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The day turned out to be wet and misty, so instead of our planned hillwalk we ended up walking the Glenshelane Forest Trail near Cappoquin, Co. Waterford. “Glenshelane” translates into “Valley of the Fairies” and with its meandering streams and moss covered trees there is something magical about the place (or at least the parts that have not been the subject of recent tree-felling).

By accident, we ended up at a place called Melleray Grotto. It’s a strange place. Nestled beside a bridge across the Monavugga river, the grotto has a large shelter and car-park in addition to the usual statues of Mary and St. Theresa. According to the signs and leaflets there, three children saw multiple apparitions of the Virgin Mary there in 1985, the same year as the moving statues phenomenon in Ireland.

The children reported seeing Noah, Jesus and the Devil among other biblical characters. According to them, Mary spoke to them on a number of occasions. The free leaflet provides us with a transcript of what she said: pronouncements like “I Want Prayer” and “The World Must Improve” – not exactly the most inspirational of stuff. She even went on to predict a great cataclysm in 1995. Unless I am much mistaken, this did not happen in 1995, or am I wrong? (Ah, but of course, there was that matter of a divorce referendum…).

I was left with the distinct impression that the whole thing was a hoax or a prank that went somewhat out of control, or perhaps the exploitation of people who might have been in need of professional medical help. Over the period of the “visions”, thousands of people descended on the place, just as they were doing in similar places around the country.

On the seats nearby was a Catholic newspaper that seemed gave the distinct impression of a religion on the ropes; as if they had rounded up the wagon train and all you could see, looking from the outside, were guns pointing at you. Everyone becomes their target – atheists, secularists, liberal Christians, Muslims, anyone who does not sign up to their strict interpretation of Christianity. This is fine, I guess, for preserving intact the worldview of the faithful, but useless as a vehicle for attracting new recruits. The paper is full of anger, bitterness and despair for the future.

It’s a ramshackle place where one’s common understanding of the world takes a somersault, to be replaced by arcane stories and apparent miracles. A place where normal critical thinking takes a vacation. Not so different, I would think, to Hindu shrines half a continent away, with their votive candles, petitions and magical holy water. The pleas and prayers are sodden with desperation and agony. Rather than making people more comfortable about their troubles, I wonder if it only makes things worse by assigning an agent, a conscious cause, to their suffering. If their problems – serious illness or  a bereavement  say – were caused by a conscious agent, then you will never stop asking why and no answers will ever come. That’s not comfort in my book.

The Grottos is an odd, fascinating and somewhat sad place: a distinct throwback to the Middle Ages and an insight into the power and irrationality of human belief.

I think I was around fifteen years old. The elderly Christian Brother teaching us Religious Studies brought us all downstairs to the video room. The lesson for the day would be a documentary on Our Lady of Garabandal, a supposed “apparition” of Mary somewhere in Spain. The key message from the programme was the Blessed Virgin’s unhappiness with the world. Unless we started saying the Rosary pretty darn quick, terrible unspecified things would happen. No discussion, no criticism. We were expected to accept all of the programme’s premises at face value.

This was a major downside of an Irish Catholic education in the 1980’s. Alongside fairly solid subjects such as maths, science and the foreign languages, we were schooled in rank superstition. This was not educational, it was anti-educational. We left school in possession of a rather toxic mindset: that if a person was wearing the right clothes or had the right prefix before his name, or the right suffix after his name, then you were expected to accept that he was telling the truth, no matter what rubbish he was uttering from his mouth.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when friends of mine were discussing alternative medicine cures for various ailments. There was no analysis, no criticism. The proof was in the anecdote and the anecdote was the gold-standard.

Then there was the hubbub at Knock a few months ago, attracting thousands to witness Joe Coleman muttering nonsense into the middle distance. Many of us might laugh, but it served as a reminder that the Ireland of the moving statues hadn’t gone away, you know.

Pick up any local paper and you will find ads for peddlers of the most outrageous woo, from Chinese medicine to homeopathic treatments to new age crystal remedies. And how could we forget the pyramid schemes and the property bubbles that hit the country over the past few years? It all points a vulnerability common to us all. You might not beat the Irish, but fool us you can, and fool us you do. Every single day.

It’s all quite depressing stuff. If you want to make make a fast buck using nothing but smoke and mirrors, Ireland is as good a place as any to try your hand.

Now, I know that belief in the miraculous, the supernatural and the magical is a worldwide phenomenon. Most societies are steeped in it and it will be with us as long as our species breathe on this planet. Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be good for all of us if our kids were better prepared to accept things more on evidence than on hearsay? Wouldn’t it be better if we were taught how our brains can play tricks on us and how to avoid the more common mistakes? Wouldn’t it benefit us to quickly recognise manipulation by others? Our education system somehow avoided this aspect of our schooling and the results are everywhere to be seen.

The Irish education system, or should I say, the Catholic education system of Ireland (sadly these expressions are synonymous), didn’t dwell too much on such questions, lest we peered too closely at the shaky foundations of Catholicism’s own dogmas and diktats. We were, of course, taught to think critically, but critical thinking had its limits.

I would love to say that the system has improved greatly since I left school and that we are turning out school-leavers who have a much better handle on reality, but I fear that change has been glacially slow. I stand to be corrected in this regard.

It’s another reason why a Catholic education is not necessarily the best education for our schoolchildren. We deserve better. It’s time we got better.

The latest report on child abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese does not fail to shock. The abuse itself is chilling, depressing and appalling, but compounding it is the behaviour of senior bishops and cardinals as they conspired – over a 40 year period – to cover up the scale of the scandal throughout the Dublin area. A new word has been added to the common lexicon – “mental reservation“: where bishops could freely excuse themselves from telling the truth when under pressure to do so. The welfare of children was of little importance to these men, and the resultant suffering is incalculable.

Mary Raftery neatly sums up the gravity of this report and it’s implications for the Catholic Church in Ireland. One passage in particular stands out:

What emerges most clearly from the report is that priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals had the greatest difficulty in telling right from wrong, and crucially that their determination of what constituted wrongdoing was vastly different from that of the population at large.

Let’s think about that, for a second. The Catholic Church, like most religions, believes that the greatest value it confers to society is its ability to guide people in distinguishing right from wrong. And yet, it’s most eminent leaders and scholars behaved – and still behave – in a way that would lead you to the firm conclusion that, despite their years of learning, refinement and experience, they have no clue as to what is commonly accepted as morally acceptable or morally abhorrent behaviour. If the very leaders of this church can’t distinguish between right and wrong, what use is Catholicism at all? Why should any sane society uncritically accept the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in our schools? What real benefit does it offer our children?

The implications of the report are clear: The Church badly needs to be removed from the affairs of the Irish State. Let the parents and teachers teach our children right from wrong – they will do a better job. The churchmen had their chance for long time and they blew it. Enough is enough.

Knock Shrine

via Declan McAleese (Flickr - creative commons licensed)

KNOCK, Co. Mayo – 31 October 2009

Fifty thousand people from around Ireland turned up the town of Knock, Co. Mayo, today to see a glorious display of Nothing. The anticipation had been building up for weeks after clairvoyant Joe Coleman successfully predicted at least two displays of Nothing over the past months, with this day expected to be the best display of Nothing in fifty years. Bus-loads of pilgrims began to arrive into Knock since last Wednesday. Hotel rooms and guest-houses were booked up as far afield as Ballina and Tuam. James O’Shaughnessy from Rosslare arrived in Knock the night before, having walked in his bare feet from Wexford. All the pilgims spoke in feverish terms about their anticipation of today’s event. “It’s about time that the people of Ireland woke up, cast off our material desires and realised that all out problems would be solved if we moped around looking at bugger all for a while”, said Micheal Foley from Moate, Co. Westmeath.

The day lived up to expectations right from the start. “It was amazing”, said Bill O’Rourke from Prosperous, Co. Kildare. “As soon as we got there we immediately started seeing Nothing, and for the entire time we were there we continued to see Very Little Happen on a regular basis. We must have been there four hours. I’ve never experienced so much Nothingness on a single occasion before”.

Mary Kelleher from Ennis, was slightly more skeptical. “Well, I’m sure I saw a flock of crows at one stage, so saying we saw Nothing is a bit too strong. But it might have been a trick of the eyes. God acts in mysterious ways, you know”. However Martin O’Carroll from Gort was far more insistent. “Praise be! It was an incredible experience! There were thousands of us there, and we all witnessed directly the complete absence of anything interesting at all! You can’t put that down to chance”.

At 3pm on the day , a slight wind blew from the west, but it soon died down again. Some in the crowd immediately fainted from sheer wonderment. Around 3.15, the sun was momentarily seen from behind the grey clouds. “I definitely saw it shining”, said Pat McGarrigle from Roscommon. “It was there in the sky, and it was shining down. The locality suddenly brightened up around us. We could feel the sun’s rays on our faces. We all burst into prayer”.

As the crowd began to disperse around 7pm, a great light appeared in the sky. The Aer Arann flight from Dublin had arrived on time.

Joe Coleman declared the occasion a great success. “By the end of the day, everyone was completely bored. Our traditional values are obviously still strong. Let this be a warning to the politicians and the Church hierarchy. If you believe in your heart that Nothing will happen, then it can come true despite what the authorities might tell you”. He is currently organising a pilgimage to Lourdes, “where a great Non-Event is due to take place before the assembled multitudes during December”.

Under the collar

For me, one of the most memorable moments in the movie “Schindler’s List” is when well dressed officials began to set up tables, open up their journals, prepare their inkwells and process the lives of human beings as if they were just commodities to be dispensed with like jam, cake and toilet rolls. All that mattered was the system. Everyone involved was a cog, with a defined role, and dare you not deviate from the actions assigned to you.

This image has come into my mind as we in Ireland learn about the atrocities committed on children by members of the Catholic Church during the 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s inside “Industrial Schools” – special institutions set up to deal with poor children. And “deal with them” they did, through a regime of mental, physical, emotional and sexual abuse. 

We have been hearing about clerical child abuse for nearly two decades now in Ireland, but what is truly shocking from the Ryan report is the sheer scale of the problem. It’s a cast of thousands, if not tens of thousands. At the core were the abusers, running into the hundreds. But it didn’t stop there. Many people in high places kept quiet while these thugs did whatever they wished. What were the colleagues, the managers, the principals, the school inspectors, the civil servants, the police, the priests, the judges, the bishops and the politicians doing during this time? What did they know? What did they try to hide? This is the scandal.

There was a system in place. Clinical, effective, and unconscionably evil. This system sought to protect its own integrity above everything else, with little thought to those in its charge. This system resolutely defended the very antithesis of what it set itself up to achieve. They talked about love, but they dealt in cruelty. They talked about hope, but they only brought despair. They talked about caring, but they left a trail of broken people in their wake.

In the case of the Christian Brothers or the Sisters of Mercy, although the time for real accountability has long gone, it’s time they sold all their properties to the state to compensate the abuse victims and got off the stage. They leave behind a shameful legacy and thousands of damaged lives. They should forego their role in the education of the young, or the treatment of the sick. That’s the state’s job, not the job of the religious, who preach love and caring while keeping their dark criminal secrets under lock and key. It’s sickening that any institution, having committed so much evil during their tenure, could have any remaining authority in Irish public life. 

But by and large, it’s all a footnote. These orders started hemorrhaging staff forty years ago. Even when I was in school, you would have been considered half-mad to even contemplate joining the Christian Brothers or the nuns.  What remains, by and large, is a handful of septuagenarians and octogenarians in retirement homes. Most of the real criminals are long dead – saved from the debt they clearly should have repaid in their lifetimes. The bigger issue is the degree to which the authorities collaborated together, and how such collaborations should be identified, exposed and struck down whenever they occur.

For markets to work, there are strict anti-collaboration laws between suppliers, enforceable by harsh penalties. A similar situation applies to the management of the vulnerable. The managers and the regulators must never collaborate. They must never make allowances for each other. Where power rests with just one group, abuses will happen.We need to ensure that all systems of for managing the young, the sick, the elderly and the disabled are more transparent and accountable. We need systems whereby wrongdoing can be corrected quickly for the sake of those who depend on the services of that system. Bad teachers can still get protection from management and from Trade Unions, and from lax inspection regimes. So too can bad nurses, bad doctors, bad police, bad managers and bad civil servants. Even when you take the Catholic Church out of the equation, there is plenty of reason to believe that this generational disease in Irish public life will go on and on.

This link on Paddy Doyle’s website will tell you all you need to know about how much the Church and the State colluded together. It’s shameful and disgusting. 

humanism.png

When you are admitted into hospital in Ireland, one of the first questions you are asked is your religion. The main reason, apparently, is because if you don’t manage to clock out when your stay is over, they want to be able to contact the right cleric to look after your affairs.

This bothers me. First of all, it is assumed that all residents of Ireland must have a religion. The mere idea of people walking around with no religious belief whatsoever seems to be anathema to our public services. It’s as if we ,who profess no religion, are somehow lying and that deep down we believe in a god, but that we are suppressing it. This is not a good assumption. We do not believe because there is no evidence, and plenty of contradictory evidence, despite what some people would have would have us believe. We liken belief in God with belief in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny.  Nobody would ever be accused of living their lives in secret denial of the Tooth Fairy, would they?

Second of all, for many non-religious people in Ireland, religion is something that we have struggled for many years to free ourselves from. Some people have painful memories from the past, others wish to undo the indoctrination of our early youth, and many of us shake our heads at the great reverence and respect shown in our society to what we see as gross irrationality. Why then are we expected to give in to religion when the final paragraphs of our lives are being written? Surely hypocrisy has no part to play in the most serious and honest moment in a person’s life?

Finally, it presents an unfortunate challenge at an unfortunate time for many non-religious people. A purely secular sending off is not open to us, as it is with people who subscribe to a particular creed. If we want to express our dissent from the consensus, then we are obliged to organize these affairs ourselves. Given the fact that there are so many of us nowadays, this is a situation that needs changing.

Organisations such as the Humanist Association of Ireland exist to provide assistance to people during major life occasions. They officiate at births and weddings and other secular ceremonies. They counsel people in their last moments and work with families and friends prior to, during and after death. However, humanist counsellors and chaplains are few and far between, particularly in the city where I live. The only non-religious funeral I have ever attended was a lonely, amateurish and sad affair that cannot have been easy on the spouse of the man who had passed away. Surely singing and poetry and prose; the hug, the handshake and the kind word, is not the sole preserve of the priest and pastor?

Irish society is growing up, so there should be more humanist options available to us to help us celebrate the major stages of our lives. It should be possible to celebrate the big moments properly – the joys, the hopes and the sadness – without the mumbo-jumbo. The non religious – the agnostics, the atheists, the secularists and free-thinkers amongst us – are as entitled to our public moments of elation, contemplation and bitter grief as anyone else. These moments should be facilitated by trained men or women who can ease the pain, organise the occasion and add to the memories.

It is something I would like to explore further.

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