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Was the 1916 Rising a 'just war' - and why has Catholic Church nothing to say if it wasn't?

Ahead of the centenary of the 1916 Rising, Irish Catholics should assess whether it was a moral and just war, writes Sean O'Conaill, or simply the use of violence to bring about change unsupported by a popular mandate

AT the end of last month former Taoiseach John Bruton questioned whether the 1916 Rising in Dublin fulfilled one of the requirements of Catholic moral teaching for a just war - that it be a last resort.

"Given that home rule was already passed, would have come into effect, and would have been a platform for further moves to greater independence, the use of violence in 1916 was not a genuine last resort," Mr Bruton, speaking in Wexford, was reported as saying (The Irish Times, November 1 2014).

Whatever the merits of Bruton's argument, this subjection of the 1916 Rising to a Catholic moral test is surely interesting in its own right.

As far as I am aware the officially designated proponents of Catholic moral teaching - the clergy - have observed a studied silence on the morality of 1916 during my lifetime, including its half-centenary in 1966.

Has any Irish bishop ever questioned the timing of that insurrection at Easter, when all Christians commemorate Jesus' giving of his own life and refusal to take the life of anyone else?

John Bruton's initiative reminds me that in 1966 the Irish Jesuit journal Studies decided against publishing a historical critique of the 1916 rising written by the Jesuit historian Francis Shaw.

We know this because an extended version of that article duly appeared

in that journal in 1972.

It argued, in about 18,000 words, that Patrick Pearse's historical rationale for the rising was flawed because his understanding of what constituted 'Irishness' would not have been understood by most earlier generations of Irish people.

Not until the late 18th century, Shaw argued, did anyone in Ireland identify Irishness with allegiance to the idea of a separate, unified Irish state, to be achieved by force; even after that, a majority of Irish people never did so before 1916 (The Canon of Irish History: A Challenge, Francis Shaw SJ, in Studies, Summer 1972).

Shaw's article was inevitably labelled 'revisionist' by Irish republicans, apparently unaware that faulting a historian for dismantling politico-historical dogma is equivalent to criticising a doctor for practising medicine.

As far as I can remember, no Catholic moral theologian weighed in then to question the compatibility of the Rising with Catholic moral teaching on the requirements for a just war.

Since then the much broader issue of the relationship of Christianity and violence has been subjected to intense examination by the French Catholic academic, René Girard.

Noting especially the imitative character of so much violence, Girard has concluded that all violence originates in a specific kind of imitation.

He calls this 'mimetic desire' - desire that originates in the desire of someone else, and is then unconsciously adopted as one's own.

Just as young children will quarrel over the same toy among several, so will adults typically squabble over consumer goods at an end-of-year sale.

This human weakness, Girard argues, lies behind all rivalries. Violence is therefore the result of a contagion; our tendency to desire what others desire, and to respond reciprocally to one another's appropriative behaviour.

Girard argues further that in its multiple stories of sibling rivalry the Bible is an inspired revelation of this human weakness.

He believes the Mosaic code warns against this explicitly in two of the

Ten Commandments - those that forbid the coveting of "anything your neighbour owns".

As the story of Joseph reveals, "'anything" can include something entirely non-material, such as the greater favour of a parent.

For Girard the contagious nature of violence was especially evident throughout Europe in the period that led to the violent formation of both Irish political entities between 1912 and 1922 - for example, in the arms race that so obsessed the chiefs-of-staff of all the great powers in 1914.

He has not, as far as I know, commented on Ireland specifically, but what else are we to make of Patrick Pearse's reported reaction to the formation of the Ulster Volunteers: "The only thing more ridiculous than an Ulsterman with a rifle is a nationalist without one."

This is also the pattern of the paramilitarisation of Northern Ireland after 1969.

Can anyone deny the grip of contagion on both sides - a contagion that led in the end to the most outrageous scapegoating and murder of innocent individuals?

Had he lived through that, could Pearse have retained his belief that "bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing"?

In the light of all we know today - and of what is at stake for our children - all Irish Christians should surely be examining closely what Girard is arguing.

Does anyone know of any state on the globe that did not arise out of violent conflict? Do all states arise in the end from the violence caused by

covetousness - and is this what our foundational text is telling us?

Are the Gospels a challenge to recognise this, and to reject competitive violence?

Our Irish conflict could surely at any time regress from the grotesque mimetic insults of Stormont, and the 'smothered war' of dissidents and paramilitarists, to a resumption of large-scale inter-communal violence.

All of the Irish Churches have problems grappling with the provocative histrionics of their most militant adherents.

Just as Irish Protestantism is generally reticent when it comes to the provocations of Orangeism, so have Catholic clergy been in addressing the dangers of the ideology that underpins republican violence - specifically the sourcing of the right to use force in one's own private take on Irish history.

It is that unilateral claim, unsanctioned by any prior electoral test, that both underpinned the 1916 Rising and fuels the dissident republican campaign today.

It is illogical and ineffectual to argue that today's dissidents should desist because they lack a popular mandate if we also argue that there is no need to apply the same test to the men of 1916.

If Irish Catholic Christians cannot now conscientiously review and discuss all of that, how long must we wait before doing so? Until 2066?

* Sean O'Conaill is a retired teacher of history and current affairs and now commentates on the dual crisis of secularism and Christianity.

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