Why Church-State relations in Ireland are unlike anywhere else

Church & State in Modern Ireland, 1923-1970
John Henry Whyte , 1971, 484 pages

Professor John Henry Whyte’s (1928-1990) Church & State in Modern Ireland, 1923 - 1970 was published in 1971.

Whyte described the purpose of the book as being three-fold. He aimed to examine Church-State relations in Ireland in the half-century since independence; to provide a detailed examination of the controversy surrounding the ‘Mother and Child Scheme;’ and lastly, to assess the influence which the hierarchy had on Irish politics overall.

Whyte was ambitious in casting his net so widely, and what he produced remains one of the most insightful books about Irish history.

In fact, some of the most enlightening sections go beyond these three core issues by exploring the unique cultural environment in which Irish Catholicism existed.

Despite what is now commonly held to be fact, there was no ‘all powerful Catholic Church.’


Large sections of the population had opposed the hierarchy by supporting violence during the agrarian conflict in the same period, by supporting Parnell after his fall from grace, or by supporting the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War of 1922-1923. However, unlike in other Catholic countries, this opposition did not lead to the creation of any anti-clerical party.

The Irish Church was also different in its attitude to the State, as there had long been a “tradition of aloofness” which continued after independence.

When the Anglican church was formally disestablished, Catholicism was not established in its place, and no concordat was ever entered into. Britain’s plans for Home Rule in Ireland had involved a role for both Catholic and Anglican bishops in the proposed Irish Senate, but Irish legislators did not follow this suggestion.

The Church did however have a very extensive role in social welfare services, and Whyte goes to considerable lengths to explain how its control over Catholic schools was particularly strong, and how jealously this power was guarded (in 1952, the bishops even asked the teachers’ union to end a campaign to have responsibility for cleaning and heating schools transferred from clerical managers to local authorities).

Whyte was unusually perceptive in identifying a very consequential characteristic of Irish society: what he called the “authoritarian strain in Irish culture” which had implications in all areas, including religion.

Linked to the resulting deference to priests and other authority figures was the unhealthy puritanism which crept into Irish Catholicism after independence. Once again, Whyte’s broad overview of the theories in relation to this is enlightening.

Whyte links this to a broader social shift which was seen across Europe from the 1920s onwards, and he raises interesting questions when pointing to provocative theories about the lingering effects of the Famine on the rural Irish mindset.

The most important aspect of Whyte’s background analysis relates to the weakness of Irish Catholic social thinking and social organisation in the early 20th century.

On the Continent, clergy and laity had worked to create co-operatives, youth movements, trade unions and other groups to help Catholics respond to pressing social challenges (while also warding off left-wing movements).

In spite of Ireland’s high rates of religious practice, Rerum Novarum had left only a small mark here. Although the Irish Church was deeply involved in direct charitable assistance, it had little to say about the broader issues, and non-Catholics led the way in pushing for social change. 

In Dublin, the lapsed Catholic Jim Larkin became the leading union organiser, while in the countryside, it was the Protestant Sir Horace Plunkett who organised the co-operative movement. 

Plunkett believed that Ireland’s Catholic clergy were well behind their counterparts elsewhere when it came to thinking about these issues, and many agree with him.

An Irish Jesuit, Father Lambert McKenna, wrote in 1913 that Catholic Ireland was “thirty or forty years behind the times” when it came to “Catholic social work,” while even earlier, the French writer Louis Paul-Dubois lamented that “a certain form of intellectual apathy [was] very widespread, a distaste for mental effort, a certain absence of the critical sense.”

By the mid-20th century, this was to lead to serious problems.

The legislation to expand free healthcare for mothers and children proposed by successive governments in the late 1940s and early 1950s, commonly referred to as the ‘Mother and Child Scheme,’ takes up almost half of this book.

The Church’s opposition to this scheme is commonly cited as being among the worst examples of clericalism in post-independence Ireland. 

It has taken on mythological features in the minds of liberal observers, who present a vision of a callous and power-hungry hierarchy (exemplified by Dublin’s Archbishop, John Charles McQuaid) standing between a destitute populace and the achievement of social democracy.

Needless to say, Whyte’s account of the affair – informed as it was by numerous interviews with key figures – is typically even-handed.

McQuaid had set up the Catholic Social Service Conference (which later evolved into Crosscare) and had a strong record of tackling difficult problems: including setting up venereal disease clinics in Dublin hospitals and developing a new organisation to support Irish emigrants in Britain.

Far from being dogmatically conservative, he had publicly supported a teachers’ strike in 1941 (the government’s refusal to give in to the strike being just one example of the limitations on McQuaid’s, and the Church’s, power).

When it came to these proposals, however, McQuaid and the other bishops were adamantly opposed, citing fears about government overreach and the possibility that it could lead to the advocacy of birth control or abortion.

Irish doctors were also strongly opposed to an extension of free healthcare for those who had the means to pay, and some of them appear to have played a role in lobbying bishops behind-the-scenes.

Even after the fall of the coalition government, the controversy dragged on when similar proposals were made by De Valera’s new Fianna Fáil government, and promptly condemned by the hierarchy who chose to outline its concerns in a letter sent to the country’s main newspapers. 

Were it not for De Valera’s wise conduct in resolving the dispute quickly and preventing the publication of this letter, even more long-term damage would have been done to the Church’s reputation.

In presenting such a comprehensive analysis of Irish Catholicism and the relationship between Church and State, Whyte makes clear that the weakness of Catholic intellectualism led directly to this embarrassing episode.

After the Second World War, Catholics elsewhere in Europe were developing productive political relationships with those of differing beliefs (the Christian Democratic movement being the result of this engagement). 

In Ireland, their co-religionists were retreating inward: forbidding Catholic students from entering Trinity, and banning an unprecedented number of books (including those by Catholic author Graham Greene).

This failure to engage constructively or think critically prevented both the hierarchy and lay Catholics from placing issues in perspective when it came to the expansion of public medicine in a destitute country.

“The dangers of State power were so much stressed that opposite dangers – such as that the State might not intervene enough to protect its weaker citizens – were almost forgotten. The correct balance of power between the State and other bodies was so much discussed that more pressing problems – such as high emigration or low productivity – were almost overlooked,” Whyte wrote, adding that “[t]he handicap which the Catholic social movement in Ireland suffered as a result of its late start was being exposed.”

In seeking to answer the third of his central questions – how much influence did the hierarchy have? – Whyte makes clear the limits which always existed, while also emphasising the difficulties in providing any clear-cut answer to such a complex question.

Ultimately though, the true value of this profound work extends far beyond the remit which Whyte set out. A half century after its release, Church & State in Modern Ireland remains an invaluable aid in understanding both the past and present, while also presenting us with a powerful warning about the results of failing to think clearly, and failing to put those thoughts into action.


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