Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, in June of 2019 undergraduate student Mackenzie Price interviewed a Laurentian Society member at Trinity College in Dublin. In this interview, this member discusses the Laurentian Society's history, its current structure, and the various ways politics and religion are visible on campus.
How did you get involved in the Laurentian Society?
I knew the then-chair of the society through a friend. And he was there in Freshers Week smoking a pipe and asking me if I’d like to join, and when someone is smoking a pipe and asking you to join a society of course you have to join. So I said "Yeah, yeah," and that was that.
So kind of on a lark, almost?
Yeah… so that was basically how I joined and got involved and I knew people in it and stuff. So you know. And then the guy who was chair, then he stepped down as chair, and then, the girl who became my girlfriend became chair. But I joined that before I knew him or before I knew her, really.
And what did you do in the Laurentian Society?
In third year… I wasn’t a part of any active official capacity so I just went to events. Laurentian was going through a bit of a revival because it had been quite dormant the previous year or two; there hadn’t been that many events. Yeah, I enjoyed it, it was intellectually stimulating. There were lots of interesting speakers and events, there were lots of interfaith events… yeah I just, I liked the environment. It was a stimulating environment that was also fun, you know?
What do you think spurred on the revival?
I suppose it was just the people involved. It’s undergone several revivals: It was founded in the early 1950s, and it kind of fell dormant around the early 1990s. And I think it was revived around 2011 or 2012. And then… it depends who’s involved. Sometimes people just aren’t as engaged or whatever, and sometimes other people have to kind of pick it up and revive it again. So it really depends on the committee I suppose and who’s doing it.
And it’s kind of changed because it was originally the Catholic Society. But when it was revived in 2011 or so, they changed. It had to be because the rules of the societies had changed. It’s now the Catholic Cultural Society. Officially.
The Catholic Cultural Society?
Because you can’t be like a, you can’t set up a new society that’s just one religion. On whatever grounds… I’m not sure if it’s strictly grounds of discrimination.. it’s what the criteria are for a society.
So one of the criteria is you can’t be…
I don’t think—well, I’m not sure. See, I think the Christian Union [CU] has existed long before that so that that rule doesn’t apply to them. But if you set up a new society as you revived the Laurentian, they basically were setting up a new society because it had been debunked. Now, I don’t think it’s ever had any impact. I don’t think anyone’s tried to, you know, stop them holding religious events or whatever. But officially it’s the Catholic Cultural Society. But I mean, in practice it doesn’t make any difference. No one’s checking your religion when you join. It’s open to all. It’s a welcome and inclusive society, as all societies should be.
Do you think it was welcoming and inclusive even before that rule?
I’d hope so… I mean I suppose it would have been… when it was up in 2011 I suppose it would be quite small. I don’t know what their, I’d be interested to see what their membership was like. Last year I was there, in fourth year—which was a bit ago—we got up to 100 members. Which is, for that society, was good, you know.
Wait, I’m curious about this rule. This is the first time I heard of it.
I mean, I could be getting it wrong—there was just some—the criteria changed for societies. So I don’t… I don’t want to over-emphasize it in that I don’t know it has any impact in practice. I just know that the society could not say it was the Catholic Society; they had to say it was the Catholic Cultural Society.
That is very interesting. Do you know when the criteria changed?
I don’t know, but it would have been… I imagine… I imagine it was sometime around the early 1990s. It definitely had come in before the society was started back up again.
But because the Christian Union still exists, they don’t—
Yeah, they exist continuously so it doesn’t quite—and it’s the same with any other society. I don’t think you can… for instance, you can’t have a single issue political society. But there’s kind of, you know, ways around that I suppose.
What are the ways around that? You sound like you have a few things in mind.
Well, I’m not sure that I do. But all I’m saying is it sort of depends. For instance, you can’t have a single issue political society, but, say, last year, in the run-up to the abortion referendum, the Student Union had a mandate to campaign for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment on abortion. So they were able to have—there was basically a Trinity repeal group. Now they weren’t an official society, but because the Student Union had a mandate, there was no problem for them, you know, doing events and stuff. But, for instance, with Students for Justice in Palestine, they cannot officially be a society. So basically, groups like that just become informal student groups.
Does the [Laurentian] Society get any outside funding?
No outside funding with one exception in the past two years, which would be the Mystic Institution in the United States. I’ve done usually maybe 2 events per term, collaborative events with Trinity, with the Laurentian. So they have funded speakers to come from, say over from the United States or from England or whatever.
What was that called again?
The Mystic Institution.
They’re a Dominican organization based in DC.
Do you think a lot of people know about the Laurentian Society?
Well, that’s interesting. Visibility is an important thing, and I suppose when you’re a small society that’s a challenge, to be more visible. To be honest, I don’t have the faintest idea, I really don’t. Certainly I would say a lot more know about it now than they did than let’s say three or four years ago when there was hardly any events on. How were you supposed to know about it, you know, if there’s no real presence on the ground or online? But you know, they’ve got an active Facebook page… and whenever there’s a Laurentian event on there’ll be lots of posters up. I suppose, yeah that said, you still find people who are Catholics saying, "Oh, I didn’t know there was a Catholic society, yada yada yada." Which I’m surprised by, but there you go. I don’t know.
How many people would you want to be in the Laurentian Society or know about it?
Oh! I do believe I would want everyone to know about it; it’s a great society. Ideally you want as many people as would be happy to join. You know, it should be open to everyone, so yeah. There’s no point in having a society that keeps to itself or gets cliquey. I think that’s always a danger, particularly when—well, that’s true of most societies. Actually, I don’t think that’s fair, because you get a lot with the really big societies, like the Hist and the Phil. There’s a danger of getting sort of an in-crowd and cliquey and all that, and I suppose you have to guard against that.
How do you guard against the danger of cliquey-ness?
I suppose you just...well, the Catholic society, it should be easy for them. The Christian principle of radical inclusivity, you know, treat everyone the same, welcome everyone equally.
Do you think they do that?
Well, I hope so.
Well, from your experience.
I think we did, I mean, I have no reason to believe they don’t. The only reason I’m qualifying now is I’ve not really been involved with the society this year. But they certainly have when I was in it. I think we did.
You also said earlier, if I recall, that you were secretary?
So yes… I was secretary in 2018. My last year of undergrad.
The CU is very much an evangelical Protestant group. They’re different than the Laurentian in that the Laurentian is specifically a Trinity Society with no external affiliation, but the Christian Union is affiliated with a sort of a brother organization. And they’ve got branches in different colleges. So yeah. I was never… it wouldn’t have really been my thing, shall we say. Their brand. Yeah, so I’ve joined the Christian Union every year. Because they do very good free lunches. I am completely unashamed and unabated like that… They do a lot of events. But it wasn’t really my thing. But I wouldn’t know much else about their events other than that, to be honest.
Why would you say it wasn’t your thing?
Em, ooh. That’s a good question. I suppose I would tend to be… this is actually a really good question because I don’t know the answer. I suppose it’s an instinctive thing. I wouldn’t tend to be… I don’t think I would ever have tended towards low-church evangelicalism. If that’s the right word.
“Low Church” evangelical?
So they’d be quite sort of, em, sort of Low Church, very Reformed… I suppose Low Church really depends on the context. I suppose in Protestantism Low Church is... well, the more Low Church you are the less [unintelligible] you are to Catholicism, say.
I suppose they would be quite… sort of scriptural, sort of scripture infallibility. My religious outlook is difficult to pinpoint, it’s sort of changed, but it’s never been that. I’ve never sort of took the Old Testament literally, in every respect. You know. But I’m not really—because I was never involved with the CU and because it was never really my thing, I’m not best placed to say what their actual thing is, what their guiding principles are.
What did they talk about during the free lunches that you went too?
The free lunches? They normally have an events week during the year—I think it’s springtime. So they’ll usually have key speakers; they might have different Protestant pastors, whatever. And they’d be talking about—they usually like to pick provocative titles to sort of draw people in, like you know, "What if God Isn’t Real," "What if the Bible is a Fairytale," "What if..." yada, yada, yada. And they tend to have usually a 20-minute talk.
Do they ever take those stances that God isn’t real and the Bible is a fairytale?
Oh no, no, no, no. That is a provocative title to get people to come along. All their speakers are coming from a Christian perspective. Now that said, they did have an event that was tremendously successful, maybe, that would have been 2017, 2018. Basically on that very subject, "Is God Real?" It must have been the biggest debate the college has seen in decades. It was huge. The biggest lecture theater was packed - they had loads of overflow room in the arts block with live streaming, and so this, Protestant theologian I think… and he was debating an atheist philosopher.
Oh, so this was a debate?
This was a debate; it wasn’t one of their normal events. It was a special event that the Christian Union organized—tremendously successful. I don’t think they could get over how successful it was. I don’t know how many hundred people at it, was huge.
Would you say that’s kind of a hot topic on campus?
To be honest, I don’t think it is. I think people are interested. I was slightly surprised that that many people were interested enough to actually go. I suppose the fundamental question… Yeah. I don’t think it’s a hot topic. I think your average Trinity student would be nonreligious. I’m always reluctant to categorize people, to put people in boxes, but most Trinity students are not religious. They wouldn’t consider themselves religious at all. Yeah, so it’s interesting that they were engaged enough to kind of, go to this event that was interested in this very issue.
How do you feel about most people at Trinity being not religious?
Well, I suppose it’s a reflection of higher society now… you can fall into the hole of thinking Trinity is representative of outside society. Of course it’s not. Trinity, for instance, the percentage of people at Trinity who went to higher schools are way higher than the percentage in the normal population and so forth. But… it’s sort of a broader secular trend…
Do you have a lot of conversations about [whether or not God exists] with people?
Well, if people aren’t spending any time thinking about it, then they’re not likely to say it to you. And so it becomes a nonissue. You’re not having a conversation in which it comes up. But I have encountered it, definitely. And that’s the thing that troubles me as well, there seems to be an awful lot of lack of understanding. Things get very polarized. And when things get polarized people stop listening to each other, and when they stop listening to each other they stop understanding each other.
So there’s a mischaracterization of a belief in God: you believe in this bearded guy who lives in the sky, right. And all it’s really sort of absurd misunderstandings. I don’t think you should make assumptions about people’s beliefs or people’s religions; that would be ridiculous. It’s funny, because I just think it's—people stop talking to each other, and at one point when people stop listening to each other, then there’s very little chance that they’re understanding each other.
So how does that polarization, as you put it, affected your experience as an undergrad?
I don’t think it’s affected it that much. You know, I suppose it depends on who you’re mixing with. So I’ve made friends with a lot of people who are religious believers or who are intellectually curious. They might be atheist, they might be agnostic or whatever, but they’re intellectually curious. And a lot of my friends … tend to study philosophy officially or unofficially, and they’re very interested in that.
So you’re friends with everyone across the religious spectrum?
Yeah, I would say so, yeah. I suppose if you were being really analytical about it if you were trying to map it over your four years of college how many friends you made who are x y and z, but yeah, I’d suppose I’d be a mixture. But I suppose because there’s a majority of Trinity students who are not religious, it’s perfectly possible that you can go through your whole time at Trinity and have a wide range of really good friends and none of them would be religious whatsoever. You know, so your experience would actually be quite narrow in that respect.
Do you that think happens often—that people are friends with people who are mostly of the same thinking?
I suppose there’s a danger of that; you have to guard against that. Some people are perfectly happy with that (I think they’re awful). But there is a danger with that… But I suppose, I mean, I never sought to make friends with people based on solely what they thought. I base friendships with people based on who they are. So yeah, I just think openness is so important. Being open to other people and where they’re coming.
Have you experienced any reluctance to hear the other person’s point of view?
I would say… it varies depending on the issue… the first one would have been the marriage referendum. I was in first year then. I mean, it wasn’t something I felt that strongly about; I voted in favor of it. Definitely, there was… an awful lot of intolerance. Towards anyone even considering voting against it, and why they might do that. That was a good example. And people were not talking to each other, they were talking past each other. Obviously in Trinity the student body was overwhelmingly in favor of it. But there’s no...I mean, I have friends who were actively involved in the “no” campaign. And, you know, it was rather frustrating for people to—without even listening to them—to brand people as homophobic, they were homophobic, they were intolerant and all the rest of it, without listening to their actual arguments and what they were actually saying, and I thought it was a terrible thing. It was just people talking past each other. And there was no real understanding.
The Palestine thing was similar I suppose to an extent. It wasn’t as advanced. I think the people who are opposed to imposing boycotts and sanctions on Israel are in a bit of a stronger position. Now I suppose Trinity students would be sort of softly pro-Palestine…
So the Israeli ambassador came - he was supposed to address the society of international affairs … and there was a protest. Which I was involved in, well not in any official capacity, but I went and you know. Protesting him because he was representing the state of Israel.
I’ve always seen it in secular terms and I get very... annoyed, I suppose, when people couch it in religious language. It’s very easy because people who are in favor of repealing the Eighth Amendment very much would see it as a religious thing. And a sort of residual influence of the Catholic church, etc, etc, etc. The thing is most people on the repeal side, their rhetoric was very rooted in [unintelligible]. It was like, “Get your rosaries off my ovaries”—they had this idea that the Catholic church still, below the surface is very powerful. And was a big threat to them. During the referendum, last year. And then the result came out and they’re like, "Oh, I mean, you could have told us." I mean, it was really a Trojan horse of their own making. The church doesn’t not have the influence it had. No way. I think they really overestimated the influence it had.
But yeah I do find it—there’s an awful lot of stereotyping and misunderstanding that goes on there. People think if you’re pro-life you’re sort of right wing, and if you’re pro-life you share all these other views, which to my mind are completely inconsistent. If you are going to defend the right to life of the most vulnerable human beings, you also have to defend the rights of the woman who is bringing this child to term, possibly under the most horrendous circumstances. Now, I don’t want to be unfair, but I think an awful lot of people who are pro-life do not apply this consistently. You know. They’re pro-life in the womb.
The vast majority are obviously pro-repeal. Now, I mean, I along with some others were involved with a pro-life group at Trinity, who I suppose would have been not a typical pro-life group if you like… we wouldn’t have been the typical more or less right-wing.
What do you mean?
Well, we were completely non-religious. Now, lots of pro-life groups say they’re non-religious, but. We had people all across the political spectrum, people of all religions and none, and a very diverse groups of people. A reasonably small group, but very diverse.
Wait, you said that most pro-life groups say that they’re not religious or whatever. Does that mean that there are other pro-life groups at Trinity?
No, not at Trinity…
Campus politics at Trinity are very much informed by U.S. politics today, whereas earlier would have been British in 1980s and 1990s.
We were basically an informal groups, like Students in Palestine. We were an informal student group, so we were basically a society without being a society. They wouldn’t let us be a society. You know, you could waste your time trying to, you know, chip away at it and try to get them to give you society status. It’s a waste of time. We were just an informal group of students
Did a lot of people know about the group?
The group would have got more visibility. We have a very good sort of ah… social media. And there were people from our group who went and were involved in college debates on repeal and things like that. So I suppose that would’ve raised visibility. And I suppose people were curious. Because it was so overwhelmingly sort of pro-choice and overwhelmingly on that side. The vast, vast articles and things being published in student newspapers were from that side. So, when you did have people making the case from the other side, and making it in a new way, which challenged people’s stereotypes and perceptions, people were interested in that. They might not have been tolerant, but they were interested.
I think we kept constantly at the forefront of our minds to be nonjudgmental, to be sensitive to people. You know, and… because there is that danger. And particularly when you get into a very heated debate, when you lose sight of the fact—I mean I hated the Eighth Amendment, I thought it was awful.
The group that I was involved with, the pro-life group, we’ve all sort of basically left college. So there’s another pro-life group now. Again, informal. I think they’re actually called the Trinity Pro-Life Society or something like that. So they basically have more newer people, a separate group.
Is there a lot of crossover between the Christian Union and the Laurentian Society?
Eh, no. No, I’d say there’s very little crossover because they’d be quite very different. The Christian Union is, I mean it’s not any one denomination, but it is very much Protestant. Evangelical Protestant. They may have a few Catholic members, I don’t know, probably do, but it would be quite different. It’s very difficult to quantify it, but there’s two very different vibes, I guess.
Do you know the Loyola Institute?
Oh yeah, of course, yeah.
How do you know them?
I’d just be aware of them I suppose. There’s been a couple of, a bit of interaction between Loyola and Laurentian organizing events and things, and speakers from Loyola and things like that. I suppose I’d just be aware of them because they’re in college, you know? And because they’re next to the Irish School of Ecumenics which I’d be aware of as well.
Why would you be aware of the Irish School of Ecumenics?
Well, I have an interest in ecumenism…
I think it’s a very, very good example of an ecumenical chaplaincy. Where you’ve got four chaplains—two Catholic, one Methodist, one Church of Ireland—they really work together on everything they can. And it’s really good. And the chaplaincy—it’s a great place. It’s one of the few places in college, actually, as a space, where people can come and they can just talk about anything. I mean I spend whole days in here, and different people come in and out, and whatever else, but you have really interesting conversation about all sorts of things. Anything at all. I think it’s a really open and welcoming place. I think people who haven’t been to the chaplaincy think “Christians trying to reel you in” or "it’s all going to be people of a certain religion.” No…
How many students are you likely to see here at one time?
I suppose in term time you have quite a few people, anyone from two to 10 people I suppose. There’s always a few people around. And on Tuesday there’s free lunch; there’s always people packed for that.
Wait, what do they serve at free lunch?
Well, it’s basically soup. Soup and free sandwiches. And there’s lots of free bread, jam, and cheese, and Nutella, and peanut butter, all sorts of… so it’s very popular. I actually think that’s one of the things the chaplaincy is best known for, free lunches.
My view on Catholicism is a bit complicated in that it’s a rotten institution. It’s so flawed, and I’m not just talking obviously the abuse scandals. And I think they’re going to keep coming out… I suppose the church’s spiritual claim, its theological claim, is not based on the actions of its members. Because if it was, it would be dead long ago.
I have great difficulty of certain church teachings. I find it difficult, particularly, I have great difficulties with certain church teachings—for instance the church teaching on homosexuality. I find that awful. It’s like an open wound, nearly. I’ll repeat it though. I mean I say with reservation the church is homophobic from the top to the bottom.