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'My religion lapsed three decades ago, but I am irritated by a-la-carte Catholics'

By staying Catholic I feel liberals hypocritically give tacit approval to behaviour and attitudes they find offensive, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

AS A CATHOLIC lapsed these past three decades, I am sometimes irritated by a-la-carte Catholics.

I feel that whether you obey its every rule – as the church demands – or pick and choose the bits you like – as most Irish Catholics do – you remain a member of an organisation which has caused generations of untold harm.

By staying Catholic I feel liberals hypocritically give tacit approval to behaviour and attitudes they find offensive.

The Pope’s PR machine 

I’ve annoyed Mass-going gay friends by telling them that even if the new Pope is a nice guy with expensive PR, they remain to their church “intrinsically disordered”.

Just this week, Bishop Duffy of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise apologised for the “insensitivity” of Father Joseph Okere’s description of the marriage equality referendum result as “evidence the devil was at work in Ireland, but surely – to the Catholic Church – that must be exactly how it seems.

Do Catholics bear some responsibility for the sins of the Fathers (and the Brothers and the Sisters)? I tend to go back and forth on the issue.

Of course I respect the religious beliefs of others – if they respect my own lack of same – but I also feel that by remaining part of a church guilty of monstrous crimes, Catholics seem to me equivocal about the evil it has done and – this is important – continues to do to this very day.

shutterstock_134446922 Shutterstock / FeSeven Shutterstock / FeSeven / FeSeven

Use of watery language 

In the US last week, victims of clerical sex abuse were hurt terribly by Pope Francis’ watery language praising bishops for their “courage” over “trying moments”.

“To characterise the response of American Bishops to clergy abuse victims as ‘generous’ and ‘courageous’ is bizarre,” said John Salveson, president of the Philadelphia-based Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse. He’s a survivor of clerical sex abuse.

“In reality, the American church hierarchy has treated clergy sex abuse victims as adversaries and enemies for decades. (Francis’) concern about how the abuse crisis has weighed on the bishops’ spirits, and his hope that all of their good deeds will help them heal from the crisis, reflects a profound misunderstanding of the role the church has played in this self-inflicted crisis.”

Personally, I thought Pope Francis’ mask slipped when he praised parents who beat their children without marking their faces. Call me anti-Catholic if you like.

Their personal relationship with God 

Mass-going friends tell me that I don’t understand that their Catholicism is not about the institutional church, but rather it is a part of their very selves and is all about their personal relationship with God. I wonder if they have such a personal relationship with God without all of the bells and smells of the church, why are they Catholic at all?

They reply with the one answer which usually silences me: “We did no wrong. Why should we leave our church?”

shutterstock_271582343 Shutterstock / Gorinov Shutterstock / Gorinov / Gorinov

Having written before in about the Magdalene women buried in a mass grave in Sunday’s Well in Cork City, I felt moved to call and pay my respects.

I must acknowledge that I only know of the Good Shepherd story, thanks to the work of the Irish Examiner’s Connal Ó Fatharta, who has been – for years – a tireless champion for those women.

The Magdalene memorial in the sealed-off Good Shepherd site is high above the convent building and has been vandalised. It’s in pieces. It’s a shabby and lonely marker to women who suffered lives of misery and pain in church “care”.

I said a brief, agnostic’s prayer and I moved on to the next walled-off area.

Sprawling ruins of a Magdalene laundry 

Beside me, looking south, was a decapitated statue of Jesus, arms outstretched, hands broken off. Below were the grounds of the sprawling ruins of the Convent and Magdalene laundry.

Taking my life in my hands, I picked my way down the steep incline.

It’s a huge, four-storey, red-brick building, partially burnt-out. It has its own dark gravity and light seems to bend around it. On a warm, bright day, I felt a chill in its shadow. I would really, really hate to spend a night there.

river (9)

Because I had also written about her for this publication, I wanted to visit the grave of “Little Nellie of Holy God”. I waded through briars and climbed several metal fences, to the eastern extreme of the site, furthest from my entry-point. Little Nellie is buried amongst dozens of low stone crosses bearing the names of nuns who died in Sunday’s Well.

Little Nellie 

It was a beautiful, sunny day and I am the least superstitious man you will ever meet. Little Nellie’s grave is much cleaner than those surrounding it. Fresh flowers sit there. I decided to tweet a photograph and I knew the smartarse caption I would use: “Forgive us our trespasses”.

So, do I think Catholics have a responsibility for the sins of their church? I go back and forth.

Does the elderly woman receiving Last Rites condone abuse? Of course not. Should she have spoken out if she knew abuse was occurring? (People knew. People always know. People know now.)

That Ireland was always a cold house for the vulnerable cannot absolve lay Catholics of all blame. Mass-going friends tell me it’s not that simple. Caring more about this world than the next, I disagree.

“The Magdalenes were marched out for a walk, once a week, every Sunday,” an elderly Cork friend told me.

“The auld nun was like a sheepdog with them. You knew not to make eye- contact with the poorcraythurs. They never spoke. They never smiled.“God love them, the life they had.”

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