James Connolly


Labour, Nationality and Religion


Let the Pope and cardinals, and all the powers of the Catholic world united make the least encroachment on that constitution, we will protect it with our lives. Summon a General Council – let that council interfere in the mode of our electing but an assistant to a turnkey of a prison – we deny its right; we reject its usurpation. Let that council lay a tax of one cent. only upon our churches – we will not pay it. Yet, we are most obedient Papists – we believe that the Pope is Christ’s vicar on earth, supreme visible head of the Church throughout the world, and lawful successor of St. Peter, prince of the apostles. We believe all this power is in Pope Leo XII and we believe that a General Council is infallible in doctrinal decisions. Yet we deny to Pope and Council united any power to interfere with one title of our political rights, as firmly as we deny the power of interfering with one title of our spiritual rights to the President and Congress. We will obey each in its proper place, we will resist any encroachment by one upon the right of the other.

Rt. Rev. John England, Catholic Bishop of Charleston, U.S.A., 1824.



Nothing is more conducive to the spread of a movement than the discussions arising out of the efforts of a capable opponent to refute its principles. Out of such discussions arise clearness of thought, and the consequent realisation on the part of both sides to the controversy of the necessity of considering the movement under discussion in the light of its essential principles rather than of its accidental accompaniments – the basic ideas of the movement itself rather than the ideas of the men or women who may for the moment be its principal exponents or representatives. Men perish, but principles live. Hence the recent effort of ecclesiastics to put the Socialist movement under the ban of the Catholic Church, despite the wild and reckless nature of the statements by which the end was sought to be attained, has had a good effect in compelling Catholics to examine more earnestly their position as laymen, and the status of the clergy as such, as well as their relative duties towards each other within the Church and toward the world in general. One point of Catholic doctrine brought out as a result of such examination is the almost forgotten and sedulously suppressed one, that the Catholic Church is theoretically a community in which the clergy are but the officers serving the laity in a common worship and service of God, and that should the clergy at any time profess or teach doctrines not in conformity with the true teachings of Catholicity it is not only the right, but it is the absolute duty of the laity to refuse such doctrines and to disobey such teaching. Indeed, it is this saving clause in Catholic doctrine which has again and again operated to protect the Church from the result of the mistaken attempts of the clergy to control the secular activities of the laity. It seems to be unavoidable, but it is entirely regrettable, that clergymen consecrated to the worship of God, and supposed to be patterned after a Redeemer who was the embodiment of service and humility, should in their relation to the laity insist upon service and humility being rendered to them instead of by them. Their Master served all mankind in patience and suffering; they insist upon all mankind serving them, and in all questions of the social and political relations of men they require the common laity to bow the neck in a meekness, humility, and submission which the clergy scornfully reject. They have often insisted that the Church is greater than the secular authority, and acted therefore in flat defiance of the secular powers, but they have forgotten or ignored the fact that the laity are a part of the Church, and that therefore the right of rebellion against injustice so freely claimed by the Papacy and the hierarchy is also the inalienable right of the laity. And history proves that in almost every case in which the political or social aspirations of the laity came into opposition to the will of the clergy the laity represented the best interest of the Church as a whole and of mankind in general. Whenever the clergy succeeded in conquering political power in any country the result has been disastrous to the interests of religion and inimical to the progress of humanity. From whence we arrive at the conclusion that he serves religion best who insists upon the clergy of the Catholic Church taking their proper position as servants to the laity, and abandoning their attempt to dominate the public, as they have long dominated the private life of their fellow-Catholics.

The 1910 Lenten Discourses [1] of Father Kane, S.J., in Gardiner Street Church, Dublin, serve to illustrate these, our contentions. The Socialists of Ireland are grateful to those who induced such a learned and eloquent orator in their capital city to attempt combating Socialism. Had it been an antagonist less worthy their satisfaction would not have been so great. But they now feel confident that when an opponent so capable, so wide in his reading, so skilled in his presentation, so admirable in his method of attack, and so eloquent in his language, has said his final word upon the question, they may rest satisfied that the best case against their cause has been presented which can ever be forthcoming under similar auspices. In presenting their arguments against the position of the reverend lecturer – as against his reverend co-workers who all over the world are engaged in the same unworthy task of combating this movement for the uplifting of humanity – we desire, in the spirit of our preceding remarks, to place before our readers a brief statement of some of the many instances in which the Catholic laity have been compelled to take political action contrary to the express commands of the Pope and the Catholic hierarchy, and in which subsequent events or the more enlightened conscience of subsequent ages have fully justified the action of the laity and condemned the action of the clergy.

Most of our readers are aware that the first Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland, in 1169, an invasion characterised by every kind of treachery, outrage, and indiscriminate massacre of the Irish, took place under the authority of a bull issued by his Holiness, Pope Adrian IV. Doubt has been cast upon the authenticity of the bull, but it is certain that neither Adrian nor any of his successors in the Papal chair ever repudiated it.

Every Irish man and woman, most enlightened Englishmen, and practically every foreign nation to-day wish that the Irish had succeeded in preserving their independence against the English king, Henry II, but at a Synod of the Catholic Church, held in Dublin in 1177, according to Rev. P.J. Carew, Professor of Divinity in Maynooth, in his Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, the Legate of Pope Alexander III “set forth Henry’s right to the sovereignty of Ireland in virtue of the Pope’s authority, and inculcated the necessity of obeying him under pain of excommunication”. The English were not yet eight years in Ireland, the greater part of the country was still closed to them, but already the Irish were being excommunicated for refusing to become slaves.

In Ireland, as in all Catholic countries, a church was a sanctuary in which even the greatest criminal could take refuge and be free from arrest, as the civil authority could not follow upon the consecrated ground. At the Synod of 1177, the Pope, in order to help the English monarch against the Irish, abolished the right of sanctuary in Ireland, and empowered the English to strip the Irish churches, and to hunt the Irish refugees who sought shelter there. The greatest criminals of Europe were safe once they reached the walls of the church, but not an Irish patriot.

In the year 1319, Edward Bruce, brother of Robert the Bruce of Scotland, was invited into Ireland by the Irish chiefs and people to help them in their patriotic war for independence. He accepted the invitation, was joined by vast numbers of the people in arms, and together the Irish and Scotch forces swept the English out of Ulster and Connacht. The English king appealed for help to Pope John XXII, and that Pontiff responded by at once excommunicating all the Irish who were in arms against the English.

The battle of the Boyne, fought 1st July, 1690, is generally regarded in Ireland as a disaster for the Irish cause – a disaster which made possible the infliction of two centuries of unspeakable degradation upon the Irish people. Yet that battle was the result of an alliance formed by Pope Innocent XI with William, Prince of Orange, against Louis, King of France. King James of England joined with King Louis to obtain help to save his own throne, and the Pope joined in the league with William to curb the power of France. When the news of the defeat of the Irish at the Boyne reached Rome the Vatican was illuminated by order of the new Pope, Alexander VIII, and special masses offered up in thanksgiving. See Von Ranke’s History of the Popes and Murray’s Irish Revolutionary History.

Judge Maguire of San Francisco, California, writing of this period before the Reformation, says truly:

Under all their Catholic majesties, from Henry II to Henry VIII (nearly four hundred years) the Irish people, with the exception of five families, were outlaws. They were murdered at will, like dogs, by their English Catholic neighbours in Ireland, and there was no law to punish the murderers. Yet during all of this unparalleled reign of terror, history fails to show a single instance in which the power of the Catholic Church was ever exerted or suggested by the Pope for the protection of her faithful Irish children.

The Irish people as a whole are proud of the fact that, according to the reported testimony of General Lee of the American army, more than half of the continental soldiers during the War of the Revolution were from Ireland, yet during that War of Independence, Bishop Troy, the Catholic Bishop of Ossory, ordered the Catholics of his diocese to

observe a day’s fast and to humble himself in prayer that they might avert the divine wrath provoked by their American fellow-subjects, who, seduced by the specious notions of liberty and other illusive expectations of sovereignty, disclaim any dependence upon Great Britain and endeavour by force of arms to distress their mother country.

Quite recently, in 1909, Professor Monaghan, speaking before the Federation of Catholic Societies in America, declared with the approval of the bishop and clergy that the Catholic hierarchy of the United States would, if need be, sell the sacred vessels off the altar in defence of the American Republic. Thus the enlightened opinion of the Catholics of our day condemns the Pastoral of the Catholic bishop of the Revolutionary period, and endorses the action of the Catholics who disregarded it.

In 1798 an insurrection in favour of an Irish Republic took place in Ireland, assuming most formidable proportions in County Wexford. The insurrection had been planned by the Society of United Irishmen, many of whose leaders were Protestants and Freethinkers. The Catholic hierarchy and most of the priesthood denounced the society and inculcated loyalty to the Government. The more intelligent of the Catholic masses disregarded these clerical denunciations. In the memoirs of his life, Miles Byrne, a staunch Catholic patriot and revolutionist, who took part in the insurrection, says: “The priests did everything in their power to stop the progress of the Association of United Irishmen, particularly poor Father John Redmond, who refused to hear the confession of any of the United Irish, and turned them away from his knees”. Speaking of Father John Murphy, he says he “was a worthy, simple, pious man, and one of those Roman Catholic priests who used the greatest exertions and exhortations to oblige the people to give up their pikes and firearms of every description”. The wisdom of the people and the foolishness of the clergy were amply demonstrated by the fact that the soldiers burned Father Murphy’s house over his head, and compelled him to take the field as an insurgent. A heroic fight and a glorious martyrdom atoned for his mistake, but the soldier-like qualities he showed in the field were rendered nugatory by the fact that as a priest he had been instrumental in disarming many hundreds of the men whom he afterwards commanded. As an insurgent officer he discovered that his greatest hope day in the men who had disregarded his commands as a priest, and retained the arms with which to fight for freedom.

Dr. Troy, when Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, was, according to an incident related in the Viceroy’s Post-Bag by Mr. Michael MacDonagh, interrogated by the British authorities as to the duty of a priest who discovered in the confessional a plot against the Government, and answered that, “If in confession any plot against the existing Government was disclosed to the priest, he (the priest) would be bound to give information to the Government that such plot was in agitation, taking care that nothing could in any way lead to a suspicion of the person from whom, or the means in which, the information had been obtained”. Chief Secretary Wickham, who reports this conversation with the archbishop, goes on to say, “I then asked him whether such confession so made to the priest, particularly in the case of a crime against the State, was considered as a full atonement so as to entitle the penitent to absolution without a disclosure of such crime being first made to the police or to the Government of the country. To this the Doctor answered very distinctly that he did not consider the confession to the priest alone, under such circumstances, a sufficient atonement, and that either the priest ought to insist on such confession to the State or to the police being made, or to enjoin the making of such disclosure subsequent to absolution in like manner as penance is enjoined under similar circumstances”.

There is little doubt in our mind but that Dr. Troy misrepresented Catholic doctrine, but it is noteworthy that a parish priest at Mallow, Co. Cork, ordered a member of the United Irishmen, who had sought him in the confessional, to give information to the authorities of a plot of the Royal Meath Militia to seize the artillery at that point and turn it over to the revolutionists. This priest, Father Thomas Barry, afterwards drew a pension of £100 per year from the Government for his information; his action was, and is, abhorred by the vast mass of the Irish Catholics, but was in strict accord with his duty as laid down by Archbishop Troy.

All impartial historians recognise that the Legislative Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland was passed

By perjury and fraud –
By slaves who sold
For place or gold
Their country and their God.

Yet we are informed by Mr. Plowden, a Catholic historian that, “a very great preponderance in favour of the Union existed in the Catholic Body, particularly in their nobility, gentry, and clergy”. On 1st March, 1800, no less than thirty-two Orange lodges protested against the Act of Union, but the Catholic hierarchy endorsed it.

Every year the members of the Irish race scattered throughout the earth celebrate the memory of Robert Emmet, and cherish him in their hearts as the highest ideal of patriot and martyr; but on the occasion of his martyrdom the Catholic Archbishops of Dublin and Armagh presented an address to the Lord Lieutenant, representative of the British Government in Ireland, denouncing Emmet in the strongest possible terms. That this action was in conformity with the position of the whole Catholic Hierarchy was evidenced in 1808, when all the Catholic bishops of Ireland met in Synod on 14th September, and passed the following resolution, as reported in Haverty’s's History of Ireland: “That the Roman Catholic prelates pledge themselves to adhere to the rules by which they have been hitherto uniformly guided, viz., to recommend to his Holiness (for appointment as Irish Roman Catholic bishops) only such persons as are of unimpeachable loyalty.

After Daniel O’Connell and the Catholics of Ireland had wrested Catholic Emancipation from the British Government they initiated a demand for a repeal of the Union. Their service to Catholic Emancipation was a proof positive of their Catholic orthodoxy, but at the urgent request of the British Government, Pope Gregory XVI issued a rescript commanding the priests to abstain from attending the repeal meetings. O’Connell said this was an illegal interference with the liberties of the clergy, declared he would “take his religion from Rome, but not his politics”, and the Catholic opinion of our day emphatically endorses his attitude and condemns the action of the Pope.

In 1847 the Catholics among the Young Irelanders prepared a memorial to be presented to the annual assembly of the Bishops, defending themselves from the charge of infidelity. The Archbishop of Tuam declared he would retire if they were admitted. They were not admitted. To-day the memory of the Young Irelanders is held close to the heart of every intelligent Irish man or woman.

During the great Irish famine of 1845-6-7-8-9, the Irish people died in hundreds of thousands of hunger, whilst there was food enough in the country to feed three times the population. When the starving peasantry was called upon to refuse to pay rent to idle landlords, and to rise in revolt against the system which was murdering them, the clergy commanded them to pay their rents, instructed them that they would lose their immortal souls should they refuse to do so, and threw all the weight of their position against the revolutionary movement for the freedom of Ireland. Mr. A.M. Sullivan, an extremely ardent Catholic, writing in New Ireland, says of this attitude of the clergy during that crisis that, “Their antagonism was fatal to the movement – more surely and infallibly fatal to it than all the powers of the British Crown”.

The Irish revolutionary movement known popularly as the Fenian Brotherhood was denounced by all the Catholic Hierarchy and most of the clergy, Bishop Moriarty of County Kerry saying that “Hell was not hot enough nor eternity long enough to punish such miscreants”. The Fenians were represented as being enemies of religion and of morality, yet the three representatives of their cause who died upon the scaffold died with a prayer upon their lips, and Irish men and women the world over to-day make the anniversary of their martyrdom the occasion for a glorification and endorsement of the principles for which they died – a glorification and endorsement in which many of our clergymen participate.

In January, 1871, the Catholic Bishop of Derry denounced the Home Rule movement of Isaac Butt. To-day priests and people agree that the movement led by Isaac Butt was the mildest, most inoffensive movement ever known in Ireland.

The Irish Land League, which averted in 1879 a repetition of the famine horrors of 1847, which broke the back of Irish landlordism, and abolished the worst evils of British rule, was denounced by Archbishop McCabe in September, 1879, October, 1880 and October, 1881.

In 1882 the Ladies’ Land League, an association of Irish ladies organised for the patriotic and benevolent purpose of raising funds for the relief of distress, of inquiring into cases of eviction, and affording relief to evicted tenants, was denounced by Archbishop McCabe as “immodest and wicked”. After this attack upon the character of patriotic Irish womanhood, Archbishop McCabe was created a Cardinal.

On 11th May, 1883, in the midst of the fight of the Irish peasantry to save themselves from landlord tyranny, his Holiness the Pope issued a Rescript condemning disaffection to the English Government and also condemning the testimonial to Charles Stewart Parnell. The Irish people answered by more than doubling the subscription to the testimonial. The leader of that fight of the Irish against their ancient tyrants was Michael Davitt, to whose efforts much of the comparative security of peasant life in Ireland is due. Davitt was denied an audience by the Pope, but at his death priests and people alike united to do tribute to his character and genius.

In 1883 Dr. McGlynn, a Catholic priest in America, was invited to deliver a lecture for the purpose of raising funds to save from starvation the starving people of the West of Ireland. The Vatican sent a telegram to Cardinal McCloskey ordering him to “suspend this priest McGlynn for preaching in favour of the Irish revolution”. The telegram was signed by Cardinal Simeoni. Afterwards Father McGlynn was subjected to the sentence of complete excommunication for preaching revolutionary doctrines upon the land question, but after some years the Vatican acknowledged its error, and revoked the sentence without requiring the victim to change his principles.

In all the examples covered by this brief and very incomplete retrospective glance into history the instances of the reformer and revolutionists have been right, the political theories of the Vatican and the clergy unquestionably wrong. The verdict of history as unquestionably endorses the former as it condemns the latter. And intelligent Catholics everywhere accept that verdict. In so far as true religion has triumphed in the hearts of men, it has triumphed in spite of, not because of, the political activities of the priesthood. That political activity in the past, like the clerical opposition to Socialism at present, was and is an attempt to serve God and Mammon – an attempt to combine the service of Him who in His humbleness rode upon an ass, with the service of those who rode roughshod over the hearts and souls and hopes of suffering humanity.

The capitalist class rose upon the ruins of feudal Catholicism; in the countries where it gained power its first act was to decree the confiscation of the estates of the Church. Yet to-day that robber class, conceived in sin and begotten in iniquity, asks the Church to defend it, and from the Vatican downwards the clergy respond to the call. Just as the British Government in Ireland on 21st January, 1623, published a royal proclamation banishing all priests from Ireland, and in 1795 established a College at Maynooth for the education of priests, and found the latter course safer for British rule than the former, so the capitalist class has also learned its lesson and in the hour of danger enlists as its lieutenants and champions the priesthood it persecuted and despised in the hour of its strength. Can we not imagine some cynical supporter of the capitalist class addressing it to-day as the great Catholic orator, Richard Lalor Shiel, addressed the British Government on the occasion of the Maynooth Grant of 1845, and saying in his words:

You are taking a step in the right direction. You must not take the Catholic clergy into your pay, but you can take the Catholic clergy under your care ... Are not lectures at Maynooth cheaper than State prosecutions? Are not professors less costly than Crown Solicitors? Is not a large standing army and a great constabulary force more expensive than the moral police with which by the priesthood of Ireland you can be thriftily and efficaciously supplied?



1. Socialism, By Robert Kane, S.J., Catholic Truth Society.


Last updated on 20.8.2003