Honour and Shame – and Ireland’s ‘Culture War’: Sean O’Conaill

Jun 17, 2014 | 6 comments

tuam grave site

Tuam schoolgirls at the presumed unmarked grave of 20th century infants

“Galway historian finds 800 babies in septic tank grave”, reported the Boston Globe in early June. As it happened I was in Boston when this story broke, and was soon reading of the necessary corrections by the historian concerned, Catherine Corless.

Yes, close to 800 babies had died in a Tuam mother-and-baby home between 1925 and 1961, but only some remains had been observed by two boys as long ago as 1975, in an area that had once enclosed a sewage tank. The precise location of the rest of those remains is today unknown. Before we can assess as Catholics the full import of these events we must wait for the report of an Irish state-sponsored investigation of this and other similar establishments in the same era.

‘Culture War’?

The phrase ‘culture war’ originated in the United States – to describe especially the battle over the legalisation of abortion and the promotion of gay legal rights. Socially conservative Christians determined to exert pressure on the state to apply its coercive power against the principle of ‘choice’ in these areas are deeply embattled against those who believe the state should have no such role.

In Ireland over recent years an analogous ‘culture war’ has developed – focused especially on the responsibility of the Catholic Church for Ireland’s 20th century miseries. In Ireland too there are ongoing political battles over abortion and gay rights, and inevitably Catholicism is often scapegoated for all that was unjust in the recent past – as a means of undermining any residual hold it might have upon the present and future.

Resentful of this trend, and deeply hurt by over two decades of church scandals, some Irish Catholics are now inclined to hit back with equal vigour. ‘Blood libel’ is one Catholic commentator’s characterisation of the worst of the ‘Tuam Babies’ stories.

However, there is a real danger of a loss of balance here, and of a failure to recognise the genuine shortcomings of Catholic culture and practice in Ireland in the last century. This can very easily lead to a failure to recognise similar shortcomings in the present.

Why did Irish Catholic clergy collaborate in shaming women?

Why in particular was there no effective opposition by Catholic clergy in the last century to the social shaming of pregnant and unmarried women? Clergy then were far from slow in naming a wide range of moral defects, especially those in any way concerning the 6th commandment – so why the failure to indict a clear breach of the Great Commandment – ‘Thou shalt Love’ – in the treatment of those seen as failing in that area of sexuality? Why was the compassion so often shown by God in the Bible for the shamed woman not exemplified, vociferously and generally, by our clergy?

In the stories of Hagar the slave girl, of Susanna and the Elders, of the Samaritan woman at the Well and of the woman rescued by Jesus in the Temple, the inalienable dignity of the less fortunate woman is affirmed – so why was this never a major theme of Catholic evangelisation in Ireland? Why instead was there complete Catholic toleration, if not positive encouragement, of the shaming and scapegoating of unfortunate women?

And why was the generic evil of all shaming and shunning, so clearly identified in the Gospels, never strongly targeted in Irish Catholic clerical moralism? Why was it never noticed that the passion of Jesus is centrally about such shaming, expulsion and marginalisation – that the mocking of Jesus with a crown of thorns, and with crucifixion itself, is a divine exposure of the self-righteousness and lack of compassion, and deep injustice, that is present in all such practices?

Snobbery never a sin?

Recently in the Derry Journal Bishop Donal McKeown identified ‘greed and snobbery’ as the two human qualities he least admires. It was above all Irish middle-class Catholic snobbery – a ‘looking down’ on others – that lay at the root of the ostracisation of the unmarried and pregnant female. It is almost certainly today a continuing factor in the problem of abortion also – so why is snobbery never (in my long experience at least) a target of the homily?

The answer must surely lie in the clerical church’s too long alignment with social elites, in a deficient theological preparation for Catholic ministry, and in the male monopoly of the pulpit.

There is a treasure to be regained by recovering a theological understanding of the dimension that runs between social honour and social shame, so well revealed in the whole of scripture, and especially in the New Testament. It was especially the contemporary brokers of honour and shame in Jesus’ time – the Herods and the Caesars – who were to be exposed and overthrown by the wisdom and humility of Jesus, as promised in Mary’s prophesy, the Magnificat. By implication, all social presumption in the whole of human history is indicted and destined for overthrow.

Centuries of clerical alignment with social elites

The fault underlying all Catholic shaming of the unfortunate surely began with the church’s association with social elites, sealed in the fourth century by the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine. Only slowly, as Catholicism loses all privilege, are we separating ourselves from that mindset. We should surely now see the ongoing revelation of the shortcomings of so much of the Catholic culture of the recent past not as cause for resentment or animosity towards those who revel in it, but as an opportunity to identify the generic problem of social elitism, and to separate ourselves totally from it.

The worst mistake would be to focus solely on the injustices of the anti-Catholic campaign that is indeed being waged. There are indeed new brokers of honour and shame in 21st century Ireland, many clamouring unjustly on this medium, the Internet. There is indeed a tendency now among some to scapegoat Catholic clergy and religious for all that was wrong with Ireland in the last century and even this one. However, to fail to recognise the benefits of the loss of social power and prestige that has overtaken the church in this transition would be another disastrous Catholic ‘own goal’.

Social disempowerment was the role deliberately chosen by the church’s founder.  The church in Ireland will only begin to recover when it realises that disempowerment is a necessary condition of Christian wisdom. We will not be seeing the world as God sees it unless we can see it through the eyes of those today who still suffer social exclusion and marginalisation (for example, asylum seekers). That should be our primary learning from this most recent event, not the need for a new offensive in the culture wars.

Good riddance to Christendom

The recovery of Christianity in the West generally cannot begin until we fully absorb the lessons in humility that all scandals provide. What’s ongoing in Ireland is also ongoing throughout the West – the necessary demise of Christendom – that attitude of arrogant power that is the fount of all Christian scandal. Loss of all social power and vanity is the very necessary prelude to the recovery of what is truly greatest in our Christian tradition.


  1. maryanne

    The idea of social elitism is something I have always given a lot of thought to within the context of our church.
    The faithful are excellent at responding to the call to help the needy and disadvantaged when an easy label can be put on it e.g. ‘the developing world’ ‘the homeless”travellers’ ‘the elderly.’ This motivation often comes from a patronising, charity driven model.
    The noble patrons of these types of poor can get muddled and conflicted, however, when the disadvantaged fall outside these categories, especially where the ‘charity model’ wont help them and judgementalism prevails.

    • Martin Murray

      Yes Mary Anne. Although I am not much of an activist myself to date, I am becoming aware that while its important to share from our financial resources, it can be much harder for those of us in the middle classes to challenge the political and economic status quo on which we unquestioningly thrive.

  2. Con Carroll

    remember at the end of the tunnel there is light. expecting people to hide in the bushes. remain in their places doesn’t work
    what people should do. don’t isolate make contact with qualified professional counselling services. for information in relation to family matters contact Adoption Right Alliance. Barnardos

  3. Teresa Mee

    Honour, shame, culture, religion so closely intertwined it’s difficult to get a handle on them.
    What has hit me hard from reading Honour and Shame and Ireland’s Culture Wars is that Jesus overturned much of the Jewish tradition and patriarchal culture. Taken to the extreme, honour and shame extended to honour killing, defined as ‘the homicide of a member of a family or social group by other members, due to the perpetrators’ belief that the victim has brought shame or dishonor upon the family or community, usually for reasons such as …having sex outside marriage, becoming the victim of rape….[1][2][3][4][5] Honor killings are especially targeted against women and homosexuals’ and are said to occur mostly in patriarchal cultures
    Immediately after his death and resurrection the community Jesus had formed got together regularly in table companionship to experience his living presence among them through sharing of food, reflection and prayer. They then went out in the power of his Spirit to share all they had in common with each other and with the needy. They were now into a reformed and renewed tradition and culture, and over time and distance they weathered the resolution of their differences.
    Then the Jesus values which they had struggled to maintain in face of Roman persecution gradually came to be rejected in favour of Imperial Roman cultural values when the Christian way of life became acceptable to Rome. Like Imperial Rome, the early Christian Community of equals developed into a ‘pater familias’ based patriarchal society maintaining the values of patriarchal culture.*
    Up to today the hierarchical Church remains embedded in that culture, as reflected in the Pauline and pseudo Pauline letter references quoted in the 2014-2015 Synod Document:
    ‘ (cf. Eph 5:21-6:9;’ Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord, for the husband is head of the wife….’
    Col 3:18-4:1; Wives be subject to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands love your
    1 Tim2:8-15; ‘…women are to dress themselves modestly…to keep silence and take their place with all submissiveness as learners; a woman shall have no leave from me to teach and issue commands to her husband; her part is to be silent. It was Adam that was created first…..
    Titus 2:1-10; ‘..the younger women must to be…busy ….submissive to their husbands….
    1Pt 2:13-3:7; cf. ….ch 3,1.’you..wives must be submissive to your husbands…Think how obedient Sara was to Abraham, how she called him her Lord..’
    *Dept Justice Canadawww.justice. ‘Honour killings have been known since ancient Roman times, when the pater familias, or senior male within a household, retained the right to kill an unmarried but sexually active daughter or an adulterous wife’.

    So whereto from here? Well Séan’s final sentence looks pretty challenging – to us.
    No use waiting for action from elsewhere

  4. Mary Vallely

    I would be concerned that instead of looking at the loss of social power and prestige as a good and positive and necessary thing, enabling us to grow in self-awareness as to just how far many of us have moved from the basic teaching of the Gospels, that we become caught in the web of victimhood. You see the reaction in many comments from church people, the defence mechanism kicks in and the blame is laid squarely on the anti-Catholic media. Is there almost a smug satisfaction in wearing the martyr’s hat, I wonder?
    I do think there is a real danger of us not realising that all these revelations of abuse and suffering have the potential to bring us all closer to helping create a more loving, compassionate, fairer people of God.

  5. Teresa Mee

    Michael C. asked me to submit his comment below:
    Séan O’Conaill’s essay and Teresa Mee’s response both focus on the unjust, unhealthy and unkind consequences of the prescriptive attitude evolved and lastingly embedded over centuries among the clerical establishment.
    Séan O’Conaill cites the hierarchy’s unpleasant readiness to condemn and to shame. Teresa emphasises its gross and persistent un-readiness by now almost ingrained in its DNA, to accord adequate, let alone equal power to the feminine half of the population. I fully concord with the spirit of both their statements.
    Maybe one measure which might just help to counteract the longstanding self righteousness about others’ conduct would be for the Association to formulate and vigorously promulgate a set of principles for ethical living and treatment of others, and stress the centrality of states of mind such as kindness, fellow feeling, empathy, understanding, consideration and respect for the dignity of every person – in effect a kind of Ten Commandments for attitude to complement the existing ten for conduct.
    Michael C.


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