A Catholic Family Story

Excommunication is much in the news these days. A few American bishops have declared that any politician who supports the so-called “right” to legalized abortion may not take Communion in their particular dioceses. Such a ban from Communion is the visible part of what excommunication means, but not the whole of it. Excommunication is a formal separation of notorious individual offenders from the Christian community in order to bring them to recognize the serious consequences of their deeds. The 1983 Code of Canon Law (Canon 1312) makes clear that penal sanctions in the church, like excommunication—not to be confused with sin and the punishment that comes from God alone—are a type of tough love, mainly meant to have a medicinal effect on the members of the church so sanctioned.

Whether this actually works out in the concrete, and especially in Christian communities set in pluralistic societies, as opposed to more intimate single-faith settings, is another question. Excommunication can sometimes make it seem that a serious sin (e.g., procuring an abortion) is merely a violation of church law, not what it actually is, a violation of the natural law.


My own family history has been particularly marked by a threat of excommunication delivered 82 years ago in Ireland. A little historical background is necessary. My father, born in County Tipperary in 1898, had from his late teens been active in the struggle for Irish independence, a struggle inspired by the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin that had been put down with great violence by the British. The first notable guerrilla attack of the Irish war of independence took place in County Tipperary early in 1919. The guerrilla nature of that war posed a moral dilemma for the Catholic bishops, caught up as they were in older, classical notions of warfare.

The bishops of Ireland had proven rather lukewarm in their support of the movement for Irish independence, just as they had in 1890 turned against Home Rule within the United Kingdom and its Irish Protestant champion, Charles Stewart Parnell. Parnell’s cause had been ruined, as far as they were concerned, when the Protestant Unionist opponents of Home Rule revealed that Parnell had for many years been involved in an adulterous relationship with a woman named Kitty O’Shea.

Furthermore, although the bishops had opposed conscription for the British Army in Ireland during World War I, they had been relatively content with British rule in Ireland once liberal sentiment in Britain had granted Catholic emancipation in both England and Ireland in 1829. Some of the lesser clergy, however, had come to share the enthusiasm of their lay brothers and sisters for an Irish republic, especially after the Easter Rising of 1916.

Between 1919 and 1921, the bishops had questioned the legitimacy of a revolutionary war, because it did not measure up to the traditional Catholic theory of just war. This theory asserted, among other things, that a just war could be declared only by a duly constituted government. Even when Eamon De Valera, head of the revolutionary government, persuaded their elected assembly, Dáil éirereann, to make a formal declaration of war against continuing British occupation of Ireland and to take responsibility for the actions of the Irish Republican Army, the bishops still maintained that no legitimate authority had sanctioned war. A revolutionary movement could not easily measure up to the bishops’ stringent standards for a duly constituted government.

How did this critique of revolution translate into the preaching of the clergy? My father’s paternal uncle, Canon Michael Kennedy Ryan, administrator of the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly, evidently shared the bishops’ lack of enthusiasm for revolutionary acts. When in the summer of 1919, a certain British district inspector of police was gunned down in Thurles, the cathedral city, Canon Ryan preached against such violence. He told the congregation the following Sunday that “murder was a crime against human society, and neither feelings of revenge nor other motives could palliate or excuse it.” I suspect that my father’s feelings for his clerical uncle were not very warm as a result.

The deteriorating security situation in Ireland finally convinced the British in July 1921 to accede to a truce with the Irish Republican Army and to negotiate for a change in Ireland’s relationship to England. Eventually the official Irish delegation to the London peace talks agreed with their British counterparts to much less than total independence. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 offered the Irish a half-loaf: Ireland partitioned into a free state under British tutelage, especially with regard to foreign affairs, with those counties that wished to opt out of the Irish Free State (eventually six) able to remain an integral part of the United Kingdom. The bishops welcomed this partial victory with alacrity.

De Valera, who had not participated in the treaty negotiations, refused to accept the results and plunged Ireland into a civil war that divided many former friends and even some families into protreaty and antitreaty factions. My father followed De Valera’s lead for as long as De Valera refused to recognize the Irish Free State and fought for a unified Irish Republic. Along with other followers of the Sinn Féin party, my father, once elected to the Dáil éireann in 1923, refused to take his seat because the elected members had to take an oath of allegiance to King George V. Some years later, De Valera decided to accept the Free State as a provisional step toward an eventually united Irish Republic and entered the Dáil as the leader of a newly formed opposition party called Fianna Fáil. At this point my father and some of his closest friends broke with De Valera as well, remaining loyal to Sinn Féin.

Shortly after the beginning of the Irish civil war (1922-3) and the assassination on Aug. 22, 1922, of the Irish Free State’s military leader, Michael Collins, the bishops of Ireland issued a joint pastoral letter criticizing in the severest possible terms those resolute Republicans, like my father, who did not want to accept the Treaty. The bishops, less than totally enthusiastic about Irish independence from Britain in any case, certainly did not want the former Irish comrades of the war of independence to fight with one another over the terms of the Treaty. The bishops’ pastoral letter of Oct. 10, 1922, minced no words, calling Sinn Féin’s refusal of the Treaty and their continuing struggle for total independence “morally only a system of murder and assassination.” The pastoral letter threatened excommunication of the protagonists of what the bishops saw as an unjust war. “It must not be forgotten that killing in an unjust war is as much murder before God as if there were no war,” the bishops wrote.

What happened religiously to people like my father after that? I do not know all the details, but in the late 1950’s a letter came into my hands written by my father in 1923, about a year after the bishops’ pastoral letter, that gives some hint. He wrote the letter in November 1923 to a young girl who was a first cousin. It was four days before his own 25th birthday, a birthday that he spent in detention and on hunger strike along with thousands of other Republicans who had been rounded up by the Irish Free State authorities.

The heading of the letter gives his name in the Irish language and his prison number at Newbridge Barracks in the Curragh of Kildare: “Padraig ORiain 2396, Hut 59.” He describes his condition and that of his fellow hunger-strikers rather laconically: “Of course you know how we are situated here (this being our 24th day on strike) so there is no need to explain. I need only remark that we are very happy & only await the approaching crisis when we shall be freed in this or a better world, so I only want you & all at home to pray for us.” At the conclusion of the brief letter he asks the girl to send him a particular prayer book in the Irish language. Even though cut off from the sacramental life of the church, he still wanted to pray in Irish! He bids her and her family farewell, praying that “if it is God’s will, I may see you all in the near future.”

He was hoping that the hunger strike would persuade the Irish Free State authorities to relent and release all their Republican adversaries. As a matter of fact, the hunger strike simply collapsed when it became obvious that the insurgency against the free state had been defeated. By that time my father had been on hunger strike for 39 days. He had had rheumatic fever once as a teenager and again while on the run in the war of independence, and the hunger strike further contributed to the deterioration of his heart, as he later came to realize.

He was released from Newbridge Barracks late in 1923, in time for his father’s funeral, and he spent the next five years meeting with other antitreaty partisans in and around Tipperary, plotting and planning for what they eventually hoped would be a genuinely independent and united Irish Republic. But at the beginning of 1929, after years of police surveillance and problems finding employment in Ireland, my father finally decided to resign his unoccupied seat in the Dáil and leave Ireland, migrating to the United States.

During all those years my father and his fellow Sinn Féin loyalists, as long as they remained in Ireland, were still considered to be banned from Communion. I am not sure if he began to practice regularly as a Catholic again when he came to New York, where the writ of the Irish bishops’ pastoral letter did not reach. All I do know is that it took my American-born mother, who met him in New York shortly after he arrived, some time to persuade him to write to his parish priest in Newport, County Tipperary, to ask for his baptismal record in preparation for sacramental marriage in New York. Evidently he did not want to give the parish priest the satisfaction of knowing that he had returned to the church, but at my mother’s insistence, he finally wrote for his baptismal record in 1932. It took the Irish writer, Sean O’Faoláin, even longer to return to the sacraments; he did so only in 1950, when he realized, through conversation with a vehemently anticlerical Italian taxi driver in Rome, that there was no ultimate contradiction between being Catholic and being anticlerical.

My father died of a heart condition in New York in January 1944, two months after his 45th birthday. Forty-seven years later, when my mother died, I remarked in the eulogy I delivered at her wake that I thought it had helped me as a priest to be the son of an anticlerical Irish father as well as a devout Irish-American mother. One of my mother’s cousins, who had known my father fairly well 50 years earlier, remarked to me after the funeral that he had often wondered if I had known how anticlerical my father was.

A cousin of my father, an Irish-American priest now in his 90’s, often recalls a car trip he took with my father sometime in the early 1940’s to visit relatives of ours who lived in Williamsport, Pa. During the trip, he and my father had hours in which they talked about those years of struggle in Ireland. With the years my father had become more philosophical about that time. He remarked to my mother, around the same time, that if he were to return to Ireland on a permanent basis (as he hoped to do after World War II), he would probably join the Irish Labor Party. In New York he had been a friend of Mike Quill, the founder of the Transport Workers’ Union, and his thoughts had turned from a purely nationalistic hope for Ireland’s future to one more affected by concerns for social justice and workers’ rights. Since he had arrived in New York just a few months before the 1929 stock market crash, he knew what it was like to land up at the bottom of the economic heap.

Did the Irish bishops’ threat of excommunication of the people who took the antitreaty stance in the Irish civil war of 1922-3 have a medicinal effect? I don’t think so. St. Paul (1 Cor 5:1-5) following Jesus (Mt 18:15-18) seems to have thought of excommunication as a way of drawing to the attention of an individual offender the serious communal consequences of his or her acts, in order to bring that individual back into communion with fellow Christians. All too often in modern times, however, the threat of excommunication has been perceived, as it was in Ireland in 1922, as a way of punishing those who disagree politically with bishops. Whether the Irish bishops were right or wrong in their judgment on the morality of the I.R.A.’s continuation of what the bishops judged an “unjust war,” their pastoral letter did not effect a reconciliation between the former companions-in-arms divided by the treaty.

In the wake of the bishops’ pastoral letter, De Valera wrote to an Irish-born archbishop in Australia, Daniel Mannix, a cleric famous for his support of the Sinn Féin cause: “Never was charity of judgment so necessary, and apparently so disastrously absent. Ireland and the church will, I fear, suffer in consequence.” Some of my father’s contemporaries who stayed in Ireland remained permanently alienated from the church. It is significant that in more recent times, when elements in the British press have repeatedly called for the Irish bishops to excommunicate Catholics involved in I.R.A. bombings in northern Ireland, the Irish bishops have proven reluctant to wield excommunication as a weapon. Perhaps they learned a lesson about the limitations of such ecclesiastical sanctions, to say nothing of the long-term bitterness the medicine of excommunication can leave in the mouths of the faithful.

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