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Can Ireland now be liberated from Catholic guilt?

July 31, 2011

If you had told me 20 years ago that I would one day embrace the idea of an Ireland liberated from Catholicism, I would have never believed it. But last week, I felt a sense of relief and joy while reading Nelson Jones’ New Statesman column on the reaction by Irish leaders to the ongoing Catholic sex abuse scandal, particularly the recent Cloyne Report detailing yet more abuse and coverup among Irish clerics. Jones writes:

What has died as revelation has followed shameful revelation has been not just Catholic Ireland itself but nostalgia and respect for what Catholic Ireland represented. Along with horror and disgust, it’s possible to detect in the public reaction to the scandal something approaching a sense of liberation.

Growing up, I believed that Irish and Catholic were inextricably linked and that Irish Protestants were not *truly* Irish. I’m serious. That view stemmed from the centuries-long subjugation of my people by Protestant England and my obsession with Irish revolutionary songs, poems, movies, etc. If you were going to fight oppression, you had to stand with the Catholics. The other side was evil. And I had little tolerance for criticism of the church.

Well, the treatment of the Irish by the Brits was evil. No doubt about that.

But I have since come to appreciate the effect of Catholicism on the island of my forebears. It was not good. The church that came to power was misogynistic (trampling Ireland’s pagan and early Christian celebration of the female) and, as we all know, sexually repressive. For some reason, the Irish seemed particularly vulnerable to sexual guilt and shame in the same way they were vulnerable to alcoholism. What a terrible combination.

The church was upheld as the moral authority. Priests and bishops and, to some extent, nuns, determined who was sinful and what punishment should be meted out. And when it came to matters involving sex, marriage and children, the church could be particularly cruel. Unwed mothers forced to give up their children and toil in the church-run Magdalene Laundries. Girls could be labeled temptresses for flirting and sentenced to the same fate. A combination of sexual ignorance and theology led to unreasonably large families that put an enormous strain on all involved, especially the mothers. Due to Catholic influence, divorce was illegal in Ireland until 1996, which, of course, could pose problems for both men and women in unhappy marriages. But it could be especially devastating for abused women.

All these rules being handed down by men who have no real experience with sexual relationships, marriage or childbearing.

And then the revelations came. So many of the priests and bishops and nuns — the ones who railed against sexual sin — had perpetrated the sickest sexual perversion imaginable by abusing children and/or covering up the evidence of abuse.

Finally, it seems the Irish are waking up to the unhealthy culture of shame and secrecy and hypocrisy the church created, albeit with the complicity of the people in the pews. The Cloyne Report, which showed a diocese in County Cork had not reported the majority of sex abuse allegations between 1996 to 2009. The report details allegations against 19 priests of the diocese.

Quotes from Irish PM Enda Kenny’s address to parliament have been circulating on the Web and in news stories. They are powerful, overdue words:

“The Cloyne Report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism, that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.”

Another gem:

“This is not Rome. Nor is it industrial-school or Magdalene Ireland, where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity, and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish-Catholic world. This is the ‘Republic’ of Ireland 2011. A Republic of laws, of rights and responsibilities, of proper civic order, where the delinquency and arrogance of a particular version of a particular kind of ‘morality’ will no longer be tolerated or ignored.”

Amen.

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