The very first time I went to confession I managed to get it wrong. Once ensconced in the confession box I proceeded to tell the priest the sins of my schoolfellows. I had listed these carefully in my head.
I don’t remember what could have been on the list, but I still feel the sense of satisfaction with which I began my recitation. I also still feel my dismay when the priest interrupted me to tell me that it was my own sins I was meant to confess.
I don’t know what I came up with – something we had all rehearsed with the nuns I suppose – but so began my 10-year relationship with confession which ended when I lost the faith.
Oddly, I thought back to that when I was wondering about the allegations of sexual misbehaviour by people working for charities in areas of poverty and disaster.
One by one, the reputations of trusted institutions have disintegrated – the Catholic Church, the banking system and now the charities. I was wondering where this leads people – does it lead them into total cynicism, maybe even into a form of despair?
All of these institutions at one time enjoyed unquestioning respect. Priests, brothers and nuns were seen as models of righteousness, as belonging to a different moral planet to the rest of us. Bank managers were icons of respectability and propriety. And when the institutions to which priests, brothers, nuns and bank managers belong disillusioned us or, if you prefer, got found out, we still had the Third World charities.
We gave them fawning respect without even thinking about it. Now it turns out that some of their employees were involved in sexual misbehaviour.
You find yourself wondering who’s next to fall and if people will be left with anything to believe in when it’s all over. The institutions will, of course, still be there, but the blind faith we gave them will be gone.
But it’s that blind faith – fawning respect, really – that was the problem when it came to this question of faith and despair.
Something in the human psyche leaves us vulnerable to falling into this trap. In the old Irish mythology, kings were meant to be without blemish. That’s why one Irish king had to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the world from knowing he had horse’s ears (it didn’t end well).
Still, on we go. Are we angry at Aung San Suu Kyi because she oversees a state (Myanmar) – which has committed war crimes against its Muslim minority? Or are we angry that we gave her fawning respect and she turned out to be deeply flawed?
The point about confession, and its relevance to all this, is that it recognises that all human beings are sinners as well as whatever else they might be. For that reason, it might have been among the greatest inventions of the Catholic Church – which, however, fell into the trap of allowing its followers to believe its priests, brothers and nuns could do no wrong.
So if fawning respect won’t do, what’s left? A toxic level of cynicism? Actually, I think a template for a healthier approach might lie in our approach to the media.
Most of us, I suspect, believe in the value of a free press. It’s a principle central to democracy. Yet, most of us also believe, I suggest, that the press is both noble and wretched, both honest and dodgy, reliable and chancing its arm. Some media are mostly on the negative side and some mostly on the positive side.
The thing is, we accept all this about the media – the negative side doesn’t devastate us because, well, we knew about it all along. We also know the positive side and the value of putting up with this scrappy, truculent, sometimes infuriating entity.
If we can adopt that attitude towards all the great and the good – neither fawning respect nor toxic cynicism – we will have shifted our view to a healthier perspective.
And we’ll be better at protecting our children, our families and ourselves.
– Padraig O’Morain (email@example.com) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is ‘Mindfulness for Worriers’. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email. Twitter: @PadraigOMorain