Going Beyond the Baggage of History

As part of the ‘500 Project’ we have asked a range of contributors from across the spectrum to stimulate and challenge our thinking. We won't always agree with all they write, but that’s the point. This piece is by David Quinn, director of The Iona Institute for Religion and Society.


The manner of the arrival of Reformation Christianity in Ireland has been a disaster for it from which it has, unfortunately, not yet fully recovered. I write this with regret as a Catholic who married in a Baptist church in Australia.

Some of the early Baptists arrived in Ireland with Cromwell’s armies and benefitted initially from their influential position within the Parliamentary army. But this is not a good way to introduce yourself to a potential flock, to put it mildly.

This was the way of it. Protestantism (like Catholicism did in some other countries) sometimes arrived in Ireland with an army, or with colonisers. This acted as a tremendous block to converting the native Irish to one or another of the Reformed versions of Christianity and it is, as I say, a legacy that continues to this day, even after many of the echoes of history have quitened.

Regretfully, it is a matter of human nature that when an easy way to power and influence is offered to us, we tend to take it, and Christians have often been no different in this regard. The State frequently offered power and influence to one or another Church and frequently that Church accepted the offer. This often made religion a matter of imposition, not persuasion and true conversion, and all Churches are living with this legacy today.

It is the same for the Catholic Church on this island. It did not arrive at the point of a sword, but when it was in a position to ally with the State in the South in the 20th century, it accepted the offer, achieved hegemony, become authoritarian, and is now living with the consequences. This is without mentioning the scandals.

I first encountered Protestantism in a serious way for myself when I lived in Australia. As I say, I married in a Baptist church, and I greatly admired many of the very devout Christians I met in that church. They taught me what a living faith looks like and what it means to have a real encounter with Jesus Christ. Paradoxically, I am the Catholic I am today because of those Protestants.

In Australia, I was able to encounter Reformed Christianity outside of its particular historical and social context in Ireland and see it as the thing in itself and I was impressed.

This may seem strange, but I lament the fact that Reformed Christianity is not a stronger force in the Republic. But I think Catholicism, and Ireland itself, would benefit from it. Too many Catholics when they lapse from Catholicism, lapse from Christianity altogether. In their own minds, there is no alternative Christianity available. Protestantism either doesn’t enter their minds at all, or they see it as somehow ‘English’.

Even if they have no animus towards ‘English’ things, it still strikes them that Protestantism belongs to a different ‘tribe’. This is awful, because at its best Reformed Christianity presents people in a way the Catholic Church all too frequently fails to do with the need for all of us to have a real and personal encounter with Christ, a true and deep conversion to Christian discipleship.

History has a way of creating ‘baggage’. No country, no civilisation, no culture, no religion, no organisation, no idea of long standing lacks dark chapters in its history. It is to be expected. Human nature will find ways of corrupting things or of simply making well-intended, but eventually catastrophic mistakes.

My hope is that both the Catholic Church and Reformed Christianity can find ways of making people see beyond the baggage of history and look at them as the ‘thing in itself’, and to see that there, in the centre, is the person of Jesus, and he is still worth following, and that he was, is, and always will be, the Way, the Truth and the Life.