One of the more forgotten names of the revolutionary period, Aodh de Blácam played a role in both the Gaelic Revival and War of Independence before proceeding to be heavily involved in early Fianna Fáil and Clann na Poblachta respectively. An English-born convert to Catholicism and Irish Republicanism, de Blácam was jailed for his efforts within the Sinn Féin propaganda machine during the War of Independence, before having a distinguished career in Catholic journalism. In What Sinn Féin Stands For (1921), he lays out the cultural and political significance of the Sinn Féin movement and its triumph, with the final chapter pertaining to the movements relationship to Capitalism, Marxism and the creation of a new Catholic social order under the rubric of a Catholic distributist model.
Sinn Féin and Catholic Social Theory
Ireland, in short, is the world’s working model of Catholic philosophy, that is her significance. Nowhere else on the globe has Distributism, the system which Catholic social teachers oppose to Communism and Capitalism, such ample opportunity, of historic circumstance and national willingness, to demonstrate its soundness and adequacy.
Catholic social theory, we must remind the reader, is totally distinct from Catholic religious dogma; an atheist can admire it, and on the Continent the so-called Catholic parties have non-Catholics in their membership.
“There is at the present day,” writes Dr. O’Brien, a leading exponent of medieval economics, “a growing body of thinking men in every country who are full of admiration for the ethical teaching of Christianity, but are unable or unwilling to believe in the Christian religion. The fact of such unbelief or doubt is no reason for refusing to adopt the Christian code of social justice, which is founded upon reason rather than upon revelation, and which has its roots in Greek philosophy and Roman law rather than in the Bible and the writings of the Fathers. Although Christian religious and ethical teaching are combined in the teaching of the Catholic Church, they are not inseparable. The Christian ethic . . . might be adopted without subscribing to the Christian dogma.”
And so it is that we see in England a growing school of thought (led by the New Age writers) which favours Catholic social theory, and yet is mainly composed of non-Catholics. It has yet to be seen whether such a school can ever be more than an academic body while lacking the driving force of supernatural faith.
But what are the characteristics of Catholic teaching on the present discontents?
First, it repudiates the evolutionary doctrine. We regard Marx as we regard Euclid, he is a useful mental exercise. The Marxian hypothesis helps us to trace cause and effect in many a difficult passage in history. But we refuse to regard Marxian theories as Marxian laws. A hypothesis that is partly true often leads in science to many discoveries until it is foolishly taken as fully or finally true, when it becomes a hindrance instead of a help.
The atomic theory brought about many discoveries until it came to be taken as a law, and then it blinded science for years to the greater discoveries of the present day. And so we go with the Marxian in tracing the economic element in historic development, and part with him when he declares it to be the only element.
We do not, accordingly, regard capitalism as an essential phase in social evolution. We regard capitalism as an ugly abnormality in history, and revolutionary socialism as a reaction that may bring it to an end. The revolutionary movement is a secular force like a storm or earthquake, threatening the things we hate, capitalism, militarism, and the system of hostile states. We welcome it as likely to do our work for us, and yet we cannot cast ourselves into it, because it is not our movement. It does not promise nor ensure the consummation of our desires.
It may throw down the things we hate, but our business is to build up the things we love. We hold that the Reformation did not assist progress, but interrupted progress, for it broke up the distributive order that the Catholic Church had developed, and it brought back servility. It is an article of faith with us that man can, and does, go astray.
That God has a divine end to which the universe will ultimately work is as much our belief today as it was Dante’s six hundred years ago, but still, with him, we hold that the end may often be departed from instead of approached, and the glorious consummation delayed again and again by those who choose to turn their back on it.
“Among themselves all things Have order; and from hence the form, which makes The universe resemble God. In this The higher creatures see the printed steps Of that eternal worth, which is the end Whither the line is drawn. Yet it is true That as, oft-times, but ill accords the form To the design of art, through sluggishness Or unreplying matter; so this course Is sometimes quitted by the creature, who Hath power, directed thus, to bend elsewhere”
So we do not accept any movement as being right, because it happens. We are not convinced because the world tends in a certain direction that that is the way to progress. Capitalism and Socialism do not carry us “spirally” higher than the Order that prevailed before Christendom was ruptured: on the contrary, we only welcome revolution because, by cancelling Capitalism, it frees us to get back to that Order of old.
The Catholic, then, is a restless rebel against Determinism. As in religion, he is taught never to rest content with the assurance of salvation, so, socially or politically, he is never content to go with the current because it is the current. Catholic Ireland, therefore, is unwilling to yield either to Capitalism or Marxism. It follows, too, from a repudiation of Marxian determinism that we reject the theory of the Inevitable Class War. We do not trace Class War as a permanent feature in human society. Classes there always were since man emerged from the patriarchal pastoral life described in the early chapters of Genesis; but the periods in history in which the classes co-operated are far more extensive than those exceptional and anarchic periods in which the classes were at war.
Over large areas and during long periods slavery was the basis of class relations, and this perhaps may be deplored: yet it is notorious that states recognising slavery ran for ages with as much happiness as is usual on this earth, and a brightly-coloured life of song and worship was enjoyed in which the existence of a slave status for part of the population did not cause discontent or disruption. Under the influence of the Church, slavery was in Europe modified and abolished, and for centuries a hierarchy of free classes worked efficiently. Civilisation was built up by the co-operation of classes, and class-war always coincided with disintegration or decay.
Says Mr. Penty in A Guildman’s Interpretation of History
“If Marx’s view is correct, and if exploitation has played the part in history which he affirms it has, then I do not see how civilisation ever came into existence. We know that exploitation is breaking civilisation up; we may be equally sure it did not create it. . . . When everything but economic considerations has been excluded from life, men tend naturally to quarrel, because there is nothing positive left to bind men together in a communal life”
The Class War, then, is not to be regarded as a good thing inherent in history, and the mainspring of progress.
It is a bad and disruptive thing. But is Class Exploitation, such as undoubtedly exists at the present day in capitalist countries, and such as existed in Ireland when the land was owned by a foreign ascendancy, to be endured without resistance? No. Unjust ascendancies may be attacked. Only it must not be assumed—as the Class War advocate assumes—that every inequality is unjust.
The cases we have cited are glaring. Wherever a private person stands stubbornly in the way of the public good through selfishness, there is a case for his removal. But the employing class as a whole is not to be struck at as having unjust power or authority. In the eyes of Catholic authority, it would be wrong to expropriate capitalists without compensation, for it is wrong to involve an individual in hardships to which he is not accustomed. The de facto status of individuals must be recognised. That is dictated by mercy and a sense of fitness.
Wisdom approves this liberality as the means to avoid bitterness and anarchy. Hence ungoverned Class War is no less than an attack on individuals’ rights and is immoral. But stern as Catholic teaching is in condemning the shock tactics of the revolutionary, it fully authorises the use of coercive measures against the unreasonably recalcitrant.
Where the workers are capable of running an industry in the public interest, and the capitalist stands between them and security, he may be expropriated by the altum dominium of the community, provided that he is offered fair conditions.
The Catholic policy, then, in regard to workers’ control of industry, is one of peaceful negotiation. In Ireland we hope to see the Church acting as intermediary between wage-workers and owners, in arranging first co-partnership and finally full purchase of industries. Where owners exploit their position of monopoly, there will be no further hesitation about resorting to the Big Stick. But if force is reserved for the stubborn only, instead of being launched against a whole class, it will be so obviously justified that the whole of society will approve its use. It may be, too, that, as co-operation advances, it will find itself ringed round by the Capitalist enemy and denied access to the sources of raw material.
Private property in natural sources of production may someday force a form of Class War on the most unwilling. But here again, abstinence from warlike measures in normal cases will justify the use of violence when the abnormal arises. There is every hope, however, that long strides towards economic democracy will be made in Ireland without resort to Class War.
The Church’s influence, if only directed with enlightenment, is capable of persuading Catholic masters to subserve the higher ideal. Should this come about, Ireland may set a radiant example to the world. Inseparable from Catholic philosophy is the ideal of Order. Those who believe in what is called “perfectibility,” and who think that the moral diseases of society can be removed by a change of institutions instead of by the laborious efforts of reli- gion, quite naturally denounce the Church’s “conservatism.”
Lenin has had pasted up in big letters before the Kremlin, this inscription: “Religion is the opium of the people.” The agnostic position is logical. But so is the Catholic. Between the two, men must decide by looking into their own hearts. But it is hard to imagine how any man who has experienced the difficulties of the world and of his own nature, can doubt that suffering is the human lot, or be unconscious of the need for authority.
The Catholic position is summarised in Leo XIII.’s famous Social Encyclical
“To suffer and to endure, therefore, is the lot of humanity; let them strive as they may, no strength and no artifice will ever succeed in banishing from human life the ills and troubles which beset it. If any there are who pretend differently—who hold out to a hard-pressed people the boon of freedom from pain and trouble, an undisturbed repose, and constant enjoyment—they delude the people and impose upon them, and their lying promises will only one day bring forth evils worse than the present. Nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it really is.”
Hence then the justification for Order, Authority and Obedience, by which Catholic theory stands or falls. The wisest laws will often have some unjust incidence, and Catholic doctrine demands that in these cases they be loyally obeyed. Order demands sacrifice, and sacrifice is the human lot.
There is thus no room for the Arcadian who will obey only so long as law pleases him. Those who believe that perfect equality, entire freedom are obtainable in this life have a right to their opinions; but—”nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it is.”
The most outstanding practical feature of the Catholic attitude in social and political matters has reference to Property. As all readers know, Mr. Belloc and the group of writers associated with him contend that on this very issue of Property all Europe will come to be ranged in two camps—the Communist and the Catholic. The Church’s moral teaching predisposes every Catholic to Distributism, or diffusion of private property, and this ideal is advocated very spontaneously by Catholic writers. Pope Leo may be said to have made Distributism almost an official policy for loyal Catholics, advocating it so explicitly and so strongly as he did as the solution for modern discontents.
At the root of this attitude is the moral principle that man has an innate right to property, to deny which is heresy. But Catholic writers have developed the basic principle into a detailed philosophy, and contend that property is an institution which disciplines and develops society. As we have observed elsewhere, “a stewardship over a certain allotment of natural wealth seems to call forth those husbandly qualities in men that make the earth’s development most orderly and gracious.” Dr. O’Brien, in the work already quoted from, sets forth the medieval, or Catholic, theory and ideal very clearly. As owners, men have the means to develop the virtue of liberalitas, tempered by prudence.
The good steward must display magnanimity or munificence, on fitting occasions, as at the building of a church, or giving splendid marriage feasts. But he must avoid parvicentia, a habit inclining one not to undertake great works, when circumstances call for them, or to execute them in a niggardly manner.
Also he must avoid foolish lavishness, as in undertaking great works not called for. “He who neglected the duty of munificence, either by refusing to make a great expenditure when it was called for, or by making one when it was unnecessary, was also deemed to have done wrong, because in the one case he valued his money too highly, and in the other not highly enough.”
But if private property is to be the basis of a Catholic order, how are abuses of private property, with which we are all too familiar in the selfishness of some peasant proprietors, to be checked? The answer is found in the principle of the Just Price, to which a remarkable return has been made in Ireland of the “peasant proprietors.”
The doctrine of the Just Price simply asserted that it was unlawful to give or receive a price dictated by the emergencies of the buyer or seller; for every article a certain price could be deduced from the laws of justice. Cost of production was the principal but not the only factor determining the Just Price, and was not fixed by the higgling of the markets, but by common estimation.
“The common estimation of which the Canonists spoke was conscious social judgment that fixed price beforehand, and was expressed chiefly in custom, while the social estimate of to-day is in reality an unconscious resul-tant of the haggling of the market, and finds its expression only in market price.” Mr. Warre B. Wells, writing in The New Witness, in April, 1919, when Irish Labour had closed the ports to the export of bacon, in order to bring down the price, then excessive, pointed out that the Labour Executive’s manifesto to the bacon curers contained an extraordinary expression of the philosophy of the Just Price
“You may be ignorant of the duties you have imposed upon yourselves. You have resumed the responsibility of providing bacon for the Irish people. You chose this duty voluntarily, and the people hitherto have accepted you at your own valuation; they have acquiesced without questioning your ability or organising capacity. To provide food of this particular kind is your duty to your country: that is the service your country demands of you in your capacity of merchants or traders. You have ignorantly and selfishly thought that your only consideration need be to buy cheap and sell dear. Despite your political professions, of whatever brand, you have confessed to the social philosophy of nineteenth-century Manchester: ‘Every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.’ The workers are now making an attempt—by shock tactics if you will—to rouse you to a sense of responsibility, and either by cooperating with you, or, if you fail, by acting without your aid, to proceed to erect a sounder social structure”
As Mr. Wells aptly pointed out
“Irish Labour has not sought in this matter of food prices (except as a threatened last resource) to interfere with private property as such. It has, instead, asserted the principle of the usage of private property in the public interest; and the method which it has adopted in asserting this principle is the method of the just price. Now, I do not think that this is a mere accident due to the immediate circumstances of the case. I believe it is a spontaneous revival of the Catholic social tradition strong in Ireland before the Reformation, persistent despite the comparative indifference of the Catholic Church in Ireland of late to sociological questions, and coming to the surface again upon a specific occasion at a time when there is much troubling of the waters in the hidden springs of national being.”
In this passage, the Catholic solution to the social problem is completely summed up. And the writer perceives the most interesting truth about the Irish Labour movement, to wit, that, while it is “extreme” in its thoroughness, its readiness for direct action, yet the instincts of a profoundly religious population are impressing on it a character of its own quite unlike that which the doctrinaire Marxian would desire.
The Revolutionary has excellent material in Ireland so long as he works with the grain; but the grain is Christian, and when he crosses the Church, he fails.
Education and the National Revival
In the foregoing section we have dealt with the Church in her natural, not her supernatural, aspects. While it is true that what we may term non-dogmatic Catholicism is an important and interesting feature of Irish life today, it must be remarked that the more spiritual element in the Catholic faith is also a most active element in modern Ireland. It is not too much to say that the Sinn Féin movement has coincided with a profound religious movement; may, in fact, be regarded as an aspect of a religious movement. It is commonplace that the sweeping out of the old job-hunting political system was a moral purification to public life.
But not only have sacrifice and hardship purged Ireland as with winnowing fans, there has been an extraordinary revival of old-world faith. Partly this is due to the teachings of Pearse and many Gaelic League writers, who turned the nation’s memory back to Colmcille and Brigid and Breandan and Enda, filling the people’s imagination once more with the hero-memories of those saints. But also it was due to the example of those hosts of clerks and country boys who, in prison, in the condemned cell, on the brink of death from hunger, and in the concentration camp, sought fortitude in the favourite Irish devotion of the Rosary. But further, the truth is that the Christian faith is inseparably woven into the fabric of Irish tradition. It is at the great pilgrimages to Croagh Patrick, where Patrick wrestled with the angel, and Lough Derg, the island shrine, that the splendid spiritual unity of the Irish race is most deeply revealed; and he who is divided from the Irish people in honour for the Lion of the Tribe, though we cherish the political principles of Wolfe Tone, is still part-blind to the full national vision.
Montegut is in essence right when he writes “If, as Mitchel predicts, we shall witness a return of the Heraclidae, this return will be led by the Cross and the Catholic banner, amid smoking incense, and to the song of canticles, but not under the flag of Mitchel, under the guidance of Meagher, or even under the aristocratic leadership of O’Brien”.
When the Irish people are most deeply stirred, they are closest to their religious tradition. The most notable achievements of the race are associated with the Church, and the most tremendous moments in Irish history—for instance, that when the nation stood braced for a holocaust in 1917—are those in which religion and nationality were united. The union of these two forces then will be the source of the most desirable achievements of the future; so we believe. Reference has been made to our hope that religion and nationalism will together evolve a noble order of society. But the root of fine living is education, and all our hopes for the future depend on the formation, by national and religious impulse, of a noble system of education.
At present, Irish education is a chaos. Its only merit is that, in a clumsy way, it is religious: we are happily spared the secularised and God-denying schools of France or the agnostic schools of Britain. But though the Catechism is taught in our schools and priests are their managers, yet they are not truly and positively Catholic. They are totally unlike what schools would be in a land where Catholics were not slaves in mind and body. “We are the children of the Crusaders; why should we bow to the children of Voltaire?” cried Montalembert, speaking of Catholic education in the French assembly. This proud spirit has yet to be aroused in the Irish public, which tacitly allows Irish education to be modelled, in all details but the teaching of the Catechism, by anti-Irish and non-Catholic educationalists.
A true Christian education would be based on the vision of Dante, Leo, Charlemagne, Hildebrand, Lamennais, Montalembert, Ketteler. Yet, these are scarcely names to Irish scholars, who emerge from the so-called Catholic colleges with their minds stuffed with admiration for Nelsons and Clives, Pitts and Macaulays. Again, national self-respect, quite apart from the demands of true culture, would dictate that Irish students should receive culture from the literature of Ireland. Yet the splendours of Celtic letters are almost as much a sealed book to the Irish scholar, who is their heir, as to an English youth. There are many signs that a complete remodelling of Irish education will soon be undertaken on revolutionary lines. It will then become Catholic and Gaelic through and through. When control of the Irish schools is seized, the future control will probably be vested in an educational guild with county or provincial committees.
Then we shall see, not one, but a thousand St. Enda’s rise in Ireland. We shall get back to the old Gaelic educational spirit, and an education as devoutly Catholic as it is nobly heroic will be achieved. A modern educational guild will recall the antique Gaelic system, under which education was the affair of educationalists. It will be composed of clergy, teachers, scientists and parents’ representatives. All who know the Irish people know that such a group will be unyieldingly resolute in giving religion its fundamental place in the schools. And further, the truth is that the Christian faith is utterly unlike what passes for education today. The Gaelic tongue will be its medium, and the sagas will be its texts. Patriotism will inform it. The story of Ireland’s Golden Age will dominate it as completely as Classicism till lately dominated European education. And as the new vision grows stronger before teachers and taught, the spiritual passion of the old teachers may awake. When today we visit the wild and awful sites on the ocean’s brink, or on the mountain-side where the great men of old built their retreats, we marvel at the splendid imagination of those who loved the wonders of angry nature more than prettiness and comfort.
Not many of their kind live on today; yet, Padraic Pearse was of their company, and we can conceive him, who thought Cuchulain and Colmcille of greater educational value than Ransome or Macaulay, thinking, worshipping, and teaching in the place of the old ascetics. And so, some day, our youth will no longer be taught in the cities and suburbs, but in re-arisen universities and schools at Clonmacnoise, amid the windy Shannon waters; on Tory Island, amid storm and under terrific sunset lights; on Inis Ceata, where the Round Towers are reflected in Lough Derg. In these frugal and austere abodes of faith and vision, young Éire will gather intellectual and spiritual riches, and will grow strong in body, heroic in mind; “the Tain shall come again in mighty cycles,” and a manhood arise among whom Colmcille might walk as he walked with his companions of old.
“Another Eire shall arise
And to remoter time,
Bequeath, like sunset to the skies,
The splendour of her prime.”