The priest: from oracle to ignoramus
Once upon a time the priest knew everything. And anyone who wanted to know anything asked a priest. ‘Father’ always knew best. We know now, with the great benefit of hindsight, that this wasn’t such a good idea. For one thing the priest sometimes imagined he knew more than he did; there were no ‘unknowns’ in that self-contained and ultra-confident clerical world. And sometimes the people imagined they knew less than they knew. For every action, we learned in science class, there’s a reaction. If the pendulum swings to one extremity, the chances are that it will eventually swing to the other.
When power is abused, when control becomes oppressive, when position becomes more important than common sense, there’s a serious imbalance. And eventually the house of cards crumbles. Now we live in a very different country. Now the priest knows nothing and anything he says is either wrong or self-serving or defensive or controlling or oppressive. Or whatever you’re having yourself.
How did we get from there to here, from infallibility to demonisation? The reasons are multiple and, no doubt, social commentators will analyse them in future years to plot the change. But one thing, I believe, is driving the rejection of the Catholic Church, the demonisation of clergy and religious, and the privatisation of religion. Anger and its first cousin, resentment.
Eamon Dunphy talked on Gay Byrne’s, The Meaning Of Life, about the deep faith of his parents. The family of four lived in one room. His parents felt they couldn’t afford another child and they decided to abstain from sex because their local priest told them it was the right thing to do.
When Dunphy spoke of his parents’ reliance on the advice of their priests, as his father shared it in a local pub, you could see the pain contorting Dunphy’s face as he recalled it. Yet his parents’ experience of faith, a faith that stayed with them to the end, was something that enriched their lives.
How much of the present anger and bitterness now being directed at the Catholic Church have their roots in resentment over trusting too much in church wisdom in sexual matters.
The Dominican philosopher, Fergal O Connor, often advised on the fledgling Late, Late Show in the 1960s, that the Church should stay out of the bedroom.
Priests and religious in Ireland have made an enormous contribution to education for most of the twentieth century. Without their commitment, energy and expertise, the education system would have ground to a halt. Hundreds of thousands who were lucky enough to receive a secondary education would not have had that privilege without the input of the Catholic Church.
During those years, life was tough. Resources were limited. Schools were basic. Discipline was severe. Corporal punishment was the rule. And while society and families and individuals benefitted from the Church’s involvement in education, the memory now is not of the contribution the Church made which has been successfully airbrushed from the popular mind but resentments about the physicality of school discipline, a given for most of that time.
Three, unmarried mothers.
The public condemnation by priests of unmarried mothers, sometimes ‘from the altar’, was deeply resented at the time and is part of the residue of church diktat that still generates huge anger.
Four, Lisheens. (Children’s burial grounds)
The refusal of the church to allow unbaptised babies to be buried in ‘consecrated ground’ is part of the same well of resentment and anger.
There are other resentments too in relation to the Church personnel getting it wrong (not least priests throwing their weight around) but what really released the dam of anger and emotion was the revelation of clerical sexual abuse and the failure of the Church to understand its enormity and to do something about it. The revelations on clerical sexual abuse gave people the freedom to surface and to name the other resentments.
We are now at the stage where any failure or scandal emanating from the past that has a religious connection becomes another lightning conductor for releasing pent-up anger and resentment at the Catholic Church. And regardless of how substantial or insubstantial the church connection, the media surfs the popular resentment.
The latest scandal about the Mother and Babies Homes is a case in point.
Shortly after the Tuam story broke, on Faith Alive, a religious magazine programme on Mid-West Radio, I tried to sum up what was known. I quoted the Irish Times report that much of the media coverage was inaccurate, as the local historian who broke the story had intimated and I suggested that we needed to get hard data before we could pronounce definitively on it.
I also said two other things about the controversy. One, that the Catholic Church had to hold up its hand and take responsibility for the failure of its personnel in the running of those homes and more generally for helping to create in Irish society an attitude to unmarried mothers that was, to say the least, less than Christian. Two, I said that we had to remember that the women’s families had rejected them and their babies and that civil authorities and Irish society in general had to take responsibility too.
I felt, in the circumstances, that those were reasonable points to make. But my comments drew a very negative response, principally because I was a priest and what I was saying was interpreted as excusing, rationalising, contextualising. To paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davis, ‘He would, wouldn’t he’.
The plain and simple truth is that the hurt can be so deep, the emotion so raw that it’s just not possible for priests or religious to engage with such issues in anything approaching rational debate.
Once priests knew everything. Now we’re not trusted to say anything.