The President’s Christmas Message Examined

Eoghan Dalton examines the motives behind President Higgins failure to make reference to Christianity in his Christmas message.

Have you seen the latest mild controversy to arise in the Irish media over the Christmas break? President Michael D Higgins’ Christmas address seemed to pass with little interest as people continued with enjoying their time off. There were calls for a “shared Irishness” to carry us through future hardship as well as a glance forward to the State Visit to the UK later this year. It could be described as platitude ridden if one was to be impolite, but that can be the nature of these seasonal addresses.

However, the media and the public were given something to chew on when the head chaplain to the Defence Forces, Monsignor Eoin Thynne, criticised Higgins over him not making any explicit reference to Christianity in his speech. Monsignor Thynne also brought up the alleged removal of a nativity crib from a barracks in Kildare.

At first glance, sympathy isn’t hard to extend to Thynne; Christmas is, along with Easter, among the biggest events in the Christian calendar. With nary a mention of Christ or the religion itself, it has Thynne and others feeling that Higgins was indulging himself and, perhaps, his own beliefs.

Yet if we actually look at Higgins’ speech, there are signs that he was attempting his address to be an all-inclusive one. He may not reference Christ or Christianity but he does point out that “Christmas… reminds us that true hospitality endures and reaches beyond kin and one’s own community; it extends to the stranger, the newcomer, the outsider”. President Higgins, it should be clear to see, does reference the birth of Christ here by reminding us of Mary and Joseph being allowed into the stable. It is not as if Higgins has neglected Christmas entirely in what is termed as the ‘Christmas Address’.

Instead, he uses the word again when he says that “Christmas is a time to reflect on what binds us together … as fellow-citizens and human beings”. It is used one last time alongside a reminder that the message of Christmas is not unique to Christianity only, but ”shared by many faiths”. Higgins seemed to be trying to not alienate any group by focusing on the message rather than the particulars. For Thynne to criticise the president for not being more direct is churlish. His superior, Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Conor O’Boyle, has since apologised for the chaplain’s comments.

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A spokesman for Higgins declined to answer the queries though, and stated that it would be ”inappropriate” to ask if the president is an atheist.

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The president was also contacted by the Irish Independent who desired to know his exact spiritual views. A spokesman for Higgins declined to answer the queries though, and stated that it would be ”inappropriate” to ask if the president is an atheist. This is where it gets tricky however; upon taking office in the Áras, Higgins had to take an oath which begins with “In the presence of Almighty God” and concluded with ”May God direct and sustain me”. It’s positively biblical.

Were Higgins to admit that he is an atheist then it would also mean he lied when he took the oath of his office, a potential means for dismissal surely. Of course, considering how Ireland isn’t such a principled place it is difficult to believe such an event could happen. If Bertie Ahern managed to escape the Dáil on his own accord (to a degree,) then the well-liked Higgins will no doubt do similar for a much lesser offence.

What should be taken from this matter though is not whether Christianity gets a full on reference in the Christmas address, but the far less trivial issue of the links between the Roman Catholic Church and the State in the Constitution. By forcing atheists (not to mention agnostics) to swear to an entity that they don’t believe in is clearly unfair and discriminatory. If you disagree, however, imagine what the reaction would be if it was Catholics, Protestants or Jews that had a similar barrier to a job. It would be rightfully condemned.

Similarly, the “Holy Trinity” is invoked at the start of any oath taking process going by the Constitution. This is another unnecessary addition and should be replaced by a non-denominational oath that doesn’t prohibit anyone based on their beliefs. It’s a shame that Higgins didn’t speak to the Irish Independent on his spirituality when they asked him; it would have been an opportunity to open a discussion on the issue, which would have been the correct response to Monsignor Thynne’s criticism. Instead, it’s an opportunity missed.

The country will one day have to deal with the uneasy leftovers of the State’s cosy relationship with the Church; are the majority of people content with the religious wording in the Constitution and the oaths? Are they bothered if there is little direct reference to Christianity in the Christmas Address? Where do Irish people stand on role of gay people in the Church and society (interestingly, staunch Catholic Mary McAleese has criticised the Church’s stance on that topic at the beginning of this year)?

President Higgins promised in his address that in the coming year he “will be encouraging the widest possible discussion of ethics in every aspect of our lives, nationally and globally”. We’re not even a month into 2014 and it appears he has failed on the first go.