Prodigal Daughters are not put on pedestals


EVERYONE, religious or not, can take a useful interest in how Bishop Brendan Comiskey's return is fitted in to the national life. I notice, for instance, an intense desire to put him back on a pedestal, albeit a different pedestal to the old one.

In this newspaper the day before yesterday, an editorial made this kind of comment: "Is Christ's Church not, after all, a Church of sinners? Are there not enough plaster saints on parade? And would it not be refreshing for a member of the Hierarchy to be able to face his people and say `Yes, we are less then perfect'. . . ?"

This seems to me a bit hard on bishops who have managed to achieve blameless lives. "Plaster saints" is a trifle dismissive of the colleagues who have failed in nothing except to attract less publicity than Dr Comiskey. But even further heights of enthusiasm are scaled. Dr Comiskey "may be able to bear witness in a way that is unique, perhaps even giving contemporary embodiment to that most wonderful of parables - the Prodigal Son..."

I can only say that nobody remarked when, as a consequence of "the Catholic ethos" in Irish schools, Eileen Flynn was deprived of her living and frustrated in her vocation as a teacher, that she was a refreshing change from the plaster saints around. Nobody mentioned a Prodigal Daughter. She fell short of the standards demanded in a Catholic system - in a secular system, she had done nothing at all wrong. She was therefore punished. For life.

She is an example of the thousands and hundreds of thousands and millions of women who have incurred this or that punishment devised by the men of the Catholic Church. The ones trying to conceal babies, the ones trying to conceal abortions, the ones - as I well remember - passing dog eared little pamphlets about birth control to each other in secrecy in the hope of finding out how not to get pregnant again.

The Catholic Church has spent several millenniums perfecting its controls over women. It defines escape from those controls as "sin", and somehow sin, when it is a woman's, is seen as negative. The buoyantly positive view the leader writer expresses of whatever failings Dr Comiskey may have, has rarely, in my memory, applied to anyone else.

Indeed, leaving the usual double standard out of it - which is difficult enough when you're talking about an all male patriarchy - if a politician or a business person issued the wholly misleading statement issued on Dr Comiskey's behalf when he left Ireland, would not he or she be pilloried? Even though politicians and managers don't make rules of behaviour enforceable by eternal reward or punishment?

It may be that there's a need for episcopal heroes. Certainly, when Dr Comiskey made a mild remark about discussing the celibacy rule, it rang out so sharply against the silence of his peers that he was hailed as if he were Young Lochinvar. The same Dr Comiskey - as I pointed out at the time - was not really an advocate of free speech. He had called for an utterly destructive boycott of the Irish Press newspaper simply because a writer made a little joke about the Madonna.

But something operates in respect to this bishop, and perhaps all bishops, that subverts common sense. For instance, Father Colm Kilcoyne, a commentator I trust and admire and never miss reading, sounds the same note of paradoxical joy as the leader writer in The Irish Times. Brendan Comiskey, Father Kilcoyne says, "now has the credibility of failure. The authority of weakness." (I bet Paul McGrath, to name but one person with weaknesses that get them into trouble, wishes he'd thought of that concept.) Then, unfortunately for anyone who has read Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Dr Comiskey is compared to Peter Damien, the leper saint of Molokai.

"Maybe the hierarchy now have a very valuable member," Father Kilcoyne wrote in yesterday's Sunday Tribune, "one who can talk with authority about weakness, demons, addictions, being broken, hell on earth, being a fugitive, rejection and having to cope with public shame ..." Now hang on. I thought the whole thing about our pastors was that they didn't have to experience things themselves to understand them?

I thought they could lay down the law about the conduct of the marriage bed, to take an example, no less authoritatively for never having been there themselves? But leaving that aside - though this Rimbaudian picture of the great priest as the great sinner is worth nailing as yet another attempt to reinstate Dr Comiskey's status - what is all this about "hell on earth"?

As I understand it, Dr Comiskey flew in reasonable comfort to a top class American therapy centre where, among other reliefs from the work he had to do, he studied press cuttings about himself. I've no doubt that he suffered. But if he had taken "the option of the poor", he'd know what hell on earth is like.

BUT alcoholics at Dr Comiskey's level don't go down to Sister Consilio in Athy or into the nearest county hospital or up to Dublin to John of God's. They're different. They can't be seen to mix. And then they have money. They take the option appropriate to their class, just as Ben Dunne did, when he went into that top dollar addiction clinic in London.

A great many ordinary Irish alcoholics face their demons in evil smelling old buildings, where fights break out over pats of butter, where hopeless, heartbroken people sit all day in draughty corridors without thought of therapy, where they have nothing and no one to prop up their self esteem, and they smoke all day with trembling fingers to forget the longing for the drink they can't get at because the doors are locked. By definition, they have no press cuttings.

"If we let him," Father Kilcoyne generously says, "Brendan Comiskey can hold the hand of all of us who are lost or frightened as we stumble through Gethsemane or sweat blood at the thought of being honest ..." Well, I don't know about "all of us". I value the help of exemplary figures, myself. But to me, Dr Comiskey hasn't behaved decently or wisely enough to be an exemplary figure. (I don't say that righteously: I'm no exemplar myself.) However, Dr Comiskey - whet her the person or the office - has a different meaning for other people. He certainly seems to be benefiting from a confusion about the grounds on which to base an estimate of him now.

Is he a person who has proclaimed the message of the loving Christ? His people, warmly welcoming him back on radio yesterday were certainly living the Gospel.

Or is he primarily a senior manager - very much at home with the modern manager's style - in an institution which happens to be called the Roman Catholic Church? If so, is be an effective manager? His sermon on Saturday was quite dramatic, but the questions surrounding him are quite simple, really, as everyone will see when the dramatics are over. Banal, even.

This is about the responsibility that accompanies power. It is not a Graham Greene novel.