Tag Archives: Humanae Vitae

Keeping it in the Family

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish News  21 Nov 2013

Most unfortunately the verb ‘to teach’ is ambiguous.  The Oxford dictionary assures us that it can mean either merely to propose an idea or practice to someone, or, in contrast, to succeed in persuading someone to adopt that idea or practice.

The importance of this distinction for someone ‘teaching’ civil engineering will be obvious.  Here the teacher’s success will be judged not on mere presentation, but by whether the bridges and other structures designed by his students can be relied upon not to collapse.

So when Catholic church documents speak of ‘Church teaching’, which meaning of the word is intended?  Irish Catholics pondering the preparatory document for upcoming synods may well reflect on this conundrum, especially in the context of question 7a:

“What knowledge do Christians have today of the teachings of Humanae Vitae on responsible parenthood?”

For people of my generation the major ‘teaching’ of Humanae Vitae is fairly well known. It proposed that use of the contraceptive pill for the purpose of regulating births is gravely sinful and therefore to be abjured.  That much I certainly know.  However, do I know that this ‘teaching’ was sincerely and consistently supposed by Irish Catholic bishops to be capable of convincing Irish Catholics that they must actually adopt it in their conjugal lives, under pain of possible damnation if they did not?

On considered reflection, as a parent of four children conceived in Ireland after 1968,  I must answer definitely not.

This conclusion is not based primarily upon my own view of the inherent persuasiveness of Humanae Vitae itself.  It derives from the complete failure of the Irish Catholic magisterium, in the decades after 1968, to commune directly with their married flock, to convince us of the moral danger of ignoring it.

Had Irish bridges and other such structures been routinely collapsing in those decades, the teachers of civil engineering in our universities would surely have been vastly upset.  A national engineering emergency must then have been declared – and all failing engineers convened for intensive remedial education.  The highest engineering magisterium would surely have sat down directly with former students and patiently asked: “What was it exactly about not doing x, y and z that  you didn’t understand”.

In contrast, though knowing well for decades that their priests were not even attempting to convince us of the moral and eternal dangers of ignoring Humanae Vitae, our Irish bishops  preserved an astonishing and persuasive calm.  Very soon, even though everyone knew that they had been appointed partly for their own assent to Humanae Vitae, they conspicuously lost all interest in interfacing directly with their people on that issue (or on any other that might trigger awkward questions!)

It followed inevitably not only that their ‘teaching’ on Humanae Vitae came to appear merely  theoretical, but that their aloofness on all other issues could be understood in that light also.  True, some of them muttered darkly about ‘cafeteria Catholicism’ but they also continued to play bridge and golf, and to take foreign holidays.  If the supposed threat to our eternal salvation was causing them sleepless nights they kept this to themselves.

In 1994 our education in the authority of magisterial teaching on the family became complete.  In that year we learned for the very first time from infuriated Belfast families of the havoc wrought by clerical sexual abuse of children. Our bishops subsequently told us they had been on a ‘learning curve’ in dealing with it. Why this ‘learning curve’ should have been continuing since the Council of Elvira in the early fourth century – without bishops ever learning that this abuse is deeply dangerous to children, or ever getting around to warning us about the problem themselves – has never been explained.

That most Catholic parents have grown increasingly concerned about the remoteness of their bishops since 1968, about the radical transformation of our society during those decades, and about the virtually complete absence of opportunities for learning together as Catholic adults how to cope with all that, goes without saying.    That the separation between priests and people caused by that same remoteness now imperils the survival of the Irish priesthood and thereby the future of the Irish church itself, also troubles us all.

So now that we are – at last – consulted on how much Catholic magisterial ‘teaching’ on the family since 1968 has gotten through to us, some of us are as taken aback as those shepherds surely were by the appearance of angels in the heavens at the first Christmas in Bethlehem.  ‘How’, we ask, ‘can this be?  Were we supposed to be taking e.g. Humanae Vitae seriously all along?’

The essence of my response will simply be that our Irish magisterium has assiduously been teaching us since 1968 to rely for moral guidance more on prayer, on the Gospels, and on truly honest priests, than on themselves.  By their own studied behaviour they have made themselves as persuasive and indispensable as that long forgotten brotherhood, the Keepers of the King’s Whippets.

However, if, on the other hand, I am now to understand that Catholic bishops are not only ready to receive this news, but to challenge this state of affairs, I can assure them that they still have enormous latent power to do that.  All they need do is exorcise their own petrifying fear of learning about  these matters directly from their married flock – and realise that God, having designed us all to be sexual, does not become remotely as paralytic and incoherent as they do when we conscientiously exercise that privilege.

My honest recollection is that we stopped freely discussing everything together in about 1968, the year of Humanae Vitae.   Who knows, if the upcoming synods can change that we may soon be able to attend to what our bishops say they want to teach us with all the unaccustomed fascination of those ancient ancestors who once sat on grassy banks to listen, for the first time, to St Patrick.

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Why the Show mustn’t go on

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Sep 2008

I still vividly remember my first experience of live Shakespeare.  Sometime in the late 1950s Anew McMaster took note of the reappearance of Macbeth on the Irish Leaving Cert English Syllabus – and produced the Scottish play in the old Olympia theatre in Dublin, with himself in the title role.

Never can that renowned actor have been more challenged by a defiant refusal to suspend disbelief than on the day I attended.  Hungry for every histrionic slip, hundreds of us teenage Shakespeare detesters had been crammed by school decree into an already dingy theatre.  McMaster gave us early encouragement by pausing to remove wads of very heavy red beard that were impeding his vocal freedom.  Our joy became complete when, at a later stage, a youthful bearer of bad tidings rushed on a little too enthusiastically, slipped in coming to a necessary halt, and crashed to the floor in a perfect pratfall at the feet of the king.

Our sincere applause resounded far longer than the same baleful king thought warranted.  We wanted an encore, and were deeply disappointed when we didn’t get it.  Macbeth’s final ordeal at Birnam Wood was almost matched in its horror by our indifference to this honest actor’s unstinted efforts to re-create it. We thought, with all the savagery of adolescence, that he thoroughly deserved both his quietus and our cheers of relief when the whole performance was finally over.

I recall this theatrical debacle just now because I have a strong sense that I am observing another :  the collapse of the theatre of Catholic clericalism in Ireland.  Here we have another show that becomes far more embarrassing the longer it goes on.

I hope I am not being cruel here also.  I know humble men aplenty struggling to maintain the integrity of the church, and giving splendid Christian service in so doing.  But they too have a need for the truth to be spoken.  A way of being Church that has always had far too much too much to do with maintaining an illusion has been exposed as unsustainable, and needs to be given a decent and explicit burial.   So long as we were never fully conscious of its illusionary nature we could not strictly be accused of hypocrisy.  Made conscious of it recently, we are all now open to that charge.

I finally reached this conclusion when watching the recent documentary film ‘The Holy Show’.  This detailed the private life of the late Fr Michael Cleary.  While maintaining a public persona of exemplary rectitude, this nationally celebrated priest seduced a very vulnerable young woman who had come to him for spiritual support.  He then ‘married’ her in an entirely secret ceremony, and conceived a son by her whom he could never publicly acknowledge.

Meanwhile, with monumental irony, he had become a troubleshooter in great demand by the hierarchy to defend on national media the church’s sexual code – exemplified by the encyclical Humanae Vitae.  He climaxed this career by welcoming Pope John Paul II to a televised  outdoor spectacle in Galway in 1979.  (The fact that another of that day’s personalities, Bishop Eamon Casey, was exposed in 1992 for also having secretly fathered a son will always be remembered in connection with that day.)

The Holy Show  clearly identified Cleary’s central weakness:  his very celebrity was the greatest obstacle to his owning up to his own fallibility – and his wife and child suffered the worst of the consequences of that failure.  The more celebrated he became the more reputation he had to lose.  His greatest sin was therefore his vanity – his inability to lose public admiration by admitting his sexual indiscretion.

Inevitably I will be accused of generalising from these particular instances to indict clergy generally – but that is not in fact my drift.  Knowing clerics who live lives of exemplary humility I point only to the danger of the illusion of clericalism, which rests upon a myth.  This is the myth that ordination somehow magically confers virtue upon those who receive it.  That many, many Irish Catholics had bought heavily into that myth was proven by the shock of the truth, a shock that still reverberates and has still not been fully absorbed.

The very architecture of Catholicism, focused upon a liturgical space designed for priestly ritual, facilitates myth and illusion in relation to clergy.  Andrew Madden recounts in his autobiography ‘Altar Boy’ the impression made on his young mind by the appearance of the priest in the sanctuary of a Dublin church:  “The people stood up because the priest was so holy and important…”. This explained Andrew’s own early desire to be a priest – the very desire that made him vulnerable to his priest abuser in a Dublin parish.  “Neighbours, friends and others got to see me with the priest up close.  I felt good.”

Historians interested in explaining extraordinary Mass attendance in Ireland as late as the 1970s, and our full seminaries then, should reflect upon the fact that most of Ireland was relatively starved of public spectacle before the coming of national TV in 1961.  The parish church filled this gap for many people, providing the stage for the man who was usually the most important local celebrity – the priest.

And what most differentiated the lifestyle of the priest was the fact that he was celibate.  And that he had an officially recognized role in identifying, decrying (and relieving the eternal consequences of) sexual sin.  Every adolescent learned that this was the sin most offensive to God, and the sin that the priest had somehow, apparently, overcome.  No one told us that the public role of the priest could be a temptation to another sin entirely:  the actor’s sin, the sin of vanity, the coveting of public admiration.  Needless to say, we were therefore unaware of its dangers for us also.

TV provided a far vaster national stage, and the story of Ireland since about 1961 is largely the story of how that electronic stage has replaced liturgical space as the dominant Irish theatre. It has also become the dominant temptation to our vanity.  That in turn explains how Eamon Casey and Michael Cleary became national celebrities.  From 1961 – entirely innocent of the dangers of the first of the deadly sins – the Irish church was sleepwalking towards the PR disasters that have traumatized it since 1992.

What happened to Andrew Madden well illustrates another of those PR disasters – the revelation not just of clerical child abuse but of the typical cover up of that abuse by bishops and other clergy.  (The most serious charge levelled against Michael Cleary is the allegation by Mary Raftery that he turned a blind eye to the brutal abuse by a fellow curate in Ballyfermot, Tony Walsh, of young boys.)

The papal visit to the US in April 2008 has made important progress in recognizing the seriousness of the evil of clerical sex abuse but has failed completely to grapple with the reason for the cover up:  the perceived need of bishops and other clergy to maintain the clerical myth – the myth of clerical immunity to sexual sin.  With this clericalist myth, vanity has become virtually institutionalized in our church – the reason it still cannot be named as the root cause of every scandal that has befallen us since 1992.

For scandal is not just the revelation of human sinfulness.  Sin itself is mundane. The archetypal religious scandal is the story of David, the divinely anointed Jewish national hero who covertly murdered Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, the woman he had seduced – to prevent it becoming known that he, David, had impregnated her.  Scandal has always to do with a fall from grace by those in high places, and clericalism is essentially an unwarranted claim of entitlement to grace and social prestige.  Until that has been fully recognized and acknowledged by those who lead the church, we will not be able to learn from what has happened to us.   We will also remain troubled by periodic clerical scandal, especially if the mandatory celibacy rule for all priests is retained.

These days the Irish church is deeply divided between those who have lost the illusions of clericalism and those who believe that Catholic loyalty requires them to restore those illusions as rapidly as possible.  The latter make that mistake because our leadership has not yet clearly differentiated Catholicism and clericalism.  We will remain stuck in the ditch, spinning our wheels, until that changes.

In an earlier article here I pointed out that the ritual of the first Eucharist derived its solemnity and liturgical meaning only from the fact that it was followed by an actual self-sacrifice1.  We must never forget that all ritual is, to use a contemporary idiom, virtual reality – just like theatre.  The integrity of the ceremony rests upon the integrity of those who celebrate it – priests and people.  Clearly, ordination in itself cannot guarantee that integrity.  This too needs now to be fully acknowledged – as does the fact that the public role of the cleric can entangle him deeply in the sin of vanity, the greatest threat to all integrity.   On the credit side, the self-effacing and dutiful priest, and those married couples who fulfil all the obligations of a sexual partnership, restore the credibility of the church.

So, instead of lamenting the loss of an illusion we need to rejoice at it, and to notice that the vanity that led to it lies also at the root of the greatest evils that threaten everyone’s future.  Vanity arises out of an inability to value ourselves without validation from others.  That is why we seek attributed value through public admiration, and pursue the latter through exhibitionism, the cult of celebrity and ostentatious consumerism.  This latter source of the environmental crisis is also the root of competition and conflict – and lack of a secure self-esteem lies also at the root of addiction.

‘Hard’ secularism – the kind that thinks that suppressing all religion will create a perfect society – doesn’t understand any of this.  This is why it can’t explain the failure of untrammeled secularism (e.g, in the Soviet Union) to put an end to personality cults and to produce a perfect society.  Meeting the challenge of secularism requires us to recognize fully the deadliest of the sins as it tempts ourselves in our own time.  If we don’t do that now we will be guilty of something else – of choosing to learn nothing from the hardest and most helpful lessons we ourselves have recently received.


  1. The Role of the Priest: Sacrifice or Self-Sacrifice?Doctrine and Life, Sep 2007

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Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: IX – Catholicism and Sexuality

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

A great crisis is also a great opportunity: this truth has been well expressed by many of those who have responded to this series of articles.

And although the issue of sexuality lies close to the centre of the present crisis of Irish Catholicism, there is an unprecedented opportunity here also for a new beginning.

This assertion will surprise those who insist that Catholicism is fundamentally loopy on sex. They will point to the clerical sex abuse scandals, and to the fact that the Catholic leadership still seems totally bogged down with that issue. They will point also to the virtually total collapse of interest in the celibate priestly vocation among young Irish males.

But something else has happened in Ireland in the past decade – something the media do not highlight as they should. Ireland has also discovered the hollowness of the promises of the sexual revolution – the theory that easy sex is the high road to human happiness. Far from delivering a healthy society, the removal of all restraint from sexual behaviour has proven itself to be far more dangerous to the physical, psychological and social health of Ireland than ‘Catholic guilt’ ever was.

The evidence for this is all around us. Sexually transmitted diseases are on the increase, threatening the sexual lives and future happiness of thousands of young people. Family dysfunction and breakdown are also increasing, with incalculable future consequences for the children of unhappy and broken homes. The commercialisation of sexuality (redefining it as a mere recreational activity), threatens its power to bind us together in dedicated relationships of mutual service and trust. And the loneliness and misery that flow from all of this are feeding the epidemics of addiction and depression sweeping across the island.

Yet, in the midst of all that, many Irish families have remained strong – raising healthy, happy and balanced young people. And if we look closely, these families are often living proof of the power of Christian, and Catholic, faith, to create a context within which human sexuality completely fulfils its potential to draw people closer to one another, and to God.

Fundamental to most of those relationships is the fact that the church provides a public context in which sexual partners can make a solemn, lifetime commitment to one another. It provides also a continuing external support for their romantic attachment. The liturgy of the wedding mass often makes a deep and lasting impression, convincing the couple that God has blessed their union, wishes it to prosper, and will help to heal whatever tensions may follow.

Such couples often disprove in their own lives the theory that Catholic spirituality and sexuality are incompatible. They prove the very opposite – that the high valuation the church places upon sacramental marriage, lifelong fidelity and family stability, are perfectly in tune with the deepest natural impulse of the human heart.

For however much popular culture may have undermined the stability of sexual relationships, it has left untouched the romantic ideal of sexual partners finding complete personal fulfilment in a permanent, mutually dedicated and fruitful relationship. That romantic ideal remains the bedrock of popular literature, TV and cinema – however difficult it may be to attain in practice.

Placing this relationship within a context of Christian values and spiritual support makes more sense with every day that passes – especially now that we know that informal relationships are statistically far more likely to fail, far less likely to realise the romantic impulse, and far less protective of children’s need for a stable home.

It is within a permanent, dedicated relationship also that sexuality flowers most fully in its capacity for assisting full self-revelation, personal growth and intimacy. Without fully honest and open relationships the human soul can shrivel – because we cannot grow to full self-discovery and understanding on our own. To put it very simply, many, many Irish Catholic couples know that sexual desire can only be fully satisfied within a context of deep mutual love and commitment.

Many married Catholics have discovered that fact through their own relationships, and therefore possess the essential wisdom needed to counter the exploitation of mere sexual expression as an end in itself – the ‘do it now’ imperative that so threatens our younger generations. The tragedy is that, so far, the clerical church has made so little use of the wisdom gained by lay people in this so-important realm.

One perfect illustration of this is the extraordinary fact that no married Irish Catholic can deliver a Sunday homily on the Gospel story of the wedding feast at Cana, or on marriage itself. Thus, although Jesus so often chose the relationship of man and wife as a metaphor for his own relationship with his followers, Catholic married men and their wives are so far deliberately excluded from the most important Catholic ministerial functions, and therefore from the task of re-evangelisation of an over-sexualised culture. There is something fundamentally wrong, even ridiculous, about this.

It is wrong and ridiculous for many reasons. First, it puts celibate priests in the dangerous position of determining the Church’s rules on sexuality. We do not have to look any further for the root source of the scandals that now beset us, or for the alienation from the sacraments caused by Humanae Vitae. Scandal begins at the point where the personal life of a spokesperson for a cause falls short of the principles he urges upon others – and it is inevitable that this will happen a minority of clergy in the area of sexuality.

Humanae Vitae, which became the touchstone for promotion in the clerical church, has weakened the moral authority of the Church also – because it did not arise out of the sensus fidelium – the faith of the whole church. Allowing married Catholics to make use of Mathematics to regulate births, it inexplicably denied them the freedom to use Chemistry or Physics to do so – and this was never persuasive. If there is a medical case for such a policy (now that we know more of the dangers of specific chemical regimes), very few lay people were ever persuaded by the Church’s insistence that God would approve the use of a temporal barrier to conception (the infertile period), but send us to hell for employing a physical or chemical barrier. That argument made God himself appear to be a prudish nitpicker – like the tortured and unrepresentative clerics who imposed this decision on Pope Paul VI.

The separation between ministry and sexuality is wrong and ridiculous also because it exposes the whole church as a community to public ridicule when clerical sexual scandals occur. Irish Catholic bishops have still to measure fully the depth of embarrassment they have caused lay Catholics on the issue of sexuality – for example by appearing at times to argue that God would prefer a married Catholic male (perhaps made HIV positive by an infected blood transfusion), to infect his wife with Aids than to save her life by using a condom.

But the separation of ministry and sexuality is wrong and ridiculous above all because it prevents the Church from bearing powerful witness to the compatibility of Christian spirituality with a full sexual relationship. It virtually defines spirituality as asexual, and implies that sex is essentially sinful. This, I am convinced, is the root source of the alienation of so many Irish males from the Church, and the chief reason the clerical church has made itself a laughing-stock in Ireland on the issue of sexuality.

It follows from all of this that a full healing of relationships in the Irish Catholic Church – and a recovery in the public prestige of the church – must involve a revolution in the status of married Catholics – men and women – within it. Only then can the graces that have been given to many married Irish Catholics be put to work to revitalise the whole Church

Already the bishops of England and Wales have begun to realise this by beginning a process of consultation with Catholic families – to help them develop their own ministry. A similar initiative is long overdue in Ireland – but perhaps this is a good thing. Far too many so-called consultative processes in Ireland in the recent past have been mere cosmetic exercises, leading nowhere.

They led nowhere because the Irish Catholic laity have been deliberately deprived of a corporate structure and voice – a permanent structure of empowerment in, and ownership of, their Church which would have expressed fully the dignity of their lay vocation, and exploited the wisdom they have acquired by living it. Although we have a regular conference of Irish bishops, and another of Irish priests, there has never been a conference of the Irish laity. In the present context, where we have a highly educated, mobile – and often alienated – laity, that is disastrous and inexcusable.

And this is why many commentators in the secular media are supposing that with the extinction of the Irish clergy, the Irish Catholic Church will soon disappear altogether.

This is a mistake. The Irish Catholic family has always been the hidden backbone of the Irish Church. Over the next generation it will emerge to revitalise the whole church.

The agenda for such a movement is already becoming clear. Over the past forty years Irish people have virtually lost control of their own culture, due to media invasion. As a consequence the pace of change is being set by the fastest – those who mimic the lifestyle and mores of other cultures where commercial interests predominate. This threatens the Irish Catholic family to a degree that no-one can now fail to recognise.

It is time to begin a national movement to embody the strong desire that many lay people have to redefine their own values in Christian terms, and to reclaim their own culture – for example by setting together wise and balanced boundaries for teenage behaviour. No section of society has more to gain, or to lose, than Irish Catholic parents.

It is high time, obviously, for the Irish hierarchy to sponsor and support such a development. If they don’t, it will happen anyway – if only because there will soon be no reactionary clerical interest powerful enough to prevent it.

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