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Renewing the Irish Church: Towards an Irish Liberation Theology.

I grew up in a meitheal (pronounced meh-hell) culture in the west of Ireland. The meitheal was a group of neighbors who gave an unpaid day's labor to one who needed help to plant or dig potatoes, save bay, bring in the turf. The typical beneficiary was a widow with small children or a wire-widow whose man was in Ballykinlar internment camp for real or presumed subversion.

While deep-rooted in Irish tradition and practice, the meitheal is not a peculiarly Irish phenomenon. It is to be found, in appropriately adapted forms, in all Third World societies - and for a very simple reason: To survive, the poor must share. As an Irish proverb puts it, people live on each other's shadows.

The CEB, Christian base community, the new way of being church-inspired by liberation theology that has become the cutting edge of a renewed church in latin America and much of Asia and Africa, is a meitheal with an explicit Christian and biblical component. Why has this extra component not appeared in Ireland? Is it perhaps that Ireland is not a Third World country? Many unsuccessful attempts have been made to develop CEBs in the United States and Europe. They seem to thrive only in cultures of poverty.

Fr. Joseph McVeigh, an associate pastor in a rural parish in the Clogher, Ireland, diocese, argues persuasively that Ireland is in fact a Third World country. The republic is a typical neocolonial society, as dependent economically on the former imperial power as most of Britain's former colonies in Africa. Culturally, it is more dependent than many, having effectively lost its language.

English TV, hairstyles, gang styles, drug fashions pullulate. Northern Ireland is still a colony. As such, ironically, it offers more resistance to cultural absorption. Here alone the Irish language thrives. Belfast produces the only daily newspaper in Gaelic anywhere in the world.

McVeigh is in good company identifying Ireland as Third World. Academic interest in the subject is high. Typical is an article in the May 19 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education titled "The Anomaly of Ireland: Drawing the Links to Third-World Culture." McVeigh's original contribution is his analysis of the reason why the meitheal has not incorporated the liberation theology component of Latin America's CEBs.

The social controls imposed over centuries by the Catholic clerical institution, he argues, continue to inhibit the lay initiative that is integral to the life of the CEB. Many have a romantic notion of the latin American CEBs as spontaneous explosions of lay prophetic vision.

My years of study of the phenomenon has convinced me that, while the typical CEB is lay-led and lay-controlled, the initial formation involved a priest or nun (more often the latter) who helped the members move beyond the mutual aid experience of the meitheal to reflection on poverty and oppression. Where the clerics are able to help without dictating, the process works. Otherwise, it withers.

McVeigh's analysis is that an excessive clerical domination of both church and civil life in Ireland has long stifled - and continues to stifle - the grassroots initiatives that empower CEBs. Not only are there few priests or nuns (not to speak of bishops) committed to starting the process, but the clerical establishment firmly opposes the development of social movements that are not firmly under its management.

Part of the reason, McVeigh says, is an excessive identification of the Irish clergy with the middle class. A sense of outrage and anger about the exploitation and manipulation of the poor in Ireland is missing in the official Irish version of Christianity."

In this respect my personal experience, both when I lived in Ireland and as I have continued to observe it on regular visits, confirms the McVeigh thesis. I recall in particular the response to an article titled "Ireland. A Vacuum of National Purpose" that I published in America magazine about 1960 in which I similarly criticized the stultifying effect of excessive clerical control of Irish society

The positive response of lay readers was overwhelming. Some clerics felt insulted, including the then-bishop of Galway, Michael Browne, who admitted when I confronted him face to face that he had not read what I had written.

McVeigh deserves to be read before being challenged. His survey of the Irish church is good. He is also well-grounded in liberation theology. He has not only studied the major figures. He also uses to good effect the little-known symposium by Filipino labor leader Ed de La Torre (with whom I worked when he was a political exile in the United States) on the writings of the early Greek and Roman fathers of the church on the preferential option for the poor.

Gary MacEoin, Irish-born author and Latin America activist, is living in San Antonio.
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Author:MacEoin, Gary
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 10, 1993
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