‘Best Catholics in the World’ is a powerful book which looks perceptively and honestly at the Church in Ireland. The author wanted to understand how the horrors of child abuse, Magdalene laundries, Mother and Baby homes, had so long gone unquestioned. One of the searching chapters is about the families who disowned their daughters, afraid of the power of scandal and gossip. He writes about the power of the Church dominating Irish politics and social life and in that Church-controlled culture families might be condemned because their girls had become pregnant. They were sent away, disowned, to live and work in those laundries and homes, by families that did not want to admit to or see the babies.
Families and society, in their fear of gossip, condemned. The cruelty of the institutions the author also saw – long hours of hard work, unthinking ‘customers’ using cheap labour, the sometimes uncaring and judgemental nuns – though there was kindness and care, he gladly discovered – and he felt sorry for those brought into religious life as young girls because that was the way vocations were encouraged. There was little chance of a feeling of “home” in those institutions. We condemned those poor girls people told him. We put them there, we wanted them to disappear. A culture of condemnation and shame crushed young lives.
In 1945-6 Karl Jaspers published a series of lectures that he had given at the University of Heidelberg, ‘The Question of German Guilt’, in which he examined the culpability of the German people in the atrocities of Hitler’s Third Reich – the collective silence of the German Churches under the Nazi regime for which, many years later, Cardinal Frings apologised to the German faithful and the universal Church. Can a people be guilty – in Germany, Italy, Ireland, USA, UK, Russia, China, etc?
Professor Jaspers speaks of four sorts of guilt: (1) Criminal – where jurisdiction belongs to the courts; (2) Political – where failure in government is judged by the opposition and the people; (3) Moral – where conscience guides us to right and wrong; (4) Metaphysical – where God alone is the judge and forgives sin.
(1) The clerical abuse of children and women is a crime and belongs to the courts of law. (2) The perpetrating of these crimes against the weak and vulnerable, the hiding of those crimes by the power of bishops and the Vatican to hide what they choose, is political dictatorship, the people having no voice. (3) The moral guilt is at the level of conscience where the Church needs to listen to itself in all its arrogance, indifference, protecting the institution, ignoring the cries of the abused – and our own personal moral guilt if we allow such injustice to continue. (4) The metaphysical guilt claims God alone is the judge. It is sin we are considering, not crime or human responsibility; so we go to confession, are forgiven and are free to start again. That is where the Church tried to hide for a long time until, we know, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were overwhelmed by the horror that had been uncovered and so much more to come.
Sexual abuse as a sin, and all cases to be reported to Rome and dealt with there, hopelessly failed as a policy, and Church authority had to hear the roar “It is a crime – and you are part of that crime with your false Church conscience when you insist clerics are to be judged by Church authority, but ordinary people by criminal law.”
Germany has seen more clearly than any other country this crime of abuse and it is the German Church which is going to make the Synod what Pope Francis wants it to be in 2023. It has already had its third national gathering and is aware, beyond any other part of the Church, of our collective guilt – which includes those who don’t want to know or hear anything. The people in Ireland, Germany, the Church, involved – and only moral cowards refuse to accept that truth.Church authority in some countries is so afraid of what will be discovered that no process has even begun. Italy and Spain are two of those countries. In the United Kingdom the Church has been forced into independent enquiries, along with many other institutions, and those inquiries have uncovered the total inadequacy of bishops and religious superiors in their handling of the corrupt behaviour of their clergy and officials.
We remember and pray for those who have carried the pain of being abused throughout their lives. God bless them,
(20th February 2022)