Vatican loud on liberals but silent on abuse, writes Fintan O’Toole
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
We are witnessing the cruel humiliation of a generation of clergy that deserves better THERE’S A column I would have written a few years ago, but can’t be bothered to write now. It was a reliable old standby about the latest abuse of power by the institutional Catholic Church. It would be fuelled by anger and by expectation – rage at the hierarchy’s latest folly but an implicit hope that the innate decency of Irish Catholicism would some day be allowed to blossom. There was something real at stake in this argument – the church’s hold on Irish public culture was so strong that everything it did mattered.
I thought about writing one of those columns in response to the Vatican’s censuring of five priests – Brian D’Arcy, Tony Flannery, Gerard Moloney, Seán Fagan and Owen O’Sullivan – simply for saying what most Catholics actually think about celibacy, women priests and homosexuality. But I couldn’t find either anger or hope. All that’s left is a double dose of sadness – for a generation of idealists; for a society in need of moral leadership that is being given just one more, all too familiar dose of the most abject cynicism.
What we’re seeing now is the sadistic humiliation of a generation of clergy that deserves better. At a simple human level, there’s something genuinely tragic in the fate of these priests: not just those who have been silenced but all their like-minded colleagues. These were once young men and women, mostly in rural Ireland, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. They were infused with the energy of reform and renewal. The priesthood still had glamour, and it was still tied up with familial snobbery, social prestige and institutional arrogance.
But there was also a promise of something more: that the institution to which they were drawn was changing, opening up, moving away from cult-like obedience to obsessive sexual doctrines. It was engaging with deep questions about power and poverty. And it was reasonable to think that this process was sure to continue, to imagine that by 2012 the church would long since have made its peace with democracy. These young men and women may have been naive, but they were not contemptible. Their families and communities invested in them their often meagre resources of pride and hope and idealism. They returned that investment, in many cases, by expanding the narrow horizons of the world from which they had come. Especially those who worked in developing countries brought back experiences and ideas that made Ireland a richer, more complex place. The relative success with which new migrants were integrated in the last decade, for example, owes much to their influence.
These people don’t deserve to be called to heel like errant lapdogs. It is easy to say that they should refuse to follow orders or just walk away from an abusive institution. But that would be to walk away from the only adult life they’ve known. It would be to write off decades of work and sacrifice – to accept that the most profound decision of one’s life was based on a delusion. It’s desperately sad that what should have been a noble story in Irish life should end so cruelly.
But there’s also a sadness for Ireland itself. Our society hardly needs yet more hypocrisy, another layer of self-serving cynicism. The institutional church disgraced itself by systematically covering up child abuse. It is almost beyond belief that its final conclusion from that trauma – the real outcome of all those apologies and visitations – is that the true problem is some mildly liberal articles in Reality or the Sunday World. This is the institution that told us that it was unable to control child rapists in its ranks because it couldn’t just issue orders. Remember Cardinal Cahal Daly writing to the parents of a victim of the hideous abuser Brendan Smyth: “There have been complaints about this priest before, and once I had to speak to the superior about him. It would seem that there has been no improvement. I shall speak with the superior again.”
Remember the stuff about how bishops were lords in their own dioceses and religious orders were their own kingdoms? When priests were raping children, the institutional hierarchy was wringing its hands and pleading “what can we do?” The Vatican was very busy and very far away.
But when a priest makes some mild suggestions that women might be entitled to equality, the church is suddenly an efficient police state that can whip that priest into line. The Vatican, which apparently couldn’t read any of the published material pointing to horrific abuse in church-run institutions, can pore over the Sunday World with a magnifying glass, looking for the minutest speck of heresy. An institution so stupid that it thinks its Irish faithful is more scandalised by Brian D’Arcy than by Brendan Smyth is not worth anyone’s anger. It is doing a far better job of destroying itself than its worst enemies could dream of. All we can do is mourn the passing of a strain of decency and hope in a society so inured to hypocrisy that one more example is neither here nor there.