By Fr Billy Swan
Following the publication of the ‘Mother and Babies Home Report’, many Irish bishops, in whose dioceses existed these homes, issued strong statements of unreserved apology to the women who suffered there. It was the only possible and appropriate thing to do. It was a time to listen to the stories of the women involved and to do our collective best as a Church to understand the scars of shame they bore for years. Sadly, much of that shame rightfully belonged to the wider society and also to the Church itself. However, as the first emotive responses to the report subside and as the Church comes to terms with the report’s findings, her leaders and faithful must not follow these necessary apologies with a prolonged period of silence and disengagement in the conversation about the true meaning of human sexuality. To do so would leave a vacuum for reductionist visions of human love and aggressive ideologies to infiltrate a society already confused about what it means to be human. For the sake of our children, families and the future of society, the Church needs to recover her own vision and confidence - quickly.
The first question we need to ask ourselves as Church is: ‘What went wrong?’ So let’s begin the conversation. First, the whole area of sexuality in the past seemed have been taboo. Whether it was the lack of courage, of language or of confidence, too often individuals were left on their own to struggle with the responsibility and power of a God given gift that ought to be acknowledged and celebrated as the ability to love and the means to participate in the very life of God Himself. This culture of silence was not faithful to the true face of Catholicism that takes very seriously the goodness of the body and the innate goodness of human sexuality.
Second, this secrecy was connected to a puritanical understanding of sex where sexual acts were detached from our deepest vocation to love. This led to a disastrous situation where failings in this area were judged harshly as were the people involved, especially women. Moral teachings on sexuality became severe laws that were policed, particularly by priests and religious. This is the context in which the women told their stories of the shame they suffered and that the Church and State directed at them. Again, this was not the true face of Catholicism that begins with our holy longing for intimacy with God that is mediated through our relationships with others. There will always be failings in the area of sexuality for we love imperfectly. But the mercy of God is abundant and is there for all - a truth that seemed to have tragically overlooked in the past. Today, we are blessed to have the ‘Theology of the Body’ by St John Paul II, which gives the Church a coherent and integrated vision of human sexuality and that aligns all the faculties of body, will, emotions and soul under the aegis of our deepest vocation to communion with the mystery of love who is God. It brings together all the parts of who we are in an integrated whole and directs them to the total gift of self.
Third, the report shone light on a time in Irish history where class distinctions were strong and very influential. In many cases, the decisions to send young women to these homes were based on a warped respectability that trumped everything. Attempting to avoid scandal and avoiding ‘bringing shame on the family’ led to an even greater scandal that has now come to light. Whether this class distinction that was prevalent in the past came from English Victorianism, it certainly does not belong to a true Catholicism that values everyone as equal and where class distinctions mean nothing in the family of the Church.
Theses are just three points in a conversation that needs to continue for us to learn and repent. Yet the tragedy of what is unfolding today is that many are leaving the Church now because they mistakenly think that the Church’s teaching on sexuality has not changed and remains as it was back at the time when these scandals were going on. That is why Church leaders and the faithful need to move quickly and boldly to see this time as an opportunity to clarify what the Church teaches about human sexuality and what she does not. As the Church steps back ‘on the pitch’ and re-engages post-modernity, it will be necessary to admit mistakes of the past and to see that some attitudes and actions distorted the true meaning of human sexuality and love. It will also require a renewed confidence and faith in the Gospel vision for love, sexuality, marriage and family that is both comprehensive and beautiful but above all true because it calls us to participate in the mystery of divine love which is our highest calling and deepest joy.
Part of that courageous conversation will be about naming what is not true in other reductive understandings of human sexuality that are part of our culture today. These reveal their true poverty with multiple problems that are emerging and that progressives are slow to admit. Examples include addiction to pornography, a hook up culture and the trivialization of sex, a prostitution industry that drives the trafficking of human slaves. Perhaps the greatest horror of all is the tragedy of abortion which accounted for the deaths of 7,041 unborn children in Ireland in 2019 alone. We may look back on previous generations and condemn them for how they dealt with unwanted pregnancies. But our generation has ratified in State law an alternative for dealing with unwanted pregnancies which is to end their lives. Here is a symptom of the sexual revolution gone awry and that condemns our generation as we condemn generations before us.
The ‘Mother and Babies Home’ report was so shocking and distressing that many of us might well question whether the Church’s teaching on human sexuality is true and whether it is capable of speaking credibly to modern Ireland. Post-modernity ridicules the Catholic Church’s vision on sexuality more than any other part of her teaching and can point to this report as evidence why. It would be a tragedy if bishops, priests, catechists, parents and laity were to concede to cynicism and silence without re-discovering the integral vision of human sexuality the Church proposes today. In contrast to the past, this is a vision we can claim, speak about and discuss openly in our homes, in the classrooms and among friends. Doing so will require courage and will provoke some anger because the Church dares to suggest that human sexuality is always ordered to love, respect, chastity, responsibility and family. It dares to point out that human love and sexuality have a built-in meaning that cannot be denied or manipulated. The Church dares to point out that when it comes to human love and sex, there are natural boundaries and spiritual rules that must be respected if people are not to get hurt and if we are to experience the joy of authentic love that is truly human. There is a time to apologize for the hurt that was caused and a time to get back on the pitch and re-engage. For when it comes to a vision of human sexuality, in the words of Pope Francis: ‘We have a treasure of life and love which cannot deceive, and a message which cannot mislead or disappoint. It penetrates to the depths of our hearts, sustaining and ennobling us. It is a truth which is never out of date because it reaches that part of us which nothing else can reach’ (The Joy of the Gospel, 265).