Turning a blind eye to the naked truth



Events of the past weeks remind me of the story of the emperor who had no clothes. In Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, the emperor and his people are told by weavers that they would make him a wonderful suit of clothes. Anyone who could not see these wondrous garments said the weavers must be unable to do so because they were stupid. Everyone goes along with the delusion and the emperor parades through the streets naked.

It’s a parable where what is being said is completely at variance with reality: a kind of parallel universe where people turn a blind eye to the contradictions that exist side by side.

What was really startling to my mind about the uproar that followed Father Sean Sheehy’s fire and brimstone sermon in Listowel was not what the 80-years-old stand-in priest said – using language which might well be judged as hate speech – but the response to the tirade by the Bishop of Kerry.  Bishop Ray Browne apologised appropriately for the hurt caused by the tirade but went on to say that “the views expressed do not reflect the Christian position”.

In the 26 counties today, a majority like to think that we live in a liberal, secular society. This is a country where contraception is available free to women between the ages of 17 and 25, where gay marriage, abortion and divorce are legal rights passed by majority referenda and where an active thought police are on the alert to call out political incorrectness.

But the fact remains that all the sins enumerated by Father Sheehy are part of the Catholic Church’s doctrine on everything from sex before marriage to contraception, from priestly celibacy to labelling gays as ‘objectively disordered’: rules dating from days long before witch trials ended.

In the last census 78% of the population defined as Catholic, a majority of whom probably don’t adhere to the church’s teaching in their private lives. Rather than live with the contradiction between their faith and its doctrines. Some leave the institutional church, others, campaigning on the synodal pathway, send a report to the Vatican calling for radical change on issues such as married priests and the ordination of women, but a majority turn a blind eye.

Open that eye though and naked truth shakes complacency. The fixed attitude of the hierarchy is hardly a growth mindset. Who benefits from their stance? Hardly the church itself which in sharp decline, where only nine men entered seminary for the priesthood last year. Hardly an over populated world of nearly eight billion, teetering on the brink of climate catastrophe.

With open eyes there are questions we might ask. What part did the celibacy rule play in creating conditions for child abuse and what suffering and difficulty has it caused for members of the clergy? What lies behind the anger of individuals like Father Sheehy over issues around sexuality; is projection involved where individuals accuse others of doing the very things they are tempted to do themselves? What part does the Catholic Church play in sectarianism, say, in the North where there are only a tiny number of non-denominational schools of the kind that would help to heal divisions between orange and green?

Then there are questions of accountability in the light of financial facts to consider. Like the fact that the Irish tax payer is being asked to pay the lion’s share of compensation to the victims of child abuse while the church, which sits of wealth worth in excess of €12 billion and 10,700 properties, pays a fraction. Or the fact that the Magdalene laundries amassed millions from the labours of women under their roofs and the Mother & Baby homes also amassed millions in today’s terms  from profits from illegal drug trials carried out on babies which could be used in compensation.

Faith can be a wonderful force for good just as there are many clergy who do admirable work. The comfort brought by Father Joe Duffy, following the disaster in Creeslough, Donegal comes to mind. It matters to be open to that good.

In the story of Anderson’s emperor it took a child to point out the naked truth. Perhaps we need a Greta Thunberg (who started campaigning for climate change at 15) to challenge us on the need for religious change.

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