It is said that when Ireland received its independence from Britain in 1921 it handed it over to the Catholic Church. For the next seven decades the Church dominated Irish life and shaped it to suit its teachings. While Ireland never became a theocracy, it came pretty close. Irish politicians of all parties declared their loyalty to the Church and gave the hierarchy unquestioned influence over policy. Politicians declared themselves Catholics first and Irishmen second. And what was the result of this influence? A stagnant society dominated by narrow mindedness sectarian pettiness. A socially suffocating society where all common sense and flexibility was abandoned in place of rigid dogma. An authoritarian atmosphere where all signs of modernity were repressed. Where brutality was condoned and ignored and unimaginable cruelty was shown to women and children, the extent of which is only coming to light now. This is the legacy of the church.
Soon after independence, the Catholic hierarchy successfully pushed to have divorce outlawed. Concerns over what this would mean for the Protestant minority was ignored, frankly nobody cared about them. The ban was imposed on non-Catholics as well as believers in 1925. It was relatively uncontroversial and accepted by all parties that the hierarchy had a right to decide what was and was not acceptable. The Church decided that divorce was immoral and therefore couples must stay married no matter how unhappy and miserable they were together. The “sanctity” of marriage was such that women had no escape from alcoholic or useless or abusive husbands. The Church made it clear that dogma was more important than people (particularly women’s lives) and that it was better to be pious than compassionate. The idea that two consenting adults should be free to decide how to live their lives was rejected. The ban on divorce was added to the 1937 Constitution and not removed until a referendum in 1996 (only by 50.5% to 49.5% and after a defeated referendum in 1986).
The Church quickly gave itself the position of protector of the nation’s morals. It assumed the right to decide what people could read and watch. It enforced this through mass censorship beginning in 1929. Thousands of books and films were banned or edited to remove sections that didn’t agree with Catholic ethos. Many of the reasons given were absurd such as simply describing characters engaging in such immoral acts as kissing and dancing (even hinting at abortion would guarantee censorship). Pretty much every Irish author of note (including Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Brendan Behan, John B. Keane, Sean O’Casey, Frank O’Connor and George Bernard Shaw) found their work censored or banned and couldn’t read their work in their own country. Famous authors such as Graham Greene, Dylan Thomas, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Kingsley Amis, John Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams, J.D. Salinger, Sigmund Freud, George Orwell and Bertrand Russell all had works censored. Films such as the Life of Brian and Groucho Marx movies were banned (even Gone With The Wind had 14 cuts made) as was the famous pub song Seven Drunken Nights. The Church believed it had a right to control not only what people did, but also what they thought. All signs of creativity and innovation were looked upon with suspicion by the Church and its censors who would rather have a nation of devout idiots than a nation of freethinking skeptics.
The Church’s grip included the total prohibition of contraceptives and abortion. In their eyes decisions regarding a women’s body were to be made by the parish priest. Women were too prone to sin (Eve was their model) to be trusted to make decisions. No the Church must be a bulwark against such modern and immoral notions as family planning and choice. The right to choose only applied to the Church, everyone else had an obligation to obey. Never mind that most Irish parents had to raise more children than they could possible afford or that women were forced to be little more than baby makers. The Church had decided and women had to obey. Contraceptives had to be smuggled in from abroad and it wasn’t until 1979 that they could be legally purchased (and only then by married couples with a prescription from a doctor). Full liberalisation had to wait until the 1990s.
The Church showed similar disregard for women’s health and wishes during pregnancy. Abortion was forbidden no matter how much danger the mother’s life was in, no matter if she had been raped, no matter whether or not she could raise the child or afford to provide it with a decent life. Abortion was forbidden and no opposition was to be tolerated (though it fairness little has changed since then). This narrowed mindedness had tragic consequences. In 1984, four months after voters choose to add an anti-abortion amendment to the constitution, a 14 year old girl died while giving birth beneath a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Ann Lovett was a victim of the strict Catholic values of the time which put little value on a women’s life. She had to hide her pregnancy and could confide in no one for fear of how they would judge her. She was neglected by a society dominated by a creeping Jesus mentality. This mealy pious indifference was on display when a 14 old rape victim was physically prevented by police from receiving an abortion abroad. The thought of being forced to raise the child of her rapist while still a child herself made the girl suicidal, but no mercy was shown. It was better than a girl should suffer needlessly than Catholic doctrine be violated. Only the intervention of the Supreme Court (in the famous X case) saved the day.
All that was different was shunned. You were either a good Catholic or a bad person; those who didn’t follow the rules of the Church were frowned upon. This extended to homosexuality which was illegal until 1993. That’s right; during my lifetime (most of those who are rewarding this) a Western European country was so ignorant as to keep homosexuality illegal. Unmarried mothers and women who didn’t meet the Church’s standards of what was acceptable were dumped into Magdalene Laundries. Here they were kept against their will, forced to work without pay and treated horrendously by nuns. It is a great irony that people capable of such cruelty often carried such lovely names as the Sister of Mercy or the sisters of Charity. The Laundries were monuments to cruelty and the last one only closed in 1996.
Words cannot describe the most horrific legacy of the Church. I cannot impart the full meaning of its greatest atrocity. The decades long abuse by priests of children in industrial schools is the greatest crime committed in 20th century Ireland. Thousands of children were placed in industrial schools as punishment for petty crimes, as orphans or because their parents could not look after them. The Church directly ran these schools which were hellholes. Children were beaten, humiliated, abused both physically and mentally and even raped. Emotional abuse and degradation was constant and sexual abuse was endemic. Children failed to receive an education and instead grew up in a climate of fear and neglect. Nor was this only an isolated incident, it was truly systematic. The ritualised beating of corporal punishment was routine. Roughly 170,000 children passed through the industrial schools by the time the last one closed in 1974. The Ryan Report detailed how they experienced a system based on cruelty, violence and abuse all run by men claiming their lives were based on love and forgiveness.
The Murphy Report detailed the fact that the hierarchy’s main concern was to cover up the abuse and to block victim compensation for as long as possible. It found that “maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the church and the preservation of its assets” were the main priorities of the Church, not the victims.
It is too horrific to describe in detail. I enjoy blogging, but this post as proven too depressing for me to go into full detail and I will end it here. I will spare you the details, all you need to know is that Church completely abused its power and committed acts of great evil. We can never forget what it did. The Church will always be a discredited institution.
So whenever someone talks about how the Church is full of love and forgiveness, I ignore these empty words and look at its actions. I remember how it acted when it was powerful, when it was in control. I remember the crimes of the past, the horrific abuse it committed and tolerated. I remember the backward and ignorant culture they promoted where modernity and progress was scorned. I remember the guilt it imposed upon Catholics for every minor infraction and made their lives unnecessarily miserable. I remember the wealth and power it accumulated while inflicting suffering on others. I remember all the other scandals I have not discussed here such as the Mayo librarian, the Fethard-on-Sea boycott, the Mother and Child scheme, the subjugation of women and their confinement to the home or the Ferns Report because compiling a complete list of the crimes of the Church is a mammoth task. The legacy of the Catholic Church is misery. I do not hate religion, but I despise the Church.