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Theology with a Mayo accent

The Interview
Enda McDonagh

Theology with a Mayo accent

Fr Enda McDonagh has earned a reputation, both in Ireland and abroad, as a theologian and scholar whose work is marked by great humanity

The Interview
Denise Horan

RADICAL is how many view him. A brave voice who has consistently expressed views displeasing to his institution. A priest marginalised by the church he has served with questioning vigour all his life.
Yet, meet Enda McDonagh and you see no sign of bitterness. There may indeed be no art to find the mind’s construction in the face, but not even the faintest hint of rebelliousness emanates from this gentle 78-year-old.
Through his theological writings and teachings over the last five decades, Enda McDonagh has shaken the Irish Catholic Church by times, and stirred it too. He has posed questions the Church authorities would prefer had been left unasked, and proffered criticisms they neither wanted to acknowledge nor accept. Worse still, for a church adept at silencing those it does not wish to hear, his voice became respected and his opinions listened to.
But, for all his questioning and thorn-like omnipresence in the side of the Church authorities, the Bekan native and retired Professor of Moral Theology at Maynooth remains unequivocal in his faith.
“I’m a critical but loyal member of the Church. There’s no other church I want to belong to,” he says. “I got angry at times about certain things and wrote about them fairly strongly, but at the same time I wanted to be a priest of the Church.”
It is widely opined that Professor McDonagh suffered for his forthrightness and bravery, by being deprived of the kinds of ecclesiastical appointments his stellar talents merited. Though one of the country’s most eminent theologians over the decades, he was overlooked by Rome for the position of Archbishop of Tuam, the diocese to which he was ordained in 1955. Overlooked, though his clerical peers proposed him – not once, but twice.
When asked about the Tuam matter, however, one senses an element of fatigue in McDonagh’s voice. He has been pressed on the issue often, but responds that he is relatively untroubled by it.
“I had no sense of disappointment because (a) I knew I wouldn’t be appointed, (b) I had a lot of interesting things to do, and (c) I didn’t think I’d be any good at it.
“It’s an awful tough business [being a bishop] and you’re trapped in a way that I’m not. Apart from being able to travel a lot, I can say things that may or not may not be helpful but that I think are true, that would be much more difficult for a bishop to say, I think. Of course, that’s a stricture they impose on themselves; Willie Walsh is the only one who has broken out of it.”
While harbouring no personal grudge, he concedes that, in a broader sense, the Church’s history of ‘safe appointments’ has hindered its development.
Flicking through the chapters of the fascinating tale that is Enda McDonagh’s life, it is easy to see why not being made a bishop has not diminished its quality. After completing a primary degree in science in Maynooth in the 1950s, he turned his attention to theology. His excellence at the subject clearly stood out, and his superiors in Maynooth sent him to Rome for postgraduate studies in theology. Later, having been appointed Professor of Moral Theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth – at the age of 28 – he was sent to Rome and later Munich to complete a doctorate in canon law, to allow him to fill the position of Professor of Canon Law at the university also. In the course of his studies, he rubbed shoulders with many other European theologians of the time, including the man who was, almost 40 years later, to become the leader of the Catholic Church – Joseph Ratzinger.
The role of Professor of Moral Theology in Maynooth lasted 36 years, with retirement coming in 1995, and during that time McDonagh published more than a dozen books and contributed to or edited as many more. In between, he became a regular visitor to Africa and Asia, where he worked with AIDS sufferers; paid occasional visits to America, where he worked with other marginalised groups, including women’s groups; and formed a strong friendship with Mary Robinson, which led to him becoming official chaplain to Áras an Uachtaráin during her presidency.
Former Taoiseach, Garrett FitzGerald, and his late wife Joan, were also among those who counted the Mayo theologian as a close friend, while author Nuala Ó Faoláin was an acquaintance on whom he made a sufficient impression for her friend Marian Finucane to ask that he perform Ó Faoláin’s funeral Mass when she died earlier this year. 
His work as a theologian has been marked by several different strands, all of which ultimately converge. Theology at its most fundamental, he explains, is about making sense of life through the gospels, and the role of the theologian is to tease out the various questions that arise in this pursuit. It has been a rewarding journey for him, but one that is never-ending. “You move around in circles a bit. I started off on anglican theology, then on to church-state, then theology of the Christian life, then came back to church-state and religion and society, moved from there to religion and the arts and I’m back now with religion and society. There are kind of periods of three to four years when I get stuck in to one area and then I leave it and move on to another,” he explains.
Two areas of his theological work stand out in particular for this writer. The first is his ‘theology at the fringe’, where he focuses on the marginalised, whom he has encountered – deliberately – in many guises in his lifetime.
He was worked with Traveller groups, with gays and lesbians, with American women who were striving for a voice, and with the poor and deprived in Africa and Asia. All of these experiences have given him an understanding of life on the margins, which has informed his theological writings on the subject.
“It’s the people at the bottom who know exactly what’s going on. They know where it’s hurting. The people at the top are often very comfortable. They may not be malicious or grinding in the faces of the poor, but they’re out of touch with what’s happening at the bottom,” he observes.
Coming from the less-than-privileged environment that was Bekan in the 1930s and 1940s gave him his first taste of marginalisation, he claims. “It was a really poor parish. There were 25 boys in the last year in primary school when I left it in 1943; three of us made a living in Ireland. Two of the three of us got secondary education; 22 had to emigrate with primary education. Many of them did well, but still that was a fierce thing in a small area.
“That gave me a sense of how, when you’re at the bottom of the heap – and I wasn’t, but I was in the midst of people who were – you see where the unfairness and the injustice operates.”
In the 1970s, McDonagh began his trips to South Africa – ‘when apartheid was in full swing’ – and since them he has been to more countries than he can recall in both Africa and Asia, including Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, West Africa, Sierra Leone and Ghana. His work there – largely as an assigned NGO with Caritas Internationalis, which is an umbrella organisation for Catholic Church development NGOs – has consisted of three elements: educating, being of practical assistance to doctors and social workers (he admits that in this sense he has been as much a missionary as a theological journeyman) and writing about his experiences and lobbying for improvements.
“I wanted to use my head on it and not just feel for it and that’s why I began to develop a theology of that kind. It took the perspective of the people who were excluded and marginalised and looked at what that meant to the gospel and to society.”
Another area in which he has written extensively, and about which he believes passionately, is the notion that no war is just. Along with a number of other academics, he has called on all Christians ‘to join a campaign to abolish war as a legitimate means of resolving conflict between states and within them’. When asked if this is a little utopian in a world that seems to be getting ever more barbaric, he acknowledges the great difficulty with it becoming a reality, but still believes it is worth striving for.
“If we put as much resources of money and personnel and intelligence into finding alternatives to war when some division occurs as we do into military development [it could work]. It won’t happen immediately; we would still need peacekeepers, we would still need restraint, and it would take decades, but if we had that mindset [it is possible].”
Pointing to the example of the ‘three wonderful peace leaders in the 20th century’ – Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela – and how their work ultimately paid dividends, he notes that it can be done ‘in the most awful circumstances’. 
“We’ve had all kinds of respectable, seriously destructive people, and it is easy to target Hitler and Stalin and Ceausescu, and rightly target them, but our own people yield to the temptation to go to war too easily and then say they had no alternative. But they didn’t try to find alternatives. You’re not going to find alternatives, if you haven’t developed them before the crisis arises,” he says.
Now retired and living in Maynooth, with occasional sojourns in Mayo and two weeks each year in residence in the Church of Ireland St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, to which he was last year appointed a canon (the first Catholic priest to take a place in this chapter since the Reformation), he continues to work and to travel. And to try to make sense of the Church he loves. He professes not to be ‘too depressed’ about declining vocations, believing that the lay community is the key to ‘revitalising’ the Church.
“Spreading the gospel is a bit like fighting climate change; it’s not going to be done by experts. The experts can maybe work out what we should be doing, but it has to be taken up by us. It’s the same, it seems to me, with the preaching of the gospel and the revitalisation of the Church. It’ll have to be taken up by the people themselves, not just by clergy. Clergy can, and do, play a role, but 99 per cent of the Church is lay.”
While Enda McDonagh has walked with metaphorical kings of Irish and world society, his sense of home has ensured his retention of the commonest of touches. Mayo and Bekan are the bases to which he always returns, both physically, as he did last month for the rededication of the church in Bekan, and in his mind when the need arises.
“You might find yourself in some exalted company in Dublin or New York or somewhere, and you know the touchstone of how you behave is ‘you’re a Bekan man’. There was no place you could come from that was better than Bekan, because it was my place. You would no more think of leaving go of it than you would think of leaving go of your family.”
At a seminar in Enda McDonagh’s honour in Claremorris last year, organised by GMIT in gratitude for his dedication of his vast personal library to the college, a number of speakers paid tribute to him – as a scholar, a Mayoman, a friend, a campaigner for the marginalised, and a promoter of ecumenical dialogue. In the estimation of all speakers, none of these characteristics was incompatible with the others; it is his possession of them all that makes him the respected and loved figure that he is. His friend and former student, Seán Freyne, though not present himself, perhaps best summed up his contribution, in an address delivered on his behalf. “Enda is someone who throughout his whole life has been at the forefront of Irish intellectual and political discussion, an activist for peace and justice from Ireland to Africa, from Europe to America, from Bekan to Maynooth. He is also a writer whose work continues to explore the deepest yearnings of the human heart with profundity and originality. In his case, certainly, the label ‘scholar’ cannot be used in isolation from his life and person, since his theology is not based on books only, but on a reflective and sensitive personality who feels deeply about the joys and sorrows of the human condition and who has never lost contact with his Mayo and west of Ireland roots.”