Tag Archives: Ryan Report

Authoritarianism and Moral Cowardice

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life  May-June 2010

Among the major questions that need consideration in the wake of the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the CICA Report) and the Murphy Report of 2009 is this: why did paid servants of the Irish state, with responsibilities for protecting children and preventing crime, fail so badly in their obvious duties?

We need urgently to reflect upon the way in which the CICA Report describes the failures of the Department of Education both to supervise and to reform the residential institutions. The following references to the Department are culled from the executive summary of the CICA report:

The failures by the Department that are catalogued in the chapters on the schools can also be seen as tacit acknowledgment by the State of the ascendancy of the Congregations and their ownership of the system. The Department’s Secretary General, at a public hearing, told the Investigation Committee that the Department had shown a ‘very significant deference’ towards the religious Congregations. This deference impeded change, and it took an independent intervention in the form of the Kennedy Report in 1970 to dismantle a long out-dated system. (CICA Report, Executive Summary, Chapter 1: The Department of Education)

The deferential and submissive attitude of the Department of Education towards the Congregations compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspection and monitoring of the schools. The Reformatory and Industrial Schools Section of the Department was accorded a low status within the Department and generally saw itself as facilitating the Congregations and the Resident Managers. (CICA Report, Executive Summary, Conclusions, 3)

When these passages are juxtaposed, a key descriptor leaps out: deference. Departmental officials, and the Department as a whole, were deferential and submissive to the congregations, regarding them as owners of a state-financed system. This was despite the fact that those officials were answerable as employees to a democratic state and an elected minister, not to any cleric. A similar attitude seems to have determined the decisions of Gardaí who, according to the Murphy Report, regarded criminal clerical child sex abuse as a matter for Archbishops of Dublin to deal with.

How are we to explain this deference, which amounted to collective moral cowardice? Let us suppose for a moment that among the sensational accounts of Irish Church-State controversies of the twentieth century the following was to be found, perhaps in an online encyclopaedia:

The Irish Civil Service Revolt of 1967

In 1967 senior officials within the Irish Department of Education launched a sudden and unexpected investigation of conditions in Irish state-financed residential institutions run by Catholic religious congregations that catered for disadvantaged children. These officials then immediately leaked to the Irish media a scarifying account of their findings, which included not only widespread extreme physical abuse but ‘endemic sexual abuse’. It transpired that they had undertaken the surprise inspection on their own initiative, without waiting for ministerial authorisation.

When the congregations protested and sought the sacking of these officials, the latter responded by pointing to current Catholic social teachings which emphasised the right of all people to equal dignity and respect. The officials also claimed the duty of lay Catholics to act on their own moral initiative, as sanctioned by the Church document Lumen Gentium, agreed by the Bishops of the Catholic Church in 1965.1

The Irish Catholic Church was, for the very first time, deeply and openly divided by this controversy, with some bishops expressing outrage that lay Catholics would forget their obligation to act `respectfully and subordinately’. Others took the view that, given the seriousness of what had been revealed, the officials had been amply justified in their actions. Most Irish Catholic theologians also took the latter view. Outraged public opinion decided the issue in favour of the officials, who were reinstated after suspension. A thorough reform of the institutions was then initiated.

I hope the point of this lapse into romantic historical fantasy will be properly taken. Such an event could indeed have occurred in 1967, on foot of happenings in the wider Church in the period 1962-65. What were the countervailing circumstances in Church and society? It was undoubtedly a deferential era. There could obviously be a wide divergence of opinion about the degree to which the Irish Church was to blame for this, but here is my own brief attempt at an inventory of Church circumstances that contributed to the culture of deference:

  • Irish lay Catholic clericalism: a strong historical inclination among Irish lay Catholics to leave all moral leadership to Catholic clergy, and especially to the hierarchy. ( ‘We lay Catholics can’t do anything Church-related that our bishops and priests don’t tell us to do’.)
  • A reciprocal Irish clerical tendency to prioritise the rights of clerical magisterial authority above the formation of private lay conscience. As late as 2007, Vincent Twomey, professor emeritus of moral theology at Maynooth, insisted that the lay Catholic’s duty of obedience ‘includes submission to the Church’s teaching authority on faith and morals, irrespective of how little we understand of the reasons why the Church so teaches’ (my italics) 2
  • The tendency of the institutional Catholic Church to see itself as a moral monolith, in which any kind of dissent was to be seen as dangerous to the unity and survival of the Church, and lay people would not take unilateral action (The idea of a ‘loyal opposition’ was considered ludicrous and subversive);
  • The absence of an Irish culture of open-minded Catholic adult education, alive to Catholic social teaching, and passionately imbued with the Gospel of love and justice;
  • The absence of interfacing Church structures for Catholic clergy and laity which would allow the open asking of awkward questions and the threshing out of the kind of misgivings that many had about the residential institutions;
  • Irish hierarchical attitudes which saw Vatican II as potentially dangerous to the supposed ‘tranquillity’ of the lives of lay people and did nothing to improve Catholic adult education or modify Church structures in favour of permanent open dialogue;
  • The failure of any Irish Catholic Church leader to utter public criticism of the running of the residential institutions, even though, by 1962, some leaders were certainly aware of the worst that was happening;3
  • The hierarchical structure of the Church, which turned itself, and Irish society, into a social pyramid of dignity and deference. In this pyramid the ‘preferential option’ must always go to clergy and religious. Unwanted and ‘difficult’ children were at the base of this pyramid, preferably out of sight. This Church structure subverted official Catholic teaching on the equal dignity of all;
  • The monopoly of the Sunday pulpit by Catholic clergy, who therefore retained enormous power as brokers of honour and shame in Irish society. This could be deployed against anyone considered dangerous or disloyal. Lay people had no counterbalancing right or power of self-defence within the Church;
  • The consequent deep fear among lay people of the power of `the Church’ — the clerical apparatus which in the lay view included the religious congregations that ran the institutions. `The Church’ was believed to have ‘tentacles everywhere’, and to be ever ready to ask ‘Who do you think you are?’ of any lay Catholic who presumed to quote the Gospel in defence of private conscience. This fear ensured the dominance in Irish Catholic life of the Seamus Heaney protocol: ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’;
  • The prevalence of this fear of the ‘the Church’ in Irish political culture also, encapsulated in the view that to oppose or criticise `the Church’ would be to ‘commit political suicide’.

In sum, Catholic authoritarianism prioritised, and continues to prioritise, uniformity, docility, obedience, unidirectional ‘communication’ by bishops, and silence and deference on the part of those who must listen to them. Its ecclesiological ideal is indeed a moral monolith in which bishops never disagree publicly, everyone waits for hierarchical sanction of anything new, bishops may secretly report to Rome theologians they dislike, and ‘group think’ is therefore obligatory. Authoritarian clerics are ready to label as ‘disloyal’ any breach of this culture of uniformity, and to publicly shame ‘dissidents’. They scorn lay initiative of any challenging kind. They refuse to be questioned by the lay people who pay all of their bills, not simply on matters of doctrine but on any administrative matter, and block all structural reform that might facilitate such questioning. They prize their own completely unaccountable status, with the consequence that a culture of unaccountability cascades downward through the Church and spreads outward into wider Irish society.

It is therefore to Catholic clerical authoritarianism we must look for some of the thickest roots of Irish lay Catholic moral cowardice. The sooner this is acknowledged, the better for the Church, the whole people of God. A Church structure that tolerated disciplined dissent would now be embraced joyfully by most Irish Catholics as an alternative to the utter global disgrace we have suffered.

Sometime in the future, the leadership of the Catholic Church in Ireland will acknowledge that the authoritarian culture of Irish Catholicism in the twentieth century:

  1. seriously weakened the moral character and Christian initiative of the Irish Catholic people;
  2. helped to subvert the obligation owed by the Irish state to its poorest citizens;
  3. disproved completely that the Church functions best as a clerically dominated army acting with complete uniformity under a unanimous leadership;
  4. proved the necessity of moving to a Church structure in which the following principles apply:
  • unity in essential doctrine;
  • structured freedom to debate all other matters, especially the social implications of Christian principles;
  • the sovereignty of individual conscience.

It remains to be seen whether such a leadership can emerge in the wake of the shock we have all experienced. Mooted reorganisation of Irish dioceses could facilitate such a development, but the history of the Church seems to prove that creative movements for change seldom originate at its summit. Ireland badly needs a grassroots movement aimed at establishing a more grown-up church, and a tradition of conscientious Catholic independence from the dominant authoritarian and clericalist current.

Notes

  1. See, for example, Pacem in Terris, 1963, and Lumen Gentium, 1965 (n. 37).
  2. Quoted in ‘Catholic Church “cannot teach what is wrong in itself”‘, P. McGarry, Irish Times, 27 December 2007.
  3. See, for example, The Irish Gulag, Bruce Arnold, Gill and Macmillan 2009, Chapter 24.

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Goodbye and Good Riddance to Irish Catholic Serfdom

Sean O’Conaill Doctrine and Life  October 2009

“And the darkness could not overwhelm the light.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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