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Una Mullally: Irish Catholics should not endorse a toxic Church

Attending papal events supports an organisation that has failed to address its wrongs

“I truly hate disloyal people.” Eric Trump tweeted, presumably in response to Omarosa Manigault Newman. The former US presidential aide is currently drip feeding damaging – if that term hasn’t lost all meaning when it comes to Donald Trump – and secretly recorded audio in what is one of the greatest promotions in recent history, for her book Unhinged. Loyalty can be a cloudy quality, especially when it comes to people, things or institutions that don’t deserve it. In those cases, it’s loyalty, not disloyalty that compromises you in the end.

Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s most senior advisers, has a term for a particular virulent group of loyalists who stand by the president: “the October 8th coalition”. The date refers to those who kept blindly supporting Trump in the wake of the release of an Access Hollywood tape in which the then candidate bragged about sexually assaulting women. That moment, through Conway’s lens, was not a moment for abandonment, but a test of loyalty, a loyalty that was unshakable even knowing and hearing the most grotesque attributes and aspects of the man.

When an information booklet and road closure map came through my letterbox detailing the papal visit to Dublin city centre and the Phoenix Park, I thought about loyalty, the loyalty of the crowds of Catholics who will rally and gather when the pope comes to Ireland this weekend. You can’t pull the scales from people’s eyes, they have to fall themselves, and for those who will celebrate the leader of the Catholic Church, those scales, presumably, remain intact.

Celebrations of faith

It may be nice to think of the papal visit and its ancillary events as celebrations of faith, but they are celebrations and endorsements of an organisation, the hierarchy of which continues to put the defence of the institution ahead of the interests of victims of clerical child abuse, as Mary McAleese said at the weekend in an interview on RTÉ Radio 1.


When the scale of the abuse of children became known in Ireland, many people lost their loyalty. They stopped going to Mass. They may have held on to their faith in a personal way that no longer intersected with the organisation of the Catholic Church. Many others hung on in there, and defend their association with Catholicism in Ireland using the acrobatics of cognitive dissonance with caveats galore: that there are good priests (no one says there aren’t); that there were a few bad apples (as opposed to a terrifyingly large number who relied on the shady tactics of cover-ups that came from the highest levels of the church’s organisation); that personal faith is different to the structures of a religious organisation (but cannot reconcile leaving the Catholic Church and joining another Christian church instead).

It's not enough enlightened Catholics merely think about what victims of the Church's reign of abuse went through

On that last point, a reasonable counter is to argue why should people abandon their religion because of the actions of others? Fair enough. But how many current lay Catholics have made protests beyond just thinking the abuse scandals were awful? How many have marched demanding the outstanding redress money? How many have written to senior clergy asking for accountability for the church’s actions? The answer is not enough.

Many people talk about separating their faith from the organisation, and their religion from the hierarchy, but it’s a messy dance. If you are a practising Catholic in Ireland, the church is your organisation. It is, we’re often told, the sum of its people. So Irish Catholics have to own that. That’s your team. Those are your guys. As a member of the church, that’s your space to hold. What are you really loyal to? Often, pointing this out is labelled “unfair”. But there is a difference between being unfair and just being hard to hear.

Embattled defensiveness

Because there is an embattled defensiveness at the core of the Catholic Church in Ireland and its congregation, it’s almost impossible to enter this fray without being deferential from the outset. The Catholic Church is apparently entitled to discriminate, demean, marginalise and exclude, but everyone else must always go in softly softly when pointing this out. Personally, I don’t think it’s enough that this weekend enlightened Catholics merely think about what victims of the Catholic Church’s reign of abuse, violence, manipulation and cover-ups in this country and elsewhere went through and continue to go through. Is it not deeds that matter more than words?

There are opportunities for lay Catholics to test the loyalty of the hierarchy to them. There is a Stand For Truth gathering organised by Colm O’Gorman at the Garden of Remembrance on Parnell Square in Dublin on Sunday at 3pm. Perhaps consider going there instead of the Phoenix Park. It may feel a bit sad to be missing out on the big event, to sacrifice being able to say that you were there. But attending papal events this week is an endorsement of an organisation, led by this pope, that has done nowhere near enough to atone for or to make right – financially, but also much deeper than that – the trauma they have inflicted, the lives that were destroyed or near-destroyed, the sorrow they caused. Abuse is toxic. Corruption is toxic. But loyalty can be toxic too.