Goodbye and Good Riddance to Irish Catholic Serfdom

Sean O’Conaill Doctrine and Life  October 2009

“And the darkness could not overwhelm the light.”

I now bless the hours I once spent memorising the prologue to the Gospel of John.  To sleep soundly these days, and to rise willingly, I need to remind myself constantly that many past generations of Christians have felt deeply oppressed by the crowding evils of their own times,  and faced the day armed only with scriptural grounds for hope.

All other grounds have surely has been taken from us now.  The tranquillity of Catholic Ireland, which Archbishop McQuaid insisted must not be disturbed on his return from the second Vatican Council in 1965, has been shattered forever by the Ryan report.  I was exactly one third of my present age in that year, 1965, and already convinced that the archbishop’s response to Vatican II was deeply mistaken.  But I had truly no idea of the scale of the living nightmare that so many children were living through in Ireland at that moment, under the care of the church.  It was a nightmare that our church had also surely the social doctrine, the moral obligation and the power to end at least as early as the 1960s, but did not.

Why not?  That must surely be one of the questions we must face.

Another question, equally challenging, is why it took a process external to the church’s own processes, to bring the scale of this disaster to light.  “Who will guard the guards themselves?” asked the poet Juvenal long ago.   ‘Catholic Ireland’ most surely ran on the premise that Ireland’s Catholic guardians needed no prompting from anyone to know their Christian duty of moral leadership, and to perform it fearlessly.  That confidence is now starkly revealed as hubris, the pride that comes before a fall.  And what a fall there has been.

What are we to do now, beyond praying?  That’s another question.   How many of us are left that still want to call ourselves Catholic anyway?  There’s another.

Convinced only that those who are left need to begin a quiet conversation about all of these questions, I offer for the purposes of self-orientation the following brief account of the historical sequence that led to the cataclysm we have all just experienced.  Like all such accounts it must be subject to challenge and revision, if others are so minded.

First, the role of the United States was surely crucial in this denouement.  It was there in the 1980s that the phenomenon of clerical child sex abuse was first made subject to discussion by the popular media.  That public revelation shattered the taboo that had always cast this phenomenon into the shadows.  It also gave a name to experiences that had been unnamed and hidden in Ireland.  Unprecedented criminal  prosecutions began (significantly first in Northern Ireland) which led to the first great scandal of 1994, involving the sexual predator Brendan Smyth of the Norbertine order.  It was but a few small steps then to the chain of events that led to the Ryan Report of May 2009.

And by the time news of the Ryan Report hit, for example, Australia, the fact that Catholic clergy and religious could sexually abuse children was already old news there as well – because the revelations of the 1980s in the US had led to mirroring revelations of the same phenomenon in many (probably most) other nations to which Catholicism had spread.

We now know that this phenomenon was recognised as a problem by the clerical church at least as early as 309 (the Council of Elvira).  So why did the chain of events that led to its public recognition begin only in the 1980s, in the United States?  Why had the taboo on even recognising the problem in public discourse been first broken there?

The answer lies surely in the unique society that had developed in the US as a consequence of the Reformation of the 1500s and the Enlightenment of the 1700s.  The Reformation had created in the North American colonies a religiously plural society at ease with its own plurality, and had therefore necessitated also a separation of church and state in the minds of those who gave the US a constitution in the 1780s.  Those circumstances had combined with the Enlightenment to produce in turn a separation of state powers, a free press, a deep belief in the value of freedom, and a conviction that every phenomenon, even the darkest, must be subject to scientific study and open discussion.  Only in such a climate of freedom, curiosity and confidence, could something as ugly as sexual abuse be forced into the light of day.

We Irish Catholics might now do no more than reluctantly acknowledge the world that the Enlightenment and the Reformation have created – a world that forces us to face matters we might prefer had remained hidden.  We might merely lament the passing of tranquil Catholic Ireland – that distant land of dreams, hidden pain and monstrous illusions – and ask no more of God than to comfort us in our twilight years, and to protect us from all other possible future shocks.

Or we might realise that it was never really healthy, or truly Christian, to live in an illusionary world –  and rejoice at our liberation.

Liberation above all from the falsehood that someone ‘above us’ always knows better than we do, and that if we are ever troubled in conscience about something in our society, we should sit still and be quiet and let someone else deal with it – someone who must surely know better than we do.

Cardinal Conway once suggested that Catholic clerical paternalism might be a problem in Ireland.  Tragically he did not pursue that thought and explain fully what he meant.  We have now surely been delivered from that comfortable scourge – for who will not question now the culture of mute mass acceptance of the always superior wisdom of Ireland’s Catholic guardians?  Having adjured us never to worry, and left us fearful to do anything church-related on our own initiative, they have left us now with no possible grounds for believing we should continue in that mode of being.

Was it actually sinful to believe that Catholic loyalty required above all our passivity and silence, our conviction that only in this way could the foundations of our church and our society be secured?  Something like that attitude surely paralysed the agencies of a free Irish state when children’s safety and happiness were at stake in the residential institutions.  “So Catholic they forgot to be Christian!” that’s one commentator’s summation.  We must now surely identify what it was in our Irish Catholic culture that prevented us from being truly Christian – and repudiate it as not truly Catholic either.

That despicable thing was, I believe, the obsequious residue of medieval serfdom – the habit of obligatory self-subjection to another human being, by virtue of his supposed rank.    For centuries under conquest and colonisation, survival was so dependent upon this habit of deference to those who wielded power in Ireland that it became almost instinctual – communicated to children by body-language alone.  Searching for influence and status under the late 18th century ascendancy it was logical, if not truly Christian, for an unrecognised Catholic hierarchy to expect the same deference from their laity.  And to rejoice in the foundation of Maynooth in 1795 as a bastion of resistance to egalitarian modernity.  The social leverage thus gained was tenaciously guarded throughout the following two centuries, and even buttressed by theological paranoia.  “Never question or criticise a priest!”  That was the essence of my teacher grandmother’s admonitions to my mother’s generation in Donegal in the first decade of freedom  – so how many would question Dr McQuaid’s advice to us all to remain tranquil in 1965?  Tranquil and docile we mostly remained, and disastrously in the dark.

Catholic clerical paternalism, and the moral serfdom it demanded, subtly deprived us Irish Catholics of ownership of our own consciences.  Conscience, we were constantly reminded, must always be fully informed before it acts.  That was the role of the bishop – to fully inform our consciences.  In this way Catholic loyalty, even Catholic conscience, became identified with self-subjection to clerical authority and the clerical point-of-view .  Matters of doctrine and matters of practical social obligation became fused together in our minds, insisting that any dissent, or even any questioning,  was necessarily disobedient and disloyal.   The almost total absence of regular opportunities for adult discussion and discernment within the church sent the same message.  With our consciences held in trust by men determined to maintain a cloak of secrecy over everything that might discredit clergy, we became morally paralysed and deliberately not-knowing as a people – and complicit in the degradation of disadvantaged children.  Moral serfdom became the highest duty of the Irish Catholic laity – and mute deference to clergy as solemn a duty as Easter confession.

And the ecclesiastical hierarchical system that was defended as God-given must as surely have powerless and degraded humans at its base as it had unduly exalted humans at its summit.

To his credit, Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor has publicly acknowledged that all the causes of the catastrophe revealed by the Ryan report need to be exhaustively and openly studied.    Although the Irish Bishops’ Conference has not yet explicitly supported that position, we can take comfort that such an investigation and discussion will take place anyway.  Irish Catholic paternalism, and Irish Catholic serfdom, have so thoroughly disgraced themselves that they can surely no longer prevail.

Now we must all surely  set ourselves to the task of discovering if there can be an Irish Catholicism that is purged of both, and truly worthy of the Lord of light, compassion, equal dignity, truth and freedom.   Thankfully there are many exemplars of true Christian service in our Irish Catholic tradition also,  for voluntary loving service and childish servitude are two entirely different things.  If we can all now pray sincerely for the wisdom to discern the difference, and cast off the historical fear of speaking our minds, Irish Catholicism can regenerate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *