Trinity College Dublin’s Central Societies Committee (CSC), the group in charge of managing campus societies, has taken aim at a Catholic prayer group held by the college’s Catholic Laurentian society. In a statement given to University Times, CSC Secretary Ultan Pringle stated that “Trinity already provides a space for worship and religious practice through the College Chaplaincy”.
As such, the CSC has informed the Laurentian Society that it is not permitted to hold prayer meetings as it would be in breach of the their constitution, which states that the purpose of the Society is “to contribute to the cultural and social enrichment of College, to provide a forum for the exposition and discussion of historical and contemporary issues pertaining to Catholic culture from a Catholic perspective, and to educate interested members of the College community on aspects of Catholicism, including in particular the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
The Laurentian Society has seemingly been baffled by the decision, with their committee stating to University Times that they were unaware of any other religious societies having similar issues, and that “many Catholic students now feel that we are being singled out and attacked”.
This response from the society’s committee is more than understandable. For this author, the idea that the CSC would express any sort of concern for a society hosting an event slightly tangential to its official purpose is baffling. This year more than ever, societies have been holding events that are not officially laid out in their constitutions, from coffee mornings to video game sessions. For the CSC to have come down hard on the Laurentian Society, but seemingly not others is in itself suspicious. In fact, one would wonder if the Laurentian Society had instead been hosting regular coffee sessions at which they regularly prayed together rather than explicit prayer groups, would the CSC have been as wrathful.
Leaving this issue to one side however, it is completely unclear whether the Laurentian Society was operating outside its remit at all. The society explicitly states that its purpose is the promotion of Catholic culture as well as the education of students in all aspects of Catholicism. Pringle himself states that the purpose of the society is “to engage with and explore faith based culture and literature”. To say that the practice of prayer falls outside is extremely controversial on the CSC’s part.
The division between religious culture and practice has always been a particularly difficult puzzle for religious scholars. This can be most easily seen with eastern religions, where the distinction between what is a religious or cultural practice is simply not made. The Japanese, for example, will often frequent both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, take part in what would normally be considered religious rituals, all the while identifying themselves as atheists with no actual belief in either system.
Similar issues are also present within Catholicism. Is a Nativity play a religious or cultural phenomenon? What about a recreation of the Passion of Jesus? What about blessing yourself when passing a church, or carving pumpkins, or attending/taking part in a baptism, first communion, confirmation, wedding or funeral? These events and many more, while often based in the Catholic Church and faith in Ireland, are more and more being practiced by people who place no credence in the metaphysical teachings of the Roman Church. As such, can we really call these events merely religious, or are they an expression of culture?
Despite these massive difficulties that have been the subject of decades of debate, the CSC’s chairman, in his infinite wisdom, has decreed that a prayer group is religious practice, and does not fall under the remit of culture. This decision, we can all be certain, came after some masterclass deliberation on Chairman Pringle’s end, and definitely wasn’t a decision made purely out of complete ignorance of academic religious scholarship. I for one am looking forward to reading the Chairman’s paper on the matter, as it will no doubt be perhaps the most groundbreaking piece of scholarship since the death of Max Weber considering how it solves a question that has totally stumped generations of academics.
Pringle’s knowledge of religious scholarship aside, the entire debacle absolutely reeks of bureaucratic overreach. Why the CSC feels the need to demand Catholics stop practicing their faith within their own society remains mysterious, and their actions highly questionable. One cannot help but hear the echoes of the anti-Catholic history of Trinity College as a whole.
I personally wonder if this is merely the case of a bunch of students, drugged up on social status and progressive politics, using what little power they have to stamp out what little remains of the oppressive Catholic church. Admittedly, this is not exactly a flattering interpretation of the CSC’s actions on my part, and there could be other explanations for their intrusive actions, but they have done little work to assuage those fears.
Whether the actions of the CSC were in good faith or otherwise, what is certain is that, as time goes on, it will only become harder to be Catholic, or even vaguely Christian, in this country. As the state uses its power to prevent religious gatherings, and as the Church bows to the external forces of both progressive politics and Islam, one has to wonder if we’ll be returning to the days of Hedge Schools and crypto-catholics. Without anyone to stand for the faith, it will no doubt be left with only two options: perish or go underground.