The Best Catholics in the World: The Irish, the Church and the End of a Special Relationship Derek Scally, £16.99, 352pp, Sandycove
The Catholic Church in Ireland has been racked by scandals for my entire career as a journalist which began in 1994. That was the year when the terrible crimes of sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Catholic clergy on children first erupted into public consciousness. These ignited enormous and understandable public anger, especially when it became clear that Church leaders covered up so much of what was going on. Since then, there has been official investigation into abuse in Catholic dioceses, the country’s industrial schools, Magdalene laundries and, most, recent, the mother and baby homes.
Derek Scally is the thoughtful Germany correspondent for The Irish Times. His book, The Best Catholics in the World, is an account of Ireland’s Catholic past and above all the legacy of the scandals and how we should deal with them.
I approached the book under a misapprehension. I thought he would be discussing at more length why he remains a “grappling Catholic” (as he puts it), but instead the book is dominated by the scandals and how we still have not properly come to terms with them. Scally interviews many of the victims of abuse. He describes a “culture of containment” whereby Catholic Ireland institutionalised tens of thousands of people, mostly women and children, who were considered “problems”, or a source of shame and embarrassment, for example, unmarried mothers.
Was Ireland alone in this, and was it particularly a feature of the Catholic Church? The answer to both questions is no. A “culture of containment” was common in many countries. Britain, for example, had Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes and industrial schools, and only a small minority in each case were run by the Catholic Church.
The last mother and baby homes in Britain closed in the 1970s. Unmarried mothers were stigmatised in almost every country to varying degrees. In Social Democratic Sweden, for example, unmarried mothers were sometimes sterilised having been first diagnosed as “feeble-minded”. This continued until the 1970s.
Ireland was unusual in keeping some of its institutions open longer than other countries. The last Magdalene home, for example, did not close until the 1990s, although it was only kept going because by then its elderly residents had nowhere else to go. Scally portrays Catholic Ireland in mostly negative terms, and not just for the scandals, but also because of the social conformity, which he compares with East Germany under Communism.
As I was reading the book, I kept waiting for Scally to interview those who have benefitted from the care of the Catholic Church. They wouldn’t have been hard to find. He could have asked Sr Consilio, who has helped to rescue countless numbers from drug and alcohol addiction since the 1960s, or Brother Kevin Crowley, who has spent decades helping the down and outs of Dublin.
He is right, of course, to say that there was plenty of conformity, but this is simply a feature of human nature. Scally would probably agree with that. But today the conformism often consists of mindlessly parroting the liberal line on all the issues of the day, and ritualistically condemning the Catholic Church.
The new form of piety is “virtue-signalling”. Catholic guilt has been replaced for many people by endlessly “checking their privilege”, examining their consciences to ensure they are not guilty of conscious or unconscious bias against various minority groups, worrying that a word out of place may land them in trouble or even end their careers, and fretting over whether they are harming the environment via their modern, consumerist lifestyles. In a striking example of the new conformism, during the abortion referendum of May 2018, I saw what seemed to be a whole classroom of schoolgirls in Dublin wearing Vote Yes badges.
Scally is right when he says we once thought of ourselves as “the best Catholics in the world”. But today our leaders have replaced slavish devotion to Rome, with slavish devotion to Brussels, and even (God help us) the UN.
He thinks we should establish permanent museums dedicated to examining our Catholic past. In my view, that cannot happen until we gain a far more objective view of that past. It has taken decades for us to develop a normal relationship with Britain, something that has been upset again by Brexit. I suspect it will take decades more for us to develop a better perspective on the Church.
Will Scally’s book help us to develop a more balanced view? I doubt it. Even though he writes in a tone of sadness more than anger, I think it will only tell readers that Ireland is well rid of the Catholic Church.
David Quinn is a religious and social affairs commentator and Director of The Iona Institute. His latest book is How we Killed God.