To be respectable is to receive respect; to be worthy of respect for observing the perceived norms of civilised society. Religion in Irish society has, until recently, been the foundation of these norms. Respectability is a curse. It causes people to act according to norms at the expense of truth and love. When respectability is at risk, it is often the case that to cover-up reprehensible behaviour people indulge in denial, lies and much more in order to maintain a respectable façade. Concealment, denial, lies and cover-up are also employed by institutions, including Churches, to maintain their respectability, their worthiness of respect.
It is arguable that Churches and their members, especially their leaders, value respectability more than they value truth and love. This is contrary to the very tenets and teachings of Christianity itself. The Church established and ran institutions to remove from society women and girls who became pregnant outside marriage, considered them pariahs and treated them, as we have learned, disgracefully.
Why did the Churches not adhere to the essential teachings of Christianity? Why did they not give pastoral care to families to encourage them to keep the unmarried expectant mother in her home, surround her with the support and security a pregnant woman needs and welcome the baby into the world surrounded by care and love? Instead families behaved according to their early indoctrination with guilt and shame and asked for or agreed to the banishment of their pregnant daughters to be locked up in these institutions.
Surely love and care, rather than guilt and shame, were consistent with the teachings of Christ. Instead, in the name of Christ, women were banished to institutions, deprived of their freedom and treated as they were, then forced to give their babies for adoption concealing their identity so that they could never be traced. The Church at large and the people who ran these institutions were deluded when they believed that to adhere to the authority and control of the Church in this way was better than employing loving Christian principles. People were deluded into obeying the Church rather exercising common human decency.
Some defenders of the Church claim that families, society and the state were as concerned as the Church was to put away pregnant young women into institutions and the Church was doing them a service by taking them in. Who set the norm, and in fact dictated the behaviour, to families, society and the government to act in this way? The Church did and provided the personnel and facilities to do it. The power and control of the Church in society in those days, which was almost total, enabled them to do so. The families, the majority of the members of society and the members of governments were practising and faithful Church members and had been indoctrinated from early in their lives by the Church. They were under its influence if not under its control. The Church cannot mitigate its responsibility by blaming families for asking to have their pregnant daughters put into the institutions. The families were responding to their conditioning by the Church.
Brendan Corish, Tanaiste, and leader of the Labour Party in the 1960s famously said: ‘I am a Catholic first and an Irishman second.’ John Costello said something that implied the same at the time of the Noel Browne controversy about the Mother and Child scheme. If you are in any doubt about the fact that religion and the Church had primary responsibility for the beliefs and actions of people, society and the government itself, you must take account of, for example, the following:
After the first cabinet meeting of the Coalition Government that was formed in 1948, the Minister for External Affairs, Sean McBride, on behalf of the government, sent a telegram to the Pope affirming the willingness of the Government
‘to repose at the feet of Your Holiness the assurance of our filial loyalty and our devotion to Your August Person as well as our firm resolve to be guided in all our work by the teaching of Christ and to strive for the attainment of a social order in Ireland based on Christian principles.’
(McBride had sent an even more obsequious letter to Archbishop McQuaid on his own election to the Dail the previous year.)
Families of young women who became pregnant outside marriage, society in general and even the government came nowhere near to building ‘a social order in Ireland based on Christian principles.’ On the contrary the young women who became pregnant outside marriage and their families were all subservient to the Church and it was the Church who was ultimately responsible for the fact that these young women were put into these institutions and treated as they were.
Yes of course there were exceptions, there were some kind nuns, some kind clergy and some people who thought for themselves. The argument that some Church members use today that the Church was providing what families wanted in taking pregnant women into their institutions does not hold up. Families and government ought to be free to make their own decisions in such matters but in earlier times Church influence and respectability dictated that they were not.