Counting the Cost

This Sunday, the Irish Sunday Mail published a horrifying story.  A couple of kids were playing around on a property formerly known as "The Home" in County Galway, on the west coast of Ireland.  From 1925 to 1961, "The Home" was a facility for unmarried, pregnant girls and their children, much like the Magdalene Laundries that were shown in the recent movie Philomena.  The boys accidentally broke through an old septic tank and discovered the bones of what might be as many as 800 infants and children.  They were buried together in a mass grave, with no identifying markers.  A Galway historian discovered contemporary health inspector reports that described the children in this facility as "emaciated," "with flesh hanging loosely from their limbs."  The children, who did nothing other than being born to an unmarried mother, were referred to as "inmates."  Clearly, these children were neglected, and then almost literally flushed down the toilet when they died.

"The Home" was run by the Bon Secours sisters.  "Bon Secours" refers to a title of the Virgin Mary ("Notre Dame de Bon Secours"), and translates from French as "Our Lady of Comfort."


I got into a pointless argument in the comments section of a blog the other day.  Actually, that's redundant--all arguments in the comments section of a blog are pointless.  Be that as it may, I got sucked into a discussion on the history of misogyny in the Catholic Church.  The author attempted to argue that there is no discontinuity between the egalitarian statements in Vatican II (and by modern Popes) and the older teachings.  Sure, he admitted, you can find quotes here and there from theologians and bishops saying misogynistic stuff, but these were not "official" Church teachings.  So, no conflict.

This is a pretty standard part of the Catholic playbook.  The idea is that you can take a scalpel and trim away all of the bad, ugly stuff that has been said and done in the name of Church throughout its history to get to a pristine core that is (1) always right; and (2) always in keeping with the current understanding of these topics.  Sure, people said lots of terrible stuff about, say, Judaism, or unmarried women, or whatever, but that's the extraneous bad flesh surrounding the healthy core tissue.  Though unspoken, the result is that the Church isn't really responsible for the bad stuff, and doesn't have anything to apologize for.

I tried to argue in the blog post that they were cutting in the wrong place, and that some of the stuff they were discarding as "stuff random folks said" was actually core Catholic teaching.  I think I'm right on the facts.  But, reading the story out of Ireland, I realized that the point I was trying to make is irrelevant.  It's irrelevant because you cannot take a scalpel and pare away the "official" teaching from the culture of Catholicism.  It is the culture that real people interact with on a daily basis, not the "official" teaching.  The culture has real effects on the real lives of real people.  And if the culture is sick, then real people will suffer.


You will not find any document from the Vatican, or from the Irish bishops, that would justify neglecting children and dumping them in a mass grave, and I don't think any responsible person would suggest that there was or is.  The "official" teaching is not the issue here.

But "The Home" did not exist in a vacuum.  There was a culture in Ireland at the time that saw a pregnant, unmarried woman in terms of shame, for the woman and for the woman's family.  Women (and, in truth, many of them were girls and not women) were sent to places like The Home so that this shame could be hidden from view, out of sight and out of mind.

That shame was a product of a moral universe that saw sexuality, especially sexuality expressed outside of the confines of marriage, as the highest form of sinfulness.  Moreover, the sinfulness was seen as primarily in terms of female sexual sinfulness--notice that the fathers of these children were not sent to facilities like The Home.  The society could not handle seeing a visual reminder of unmarried women having sex, and so these women were hidden away from the sight of polite society.  And the other visual reminder of this sexual transgression, the children themselves, was equally disdained and squirreled away.  These children were themselves a source of shame.  No one cared what happened to these children, just so long as they didn't have to see them.  And when no one cared about their fate, the stage was set for what happened, apparently, at The Home.

That culture of shame was a direct result of the teachings of the Catholic Church with regard to sexuality.  The Republic of Ireland in the 20s through the early 60s was probably the most Catholic country on the planet, and the mores of Catholicism deeply penetrated every facet of life.  Irish Catholicism, in particular, had a hard-edged view of morality with a strong shame component, especially around sexuality.  My mother and father (who, while born in America, were products of the pre-Vatican II American church which was heavily influenced by the Irish version of Catholicism) tell stories of how it was considered taboo to say that someone was "pregnant," because that was seen as too earthy and suggestive--saying that so-and-so was "having a baby" was the proper phrasing, because it removed any connection with the dirty business of having sex.

Official Catholicism did not cause what happened at The Home.  But the culture of Catholicism, the one that saw sex as dirty and sinful and women as beyond the pale if they participated in it, created the conditions that allowed The Home to occur.  And, at the end of the day, the culture is far more real than the official teaching.  The culture of Catholicism was what those women and children experienced at The Home.  It is no consolation to the survivors to tell them "well, too bad about what happened to you, but at least Official Catholicism did not endorse what went on."  Unless you live in the Vatican, your experience of Catholicism is the culture of Catholicism.  "Official" Catholicism is an abstraction.


But we shouldn't be deluded into thinking this is just about Catholicism, any more than this is just about Ireland.  The idea of shame around sexuality, particularly as it relates to female sexuality, is found in all parts of Christianity.  It's found in the modern evangelical "purity culture," which Sarah Bessey writes about so powerfully.  It's found beyond Christianity as well, in the honor killings in Pakistan, in the rapes in India.  In all of those cases, it doesn't matter what Islam or Hinduism or evangelical Christianity or any other doctrine has to say "officially" on those topics.  They are products of the prevailing culture that says that sex is shameful and women are the primary tempters.

If we are horrified by these things--and we should be--we need to take responsibility for the culture that creates them.


Taking responsibility is not simply about assigning blame.  Assigning blame for events in the past is ultimately a historical exercise.  A necessary historical exercise in some cases, but still a historical exercise.

Taking responsibility is important because there are strong and persistent voices, particularly religious voices, that lionize this culture.  If only we could go back to the time before the Pill and MTV and gay folks on TV, they tell us, we could rediscover this wonderful world of strong two-parent families and solid faith.  In their accounting, on one side of the scale is domestic tranquility and a nurturing environment for children, and on the other side is the hedonism of casual, responsibility-free sex.  Framed in this manner, the past represents sober concern for the greater good, while the present represents irresponsibility and nihilism.

That framing is wrong.  Or, more accurately, it is incomplete.  It is like looking at a closed down steel mill and decrying the loss of jobs that it used to provide, while not considering that closing the plant allowed the nearby river to be cleaned up so it would be safe to drink and reduced the number of children with asthma from the air pollution.  Real people, especially women, were harmed by the old culture in very concrete ways.  That harm has been greatly reduced by the modern notion of gender equality and sexual freedom--not eliminated, but reduced.  When you place the past on the scale with the present, you must include this harm in your calculation.  The Pray, Pay, and Obey, Leave It to Beaver world of the old morality has real costs, costs that would have to be borne if we were to return to "traditional" morality.

What happened at The Home was an extreme, no doubt.  But it was not an outlier.  An outlier is something that has no connection with the other elements in the set.  Instead, what happened at The Home is on one end (admittedly, the far end) of a line that goes through Purity Balls and slut shaming and all of the rest of the opposition to the sexual norms of modern culture in favor of the past.  You must reckon with The Home when counting the cost of diving into the past, even if you understand it to be the worst case scenario.  


I know where I stand.  For all of the confusion that our modern culture has about sexuality, for all of the dead ends and blind alleys that it allows people to walk, I cannot in good conscience advocate going back to the old ways.  I cannot accept a culture that puts women in places like The Home, whether literal or figurative.  I cannot accept a culture that might be inclined to view children as bearing the mark of Cain because their mother had an encounter with a man she was not married to.  For all of the challenges and difficulties, I am convicted that our modern way of approaching sex is better than its predecessor.  I cannot accept that the old ways would be better.

I cannot accept it, because I cannot get the image of the skeletons of 800 children in a septic tank out of my head.


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