— TERESA MANNION (@MANNIOT) June 4, 2014
In Ireland, there are stirrings for a full investigation into the staggering news that a former home for unmarried mothers and their children was effectively a death camp for infants, and close to 800 were buried in a septic tank. It’s important to note that we have not yet had a thorough investigation of the site, formal confirmation of all the alleged tiny corpses, or the kind of inquiry that could answer many as-yet-unanswered questions. But it’s notable that no one in the church or civil authorities have simply denied the account. The order of nuns responsible for this grotesque atrocity, and its subsequent cover-up, are apparently consulting with their bishop.
There are now calls to investigate all the sites once run by this sadistic, wicked order in order to discover how many children were neglected, abused and thrown away like so much trash. I’d say that’s a start. In my view, the entire order should be shut down by the Vatican until we have a much better understanding of these crimes, who knew about them, and when. There should also surely be a thorough attempt to find anyone still connected with this cover-up for investigation and possible prosecution. Like war crimes, these horrifying abuses should know no statute of limitations.
What’s troubling to me is the insistence that the abuse that occurred at The Home is “Catholic” abuse. It also troubles me greatly that people are using hatred of Catholicism as an excuse for those who saw these starving, neglected children and did nothing to intervene. This easy scapegoating of Catholicism removes everyone’s responsibility and any need to make change for children suffering today. There is no rational reason for identifying this as “Catholic” abuse.
Pardon my language but yes there fucking is. These children were treated as sub-human because their births violated a Catholic doctrine that there can be no sex outside of marriage. The young women – denied contraception, of course – were equally subject to horrifying stigmatization, hatred, and inhumane rules that took their children away from them. None of this would have ever taken place without this doctrine, and the insistence that it be enforced without exception and relentlessly. No society has ever lived up to this standard, but in Ireland, where the church was fused with the state, they gave it about as good a try as possible. And in order to enforce it, in order to inculcate shame at the deepest level imaginable to prevent human love, passion and sex breaking out, cruelty was necessary. Whenever a society attempts to impose without exception an impossible abstraction on fallible human beings, such cruelty will always be necessary. You can check the roster of totalitarian and theocratic regimes for the results.
Rod Dreher comes back with the argument that the effective imposition by society, church and state of the no-sex-outside-marriage does not have to lead to atrocities like these. And since we have such a teaching still propagated and we no longer have this kind of horror in the West, he obviously has a point. But from the point of view of those who imposed this regime for much of the 20th Century in Ireland, this argument indicts itself. Today, without ruthless stigmatization of women who have sex outside marriage or of gay men and women, we have much higher levels of sex, illegitimacy, and perversion. From the point of view of the sexual sadists who imposed this regime, their worldview stands vindicated. See, they would argue. Sex is so primal a desire that the only way to get human beings to conform to the only valid Catholic norm, you have to brutalize gay people and women who have had sex before marriage. Or more to the point, you have to make illegitimate children, their mothers and gay people invisible. If their existence were confirmed, if it were even manifested in their own communities, then the entire edifice of Catholic sexual teaching would implode.
After all, isn’t that why Rod has pursued the Benedict option in our allegedly decadent society?
Without this kind of enforcement of sexual orthodoxy, our public square is riddled with examples of grotesque sin: gay people not only having sex but also marrying each other; young women exploring their sexuality with self-confidence and curiosity, protected by contraception; young men and women marrying later after many sexual partners; and an online sexual world where all kinds of options unknown even to Dante are instantly available. “See!” the ghosts of Tuam past would say. “These are the wages of sin. Our world was brutal and cruel and foul, but it prevented more sin than the current regime.” And in their understanding of sin, in which throwing hundreds of child’s bodies into a septic tank is a necessary evil but masturbating is wicked, they surely have a point.
Now do all regimes of theocratic sexual orthodoxy become this callous? Well, when you look at societies which are still like Ireland once was, where church and state were fused, you see much of the same horror: the dehumanization and subjugation of women, female genital mutilation, male genital mutilation, and the brutal murder of gay people. Does Rod not see a pattern here? And the entire fiction of a more virtuous past is only made possible by literally making its victims as invisible as those infant bodies in a septic tank. The countless gay lives of intense psychic pain, the innumerable heart-breaks, the forced separation of mothers and children, the brutalization of innocents, and the immiseration of people whose only crime was to experience their own bodies in ways unsanctioned by authority: these are all buried in order to retain the lie that this sexual ethic is the only virtuous one.
There are sane and good arguments to be had about the best form of sexual and emotional life as an ideal and as a reality. But the absolutist paradigm in which any sex outside marriage is anathema is such an impossible standard for most that it will fail if not enforced with the kind of brutality seen in Ireland in the 1940s or Iran in the 2010s. My contention is that the rigidity of this standard is inextricably tied up with cruelty. And that cruelty is far, far greater a sin, than surrendering to our deepest nature, hurting no one. That’s the lesson I get from Jesus’ words to the adulteress at the well. That’s the lesson I get from the Gospels as a whole. Love one another; and forgive one another. And these before everything else; mercy before everything else; love before anything else.
That septic tank is one massive rebuke to all of that, which no rationalizing can rescue.
(Photo: The High Cross in the town square of Tuam, County Galway, circa 1990. By RDImages/Epics/Getty Images.)