Much confusion still surrounds the alleged discovery of human remains near a mother-and-baby home run by the Sisters of Bon Secours in Tuam.
Since its appearance in the Irish Daily Mail, the story has buzzed furiously about social media while broadcasters and other newspapers tried to sort rumour from hard fact.
By Wednesday, Charlie Flanagan, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, was sufficiently concerned to describe the revelations as “a shocking reminder of a darker past in Ireland when our children were not cherished as they should have been”.
Further details are gradually oozing their way across newsprint and the airwaves. Whatever we subsequently learn about this squalid story, it can’t be denied that the Catholic Church has had another bad week. (That organisation doesn’t have too many good ones these days.)
Even Pope Francis, hitherto something of a PR master, managed to queer the pitch by castigating couples who, while cherishing their pets, elect not to have children. Understandably enough, remembering indentured servitude in the Magdalene laundries and feet-dragging on the sexual abuse of children, most commentators treated that story as a slice of light relief.
The grim gossip that still hovers around the Tuam scandal offers no such invitations to levity. An outside observer might reasonably conclude that the church was now finished as a cultural and social force in this country.
Indeed, articles in the New York Times, the Guardian and the Washington Post have all wrung hands furiously while talking readers through this week's revelations. As if to fan rumours of his own imminent demise, Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, popped up to admit that there are only two priests under the age of 40 in Dublin.
And yet. Last month the streets teemed with dolled-up children making their way to and from First Communions. The average couple still gets married in church. The vast majority of newborn babies are baptised. Even secular cremations tend to take place in grey rooms decorated with stone crosses and images of the suffering Christ. The number of Mass-goers may have declined, but the church still stands by to legitimise our coming in, our coming together and our passing on.
Obviously, one can have no serious argument with people of faith – a self-definition that positively revels in rejection of logical thought – who marry, baptise, confirm and bury their dead within the bosom of the church. Wiccans, snake handlers and Jedi Knights are also welcome to their rites and superstitions. However, after all that has been revealed, the time has surely come to raise eyebrows at the agnostics, atheists and the loosely committed who go through these rituals because they “like the tradition” or don’t want to upset older relatives.
Many non-believers of my generation convinced themselves they were the last heathens who, terrified of fanged, rosary-swinging aunts, would feel compelled to marry in church. It still goes on.
The last few decades have seen an avalanche of stories about clerics who, while observing the approved sex-hating doctrines in public, spent their evenings abusing authority to rape vulnerable children. Yet, each spring, thousands of non-believers still allow their prepubescent daughters to don
for the distinctly creepy, coquettish ritual that is First Communion.
“Ah, but they’d feel left out if they were the only ones not going through it,” I hear my imaginary opponent say. Now, there’s a circular argument. If only properly committed Catholics propelled their children through First Communion, no such sense of exclusion would apply.
It is, of course, impossible to address this subject without considering the continuing influence of the churches on education. Those parents who refuse to baptise their children – as Catholic, Protestant or whatever – have the right to fume at non-believers who, eager to gain a place at the school of their choice, cross their fingers, hold their tongues and allow little foreheads to be wetted. One could argue that, though the practice may by cynical, dishonest and shameless, these psuedo-Christians do at least have some practical end in mind. But their actions only serve to bolster the clerics’ hold on the levers of pedagogy.
We’re not asking for much here. If you don’t approve of the church then don’t take part in its rituals. Your dad will surely still love you if you allow his grandchild to defer any induction into organised religion until he or she is old enough to vote. Get married on the beach to the strains of Robbie Williams. Celebrate the latest birth with a trip to the dodgems. When you die just have your corpse flung onto the nearest bonfire. After all, as we’ve learned recently, there are less dignified ways to dispose of a body.