Touched by the Hand
"I was part of an unhelpful culture of deference and silence in society and the church, which thankfully is now a thing of the past" – Sean Brady
A thought experiment. Suppose Sean Brady had called the police and brought a halt to the abuse. Suppose that soon after, he left the priesthood, he emigrated, and his intelligence and thoughtful demeanour enabled him to become a politician of great power and influence, drawing on religious traditions of social justice and prophetic ministry.
Suppose then he was on the verge of becoming president of the United States and he stood in front of a Catholic Lobby in the United States declaring his unstinting support for a Catholic State in the Middle East that was operating a brutal and vicious colonial regime, stripping the indigenous population of their land, their material wealth, their well-being, and in many cases their lives, through arbitrary detention, house demolition, aerial bombing and torture.
Suppose he exalted the faith, family and culture of such a regime, and said the establishment of the Catholic State –which had been achieved through the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population- was just and necessary, and rooted in centuries of struggle and decades of patient work. Suppose once he had been elected president to widespread acclaim, that when that State massacred hundreds of non-Catholics with its warplanes and pounded their hospitals and homes with bombs, Sean Brady refused to say anything to stop it.
Suppose he commanded the destruction of villages with predator drones. Suppose he then joked about using predator drones on young men who might go near his daughters. Suppose he authorised assassinations of the citizens he was elected to represent. Suppose he maintained a site that held people under indefinite imprisonment without trial. Suppose he imprisoned someone who made information public that exposed the monumental crimes in which he was implicated, and held that person in indefinite solitary confinement for months on end.
Suppose, after all this, and after all this information being easily accessible in the public domain, Sean Brady was invited back to Ireland as President of the United States, and the Irish State locked the capital city down, the entirety of the country’s media celebrated his arrival without a glimmer of a reference to any of the activities mentioned above, and he was greeted by tens of thousands of adoring supporters, lauded as a hero, and welcomed as a returning exile. (Suppose that such was the concern on the part of the State broadcaster to present him as well as possible that it resulted in a priest getting wrongfully accused of rape)
If all this happened, what would we say about the dominant morality in Ireland, and about the culture of silence and deference that the real Sean Brady says has gone?
Of course all this did happen –give or take a few biographical details and changing a few nouns and adjectives- but it happened with Barack Obama. But there is a huge difference in public reaction to the what Brady did and failed to do decades ago and the arrival of Barack Obama to Ireland last year.. Brady’s actions are subjected to intense scrutiny and widespread coverage (as they should be), and there are wide-ranging discussions of the implications of what Brady did. There are calls, on the part of prominent politicians, for Brady to resign because he is unsuitable for the role of Catholic primate. These calls are made in a personal capacity, less it be thought that there is some sort of overlap between servants of the State and Church loyalties (heaven forbid), but everyone knows that these are official calls, made covertly.
On the other hand, with Obama, the same public representatives who now call for Brady’s resignation because of his complicity in harrowing abuse are the ones who greeted Obama so enthusiastically last year, when the State had a jubilant parade in the presence of the commander in chief of the US armed forces. They had the chance to make public calls for an end to the imperial violence perpetrated by the State of which Obama is the head while he was visiting, but –like Sean Brady when faced with the chance to say something about the abuse he knew that was happening- they said nothing. Nothing to Obama, nothing to the public.
Nor for that matter did they get asked about it by any of the news agencies currently pursuing the Brady story. So we don’t have much of an idea about what justifications they would offer for their complicity and silence, or whether they might seek to contextualise Obama’s role as a sanguinary imperialist in sympathetic terms.
Why is this so? How come the Catholic Church is subjected to scrutiny for its criminal and allegedly criminal behaviour, and its operatives rightly subjected to intense probing for their failure to act on their knowledge of heinous crimes, whereas others come under no such scrutiny, not only for their refusal to say anything about the grossest of abuses but for their activities in glorifying the perpetrators, and the perpetrators themselves are often celebrated?
Let me try and suggest a few reasons why. Although the Catholic Church still has a major influence on Irish society, not only in terms of its current control of many aspects of the education system, including the maintenance of private schools for the cultivation of local elites, high level civil servants and business people who belong to Opus Dei and other Catholic associations, and the interconnectedness across the highest echelons of the Irish Church and PR and media organisations, to name three, it obviously no longer has the same position of dominance.
The loss of influence applies, among other places. to the legislative sphere, and that of moral instruction. Where moral instruction for the purposes of social control previously emanated from pulpits and the widespread presence of priests and religious orders, it now comes via the mass media. There are very few, if any, explicit rules and exhortations; rather, there is a continuous reproduction of examples of proper moral conduct -in terms of physical appearance, obedience, enthusiasm for hard work, and so on.
The cardinal rule is obedience to the dictates of the market system; to be specific, an unquestioning acceptance that the way society is run and ordered is the way it ought to be, and –aside from the removal of a corrupt politician here, a barrier to business there, or the privatisation or outsourcing of some public service – nothing should be done to mess with the formula, lest the markets unleash their wrath.
This means that the really influential figures of authority and moral instruction are those mediated figures whose success has been validated by the market system. To name some groups- local tycoons like Michael O’Leary (recall, for instance, Eamonn Dunphy’s Late Late Show suggestion that Michael O’Leary ought to negotiate with the Troika on behalf of Ireland); economists who claim to know how the market system works and uphold the validity of its sustaining ideas; and people who circulate in the world of Foreign Direct Investment, long considered the lifeblood of Irish society. The last category includes the bosses of multinational firms and industrial development officials, and it also includes, to give a specific example, former Fine Gael Taoiseach John Bruton. Bruton, now chairman of a lobby group for the Irish Financial Services Centre, was interviewed on RTE yesterday in exchanges that were strikingly deferential, and accepting of Bruton’s viewpoint that the interests of the IFSC were the interests of society as a whole.
In a society where people have largely accepted the legitimacy of the kinds of hierarchical structures that normally exist in the capitalist workplace –think about how the game show ‘The Apprentice’ naturalises the notion that what is good and proper is to work your way to the top, and that the person at the top is the one to listen to- there is no urgent need for an official or semi-official Church to undertake moral policing on behalf of the boss class, or to operate as an exemplary hierarchical force.
Indeed, a growing feature of the post-Fordist workplace is the continual subjection to employer propaganda –whether in e-mail circulars of ‘one big family’ stories, internal advertising focusing on the uniqueness of the employee’s workplace and how highly each employee is valued, corporate social responsibility success stories- that takes the place of the kind of instruction that Churches ought to give: family, gratitude, charity, and so on.
In this scenario the traditional church appears as a relic from less worldly times, and when some unpleasant detail emerges about the rotten deeds of someone in the church hierarchy, there are few obstacles for the mass media to pursue this detail to its ultimate denouement. Much of the media coverage is anti-authoritarian in tone, with widespread criticism for the Church hierarchy.. This, by the way, by no means entails the ‘aggressive secularist’ apocalypse foretold by the likes of the Iona Institute. In fact, the laity and even sections of the priesthood are treated sympathetically. Moreover there is no deep-set ideological opposition to the existence of a Catholic Church. If anything, the preference on the part of the boss class would be for a Church that reinforced the dominant market ideology, which of course includes the celebration of charitable donation instead of codified rights.
There is no particular contradiction between religious worship and subordination to the dictates of the market, as shown by the recent history of the United States. Mainstream media opinion appears to be seeking a chastened Catholic Church, not a decimated one. The fact that the dramatis personae of this morality play are so clearly defined (innocent victims; unworldly priest with outmoded views on sexual relations and reproduction; secular bourgeois subjects who want full rigours of law applied to the protection of children from predators; politicians who want separation of Church and State) means that there is little risk of other parts of Irish society getting contaminated or called into question in the process.
The Church and the State are treated as entirely separate entities, with the State –which ensures the proper operation of the capitalist economy and enforces the regime of private property- operating as the enforcer of moral excellence, and the Church as the agent of vice. However, when a scandal involving the Church also entails some sort of association with local political, financial and media elites, as is the case with the Magdalene Laundries, where the Church-approved slave labour was used to serve Government departments and Dublin businesses, hotels and golf clubs, such scrutiny is patchy at best. (A thorough public investigation of this scandal would entail looking at questions of who benefited, and who continues to benefit, from the power accumulated on account of the creation of a workforce of female slaves that operated for many years as a powerful instrument of social control. As it is, there has been no statutory inquiry or compensation scheme instituted, nor has there been any apology or reparations. There is no public outcry about this.)
So the Church will not be allowed to melt into air in the manner of a deceased cardinal’s hat. Consider the support for Brian D’Arcy. Here was a man who was censured by his employer for public utterances about his employer that his employer did not like. But in fact there are many thousands of people in Ireland who would not be in a position to express negative opinions about their employer in public, since to do so would mean that they would lose their livelihood. Why should priests expect special treatment then? Basically, because the role of the priest as a public voice is still considered important by ruling elites, but the notion that people in general should be able to freely criticise their employers in public without fear of retribution would be considered outlandish by the same people.
In short, then, since the crimes and misdemeanours of operatives of the Catholic Church have no obvious relation to the circulation of commodities, and since there is nothing in them that tarnishes the standing or undermines the authority of the actual ruling class, they can be explored in depth and their implications endlessly discussed. Beyond that, just as Edmund Burke believed the laws of commerce were the laws of nature and consequently the laws of God, complete deference to the rule of ‘the markets’ and its gendarmes is the norm, whatever the destruction wrought from diligent obedience to the Invisible Hand.