Catholic Church should set up its own commission of investigation following mother and child home controversy

Opinion: Government commission should be chaired by someone of evident distinction who is not Irish or of Irish extraction

Thu, Jun 19, 2014, 00:01

Why did Minister for Children Charlie Flanagan not mention the county homes in his announcement of the commission of inquiry? Is it because they are so forgotten that no one informed him or his civil servants? Or was it because they were not run by religious orders? Is it is because of the anti-Catholic bias that seems to have clouded the minds of so many otherwise perceptive commentators in the media?

No one denies the often inhuman treatment of women and children in the mother and child homes. But the fact that Bessboro was set up in 1922 by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, indicates prima facie that the Sisters were fundamentally moved by human compassion for such women. What happened later is another question, to be investigated. It is likely that “the nuns” shared a religious motivation similar to that of their Protestant sisters, namely concern to save such “fallen” women from a life of immorality in the hope that they would be thereby led to “a useful and respectable life”.

The Tuam home was, according to the Ryan report, established in 1925 by the local county council. The council, presumably moved by similar benevolent motives, invited the Bon Secours Sisters to run it. These remarkable – and much maligned – women had come to Ireland from France in 1861 to provide “good care” to the sick, rich and poor alike, out of love of God and neighbour. Commentators have implied that the Sisters were in the business for profit and so are now questioning the reliability of the McAleese report that found no evidence with regard to similar claims made in relation to the Magdalene Laundries.

The terms “useful and respectable ” used to describe the motivation for the UK Poor Law’s aim for “fallen women” points to the deeper cultural forces at work in the treatment of such women and their children.

Haller highlighted the rise of (Protestant) Evangelical and (secular) Utilitarian philosophies at the time as the immediate cause of the more rigorous attitude to “fallen” women that resulted in the reform of the law.

Measures of morality

So-called traditional Irish Catholicism soon came under the influence of such Victorian puritanism and pragmatism. Respectability was the measure of morality and prosperity its goal. This was the mentality that to various degrees was characteristic of the Irish Free State from its inception. It found its expression in so many tragic institutions that today cause us shame. It also has to be recognised that this mentality fed into, and exacerbated, the legalistic moral theology that had been developed after the Counter Reformation. In time, it produced distrust of the body with its sensual pleasure and made every sexual stirring a mortal sin. Generations of Catholics, clerics and laity bore the scars; those who failed to attain “respectability” paid the price. It is obvious, as several commentators have pointed out, that to try to understand the cultural and social context is no excuse for what happened, but it might help us become a little less judgmental. It also raises questions about our present attitudes towards those on the margins of contemporary Irish society.

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