Sometimes when you hear about an upcoming programme, it’s so predictable you could nearly write the script in advance.
That was largely the case with Rome vs The Republic on RTÉ1 last Thursday. In this documentary on relations between the Vatican and the Irish State we got the usual litany – Mother and Child Scheme, John Charles McQuaid, Eamon Casey and Michael Cleary warming up for John Paul II in Galway, Enda Kenny’s speech in the Dáil, the contraceptive train, Brendan Smyth and so on.
We also got the oft told stories of abuse, which are truly awful and we must never forget, but going over these stories in the same old predictable way, from the same old perspectives, is of diminishing value.
Sometimes documentaries start out with a pre-ordained thesis, and then everything is made to confirm and conform, in this case to re-inforce a dominant narrative rather than to explore new approaches. Even before the opening titles we knew where this was going, with a new litany of the saints – Michael McDowell, Mary McAleese, Colm O’Gorman, Patsy McGarry – along with images of Savita Halappanaver and a triumphalist celebration of same-sex marriage in Dublin Castle courtyard.
A contribution, say, from our own Mary Kenny who has written extensively on Irish Church-State-Culture issues would have been in order to provide some balance.
I don’t think the programme makers got the irony of abandoning one kind of triumphalism for another, of swapping one kind of deference for another. For the most part presenter Michael McDowell delivered unchallenging interviews – including with Mary McAleese, who never gets challenged on her views by a suppliant media whose prejudices she feeds, consciously or not. And there was no critique of how, arguably, we have swapped deference to Rome for deference to Brussels, or swapped Catholic orthodoxy for liberal orthodoxy.
There seemed to be a disdain for ‘political Catholicism’, and yet when this emerged as liberation theology it was so popular with the liberal left. Even less was there room in this self-congratulatory outing for a critique of the current state of modern Ireland, where we have replaced institutional child abuse with the officially sanctioned killing of unborn children in some of our shiny modern hospitals, with many of the contributors to this programme being ardent supporters of the removal of the Eighth Amendment, which gave protection to these vulnerable children.
As for what constitutes a Republic, there are many definitions and models, but it seems that Tone’s secularist republic was the dominant version for reverence even though we were told that Tone played the Catholic card in seeking military help from France and there wasn’t enough critical examination of the role of violence in his approach.
One of the few positives was the interesting historical background from the 18th and 19th Centuries, e.g. the more simple expressions of faith in pre-famine Ireland, the British Government supporting a seminary in Ireland in the late 18th/early 19th Century to avoid seminarians being radicalised by revolutionary ideas if they were trained in France (though I wondered why the Church would even have considered sending them to a revolutionary France so full of anti-clerical sentiment) and the petition against conscription signed by seminarians in 1918.
The documentary told only part of the story and apart from an acknowledgement that Archbishop McQuaid “was the architect of social services within the state”, there was little attention given to the huge contribution of the Church to education and health care, little attention to the spirit of service that drove selfless people of faith to make an invaluable contribution to Irish society and worldwide.
Finally, I was glad to see Archbishop Diarmuid Martin being positive about the future for the Church in Ireland, reckoning it will be ‘authentically Church in a different culture’.
Also positive, in one of the best interviews of the week, was Dr Dom Colbert on the Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk) last Thursday. Dr Colbert has written a book, No More Tears – From Biafra to Bosnia, about his experiences in poverty stricken and war torn areas around the world.
Often working with religious sisters, including with the Medical Missionaries of Mary, he was inspired by the missionary enthusiasm of the 1940’s and 50’s and the desire to travel widely, as he tended to patients in the most difficult of circumstances and while some of his stories didn’t make for easy listening, a warm life enhancing humanity shone through.
Pick of the week
Easter Sunday Mass
RTÉ1, Easter Sunday, 9 am (also EWTN)
Pope Francis celebrates Mass in St Peters Square, Vatican City, followed by Urbi et Orbi.
RTÉ1, Easter Sunday, 3.20 pm (also Channel 4, 11 pm)
(2016) Joseph Fiennes, Peter Firth. A Roman Tribune in Judea is tasked to find the missing body of Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead.
RTÉ1, Monday, April 22, 7.30 pm
Young pilgrims visit Lough Derg and persevere through the hardest part of the pilgrimage: the all-night vigil. Repeat of BBC’s Oilithreacht.