Who do the Irish think they are?

I can hard­ly express how very much old­er I am now than the twen­ty-one-year-old twit who con­coct­ed the fol­low­ing polemic. I can hard­ly believe myself the human­iz­ing effect this third decade has had upon me. So please, read the below with as much head-shak­ing as it deserves; I read it so myself. But I still find it enjoy­able as an his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment of who I was then, and what I made of that. So please, read on with as much judg­ment as you care to bestow on Bean­er, vin­tage 2000; but please remem­ber that he no longer works here! — The Editor

I dis­like spe­cial treat­ment. Of course, I like it when I am the recip­i­ent of some sort of excep­tion­al cod­dling, but on prin­ci­ple I have to object to it. And I am sure that most of you read­ers will agree. Who hasn’t seen spoiled chil­dren in retail stores, scream­ing and throw­ing a fit until they get what­ev­er they want? It is awful. It shouldn’t hap­pen, and we all know why it does: the par­ents are fail­ing to be suf­fi­cient­ly firm with their chil­dren. I’m not going to launch into a dis­ser­ta­tion on how I think chil­dren should be raised—that’s a dif­fer­ent arti­cle, one I’ll write after I have some expe­ri­ence in that area. All I am try­ing to do here is estab­lish that it is despi­ca­ble when a child of any age whines until he gets his way (oh yes, and girls do this, too), and what is even more dis­turb­ing is the par­ents who allow and encour­age this sort of behaviour.

If this behav­iour is unpleas­ant on the small scale of par­ents and chil­dren, then what are we to say when a vast pop­u­la­tion of adults is treat­ed with the same over-indul­gence by a par­ent-fig­ure who should know bet­ter? This, in essence, was my ini­tial reac­tion to the announce­ment by the Most Rev­erend Har­ry J. Fly­nn, Arch­bish­op of St. Paul and Min­neapo­lis, that Lent did not mat­ter this year. Yes, giv­en the unal­ter­able cat­a­stro­phe that in this Jubilee Year, St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Lenten Friday—a day where Catholics are required to abstain from all meat as an act of penance—the good arch­bish­op chose to waive this hor­ri­ble require­ment, lest it inter­fere with the neces­si­ty of a cer­tain eth­nic group to engage in car­niv­o­rous and drunk­en revelry.

Are the Irish all chil­dren, that they can­not be told “No”? Were they going to throw a col­lec­tive tantrum if they had to wait a day to gorge them­selves on corned beef? Pray, do not accuse me of demean­ing them; Arch­bish­op Fly­nn has already done that suf­fi­cient­ly, I think.

(The Float­ing Egg would not wish read­ers to think this piece is a sil­ly bit of reac­tionary jour­nal­ism. This is not about me not lik­ing the Irish. I have noth­ing against the Irish — aside from their appar­ent belief that they as a race are God’s gift to God. But this dis­pen­sa­tion seemed entire­ly unjus­ti­fi­able to me. So we did our home­work, and this is what we have to say. Pray, read on.)

The Fri­day absti­nence from meat is an ancient tra­di­tion in the Catholic Church. I will not attempt a his­to­ry of the prac­tice, but will only say that as a stan­dard act of pen­i­tence Fri­day absti­nence has been with us for a long time. I do not believe it is unrea­son­able to expect what is to me a pret­ty mild penance from every­one. If we are to heed the gospel, we should be doing far more than mere­ly pass­ing up meat once a week, but it is a good start.

And it is not unrea­son­able in its appli­ca­tion, either. Chil­dren are not expect­ed to abide by this, nor are the elder­ly. The law is bind­ing between the ages of 14 and 65. Of course, younger chil­dren should grow into the spir­it of penance, and the aged are not giv­en free license to rev­el. It is a spir­i­tu­al thing, and the law sim­ply serves as a guide for us.

In the new Code of Canon Law, pro­mul­gat­ed in 1983, this all seems pret­ty clear to me. Canon 1251 reads, “Absti­nence from eat­ing meat or anoth­er food accord­ing to the pre­scrip­tions of the con­fer­ence of bish­ops is to be observed on Fri­days through­out the year unless they are solem­ni­ties” (empha­sis mine). I shall explain solem­ni­ties in a moment. Now, the nation­al con­fer­ence of bish­ops is empow­ered by Canon 1253 to mod­i­fy this rule, and the bish­ops’ con­fer­ence of the Unit­ed States did so on 18 Novem­ber 1966. Their pas­toral state­ment from that date states that “Catholics in the Unit­ed States are oblig­ed to abstain from the eat­ing of meat on Ash Wednes­day and on all Fri­days dur­ing the sea­son of Lent.” The U.S. bish­ops go on to say that “Self-imposed obser­vance of fast­ing on all week­days of Lent is strong­ly rec­om­mend­ed. Absti­nence from flesh meat on all Fri­days of the year is espe­cial­ly rec­om­mend­ed to indi­vid­u­als and to the Catholic com­mu­ni­ty as a whole.” A much eas­i­er rule to fol­low, I think, with room left to do as much penance as you like. No one should find this bur­den­some, should they?

But this rule is not inescapable, either. There always seems to be a loop­hole; canon law is like an iron rod: if you heat it up enough, it will bend. The local bish­op has the option of dis­pens­ing with par­tic­u­lar laws in his dio­cese under spe­cial cir­cum­stances. Canon 87, §1: “As often as he judges that a dis­pen­sa­tion will con­tribute to the spir­i­tu­al good of the faith­ful, the dioce­san bish­op can dis­pense from both uni­ver­sal and par­tic­u­lar dis­ci­pli­nary laws estab­lished for his ter­ri­to­ry or for his sub­jects by the supreme author­i­ty of the Church” (empha­sis mine). Yet this is cur­tailed by Canon 90, §1: “A dis­pen­sa­tion from an eccle­si­as­ti­cal law may not be grant­ed with­out a just and rea­son­able cause and with­out tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion the cir­cum­stances of the case and the grav­i­ty of the law from which the dis­pen­sa­tion is to be given.”

The feast days of saints are very impor­tant in the church cal­en­dar. Yet not all saint’s days are cre­at­ed equal. There is a hier­ar­chy of impor­tance — litur­gi­cal­ly speak­ing — in their cel­e­bra­tion. The high­est lev­el is solem­ni­ty. Solem­ni­ties are the top-notch fes­tiv­i­ties in the litur­gi­cal year. These include feasts of Our Lord (e.g. Christ­mas, East­er, all Sun­days) and many Mar­i­an feasts (Immac­u­late Con­cep­tion, Annun­ci­a­tion, Mary Moth­er of God, Assump­tion, et cetera), as well as sev­er­al saints who are of great impor­tance (Joseph, John the Bap­tist, Peter and Paul). The sec­ond lev­el is that of feast, a cel­e­bra­tion not quite as cen­tral as a solem­ni­ty, yet still quite impor­tant in the Church. These are the days of many impor­tant saints, espe­cial­ly apos­tles. At the low­est lev­el are memo­ri­als, and these come in two brands: oblig­a­tory and option­al. Memo­ri­als are, as the name implies, a remem­brance of the saint in ques­tion, but with­out the high cel­e­bra­to­ry nature of a feast or solem­ni­ty. Oblig­a­tory memo­ri­als are fixed in the cal­en­dar and must be observed through­out the Church. Option­al memo­ri­als, on the oth­er hand, are cel­e­brat­ed at the dis­cre­tion of the presider, depend­ing on the par­tic­u­lar devo­tion of the community.

Where does the Apos­tle of the Emer­ald Isle fit into this hier­ar­chy? Sure­ly a saint wor­thy of com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion must deserve a major cel­e­bra­tion in the Church? Alas, no. In the Unit­ed States, March 17 is an option­al memo­r­i­al, the low­est order of litur­gi­cal cel­e­bra­tion. It is entire­ly up to the indi­vid­ual priest whether or not to say the prayers prop­er to St. Patrick, or to just go with the cur­rent week­day. In short, as a church feast, St. Patrick’s Day hard­ly mer­its spe­cial priv­i­leges. It bare­ly mer­its notice at all.

In Ire­land, of course, the case is quite dif­fer­ent. March 17 is indeed a solem­ni­ty in the dio­ce­ses of the Emer­ald Isle, and right­ly so. In fact, it is a holy day of oblig­a­tion; all Irish Catholics must attend Mass on this feast of their great­est saint. I am told by a priest who is a native of Ire­land that the day is actu­al­ly kept as a reli­gious cel­e­bra­tion. Although this may sound far-fetched, he actu­al­ly claims that the pubs are closed! I find this dif­fi­cult to believe, but I shall take the good Father at his word.

This would be a notable dif­fer­ence from how the Irish saint is hon­oured in this coun­try. Here, there is noth­ing reli­gious about March 17, peri­od. How many Irish-Amer­i­cans do you know that went to Mass on St. Patrick’s Day? Not too many I bet. But who, Irish or not, didn’t hoist a pint or ten? This is a not a cel­e­bra­tion of the bring­ing of the Faith to a won­der­ful peo­ple; this is at best a cel­e­bra­tion of nation­al pride in a new land, and at worst is mere­ly a thin excuse to hold a city-wide orgy of drunk­en­ness with the appro­ba­tion of both church and state.

Is this the “just and rea­son­able cause” Canon 90 speaks of? Are Guin­ness® and corned beef essen­tial for “the spir­i­tu­al good of the faith­ful” in the Twin Cities? This is the mes­sage that Arch­bish­op Fly­nn, and seem­ing­ly every oth­er bish­op in this coun­try, have sent to the faith­ful, and I believe, in all due respect, that this mes­sage is an inap­pro­pri­ate one. The mes­sage is that, plain and sim­ple, that the Irish are the most spe­cial peo­ple there is.

I am some­what dis­turbed by this priv­i­leged place which the Irish are giv­en in the Catholic Church in this coun­try. True, there are a lot of them, and true, they played an impor­tant part in the shap­ing of Catholic Amer­i­ca. But does this real­ly mean that the rules no longer apply to them? I hard­ly think so! As an eth­nic group they have suf­fered grave injus­tices in this coun­try, in no small part due to their reli­gion, and they should cer­tain­ly have our respect for that. But that does not give them spe­cial priv­i­leges, nor does it give them the right to claim the Catholic Church in Amer­i­ca as their own spe­cial domain. The Irish are no bet­ter Catholics than any­body else, and I do not believe they should receive spe­cial treat­ment. St. Patrick’s Day is no longer about faith; it is about cel­e­brat­ing nation­al and eth­nic iden­ti­ty. Won­der­ful as far as that goes (although I have strong feel­ings about nation­al­ism, but we shall save that for anoth­er time), but they should not expect the Church to give them spe­cial priv­i­leges to do so, and Church lead­ers should not give them such preferment.

Inter­est­ing­ly enough, when I spoke to the archbishop’s office, they assured me that this was not the case. I had a nice chat with Sis­ter Dom­in­ca Bren­nan, the Arch­dioce­san spokesper­son, and she explained that the dis­pen­sa­tion was not a spe­cial con­ces­sion to the Irish, but rather, since so many peo­ple cel­e­brate St. Patrick’s Day in this coun­try, it was a deci­sion affect­ing the whole com­mu­ni­ty. I then point­ed out to her that it was hard­ly cel­e­brat­ed as a reli­gious hol­i­day. She shrugged this off. There was nev­er any ref­er­ence to it being a reli­gious hol­i­day in the dis­pen­sa­tion; “Sim­ply the fact that it was cel­e­brat­ed [by a large num­ber of peo­ple] was seen as suf­fi­cient,” Sr. Bren­nan said. My pint, I mean point, exactly.

I would not be sur­prised if this dis­pen­sa­tion by Arch­bish­op Fly­nn was sim­ply a cop out to make accept­able what was going to hap­pen any­way. He didn’t real­ly believe that any Catholic — Irish or oth­er­wise — would obey the law of absti­nence on 17 March, and rather than let them all com­mit sins of dis­obe­di­ence, he gave them the okay. Dis­pen­sa­tion or not, the corned beef was going on the table that Fri­day, so why fight it? Why tell a child “No” when he already has his hand in the cook­ie jar?

It was weak­ness, yes, a lack of dis­ci­pline fur­ther encour­aged and jus­ti­fied by a biased Church hier­ar­chy, but was it real­ly so bad? Prob­a­bly not. After all, the Irish are the most spe­cial nation on Earth. So next time you are in line at the super­mar­ket and the child in front of you throws a tantrum over a can­dy bar, don’t get upset. Just smile, and think of the Irish. I know the anal­o­gy will amuse me for a long time to come.

1 Comment

  1. It is hard to believe that has been ten years since I was so irate and per­snick­ety that I stood in a phone booth and — on the basis of my self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as a writer “from The Float­ing Egg” — inter­viewed the PR con­tact for a major Amer­i­can Arch­dio­cese. (My intent was to speak direct­ly with the Arch­bish­op, but I sup­pose peo­ple like me are the rea­son they have peo­ple to han­dle peo­ple like me.) The pre­ced­ing is only slight­ly edit­ed from how it appeared in the March-April 2000 edi­tion of TFE, and I offer it again here in hopes of your aghast amuse­ment, not your antag­o­nism. Hap­py St. Patrick’s Day!

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