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Christian Knowledge

Tom Inglis

Church, State and Social Science in Ireland: Knowledge Institutions and the Rebalancing of Power, 1937-73, by Peter Murray and Maria Feeney, Manchester University Press, 272 pp, £75, ISBN: 978-1526100788

There are many factors that made the Irish state that came into being in 1922 different from other nation states, not least that it was born out of colonial conflict, that its coloniser dominated the world capitalist system, that its coloniser was just across the Irish sea and that six northern counties had refused to join the new state.

However, in many respects the Irish state was like many other new states. It had to set about developing a monopoly over the means of violence. This took time. It established an army to, supposedly, protect itself from external aggression. It established its own independent police force to protect itself from internal aggression and to maintain social and political control. This took a bit longer. It established a judiciary and a cadre of non-political administrators to run the state, develop infrastructure and provide services. As part of this process, it established a monopoly over the means of taxation. Finally, it established a dominant position in the political field, recognising, supporting and protecting political parties and those interest groups which recognised and supported its position, policies and practices.

What made the Irish state different was that the way in which it went about establishing a monopoly over symbolic power. All states need to have control over the way people see and understand the world. The need to create a sense of bonding and belonging, the feeling that “we” belong to the Irish nation, which is made real, embodied and manifested in the institution of the state. People need to believe that the state is “us”. The state needs to create a symbolic domination that leads people to accept its way of viewing the world, its definition of what is a good society and what it is to live a good life. In return for this acceptance, the state recognises and blesses those who contribute to and support its projects.

Education is the primary mechanism by which the state maintains its symbolic domination. It is through schools that individuals become state subjects, that they are indoctrinated into the state habitus. The state’s way of viewing the world and doing things becomes taken for granted. Pupils learn not just to speak and write in a uniform manner but to accept definitions of themselves as successes or failures. This is reinforced with families which the state polices to ensure compliance. People “misrecognise” and accept the state’s definitions of what is good and just, of how to do business, of who are saints and sinners. As well as its dominance in the political field, the state become a dominant player in most social fields, particularly the market and the media but also in cultural fields such as the arts and sport.

What made the Irish state different is that until the end of the twentieth century it never played a part, let alone became a significant player, in the religious field. Moreover, for decades it ceded control of education, health and social welfare to the Catholic church. In doing so, it handed over much of its role in creating a monopoly over the means of symbolic domination to that church. In the language of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, for many decades it ceded much of its roles as the central bank of symbolic capital to the church. The church defined, blessed and legitimated the ways in which people attain wealth and status and other forms of power. While there was recognition and acceptance of religious minorities, particularly Protestants, the “we” of the nation-state became Irish Catholics.

Its monopoly over the distribution of symbolic capital, combined with its monopoly in the fields of education, health and social welfare, cemented the church’s dominance in Irish society and culture, giving it a prominent position in the political field. By 1971, ninety-six per cent of the population identified themselves as Roman Catholic and in 1973/4 ninety-one per cent of these went to Mass once a week.

While the Republic of Ireland never came close to being a theocratic society, the church went far beyond being just another interest group. It operated almost as a separate state within the state. It had its own laws and while it did not undermine the state’s monopoly over taxation, it was able to obtain considerable funding. More importantly, it convinced many people that being a good Catholic and being loyal to the church were as important, if not more important, than being loyal to the state. What was remarkable was that many politicians recognised and accepted that their loyalty to the church took precedence, particularly in areas such as education, health, social welfare, the family and sexuality. There were clashes, such as the failed Mother and Child Scheme in 1951, but for the most part politicians and members of the clergy were moulded by the same habitus. They had the same values, beliefs and attitudes. They had been socialised into the same way of thinking. This included what constituted a good education and, as part of this, what constituted good sociology.

“Knowledge is, they say, power.” This is the first sentence in Murray and Feeney’s book. It might have been better to have followed the French philosopher Michel Foucault and reverse this and say that it is power – in this case the state and the Catholic church – that creates and maintains discourses. What characterises modernity is the emergence of human sciences that provided the state with knowledge about its subjects. What this book demonstrates is that what made Ireland different was the way in which the state, in association with the Catholic church, developed the human sciences. Little did I realise it at the time, but I was moulded by these conditions.

I started studying social science in UCD in 1969. I wanted to find out how I became the way I was. I had given psychology a brief whirl, but it did not provide the right answers, mainly because it asked the wrong questions. I had no idea what sociology was all about. I thought it was something in between philosophy and psychology. I was intrigued by the idea that there could be a science of society, that it could be examined in the same ways that doctors could examine a body and find out how it works, what is wrong with it and how it could be fixed.

And that was the dominant ethos within the department at that time. The textbooks were American and the theory that permeated the understanding of society was structural functionalism. In the same way that a body becomes sick and dysfunctional, a society develops social problems – poverty, unemployment, family breakdown, old age, disability and so forth. The task of the social scientist was either to gather facts about these problems so that proper social policies could be introduced to rectify them or to become social workers who sought to provide temporary solutions to these long-term problems.

I smelt a rat but I could not put my finger on it. The basic premise seemed to be that the problem with society was modernity. Once society moved from gemeinschaft social relations based on the primacy of face-to-face contacts, family, community and religion to gesellshaft relations based on abstract, anonymous contacts among strangers, commerce, law and money, there were always going to be social problems. It took me a long time to realise that there was a connection between this form of sociology and the idyllic view that the Catholic church, and many politicians, once had of Irish society: everything would be all right if we could all live in cosy homesteads and not be obsessed with money and material things.

Having read this insightful and well-researched book, I realise that my formation as a social scientist was part of long-term historical process that dated back to the Catholic church’s dominance of Irish society and culture and, in particular, of education. As Marxism was the rage in Britain and the Continent, I looked forward to the lectures given by Jim Kavanagh. He was the easy-going, genial professor of social science. I was a bit disappointed that we never read or analysed any of Marx’s writings. Instead we read paraphrases, commentaries and, mostly, criticisms. The main text was The Marxists by the American sociologist C Wright Mills. The only Marxist text we read was The New Class by Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslavian communist critic.

It seems part of a never formally ratified church policy that, while it was necessary that students of social science be aware of Marxism, it should be done in such a way that their innocent minds would not be contaminated. The spread of communism was still a major fear of church authorities. Therefore, no better man to give students lectures on Marxism than Professor Kavanagh who, not long after, went on to become an auxiliary bishop in the Dublin diocese and who was heavily criticised in the Murphy report for protecting paedophile priests rather than innocent children.

I became aware that I was being oriented towards a neo-Catholic form of sociology in which theory was best seen as the handmaiden of empirical research, which, in turn, was the handmaiden of good social policy. The aim of a good social scientist was to gather facts that became the basis of good social policy that would rectify the problems of modernity. And so it was that I was trained to become a social surveyor, to collect and analyse social facts.

There was a doxa, or unquestioned consensus, at the heart of this sociology. It was a doxa that was at the heart of a society that was homogeneously white, English-speaking and orthodox Catholic. Since almost everyone had the same understanding about the meaning of life and what it was to live a good life, there was general agreement about what was good for society and the type of sociology necessary to study society. This meant that there was no interrogation of power, no analysis of social class, no questioning of patriarchy, no theorising about the role of the state and, in particular, no examination of the power of the Catholic church in Irish society. Indeed it was the opposite: religion was seen as the source of shared beliefs and values that created and maintained the doxa. To speak of religion, let alone the Catholic church, as a form of power, was heresy.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the church had sought ways to counteract the evils of modernity and capitalism, particularly the spread of scientific rationalism, materialism, socialism and, worst of all, communism. This led to a deluge of papal encyclicals – 185 between 1878 and 1958 – that addressed the problems of modernity, most notably Rerum Novarum (1891) and, forty years later, Quadragesimo Anno. It also led to a determination that throughout society, and especially in educational institutions, a Catholic philosophy – that is to say a Thomistic view of life – would permeate. For this reason, UCD, UCC and Maynooth were ahead of their time in having sociology inscribed within the curriculum. Sociology was not taught in Trinity until 1968, whereas the Faculty of Philosophy and Sociology was established in UCD when it was founded in 1908. However, from the outset, it was a Catholic sociology and, at least from the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid’s, perspective, it was a success. In 1955, he wrote to the papal nuncio:

It is correct to say, on evidence that I hold, that there is a very great interest now being shown in Catholic social teaching. In the years before and during the war, it was not possible to sustain interest in study circles. The circumstances have completely changed in the last five to seven years. Further, I have now, at length, been able to take measures in the University to have Catholic philosophy permeate all the Faculties, and I can hope that our educated lay-folk in the near future will no longer show themselves to be infected by the Protestant English Liberalism that had caused, and is still causing, so much confusion in our country.

In 1937, the Hierarchy established a chair of Catholic Sociology and Catholic Action in Maynooth. In reviewing the appointment of Peter McKevitt to the chair, a sub-committee reported on the state of Catholic Ireland at the time. It noted in relation to the Irish people that there was “very little danger of Socialism or Communism obtaining a foothold amongst them”. It noted that priests were active in “various educational and social bodies”. It recognised that in urban areas workers were in trade unions. However, “close contact between the Priests and workers has always existed”. As a result of this contact, “a few months ago the Trades Council by an overwhelming majority vote decided to revise their Constitution immediately so as to bring it into harmony with Catholic teaching on all Social questions”.

The spread of socialist thought within trade unions and the Labour Party was a source of concern. This led the church to become actively involved in adult education, particularly after the establishment of the People’s College, whose philosophy and practice was based on the British Workers’ Educational Association. Extra-mural courses were developed in UCC, UCD and UCG, by the Catholic Workers’ College and by the Dublin Institute of Catholic Sociology (DCIS). The latter two organisations had the specific remit of spreading the faith within the trade union movement. In 1963, Archbishop McQuaid told Fr Liam Carey, the new director of the Dublin Institute, that the most signal failure of the institute was “the penetration of the Trade Unions by Catholic sociology”. In 1966, partly in response to an intervention by the Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, the designation “Catholic” was left out of the Catholic Workers College, which became the College of Industrial Relations, while the DCIS became the Dublin Institute of Adult Education. Despite the name change, the die had been cast: sociology was inextricably linked to a movement to keep Ireland Catholic.

A new form of Catholic sociology began to emerge in the 1950s. There was a shift away from proselytising towards gathering data as a means towards describing and analysing Irish society. And given the times, the most pressing issue which needed to be investigated was emigration and rural decline. Muintir na Tíre became a major player in promoting this new empirical sociology. They brought in experts from Holland and, in association with Jeremiah Newman (the new professor of sociology at Maynooth), they pioneered the Limerick Rural Survey. This was an innovative theoretical and methodological study that mapped social and cultural life in Limerick and published six detailed reports in the early 1960s. Earlier, in 1958, Newman undertook a tour of universities in the US with the aim of sending priests to undertake postgraduate studies. However, the initiative ran into opposition from McQuaid, who had problems with Muintir na Tíre as it was an interdenominational rather than specifically Catholic organisation. He wanted to spearhead the Department of Social Science in UCD as the centre for sociology and social research, mainly because he had such control within the university.

In 1970, in response to a criticism made in the Dáil, Prof James Kavanagh wrote to The Irish Times detailing the research being undertaken within the Department of Social Science. The topics included manpower, industrial relations, poverty, social housing, education, residential care, family life, youth and unmarried mothers. Most of these studies were theoretically light, focused on fact-gathering and oriented towards social problems and social policy formation. There was a notable absence of any critical or interpretative sociology, of international and comparative perspectives, or studies of power.

Gathering information was increasingly seen as important for the church. In 1967, three of the leading sociologists at the time, Jeremiah Newman, Liam Ryan and Conor Ward, collaborated to undertake a study of trends in religious vocations. Such fact-finding missions continued into the 1970s, when the church, through its Research and Development Unit, conducted the most comprehensive study of religious practices, beliefs and attitudes among Catholics in the Republic of Ireland, with over 2,500 participants interviewed across the country. When reports of the findings were produced, emphasis was given to producing tables with minimum reading or interpretation. As with other forms of social investigation, the aim was to gather facts that would improve the nature of service provision. Any analysis or critical reflection about the nature of the church as an organisation or its policies was strongly discouraged.

In 1964, Tony Spencer of the British National Demographic Society, had proposed that there were four stages in the church’s acceptance of the social sciences. Stage three was when the social sciences were used to study the church’s policy. Stage four was when they were applied to the study of the church’s structure and stage five was when they were applied to the church’s ideology. Spencer had been involved in a proposed study of the attitudes of Irish immigrants into Britain. The study suggested that one of the reasons Irish immigrants did not integrate more successfully into British society was the domination of parental and priestly authority. This led to a lack of self-discipline and self-control. Archbishop McQuaid was not pleased and the study was changed and its proposers marginalised.

It was no different for John Whyte. The doyen of the study of Church-state relations, although a Catholic in good standing, was edged, if not hounded, out of UCD shortly after being appointed to the Department of Ethics and Politics. It would seem that McQuaid was not happy with Whyte’s area of research. He rebuked Conor Martin, the professor, for not giving him the chance the vet Whyte’s appointment: “You will now see the advantage of introducing to me persons who are called on to teach in the Faculty for I am particularly responsible.”

It is hard to know how deep was the influence of the Archbishop of Dublin and how long it lasted. Within a year of my Moral Monopoly: The Catholic Church and Modern Irish Society (1987) – which was an analysis of the origins and maintenance of the power of the church – my contract as a lecturer in the Department of Social Science in UCD was not renewed. It may have been a coincidence. It might also have been related to my suggesting to the professor, Conor Ward, that I proposed to undertake a study of sex in Ireland. Having read my proposal, he suggested that there was still much work to be done on youth unemployment.

There has been much debate as to whether the church’s concern for faith and morals and its fear of scientific rationalism led, because of its dominance within education generally and the NUI in particular, to a devaluation of the importance of science. It was not so much that the church wanted to establish a Catholic science along the lines of a Catholic sociology, more that it felt that the study of science should be part of a wider formation that included ethics, sociology, history and other subjects. Nevertheless there seems to have been a suspicion of, if not a disdain for, science within the church, which was associated with a lack of enthusiasm by the state to promote scientific studies. Sean MacEntee wrote to his fellow minister Patrick Hillery in 1960, observing that “some elements in the Hierarchy, perhaps even a majority … think that scientific education is a source of danger to the Faith and they demur to provide facilities for it”.

The conflation of Irish sociology with the Catholic social movement and the importance of rural life was epitomised by the proposal by Muintir na Tíre in 1959 to establish an Institute of Agriculture which would study the “human elements” that affect agriculture. This institute could then be combined with the Economic Research Institute –which studied the “human elements” which impinge on economics – to produce a School of Sociology.

Taoiseach Seán Lemass supported the idea of an Institute of Rural Sociology and suggested that Muintir na Tíre was ideally placed to host such an institute as it “had already done something special in creating community consciousness and self confidence [sic], as well as in promoting understanding of, and respect for, the social teachings of the church”. However, Muintir’s proposal got little support from the government departments to which it was circulated for comment. The Department of Agriculture, in particular, was vehemently against it. This failed attempt to establish an institute within Muintir na Tíre seems to have been the last attempt to link social research with rural society and the promotion of Catholic Ireland.

From the 1960s, the state began to promote and develop a different view of Ireland, a different understanding of the meaning of life and what it was to live a good life. It no longer bought into the church line that modernity, materialism and the trappings of consumer capitalist society were bad for society. There was a great emphasis on pursuing pleasure and the realisation of self through the market and the media. The state took greater control of research and the issues that needed to be researched. In 1958, it established a Human Sciences Committee which sought to promote and develop productivity. Large-scale funding was available from American sources, particularly the Ford Foundation. In 1960, it gave a grant of $280,000 to help establish the Economic Research Institute, later to become the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI). Funding was also sought for the Irish Management Institute and the Institute of Public Administration.

In 1971, the three dominant figures in Irish sociology, Jeremiah Newman, Conor Ward and Liam Ryan, wrote a report for the church on the state of vocations. They noted that the society that created so many vocations, over 1,500 per annum in the heydays, was an alienated one based on late marriages, no marriages at all, emigration and censorship. But the society that replaced it was equally alienated, with people finding outlets “in drugs, in strikes and protests, in cries against bureaucracy and demands for involvement and participation”. Given their penchant for an empirical sociology, it is curious that they gave such emphasis to drugs and left out sex and rock and roll, not to mention alcohol.

What the report signalled was the end of a Catholic sociology in Ireland that tried to direct state policy towards the creation of a good society. Instead, as Liam Ryan argued, the church saw itself as becoming the “conscience of society” by advocating and challenging the state about the consequences of its policies, practices and legislation and how they detract from the ideals of a good society. In doing so, it has made many important interventions towards creating a just society. However, most of its interventions have been in relation to sexual morality. And once it was found to have its own pants down in relation to the sexual abuse of children, it lost its symbolic domination of Irish society, probably for ever, and became just another interest group.


Tom Inglis is Professor Emeritus of Sociology in UCD. His most recent book was The Meanings of Life in Contemporary Ireland.




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