The world’s best Catholics?

RELIGION / With the discovery of children's graves in Canada, the Canadians are arguably making the Irish rank as «the world's best Catholics.»

The Best Catholics in the World: The Irish, the Church and the End of a Special Relationship
Author: Derek Scally
Publisher: Penguin Books, USA

It may seem easy to push the scandals within the Catholic Church out into the political periphery. After all, we have been witnessing them for decades. Now more and more unmarked children’s graves are being discovered in Canada. It reveals the state’s systemic abuse of the country’s indigenous peoples; one abuse seems to merge with the others across time, theme, and national borders. It is about the mechanisms that enable a society to use legitimate violence against its most defenseless.

These mechanisms are particularly well explored in Ireland, a country that was a Catholic stronghold for centuries. Derek Scally, Irish author of the book The Best Catholics in the World, is particularly suitable for the exercise. As a young man, he left Ireland, settled in Germany and has been a correspondent for the Irish Times for the last twenty years. The need to delve deeper into his and his countrymen’s identity repeatedly led him back to the country that, in the 1990s, was put on the world map with a bang. In 1994 the pastor Brendan Smyth of the Norbertine order was accused of sexually abusing children – the verdict specified abuse of 143 victims. Delays in his extradition led to the collapse of the Dublin government.

Smyth was previously the subject of a secret investigation, but it remained fruitless, and continued his child abuse for another 16 years. For critics, the cardinal responsible for the investigation symbolized all that was wrong with the Catholic Church: it was authoritarian, dogmatic and more concerned with the institution’s reputation than with the well-being of children. With all that followed, the Smyth scandal led to the breaking of an ancient taboo – never to criticize the clergy and bring the church into disrepute.

A year later, Andrew Madden became the first victim of the church’s sexual abuse of children to go public. Several followed, and neither Ireland nor the Catholic Church was ever the same.

To create structures for control

Catholic Ireland rose to power and splendour through the ages before disappearing into shame and deadly silence. Before Christianity invaded the Celts on the archipelago, they worshipped many gods, as did so many other peoples. They had no experience with hierarchy. According to Scally, the spread of the first Christians was marked by evolution, oppression and pragmatism, skillfully orchestrated by the pope in Rome. The green island had been isolated, and then the world opened up with new languages, knowledge, and ideas.

Ireland experienced a fateful intertwining of church and state. A main goal was to create structures for control. Part of the system was about money – so-called planned gifts. There were door-to-door actions, and everyone was informed that the gift had to be large enough to «hurt» as it was to reflect good faith. They were reminded that everything we have comes from God, so now he only got back what was his. Chancellor of the Exchequer sat in Rome. Priests and monks became the new local leaders – and abbots and bishops the new kings, with corresponding wealth. Everything was brought under strict control – and the lust for the flesh was a core theme. Today’s clergy does not have to search long for role models.

One consequence of this hierarchical servility was a lack of individuality and, consequently, a lack of interpersonal respect. Scally describes 1970s Ireland as characterized by passive conformity.

The German humanist and therapist Erich Fromm stated, «we are all capable of anything, under certain circumstances”. In line with this, Scally’s evaluation of his Catholic background is devastating and differentiated – examples of guilt and shame are kept apart. But the silent majority is not spared. Through various interviews, it is revealed how much people knew – in silence. And how willing they were to condemn.

Marking In Relation To Child Graves In Canada.

Magdalene laundries

Take the «Magdalene laundries». This was a group of at least 10,000 single mothers, victims of rape, abuse, and orphans. The church and state encouraged their families to see them as scum, loose prostitutes. Their sin, according to Scally, was «to show the gap between the ideal and the reality of our Catholic country.» These women were locked up in laundries run by religious orders, where they toiled without payment as penance for their «sins.» Several countries had similar conditions in a Puritan era, which ended in the first half of the 20th century. Except for Ireland. In the time after state independence, the laundries provided means of galvanizing national identity. Women who did not live up to the ideal of pure virginity were thus deposited in this prison architecture. The women were invisible – and so was the shame.

The laundries lasted until the late 1990s. In 1993, a mass grave with 155 bodies was found on the property of a monastic order, and its dark secrets saw the light of day. But it was not until 2013 that a formal apology came from the Irish state with financial compensation to the survivors. The religious orders that ran the laundries refrained from contributing.

In 1993, a mass grave with 155 bodies was found on the property of a monastic order.

Searches and beliefs

With the discovery of children’s graves in Canada, the Canadians are arguably challenging the Irish as «the world’s best Catholics”. The so-called residential schools – more than 130 – were run by Catholic orders. Children from the First Nations were outright stolen, imprisoned, forced into a foreign culture, a foreign language, and subjected to sexual abuse and general neglect. On behalf of the state, approximately 100 children were to be forced into «Christian civilization.» The boarding schools lasted until the 1970s.

The scandals are just the beginning, here or there. The search follows. And the self-examination? Neither the Catholic nor the Protestant Church has much experience with this.

Scally praises the German ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ – the Germans’ will to process their Nazi past. Can the church do something similar? If the answer is yes, the next question is what is left. In 2004, during a public debate in Munich between the future Pope Joseph Ratzinger and the left-liberal philosopher Jürgen Habermas, Ratzinger maintained that a modern, rational society «must be able to listen to the great religious traditions of mankind.» Habermas went so far as to acknowledge the limits of reason and the value of faith. The question is whether this faith can grow within the cold walls of the church.

Ranveig Eckhoff
Ranveig Eckhoff
Norwegian journalist and regular critic at Modern Times Review.

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