Tag Archives: shame

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.

~*~

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.

Views: 9

Secularism and Hesitant Preaching

Sean O’Conaill  © The Furrow Jul/Aug 2008

“So why don’t we focus on this huge issue for a while, devise policies to deal with it and leave aside tangential issues for the moment?”

This was Vincent Brown in the Irish Times in April 20081Appalling incidence of sexual abuse virtually ignored’, Vincent Browne, Irish Times 23-04-08.  To his great credit his ‘huge issue’ was the awful problem of all forms of sexual violence, as quantified by the SAVI report of 20022The SAVI Report – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, Sponsored by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Published by Liffey Press, 2002.  If its figures are correct, about 1.2 million Irish people are victims – and, as Brown keeps reminding us,  we can’t really suppose that the scale of the problem has diminished significantly since 2002.

But it was the word ‘policies’ that caught my attention, because it seemed totally inadequate to describe what’s needed to get a grip of not just this but a whole series of related problems in Irish life.  A policy is something debated (often endlessly) by pundits and politicians, then promoted to win support,  and then (if adopted) resourced out of taxation.  Given the many claims on the latter in a ‘flat’ economy, given the low-tax climate that a healthy economy supposedly demands, and given the cost of, for example, intensive counselling and psychotherapy, no foreseeable state-sponsored policy on sexual abuse seems remotely capable of addressing the scale of what confronts us in Ireland, even if we isolate just this one problem.

And given the common connection between sexual abuse and the abuse of alcohol and other substances, it’s equally clear that any effective policy on the former would need to address the latter.  And given the connection between substance abuse and the low personal morale often caused by economic insecurity and relationship issues, can we really propose to solve any one such ‘huge issue’ in isolation?

Moreover, what about the moral momentum required to completely change an abusive lifestyle?  How can a policy devised at the state level reach the deepest core of an individual who is experiencing so radical and subterranean a challenge?  Effective state policies can indeed change our external environment for the better, but what about inner, deep-seated dysfunction that so often occurs within the privacy of the home?

In an earlier era in Ireland there would have been a very different kind of response to a crisis of the scale described in the SAVI report – and it would have originated with the church (understanding that term in the widest sense).  The nineteenth century temperance movement is a good example.  It is another reflection of the depth of our current social crisis that we have now apparently no alternative to secular policy to change our society radically for the better  – and that the churches seem incapable of providing that alternative.  (Especially if we focus these days on sexual abuse.)

But in fact political secularism – the atomisation,  rationalisation and politicisation of every problem – is very much part of the fix we are in – because it tends to disempower the ordinary individual in his own space.  Teaching us to delegate everything upwards to politicians and professional experts, it has virtually no power to engage individual citizens in a deep, voluntary commitment to behave honourably, and to join with others spontaneously in doing good, in their own space.  The recent debate on what to do about alcohol abuse and other forms of addiction in Irish life proves this conclusively, because we have not moved one step forward on that issue either.

What is required, then, to mobilise the moral idealism of a society, and especially of its youth?

The problem with the moral programme of the church as we have commonly understood it is twofold.  First, we have not fully grasped the compelling human and community reasons for the most important behavioural boundaries prescribed by our Christian tradition (e.g. the taboo against serious intoxication).  As a result we tend to resent God for making rules that don’t make sense.  We tend to suppose these rules exist for God’s sake rather than for ours – mainly because we mistakenly suppose that God shares our own basic tendency to be self-absorbed.

Secondly, because of this, we have not understood the connection between these boundaries and the church’s basic positive law – the law of love.

To resolve these problems we need to do two things.  The first is to wake up to what our daily news bulletins are telling us:  that all dysfunctional behaviour is abusive of others and of ourselves, and to recognise (i.e. to know anew) all of the most important moral boundaries in those terms.  St Thomas Aquinas’ profoundest observation – that God is not offended until we hurt ourselves – applies to all sin, including sexual sin.  Our society is radically self-harming, and  we urgently need to reconfigure our understanding of sin in those terms .

The second vital connection is to understand why people self-harm.  Congenitally unsure of our own value, we become seriously dysfunctional if our society tells us we don’t have any.  And that is the message we receive daily when the media remind us that we are not important enough to be the source of the images we see.  The teenage girl who cuts herself or starves herself in anger at her inability to fit the ideal media-prescribed body shape unwittingly explains all self-harm.  Secular society (‘the world’) rewards the seeking of attention over the giving of it – and that is precisely why social respect, and self-respect – are so scarce.

And that in turn is why the Christian ‘prime directive’ is to love God first of all – the only reliable source of self-respect – allowing us then to love both ourselves and our neighbours, unconditionally, and to build a mutually respectful community.

It takes only a moment’s reflection to realise that Jesus’ love for the poor was in fact a deep respect for them, as they are.  In teaching us the reverse of that – that respect can only be acquired by upward mobility, by changing ourselves in some way to win the approval of others – secularism both deceives and condemns us to endless frustration and self-harm.

It also disempowers us in our own space by telling us to wait for experts, delegated politicians and their civil servants to come up with a policy that will change everything that ails us.  This is the shell game of secular democracy:  ‘give us power so that we can solve all your problems, and meanwhile wait inertly for us to do so’.  We could wait forever.

To tell someone the reverse of that: that they already have the power, and the obligation, to love themselves and others, now and always, in their own space – and by so doing to change that space radically for themselves and others – is true empowerment of the individual.  And that is essentially what the Gospel is telling us.

Our inability to value ourselves as we are – to love ourselves – lies at the root of every one of the huge problems that secular politics patently cannot solve:

  • Addiction: (This is usually rooted in fear of failure, or in self-hatred or shame, and is best addressed by e.g. the twelve-step programme which restores a realistic and robust sense of self-worth.)
  • Environmental collapse: (The global pursuit of an unsustainable lifestyle is also driven by media-induced shame at not having what the wealthiest have.)
  • Depression: (The challenges of life in an individualistic culture can lead to a critical loss of hope and self-belief– because individualism also leads to a loss of supportive and affirming family and community relationships);
  • Inequality and injustice: (All desire to be superior arises out of a fear of being considered inferior.)
  • Violence: (This is also mostly rooted in competition for dominance out of a fear of inferiority.  Even the violence that arises out of addiction usually has its origins in shame and fear of failure, because that is where most addiction begins.)
  • Abuse: (Self-absorption and lack of empathy also originate in lack of self-love – often due to a serious deficit in early nurturing.  The person who deeply respects himself is most unlikely to disrespect others.  The person who has been deeply loved as a child is most unlikely ever to abuse children.)

There is therefore absolutely no reason for the hesitancy that has overtaken the preaching of the Gospel in Ireland in recent decades, for the common feeling that faith is socially irrelevant, or for the assumption that the future lies with secularism.  There is instead a dire need to seize the initiative by arguing that religious faith, accompanied by reason, can supply the only binding and compelling power available to us to deal directly with the problems of our own local environment as our crisis grows.

We are hindered in doing this presently only by our own inability to connect the Gospels with the problems of our own time and to realise the danger of a force every bit as dangerous as undisciplined sexuality.  This is vanity – the seeking of admiration.  It arises out of our natural inability to value ourselves as we are, and it lies at the root of the widest variety of evils, from rampant careerism (even in the church) to workplace bullying, and consumerism.   It also destroys community and family by leading us into individualism, social climbing and dysfunction.

It is the inability to make these connections that leads to the present chasm between church and society in Ireland.  Clericalism, including lay clericalism, deepens this chasm by fixating on the behaviour that the priest regulates in church, and by disregarding what is equally important – the individual lay person’s role in, and understanding of, the secular world.   We have almost lost the connection between a healthy spirituality and a healthy community, and Catholic education and parish life too often fail to restore that connection when we most need it – when we are adults.

Sadly, although love is not lacking in the church, and many Sunday homilists do indeed convey the importance of love, few ever explore the pervasive pursuit of celebrity in modern culture, or the reasons for it.  I have yet to hear a good homily on the problem of vanity, as revealed in, for example, the debates among the apostles on which of them was the greatest, and in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  No one ever notices the particular problem of the second son (he supposes he will never have the status his father enjoys while he stays at home).  And invariably the reluctance of the rich young man to follow Jesus is supposed to be all about loss of money and security, never about loss of the social status that wealth always provides.

Almost certainly this strange inability to ‘get’ such a constant theme in the Gospels  has to do with the fact that the church is still emerging from a long period of clerical social pre-eminence.  But, now that this period is at an end in the West, why is institutional Catholicism still very much a status pyramid, despite the insistence of Lumen Gentium and Canon Law that we are all equal in dignity?  Do our seminaries fail to ask this question (and to point out that the Gospel answers it) because they too are status pyramids of a kind?

It is time we all understood what was going on in the Gospel when the apostles competed for status – and almost came to blows.  And noticed also that spiritual health always involves a deep consciousness of one’s own dignity and a loss of fear of what others may think. Only when we have understood the vital community role of spiritual health, and of spiritual insight into what is wrong with us – and then commissioned our laity to rebuild their own local communities by loving one another – can we revive our church, and our society.

Notes

  1. ‘Appalling incidence of sexual abuse virtually ignored’, Vincent Browne, Irish Times 23-04-08
  2. The SAVI Report – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, Sponsored by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Published by Liffey Press, 2002.

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The Story of the West: III – The Origins of Freedom

Sean O’Conaill © Reality Dec 2007

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ” (US Declaration of Independence 1776)

Everywhere in the world in the time of Christ, slavery existed – in countries as far apart as Ireland and China. Two thousand years later the right to personal freedom is inscribed in the world’s great documents, and protected by most of the world’s governments.

The scourge of enslavement still exists for far too many, of course – but there is a global consensus that slavery is not only morally wrong but economically indefensible. While the ancient Greeks and Romans considered slavery essential to their success, the educated world now knows that slavery makes people unproductive – that we are most industrious when we are personally free.

Where did the idea of freedom come from? Most languages do not even have a word for the idea. It arose in one civilisation only – western Europe, in the Middle Ages. Catholic Europe, that is.

Here again, those who see Christianity as the root of all evil will deny that the Catholic Church could have had anything to do with the ending of slavery. They will point out that Jesus did not directly condemn it, that St Paul taught slaves to be obedient, that popes owned galley slaves as late as 1796, and that it was not until the 1800s that the papacy came finally to declare slavery immoral.

All of this is true – but the historical record is nevertheless clear: all effective anti-slavery movements were deeply influenced by another idea – an idea that developed in Catholic Europe alone, long before the Protestant Reformation: the idea that everyone is essentially equal in dignity.

That idea could not have come from Plato or Aristotle, the great philosophers of ancient Greece. Both believed that some peoples were superior to others, and that the slavery of many was essential to the prosperity and power of the Greek city state. Plato personally owned slaves. The ‘democracy’ of Athens was not based on the principle of ‘one man one vote’, but on the superiority of ethnic Greeks, all of them free to own slaves, who could not vote. In Plato’s ideal ‘Republic’ this elitism would have been retained.

The seed for the overthrow of slavery is to be found in the New Testament alone. St Paul did indeed teach slaves to be obedient, but he also taught masters to treat slaves well “knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with Him”. In other words, in the eyes of God we are all equal: “In Christ Jesus …there is neither slave nor free”.

It was for this very reason that slaves too were to receive the sacrament of baptism. Sacramental equality inevitably slowly undermined civil inequality. After an exhaustive study of the sources the agnostic secular sociologist Rodney Stark insists:

“Slavery ended in medieval (i.e. Catholic) Europe [only] because the church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then managed to impose a ban on the enslavement of Christians.”

By the third century the church had a pope, Callistus (d. 236) who had himself been a slave. With the fall of the western Roman empire in the fifth century, the pressure to end slavery increased. Priests began to urge the freeing of slaves as an “infinitely commendable act”. By the late 700s Charlemagne opposed slavery. By the 800s slavery was declared by some theologians to be “against divine law”.

Another scandalous era of slavery opened in the West with the voyages of exploration of the 1400s that gave European ships access to black Africa, and the incentive to ship slaves to imperial territories in north and south America. This too the papacy was far too slow to condemn unequivocally, yet even in the 1500s, some popes angrily condemned slavery in the Americas.

By now many Christians held that slavery was positively sinful. Here again we see the possibility for progress in Christian theology – as St Augustine had predicted. And it was this conviction that provided most fuel for the victories of the anti-slavery movement in the 1800s.

Uniquely among the world’s Religions, Christianity had not simply argued that all were equal in the sight of God, but provided most of the political momentum for the eventual overthrow of slavery. While the church is often pilloried for the slow progress of freedom in Europe, few secularist intellectuals have faced the reality that elsewhere in the world there was no progress at all. This was true especially of Islam. It was true even of China – often held up by secularists as a more advanced civilisation because its intelligentsia was irreligious.

And it was from these Christian principles of human dignity and human equality that another key modern principle emerged also: the principle of equal human rights.

Secularist opponents of Christianity will deny this, of course. They will argue that the principle of human rights was the child of the Enlightenment, an anti-Christian movement of the 1600s and 1700s.

But we now know that the US Declaration of Independence of 1776 owed its theory of human rights to the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). And that Locke frankly admitted his own debt to Catholic moral theologians of the Middle Ages who had developed the Christian principle of equal human dignity. If all are equal in dignity, it followed that Christians have binding obligations to all other humans. From these binding obligations, and from no other source, proceeds the principle that all humans are owed – i.e.have a right to – e.g. freedom

A further embarrassment for those who want to see the Enlightenment as the original source of freedom and human rights is the fact that the great Voltaire, high priest of the Enlightenment, invested the considerable profits of his own writings in the 18th century French slave trade, based at Nantes.

It was a vast tragedy for the Catholic church that the Christian origins of freedom became hidden even from the papacy in the period after the Enlightenment. Fearing the rise of democracy and the principle of religious freedom, Catholic bishops and popes, usually the sons of aristocratic Catholic families, mistakenly often condemned these. The belief that “error has no rights” was adhered to by Catholic churchmen well into the lifetime of many of us.

It was also a great tragedy for Catholicism in Ireland that when our church did eventually embrace the principle of religious freedom at Vatican II in 1965, our most powerful churchman was Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin. He too believed that error had no rights, and that it was perfectly legitimate for him and his fellow bishops to seek to control the Irish state directly. His extraordinary determination to control every aspect of Irish life until his resignation in 1971 earned for Irish Catholicism a reputation for clericalism and authoritarianism that virtually guaranteed the victory of secularism in the generation that followed.

Archbishop McQuaid mistakenly obliged every Catholic in his diocese to define Catholic loyalty in terms of unquestioning obedience and intellectual deference to him personally. This clericalist spirit still pervaded Catholic Ireland in the era of the council, and sabotaged its liberating potential here. Forced to choose between the role of ‘lackey to the bishop’ and the supposedly secular principle of freedom, many, many Irish people felt obliged, even in conscience, to choose the latter and to reject Catholic belief.

This is one of the most important reasons for the growth of Irish secularism and anticlericalism in recent decades. It explains why our media constantly exploit church scandals and why it is now so difficult for Irish Catholic churchmen to get a fair public hearing, especially in matters like stem cell research.

Catholic authoritarianism has always played into the hands of those who want to argue that the greater freedom of western culture is an entirely secular achievement, and that religion and freedom must always be opposed. And this in turn has led to a situation in Ireland where secularism is now so powerful that many Catholics feel ashamed to identify themselves as Catholics in public.

The solution is not to seek to restore the ‘Catholic Ireland’ of Archbishop McQuaid but to understand the Catholic roots of western freedom and to take pride, publicly, in that fact. We need to make ourselves entirely at home in neutral secular space and to educate ourselves to the facts of western history – refusing to take for granted secularist propaganda aimed at shaming us and driving Catholicism out of the public square entirely.

In particular we need to point out to secularists that the Catholic roots of western civilisation are far more than a matter of Catholic opinion. They are now confirmed by globally renowned scholars who are not even Christian. One of the most important is Rodney Stark, the ground-breaking American sociologist. I have used his recent book Victory of Reason as my most important source for these articles. Written with great clarity and honesty, it should be read by every educated Catholic.

Another is the German atheist philosopher Jurgen Habermas. Disturbed by various decadent tendencies in western society, and by the growing threat of terrorism since 9/11, he made the following declaration in a 2004 essay A Time of Transition:

“Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilisation. To this day, we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is post-modern chatter.”

Armed with this same knowledge, Irish Catholics of tomorrow will have no need to feel defensive about their faith or ashamed to proclaim it as the source of their own idealism in the secular world.

Claiming our own place in pluralist Irish secular society we must now also be unafraid to ask anti-Catholic secularists if they really know the origins of the values, and especially the freedom, they hold sacred.

Views: 27

Clericalism the enemy of Catholicism

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish News 9th Nov 2006

“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)

This was the text that Pope Benedict XIV recommended to the Irish bishops on October 28th – to counter the view that Catholicism is merely “a collection of prohibitions”. Clearly the pope’s central concern – to reverse the tide of an anti-Christian and anti-Catholic secularism in the West generally – is now as relevant to Ireland as to any other western country.

And this is a task for Irish lay people as well. Many of us know through bitter experience the emptiness of the promise of happiness without faith. Many of us have found at the centre of our faith an intense joy: the reality of a God who comes to meet us in times of the deepest challenge, and speaks to us of his unconditional love and respect. Had we not encountered good priests, most of us could not have discovered that life-giving, life-enhancing truth.

It is important to state that conviction at the same time that we face up to that other challenge the pope emphasised, in relation to the scourge of clerical child sexual abuse: “to rebuild confidence and trust where these have been damaged … to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected and, above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes”

We in “Voice of the Faithful” know well the challenge involved here. Because we have spoken out strongly against negative aspects of church culture, people are coming to us in increasing numbers with their own stories of pain suffered at the hands of a more dysfunctional Catholicism in the recent past.

These are stories not just of sexual abuse, but, all too often, of social and physical abuse. People complain of finger-pointing in the classroom at their origins in orphanages, or in urban areas of deep poverty and unemployment – by clerics who had apparently forgotten that their Lord had been born in a stable. Some speak of clerical bullying to the point of constructive dismissal from church-related careers. Some complain too of serious physical abuse that would have put their perpetrators before the courts of today on charges of common assault.

This is the paradox: the church that I and many others have experienced as a church of welcome, of safety, of inspiration and of truth – has been experienced by too many others as a church of put-downs, of intimidation, of abuse, and of shame.

Thinking hard about this, we believe that the time has come for all of us, our bishops included, to do exactly what the pope has asked us to do: identify the source of all of these sufferings, not in Catholicism, but in something else that we now need to abandon forever: Catholic clericalism.

Clericalism is the belief that, despite what St Peter and St Paul both said, God does indeed have favourites: those who have received the gift of ordination.

Most priests understand that along with this gift of ordination comes the most solemn obligation: to think not of themselves and of their own dignity, but of the challenged dignity of so many others. They understand that it is through our Baptism and Confirmation that we receive our most important titles: that of brother or sister of Christ, of Temple of the Holy Spirit, and of son or daughter of the Father. They take to heart the advice that Jesus gives to all who are invited to a feast – to take the lowliest place. They understand, in short, that the Christian call is, above all, a call to humility. In so doing they raise us lay people up to an understanding of our own dignity.

Historically Catholic clericalism is something entirely different. It is a presumption of superiority, a presumption of entitlement to the submission and deference of the non-ordained.

Clericalism is not the gift of ordination – but the gift of the world. The clericalist cleric has joined the church not to serve the poor, but to be socially pre-eminent. Entering the seminary in search of a career he has allowed the spirituality of the Gospels to touch him as fleetingly as water slipping off the back of a duck. Attracted not to the mysterious servant church, he has been attracted all along to the church of power and of status – and expects these as his due.

Clericalism lies at the root of all of the disasters the church in Ireland has suffered in recent years. It explains why so many paedophiles joined the clergy to begin with: to exploit the vulnerability and submissiveness of Catholic children and their families. It explains also why too many bishops covered up this foul pestilence: to protect the supposedly sinless status of clergy.

And it also explains why so many Irish people are flocking these days to the cause of secularism. Because bishops have covered up the abuse it has been left to secular institutions – police, courts, media – to reveal the truth and to bring what closure the victims of this abuse have so far experienced.

But the apostles of secularism need to notice exactly what our bishops need to notice. Power without accountability becomes corrupt because of our human tendency to sin. And accountability – the principle that power must always be ready to explain itself – is a deeply biblical, not a secular, concept. From Genesis to the Gospels, God calls us to account for our behaviour, especially when it is used abusively.

It is therefore not dangerous but deeply healing to call for structures of accountability within our Catholic church also. Without internal accountability on administrative matters (not matters of doctrine), Catholicism will remain forever prone to external accountability – media scandal – because sooner or later unaccountable power is always abused.

We in Voice of the Faithful therefore recommend our programme as a necessary part of the answer to the Pope’s challenge to the Irish church: to heal victims, to vindicate good priests and to enable priests and people to rebind ourselves – ‘through structures established for that purpose’ – to the cause of saving our society from a secularism that wants to cut itself adrift from the spiritual origins of all that is best in our civilisation.

Views: 20

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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