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“I was expecting vitriol, and I was also expecting scorn”: Ellen Coyne on the reaction to her book

By November 14, 2020No Comments

Journalist and now author Ellen Coyne wrote a book about being young, progressive and Catholic. It’s called Are You There God, it’s Me, Ellen (read the extract here) and this week for rogue, Ellen writes about the reception she expected, and the one she received, after the book’s launch…


I was terrified of my book coming out. I lay awake the night before its release, wondering why I had bothered bringing what would surely be a load of misery on myself.

The book is about my own conflict with the Irish Catholic Church: wanting to go back to a faith which I belatedly understood was important to me, but being in deep conflict about whether or not I could support an institution which is so misogynistic and so homophobic.

Along with my own personal reservations, the book is at times extremely critical of the Church’s policies towards LGBT+ people and women, and does clearly advocate for those to change.

I was expecting vitriol, and I was also expecting scorn. I am not a theologian, I don’t have a scholar’s knowledge of various Church doctrine and canon law. I was born and raised Catholic and so, in my view, I had as much of a right to have a say on the Church as anyone else. But I was ready to be dismissed, maybe quite harshly, as a know-nothing interloper by others.

In the days following the book’s release, I approached my phone with trepidation each time a new email arrived. I would hold my breath when opening the handwritten letters that started to arrive in tiny bundles. The vast majority were from priests, nuns and lifelong Catholics. And to my utter surprise, they were overwhelmingly positive. (One prominent right-wing Catholic commentator did compare letting people like me back into the Church to letting a Republican into the DUP, but I think there’s a cohort of anti-abortion spokespeople who would hate any book that I wrote in any context.)

I was astounded by the response from the devout. Some of them agreed with everything in the book, while others had major objections to parts of it – particularly to my pro-choice views on abortion. But the one common theme among all of the correspondence was unchecked relief.

I spent a very emotional Monday afternoon on the phone to a nun in her 80s who disclosed, in her own way, that she had spent six decades hiding the fact that she was gay. A closeted priest based in a very rural parish told me that he was close to leaving the clergy because of the weight of the homophobia from the Catholic Church. A woman working in a diocese for most of her life shared her Catholic feminist ethos with me. Another did encourage me to consider the Catholic case against abortion, but assured me she believed I still had a place in the Church if I didn’t. Everyone, without exceptions, said they had been waiting to have a conversation like this for a long time.

The fact of the matter is that the Catholic Church has been in trouble for a long time, and you do not need to be a theologian to argue against some of the most objectionable wrongs of the Church’s teaching. I’m now convinced that the appetite for reform is broader in the Irish Catholic Church than we had ever been led to believe before, and I feel more optimistic than ever for its future.

Right-wing Catholics can quote doctrine as much as they like, the fact is that the core defence of the Church’s appalling attitudes to LGBT+ people, for example, will always boil down to the Vatican believing that if a homophobic policy has existed for long enough, it essentially becomes an infallible tradition that can’t be challenged.

The self-appointed spokespeople for Catholicism always frame the Church changing its views about gay people as if it would be some sort of concession, a modern PR exercise to try to entice back the young people who have left the Church in their droves. They never seem to understand that there is a Catholic, Christian case for the Church changing its view. The Catholic Church changing its position on LGBT+ people and women is the right and moral thing to do, which is why I’m convinced that it will happen. Whether it happens in my lifetime, I’m not sure.

The week that my book came out, the country was simmering with righteous anger in the wake of the controversy over the Mother and Baby Home records. Much like the controversy over the National Maternity Hospital, I felt that the justified outrage over this issue was about much more than the specific topic at hand. I strongly believe that Ireland has still not yet had gone through a proper reckoning and healing for the collective trauma and even shame that we feel about what happened to people in the “care” of the Catholic Church in this country. As painful as this will be for a Church, which at times has been guilty of harbouring a persecution complex, it simply has to happen if the institution has any aspirations of making a positive contribution to the country in the future.

I think that this, the enduring harm and damage done by the Irish Catholic Church years after these institutions closed, is one of the reasons why some have been suspicious of my book. I can tell that some think I’ve let down or betrayed my feminist credentials by arguing for the “wrong” side.

As I’ve explained before, I think that faith is too important to be monopolised by the deeply flawed institution that drove many of us away from it. I can empathise with anyone who argues that the Church is so fundamentally wrong, that it deserves no support and no role in Irish society. I used to believe that myself.

While I’ve no interest in advocating for anyone who holds that view to change it, I do think we should be cautious not to conflate valid opposition to the Catholic Church with anti-theism. Parishes across Ireland would simply fall apart without the work of women, and we can’t assume that all of these women are two dimensional Mrs Doyles who either don’t understand the Church’s misogyny or are complicit in it. I don’t think it’s fair to paint every Irish Catholic woman as some kind of traitor.

Feminism has always held its nose as women try to infiltrate and participate flawed systems and institutions to try to change things from the inside – even at times when the chance of change is improbable. It has worked as a method to try to change politics, business, law and general society and I believe that it’s just as important – if not more so – to do the same for the Catholic Church. Change in the Church will be hard, but it will be justified. Being able to imagine it happening is simply a matter of having faith.

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