The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Irish Catholicism: “You can see how it could all go bad…”

It wasn’t too long ago that being Irish and Catholic was a source of pride on these shores (particularly for some proud boosters of Notre Dame…but that’s another story…)

But times have changed. And over at his blog, Ross Douthat looks at the “tragedy of Irish Catholics” and draws some sobering connections:

I’ve been reading “American Catholic,” Charles Morris’s history of Catholicism in the United States. His account emphasizes the extent to which the modern Irish Church — which, because of the extraordinary influence of Irish clergy in this country, is in many respects the American Church as well — was the invention of a small group of strong-willed Victorian clerics, led by Dublin’s Cardinal Paul Cullen. Pre-Cullen, Irish Catholicism was “one of the most ragtag national churches in Europe,” Morris writes; post-Cullen, it was one of the most unified, rigorous, enthusiastic and militant branches of Catholicism in the world.


At the same time, it was one of the most hierarchical and clericalist, with priests and bishops who were invested with nearly-unchallengeable authority, and who became accustomed to extraordinary deference from civil authorities. And on sexual matters, it was a far more puritanical Catholicism than, say, the Mediterranean or Latin American varieties, or for that matter than the Gaelic Catholicism it had superseded.**

This combination was the source of enormous strength for a very long time, especially in the New World. A Cullen-esque Catholicism was ideally suited to the task of building a thriving immigrant church in a hostile Protestant society. The remarkable prestige, power and cultural cachet of mid-20th century American Catholicism almost certainly wouldn’t have been possible without the extraordinary exertions and self-sacrifice that the Irish Church inspired from priests and laity alike — and without its hierarchy’s ability to be power brokers and politicians as well as shepherds, and to bend the civil authorities, when necessary, to their will.


But you can see how it could all go bad — how a culture so intense clerical, so politically high-handed, and so embarrassed (beyond the requirements of Christian doctrine) by human sexuality could magnify the horror of priestly pedophilia, and expand the pool of victims, by producing bishops inclined to strong-arm the problem out of public sight instead of dealing with it as Christian leaders should.

Check out the rest. Read it and weep.

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Gerard Nadal

posted December 2, 2009 at 8:15 am

Good Morning Deacon,
I grew up in Brooklyn, St. Michael’s on 4th Ave. New to your blog.
I posted this on Rod Dreher’s blog last night-same subject. Your thoughts?
If this was meant to be an exercise in sociology or anthropology, I would give it a C-.
It’s understandable that Douthat, and the rest of us who care about this would search out and destroy the roots of the problem, rather than constantly cutting new shoots as they emerge. This is as it should be. That said, I’m not at all sure that Douthat has actually found a root. Perhaps a dried piece of shoot, which he has confused with a root.
Douthat’s central thesis is that Irish Catholicism went horribly wrong. He stirs into that the fact that Irish Boston was the epicenter of the latest quake in the states. He cites 4% of priests, but 66% of bishops as being involved. No numbers on the ethnic breakdown of either group. That’s an important detail he omitted.
Regarding the rest of Europe, there aren’t that many priests left and the rest of the continent has been much more sexually licentious than Ireland for decades. More outlets that are easier to conceal? I’m not sure. But that hasn’t been investigated. Or have we yet to get more revelations from other quarters, God forbid?
It’s the quantum leap from Jansenism to social activism to preserve the flock, producing a clerical high-handedness that seems most dubious to me.
We need to come to terms with what is at the root of pedophilia. The experts tell us its about power and control. Jansenism, then, doesn’t really factor in. As for Jansenism creating an episcopacy given to high-handedness, that’s absurd. Anyone ever hear of the Borgias and the Renaissance Popes? Machiavelli? It’s all right there in Italy from centuries before this scandal. If the Irish popes exercised such machinations to cover a particular scandal, that’s more understandable in the historical context of the abuse of power that has existed within the episcopacy.
To suggest that Jansenism is Irish and therefore at the root of a perverse sexuality and power structure at the root of this is patently absurd.
Then there is the issue of pedophilia in its broader context. Protestants have a two-fold greater incidence than the Catholics. Public schools boast 9% of their children being victims of teacher inappropriate sexual conduct. 45% of all pedophilia occurs in the home.
Douthat’s problem is that he’s being myopic in his approach. The Protestants and school boards have been every bit as filthy as the Catholic bishops have been in covering this up in their own backyards.
The issue then becomes a very different one. I doubt that all the abuse in the Protestant churches and public schools is Irish or Catholic in etiology. It’s clearly about power and preserving the financial solvency of the institutions by avoiding responsibility.
We have a much, much broader and more systemic calamity on our hands than the Catholic branch of this pernicious weed. We’ll never get to the bottom of it all so long as people claim that somehow the Catholic branch merits more (translate:exclusive) attention than the others.
I doubt Douthat’s employer would be much interested in finding the ultimate cause of this calamity that cuts across our entire society. It might challenge some of their most cherished biases.

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posted December 2, 2009 at 9:14 am

Interesting. Do you have a citation for the statistics about abuse in Protestant churches and public schools?

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posted December 2, 2009 at 9:20 am

Great article, Sir! :) Hope all the people can read your article so that they’ll know about Irish Catholicism.

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Deacon Greg Kandra

posted December 2, 2009 at 9:56 am

Hi, Gerard! Welcome, neighbor! :-)
Douthat makes one important connection: that the American Church is very much a product of the Irish Church, in ways most of us don’t realize. (Certainly, it’s even more pronounced in the Northeast, where so many parishes and schools were founded in cities whose dioceses were established by Irish priests and bishops.) That particular culture is pervasive, from the bishops to the seminaries to the chanceries, seeping into the parishes and schools. (If I encounter one more young priest, wearing cufflinks, who raises his hands and says — only half-joking –“These hands were made for chalices, not callouses,” I’ll scream.) It has nothing to do with the ethnicity of a particular priest or bishop, but with the culture and mindset that produced and formed him.
How great a role this mindset has played in the sex abuse crisis is open to debate. But I think it’s certainly something to consider.
Dcn. G.

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posted December 2, 2009 at 10:17 am

Great post Gerald; glad you found Dcn. Greg’s blog, which can/will certainly benefit from a good Catholic writer like you.
I tend to agree with all that you said, and pretty much dismiss RD on this one, even though I normally find him to be pretty insightful.
I wish more people (although it would require taking off “catholic blinders”), could understand the reality that sex abuse is the LOWEST in the Catholic Church (although never acceptable). A few weeks ago there was a big Jewish/Rabbi Scandal that for the most part, went unreported by the MSM. It’s only “newsworthy” when it’s a Catholic Priest.
As for the reason for pedophilia, who but Satan could be behind such evil? But then, to even mention the reality of Satan in this day and age pretty much qualifies one for the loony bin. We are a sexually obsessed culture that, for the most part, has long lost our way. Our best hope is prayer and the Eucharist, which is why, IMO, being that we are all human and all capable of falling into any sin, the least amount of victims are within the Catholic Church. It’s still no excuse of course, for even one incident or the cover-up.
There’s a direct correlation between the faith/holiness of the members and sin, even the sin of our priests (excluding Christ our head, who is always perfect and holy, consequently, so is the Church, despite unholy members). That makes sense of course because if for example, 60 million American Catholics were all in the state of grace, living in obedience, and frequenting the sacraments, it would be unlikely any of us would even recognize America. For sure, had we 60 million been praying on a regular basis for our priests and bishops, perhaps there still may have been an abuse case or two, but never a scandal and certainly not a cover-up.
People (Catholics) who do the most complaining about the state of the CC often fail to remember that WE, its members, ARE the church. So why doesn’t it make sense that when WE stop praying and join the culture of sin, our “Church” is going to suffer along with our pathetic sinful souls. In sin, we are no longer connected to God, and no longer have the gift of wisdom from the Holy Spirit, consequently, we get (and deserve) who we have elected as our leaders in Washington.
The good news of course, we can all repent and start over, and maybe, hopefully, one of these years, American Catholics will get it right, and be the force to be reckoned with God intended us to be. After all, it’s been the message of every approved Marian apparition since Jesus physically left the earth.

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posted December 2, 2009 at 10:35 am

i think that if we keep a vision of the whole picture, we can see that something was very wrong in the culture and institutional life of the church in ireland. this is not to pick on the irish, for sure it was a problem in other cultures that manifested in other ways. but because of the high percentage of irish clerics and sisters in the US and the great amount of missionaries the irish sent out this dynamic has spread.
we know enough basic psychology and sociology to know that when “sickness” (from abuse to addictions etc) becomes part of the fabric of life, it takes on a shadow life of secrets, denials and destruction for generations until it can finlly all come to light and healing.
one should not separate the recent reports on the priest’s scandals in ireland without keeping in mind the reports on the religious orders in ireland that were released this summer and one cant help but see a very systemic problem that lives for generations until it can be healed.
unless one has never dealt or faced such dynamics in their lives, it might be hard to find the empathy needed to help find the honesty and love to heal these deep issues.

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posted December 2, 2009 at 12:30 pm

I’m not sure how uniquely Irish this phenomenon is, but my opinion is that the link between Jansenism and abuse is an important insight. Cardinal Richelieu and his ilk pushed Jansenism because it robbed the people of hope, and being deprived of hope groomed them to be willing accomplices in their own abuse. Sexual abuse is all about power and control, and the same theology which shamed peasants into backbreaking labor to support the obscene opulence of the hierarchy works just as well at shaming children into going along with sexual abuse.

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posted December 2, 2009 at 12:47 pm

(If I encounter one more young priest, wearing cufflinks, who raises his hands and says — only half-joking –“These hands were made for chalices, not callouses,” I’ll scream.)
When I was in high school, the young chaplain at a neighboring school claimed that his seminary class’s motto was “Too weak to dig ditches, too proud to beg.”
My generation may not have produced many vocations, but we had enough sense to know that the cufflink-wearers were ridiculous…

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posted December 2, 2009 at 2:34 pm

It is futile to look too deep into the past to understand this crisis, one should keep their eye on the ball. I don’t see Cullen, Jansenism, Calvanism or any other sort of “ism” playing a role in this scandal. I have read the Ryan Report and it does a pretty good job of describing the conditions responsible for this tragedy. The Irish government and the Catholic Church worked together as part of a wide-scale, active and deliberate conspiracy to use institutionalized children as slave labor for the Church’s profit. Illegitimate children and those born to destitute parents were actively recruited into this sweat shops, they were mere chattel. Diverse forms of abuse and terror were used to maintain discipline.
Strange, but the Irish model is sort of like our own government-backed faith based initiatives, a good reason to maintain a ‘wall of separation’ between church and state.

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Your Name

posted December 2, 2009 at 4:33 pm

“It is futile to look too deep into the past to understand this crisis, one should keep their eye on the ball. I don’t see Cullen, Jansenism, Calvanism or any other sort of “ism” playing a role in this scandal. ”
Of course you don’t. If you decide from the outset that anything but a myopic gaze is futile, you won’t see all sorts of things, whether they are there or not.

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posted December 2, 2009 at 9:23 pm

Your Name,
It would be even more painful to dredge up the history that may have led up to this scandal. A fetish for history shouldn’t distract us from the concern that we should have for the victims, innocent children, not the institutions that perpetrated these crimes. We should chose whether we want to side with, do we want to enable criminals, or aid its victims?

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posted December 2, 2009 at 9:40 pm

Well, DML, I actually have an interest in preventing criminals from abusing kids in the future. For that purpose any understanding of just how abusers were able to get away with abuse in the past is invaluable knowledge.

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Charles Cosimano

posted December 2, 2009 at 11:56 pm

And now whenever a clown in a mitre lays any claim to moral authority we can spit the word “Ireland” in his face and ignore him.

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