill the thinker. Morrissey’s title is indicative of the books perspective – an examination of the Irish society in which Cahill found himself and which he sought to Christianise rather than an intimate portrait of Cahill himself.

His life’s aim was to create in Ireland a fully Christian state – which for Cahill meant a fully Catholic state. Protestantism was part of Ireland’s problem and not part of the solution in any sense. 

Cahill saw a pure Christian Ireland under siege from all sides – from atheistic bolshevism, from liberal capitalism, from ideological socialism, and from a Judaeo- Masonic world conspiracy against Christianity.

Cahill himself believed in an atavistic, agricultural Ireland where materialism and immorality would be kept in check by a Catholic Church in close alliance with a Catholic corporatist state of the type envisaged in Quadragessimo Anno. 

In this view-point, Cahill was by no means alone. Perhaps he was highly unusual in the intensity of his commitment to Catholic social doctrine and in his intellectual belligerence towards those who opposed the implementation of the Church’s social thinking.

The claims made by Cahill for pre-eminence of Catholic social teachings and their right to be implemented in societies in which the Catholic Church was influential were, of course, standard orthodoxy of their time.

Thus, Cahill urged De Valera to make a “definite break with the Liberal and non-Christian type of state” that had been “forced on us by a foreign, non-Catholic power”.


His target in that request was the Constitution of the Irish Free State, a document drafted by a team which included Michael Collins. 

Few commentators, then or since, have acknowledged the radical republicanism (even allowing for the trappings of dominion status) of the 1922 Constitution which scrupulously avoided any hint of Catholic confessionalism, prohibited state endowment of any religion, and asserted that all powers of government and all authority, legislative, executive and judicial, in the state were derived from the people of Ireland to whom all lawful authority comes from God. 

No attempt, such as that clumsily made in Article 44 of the 1937 Constitution, was made in 1922 to acknowledge any special position for the Catholic Church.

Alfred O’Rahilly, another noted Catholic thinker, had unsuccessfully attempted persuade his fellow members of the drafting committee in 1922 to “catholicise” the Free State’s Constitution.

Cahill, for instance, was deeply disappointed by the failure of the 1937 Constitution to acknowledge the Catholic Church as the “One, True Church”, and even went so far as to describe the use of the term ‘Church of Ireland’ in Article 44 in reference to the Anglican Christian church as “authoritative approval of a piece of lying propaganda”. 

Cahill’s disappointment was not unique; it was shared in the Vatican and by Archbishop McQuaid.

But De Valera’s Catholicism was tempered by his republicanism. He inscribed his gift to Cahill of the text of the 1937 Constitution with a note which very politically referred to the same tensions as follows:

“To Father Cahill, with regards and thanks for his kind help and inspiration and regrets that the Draft could not be nearer to the Framework of a Christian State. Eamon  de Valera, 1.V.37”.

The words ‘Framework of a Christian State’ were intended to refer back to Cahill’s magnum opus published under that title in 1932, a tome of more than 600 pages, setting out the historical and doctrinal basis of the Catholic Church’s social doctrines. It was very much a work of its time. I printed down the text of The Framework and found it a fascinating companion while reading Dr Morrissey’s biography of Cahill.

In The Framework’s pages, Cahill expounded the dangers of Modernism, Liberalism, Protestantism, Capitalism, Bolshevism Socialism, Judaism and Freemasonry both internationally and to the Irish state. These threats to Catholic Christianity underlined the need for Ireland to adopt a new social system based largely on peasant proprietor agriculture in a vocationalist social order.

Interestingly, The Framework attacks contraception as “race suicide” and asserts a model of the family as that propounded in the encyclical Casti Conubii, an institution in which the husband was by nature the head.

The Framework also asserts the educational rights of the Church (itself a “perfect society”) within civil society, condemning non-Catholic education for Catholics and supporting the hierarchy’s ban on Catholics attending Trinity College. 

The colleges of the NUI were only just about acceptable for Catholics notwithstanding their non-denominational character, and only because of special arrangements to safeguard the faith and morals of Catholics attending them.


Dr Morrissey follows the Jesuit career of Cahill, in all its trials and tribulations and brushes with ecclesial authority, from his days in Mungret, his chronic ill-health, his sympathy for the Volunteers, his regard for De Valera’s side in the Civil War, his founding of An Ríoghacht, and his political campaigning for Catholic Action.

Although Cahill was perhaps slightly less extreme in his very real obsession with Judaism and Masonry than his Holy Ghost counterpart, the infamous Fr Denis Fahey, it is clear that he, like so many Catholics of his day, identified Jews, Masons and Communists as allies in an onslaught on Christianity. 

In the post-1929 crash world of the 1930s, anti-semitism was rife. 

Franco was not the only Catholic in Europe to identify Liberalism with the Judaeo-Masonic-Communist conspiracy against European Christianity.

Dr Morrissey touches on the slightly intellectually snobbish and condescending attitude adopted by the Jesuit establishment to Cahill’s sometimes simplistic enthusiasms; they saw perhaps that he was a man whose education was limited in scope and, in their view, that he was lacking in savoir faire.

Dr Morrissey acknowledges that, from a 21st-Century perspective, Cahill may have achieved little. But he also points out that Cahill was a remarkable man for his time and of his time.

This biography is a good and rewarding read. It reminds us of the dramatic changes that have swept away so much of Cahill’s world which was at its hey-day just a life ago.

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