Cardinal Dolan’s ‘profoundly ignorant’ take on Irish history

At no point did the IRA ever claim solace from any version of Catholicism.

The Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin once used a speech to criticise what he described as “well-meaning outsiders” offering solutions for the future of the Church in Ireland. Now, as someone who has always felt that Irish Catholicism suffers from a crippling parochialism, I have generally been in favour of listening to outsiders’ take on self-referencing Irish Catholicism. But, when it comes to explaining Irish history, I’m certainly with Dr Martin.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the larger-than-life Archbishop of New York, took to the airwaves late last week to reflect on religiously-motivated violence. The prompt was, of course, the barbarism that the so-called Islamic State is currently unleashing on the Middle East.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Church leaders have been at pains to point out that Islamist violence is a mis-use of Islam that most ordinary, decent Muslims abhor. St John Paul II took the lead, anxious to avoid what many see as an inevitable clash of civilisations between Islam and the West.

Such an approach is understandable, but it can also lead to grasping at naive even ignorant analogies. Cardinal Dolan, in seeking to underline his point that the violence of Islamic State is not intrinsic to Islam, pointed to Ireland and the terror campaign of the Provisional IRA.

Islamic State, the cardinal confidently asserted, are a distortion of “genuine” Islam much as the IRA was a “perversion” of Catholicism.

But the history lesson didn’t stop there: “the IRA claimed to be Catholic,” Dr Dolan told CNN. “They were baptised. They had a Catholic identity.” But, without a shred of self-doubt, he continued, “what they were doing was a perversion of everything the Church stood for”.

Cardinal Dolan’s take on the civil conflict that blighted much of the latter-part of the 20th Century is breathtaking for how spectacularly ignorant it is.

Predictably, the cardinal’s comments have found welcome within hardline Unionism in the North. The DUP’s David Simpson backed the cardinal’s comments, saying the only difference between “the barbarism perpetrated by Islamic State and the IRA’s actions in isolated rural communities along the Irish border is one of scale”.

Of course, Cardinal Dolan is wide of the mark. His analogue falls flat on its face at the first hurdle: the IRA never claimed to be motivated by any interpretation of Catholicism (however warped) whereas Islamic State make it very clear that they believe they are acting in the name of Islam (though it’s true that most Muslims reject this). At no point did the IRA ever claim solace from any version of Catholicism. In fact, many elements within the Republican movement were actively hostile towards the Church because of the way courageous leaders like Cardinals Tomás Ó Fiaich, Cahal Daly and Bishop Edward Daly refused to condone IRA violence as a response to violence from British security forces.

Cardinal Dolan’s warped version of recent Irish history could be dismissed merely as naive but for the fact that it hangs a dangerous blood libel around the neck of all Catholics. The IRA campaign of violence was only ever approved of by a minority of people within the Catholic community, a fact evidenced by the tiny support enjoyed by Sinn Féin before the IRA ceasefire.

Some Unionist leaders have pointed to the fact that IRA men who were killed were given funerals in a Catholic Church as evidence of Church complicity in the violence. This ignores the fact that the Church buries saints and sinners equally. Many priests across the North bravely refused to allow paramilitary trappings to be used in churches.

Some Irish American leaders are calling on Cardinal Dolan to apologise for his “profoundly ignorant” comments. It seems unlikely he will do so. But if the cardinal, who will lead next week’s St Patrick’s Day parade in New York, wants to wade in to complex debates, he should brush up on his Irish history.

Irish Catholics deserve better from a man picked by Pope Benedict XVI to lead an investigation into the Church in Ireland in the wake of the abuse scandals.