Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist, based in Germany for the last 20 years, and he has written “The Best Catholics in the World, The Irish, the Church and the end of a Special Relationship” which was published recently.
His perspective on the subject is shown in the dedication of the book to his parents, “with thanks for their belief”.
Aged 44, he says he is “a member of the last generation to have a full Irish Catholic childhood”.
He served as an altar boy at Mass in his North Dublin parish, but now admits to having a “shaky grasp on Roman Catholicism”.
This is an honest book and painful reading, all the more so because the author is not fundamentally unsympathetic to Irish Catholicism. He sees that it had given meaning and purpose, to the lives of successive generations of Irish people.
He conducted hundreds of interviews with members of Church, from Cardinal Sean Brady, to the head of the Sisters of Mercy, to the people still active in his own old parish in Edenmore. He draws them out on their understanding of the events that influenced the decline in practice and faith among Irish Catholics over the past 60 years . He also interviewed victims of clerical sex abuse, inmates in mother and baby homes, and women who lived out their lives in places like the Magdalen laundries.
Inevitably the picture is selective. The focus is on those who suffered, or were treated unjustly in church settings.
There is no counter factual in the sense that the book does not explore what might have happened if these church run institutions had never existed, and people were left to their fate.
There are no international comparisons either. The book deals with early twentieth century Irish Catholicism, as if it was something completely unique for its time. Many of the abuses and cruelties the book identifies were found in other cultures too.
It is hard for a reader to quantify how uniquely “Irish”, or “Catholic”, the problems were. My own view is that none of the abuses cited are unique either the Catholicism or to Ireland.
The author accepts that priests and nuns have taken the blame, not only for the failings of some among them, but also for the failings of wider Irish society.
Ireland was much poorer financially when some of the abuses occurred. But lack of money is never an excuse for turning a blind eye to rape or cruelty.
Class distinctions abounded, and “respectability” was at a premium. This encouraged silence about embarrassing things. It allowed “knowing,” but simultaneously not “really knowing”, that certain things were going on. In a sense, people decided not to “know” things that they had persuaded themselves they could do nothing about.
In this, the church reflected the evasions of Irish society, just as much as the other way around. But it is human nature that, when failings are finally exposed, the anger is often directed at others, or at the system, rather than channelled into an examination of one’s own assumptions.
It is true that Irish society was shaped by strict, and sometimes unforgiving, notions of sexual morality, which were inculcated by the Catholic Church. But such notions were not a particularly Irish, or even Catholic, thing. Victorian morality, and Victorian hypocrisy, was to be found on our neighbouring island, and further afield too. It just survived a decade or so longer in Ireland.
It was Irish families, not Irish priests or nuns, who banished unmarried daughters, when they became pregnant.
It was cash strapped Irish governments which, in the early years of the state, were content to allow religious orders to take on the responsibility for running reformatories, and other institutions to shelter people, whose families who could not, or sometimes would not, look after them.
This book is impressionistic rather than scientific. The author allows the interviewees to tell their story. It does not provide a roadmap to redemption for the Irish church, or for Irish society, but it contains some hints.
Although the author thanks his parents for their belief, he admits that religion was never discussed in his home when he was growing up,” let alone personal faith”. That job was left to the school.
So it is no wonder that, when the scandals came along, people could stop going to Mass and feel good about it, without thinking what they might be losing. The role played by religious practice in providing guard rails within which one could live a good and sane life had never been discussed, or even put into words, and was thus too easily cast aside.
As Bishop Paul Tighe told the author, the church discouraged people from asking questions.
“We became a lazy church, and we are reaping that legacy now” he said.
The author, who lives in Germany, might usefully have studied the Catholic Church there over the last century. That might show whether there are lessons Irish Catholicism could learn, or could have learned. Equally he might have established if the Irish case is really as exceptional, as his provocative book title implies.
While this book will annoy some people, it may be a spur to the necessary heartfelt and rigorous discussion about the role of faith in our society, a discussion Irish people have been postponing for a long time.
It should also prompt us to ask whether this generation of Irish families, like the previous ones, is also capable of turning a blind eye to family responsibilities. The example comes to mind of elderly relatives and neighbours left unvisited in nursing homes. Now the running of these homes is no longer delegated to nuns, but to for profit corporations!