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L&H Society UCD

Meeting 14 January 1967


"The Genius who remains becomes an Atheist or a Saint"

(quote attributed to Desmond Fennell, 1963)

Motion proposed by Pl Duibhir, with Desmond Fennell in the chair.

The first sin is reputed to have been one of pride, and in view of its drastic consequences, I did not wish to make the same mistake in writing this paper. I need not have worried. In searching out quotes on Genius, I came across some which guarantee instant humility.

I read that:
Genius in one respect is like gold; numbers of persons are constantly writing about both who have neither
and if this were not enough, I was reminded that:
Genius has its limitations but stupidity is not thus handicapped.
With these salutary sentiments I set about the motion.

My thesis is this: that there is an inherent conflict between genius and authority; that the alternatives open to the Genius, short of compromising his integrity, are, on the one hand, complete adoption of authority, and on the other its absolute rejection. When this authority is the Church then this choice becomes one between Sainthood and Atheism, and this more particularly so for the Genius who remains in Ireland, where the Church is a strong social and political force.

Samuel Butler has this to say of genius:
Genius has been defined as a supreme capacity for taking trouble It might be more fittingly described as a supreme capacity for getting its possessors into trouble of all kinds and keeping them therein so long as the genius remains.
Owen Merideth, in his last words of a sensitive second rate poet, offers the observation that:
Genius does what it must and talent does what it can.
Goldsmith further elaborates the distinction between aptitude and Genius:
Let schoolmasters puzzle their brain
With grammar and nonsense and learning
Good liquor, I stoutly maintain,
Gives genius a better discerning.
That great bulwark of purity and civilisation, the Oxford Dictionary, defines genius as:
exalted intellectual power, instinctive and extraordinary, and extraordinary imaginative, creative, or inventive capacity.
The consensus appears to be that genius is creative, that it has some claim to transcend the day to day limitations which afflict the rest of humanity, that it has its own internal morality, but that it is always getting its possessor into conflict with those around him.

The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand is autocratic, its authority comes from the top, and it is not simply dictatorial, it is totalitarian. It demands, not simply obedience but, assent to its teaching. Gregory Baum, the theologian, who incidentally skirted the Dublin diocese on his last trip to Ireland, describes what is required as
an internal religious assent to the decrees of legitimate authority, i.e. an act of intellectual submission from religious motives of loyalty to the Holy See and from trust that God will supply the best available guidance through the visible head of the Church. This assent must be whole hearted and sincere, respectful silence is not deemed sufficient.
The attitude of the Protestant Churches as represented by the British Council of Churches seems to endorse this system of priori rule making. In commissioning a recent study on the subject of sex and morality, the study group's terms of reference were:
To prepare a Statement of the Christian case for abstinence from sexual intercourse before marriage etc.
The group took exception to the fact that they were in effect told to come up with a particular result from their enquiries and they quite simply refused to endorse the "Christian Position" without reservations.

However, I am concerned mainly with the Roman Church as it is primarily her influence which has moulded Irish Society. I think there is a conflict between the Church, whose answers precede her questions, and the genius whose essence is creativity and whose only commitment is to what he considers to the be the Truth.

Ex Roman Catholic, Dr. Charles Davis points out that
Few ecclesiastics seem aware that a desire for complete openness and fidelity to truth can consume like a burning passion. I do not consider myself an unusual thinker, but I have suffered agonies as a theologian of the Roman Catholic Church. ... An imperative urge within me to think creatively has been blocked and stifled beyond endurance by conformity to a rigidly dogmatic Church. The external demands of the system upon me have been intensified by an internal need for consistency and order in my thinking. I have struggled to conform. I have had the impression in recent years that I have had to remove a mountain of ecclesiastical rubble in order to produce a few tiny plants of creative thought.
I think this is a reasonable expression of the conflict which I am trying to describe, the conflict between creativity and open-endedness on the one hand, and, on the other, a system of prior commitments backed up by an autocratic power structure. I would like to draw your attention to one sentence from the above quote: "The external demands of the system upon me have been intensified by an internal need for consistency and order in my thinking". The choice which faces the genius is one of internalising these external demands until they cease to be external constraints which hamper him at every turn, and become rather as the unconsciously accepted restraints of his own nature, or, and this I maintain is the only real alternative, he must reject these external constraints completely, because the day to day censorship they impose would stifle his genius entirely.

The Irish Church, as distinct from the concept of the Universal Church, has enjoyed a considerable amount of political power in the last forty years. Without the countervailing power of a secular state, she has become bolder in her affirmation and narrower in her interpretation of her position. This has resulted in a tradition of intellectual intolerance towards minorities, which has often spilled over into our legal system due to the close ties between Church and State. That this tradition has not led to embittered personal relations is due to the fact that the Irishman has a natural respect for people which can co-exist with a narrow intolerance of what they stand for.

Advocating the suppression of the proselytising of non catholic sects, Mr. John Ryan, editor of the Irish Catholic, onetime secretary of Maria Duce, is on the record as saying that: "such intolerance of error is the privilege of truth". This week's Irish Catholic comes out strongly against Ireland joining the Common Market because she would thus be subject to laws made by non-catholics. Tolerance, it would seem is a grand thing when one is in danger of becoming a minority.

Dr. O'Callaghan, Bishop of Clogher, maintained that:
Even Protestants must obey the natural law, which is the law of God. British Law has legalised Divorce, we will speak against that as long as there is life in us.
Dr. Lucey, Bishop of Cork, while defending freedom of the press as a Good Thing, defined a free press as one
free to print what it is morally justified in printing. ... And who is to decide what views are fit for publication? The answer is that the Church is entitled to decide when the views are views on faith and morals.
Or again:
There is good reason in this country why the state should tolerate all religions and allow them freedom of expression. But there is no reason why it should tolerate unbelief, or at any rate, open propaganda on behalf of unbelief.
The 1937 constitution starts : "in the name of the Holy Trinity ... we humbly acknowledge our obligation to our divine lord Jesus Christ ...". Far be it from me to suggest that the majority of the citizens of this state have no such obligation, they have, but in their capacity as Christians and not as citizens. The point I wish to make is that the attitudes expressed in the above quotes have been encrusted in our legislation. Because of this the genius in Ireland encounters not only a set of external intellectual constraints but such constraints backed by law and social approbation. For this reason his choice lies not between intellectual submission and rejection, but between Heaven and Hell. Dr Davis could leave the Church and remain a Christian. But according to the Irish Rosary: "We allow no claim to good will from those who have been brought up in the Catholic Faith if they abandon it."

These are the attitudes which formed our society, their source the Roman Catholic Church. But the Church itself is now faced with a conflict from within which threatens to undermine its autocratic structure. The Vatican Council documents represent a compromise between the curial and democratic factions. One finds such ambiguous phrases as within due limits and proper guardianship of public morality which, though they are capable of being interpreted in an autocratic fashion, occur in a context which leaves no room for doubting that the Roman Church is changing (despite the reluctance of the Irish Standard to stress the fact).

My last chapter carries the imposing title From Ryan to Roncalli. From John Ryan's terminology "the privilege of truth" to Pope John's endorsement of the Charter of Human Rights, represents a drastic change of attitude and one which indicates that the conflict between Genius and the Universal Church may be resolved someday. In Ireland, however, due to the fossilisation of outmoded doctrine in our law and social attitudes:
"The Genius who remains must become an atheist or a saint"

for a long time to come.
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