The Burren



The problems, the solutions and the positive;

Opinion column; Fergus Quinlan

The visit of Pope Francis has focused attention on two glaring problems facing the Catholic Church. The problem of child abuse, and the legacy of how the church, supported by the state treated women who became unmarried mothers. On these two subjects, most conversations refer to the exposure of guilty priests, nuns and their institutions, find culprits to blame for their actions and conspiracies to cover up these crimes and avoid punishment.  There is no doubt that society has progressed in the exposure of perpetrators and even in the collection of some retribution. However, while the exposure and banishment of perpetrators are necessary and provides a form of closure to the abused,  that approach does not deal with the underlying issue, the wellspring from which all this evil, hurt and abuse has emerged.

These problems arise in the Catholic Church due to a fundamental defect in its underlying philosophy. The church does not, or perhaps does not want to understand the conflict between the human instinct and intellect.

Our first powerful instinct is for survival; the next is our sexual instinct for reproduction. The church has adopted many ways over the centuries to control the sexual instinct. The first is through shame and guilt, the only depictions of the naked or semi-naked human forms in Christian art have been the tortured body of St. Sabastian festooned in arrows, the bloodied and crucified Christ or scores of the damned being herded into hell by sword-wielding angels.

The elevation of the Virgin Mary,  “O Mary conceived without sin.” As an icon of the church, negates and confuses, it most certainly does not assert the joy and fulfilment of the normal sexual actions of women who give normal birth. Countless statues of the sexless Virgin Mary promote this unattainable contradiction as an ideal, in schools all over Ireland, it confuses both girls and boys; it undermines the whole feminine ethos of girls, in boys, it promotes the idea of the ‘slut’ regarding any girl who behaves in a normal sexual way. These contradictions highlight the clash between the church doing all it can to suppress sexuality with shame and ignorance and the powerful sexual instinct itself.

One must have an understanding of the ‘predator priest’, often young boys persuaded into seminaries at a young age, had their sexuality, either heterosexuality or homosexuality ignored and suppressed, masturbation was a sin, even sexual thoughts were sinful. Prayer, penance and fear of damnation were the suppressing weight placed on the heads of the seminarians, the priests, brothers and nuns lived a lonely, unnatural life of celibacy. In many cases the suppression worked, in others, it failed, the sexual instinct burst forth like a boil. The frustrated religious then express their sexuality with the vulnerable and most available boys and perhaps the young female housekeeper, all educated in schools, run by the same clerics. Schools, which maintained and in the majority still do, a deliberate ignorance of sex and sexuality. If the girl became pregnant, she, like the thousands of others at the time who became pregnant while unmarried, was likely to have her child taken from her and incarcerated as a laundry slave under the care of the Sisters of Charity.

The solutions

If the pope is serious about the continued existence of the church, he will have to understand the primacy of instinct, support and celebrate the life force of sexuality, change the celibacy rule for priests, allow female priests, remove the whole damaging idea of virgin births and conception without sin. He will have to recognise that the intellect, instead of suppressing sexuality can in a constructive way, guide it to acts of mutual respect and love.

It is essential for the safety of children that they are aware of all aspects of their bodies and are introduced to sexual awareness from the age of reason. While discussions on postponing sexual activity might be worthwhile, any inculcation of shame and guilt have proved counterproductive. The enormous power driving the instinct for sex and replication, as we have seen, will overcome all obstacles. Inhibitions and suppression on sexuality stemming from whatever source will encourage young people to negate these hang-ups with alcohol and other mind-altering substances.  Sex in such circumstances is much more likely to result in unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted disease.

An open sexual climate, comprehensive sex education, and a nonjudgmental attitude toward young people’s sexuality will reduce, if not remove these inhibitions. It is essential that young partners can discuss sex openly  – before they engage in such an important act, such confidence and the ability to have an open dialogue will contribute to low rates of unintended pregnancies and lower levels of abortion. High-quality, honest sex education and dialogue within schools and homes will help create an ethos of healthy sexual relationships where growing children can assess and manage risk. Sexuality is central to the self-esteem of every human, confidence within an individuals sexuality will contribute a self-assurance which will flow into all aspects of life.

Pope Francis – A positive viewpoint;

The church and religion are under severe pressure in Ireland, this is indicated, amongst other things, by the reduction of young people attending mass and a dearth of new priests. While there would be positive aspects to the demise of religion, such as perhaps the unifying of all education under a secular format. The collapse of any remaining spirituality may accelerate the rise of unfettered material insatiability. Thus, there arises the spectre of an intensifying religion of material greed and consumerism. For those of us who wish to see democracy extend over Capital, we look for any allies in such a worthy struggle; here we have unlikely cohorts in W.B.Yeats and the present pope, W. B. Yeats in his poem, titled 1913;

“What need you, being come to sense,

But fumble in a greasy till

And add the halfpence to the pence

And prayer to shivering prayer, until

You have dried the marrow from the bone…….

One hundred years later, Pope Francis raised similar issues which are as relevant to politics and economics in Ireland today:

“The worship of the golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.”

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralised workings of the prevailing economic system.”

In a speech in Bolivia 2015, he said: “Behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench ‘the dung of the devil’, an unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.”

“Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labour is not mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation. For Christians, the responsibility is even greater: it is a commandment.”         Pope Francis

NOTE; The author is open to join or chair any open forums on any of the challenging issues raised above;