In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link.
by Eoin O’Mahony
So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders
I used to work for Ireland’s Catholic bishops. In an Irish context, where well over 80% of the population actively ticks the Roman Catholic box on the census, many thought that this meant access to political power. The Republic has no state church but it might as well have had. Since independence in 1922, the level of collusion in healthcare and education between government and the Catholic bishops was so great it may as well have been the established church. In 2006, fresh out of another workplace where bullying was widespread, I applied for a job as a social researcher. I saw this job in the newspaper and it looked like something, as a social scientist, I could do. I needed a job. About six months after I started it, part of which was to work alongside Catholic priests, I stopped wearing black or grey shirts to work. Priests thought I was a priest.
At the time I looked at that in one of two ways: they think enough of me that they see something of their life in this younger man. (I was 33 when I started, the average age of Irish Catholic priests is somewhere north of 55.) In a work environment that was far more supportive than my previous job, this seemed flattering. After all, being a priest while working for their bosses, the bishops of Ireland, must seem like the natural order of things. As time went on in the job however, I came to question the implication that being articulate and organised meant I could only have been a priest. Many of the Catholic priests I met on the job were educated at a time when only the smartest boys got to become priests. Their own life path was perhaps characterised by being articulate and organised at school and they were encouraged to think about being a priest by the generation of priests before them. I, on the other hand, had learned how to listen by virtue of my training as a good qualitative interviewer. Perhaps many of the priests who asked me if I was one of them did not know that listening skills come from many sources. I left the job in 2015, but reconciled myself to clerical recognition.
Beyond the job, working as I was on a doctoral thesis about the landscape of Catholic practice in Ireland, many assumed I had a Dan Brown-esque knowledge of the inner workings of Mother Church. At some stage of a social gathering, people would usually ask what I did for a living. I told them that I worked for the Catholic bishops as a researcher. Many didn’t know how to react; it often led to indifference and not curiosity. As opaque as the organisational structures were for me within the job, for many Irish people, Catholic or not, working for the Catholic Bishops Conference meant you were maybe a priest or an unthinking apologist for homophobia. The information I had presented them with had very little context in a society undergoing a profound readjustment to the institutional church after years of abuse revelations. Many merely didn’t know what to do with the information that I Work For The Bishops. In this job, I designed, coordinated, and reported on research projects. I facilitated focus groups and analysed multinational datasets using specialised software. To this day I believe that some thought we sat around thinking up ways to annoy women and LGBT people.
Particularly during the time of my doctoral fieldwork, examining pilgrimage, Marian statues, and denominational education, I came to develop a thicker skin to the question So You Are Not a Priest? If you are at all interested in religious studies in Ireland, particularly so from a Catholic background, most assume you are a devout and practising Catholic. In many minds I was the first in line for receiving the Host and dismissive of whatever notion of secularity they defined themselves by. I happen to think that this close identification comes not from something intrinsically invidious about Catholicism in Ireland. It comes from a sense that to believe as a Catholic in Ireland is, at least conversationally, about being a particular type of person. The closer you got to the centre of Church life, the more orthodox and unwavering you were. Proximity mattered and I worked in this formless, unknown stone building on a university campus. It is a characterisation of the life of a Catholic as defined by orthodoxy and unwavering support for church teaching.
Since finishing the job in Maynooth, I have tried to carve out a new job path for myself. Teaching geography at university is rewarding to me and I hope to be able to continue to do so. Outside employment of the Catholic Bishops, work is less secure and subject to a precariousness that would not be tolerated were I to actually have joined the priesthood. Academic life, coming as it does from clerical scholarship, has its own rituals and rites. It also has a profound sense of itself as thoroughly soaked in a defined secularism. I cannot be a geographer of religious practice and landscape in Ireland so I have to become another type of scholar in geography. There are no jobs for geography of religion scholars in the land of Saints and Scholars. Religious studies is obscure, more so in a self-consciously defined secular space as a university where studying religion means you are religious. So I need to become interested in secular things: cities, spatial justice, housing policy. To maintain an interest in religious studies professionally maybe means buying the grey and black shirts again.
Eoin O’Mahony holds a PhD. from the Department of Geography, NUI Maynooth, Ireland. His thesis focuses on the spatialisation of the secular and the religious in Ireland with particular emphasis on the politics of the secular. He maintains a blog at 53degrees.wordpress.com and tweets too much at @ownohmanny.