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Fintan O'Toole: Ethos is a word for arbitrary power

Jesus once told nuns to sack pregnant teachers. So why has he changed his mind?

Language shapes our thoughts. An odd Latin word, one we would never use in everyday speech, sits quietly at the heart of our public services and thus of our life as citizens. Ethos – the radioactive isotope that pulses silently through our health and education systems. It is the essence of the controversy over the national maternity hospital. It determines the most basic things, like access to a primary school. But it doesn’t mean what it pretends to mean.

It’s supposed to mean something solid and permanent. Ethos was thought of as the opposite of another word we sometimes use: pathos. Pathos is emotion, feeling, the unsteady responses that come and go. Ethos, by contrast, is, as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, “the quality of the permanent, as opposed to the transient or emotional”. It’s important to understand this because this is the way the Catholic church sees the current controversy. We mere citizens are emotional creatures and political compromises are transient arrangements. They are pathos.

The ethos, which the Sisters of Charity will guard, is forever.

And we have to admit that many Irish people still have more than a sneaking regard for this attitude. The promise of permanence has real attraction in a transient, precarious world. But we also have to realise that this promise is illusory. Ethos is not, in reality, a word for unchanging values. It is a word for arbitrary power, for bad governance, for lack of accountability.


Divine guidance

Let's go back to the landmark case that set in stone the ideas of ethos in our public services. In 1982, Eileen Flynn was sacked from her job in the Holy Faith school in New Ross because she was pregnant and had started a family with a man who was married to someone else. (There was no divorce back then.) The employment appeals tribunal and the courts sided with the nuns and upheld her dismissal because her lifestyle was not in keeping with the Catholic ethos of the order. This ruling has never been overturned.

In the tribunal hearing, Sister Pauline, the school principal, gave evidence of her reaction when she heard from parents about Eileen Flynn's situation: "I asked myself how Christ would have behaved in my position… I told them [the parents] that the Lord himself would find a way. I prayed very hard." Ms Flynn's solicitor, Simon Kennedy, asked Sister Pauline if she thought Christ would have dismissed the pregnant teacher. "Yes, Mr Kennedy," she said, "I do."

Catholic schools would collapse if female teachers were not using artificial contraception, which is against their ethos

This is ultimately what a religious ethos means in practice. The person in charge prays and Jesus tells her what to do. Jesus told Sister Pauline to sack Eileen Flynn and Jesus’s decision became the law of our republic. But here’s the thing. Jesus has apparently changed his mind.

There are now thousands of teachers in Catholic schools whose lifestyle is not in keeping with church teaching – teachers having extra-marital sex or living in sin, teachers who are pregnant but not married. Catholic schools would collapse if female teachers were not using artificial contraception, which is against their ethos. There are many Catholic schools where the principal is gay or lesbian and married to his or her partner. I know of at least one where the nuns turned up at the wedding reception. Isn’t it funny that Jesus doesn’t seem to mind anymore?

Arbitrary control

There is nothing wrong with people who manage public services praying to God for guidance. The problem is that what people hear back from God is very unclear: if it wasn’t we would have no religious wars. Sister Pauline heard Jesus tell her to sack a teacher; other nuns and priests and brothers have since heard Jesus tell them to show more forbearance or to avoid asking awkward questions. Ethos, as it turns out in practice, is entirely arbitrary.

And it's utterly unaccountable. Of its nature the communication between the manager and Jesus or Allah or Yahweh or the Manitou is private. It takes place, not on the public record, but in the depths of the soul. There are no memos or emails and no witnesses. It would be interesting to have the minutes of the meetings in which Jesus told our bishops and religious orders to protect child rapists by moving them around to prevent scandal but, alas, there are none. God's rulings can't be scrutinised. The recipient of divine guidance is merely a medium for the message and the ultimate source of authority cannot be held to account because he/she made the world.

There is no practical difference between someone who has a vision of God and someone who is just making it up

I don’t doubt the sincerity of those who believe themselves instruments of the divine. But in terms of process, there is no practical difference between someone who has a vision of God and someone who is just making it up because it suits some other financial or personal agenda. As a management principle, it is worse than useless. It is a charter for arbitrary control.

I would suggest therefore that ethos is a word that should have no place in public services. There are principles and values and rights and these should be set down openly in the law. We don’t need a fancy Latin name for this – there’s a perfectly good Greek one. It’s democracy.