Category Archives: Protestant Reformation

The Disgracing of Catholic Monarchism

© Sean O’Conaill 2010

(This article was first published in ‘The Dublin/Murphy Report: A Watershed for Irish Catholicism?’, eds. John Littleton and Eamon Maher, Columba Press, Dublin, 2010)

Concentrations of power are not divinely mandated or divinely supported.

This is the single most important lesson to be drawn from the catastrophe that overtook the Catholic clerical system in Ireland in the period 1992-2010. Far from being a catastrophe for the Catholic Church, this revelation will liberate and reshape all that is best in Catholicism, including Irish Catholicism, during the rest of this century.

As late as January 2010 no Irish Catholic bishop had publicly recognised why it is that the Catholic Church in Ireland has been exposed as deficient in its care for children not by any internal church mechanism but by two Irish state inquiries.  This is simply the fact that power in western secular society is not concentrated but distributed. Media, courts, government all wield considerable power, but none has the absolute power of a monarch. And it was monarchy, and monarchism, that was finally disgraced in Ireland in 2009. It became clear to everyone in that year that in the end only the secular media and the secular state could make an Irish Catholic bishop minimally accountable for the crime of endangering children.

True, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and retiring Bishop Willie Walsh have acknowledged that the present church system presents problems of accountability for bishops. However, no Catholic bishop has yet acknowledged that the Ryan and Murphy reports have clearly revealed that concentrations of power actually corrupt all institutions that adhere to them. This lack of recognition, especially from the papacy, of something that any bright teenager can see, means that the Irish church, and Catholicism generally, lacks authoritative leadership from its hierarchy at this time.

It was the French Enlightenment philosopher, the Baron de Montesquieu, who first noticed that human liberty is best protected by a separation rather than a concentration of power. For intellectuals threatened with imprisonment by the vagaries of monarchical absolutism in early 18th century France, England was a haven. The long drawn out 17th century contest between monarchy and parliament had ended in stalemate in England, creating a rough balance of power. Unable to impose religious uniformity, the aristocratic and mercantile establishment in England had even granted a wide liberty to the press.

Very impressed, Montesquieu developed from this insight the principle of the separation of state power – a principle which became the bedrock of the US constitution of 1787. It was a principle that proved its durability in the lifetime of many of us, enabling the US Congress, supported by the Supreme Court, to force the resignation of the corrupt President Richard Nixon in 1974. Had Nixon been an absolute monarch, or a military dictator, this could not have happened.

It was essentially the same principle that enabled Catholic families harmed by clerical sexual abuse to launch the first civil suits against the Catholic clerical system in the United States in the 1980s, and to provoke the first criminal prosecutions for this crime. And it was the freedom of the press under that system that made sexual abuse a discussable subject by all news media in the West. Ireland’s liberation, beginning in the 1990s, began under a state system very different from its own.

Montesquieu’s work had, of course, been placed upon the Roman index in 1751. It is deeply scandalous to the Catholic clerical system that the eventual vindication of Irish Catholic children should be partially a fruit of Montesquieu’s insight. There is another deeper scandal, however. The historical sequence that had led to the freedoms that Montesquieu had noticed in early 18th century England had begun with the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. It was the religious fragmentation that followed the Reformation that had induced the creators of the US constitution to separate church and state – another key reason that the crime of Catholic clerical sexual abuse could first be uncovered and prosecuted in the United States.

The conclusion is inescapable. The poorest Irish children in the first seven decades of the life of an independent Ireland were severely penalised by the collusion of the Irish state with the monarchical Catholic clerical system – wedded as the latter was to paternalism, authoritarianism, clericalism and secrecy. The forces unleashed by greater access to international media in the 1960s eventually brought us into the Western intellectual mainstream – subject to the winds of change initiated by both the Reformation and the Enlightenment. It was no accident that the first prosecutions for clerical sexual abuse in Ireland were brought by the RUC. Or that many of the most forceful Irish journalists who uncovered the Irish scandal had already been themselves liberated from deference to Irish Catholic clericalism.

It is almost certainly this historical scandal – the origins of the liberation of Catholic children in forces hostile to monarchical Catholicism – that prevents the papacy from doing what Bishop Geoffrey Robinson requested it to do in 2002 – to undertake a church-wide investigation of the causes of the clerical child abuse catastrophe. This failure also is fast eroding the dwindling credibility of the system, and reinforcing the perception of many ordinary Catholics that most of their current bishops, and the pope also, are on an endless learning curve.

It was, after all, the Catholic historian Lord Acton who formulated the axiom of 1887 that every educated person knows by heart: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We are still awaiting a papal encyclical that will notice this principle at work in the church, and in the corruption of bishops. The fact that we are still waiting is proof of that system’s continued denial of what history is revealing to it. So is the fact that we have never had an encyclical that will rise to the challenge of another sentence in that very same passage from Acton’s letters:

“There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

Here Acton was clearly indicting both Catholic clericalism and the monarchical principle – the notion that either kings or clerics are sanctified – made holy – by the offices they hold. This axiom is of supreme importance in the context of clerical child sexual abuse, because part of the abused child’s disempowerment was the contrasting supreme power assumed by the cleric by virtue of his office. (Was he not another Christ?) It was essentially this heresy that prevented one mother in Ferns from suspecting any danger in a priest sharing a bed with her own daughter.

The same heresy underlay the preference given by bishops in Ferns, Cloyne and Dublin to clergy over abused children. It underlay also the disgraceful deference shown by officials in the Department of education to those who dominated the dreadful Catholic institutions indicted in the Ryan report.

This latter connection is most deeply damaging to Catholic clericalism. Defining Catholic loyalty always in terms of deference to clerical authority it brought us in 2009 to an inescapable conclusion: the roots of the moral cowardice that prevented Irish civil servants from protecting Irish children from the most grotesque abuse in the residential institutions – and from reforming that system – lay in Catholic clerical authoritarianism. And so did the supine attitude of too many Gardai when confronted with clerical sexual abuse of children.

It was therefore deeply troubling for every thoughtful Irish Catholic to hear Pope Benedict XVI enthusiastically echoing in June 2009 the spiritualised rhetoric of the Curé d’Ars when he inaugurated a Year for Priests, with the words “After God the priest is everything!” Of course the morale of Catholic priests is a matter for concern at this most difficult time, but could there have been a better year for the pope to say instead: “After God the child is everything”? How are we now to believe that this pope has ever come close to empathising with the powerlessness of a Catholic child at the hands of a clerical sexual predator? Or to grasping the spiritual damage done by that offence – precisely because the child had typically been taught that ‘after god the priest is everything’?

Such rhetoric is therefore deeply offensive to the survivors of clerical sexual abuse, and an insuperable barrier to their reconciliation with the Catholic clerical system. Their lives will be long over before the slow learning curve betrayed by such an utterance will have been completed.

This brings us to another reality: many conscientious Irish Catholics now feel an overwhelming obligation of solidarity with the victims of the Catholic clerical system, and deep anger at that system still stuck on its learning curve. They have a consequent deep need to discover a tradition of Catholic conscience that is not the clerical authoritarian one: “your conscience ceases to be Catholic if it does not accord with your bishop’s”.

This ‘take’ on conscience was always driven by a need for control. Its rationale was, of course, that without strict obedience ‘the church’ would fall apart and its core teachings would be lost. But just look at the state of the church in Ireland after four decades of authoritarianism following Vatican II. It is as far as it could be from a heaven of peace, harmony and unity.

The reason it is in fact a shambles was brought home to me soon after I had begun to make contact with some of those who had suffered most from clericalism – survivors of abuse and of the ecclesiastical mishandling of abuse. This had led members of VOTF in Derry to report our bishop, Seamus Hegarty, to Rome in 2006. The factuality of that report has never once been contested, but nevertheless I was faced one day with the following indignant question from someone who would consider himself the staunchest of Catholics:

“Who told you to do what you are doing?”

It had obviously never occurred to this person that the primary obligation of a Christian, the obligation of love, might ever require him to act decisively on his own initiative – in opposition to a bishop whose policy and practice were in conflict with that obligation. If we reflect for a moment on what might have prevented those Department of Education officials from taking a Christian initiative in relation to the residential institutions, or on what led Gardai in the Archdiocese of Dublin to turn a blind eye to the criminal activities of abusive clerics, we will be led inexorably to the conclusion that they lived in total dread of the very same question:

“Who told you to do what you are doing?”

To be paralysed by fear of that question is to be guilty of moral cowardice. To what extent is the social conscience of Irish Catholicism still paralysed by that fear?

The axiom that lies behind this question must run something like this: Catholic identity is to be defined solely in terms of total obedience and deference to Catholic clerical authority. Unquestioning adherence to that axiom is the root source of the disgrace we have all suffered in 2009. If we do not grasp that fact, and abandon that conviction, we will have learned nothing from what could be the most traumatic, and important, year in Irish Catholic history.

To help us to abandon that conviction we need only reflect on an event that took place in October 2007. On the 26th of that month, in Linz, Austria, our church beatified Franz Jägerstätter. He had been guillotined by the Nazis in 1942 for refusing to serve in the German army on the eastern front. He had taken this decision in opposition to the pleading of his own bishop who, in common with all of the Austrian hierarchy, had supported Hitler’s war.

The conclusion to be drawn is starkly obvious. Although the Catholic magisterium will insist upon obedience in all eras, and will insist that a properly informed conscience cannot be disobedient, it may end up with no alternative but to honour a Catholic for disobedience in cases where it has itself been morally deficient.

To rescue ourselves from the moral and ecclesiastical cul de sac into which we were led by clerical authoritarianism we need to recognise that the authoritarian take on conscience (which emphasises obedience above every other consideration) has always been counterbalanced by what could be called the ‘divine spark’ tradition which accords to the individual the dignity of discernment and judgement, both likely consequences of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of wisdom within the individual. Exponents of this tradition include St Jerome, Meister Eckhart and Cardinal Newman.

The Catholic Catechism itself expresses this richness by its reference to Newman alongside its emphasis upon the role of the magisterium in forming conscience. The conscience of the individual is also, in Newmans’ words ‘the aboriginal Vicar of Christ’.

Let us suppose for a moment that the following fantastical sequence of events had occurred in Ireland in the aftermath of Vatican II.

Disturbed by the situation in Ireland’s residential institutions for children, a small group of civil servants in Ireland’s Department of Education discovered one day in 1966 the references in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium to the ‘just freedom which belongs to everyone in this earthly city’. After further thought and prayer, and meditation on Cardinal Newman’s teachings on conscience, this ‘LG37’ group decided to conduct a surprise inspection of a sample of the institutions, and then immediately to leak their findings to the media. These caused a sensation and a crisis of church and state. Popular outrage led to a more thorough study, which broadly vindicated the original findings and led to a thorough reform of the system in the decade that followed.

Given the climate of the time, this would, of course, have been an almost miraculous occurrence – but so was Franz Jägerstätter ‘s exercise of his own Catholic conscience in Austria in 1942. Had this actually happened, would such an ‘LG37’ group now be vilified as disobedient Irish Catholics who had acted in defiance of the church’s teachings on obedience and conscience? Or would they be regarded as having vindicated their church when it was in serious danger of being totally disgraced?

The case I am making is the case made by Joe Dunn in 1994 in “No Lions in the Hierarchy”1Joseph Dunn,“No Lions in the Hierarchy:  An Anthology of Sorts”, Columba Press, Dublin, 1994 – for the toleration by the magisterium of a loyal opposition within the church. That case has conclusively been made by the events of 2009 – because we have all been totally disgraced by the absence of that very thing. Most of the scandals of the past sixteen years could have been avoided if the Irish church had developed after Vatican II a structural tolerance for serious differences of opinion among the people of God.

Of course there is a need to be concerned that ‘the deposit of faith’ is not fractured, dissipated and lost. But what ‘deposit of faith’ was occupying the minds and hearts of all of those who turned a blind eye to the intense suffering of children in Catholic institutions within living memory? Or the Archbishops of Dublin who imperilled children? Or the Gardai who also failed to react decisively against criminal behaviour by clerics?

There is a crucial distinction to be made between core Catholic belief, and the living out of that belief in the real world. It is now clear that the most senior members of the magisterium can make appalling mistakes in the practical application of their faith and in the administration of the church. An overweening concern to maintain a monolithic church by penalising any kind of dissent has given us the global and Irish Catholic catastrophes of this era. The equation of independence of mind with disloyalty is a mistake we must recognise and rectify, with the greatest urgency.

Just now in January 2010 it seems extremely unlikely that the pastoral letter promised by Pope Benedict XVI to Ireland for the spring of 2010 will rise to these challenges. Given the fact that Catholic bishops have protected abusers in at least twenty-five other countries, the confinement of a church reorganisation to Ireland is entirely indefensible and reeks of the deadly disease of damage limitation. If there is a sweeping change in personnel at the summit of the Irish church as a result of this pastoral it will then fall to this new generation of Irish bishops to prove it has learned something from the total failure of the church system we have inherited.

But whatever happens, the exposure of the total moral failure of Catholic ecclesiastical monarchism will not be lost on future generations of intelligent Irish children. They have already established a tradition of waving goodbye to that system in their teens. There is a good case for arguing that the better part of the Irish Catholic church has already escaped from it, and waits only to be reconvened by a papacy and hierarchy that will at some stage in the future have completed its learning curve, recovered its intellectual integrity and finally woken up to the moral superiority of distributed power.

Catholicism has no other viable future in Ireland, or anywhere else.

Notes

  1. Joseph Dunn, “No Lions in the Hierarchy:  An Anthology of Sorts”, Columba Press, Dublin, 1994

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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.

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