A Passion For Justice: Social Ethics in the Celtic Tradition


A Passion For Justice is a book that I picked up because I wanted to study ethics from the point of view of Celtic tradition. The author is a doctor at the Irish School of Ecumenics at Trinity College, Dublin. And the forward was written by president McAleese of Ireland.

The book is divided into three parts. The first is the context for the discussion the author intends to have and it contains 2 chapters. The second is on Saints and social ethics and that contains 6 chapters. And the final part is on Celtic social ethics and it contains 8 chapters. The book has an extensive bibliography that I was delighted with and the glossary provided was a great resource for the book. I do think that this book as intended as a text book because at the end of each chapter a list of the main points was provided as well as test questions.

The first chapter contains two important points, that the author expounds on. The first is how he defines the word “Celtic” and the second is the political and social structure of Ireland from mythical times to just before the Norman invasion of Ireland. The author attacks the romanticized ideas of the 19th century on what it means to be Celtic. My hackles rose a bit because it has now become all the rage to deny that there was ever anything called Celts. However, when I read his explanation I realized that he and I were on the same page. He sees the Celts as a cultural, spiritual and linguistic marker rather than a marker of ethnicity or race, and this is how I see it to, based on the latest archeological evidence that says that there were no large scale migrations to Ireland or Britain but rather some small scale ones before the second century BCE. The author then goes on to his second point of the chapter and that is to describe the political and social structure of Ireland in a simple and concise manner. He talks about the stratification of the Irish society and about the laws that governed them, as well as how the coming of Christianity effected these laws.

The second and last chapter in part one is an eye opener. Not just from the religious point of view but also from the political one. The author was not gushing over Saint Patrick as usually writers do when discussing Christian Ireland, in fact he barely mentioned him and only to say that he was not the first to bring Christianity to Ireland and his influence was only in Northern Ireland and no where else. His system of Christianity which was based on the Roman church was over taken by the monastic system with in a century. The main point of this chapter was when the Irish church changed its system from the monastic to the Roman system and coupling that with the Anglo- Norman invasion they lost their independence and became a colony of Britain and King Henry II. This was because by the time Henry came along with a letter from Pope Adrian IV that “donated” Ireland to him, the Irish Church was already under the influence of Canterbury and the Roman church and so the Bishops were very excepting of this transfer. In the old days, the church or before that the Druids would have been able to get the people to at least fight and continue fighting. The battle was already have won with the Romanization of the Irish church.

Part two of the book starts with four (3-6) chapters about four different saints, Patrick, Brigit of Kildare, Columba, and Columbanus. These chapters talk about these saints’ lives, and how their social ethics played a part in it. What I enjoyed the most was that the author was not romanticizing these saints at all. He was giving you their stories and how they affected people with out being biased for or against them which I liked. Chapter seven is certainly another interesting chapter. It is all about three female saints and their influence on church politics, and on other male saints. The chapter shows just how much females we needed when it comes to the early church and much they were later ignored. Anyone interested in early feminism in the church of Ireland should read this chapter. The final chapter of part two discusses holiness. It was an interesting discussion because it related holiness to socio-political aspects. There are two different ways of seeing holiness, one as separateness and the other is righteousness. Separateness is concerned with social purity and is essential for community identity and purpose while righteousness has to do do with right relations based on justice that is socio-political and economic.

Part three is all about actual Celtic ethics like hospitality, forgiveness, compassion, environmental care, justice and peace building. Each chapter talks about one ethic and then relates it to Ireland today and Celtic tradition. The final chapter talks about Celtic Spirituality in ethical practice.

I enjoyed every page of this book because the author is not biased towards Celtic Christianity even though he is talking about it. You can see the echo of paganism in what he is saying and he is not afraid to say when something could have been from that time. It is a good book to have in your library.

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One thought on “A Passion For Justice: Social Ethics in the Celtic Tradition

  1. simian says:

    Sounds very interesting

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