Priests who brooked no opposition of any kind

There’s a little book published in association with RTE (Raidió Teilifís Éireann) in 1986, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl. It started as a series of radio interviews with writers, who then lived up to their job titles by writing up what they’d said. Polly Devlin included in her account a look at the grip the church had on Ireland in the 1950s.

As a social system our Catholic religion constituted a tyranny – not within the confines of our family but certainly outside it. We as a family were brought up in a dispensation that was different from that heavily medieval Catholic one that obtained in the parish…My father had been brought up in an enlightened way so that not only was there no bigotry in our house, there was a real tolerance. The parish, however, was run as a great many Irish parishes were run at that time, by priests who brooked no opposition of any kind. The men were mixed with the office to an intolerable degree, so that if you had any quarrel with the man, as it were, you then had a quarrel with the whole church. Quite often at church on Sunday priests would denounce from the altar things that they had no business denouncing; secular affairs, the parishioners’ own private business. There were of course good priests and there were bad priests; there were priests who did their best and priests who did their worst. For me, it constituted a tyranny, because there was no escape, no court of appeal. They were the people to whom you confessed, but they were also the people who judged you. There was no other tribunal.

It sounds suffocating and horrible beyond endurance. One of the things I hate most about the harassment-abuse is the constant prurient watching and peering and monitoring, the relentless gathering of material for new denunciations from the altar – the pack of slavering strangers with their noses all up in my business. How much worse it must be to have it coming from all-powerful priests.


  1. says

    I remember when the child-sex-abuse allegations first broke in the US. The Church’s second excuse (after calling their critics bigots) was to blame America’s permissive liberal culture. Then similar cases came to light in Ireland — a virtual Catholic theocracy, as this and other authors confirm — and that excuse went out the window, right along with that old notion about religion making people more moral.

  2. rnilsson says

    Is this perhaps an echo from East Germany? Pervasive monitoring of every detail by a petty, almighty clerical class. Absolutely no personal freedoms, your best friends and confidantes turning you in to De Man. Sounds kind of similar to me.

    Ironically, it appears to have been the Church what brung down the 4.Reich. But that was probably just Protestants from a different Caste, so no.

    Ideological dictates will cheat you but good. (Und I’m learning Chinese, says Wernher von Braun) (Tom Lehrer)

  3. Corvus illustris says

    milsson @3: Is this perhaps an echo from East Germany? Pervasive monitoring of every detail by a petty, almighty clerical class. Absolutely no personal freedoms, your best friends and confidantes turning you in to De Man. Sounds kind of similar to me.

    You can’t be serious! The NKVD, the Gestapo and the Stasi all took their lessons from the Roman Catholic Church, not the other way around. The RCC as a continuation of the Roman Empire in turn had taken over its methods of spying and procuring denunciations (there was a specific job category of delator in the good old days of emperors). Only the technology improved (not in Ireland, where they continued to do things the old-fashioned way–because they could).

    Here in the land of technology, of course, we have the NSA. No compromising behavior by best friends and confidant(e)s is necessary when we hear all (and soon will see all).

  4. says

    Hmm…I wonder if Orwell made that connection. He must have had plenty of material for it, from his time as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War – the church and Franco on the one hand, and the Stalinists on the other.

  5. Corvus illustris says

    Ophelia @5: He certainly had experienced the RC nuns at an early age–and no one escapes the Spanish Inquisition. The joys described in Such, Such were the Joys were presumably Anglican, but differed little–they’re doing it for your spiritual good, you know. BTW, I should have blamed the NKVD on the Russian Orthodox church, and thus on a successor to the Eastern Roman empire, but I doubt that it matters.

  6. Omar Puhleez says

    “Who speaks organisation speaks oligarchy” (well, sooner or later, anyway). – Robert Michels.

    People set up organisations like the early Church, religious orders, trade unions, political parties, for an apparently good purpose. Then sooner or later the operators looking for an easy life and pickings start taking an interest (literally) and moving in on it, and finish up taking it over.

    So a ‘reformation’, ‘renewal’ or ‘revival’ process gets underway….. You know the rest.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Several years ago, I read an article (thought I’d saved a copy, but can’t find it now) by an Irishman reminiscing about growing up in the ’50s and ’60s.

    He was, as a child, utterly transfixed by watching I Love Lucy on television: every week, all these people would have all these problems – and work them out without ever once consulting a priest. Amazing!

    I recall forwarding his piece to some friends under the subject line: The Revolution _Was_ Televised.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    For which sinful recollection in # 8, my italics close-tag hath been smited.

    Behold and learn from my misfortune, ye infidels!

  9. Corvus illustris says

    PRB @8: … all these people would have all these problems – and work them out without ever once consulting a priest. Amazing!

    You want problems? Consult a priest. Or have one insert himself uninvited into your business, as the pastor–of a parish to which my sister did not belong–did as she was trying to break up with her physically abusive, stupid, and non-RC husband. Bad results all around. BTW and coincidentally, the priest in question was of Irish extraction (an anomaly in a RC diocese whose clergy were at that time predominantly German and Polish hyphenates.)

  10. MissEla says

    Sadly, this sounds exactly like what you can find in any small town in the US. My parents were kicked out of the local Catholic church in the 70s for *gasp* living together before they were married. *faint* Basically, they were excommunicated (sans papal authorization), as no other church would *dare* to cross the priest. Absolutely ridiculous.

  11. Omar Puhleez says

    Yes, Marie-Therese. Good link.
    As I recall Joshua bar Joseph (aka Jesus Christ) used to line up all his disciples, priests, cardinals, bishops, followers, urgers and hangers-on every morning for dress inspection. And woe soon betoed anyone whose shoe colour was ill-chosen. With a yell of “going down!” he would cause the ground to open beneath the miscreant’s feet, who would duly fall into a smoke-belching crevasse.
    That would smarten the rest of them up like nothing else could.
    He ran a tight ark, did Josh. As I recall.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>