Clerics dodge responsibility to claim moral high ground
Church figures cannot be allowed blame abuse on those without “real” vocations
TO THIS day, I can still see my father’s face when the letter came from the Archbishop of Dublin in the early 1950s. A young married man with several children, a labourer in Guinness, he too had witnessed the crocodile walks of dozens of children in the inner city, accompanied by women, young and old, in starched French head dresses, long woolly habits and ill-fitting shoes, their faces drenched in the perspiration of hot summer days.
Heartbroken, incapable of Not Knowing, he and his companions decided to act: Santa Claus parcels and parties in the Mansion House at Christmas; trainloads of children out of Dublin on summer excursions to Gormanston; film shows and parties at special seasons – all of these punctuated my childhood. But it was never enough: nothing ever would have been. These were the tragic consequences of a society committed to Not Knowing.
Rivers of alcohol ran through O’Connell Street in the Christmas of those times: pools of misery flooded the orphanages and tenements. My father and his companions made the connections and proposed a solution. A Christmas crib would be erected at the base of Nelson’s Pillar. The Artane Boys’ Band would be invited to play throughout Christmas Week. Collections would be made. Basic comforts for the orphaned and those who cared for them would follow from the citizens of Dublin. He wrote to the archbishop requesting his blessing on this work. Citizens of Dublin? To the archbishop in those days only Protestants were citizens; the rest were, in his words, members of “my parish”.
The archbishop’s letter of refusal, and the harshness in which it was couched, crushed any of the proposed possibilities. A daily Mass-goer, a devout Catholic, the shock my father received threatened his faith, and for a short time, even his mental health.
In Irish Brehon Law there is a category entitled “the crime of eye”. It simply means that if you saw or knew of a crime being committed and you did nothing about it, you were as guilty as the perpetrator.
This week, when Fr Vincent Twomey, former professor of moral theology in Maynooth, referred on BBC Northern Ireland’s Sunday Sequenceto those religious who are now being attacked in the media as “the dregs of society” who “never had a genuine commitment to celibacy” my blood ran cold.
In recent times, the current Archbishop of Dublin, and others, admitted that they knew about what was going on in some of these institutions. But the Not Knowers continued in office, sequestering the unwanted, the unfortunate, the orphaned, to the care of these institutions. If, as Vincent Twomey alleged, “evil was endemic” in a “reign of terror”, why did they remain silent until 40 years later?
What happened in Irish society had many causes, some of them theological. And when such prominent and powerful clerics and theologians attempt to wash their hands of the suffering of the innocent in this way, one cannot but speak. Like my father before me, I cannot now join the throngs of the Not Knowers, baying for the blood of those who gave their lives to the care of the unfortunates whom society had rejected, the vast majority of whom led exemplary lives.
I know little about the lives of religious men, but a great deal about the lives of many religious women. I have no authority to speak on their behalf, but I do want to ask some questions of the Clerical Hand Washers, and I ask them from the perspective of someone who has devoted her life to the study and teaching of theology.
The Ryan report describes vividly the beating and humiliation of children. But, as you well know, many religious congregations used the discipline, small whips, every week on their own naked flesh, more often in Lent, and often under the orders of their superiors. Others actively practised public humiliation (for oversleeping they came down to the refectory with blankets over their heads), or for other minor offences. What effect do you think such practices had on their self-esteem?
Vincent Twomey referred to the centuries of English colonisation that left Ireland economically and socially disadvantaged with widespread poverty and large families with few social services. But the women of Ireland endured a double, if not triple, colonisation. Did you protest against the teachings of a church that refused women the right to control their own reproduction and burdened them with unmanageable numbers of children? When priests used the confessionals to insist that women pay their “marital dues” did you stop to worry about how they would feed their large families?
What happened to the few Irish clerics who, in the light of families’ suffering, spoke out in favour of contraception? Where are they now? Scattered to the four corners of the world. Violence and abuse take many forms. Why not recall to Ireland those dissenting voices who were silenced, demoted, exiled, and impoverished? Why not come clean about the anti-body Jansenist theologies promoted by Maynooth?
No colonial system can exist without enforcers from within the lower ranks charged with carrying out their orders. However, colonial servants are always in tragic positions. Yes, they will be educated, but only in the language, ethos, theology, and ethics of the coloniser. Daring to step out of line, they will be quickly marginalised.
A thin line often divided religious women and those in their care: in different ways they were both institutionalised, both abused. After the Second Vatican Council, when the beloved John XXIII opened the window, many female religious congregations attempted to decolonise themselves (so to speak)divesting themselves of cumbersome medieval habits and institutionalised practices. Their efforts met with fierce resistance on the part of clerics. What were you afraid of? The wonder is that so many of them emerged sane, and have now reinvented themselves. Most are now doing sterling work on behalf of today’s forgotten people.
When most of this abuse was taking place, women were not admitted to the study of theology, or encouraged to develop theological competence. What chance did the Sisters of Mercy have of reflecting theologically on their vocations in the light of such exclusions?
Even if you had convoluted reasons for excluding women from the study of theology until the early 1970s, how many courses have been offered in Ireland on a theology of mercy, as opposed to the theology of sacrifice, a theology now considered responsible for “redemptive violence”?
Do you now take any responsibility for promulgating such distorted theologies, based not on reflections on the liberating life of Jesus, but on the sadistic manner of his death?
When you clerics now attempt to place watersheds between yourselves and the unfortunate history of Irish Catholicism; when you allege that the “dregs of society” (the progeny of large poor families) entered religious lives without genuine vocations, because becoming a religious was a “status symbol”, and because they would be “looked after for life”, you do what all the denizens of sacrifice have done for generations.
You split between good and evil, sacred and profane, holy and damned.
Climbing to the high moral ground, you do so at the expense of generations of women and men most of whom generously offered their lives in the service of those whom society had consigned to the margins.
The high moral ground must be seen for what it is: an escape from taking collective responsibility for the violence that permeated every facet of Irish life.
In contrast, a theology of mercy (which is not simply cleaning up after the excesses of sacrifice) would begin to takeresponsibility for the violence (physical, spiritual, sexual, and emotional) wreaked on generations of Irish women and men, within and outside religious institutions.
Simone Weil, the great Jewish mystic, once wrote of a view of redemption alternative to that of redemptive violence: “Suffering and pain are like false currency until they reach the one who refuses to hand it on.” If there is such a one among us, let us hear from you. Otherwise, please remain silent and stop scrambling over the bodies of our victims.
Few of us are innocent: we must all now enter the dock.
Mary Condren is director of the Institute for Feminism and Religion. She teaches at the centre for gender and women’s studies in Trinity College, Dublin