I was up late last night watching a debate in the Dail. The government introduced emergency legislation to liquidate IRBC, formerly Anglo-Irish Bank, the bank at the heart of Ireland’s financial collapse. There was war in the parliament as opposition TDs, appalled at the government’s tactics, vented their rage. It seems they were only given a short time to read the Bill and then were asked to vote for it for the sake of the country: of course many of them refused to do so. But the opposition parties have no real whack – the government has a huge majority and the main opposition party endorsed the Bill too, so it was passed. The President, who is on a state visit to Italy, was flown home in the middle hours of the morning to sign it into law: he has done so and is now back in Italy continuing his visit. Given the President’s age, it will be a very hard day for him after all that nocturnal activity.
What I find most interesting is that this Bill, it seems, was being secretly prepared for some time, so as to why they left it so late and just sprung it upon the Dail I do not know. However it has done the government a service: it has pushed the report into the Magdalen Laundries to one side as the media give blanket coverage to the Bill. The report examined the government’s part in the abuse of women in those dreadful institutions; during a debate in the Dail following its publication, the Taoiseach refused to give a proper apology for the State’s role, saying he needed space to think about it – imagine if a bishop said that when the various reports into child abuse came out. The media were covering this refusal all day yesterday. But that’s all forgotten now, although the government is coming in for some criticism for what many see as a fiasco in the Dail last night. Distraction in place, but has it backfired?
As regards the Magdalen Laundries, given that the Taoiseach was extremely critical of the Church and the Vatican for its tardiness in dealing with the issue of abuse, one would have thought he would have been consistent himself and make amends instead of pleading for time to think about an apology.
To be honest I cannot understand how the Church got involved in the Magdalen Laundries. They were an invention of well meaning Protestants who wanted to raise up fallen women, but as with a lot of these initiatives they lacked not only real Christian faith, but basic humanity. Now I know that not all the Laundries were as bad as painted, but I think there were fundamental flaws at the heart of them. For one thing I think their charism was more about Victorian prudery, respectability and punishment than Christianity - among other abuses, they dehumanised the women who lived in them and there is nothing Christian about that. I sometimes think that Catholicism as it developed in the 19th and 20th centuries in Ireland was influenced more by Victorianism than real Catholicism. It seems that Irish Catholics adopted that spurious respectability and intolerance that was more Puritan than Catholic. Real Christian values of compassion, forgiveness, charity, hope and restoration were forgotten and instead respectability and pushing the “sinner” under the carpet was the norm; and that led to huge injustices.
Why did this happen? I think it was the fruit of too close an alliance with the prevailing social attitudes of the day. It is well known that when the Church renounces her prophetic nature and conforms to the fashions and morality of any given age she suffers – and so too those we are suppose to be helping. Christians adopting the puritanical respectability of Victorianism undermine real Christianity where respectability has no place – in Christianity we are to act in response to the love of Christ and to share that love with those who need to experience it. Jesus eschewed respectability – he chose to die in the most shameful way possible in order to redeem us. We Catholics were rarely respectable, too often down the centuries polite society was appalled at us, at our beliefs and our practices. Many of our Saints were considered crazy because they did not conform to the narrow norms of society, but took the Gospel as their rule rather than public opinion: just look at St Francis.
The holy founders of charitable institutes in the Church offer us powerful examples of the right response to social problems at any given time. When we reflect on what they did we see that they did not seek to create harsh, penitential environments, but rather homes where women and men who had fallen could again find their human dignity and be helped to start new lives. There was no judgment: yes there was urging to repent of sin but with the realisation that we are all sinners. I think of the Servant of God Frank Duff who, with his first Legionaries, sought to help prostitutes. He set up a house for them, not a laundry, where they could live and from where they could begin to make a new life for themselves, get jobs and as soon as they could set up new homes for themselves.
We have other great founders who did likewise, but whose spiritual sons and daughters drifted away from their ideas. Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice was the Don Bosco of his day. In founding the Christian and Presentation Brothers he wanted to form a community of brothers united in love and in service of the young. They were to teach with love, there was to be no physical punishment, but correction had to be made on the basis of love and respect for the child – Don Bosco’s Preventative system in embryo. That his congregations should be at the heart of the abuse crisis is not only tragic but ironic – Blessed Edmund sought and did the exact opposite in his life.
All of this should be a timely warning to us today. Once again we are being told that the Church must “update” herself, conform to the fashions and thinking of the age – to abandon her prophetic stance to conform to temporal and temporary ideologies. If she does so she will be cooperating with dreadful practices and condoning a godless relativism that ultimately undermines the dignity of the human person and is centred on pleasure and selfish self-fulfilment. This is the opposite of Victorian Puritanism and respectability, but just as poisonous and dangerous to the Church and her mission. Whether we like it or not, as Christians we live in the world and should help the world, but we are not of the world, our home lies elsewhere. We profess universal truths and seek to witness to true love, we must not allow narrow societal ideologies and attitudes distract us.