Michael McDowell: Church, State and society all owe redress over homes

Pointscoring on mother and baby homes distracts from what politicians must now do

A somewhat fractious debate has emerged on whether responsibility, legal or moral, for the awful neglect and ill-treatment of Ireland’s unmarried mothers and their children lies with the State, the churches, or with society at large. It is a combination of all three. A duty of acknowledgment of responsibility and of redress lies with all three. The state is an emanation of society; the churches were integral parts of that society. Our church-dominated society perpetrated this terrible mistreatment of its weakest and most vulnerable.

Apart from the appalling level of infant mortality, the outline of this shameful aspect of independent Ireland has never been secret. It was a case of unacknowledged acquiescence.

We see some competitive outrage by public figures. We also saw that when we established the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes five years ago. No present elected politician is to blame for what happened. So point scoring between them is a distraction from what is now their responsibility – doing justice to the surviving victims.

Winter Nights

Bishops, priests and nuns have expressed remorse. One was reported here as wondering “how a Catholic country seemed to go so far away from what’s really at the heart of the gospel”. A good question – and any intelligent priest can find the answer fairly easily.


In 1934, the archdiocese of Tuam (in which the county home for unmarried mothers managed by the Bon Secours order for Galway County Council was located) held a clergy conference to discuss, among other topics, the “scandal of illegitimate births”. The conference minutes recorded this decision:

“Whenever an illegitimate birth occurs in a parish, and is publicly known, the scandal ought to be denounced without mentioning names, with a view to calling the guilty to repentance and as a deterrent to others. The denunciation ought to be in sorrow more than in anger and the preacher ought to point to the scandal as:

A grave sin against the sacrament of matrimony and against the sixth commandment,

A degradation of the soul,

A disgrace to the family,

A sin against the good name of the locality.

Not only is the general permission given, but a direction is also given, to make this denunciation. In a special case, after consultation with His Grace the Archbishop, the matter may be deferred for a time. But in every case the scandal is to be immediately referred to the archbishop.”

Bishops might make some start on moral reparation by publicly admitting that contraception is not intrinsically evil

Canon Kieran Waldron, astute clerical historian of the Tuam archdiocese, rightly wrote in 2008, that this procedure which “would create horror to modern sensibilities” remained in common use in Ireland until the 1950s. Denunciation was no social secret; nor were its consequences.

Utterly lonely servitude

To avoid denunciation and family disgrace, pregnant girls were dealt with before their pregnancy became “publicly known”, quietly banished with the clergy’s assistance to mother and baby homes for their confinement and for separation from their baby, often for a post-natal period of work-service in the case of the poor, and sometimes for a lifetime of utterly lonely servitude.

The huge scandal of infant death rate at Tuam (which was kept secret) did not attract the diocesan conference’s attention.

These minutes are irrefutable evidence of causation – a hierarchical church, at every level, consciously choosing to use its magisterium to cruelly stamp on unmarried mothers and their babies so to deter the “scandal” of birth of a human being born, still less raised, outside marriage. Did those attending pray for divine guidance or enlightenment at the beginning of the conference?

Until 1983, illegitimate men were disqualified under canon law from ordination. Canon Law Made Easy – an American Catholic website – is still explaining online that this was done to prevent “the ranks of the Catholic clergy” from devolving into “little more than a dumping-ground for social outcasts”.

Bishops and priests might make some start on moral reparation by publicly admitting that contraception is not intrinsically evil. Our criminal law was shaped by such nonsense from 1935 until at least 1979. That would involve admitting that the papacy fallibly erred in Casti Conubii (1930) and Humanae Vitae (1967).

They might stop silencing priests who see the moral light. They might evolve a moral vision that does not obsess on purity, impurity, sexuality, chastity and reproduction. Or they can choose to cling to the moral and doctrinal wreckage of infallibility over reason, of doctrinal conformity over empathy, the mind-set that is so damaging to any adherence to fundamental Christian values.

Ireland’s Cardinal Paul Cullen, a central promulgator of papal infallibility in 1870, famously condemned Home Rule for Ireland because he feared that an Irish parliament, if established, would turn its powers against the Catholic church.

Cullen’s church had a century of total dominance. It was not assailed by the newly independent parliament. It managed its own decline. Our republic can demonstrate its independence by doing real justice.