THE INTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY FOUNDED IN 1840
MOTHER AND BABY
IS TO BLAME
Catholic Ireland has been forced to look at itself in the mirror, and does not much like what it sees. The report has been published of the official inquiry into the country’s mother and baby homes, and the scandals surrounding their treatment of single mothers and their children. It is shocking but not exactly a revelation, as the story of those homes is part of the history of Irish culture and morality – a particular type of Catholic culture and morality – with which all Irish people are familiar, even if unconsciously.
Those, including not a few clergy, who still argue that the invention of the contraceptive pill undermined traditional sexual morality, should read the final report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation, just published, to see how that morality was enforced in practice. Shame and disgrace was at the heart of it. Lives were wilfully ruined by regimes calculated to punish any young woman who fell pregnant outside marriage. There was sexual abuse inside mother and baby homes, for sure, but by far the greater abuse was emotional. This was the very negation of any genuine Christian morality, which looks with compassion on human weakness, and sees vulnerability rather than sin.
The report has triggered a debate in Ireland about where exactly the blame lies. Was it all the fault of the Catholic Church, or of the State, or indeed of Irish society generally, especially Irish families? The answer has to be all three. The dominant streak of what the English call Puritanism was not an Irish invention. Victorian England was no kinder to “fallen women” than Catholic Ireland, and Scotland was no place to be pregnant without a husband, either.
Irish Puritanism is sometimes attributed to the influence of Jansenism; Calvinism is often at the heart of it in the Protestant case. Both derive from a onesided reading of St Augustine’s doctrine of grace. It leads to moral rigorism, whose cash value, so to speak, is that salvation is hard to gain and easily lost. Only the straight and narrow path leads to Heaven. Those who stray beyond the pale, like unmarried mothers, must be shunned by respectable society lest they infect it, and must follow a joyless penitential lifestyle not so different from the life of convicted criminals.
The Catholic Church is indeed to blame, in so far as it was Irish clergy often trained abroad who brought this quasi-Augustinian rigorism into Irish conceptions of morality; and in so far as generations of Irish church leaders passed it on as the only truth, without recognising how far they thereby distanced themselves from the ethic of the Gospel. But Irish society and culture undoubtedly added its own elements, including an all-pervading misogyny and fear of female sexuality, and economic imperatives from the peculiar Irish system of land ownership and inheritance. And politicians do not stand apart from society, but reflect its flaws and weaknesses as well as its strengths.
It is a positive sign of a change in attitude that few Irish people would now defend what was done to their ancestors – by their ancestors. They may have moved away from what they see as an Irish Catholicism already severely damaged by the clerical sex abuse scandals. But they have moved towards what they instinctively know to be attitudes of tolerance and compassion which are truer to the teachings of Jesus Christ. That is where the future lies.
BIDEN MUST LEAD THE WAY FORWARD
Formidable challenges face the incoming President of the United States from the first day of his presidency, but it would be wrong to speak of the situation Joe Biden faces as unprecedented. The US is not actually at war, except perhaps with part of itself. The economy has been severely battered, but nothing like as badly as during the Great Depression. Even the Covid-19 epidemic has not yet reached the scale of the post-First World War Spanish flu catastrophe. Where he faces a unique challenge is in the wholesale withdrawal of what is called “losers’ consent” – acceptance by the losing side that the victors’ victory was legitimate. Polls show that eight out of 10 Republican electors still believe Donald Trump won, and appear resistant to any argument to the contrary. But all politicians exaggerate their own merits while unfairly denigrating their opponents, and elections can be swung by the money spent on advertising. When is that illegitimate? What Biden and Kamala Harris, his Vice President, need to do to validate their term in office is to replace the high-octane paranoid clamour of the Trump years with the unexciting background murmur of good government. They should dare to be a bit boring. To talk about solidarity and the common good; to be a steady hand on the tiller. It was because he promised this that Biden was chosen as the Democratic candidate over more exciting rivals. When Godless Communism fails to descend on the United States, as Trump’s supporters fear and expect from a Biden victory, they will have to ask: “Who has been lying to us, and why?”
The return of something like normality to the White House will be deeply welcome to America’s friends and allies, as the empty chair at the top of the table is again filled by someone who really can be regarded as the leader of the free world. China, Russia, North Korea and Iran need putting back in their box by facing them with a firm phalanx of democracies that believe in the rule of law. As part of its leadership role, the United States should urgently respond to the growing gap between rich and poor nations in the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. And the US itself needs a well managed and properly funded distribution programme and an equally firm insistence on mask-wearing and social distancing. This is what sanity should look like in 2021.
Biden can also lead the world by introducing a sense of ethics into world trade, for instance by reversing the West’s growing dependence on China’s economy in spite of its manifold human-rights abuses. The global economy should never have been allowed to become morally neutral. This is one of many areas where other democracies, including Britain, badly need American inspiration and leadership.
2 | THE TABLET | 23 JANUARY 2021