Few tales are more inspiring than the story of an entire nation shaking off the bonds of a cruel and despised oppressor. The Irish have done it, not once but twice.
After centuries of iron-fisted control by Great Britain, the people of Ireland in 1922 finally achieved independence by forming the Irish Free State. Sadly, for most of the next hundred years the Irish remained under the yoke of another dictatorship – the Roman Catholic Church.
Until the 1990s the images of Irish Catholicism were those fostered by books and films in which almost every village contained a saintly, trustworthy priest (think of the twinkle-eyed Barry Fitzgerald in “Going My Way”) performing good works and uttering kindly counsel. A retinue of nuns of supposedly equal virtue usually assisted him.
In reality, the Irish priests and nuns – aided by the sheep like devotion of parishioners – possessed and used tremendous power. They could influence who married whom, and when and why (or why not). They could grant or withhold their approval of office-holders, social leaders and business enterprises. They were especially adept at controlling sexual attitudes and behavior. If the worldwide Catholic Church has a tradition of regarding sex as unwholesome, that attitude has been especially pervasive among the Irish faithful.
The truth about the cruelty and corruption of Irish Catholic bishops, priests and nuns has emerged only during the past two decades. In the 1990s British newspapers began to investigate the state of Irish Catholicism. What they discovered sent shock waves throughout Ireland and, to a lesser extent, among Catholics worldwide.
In 1992 it was revealed that one of the church’s leading bishops had fathered a son. Another nationally-known priest was found to have maintained, with his housekeeper, a secret family. These revelations should not have been a complete surprise. For many years the Irish had been aware of nasty rumors telling of wayward priests sexually abusing boys (and sometimes girls). Church higher-ups, all the way to the Vatican, routinely responded by simply transferring the priests to other parishes.
In 2009 a state commission, headed by Justice Sean Ryan, concluded a years-long study of the church’s orphanages and industrial schools, which had housed thousands of “delinquent” children. Their crimes? Often, it was only to have been abandoned by their parents, or to be the offspring of an unmarried mother. The Ryan Report told of the rape, molestation, beatings and starving of these children. Many of them, it was recently discovered, died and were buried in unmarked graves.
As the truth about the church’s corruption has come out, millions of the former faithful have abandoned the church. In the mid-1980s about 90 percent of Irish Catholics attended a weekly Mass. That figure had dropped to 18 percent by 2011. The country is running out of priests, which is a mixed misfortune, since the ones who remain have fewer of the faithful to serve.
Is there any hope that a resurrected and reformed Catholic Church can once again play a role in the religious life of Ireland? If so, perhaps it lies with the church’s headquarters in the Vatican. There, Pope Francis has condemned sexual abuses by priests, especially against children. He recently hinted that the day may come when priests are allowed to marry. A survey has shown that 87 percent of Irish people would approve such a move; almost as high a percentage would welcome the ordination of women into the priesthood.
We’d be foolish to hold our breath until such events come to pass. Even if they do, the church in Ireland may never again regain the stature and the unquestioned power it came to enjoy – and squander – between St. Patrick’s fifth century conversion and the 1990s, when the long-covered rocks were overturned and the church’s vermin were finally exposed. In any case, the people of Ireland will go on, and the air they breathe as they worship will be cleaner and sweeter than it has been in hundreds of years.
In the past shame of the Irish Catholic church, is there a lesson for all of us? I would think so. It is this: Wherever people gather to worship God, Christ, Allah, Jehovah or any other alleged divinity, the earthly organizations devised to assist that religious devotion should be regarded with a healthy degree of mistrust or, at the very least, skepticism. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, religion is too often the arms-wide welcome mat for con artists, perverts, megalomaniacs and thieves.