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The unsustainability of unaccountability
For over two hundred years, one pervasive organization in Ireland was never called to account or held to account. Yet, as it amassed more wealth, influence and power, especially from 1795 onwards, it provided the leitmotif of Irish life for both the cowed and bowed, and the smug bourgeoise. It paid to keep everyone in their place. It was imperative to avoid the abomination of the humble inheriting the earth or, those so accurately described by Yeats as fumbling in the greasy till, getting their comeuppance. This organization reached its absolute zenith in 1967 with an army of 25,767 at home and a further 8,202 on postings abroad, outnumbering the combined members of An Garda Síochána and the Irish armed forces by 17 per cent in that year. Its demise began, slowly enough at first over the next five years, with the introduction of free secondary education, Ireland’s belated enlightenment heralded by joining the European Economic Community, and the removal of its ‘special place’ in society from the Irish constitution. Its demise was accelerated by some darn fine investigative journalism in the 1990s and early noughties. Now it’s just another curious, anachronistic enigma from a bygone age; its epic volte face in Irish life so startling that there now exists a generation of Irish adults whose lives have been untouched by its influences. That institution is the Catholic Church with its special brand of ‘Irish Catholicism’.
Dr Tony O’Dwyer has done us an important public service by examining the rise and fall of the Catholic Church in Ireland over 200 years, through exhaustive and meticulous research and a dogged attempt to understand this strange phenomenon in Irish life through social, political, economic, historical, cultural and theological prisms. The shameful journey is described in Betrayal by Silence: The Collapse of the Irish Catholic Church – Has it a Future? It’s an uncomfortable read; unsettling in its expositions and alarming in its extrapolations. O’Dwyer paints a grim picture and the brush stroke is bold in its honesty. It’s a bumpy ride full of embarrassingly awkward questions and inconvenient truths. O’Dwyer was a Columban priest himself, so he has valid insights to bring to this enormous subject.
The Catholic Church in Ireland did, once upon a time, enjoy a significant spell of spirituality and mysticism, but the march of history can render the goodness out of a beautiful thing and leave behind an uglier version of itself. Yes, there is no denying that the early Irish monks helped to keep the flames of literary and artistic civilisation alive during Europe’s Dark Ages. Yes, there is no denying the human rights abuse of the Penal Laws against Irish Catholics. So how did the rot set in and how was it allowed to spread like a toxic, genetic mutation into the classrooms, bedrooms, hospitals, cinemas, theatres, media, and government of an underpopulated, undereducated Atlantic pit stop between Europe and America? How were the beehive huts and the hedge schools devoured by a proud beast demanding unquestioning deference and an education system that was merely a front for an indoctrination machine?
Take the Catalogue of the Saints of Ireland, compiled in the 9th and 10th centuries to put a positive spin on the brand of Patrick and his bishops at the expense of the monks and hermits. It divided the clergy into three orders – bishops of the Patrician Church whose ministries were influenced by St Patrick, the more conventional monks who were influenced by early British missionaries, and hermits who lived the more ascetic life.
In early Christian Ireland the social system, with its emphasis on kinship and personal rule readily embraced the monastic family with its abbot. The diocesan model of the Patrician Church imported from the Roman provinces could not be accommodated in sixth century Ireland because it lacked the network of urban centres and administration systems of its conquered neighbours. The Roman model of bishops and diocese waned, and by the end of the 6th century the Irish Church had become a church of monks. Their monasteries provided a classical curriculum comprised of the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Monastic schools also taught non-Christian writings. By the seventh century, monks studied and transcribed the works of Virgil and Horace among others.
This exemplary model was not to last though, and not because of the Vikings. By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the continental monastic orders of the Cistercians, Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Augustinians had moved into Ireland and superseded the older Irish monasteries. These orders introduced Aristotelianism, which emphasized logic over the literary, historical, or mythological study of classical works. Aristotle continued to dominate Irish education well into the seventeenth century while the rest of Europe ‘rediscovered’ the classics of Rome and Greece during the Renaissance, a cultural epoch which Ireland unfortunately did not experience. And then of course, the Henrician and subsequent waves of the Reformation put an end to monastic life in Ireland.
But it was the Tudor settlements, the Flight of the Earls and the Cromwellian plantations, which put in place a fledging Protestant ascendancy and gave Ireland the geopolitical shape it retains to this day. Vikings and Normans had been well and truly subsumed into Irish society, and anyway, let’s not forget that it was Pope Adrian IV (the only ever English pope, incidentally) who gave King Henry ll permission to conquer Ireland back in 1169. There is no doubt that the enforcement of the egregious anti-Catholic Penal Laws passed by an entirely Protestant Irish parliament following the Treaty of Limerick in 1691 made followers of the faith more determined than ever to practice it. Stories of priests on the run and secret Mass rocks were delivered in tones of hushed reverence when I was in primary school. The majority Catholic population having to pay tithes to the Established (Protestant) Church of Ireland kept simmering resentment and discontent well stirred. The 1801 Act of Union would set in motion a century of rebellion of Irish Catholics against the ruling Protestant regime. Henceforth, freedom fighter and Catholic was, in the main, interchangeable. Persecuting any sect will only strengthen its resolve, something I am reminded of every time I pass the Chinese embassy in Ballsbridge and see the Falun Gong peacefully meditating outside its gates.
Just three years before the 1798 Rebellion of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter United Irishmen, British Prime Minister, William Pitt saw the wisdom of funding the establishment of a Catholic seminary at Maynooth in 1795, as a way of keeping the Catholic bourgeoise sweet and using the graduate seminarians to control and police the uneducated masses, lest they be contaminated by the French Revolution. Pitt hoped that this, along with Catholic Emancipation in 1829, would seal the deal for a compliant Catholic population managed by a cooperative hierarchy.
This marriage of convenience between church and state would persist even after independence, and how very mutually supportive it turned out to be. For the next century, stern bishops and archbishops were trenchant in their condemnation of the Young Irelanders, the Fenians, land war activists, the 1913 Lockout, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence. After 1922, the same ridiculously attired and outrageously pompous hierarchy would turn their attentions to the daily lives of the unfortunate citizens. Assuming the role of moral policing, they were determined to control the activities of Roman Catholic citizens from birth to death and maintain the convenient status quo by managing the classes.
The nineteenth century poster boy for this railroading approach was the stern-faced Cardinal Paul Cullen. A keen advocate of ultramontanism and papal infallibility, Cullen’s boss could never be king or Kaiser; he would only be answerable to the pope in Rome, and he was determined to make the Irish church a Roman church. He also moved Catholicism in post-Famine Ireland a few rungs up the social ladder, giving the middle classes pride of place. This would become most evident in schools designated for rich and poor – all run by religious orders, and seminaries attended only by the sons of relatively prosperous farmers and shopkeepers. Broadly speaking, for the next 150 years or so, posh boys went to Jesuit schools; the rest went to the Christian (and other) Brothers. Mercy nuns and the Sisters of Charity ran industrial schools; Loreto and Cluny nuns did not. ‘Lower’ religious orders were given the rough jobs; more ‘respectable’ orders were given the smooth jobs. My mother in law, who was schooled by the lower orders of nuns in the nineteen twenties and thirties often quipped the contemporaneous phrase, ‘The Sisters of Charity have no mercy and the Sisters of Mercy have no Charity’. Class divisions were perpetuated in a way that suited the position of the Catholic Church just fine, with different rules for the rich and the poor.
O’Dwyer describes the completely inadequate, unsuitable and outdated training offered over generations to seminarians, and alarmingly, the absence of, or wholly ineffective psychological screening of candidates for such an unusually structured ‘career’. Any kind of questioning was disallowed and any semblance of analysis of the socio-economic, political and cultural conditions of the communities the seminarians would end up working in was completely ignored. It all came down to the vows of obedience and celibacy, and an overreliance on the mysterious authority of the Holy Ghost.
O’Dwyer reckons that he obediently and unquestioningly answered to 60,000 bells over his seven years seminary training, calling him to meals, class, study, prayer, and recreation. No decisions had to be made, no personal responsibility was practiced; it was one big Pavlovian circus. With five years in a diocesan secondary boarding school, seven years in a Columban seminary, and ten years working as a missionary priest in the Philippines O’Dwyer is well qualified to critique the organization, many of whose graduates he describes as growing into adulthood ‘frozen in adolescence’. With hindsight, he examines the captive audience who filled these flawed seminaries, and the damaged goods that came out the other side and who yet were given incredibly responsible roles in secular settings of which they had no knowledge, understanding or experience. They were given these roles as a God-given right, and inexplicably, their sense of entitlement and authority was accepted by their secular ‘customers’.
What made Ireland different from other predominantly Roman Catholic countries was the ratio of religious to lay people. By 1967 O’Dwyer tells us that there were 25,767 priests, nuns and brothers operating in Ireland, 42 per cent of whom were full time government employees, mainly in teaching and healthcare. In addition, a further 8,202 religious were working overseas. That’s a grand total of 33,969 religious being supported by a 32-county population of approximately four and a half million. And here’s one example of the quirky information O’Dwyer extrapolates from this. A similar ratio of religious to lay in the United States in 1967 would have resulted in almost one and a half million religious – pretty astounding you might agree?
O’Dwyer then does a cost analysis of the praying time of your average religious and the resultant bill footed by the Irish taxpayer in that peak year of 1967. Assuming they spent on average three hours a day engaged in spiritual exercises, the total, using today’s minimum wage, would amount to over €315 million per annum. And yet, O’Dwyer so astutely observes, not even one minute per day was officially allocated by the religious tasked with the institutional ‘care’ of children, to evaluating their services to these children. Isn’t it funny; the like of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and his squadrons of minions and lackeys, demanded unstinting accountability from the ‘faithful’ laity, while they were self-righteously accountable to no regulatory authority within the state? McQuaid’s death, says O’Dwyer, ‘signalled the end of several centuries of the church’s hegemony. In his legacy, he left no brave scouts among his tribe, and no feedback or accountability system from the Irish church to the Irish people.’ This is a powerful statement, to say that one’s legacy is in fact no legacy at all.
And so, the scene was set for an increasingly powerful organization, accountable to nobody but itself, having far too much say in the running of a country. The denouement would be ignoble, ending as it did with the publication of four commissions of enquiry – Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne – released to a shocked public between 2005 and 2010. O’Dwyer’s explanations of and discussions about these four reports should be compulsory reading for every college student in Ireland. All graduates, after all, will end up working in a sector that must provide accountability for its activities.
An organisation that played by its own rules – otherwise known as canon law, which conveniently takes precedence over secular law – and was completely unaccountable to the government and taxpayers who financed and facilitated it, would eventually find it increasingly difficult to continue in this way in a society where people were becoming more discerning and critical. The pity is though, that this discernment, while rejecting many of the church’s moral pronouncements, was happy for that same church to continue ‘caring’ for the most vulnerable children in our society behind the high and imposing walls of padlocked institutions. Three monkeys spring to mind, and one can only wonder how so many people in the legal and health professions, Department of Education personnel, teachers and gardaí chose to look the other way. Indeed, O’Dwyer reminds us how the Ryan Report criticized the ‘deferential and submissive attitude of the Department of Education towards (religious) Congregations.’
And all the while, the actions of some religious, committed with impunity, were magicked away in a Kafkaesque maelstrom of arcane rules. O’Dwyer gives us a chilling lesson on two methods of secrecy practiced by the Catholic Church. First up is the ad limina, a highly secret report that diocesan bishops must submit to the pope every five years, giving an account of everything they are responsible for, none of which have ever been made public. Interestingly though, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin told the Murphy Commission that his predecessor Archbishop Connell’s last ad limina report of 100 pages, written in 1999, contained ten lines dealing with the problem of child sexual abuse in the archdiocese. The second method, Crimen Solicitationis, imposed absolute secrecy on the reporting of crimes such as the clerical abuse of children. It was these very nefarious machinations that were highlighted in the Murphy Report into the Archdiocese of Dublin, where as O’Dwyer says, ‘canon law was used selectively when dealing with offending clergy, to the benefit of the cleric and the consequent disadvantage of his victims’.
O’Dwyer was unable to find a clear explanation as to why the four government inquiries (Ferns, Ryan, Murphy, Cloyne) did not require the bishops who gave witness to submit their ad limina reports, or at least the sections that dealt with child abuse. This would show unequivocally if such abuses had been reported to church and/or civil authorities. He bravely asks, ‘Did the popes, the Curia officials, the bishops and religious superiors collude in a cover-up supported by the highly sanctioned secretive Crimen Solicitationis decree?’ The courageous and ground-breaking documentary journalism of Mary Rafftery’s States of Fear, which led to a State apology to the abuse victims, and Cardinal Secrets, which led to the Murphy Report, left that secret behemoth with fewer and fewer fantasy documents to cover its tracks.
I look around the neighbourhood of Rathfarnham where I grew up, dominated by the Jesuit seminary of Rathfarnham Castle and Loreto Abbey. As in so many other parishes and villages around Ireland, the landmass occupied by religious orders was enormous. It’s all housing estates now – nice little earners for the orders and the property developers. Indeed, the foundation stone of the Church of the Annunciation in Rathfarnham was laid by Cardinal Paul Cullen in 1875, and the holy water font at the entrance is reputed to have been used in Penal times. The Catholic Church was intrinsically woven into the fabric of Irish life regardless of our engagement with it.
What chance did ordinary Irish citizens of all persuasions have when elected members of Dáil Eireann kowtowed to the Catholic hierarchy? As a history teacher in an adult education centre, I remember the shock and disappointed expressed by my band of worthy scholars, on learning of Sean MacBride’s ‘special’ relationship with the Catholic hierarchy.
It was 2014, and we had just read an Irish Times article by Stephen Collins describing how MacBride, one of Ireland’s iconic and esteemed freedom fighters, saw fit, as leader of Clann na Poblachta and Minister for External Affairs in the first inter-party government, which held office from 1948 until 1951, to draft a sycophantic message on behalf of An Taoiseach, John A Costello and the Irish government to Pope Pius XII. It read: “On the occasion of our assumption of office and our first cabinet meeting, my colleagues and myself desire to repose at the feet of Your Holiness the assurance of our filial loyalty and devotion as well as our firm resolve to be guided in all our work by the teaching of Christ and to strive for the attainment of a social order in Ireland based on Christian principles.”
MacBride wrote an equally unctuous letter to the Archbishop of Armagh, John D’Alton: “I should be very indebted to Your Grace if Your Grace would say a prayer asking God to give me the wisdom necessary to carry out my new duties well and faithfully.”
The power of the Catholic hierarchy was alarmingly evident when Noel Browne’s Mother and Child Scheme to provide free medical care for all expectant mothers and their children up to the age of 16, was thrown out in 1951. Once they affirmed it was “opposed to Catholic social thinking” Costello and MacBride obediently doffed their hats. “I, as a Catholic, obey my Church authorities and will continue to do so, in spite of the Irish Times or anything else, in spite of the fact that they may take votes from me or my party, or anything else of that kind,” the Taoiseach told the Dáil.
“Those of us in this house who are Catholics, and all of us in the Government who are Catholics are, as such of course, bound to give obedience to the rulings of our Church and of our hierarchy,” MacBride added. On assuming office in 1948, MacBride had already shown his colours, by writing to McQuaid that he would always as "a Catholic, a public representative and the leader of a party" welcome "any advice or views" which McQuaid would offer him "officially or informally".
As mentioned in the introduction to His Grace is Displeased: Selected Correspondence of John Charles McQuaid, Mary E Daly has suggested that the episcopacy of McQuaid ‘can only be understood through the prism of Cullen’ in that both wanted a strong Catholic presence in Dublin. Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh would also see similarities in the ‘granite-like determination’ of both Cullen and McQuaid ‘to “catholicise” the public life of the capital.’ John Charles McQuaid worked under the same mistaken illusions as Cardinal Paul Cullen. This unedifying tradition was continued by many princes of the church up to modern times.
And so, generations of Irish Catholics spent at least some, if not most, of their time behind the high walls, in the gated communities or designated buildings of schools, colleges, orphanages, reformatories, seminaries, laundries, mother and baby homes, all run by the religious, who were paid by the government, but unlike their lay colleagues, were unaccountable to their deferential paymasters. Their institutions were organized by social class, with services provided deemed fitting for your position on the social ladder.
The mass sub-contracting of vital services to a secretive and unaccountable organization was one of the most astounding acts of laziness committed by so many democratically elected governments of a sovereign nation.
 O’Dwyer, T. Betrayal by Silence: The Collapse of the Irish Catholic Church – Has it a Future? 2019. Dublin
 Things came to a head in the 1830s with the Tithe Wars
 It was dis-established in 1871
 Translates from Latin as “beyond the mountains”. In Roman Catholicism, Ultramontanism puts a strong emphasis on papal authority and on centralization of the church.
 Doctrine that the pope, acting as supreme teacher, is always right in matters of faith or morals.
 Cullen, C. & Ó hÓgartaigh, M. (Eds) His Grace is Displeased: Selected Correspondence of John Charles McQuaid. Merrion. 2013.
 Mary E. Daly is Professor Emeritus in Irish History at University College Dublin and President of the Royal Irish Academy.
 Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh is Professor Emeritus in History and former Dean of Arts and Vice-President of NUI Galway.