Sunday, December 6, 2009

This Day in Irish History (Archbishop Plunkett Arrested on Trumped-Up Treason Charges)

December 6, 1679—Six years of living on the run, trying to minister to his flock while dodging English government persecution, came to an end for Oliver Plunket(t), Archbishop of Armagh, when he was arrested and cast into Dublin Castle.
Two trials, 19 months, and countless hours of perjured testimony later, he was put to death in London in an execution not only unique for being the last involving Catholic martyrdom in England but for reaching levels of barbarism not approached since then.

Plunkett was just one of 35 Roman Catholic victims caught up in the “Popish Plot” rocking the British Isles at this time. I touched briefly on his fate, in the larger context of this shameful episode in British jurisprudence, in a post last year, but I thought that a reminder of how he lived and how he dealt with his responsibilities might be in order, now that high Church officials in Ireland and the United States have so dishonored their positions.

Last week’s Irish government report concerning the decades-long coverup of priestly sexual abuse represented a stinging indictment of a hierarchy that not only became accustomed to deference on matters of dogma but also used to lax law enforcement. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat noted, it was also a reminder of a similar state of affairs in Boston, the epicenter of the church-abuse scandal in the United States.

Douthat pointed to the heavy Irish-American base in the Boston archdiocese, its clergy and its hierarchy, and in particular to a far more puritanical strain of Catholicism that obtained in Ireland and Boston than in, for instance, Mediterranean and Latin American cultures.

To be sure, British government intolerance pushed the Irish clergy, by necessity, into accepting help from the conservative Jansenist element in France.

But the Irish and Irish-American culture of deference, I think, took rote in more than just foreign soil. The seeds of this culture might have come from outside the Emerald Isle, but it was watered by her tales of a hierarchy that, no matter how ultraconservative they might appear to us, appeared far different to Irish Catholics of their time.

Think of it in this way: like his clerical counterparts hundreds of years later on his side of the Atlantic and ours, Archbishop Plunkett did not hesitate for one second to exert authority—to crack the whip, if you will. But he was never perceived as lording it over his flock. In the most crucial sense, he not only shared their privations but bore the full brunt of the British attempt to extirpate Roman Catholicism from Ireland, root and branch.

As a follower of the ultramontane movement among Catholic clergy—i.e., the belief that absolute power should be invested in the pope—Plunkett would, at first glance, be an ideal target for those who locate the current troubles in the authoritarian strain in the Church. I don’t think the case can be made with ease, however.

It’s not only because imposing the mindset of today on a culture and events centuries old is problematic. Two other matters loom large in any kind of assessment of his beliefs and administrative style:

1) Upon assuming his position, Plunkett encountered an environment verging on chaos. In the wake of the Cromwellian persecution of the 1640s and 1650s, the Irish Church was a morally lax, disenfranchised, dispirited wreck. Not only was the property-owning class in Ireland eviscerated, but the priesthood had increasingly fallen prey to alcoholism and concubinage. The closure of seminaries under the Cromwellian Protectorate meant that the remaining clergy had a weaker ability to understand and preach the faith. After taking over in 1669, Plunkett set about instituting the reforms of the Council of Trent, meant to stamp out abuses that had opened the way toward Protestantism. Viewed in this light, calling on greater self-discipline from priests might have made for greater institutional control, but it also had the immediate effect of fostering a purer, more enlightened priesthood.

2) Plunkett became the most visible avatar for the persecution once again sweeping across Ireland. The window of tolerance for Catholics following Oliver Cromwell’s death and the ascension of King Charles II didn’t last long. By 1673, Plunkett’s refusal, along with the rest of the hierarchy, to register for possible deportation forced him into hiding—to preach out in the open fields, to sleep out in the cold, never to rest long in any one place for fear of arrest. The people to whom he preached knew that his danger was as great as—and probably exceeded—theirs.

From his arrest to execution, Plunkett’s case was a flagrant abuse of justice and signal cruelty. When the British couldn’t obtain a guilty verdict of treason from an Irish jury because they rightly mistrusted the motives of informers, the first Earl of Shaftesbury instigated a change of venue to England, where such suspicion was not so widespread.

(Incidentally, Shaftesbury, an opportunist of the most shameless kind, was described by historian Thomas Babington Macaulay—hardly sympathetic to Catholics—as follows:

“It is certain that, just before the Restoration, he declared to the regicides that he would be damned, body and soul, rather than suffer a hair of their heads to be hurt, and that, just after the Restoration, he was one of the judges that sentenced them to death. It is certain that he was a principal member of the most profligate administration ever known, and that he was afterwards a principal member of the most profligate Opposition ever known. It is certain that, in power, he did not scruple to violate the great fundamental principles of the Constitution, in order to exalt the Catholics, and that, out of power, he did not scruple to violate every principle of justice, in order to destroy them.”)

In a matter of property rights, a Plunkett decision in favor of Dominicans over Franciscans rankled many in the latter order, and some of them committed perjury against him at his London trial. He was not allowed enough time to transport rebuttal witnesses from Ireland. His conviction and death then became a foregone conclusion.

Just before his execution in July 1681, Plunkett gave a last, moving address to bystanders, many of whom realized by now that a grave miscarriage of justice had taken place. But the archbishop had more trials to endure—an agony that will be familiar to viewers of Braveheart:

* He was strung up by rope, but the hanging stopped just short of death;

* Taken down and revived, he was dragged to the execution table, where his body was stretched taut, then disemboweled;

* Still barely alive, Plunkett was only now decapitated.

* Each of his limbs was then cut off.

Archbishop Plunkett was canonized in 1975. An enemy of corruption within the Church, he would have been appalled by its maintenance today in Ireland; an archbishop who disdained ease and safety, he would loathed the comfortable archbishop's mansion enjoyed in Boston by William Cardinal O’Connell and his successors for decades. By necessity he wielded the authority of his office, but he could not leave his people while they suffered, and he paid with his life for it.

Plunkett's legacy was ruined by men who, three centuries after he lived and died, were more intent on maintaining institutional prerogatives than on taking the gospel to the despised, disenfranchised and dispossessed as he did.

No comments: