Tag Archives: Montesquieu

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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The Greatest Scandal

Sean O’Conaill © Reality June 2002

How do Irish Catholic bishops understand the Catholic Church?  As the whole people of God under their care, or as essentially the ordained ministry, whose public prestige must be paramount?

This question lies at the root not just of the recent resignation of Bishop Comiskey, but of the settled deportment of the leadership of the Irish Church since the onset of a series of scandals a decade ago.  All of these scandals have had a common theme: the discovery and investigation by secular institutions – police, courts and media – of abuses of power and trust within the clerical Church.  This common theme – and the sufferings of hundreds of ordinary Catholic young people at the hands of their own clergy – points to an obvious dysfunction in the Church itself – its inability to give its own most vulnerable members the protection, care, attention and justice they must then seek from the secular state and the media.  Scandalously it declares the moral superiority – even from a Christian perspective, and at a time when some of the bishops have been lamenting the secularisation of Ireland – of secularism itself.

For a Church now being called by the papacy to re-evangelise the West this surely must be the greatest scandal of all.

Modern secularism originated in the ‘Enlightenment’ of the eighteenth century, when intellectuals dazzled by Newtonian science jumped to the conclusion that science, rather than faith, was the only reliable source of knowledge and social improvement.  Their scorning of the intellectual claims of Christian clergy put the Catholic clergy in opposition to modernity – a posture that the Irish church especially relished.  This opposition now haunts the church, as its own internal shortcomings continue to feed the incessant hunger of the secular media.

Freedom of the press was a primary principle of the Enlightenment, and of the secular liberalism the hierarchical Church came to detest.  So was the principle of a separation of state powers.  The US constitution, in which power is distributed between the Presidency, Congress and Supreme Court, was the great triumph of the Enlightenment, as US constitution makers in the period after 1783 borrowed freely from the ideas of Montesquieu and other Enlightenment thinkers.  While Montesquieu’s principle made US presidents accountable to Congress and the Supreme Court, the Catholic Church put Montesquieu’s works on its list of demonic literature, the Roman Index.

The reason this happened was that the Catholic hierarchy of the time was dominated by the younger sons of the European landed aristocracy, whose older brothers were most threatened by democratic principles.  Attributing the democratic wave, the French revolution and secular liberalism to Freemasonry, the hierarchical Church went onto the defensive against modernity.  The Church, we were assured, is not a democracy.  And this meant that in an era of growing accountability for all institutions, the Church became unique in preventing the accountability of its own leadership.

The Second Vatican Council of the 1960s might well have ended this anomaly, defining the church as it did – as the whole people of God.  Yet Humanae Vitae of 1968, representing the priority of the principle of papal absolutism in the Church, put an end to this hope.  Support for Humanae Vitae became the litmus test of loyalty and a sine qua non for episcopal appointment and promotion in the long papacy of John Paul II.  This in turn guaranteed that the Irish church would remain a heavily paternalistic and secretive institution at its summit, increasingly out of touch with a rapidly modernising society.  Accountability of clergy to the people of God was never on the programme, and this is an entirely sufficient explanation for the state of affairs we now have.

And this is the greatest scandal now facing the Church in Ireland – that it still cannot prove itself to be an open and caring and adult institution, fully capable of protecting its own weakest members without external pressure.  Where the church in the Middle Ages could be seen as a sanctuary that would protect the lay person from secular violence and injustice, Irish victims of clerical violation today flee in the opposite direction –  to find sanctuary instead in secular institutions – while Irish bishops allow secular lawyers to determine their pastoral response to these victims.  As I write, the survivors of Fr Sean Fortune’s depredations are calling for a public enquiry into the handling of the abuse issue in the diocese of Ferns.  Such an enquiry would represent in Ireland the final  victory of secularism over Catholicism in the matter of vindicating the Church’s own victims.  No greater disgrace could befall our church leadership.

When the Brendan Smyth case hit the news in 1994 I felt sure that this scandal must finally establish principles of openness and accountability for the Irish church, and called for this in an article in Studies.  It never crossed my mind that eight years later we would still be suffering the scandal of paternalistic non-accountability, media pressure – and a serious shortfall in the matter of basic justice to violated young people.

Those wasted eight years will remain the most visible historical monument of the Church’s present leadership – unless they make an unprecedented effort to grasp the meaning of what is happening.  Why should Irish Catholics respect their own leaders, or their own church, if they must look to a state enquiry to explain what went wrong in Ferns – rather than to an enquiry freely and openly initiated by the Church itself?  What would prevent this – other than the failed policy of indicting secularism for all that is wrong with Ireland now?  If it is true that the state cannot constitutionally inquire into the manner in which the church conducts its own disciplinary business, the church leadership must be in no doubt that as members of the church, with families to protect,  Irish lay Catholics (and especially those damaged by this appalling tragedy) are owed such an investigation.

Secularism alone cannot, in fact, heal the wounds in the Irish church.  But the full truth could begin to do so, especially if the Church leadership were to seize this moment for a total revealing of what went wrong – open to full public and expert independent legal scrutiny.  There is at least one precedent for this.   Following the revelation of child abuse in Newfoundland in 1988 the Winter Commission, established by the Catholic Church, investigated abuse at Mount Cashel orphanage in the Newfoundland diocese of St John’s.  Chaired by a highly respected and independent former Lieutenant-Governor of Newfoundland, the Winter Commission proceeded with such scrupulous concern for the truth that its findings won almost universal acceptance when published in 1990.  (Ironically, these included the conclusions that the traditional non-accountability of Catholic clergy, and the emphasis placed upon the unquestionable authority of clergy, placed Catholic children at unacceptable risk.)

Must Irish Catholics wait yet again for our Church leadership to catch up, in terms of structural reform, with the times, with the demands of elementary justice to our own children, and with the pastoral needs of the church at a time of collapsing vocations to the ordained ministry?

This would make us all complicit in scandal.  Oddly enough, the full meaning of that word – scandal – is ‘stumbling block’, something that trips us up, something we would prefer to remain hidden.  That secular institutions should be still in advance of the church leadership in bringing to light matters of injustice within the church – eight years after the first such revelations – is itself a scandal too far for Irish Catholicism.  It is still within the power of our Church leaders to put an end to it, but their time is rapidly running out.

In the longer term Breda O’Brien’s idea of a Church ombudsman would be a step in the right direction, but given the other major problems of the Church just now, nothing less than a comprehensive structural reform of the church is likely to meet the situation, involving some kind of separation of administrative and pastoral functions.  The safety of Catholic children, and even the continuity of the faith, also demand formal and permanent lay parish structures, together with rights of regular assembly for all the faithful, at parish, diocesan and (eventually) national level.

Will this generation of Church leaders be able to forgive themselves if this opportunity too is missed, and the Irish Catholic Church remains a prime target for secular sensation and criticism?  Dr Comiskey’s resignation turns the media spotlight on the rest of the Irish conference of bishops.  They have little time left to prove they really do believe that the church is the whole people of God, and that they can run the Irish church justly and competently, without the supervision and pressure of the secular media and the secular state.

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Scandals in the Church

Sean O’Conaill : Studies 1995

I was a schoolboy in the 1950s, when Fr Brendan Smyth’s clerical and poisonous career began, and have been trying since October 1994 to absorb the meaning of recent events. Unnameable, incomprehensible sexual predilections and practices now have a name that even children know, and are now therefore far less dangerous. Things that could not be discussed may now be discussed, and must be discussed. They are a matter of public record, and they implicate a small minority of Catholic clergy in a sphere of moral evil which, in the 1950s, was still top of the clerical agenda – sexual evil. (This was, after all, the decade when ‘mixed bathing’ at Salthill was the subject, for a time, of episcopal disfavour!)

Three questions, it seems to me, are most important now. First, how did it happen that these matters could, over such a long period, remain both known about and secret? Second, how exactly did it come about that this long, diseased silence was broken? Third, what can we learn from this about the essential features of a healthy church – one which identifies its own imperfections, makes them openly a matter of record, and resolves them with least injury to all concerned?

The long silence

Paedophilia did not originate in the 1950s, or in the church. It is, we know, part of the broad spectrum of human sexual behaviour, and was practised openly by the ancient Greeks. It is therefore likely that throughout human history, and the history of the Church, it has occurred. Presumably, historians of moral theology will now uncover literature extending back into the middle ages which mentions these practices as morally dangerous for the practitioners, if not emotionally and psychologically dangerous for the victims, and devastating for the Church. Given the indefatigable nature of moral theologians, and their long-standing fixation with sexual morality, it is not remotely likely that paedophilia is a vice new to the Church. Since Latin and Greek have been part of a clerical education since the middle ages, it cannot be alleged that the Church has lacked a vocabulary for discussing paedophilia. Why then has the phenomenon not been part of the overt moral education of all Catholics, a matter they would be both explicitly warned about, and prepared to speak about?

That it wasn’t in the 1950s I can bear witness. Like many of my classmates in one school I was subjected to mild tactile intimacies by a cleric which did me absolutely no harm, but this still remains vividly in my memory as part of the folklore attaching to the cleric and the school concerned. The most vivid memories of my religious education then are that (a) ‘Catholic apologetics has nothing to do with apologising to anybody’ (RE class), (b) that a past pupil had recently been spotted going into a communist meeting in Dublin (consigning himself inexorably to Hell) and (c) the most effective Christian educators were those (the majority) who showed an innate kindliness and humanity, when they weren’t even trying. Had RE class ever mentioned events like those which occurred when this erring cleric was present, I would remember it just as vividly.

Why, then, this reticence? I believe it has to do with two interlocking problems. First, clerical celibacy, and second, clerical authority. They interlock simply because, in our church, authority is exercised exclusively by celibate clerics. Whatever blessings celibacy may give the church, an ability to talk about sex without embarrassment has not been one of them. And since it is the same celibates who control the Church’s explicit educational program, this embarrassment has been an essential feature of Catholic education on sexuality. Clerics do not communicate well about sex, and so, as a consequence Catholic parents do not communicate well about it either.

I am a product of Irish Catholic schools and a very Irish Catholic home, and am now stuck with the same tongue-tied head-scratching embarrassment as an Irish Catholic parent. Ben Elton has probably taught my children more about sex than I have. At the age of fifty- one, I am still learning that an inability to talk openly about this matter is actually a greater evil than sexual sins themselves – and the Smyth affair confirms this. Had the children first exposed to Fr Smyth known what was happening to them, and belonged to a family culture in which the proper reactions had been rehearsed, that name would long ago have been erased from Ireland’s clerical directory, and would not even have caused a scandal at the time. Most important, the deep, intimate psychological harm to the victims would have been externalised and removed from that internal balance sheet we all keep on our own behaviour and experience – while the children concerned were still children, and could still be assured, lovingly, that the wrong was not theirs.

Instead, the evil to which the child (if not the priest) could give no name, continued – the Catholic priest, the primary source of moral authority, was also the perpetrator, so this behaviour had to be suffered and suppressed. This became a psychological time bomb under the individuals concerned, and a devastating depth-charge under the clerical Church. This secret sin was known at first only to the perpetrator and the victim, and the perpetrator was consciously empowered by the fact that the child was disempowered by a lack of knowledge and the absence of an open family culture on sexuality. This matter would not be spoken about to the child as part of the child’s education. It therefore would not necessarily have to be accounted for. If it did, sure one would only have to account for it to another priest – and the church would be far too scared of the publicity to make a song and dance about it! Whatever happened, the thing would not become public. It would be contained within the professional culture of which the perpetrator was a part.

We do not yet know precisely when the first accounting of this kind took place. We do, however, know that Abbot Kevin Smith was aware that Smyth had a problem before some of the families deeply affected by his behaviour had even been formed. It is at this point that the link between celibacy and authority again prevented the reaction which now seems so necessary. Yes, ignorance about the psychological harm for the victim played a part, but the sense of inviolability which Fr Brendan Smyth could feel must also have helped to paralyse the Abbot morally. The family, or families concerned, would probably not make the matter public, neither would Brendan Smyth, so why should the Abbot either? What good would it do?

What good would it do? We will probably never know how many people asked themselves this question in the years that followed. Yet we are all now convinced that the matter should have been, and could have been confronted then, both for the sake of the children and of the Church, for the very best of Christian reasons. And it wasn’t confronted not just because of the lack of knowledge of the psychiatric harm to the victims, but because those who held this knowledge would not be required to share it – because the clergy do not have to account for their stewardship to the faithful.

The Revelation

Whatever else may be obscure about the Brendan Smyth affair, one thing isn’t. Its revelation was an achievement of the secular world, not of the church. When I was a student in the 1960s the clerical church was turning its baleful gaze away from communism and mixed bathing in Salthill to that dreadful moral Cyclops, Television, and, of course, to what would happen if we accepted the Permissive Society that TV would inevitably reveal. How strange and salutary it now is to reflect that it is to these awful manifestations of a broader evil, secularism, that we owe our deliverance from the Brendan Smyths and the culture of secrecy (at least in this area)!

Freud has also played a part, of course. Without him, the sciences of psychology and psychiatry would be even more primitive than they still are. Clerics on the defensive now often join in a refrain of ‘but nobody knew about paedophiles and the damage they could do until just recently’. Do they understand how devastatingly damaging this is for a clerical Church which claimed, until this event, that it knew everything, especially about sex and the human soul? The universe of knowledge has throughout our lives been divided into two spheres – on one side the things the church knew about and approved of, and (far larger) the things, including Freud, it knew about and disapproved of. My head is stuffed full still of ‘isms’ from liberalism to ‘naturalism’ and communism and materialism and modernism that the church condemned, and only one it fully approved of – Catholicism.

Secularism was a kind of hold-all for all the world’s evil ‘isms’. It would turn your gaze away from the next world to this one, damning your eternal soul. With eyes focussed firmly on the next world, the eyes of the church were closed to the secular world, and to Brendan Smyth. Until the secular world revealed him.

Secularism as an ideology originated in the eighteenth century. The French philosophes were agreed on very little, but did agree upon at least two things – freedom of expression and anti-clericalism. Fixated by the success of Newton in discovering universal natural laws (e.g. the laws of gravitation) they believed that science, without the church, could create a perfect world. One of them, Montesquieu, studied the contemporary British constitution, admired the intellectual freedom it provided, and reached the conclusion that power must be divided to protect the citizen, with no single agency controlling legislative, executive and judicial power. This central idea of the enlightenment – the separation of powers – is a cornerstone of modern liberal and secular society.

It was these principles – the separation of powers and the freedom of information, together with a corollary of both – separation of church and state – which brought an end to the shameful career of Fr Brendan Smyth after thirty years of complicity within the clerical church. Probably the principle of intellectual freedom was most important. Although the media were beset from the 1960s by a clerical campaign to ban sexual matters from public discourse, the problem of where exactly to draw the line baffled and divided and ridiculed the censors (c.c. discussion of honeymoon nighties on the Late Late Show), so that by the 1980s the broad range of human sexual practice became a matter of public knowledge and even popular childish humour.

It was, I am certain, the new freedom this gave to discourse on such matters that allowed the children concerned, now young adults, to speak out, and their parents to act on that knowledge. The enlightenment and the permissive society had finally rounded upon its clerical critics and proved them bankrupt of wisdom and, it seems, in some cases, of integrity as well. The appeal to voluntary lay Catholic agencies followed, and from there the matter moved inexorably within the ambit of the secular state. Insofar as justice has been done, belatedly, to these children, and a process of healing initiated, this has been done therefore by secularists, not by the church.

In the context of the clergy’s long-expressed idealisation of the family as the most vital social unit, the revelation that these families were not protected by the church, were instead its victims, has been shattering. Far more than the Bishop Casey1Eamonn Casey, Bishop of Galway, Ireland, who resigned in 1992 on the revelation that he had fathered a child 17 years before. scandal it has damaged visibly the moral integrity of the church as an institution.

The Lessons

Thus the clerical church must now record for all time that it has no monopoly of wisdom, still less of integrity. Always in its own mind the guardian of the faithful from the most appalling evils, particularly sexual ones, it always found those evils meticulously and ridiculously outside its own ranks, and outside its own control. It has now discovered that it has both harboured the greatest evil its children could suffer within its own ranks, and made it impossible for them to break free by its own clerically-dominated culture – until they were delivered by those evil agencies the clerical church had been attacking all along! The irony is total, and the lesson is inescapable.

Many questions about this matter remain unanswered. I am certain that all can be answered truthfully in ways which do far less damage to the church than the present embargo on the truth. Secrecy about matters of grave public concern is destroying the church, because it has only one final justification, the concealment of information that should be known. It fuels only the wildest rumours and is therefore the father and mother of scandal and despair. It vitiates the whole of Catholic education, because for a child an ocean of theology will drain through a fault in the integrity of those who deliver it. The facts adduced above are a matter of public record, part of a vast reservoir of scorn for the world’s secular media, as well as another scandal to the laity.

Doesn’t this affair prove that the secular principle of freedom of information is merely a corollary of the older principle of the sacredness of truth? There could not be a better time for revelation and healing. If the bishops want to know why the church lacks credibility, why so many young people are disillusioned with it, why so many of its educated members, clerical and lay, are despondent, let them reflect on issues such as these.

And when (and if) the church looks at models for radical structural reform, it should examine the political and administrative science of the past three hundred years with minds as open as those now focused upon modern psychology – another fruit of the enlightenment. It could learn from the separation of powers, and realise that even without the current scandals a church exclusively controlled by an oligarchy of male celibates is doomed. Starkly revealed as less effective than secular agencies in delivering justice to its most innocent and vulnerable members – its children – what claim does the church have left on the loyalty of any Catholic family if it does not commit itself to radical institutional change?

At last – An Open Church?

These recent scandals in the church come from a culture of secrecy and oligarchy which lies also at the heart of the Church’s failure to appeal to a modern, secular society. They involve the exercise of power in a way which harms individuals, and so raise the question of how power and authority in the Church should be exercised. For that reason, although they create enormous shock and suffering for the Church, they create also an opportunity for reshaping its culture. For the church’s authority in the world springs not from Popes, bishops and priests but from its response as an entire community to a moral challenge laid down by Jesus Christ. Insofar as the church becomes identified with any minority within it, such as the clergy, (and more especially the hierarchy and central bureaucracy), its witness is compromised if their witness is inadequate.

Furthermore, any such identification reduces the dignity of the broad mass of believers, makes their witness less important, and focuses the attention of the media upon spectacular failure, rather than upon undramatic, but far more frequent, success. This is why the Church today is on the defensive, its enormous potential for good half paralysed by scandal and structural weaknesses. But our salvation as always lies ready to hand. There is in the gospels still a crystal clear moral vision, and also a vision of ideal relationships. Those relationships are characterised by a discourse which is, to use a modern idiom, entirely ‘up front’ and informal. Jesus never in his life had to write a single pastoral letter – his text and his agenda were decided by the world in which he lived, and the people, friend or foe, whom he met. He responded magnificently, without recourse to canon law, but with total integrity. Could we all now, me included, aspire to the same thing?

And since most secular liberals aspire to that also, could we maybe stop regarding them as agents of perdition? In rejecting the church they are rejecting especially all empty sanctimony.

But, lastly, let it be said I am conscious of a vast personal debt to the priests who have helped to shape my own mind and heart, and beyond that of a debt owed by our Irish society in general to their entire corps. Had I no affection or respect for the priesthood, or the church, I would not have been half so indignant over these events: I would merely have joined the many cynics in asking ‘what else do you expect?’. In truth the betrayal of innocence has been inflicted upon most of the priesthood too by these recent catastrophic failures of our closed authority system. It is their pain also that now cries out for an open church.

Notes:

  1. Eamonn Casey, Bishop of Galway, Ireland, who resigned in 1992 on the revelation that he had fathered a child 17 years before.

(© Studies 1995)

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