Confessions of an Irish Catholic anarchist…


12674419_10153889554894210_646874076_nWith election time on the horizon, the descriptive terms in the title start coming up in conversation more and more frequently. And yes, it is all correct; I’m an Irish citizen, a devout Catholic and a committed anarchist. To the average person, that might seem incongruous- certainly the last two- even absurd. But it is all correct.

Needless to say, questions come thick and fast:

How I can remain in the hierarchical Catholic Church- which prizes devotion and obedience above just about everything- and embrace a political outlook that rejects hierarchies and embraces liberty and free thought?

Doesn’t anarchism reject organization altogether in favour of chaotic rebellion?

Can you really be part of a hierarchical church- a very often reactionary and intolerant one- and still maintain your own liberty and autonomy, both of which sacrosanct to anarchists?

‘No Gods, No Masters’ and ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty’… Can you actually hold on to both?

My personal answer comes from years of lived experience, thousands of pages, dozens of interactions, and much contemplation. It comes from discovery and investigation of the rich seam of radical thought within Christian teaching and history- the worker priests of France; the Catholic Worker movement of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin; the theology of Jacques Ellul and Nicolai Berdyaev; the philosophy of Leo Tolstoy… So the thoughts I’ll give here are relatively brief, but there’s plenty to explore…

… In the words of one Jewish carpenter, ‘seek and you shall find’…

First of all, we need to establish, what is anarchism? Briefly, anarchism is a system of social thought that holds that the natural state of humanity is freedom and that any form of authoritarianism, coercion, oppression, or slavery is violence and murder. Anarchism aims to bring about the maximum of human freedom possible and therefore–obviously- envisions fundamental changes to how we think about and manage our society.

Contrary to the common assumption, anarchists are not opposed to management or organization; on the contrary, anarchism is a method of organization first and foremost. At its root, anarchism is a critique of centralized power, and one specific form of centralized power in particular- the ‘State’. That’s a complicated opinion to hold, as the centralized ‘State’ is the only form of social organization that any of us has ever known and it’s extremely difficult to contemplate life without it.

Nevertheless, anarchists maintain that the centralized, bureaucratic, militarized ‘State’ commodifies, coerces, and curtails human freedom to such an extent- right up to killing us if it sees fit- that any supposed ‘benefits’ it allegedly provides are moot.

While anarchists are opposed to centralized power, they do draw distinctions between ‘power’ and ‘authority’. ‘Power’ is the ability to do or act, usually through force of will or concerted might. ‘Authority’, on the other hand, flows from expertise or knowledge. I invite a plumber into my home because he or she is an authority on water and heating systems. The toilet gets fixed and the plumber leaves. If, however, the toilet gets fixed and the plumber decides to move into my house, ‘authority’ would have morphed into abusive power, and would need to be actively resisted.

So, while other political expressions talk about seizing power, consolidating power, or wielding power, anarchists focus on diffusing it, distributing it, getting it into as many hands as possible.  Power, reason the anarchists, is like manure: spread it around and it helps things to grow; put it all in one place and it’s a big pile of, well, manure.

And anarchists like the idea of growth. Most of the political spectrum tends to see society as a structure-something built or constructed, and into which humans must be fitted and conditioned; anarchists tend to see society as an organism- growing, moving, flowing- in which humans need to live in balance, equally, and equitably, ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need.’

This is all crucial me as a Catholic. At the heart of my tradition is the person of Jesus as we see him presented in the biblical text. In the Gospels, Jesus appears not as an emperor, a general, or even a religious scholar, but as a poor man, a worker in a small town, later an itinerant teacher. Anarchists don’t think that was by chance; God was modeling something… something utterly transformative.

In the Gospels, Jesus appears constantly at odds with the powers that be. He was a friend of sinners, almost always to be found with those with no influence or perceived social or political importance.

In the Gospels, Jesus appears utterly indifferent to influence or power. Far from assuming, seizing, or even desiring power, Jesus empties himself of power and takes the form of a servant of all, making clear to his followers that they should do likewise.

In the Gospels, the God of whom Jesus constantly speaks- the God he calls ‘Father’ and teaches his followers to call ‘Father’- is never presented as a Master who imposes his will on us or who regards us as inferiors. Indeed, Jesus is clear that ‘I and the Father are one; if you have seen me, you have seen the Father;’ (St. John 10:30; 14:9).

As a Christian anarchist, I see the incarnation itself- the entire life of the man Jesus in the biblical text- as a critique of power personified. It was so revolutionary, in fact, that the powers that be killed him for it. But even the Empire couldn’t end the story, and those of us who call ourselves Christians and anarchists seek to live as ‘Easter people’, living a revolutionary programme of love, kindness, generosity, inclusion, justice, and resistance;

… Just as we see Jesus doing.

If none of this sounds like the Catholic Church, I understand, and I agree. If there is any one thought that comes to mind when thinking about the Jesus of the Gospel vs. the Vatican, it’s that something has gone terribly wrong, and it seems to have gone wrong very early. It didn’t take long for the Church to become a ‘State’- powerful, rich, and coercive.

As an anarchist, I put the blame for that squarely on the Church’s cultivation of power and control. But as an anarchist, I believe it’s possible to organize without centralized, coercive power. The original model of a bishop in the biblical text and early church tradition was that of a shepherd, a father, a wise organizer. When these gifts were recognized, they were put to use.

For Catholic anarchists, the role of, say, a bishop is not about prestige or (especially) power, but about organizational authority. People in power are not the enemy; power itself is, particularly and especially power in only a few hands. I have no problem with archbishops or bishops as an idea. If love is their law, which is what I see in the person of Jesus, I’m satisfied.

I believe in God, and I believe that God gives gifts of leadership, wisdom, and organization. I do, however, believe God gives those gifts to all people- not just to the white ones, the rich ones, the male ones, the straight ones, the American ones, or the European ones.

Regardless of the whole bloated, coercive, bureaucratic, and officious pile of manure, Christian anarchists are stubbornly, inexorably drawn to the person of Jesus, the tantalizing idea that another world is possible. If Jesus was anything like the picture we have in the text, then the Kingdom of God is broad, inclusive and growing… and we can be as well.

And if the hierarchy of the Church doesn’t model love, equality and justice, why is it up to me to leave the Church? The Catholic tradition is vast, diverse, beautiful, and very precious to me; it is my home. As Dorothy Day- another Catholic and anarchist- said, ‘As to the Church, where else shall we go, except to the Bride of Christ, one flesh with Christ? Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother.’

Perhaps being a Catholic and an anarchist is about embracing contradictions, living in the tension of what is and what might be. In Christianity, this is the essence of faith and hope. Our faith must be lived in the reality of what is, even if that reality is arrogant, oppressive power. But the Kingdom of God is a praxis, a reflection of what might be- love, openness, justice- and active resistance to what is, in the light of faith and commitment.

I wouldn’t know how to be a Catholic without being an anarchist… or vice versa.

Jon Hatch is a theologian, educator, and activist who received his M.Phil in Reconciliation Studies and his Ph.D in Theology from Trinity College Dublin. He has 13 years’ experience working in the fields of peace, reconciliation, and social justice in Ireland and Northern Ireland with Corrymeela, Irish Peace Centres and other locally-based projects.  He divides his time between Ireland and Northwest Montana.

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  • Dominic Hendron

    Great piece, “power is like manure………” : Inspirational

  • Croiteir

    Dorothy Day I know by reputation not study. However I would regard her as a distributist, not an anarchist. Do you separate anarchism and distributism..

  • chrisjones2

    A Christian and an anarchist – ok I can buy that.

    But a devoted Catholic Anarchist seems to me an utter contradiction in terms. Of all the Churches why Catholicism? The Church with its utter central control-freakery, rigid hierarchy among the living and the dead and belief in one leader on earth as a conduit to God.

  • chrisjones2

    ..that explains the smell that hangs around Stormont then

  • Brian O’Neill

    I never heard of her but from wikipedia:

    Day encountered anarchism while studying in university. She read The Bomb by Frank Harris, a fictionalized biography of one of the Haymarket anarchists.[97] She discussed anarchy and extreme poverty with Peter Kropotkin.[14] After moving to New York, Day studied the anarchism of Emma Goldman and attended the Anarchists Ball at Webster Hall.[98]

    Day was saddened by the executions of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927. She wrote that when they died, “All the nation mourned.” As a Catholic, she felt a sense of solidarity with them, specifically “the very sense of solidarity which made me gradually understand the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ whereby we are all members of one another.”[99]

    Discussing the term anarchism, she wrote: “We ourselves have never hesitated to use the word. Some prefer personalism. But Peter Maurin came to me with Kropotkin in one pocket and St. Francis in the other!”[100]

    Day explained that anarchists accepted her as someone who shared the values of their movement “[b]ecause I have been behind bars in police stations, houses of detention, jails and prison farms, … eleven times, and have refused to pay Federal income taxes and have never voted”, but were puzzled by what they saw as her “Faith in the monolithic, authoritarian Church”. She reversed the viewpoint and ignored their professions of atheism. She wrote: “I in turn, can see Christ in them even though they deny Him, because they are giving themselves to working for a better social order for the wretched of the earth.”[

  • Dominic Hendron

    : )

  • Croiteir

    Mmm – yes but. I would see distributism as anarchic in the sense that it is disruptive of the accepted norms of economic philosophy in the west, capitalism and socialism. To me the difference, well the one I perceive as differentiating, is the issue of limited government versus subsidiarity, the difference between positive law and natural law. Let’s take the example of someone growing food in their yard in defiance of a law. If he did so because he believes that there should be no government, then he can be called an anarchist according to its real meaning. If, however, he did so on the basis that such a law goes beyond a government’s authourity according to the principle of subsidiarity, then he cannot truly be called an anarchist even if he welcomes the term or uses it himself. This is because he is not denying that there should be a government, he is merely exercising his belief that he is free to disregard an unjust law. This is not truly anarchy. I believe that the latter was Day’s position. She may have been anarchic but was not an anarchist.

  • Dominic Hendron

    Do you not need a benign monolith with a recognisable structure and head to counter all the malicious monoliths such as communism and capitalism and any other “ism” that comes along?

  • Croiteir

    Utter central control freakery ? Not Catholicism old boy

  • Turgon

    This work as a “theologian, educator and activist”

    How is it funded?

    I trust as an anarchist not by any “centralized (sic), bureaucratic, militarized (sic) ‘State.’

    Corrymeela for example has benefited pretty significantly from state largess or is this anarchism actually better described as hypocrisy.

  • aquifer

    It must be comforting to have a big rich powerful global male hierarchy and psychological support system on your side while you try to maximise your personal autonomy, but is this not likely to impinge on the autonomy of others? Notably women children gays and those of other religions?

    The Catholic church is big and powerful enough to host a lot of diversity, but this is also a functional strategy to survive in environments when it might otherwise have been displaced by say socialism or consumerism.

    Look at the kind of priests they posted into nationalist housing areas.

    They will need to follow the dollars into the hipster coffee bars soon, and the big A ‘T’ shirt could be just the outfit for some west coast outreach to those anxious communities where most will not make millionaire grade.

  • Croiteir

    I live in a nationalist housing area, what kind of priest did we get posted to us?

  • chrisjones2

    was he male?

  • Croiteir

    If he was a he he would have been a he

  • Discuscutter

    It isn’t that much of a leap.

    Anarchism is a text heavy belief system where activism is on the ground whose aims are debated over but never going to be implemented and for that there is a blessed purity.

    Happy are those who believe in Anarchism but who have not yet seen.

    I think there is also a cross over between those who would have been Priests and those on the far left, often the same class background, fiery zeal and belief they have all the answers, ire at those who disagree and the heretic in their midst being the most loathed beast.

  • mac tire

    “was he male?”

    No, I think they were mail – they were posted.

    Could you pass me my coat over, please?

  • babyface finlayson

    She was certainly mighty anarchic in ‘Calamity Jane’ anyway. She gave poor old Wild Bill a run for his money!

  • Croiteir

    I think that was Sheriff Mallow

  • babyface finlayson

    Yuk yuk!

  • Blake Simpson

    An elegant bit of writing, and honorable. I understand it a bit better now than when you tried explaining it to me 15 years ago in Belfast. ¡Hasta la victoria siempre!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I think that perhaps Chris mayhave been watching “The Midwinter of the Spirit” on the small screen during its short run (not a patch on the much, much better book, alas). What he may not have realised is that Merrily is an Anglican Priest………..

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’d perhaps recommend reading a little of the work of Prince Kropotkin, Croiteir. The core issue would be with the inevitable abuse of power for private ends rather than some concept of complete disorganisation. The genuine conflict is between those who believe in a bond of social responsibility between people who activly form a community to enhance the lives of all with help and kindnesses, and those who would simply prey upon others for personal gain. The ethos of the latter has been valorised since Social Darwinism made greed and the abuse of others at first normal and then even “respectable”. With the Thatcherregan revolution governments even began to represent the predation as something commendable………

    I tried to explain this to my Marxist uncle in the 1960s ( with special applicability to how the old Unioniism functioned) but he simply could not get it, so I’ll not even begin to bend your ear. But perhaps if you spent a few hours with “Mutual Aid” Kropotkin might explain the subilties rather better than myself:

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’d have a look at the quasi-religious awe with which our current representatives system is lifted above question in endless tomes before accusing anyone else of subscribing to a “text heavy belief system” propagated with an unquestioning “fiery zeal”, Wendle.

    Not that it even works or anything, as Emma Goldman said long long ago:

    “The average mind is slow in grasping a truth, but when the most thoroughly organized, centralized institution, maintained at an excessive national expense, has proven a complete social failure, the dullest must begin to question its right to exist. The time is past when we can be content with our social fabric merely because it is “ordained by divine right,” or by the majesty of the law.”

    Especially difficult to get anything raised above the lower end of “average” if any critical faculty has been tamped down by a centuries long marketing exercise by Edward Bernays and his clones for a system that suppresses any serious political initiative beyond “give me your votes and clear off for another five years’……

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Until I’d encountered your mention of the Catholic Church, aquifer, I’d thought you were taking about the representative system itself………….

  • Croiteir

    Yes I did hear about him, but I consider him more of a theorist, compared with Peter Maurin, but to be honest I have not bothered much with him

  • Hugh Davison

    ‘one leader on earth as a conduit to God’. You’re not referring to ‘Popery’ by any chance? I thought that stuff went out in the UK in the 18th century.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Perhaps if you had read Kropotkin, Croiteir, you might not have conflated chaotic disorganisation with Anarchism itself. Did you read the article carefully before commenting? I quote:

    “Contrary to the common assumption, anarchists are not opposed to management or organization; on the contrary, anarchism is a method of organization first and foremost. At its root, anarchism is a critique of centralized power, and one specific form of centralized power in particular
    – the ‘State’. That’s a complicated opinion to hold, as the centralized ‘State’ is the only form of social organization that any of us has ever known and it’s extremely difficult to contemplate life without it.”

    It’s an interesting question as to how anyone with a critique of the brutalities of the world we live in can be other than a “theorist”. If you are going to ignore someone as a theorist on principal you are on very sticky ground. You could perhaps say the same thing of Our Lord himself, whose expressed world image is just as far from being established through society today as it was two thousand years ago. This perception of reality as a possible association of peoples through honest deecncy and moral behaviour is an unrealised project for many from different backgrounds is the point that Jon, perhaps, is trying to make.

  • Croiteir

    That was not meant as a criticism, although I can appreciate that it may come across as such, first the thought then the action. However I tended to read more about those who were active.
    Whenever I have ran across those who self identify as anarchists they tend to be, yes, I am generalising, very negative people who are just anti-authority.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    We have different experiences then! I’d identified myself occasionally on Slugger as one of the two (pre-McGuffin) anarchists in the PD that get a tiny bit part in Bob Purdie’s “Politics in the Streets”. My film career has been built around the organisation of creative teams, organised to use a lot of free play and mutualism in commercial situations. This permitted me to bring films in within budget. What I’d understood of Anarchism in my teens was most helpful in getting things actually done as against the coersive methods I found others in the film world turning to as default. I’m perhaps a more convinced Anarchist now in my late 60s than I was in my teens, because its what I’ve discovered in practice actually works if you really want to achieve anything that enhances human life. Of course if you are simply out for yourself alone……..

    What I’m against is the corruption and abuses that are endemic to any representative system, let alone those systems which ignore representation! Im not against “authority” (somethingJon says too above) but against the inevitable abuses that will occur when power is vested in falible human beings who simply cannot resist “a little on the side which harms no-one.” Cyril Smith and Saville are simply extremes of a natural tendency to fault (what is called elsewhere “original sin”) which for me means that I’m not going to trust those pliticians who feel justified in their “acceptable” minor corruptions because they are not as bad as such men.