Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Out of the dark

Here in Ireland the news is all of the Ryan report, the devastating summary of a government-instituted investigation of decades of child abuse -- physical, emotional and sexual -- in institutions run by eighteen orders of Roman Catholic priests, brothers and nuns. Thousands of children were victimized, from toddlers to late-teens. It is a grim picture of what when on in Catholic Ireland before the Celtic Tiger of economic success brought secular Enlightenment values -- including democratic openness -- to the fore.

There is plenty of responsibility to go around. Throughout most of the 20th century, the government took a hands-off attitude to the doings of the Church. The hierarchy shifted perpetrators unpunished from place to place. The police deferred to the bishops. The Ryan report makes clear that the abuse was not just the work of a few bad apples, but systemic and pervasive. If you've seen the movie The Magdelene Sisters, you will have some idea of what transpired.

A few days, ago, the Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Reverend Diarmuid Martin, said, "There are questions to be asked regarding how much Irish devotional practice in general had drifted away from the fundamental fact that God is love...We have to ask to what extent the punitive and humiliating culture which seems to have developed in some such institutions was due to the fact that we had drifted away from the God who is love into one inspired by a punitive, judgmental God; a God whose love was the love of harsh parents, where punishment became the primary instrument of love."

I was raised in a Roman Catholic culture of a primarily Irish flavor, with its emphasis on sin -- mostly sexual -- and punishment. As a college student I went through a period of intense intellectual religiosity of a thoroughly Jansenistic sort -- Leon Bloy, Georges Bernanos, Francois Mauriac -- sex, sin and punishment all wound up together. I subjected my body to harsh disciplines in the misguided notion that the flesh was evil and needed chastisement. I can imagine how easy it might have been for priests, brothers and nuns, confined to grim institutions filled with morbid religious imagery, dressed in stiff and colorless clothes, deprived of most of the bright and joyous pleasures of life, most especially including normal sexual and emotional relationships, and steeped in a theology of efficacious physical punishment, to take their frustrations and repressed sexuality out on their young charges.

This is not to excuse the terrible actions of the perpetrators, or to dismiss the good work done by the majority of religious men and women who kept their moral bearings in unselfish service. But I know from experience that the prevailing ambiance of mid-century Catholicism was a potent and unhealthy mix of perverted religion and sexuality.

I had the good fortune to fall in love with a sensible, even-tempered, skeptical woman who had somehow escaped the Jansenist curse. I also had the good fortune to study science, from which I learned to love the natural world, to see it as neither intrinsically good nor evil except by human volition. From science too I learned to use Ockham's razor to pare away the supernaturalist excrescences that so often bind the human soul in service to a punitive, judgmental God. I have spent my adult life celebrating the beauty and wonder of the here and now.