Who could ever have predicted that Ireland — Catholic Ireland, with its institutionally oppressive church — would be the first nation on earth to OK gay marriage in a voter referendum? By a landslide margin, no less. With virtually every nook and cranny of the country, including its rural conservative hamlets, voting Yes.
And yet it happened this weekend. Yes, folks, Ireland is now officially more enlightened than America’s Republican party.
The big political story is that Ireland has finally freed itself from the tyranny of its Catholic Church. The so-called moral arbiters of Irish culture – the bishops, priests, and nuns – kept a low profile during the referendum campaign, and no wonder: their authority has been shredded by scandals and coverups. In a nation that’s nominally 85 percent Catholic, the church has no cred anymore. A generation of young people, who came of age during the scandal era, pays no attention to its dictums. They voted Yes for gay marriage with record-high turnout.
This renunciation of the church has been a long time coming. I saw the seeds of it two decades ago, when I was a foreign correspondent writing stories from Ireland. In 1992, the Bishop of Galway was outed for having fathered a son with an American woman; he quit his post and fled the country. People were buzzing about that. Progressives were emboldened to push harder for heretofore taboo issues like divorce, abortion, and gay rights.
That year, a Dublin feminist named Ruth Riddick told me that Ireland was gradually losing its cultural insularity, and that change was inevitable: “Here we are with all these 19th-century arguments, in the face of 21st-century technology. Information exists now, even in Ireland. It’s beamed off satellites in space. It’s stronger than censorship.”
The church tried to hold the line. A Dublin priest, the Rev. Brian McKivett, told me, “Ireland is already changing dramatically, for worse. We’ve been subjected to securlarist influences from middle-age feminists, TV, the whole pop-psychology movement. the influenced of the whole de-Christianized world around us.”
Well. It wasn’t the “de-Christianized world” that brought down the Irish church. The church brought down itself.
As documented in a 2009 government report, Catholic school teachers terrorized as many as 30,000 children for decades. Rape and molestation were “endemic.” Teachers accused of sexual abuse were merely transferred to other schools, where they were free to abuse again: “There was evidence that such men took up teaching positions sometimes within days of receiving (church) dispensations because of serious allegations or admissions of sexual abuse. The safety of children in general was not a consideration.”
But what piqued my interest, two decades ago, was the “Magdalen women” scandal. This was a doozy.
For more than a century, until the early ’90s, thousands of Irish women and girls were relegated to lives of unpaid servitude in Catholic convents, working as laundresses. These were deemed to be “fallen” females – unwed mothers, daughters of unwed mothers, prostitutes, sex abuse victims, orphans, nonconformists. Many were kept in the convents against their will, for decades. The women take their name from Mary Magdalene, a repentant woman cited in the Bible as an early follower of Christ.
The full sordid details didn’t surface until the Irish government released a report in 2013 – turns out, there were more than 10,000 Magdalens – but I wrote probably the first American story back in 1993. That’s when a Catholic convent in Ireland sold some of its land to a real estate developer; only problem was, the coffins of 133 Magdalens were situated beneath the land. The general public didn’t know about the bodies, or much of anything about the Magdalens. Convent officials secretly unearthed the bodies, cremated them, and shipped the ashes to a nearby cemetery without informing surviving relatives. But a Dublin paper got wind of the maneuver, and blew the whistle. Ex-Magdelens came out of the woodwork.
I talked to a slew of them. One was Kathleen Maher, the daughter of an unwed mother. Kathleen was taken from her mother in 1948, when she was eight months old; she was raised by nuns, and put to work in the laundry 12 hours a day. She managed to get out when she was 18. She didn’t speak well of her youthful church experience: “People wanted the ‘undesirables’ to be out of sight and mind. I wanted so much to know why I was being rejected. But we weren’t allowed to speak about it to the sisters. We were just expected to wash all their personal towels. See, in their eyes, we were already ‘dirty,’ and they wanted to remain pure.”
And how did she feel about the church, as an adult? “We Catholics need to know ourselves better – our spirituality, our sexuality. I want to be a part of a church that allows me to be free to be a whole person.”
Maybe that’s the gist of what happened this past weekend. Thumbing their noses at church authority, the Irish may well have signaled their determination to drag the reactionary institution into the 21st century. As Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin conceded on Saturday, “It’s a social revolution….The church needs to do a reality check right across the board.”
Better late than never.