Beyond the Abuse Scandals? Review of Maher and O’Brien’s ‘Tracing the Cultural Legacy of Irish Catholicism’

There is much insightful reading in a new collection of essays edited by Eamon Maher and Eugene O’Brien, Tracing the Cultural Legacy of Irish Catholicism: From Galway to Cloyne and Beyond (Manchester University Press, 2017).

Maher, who lectures in Humanities at the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, has co-edited a number of collections on Irish Catholicism in recent years – all of which have made a valuable contribution in conversations about the future of the Church.

Titles such as Contemporary Catholicism in Ireland: A Critical Appraisal (2008) and The Dublin/Murphy Report: A Watershed for Irish Catholicism (2010) were published by Columba, a popular press based in Dublin that has since folded.

And while Manchester University Press has produced a beautiful hardback edition of Tracing the Cultural Legacy of Irish Catholicism, its £85 price tag is prohibitive compared to Columba’s much more affordable range.

But setting the price aside, Maher and O’Brien, who lectures in English Language and Literature at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, have assembled a fascinating series of contributions. In most chapters, the writing and argumentation are accessible to both popular and academic audiences.

Maher and O’Brien ensure that all the contributions are read in light of the clerical abuse scandals.

The scandals are emphasised not only in the subtitle of the book but also in their Introduction. So in the opening pages of the book, they contrast the ‘euphoria’ of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ballybrit Racecourse, Galway, in 1979 at a special mass for young people, with how priests and religious were abusing children across the island.

They reproduce a particularly harrowing passage from the 2009 Ryan Report on Child Abuse, detailing abuses at St Joseph’s Industrial School, Ferryhouse, Clonmel, about events that happened on the same day as the Pope’s visit to Limerick (p. 3):

The other boy was sent for, and Fr Stefano described how ‘the two boys sat in my office and unfolded to me a most horrific story of what had been happening to them.’ The boys told Fr Stefano story after story of cruelty and abuse. The worst, as far as he was concerned, was the abuse of one of the boys during the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979. The whole school went to see the Pope in Limerick, except for one of the two boys who was not allowed to go because of his record of absconding. Br Bruno volunteered to stay back and supervise him. The boy told Fr Stefano that, when the rest of the boys left, ‘this Brother came and raped me in my bed’. (Ryan, 2009: II, 2, 87; italics in original)

Maher and O’Brien then comment:

Therefore, while the Pope was speaking about the value of children in the Catholic world view some forty miles away, a Rosminian brother was raping two boys who had been placed under his care by both the Catholic Church and the State.

Maher and O’Brien’s Introduction is followed by a chapter by the Irish Times’ religious affairs correspondent, Patsy McGarry, which delves in greater detail into the scandals. It also explores the role of the media, including a succession of television documentaries, in unravelling an authoritarian Catholic culture.

In light of such revelations, it can a times be hard to imagine how the Irish Catholic Church can retain a ‘cultural legacy’ that transcends these horrors and makes positive contributions to contemporary society.

But one of the strengths of the book is that it considers many facets of Irish Catholicism, with some contributors more hopeful than others about the potential social contributions of the Church. Indeed, Vincent Twomey’s chapter is titled: ‘Contemporary Irish Catholicism: A time of hope!’

Fr Twomey, a former Professor of Moral Theology in Maynooth, sees great untapped potential in Irish Catholics who have (p. 94):

‘remained faithful … Despite the fact that [the Irish Catholic Church’s] liturgical celebrations are devoid, with notable exceptions, of either inspiration or beauty … The greatest strength of the Irish Church is thus the faith of those laity and clerics who have remained faithful, despite everything.’

Twomey also lauds the social justice tradition in the Irish Church, whose proponents have served those in most need at home and abroad. He applauds the increased separation of Church and State in the Republic, arguing that it should go further. He argues that the Church should ‘divest itself of as many [state] schools as possible’, and ‘end the … role of clerics as solemnisers of marriages – not only because of the present legal redefinition of marriage but also as an end to the last vestige of the established status of the Church (which we inherited from the Anglicans)’ (p. 97).

For Twomey, the Church’s ability to contribute positively to Irish society depends on its ability to disentangle itself from State power and privilege – therefore becoming freer to articulate a just vision of the common good.

By way of contrast, in his chapter on the marriage equality referendum, O’Brien argues that the Catholic Church has struggled to articulate ‘the central Christian message’ and concludes that the Church will ‘wither and die’ if it is not on ‘the side of equality, fairness and a sense of justice’ in ‘future referendums and cultural conversations’ (p. 158).

Another notable chapter is French academic Catherine Maignant’s profile of Fr Tony Flannery, the Redemptorist priest who has been silenced by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I thought that this chapter was so significant that I profiled it on my personal blog. Maignant is remarkably adept at capturing how Flannery seems to speak for a significant number of Catholics who are disillusioned with the institutional Church. At the same time, she reflects on how organisations like the Association of Catholic Priests [of which Flannery was a co-founder] threaten the Vatican itself.

In a similar vein, Maher’s contribution on ‘Prophetic voices or complicit functionaries? Irish priests and the unravelling of a culture,’ profiles the writings of Joseph Dunn, Vincent Twomey, Brendan Hoban and Mark Patrick Hederman, comparing them with the writings of a French priest, Jean Sullivan. This is a fascinating account of how priests have balanced the tension between critiquing their Catholic tradition while remaining loyal to it – all in an effort to renew the Church despite the limitations of its treatment of children, its response to the scandals, and its institutional structures.

It was somewhat disappointing that only four of the book’s 13 chapters were written by women, especially since we know that women comprise the majority of mass-goers in Ireland.

Having said that, a conference on ‘Irish Catholicism on Trial,’ organised by Maher at IT Tallaght earlier this month, featured a much more gender-balanced panel, picking up on many of the themes explored in Tracing the Cultural Legacy of Irish Catholicism.

I wrote about several of the talks at the conference on my personal blog, including:

Prof Catherine Maignant on Fr Tony Flannery: Vatican Sanctions have ‘increased his aura and influence’

Dermot Keogh on the Catholic Church and the Irish State: ‘It is Better to Begin Anew’

Clerical Voices from Irish Catholicism on Trial: Flannery, Hederman and Claffey

How Religion Still Matters in a Post-Catholic Ireland: Text of my Keynote




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