Tag Archives: Lord Acton

The Church isn’t the only institution in the dock

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Jan 2012

At this time in the history of the island, word spread of a new power in the land. Its representatives had fascinating information to impart. These personalities had new ways of looking at the world, a capacity to set people talking and to widen everyone’s horizons. They channeled information from far overseas, greatly expanding the data that people had access to. People found them reliable, and came to trust this new power. Those who had previously most influenced the thinking of the people gradually lost that influence. The new institution came to change how everyone behaved, and to determine what they talked about.

As time passed the prestige of this new power grew enormously on the island, until its name was known by everyone, and millions listened. It came to determine who was to be honoured and who to be shamed, and even to influence the government of the island.

Then, unexpectedly, people learned that this new institution had abused its extraordinary power, and had acted with complete injustice. Suddenly the spotlight that the institution had focused on others was now focused on itself. The people sensed an important turning point, and were angry that the trust they had placed in this institution had been betrayed.

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If you have guessed by now that the institution described above is RTE, and the modern Irish media generally, you are quite correct. But notice something else. This plotline accurately fits the history of another very different institution – the Irish Catholic Church.

Of course the history of the latter is to be measured in centuries rather than decades, but otherwise there are striking similarities in the history of the Irish media, and the history of the Catholic church in Ireland.

The most striking similarity is the power that both acquired to utterly change the way of life of an entire people. Both brought new information from the outside world, and new personalities, and both addressed fundamental questions that we all ask: just how valuable and important am I in the scheme of things, and how should I live to be worthy of respect? They therefore both sidelined the previous mentors of the Irish people and acquired an unparalleled power to influence Irish behaviour.

This gave them both in the end the same power to honour some people and to shame others – to make saints or celebrities or winners of some and villains or sinners or losers of others. There is no greater power than the power to broker honour and shame – and this power is supremely dangerous. We now know for certain that sooner or later those who exercise too much of this power will overreach and act unjustly. We have now seen that happen both to Irish Catholic clergy and to Irish media executives – in the same short time span. This gives us an unparalleled opportunity to learn, and to draw conclusions.

Those who draw the conclusion ‘the Catholic Church is evil and should be destroyed’ are as mistaken as those who shout ‘the media are all evil and bigoted’. A more correct conclusion is that power is deeply problematic for us humans, and must never be absolute. An even more important conclusion is that every one of us has a part to play in limiting the power that is given to any institution.

The saving grace of the media is that it embraces a wide range of different outlets, and includes journalists of real integrity and courage. Had it not been for good journalists in the Irish secular media we would know little of serious abuses of power by, for example, negligent bishops and too many of those who ran Catholic institutions for the poorest children in Ireland in the last century.

The main saving grace of the Catholic Church is that it provides us with a founding figure who saw it as his primary mission to assure the sinners and losers of this world that they were, in reality, lovable and loved. When the power brokers of honour and shame of his own time turned on him he identified precisely the core problem of human society:

“You look to one another for approval!”

Looking to one another for approval, rather than to something far more reliable, we humans are extremely vulnerable to being influenced by others, and to vanity, the tendency to seek public admiration. We do this because we are supremely unsure of our own value – unless we do what all the great mystics have done. This is to seek and then to rely upon, an unfailing source of self-esteem that has nothing to do with what other humans think of us. Following Jesus of Nazareth, many of the greatest Christian mystics were also members of the Catholic Church.

The abuse of power on the other hand has almost always something to do with seeking, or trying to hold on to, the approval of others. Catholic bishops would not have concealed clerical abuse if they had not been concerned about the clerical church losing the approval of those who finance the institution. Media executives would not allow false accusations to be made by their reporters if they were not concerned about winning the approval of their paying customers, especially those with an appetite for scandal.

What feeds the worst of the media is this human appetite for scandal – bad news about other people, and especially about those who have enjoyed more esteem. To reduce the power of the gutter media, those who patronise it really need to think hard about why they do so. If they really need to hear bad news about others, what does that say about their own self-esteem?

We also need to notice the full significance of the mistake made by RTE in relation to Fr Kevin Reynolds – falsely accused by Prime Time Investigates of fathering a child through rape of a young African girl. For the first time in two decades the full glare of the Irish media spotlight turned now on the media itself, and this time the scandal has to do with the media’s abuse of power. No one should miss the significance of that. This horrible error marks a critical turning point in the history of Irish scandal.

For the most powerful brokers of honour and shame in Irish society are no longer now the leaders of the Catholic Church, but the most powerful executives in the Irish media. They have an almost absolute power to make, and destroy, the reputation of anyone they focus on. If there is a better media concerned above all about justice, shouldn’t it now turn its attention to this imbalance of power, and deal with abusive reporting as fiercely as it has dealt with clerics and religious who have abused power? Shouldn’t our best newspapers now have media correspondents as well as religious affairs correspondents?

Knowing as I do some of the best Irish journalists I know that they would fully agree with this point, and were as disturbed by the RTE mistake as any Catholic. We may yet see an Irish media that is as self-critical as it is critical of other institutions.

As for those journalists who can’t take this point, and who want to go on seeing the Irish Catholic Church as the root of all evil in Ireland, their bias will now stand out in stark relief. No sensible person can now argue that the media too don’t illustrate the truth that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Catholics can take pride that it was a Catholic historian, Lord Acton, who first formulated that conclusion in 1887, and that their church has produced outstanding servants of justice. Assured by our founder that God’s love for all of us is unfailing, we don’t need the uniform approval of the media, and we don’t need to get angry when the media are unfair. That unfairness will not go unnoticed by all concerned about the truth – and sooner or later a balance will be restored.

Nor should Catholics resent their church’s loss of power in Ireland. We are now far less vulnerable to scandal – and the light of those many Catholics who have always served the Irish people well will now shine far more brightly.

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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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