"BUT surely," said an English friend, "you feel intellectually stifled o v e r there?" He was the man who, before 1 left England, had snorted me into silence for using the word "idealism".
"But it's such a small country." said another. He had earlier complained that "Westminster's lost touch with the people".
"But isn't it a bit of a backwater?" asked a third. He was a strap-hanging commuter from the anonymous suburban wilds.
And eventually, of course, they get around to asking about Irish Catholicism and to wondering how I as a Christian who is not a Catholic, react to life in an overwhelmingly Catholic society. Some of them—the agnostics— are really wondering what life is like in a Christian country of any kind ("This," said the Observer recently, "is not a predominantly Christian country"). The others have discrimination and bigotry in mind.
The short answers are that yes, I do like living among people who acknowledge. at least publicly, much the same ideals of behaviour as I do: it makes communication much simpler and more effective than I was finding in Britain. l can mention Christianity in print without apology and in the fair assump • tion that the vast majority of my readers know what I'm talking about.
As for bigotry: only in the predominantly Protestant Six Counties have I personally caught the stench of it. And as for proselytising, only a rare ring at the bell from the Legion of Mary reminds me that such a thing exists (they leave the CATHOLIC HERALD and a few
very badly-written pamphlets and go away).
How about censorship? Some of it is annoying : less, perhaps, the official literary censorship (most of which affects the kind of paperback Scotland Yard seizes without reference to a censor) than that practised unofficially by bookshop proprietors, some of whom haven't
yet agreed that an authoritative work on psychology, published nihil ob.s.tat and with an imprimatur, isn't "that kind of book".
The principal shortcoming of the film censorship has been a naivete which equates sex with sin, but not murder or robbery, and appears not to recognise a homosexual theme when it sees it, The Press, humane if sometimes over-tactful, exercises its own censorship in refraining from the exploitation of crime and vice. There have been signs that this restraint could quickly wear thin if "Disgusted" of Dun Laoghaire were not quite so vigilant, but I am hopeful that this period may already he past.
Libertarianism cannot be acquitted entirely of undermining the Christian ethic in Britain and I would . rather liberalism in Ireland had some resistance to cut its teeth on.
The more subtle and less constructive form of censorship, which decided what subjects were "fit" for public discussion, has been disappearing fast. The Irish have secretly believed they were very wicked and it has been a relief to them to learn either that they are not much worse than anybody else or that it is taboo itself which hinders discussion and remedy. The pendulum has now swung .hard the
other way: there is an almost masochistic eagerness to know the worst.
Along with this new anxiety to uncover and document its social problems, Ireland has begun a revolution in its traditional popular concepts of Christian charity. Voluntary social service is now becoming more efficient than perhaps it has been, partly on the volition of the religious who organise it, partly through response to outside pressures. There is more modern training to be found, more expertise.
As the mass media interest themselves more deeply in the burdens of care which thesreligious have borne so quietly all these years, the public is begin
ning to pick and choose more carefully among the collectors' tin's rattled at them in pubs and in the streets. It is realising, too, that almsgiving is the most perfunctory form of charity and that social justice calls for fraternal involvement rather than mere benevolence.
So there is at once a more critical attitude towards the efficiency of charity and a more widespread interest in actively helping it to work.
It takes time for someone reared in a largely humanist reliance on Welfare Statism to trust in the potential of a Christian country for efficient voluntary social service. A fraternal partnership of State, Church and people really does seem possible.
Another discovery for me has been to find that the parish priest, especially in the rural West, is only too anxious to end his long isolation as the sole initiator and arbiter of community action. I have been watching closely the progress of the Western small farmer cooperative movement.
It might never have got under way at all but for the unique position of authority and leadership the parish priest enjoys. Yet his most difficult task is to persuade his parishioners that
co-operativ ism is essentially fraternal and democratic, and to get them to assume the kind of responsibility they had always left to him.
Until the rural self-help organisation, Muintir na Tire, arrived, there was often no tradition whatever of community action except at the direction of one man—the priest. In cornparable areas in Britain, the parish council (an elected statutory body with the power to spend public funds) sustains a tradition of community service: in the West of Ireland it is very hard to get the people even to trust each other. Only now, in many cases. is the concept of corporate parish life centred upon the Church beginning to take on a practical reality.
This has been a significant beginning of the private aggiornaniento of the Church in Ireland. How do I see Irish Catholic reaction to events in Rome? It was, perhaps, predict. able that the Catholic Sociological Congress would spend hours deciding that whatever Pope John was advocating in Mater et Magistra it wasn't any
class of Socialism: and then, with that safely on record, going on wholeheartedly to welcome it.
The general effect of the Council's discussions on my Catholic friends has bccn at once to invigorate them and to sharpen conflicts in belief which had been growing in them for years. It may be mere coincidence that three of them have spoken recently of "a crisis of conscience".
It seems that the atmosphere of open discussion invoked by the Council has faced them with choices they had long been avoiding; it is almost as if they are seeing the Church clearly for the first time, as a definite, vigorous entity demanding a positive acceptance or rejection. 1-hey are reading Objections to Roman Catholicism and thinking hard.
I have heard the Irish Church criticised as one of passive social conformism rather than of individual conviction, and my three troubled friends agree that what they are now questioning is the sincerity and validity of their own contribution to it. Perhaps this trauma is. and will become, more widespread in Ireland than anyone can know. But it is probably better that this should happen as a conscious selfexamination than as an apathetic withdrawal of concern.
I called this article "An Optimist in a New Country" because I find exhilarating the sense of things beginning, and beginning in a Christian context which welcomes the idealist. It is in Britain, not Ireland. that I feel "intellectually stifled" — by the sheer dead-weight of cynicism and the debris of despair.