Authoritarianism and Moral Cowardice

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life  May-June 2010

Among the major questions that need consideration in the wake of the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the CICA Report) and the Murphy Report of 2009 is this: why did paid servants of the Irish state, with responsibilities for protecting children and preventing crime, fail so badly in their obvious duties?

We need urgently to reflect upon the way in which the CICA Report describes the failures of the Department of Education both to supervise and to reform the residential institutions. The following references to the Department are culled from the executive summary of the CICA report:

The failures by the Department that are catalogued in the chapters on the schools can also be seen as tacit acknowledgment by the State of the ascendancy of the Congregations and their ownership of the system. The Department’s Secretary General, at a public hearing, told the Investigation Committee that the Department had shown a ‘very significant deference’ towards the religious Congregations. This deference impeded change, and it took an independent intervention in the form of the Kennedy Report in 1970 to dismantle a long out-dated system. (CICA Report, Executive Summary, Chapter 1: The Department of Education)

The deferential and submissive attitude of the Department of Education towards the Congregations compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspection and monitoring of the schools. The Reformatory and Industrial Schools Section of the Department was accorded a low status within the Department and generally saw itself as facilitating the Congregations and the Resident Managers. (CICA Report, Executive Summary, Conclusions, 3)

When these passages are juxtaposed, a key descriptor leaps out: deference. Departmental officials, and the Department as a whole, were deferential and submissive to the congregations, regarding them as owners of a state-financed system. This was despite the fact that those officials were answerable as employees to a democratic state and an elected minister, not to any cleric. A similar attitude seems to have determined the decisions of Gardaí who, according to the Murphy Report, regarded criminal clerical child sex abuse as a matter for Archbishops of Dublin to deal with.

How are we to explain this deference, which amounted to collective moral cowardice? Let us suppose for a moment that among the sensational accounts of Irish Church-State controversies of the twentieth century the following was to be found, perhaps in an online encyclopaedia:

The Irish Civil Service Revolt of 1967

In 1967 senior officials within the Irish Department of Education launched a sudden and unexpected investigation of conditions in Irish state-financed residential institutions run by Catholic religious congregations that catered for disadvantaged children. These officials then immediately leaked to the Irish media a scarifying account of their findings, which included not only widespread extreme physical abuse but ‘endemic sexual abuse’. It transpired that they had undertaken the surprise inspection on their own initiative, without waiting for ministerial authorisation.

When the congregations protested and sought the sacking of these officials, the latter responded by pointing to current Catholic social teachings which emphasised the right of all people to equal dignity and respect. The officials also claimed the duty of lay Catholics to act on their own moral initiative, as sanctioned by the Church document Lumen Gentium, agreed by the Bishops of the Catholic Church in 1965.1

The Irish Catholic Church was, for the very first time, deeply and openly divided by this controversy, with some bishops expressing outrage that lay Catholics would forget their obligation to act `respectfully and subordinately’. Others took the view that, given the seriousness of what had been revealed, the officials had been amply justified in their actions. Most Irish Catholic theologians also took the latter view. Outraged public opinion decided the issue in favour of the officials, who were reinstated after suspension. A thorough reform of the institutions was then initiated.

I hope the point of this lapse into romantic historical fantasy will be properly taken. Such an event could indeed have occurred in 1967, on foot of happenings in the wider Church in the period 1962-65. What were the countervailing circumstances in Church and society? It was undoubtedly a deferential era. There could obviously be a wide divergence of opinion about the degree to which the Irish Church was to blame for this, but here is my own brief attempt at an inventory of Church circumstances that contributed to the culture of deference:

  • Irish lay Catholic clericalism: a strong historical inclination among Irish lay Catholics to leave all moral leadership to Catholic clergy, and especially to the hierarchy. ( ‘We lay Catholics can’t do anything Church-related that our bishops and priests don’t tell us to do’.)
  • A reciprocal Irish clerical tendency to prioritise the rights of clerical magisterial authority above the formation of private lay conscience. As late as 2007, Vincent Twomey, professor emeritus of moral theology at Maynooth, insisted that the lay Catholic’s duty of obedience ‘includes submission to the Church’s teaching authority on faith and morals, irrespective of how little we understand of the reasons why the Church so teaches’ (my italics) 2
  • The tendency of the institutional Catholic Church to see itself as a moral monolith, in which any kind of dissent was to be seen as dangerous to the unity and survival of the Church, and lay people would not take unilateral action (The idea of a ‘loyal opposition’ was considered ludicrous and subversive);
  • The absence of an Irish culture of open-minded Catholic adult education, alive to Catholic social teaching, and passionately imbued with the Gospel of love and justice;
  • The absence of interfacing Church structures for Catholic clergy and laity which would allow the open asking of awkward questions and the threshing out of the kind of misgivings that many had about the residential institutions;
  • Irish hierarchical attitudes which saw Vatican II as potentially dangerous to the supposed ‘tranquillity’ of the lives of lay people and did nothing to improve Catholic adult education or modify Church structures in favour of permanent open dialogue;
  • The failure of any Irish Catholic Church leader to utter public criticism of the running of the residential institutions, even though, by 1962, some leaders were certainly aware of the worst that was happening;3
  • The hierarchical structure of the Church, which turned itself, and Irish society, into a social pyramid of dignity and deference. In this pyramid the ‘preferential option’ must always go to clergy and religious. Unwanted and ‘difficult’ children were at the base of this pyramid, preferably out of sight. This Church structure subverted official Catholic teaching on the equal dignity of all;
  • The monopoly of the Sunday pulpit by Catholic clergy, who therefore retained enormous power as brokers of honour and shame in Irish society. This could be deployed against anyone considered dangerous or disloyal. Lay people had no counterbalancing right or power of self-defence within the Church;
  • The consequent deep fear among lay people of the power of `the Church’ — the clerical apparatus which in the lay view included the religious congregations that ran the institutions. `The Church’ was believed to have ‘tentacles everywhere’, and to be ever ready to ask ‘Who do you think you are?’ of any lay Catholic who presumed to quote the Gospel in defence of private conscience. This fear ensured the dominance in Irish Catholic life of the Seamus Heaney protocol: ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’;
  • The prevalence of this fear of the ‘the Church’ in Irish political culture also, encapsulated in the view that to oppose or criticise `the Church’ would be to ‘commit political suicide’.

In sum, Catholic authoritarianism prioritised, and continues to prioritise, uniformity, docility, obedience, unidirectional ‘communication’ by bishops, and silence and deference on the part of those who must listen to them. Its ecclesiological ideal is indeed a moral monolith in which bishops never disagree publicly, everyone waits for hierarchical sanction of anything new, bishops may secretly report to Rome theologians they dislike, and ‘group think’ is therefore obligatory. Authoritarian clerics are ready to label as ‘disloyal’ any breach of this culture of uniformity, and to publicly shame ‘dissidents’. They scorn lay initiative of any challenging kind. They refuse to be questioned by the lay people who pay all of their bills, not simply on matters of doctrine but on any administrative matter, and block all structural reform that might facilitate such questioning. They prize their own completely unaccountable status, with the consequence that a culture of unaccountability cascades downward through the Church and spreads outward into wider Irish society.

It is therefore to Catholic clerical authoritarianism we must look for some of the thickest roots of Irish lay Catholic moral cowardice. The sooner this is acknowledged, the better for the Church, the whole people of God. A Church structure that tolerated disciplined dissent would now be embraced joyfully by most Irish Catholics as an alternative to the utter global disgrace we have suffered.

Sometime in the future, the leadership of the Catholic Church in Ireland will acknowledge that the authoritarian culture of Irish Catholicism in the twentieth century:

  1. seriously weakened the moral character and Christian initiative of the Irish Catholic people;
  2. helped to subvert the obligation owed by the Irish state to its poorest citizens;
  3. disproved completely that the Church functions best as a clerically dominated army acting with complete uniformity under a unanimous leadership;
  4. proved the necessity of moving to a Church structure in which the following principles apply:
  • unity in essential doctrine;
  • structured freedom to debate all other matters, especially the social implications of Christian principles;
  • the sovereignty of individual conscience.

It remains to be seen whether such a leadership can emerge in the wake of the shock we have all experienced. Mooted reorganisation of Irish dioceses could facilitate such a development, but the history of the Church seems to prove that creative movements for change seldom originate at its summit. Ireland badly needs a grassroots movement aimed at establishing a more grown-up church, and a tradition of conscientious Catholic independence from the dominant authoritarian and clericalist current.

Notes

  1. See, for example, Pacem in Terris, 1963, and Lumen Gentium, 1965 (n. 37).
  2. Quoted in ‘Catholic Church “cannot teach what is wrong in itself”‘, P. McGarry, Irish Times, 27 December 2007.
  3. See, for example, The Irish Gulag, Bruce Arnold, Gill and Macmillan 2009, Chapter 24.

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