The AP’s Ireland: Force, hatred, history, all that.

Rorschach inkblot test

When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water … Begob, ma’am, says Mrs. Cahill, God send you don’t make them in the one pot.

Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)

The clergy abuse scandal is the gift that keeps on giving as dry and dusty Catholic news stories can always be sexed up by reference to this evil. A recent story from the Associated Press on the opening ceremonies of the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin is an example.

The words “Eucharistic Congress” are likely to induce palpitations in the heart of a reporter who seeks to make a name for himself. A week-long confab of fervent Catholics meeting to discuss the mysteries of the sacrament is not a setting that produces great copy. Write six or seven hundred words about what Cardinal X said about this, or Archbishop Y said about that, and a reporter would be lucky to see 250 words survive the editorial pencil.

Finding a way to work in the sex scandal changes the equation. Take a look at this article entitled “Catholic faith on line as church rallies in Dublin” and you can see the transformation of a dull story by focusing on one aspect at the expense of all others.

The problem for a subscriber to the AP’s wire service however is that they are not getting what they paid for. What they bought was a news story. What they received was an opinion piece that speaks more to the psyche of the AP reporter than to the mind of the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin.

In reading this free form fantasia, my mind too was loosened from the bounds of straight news and it floated off to a Dublin I knew in misty days of yore when

The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in His heaven—
Reagan is in the White House;
All’s right with the world!

My Dublin was not a place but an ordeal — a sixth former’s struggles with James Joyce’s Ulysses. This was a right of passage for English students who were introduced to One Day in the Life of Leopold Bloom — 16 June 1904 to be exact.  Stylistically varied, full of puns, allusions and jokes, Ulysses introduced the stream-of-consciousness style which allowed the reader not only to follow the events of Bloom’s day hour by hour, but also to follow his thoughts and hear the inner rhythm of his needs and desires, joy and despair.

Ulysses was a very hard book for me to read, so saturated was it with the life of Dublin and the mental perambulations of its characters. At times I found it incoherent. I took comfort that others did not enjoy this style — Hemingway (the other one, not M.Z.) referred to it as ‘steam of consciousness’ writing. Yet Ulysses marked the end of the dominance of realism– telling life as it is — in the novel. Which takes me back to this AP story, which does not tell life as it is, but gives free flow to the mental perambulations of its author.

Let’s start with the lede.

An international conference celebrating Roman Catholicism opened Sunday in Ireland against a backdrop of anger over child abuse cover-ups and evidence of declining faith in core church beliefs.

That’s the way to frame the story, misstate the agenda of the conference and go on the attack. It continues:

About 12,000 Catholics, many from overseas, gathered for an open-air Mass in a half-full Dublin stadium at the start of the Eucharistic Congress, a weeklong event organized by the Vatican every four years in a different part of the world. The global gathering, begun in the 19th century and last held in Quebec in 2008, highlights the Catholic Church‘s belief in transubstantiation, the idea that bread and wine transforms during Mass into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Wait, I thought this was about “celebrating Roman Catholicism” — some sort of quasi-tribal rally of the faithful. Instead we have a half-full week long congress on transubstantiation? Bait and switch reader, bait and switch. I’ve seen other reports that list 20,000 present — funny how stories about the Pope’s trip to Germany, England and Mexico all seem to start out with low ball estimates that have to be revised dramatically upwards.  But I digress …

An opinion poll of Irish Catholics found that two-thirds of Irish Catholics don’t believe this, nor do they attend Mass weekly. The survey, published in The Irish Times with an error margin of 3 points, also found that just 38 percent believe Ireland today would be in worse shape without its dominant church. And just three-fifths even knew the Eucharistic Congress was coming to Ireland.

Such views reflect rapid secularization and alienation with the church in Ireland, where church and state once were tightly intertwined. The last time Ireland hosted the Eucharistic Congress in 1932, more than 1 million — a quarter of Ireland’s population — packed Dublin’s Phoenix Park for Mass with nary a dissenting voice.

How do we know that these views “reflect rapid secularization and alienation”? It may be reasonable to assume this based upon the increasing secularization of society and the scandals of recent years, but what evidence is there in the article that takes us from A to B?

And how does the rate of belief in the real presence as found in the survey relate to past levels of belief — or to rates of belief in other countries? Surveys conducted by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) would indicate that Ireland is doing better than the U.S. on this point. There is no context provided to judge the numbers — only the assertion that this is a bad thing.

And … Is it fair to compare the 1932 Phoenix Park mass to the 2012 Dublin opening ceremony? The 26 June 1932 open air mass in Phoenix Park drew almost 1 million people. But discussions of transubstantiation at the 1932 Eucharist Congress did not bring in the crowds — it was Pope Pius XI and the Irish government.

The pope addressed the crowd from his library in the Vatican and was the first time a pope directly spoke to the Irish people. A better comparison might be Pope John Paul II’s 1979 mass in Phoenix Park, which also drew almost a million people. Juxtaposing 12,000 (or was it 20,000) people with a million people appears to be an attempt to advance the rather tired “Ireland is losing its faith mantra”.

The 1932 Eucharistic Congress was a political, cultural and religious event. It was a celebration of Irish Nationalism and Roman Catholicism and showcased the success of the Irish Free State. Éamon de Valera heavily promoted the congress as a symbol of republican Ireland being a Catholic state for a Catholic people. It also cemented the relationship between Fianna Fáil and the church which culminated in the 1937 Constitution which recognized the “special place of the Catholic Church” in Irish life. We get a hint of this in the article, but the author ignores this and compares attendance between the two congresses in an attempt to denigrate the 2012 gathering.

The quip about “nary a dissenting voice” is unsubstantiated as Protestants and Unionists (what few that remained south of the border) objected to the rally in 1932 as a sectarian political show.

Fast forward to 2012. The AP reports:

And as Catholic pilgrims entered the opening Mass, they passed protesters from Survivors of Child Abuse, an Irish pressure group that has spent more than a decade demanding that church leaders in Ireland and Rome admit their full culpability for the protection of pedophile priests. Other protest groups highlighted the church’s opposition to homosexuality and its role in running most Irish elementary schools and many hospitals today.

Today we have gay rights activists protesting (where the friendly folks from Westboro Baptist Church there?) as well as abuse victims advocates. How many protestors is not stated. Different issues separate 1932 and 2012, but protests there were.

Yet one of the major angles in this story that the AP managed to miss was the inclusion of Protestants in the Congress. The Church of Ireland’s Archbishop of Dublin, (the other archbishop) was among the speakers at the opening service. Two Archbishops of Dublin were present, Protestant and Catholic, Dr. Michael Jackson and Dr. Diarmuid Martin. Nor was Dr. Jackson’s presence window dressing as Presbyterian, Methodist and other Protestant leaders took part in the ceremony. For goodness sakes even a contingent from the Church of Ireland’s Boys Brigade took part in the march.

Remember a time when Irish news was dominated by the “troubles” — that Protestant/Catholic thing that went on for a few decades? In its fixation with the abuse scandal the AP has managed to miss one of the significant changes in Irish life made manifest by this congress — the virtual end of Protestant/Catholic discord.

The article continues with its focus on the abuse scandal, highlighting those moments from the opening day where congress organizers addressed the abuse issue. Readers were also treated to this assertion.

… Four state-ordered investigations over the past decade have documented how tens of thousands of children from the 1940s to 1990s suffered sexual, physical and mental abuse from priests, nuns and church staff in three Irish dioceses and in a network of workhouse-style residential schools. More investigations of other dioceses beckon.

Tens of thousands of children suffered abuse? Where does that number come from?

In 1999 the Irish government began a ten year investigation into incidents of abuse in Church-run reform schools and educational institutions: the places where the bulk of the abuse took place. In its 2010 report, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse found that between the period 1914 to 1999, 253 claims of sexual abuse were made by males and 128 by females.

Were these all the possible claims? No. But “tens of thousands”? Does the AP have information on at least 19,619 other cases it says took place?

Let me stop at this point and address the question why this matters. One or one thousand children abused are too many abused children. It is a shame, a horror, a crime that tarnishes the church and society.

However, when the abuse is inflated to hyperbole, when imaginary victims are created to make an argument that the church is corrupt, the abuse suffered by real people is cheapened. Their suffering is diminished and is expropriated by those advancing a political agenda. In a situation of suffering it is reprehensible to exaggerate for effect.

And it is bad journalism. The reporting in this story shows no understanding of the issues, no sense of the story, no sense of the people. It tells us nothing of consequence about the Eucharistic Congress, but a great deal about what the author thinks of the Catholic Church. It is an anti-Catholic editorial masquerading as news.

When you are going to make tea, make tea. When you are going to make water, make water. Don’t try to make them in the same pot. When you are going to write an editorial, write an editorial. When you are going to write news, write news — don’t try to do both in the same story. Stream of consciousness reporting didn’t work here. The AP would have done a better job of sticking to realism.

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About geoconger
  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    geoconger makes a good point about how do we know there has been any major change in the beliefs of Catholics on the True Presence. There were virtually no accurate polls or surveys made of Catholics on this topic (and most other religious and Catholic topics) before very recent times. So there is almost nothing out there to use for accurate comparison to claim change has happened. Also, religious belief is one of the hardest topics to accurately survey because questions to get accurate answers are hard to competently formulate on most religious topics.
    And it is important that people be forewarned that a particular piece is someone’s opinion–don’t mix water with tea.
    I know the tradition has been that opinion pieces belong on the editorial pages, but almost as good would be for stories that are opinion pieces that some editor wants on a news page for it to be labeled simply : OPINION with an obvious by-line (no “voice of God” news fakery) and even a tiny picture of the writer (The Boston Herald regularly does this and I don’t believe anyone think’s, for example, Howie Carr’s columns are basic news pieces even though they are usually in a news area of the paper..

  • Maureen

    Traditionally, a lot of polling that’s supposedly about the Real Presence has actually presented non-Catholic views of the Eucharist. Answering “yes” to that would have been saying yes to heresy, so believers say no and are counted as non-believers in the news story.

    Alternatively, questions are presented in a formulation which is confusing or has ambiguous wording, so on the chance that it may be heretical in some way they can’t see at the moment, Catholics also say “no” or “I don’t know.”

    Finally, most people have better things to do than listen to some telemarketer or marketing poll, so they never answer any of the questions in the first place. You have to be feeling pretty bored or tolerant to be polled, which means there’s probably a high percentage of stoned or drunk people answering polls, or of teenagers making joke answers.

    So I find that poll numbers on transubstantiation are usually total BS.

  • Julia


    Thanks for your cogent analysis.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    A good analysis of a bad (AP) article.

    One of my constant gripes is that polls don’t control for Mass attendance. Apparently, one did:

    two-thirds of Irish Catholics don’t believe this, nor do they attend Mass weekly.

    Wow, I wonder if the two clauses relate in any manner?

  • Martha

    “Other protest groups highlighted the church’s opposition to homosexuality and its role in running most Irish elementary schools and many hospitals today.”

    Don’t worry, our self-described “existential atheist” Minister for Education is on the job with regard to school patronage and the time spent on teaching religion in primary schools!

    Ahem. Being fair to atheists, this is not a dig at them (it’s a dig at the ‘champagne Socialist’ wing of the Labour Party as represented by the Minister). There’s a reason that the Catholic Church in Ireland has a role in “running most Irish (primary) schools and many hospitals today”, and it’s (as usual when talking about Ireland) a tangle of history, politics and religion.

    There weren’t any national (that is, state-run) schools established until 1831, and when they were, they were regarded with suspicion as being engaged in a programme by the British Government to quell the rebellious nature of the Irish by churning out good subjects (who, it would be hoped, would embrace the Church of Ireland and leave superstitious Romanism behind). That was not the intention (at least, not so blatantly the intention) of the political establishment, but it was how it was perceived.

    Also, the wave of new religious orders founded during the 18th and 19th centuries specifically to cater to the poor in education and provision of health care and other services – I refer you to the foundation of the Presentation Sisters by Nano Nagle in 1775, the Christian Brothers by Blessed Edmund Rice, whose first school opened in Waterford in 1802 (before the 1831 national schools), the Sisters of Mercy by Catherine McAuley in 1831 for just three examples – meant that from the start, the Church was involved in schools and hospitals and continues to be so involved to the present.

    Though the decline in vocations means that many of the orders are giving up direct running and handing over to secular institutions, it’s a bit ungrateful to protest about church dominance in these areas when the reason for that dominance is that no-one else was doing it at the start.

  • tioedong

    Ah, wait until the press reads this NYTIMES article on secular prep schools which were pits of abuse.

    Abuse of all sorts occurs in institutions, alas.

    The pedophile crisis wasn’t just Catholics, and much of it was sex with young teens, not with children. But don’t let me spoil their narrative.

    It wasn’t just Catholics, alas….

  • Jofro

    There was a reason why I stopped the AP news feed I regularly got on my smartphone. It was mostly opinion pieces parading as news and as someone who studied journalism and think journalists should never become enslaved to their opinions when reporting the news, AP was just a sad pathetic embarrassment!

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Mark the calendar as I praise the NYT for publishing that article linked by Tioedong. That is precisely the sort of thing I meant on the other thread by looking at the larger picture. Now, when the Times takes on the New York Public Schools, I will really be impressed. It’s said that as many kids are molested in NYPS every year than in the Catholic Church since 1950.

  • sari

    last week’s nyt magazine cover article addressed entrenched sexual abuse at horace mann, a premier prep school

  • http://!)! Passing By

    sari -

    Yes, the story I praised was the Horace Mann story, linked by tioedong. I would like to see more on the public schools.

    And while I am offering praise in bizarre places, here’s props to Newsweek, for doing exactly what I proposed: provide context that can actually point towards solutions.