I have been reading Everybody Matters, a memoir by Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland (1990-1997) and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002). The author was born in 1944, and is thus a year older than I am; so it is instructive to read about her experience of a Catholic upbringing in County Mayo at a time when Ireland was much more of a Catholic country than it is today. The author grew to adulthood in the 1960s when all the old social and cultural certainties were being challenged. She was very aware of the real injustices surrounding her in Irish society: the fears of the homosexual community when their behaviour was still regarded as a criminal offence; the stigma attached to illegitimate children and their mothers; the cruel treatment meted out to the traveller community. There was also, as we learnt much later on, widespread abuse of vulnerable children in the industrial schools run by the Church.
The culture in Ireland has now changed completely and the author has played her part in this. The Catholic Church, from being an institution wielding too much temporal power at the expense of real charity or proper evangelisation, has been purged and humbled. There is now recognition among faithful Irish Catholics that true holiness of life has little to do with a public parade of pious behaviour. The kind of hypocrisy that coloured Irish life when the author was a young adult barrister practising at the Bar in Dublin is today a thing of the past.
Mary Robinson herself would not cavil at being described as a liberal Catholic, critical of the Church. She interprets the Gospel entirely in a socialist way, as being concerned with justice and peace, fairness and equality: changing the conditions of people’s lives rather than an inner conversion to Christ. She has questioned the all-male priesthood and as an early sympathiser with feminist issues, “the subtle violence of keeping one sex in a box” as she puts it.
However, one early memory she recalls with later indignation rather makes me smile. This is when she refers in her schooldays to “buying black babies in Africa”; she comments: “Only later did I appreciate the underlying racism and appalling nature of this exercise.” In my own Catholic primary school, a convent, we also helped to “save” black babies in Africa, but I do not see this as “racist” or as “appalling” in hindsight. The very worst one could say of this quaint practice was that it was paternalistic. Today paternalism is regarded as shockingly patronising and only one step away from actual “racism”. All that happened in those more innocent days was that we gave sixpence or a shilling a week to the class teacher for a black baby from the missions whom we had “adopted”; the more the sum increased, the nearer the baby climbed a ladder towards baptism and becoming a member of the Church.
What in principle is wrong with that? After the Second Vatican Council the whole idea of working in the missions came into question: who were we to impose our (western) religion on poor Africans? This was a form of exploitation almost as bad as colonialism itself; and as we were all now ecumenical, we should respect African native beliefs and not try to change them, and so on. But in the 1950s, choosing to become a priest or religious and then spending your entire life working in conditions of great hardship to bring the Good News of salvation to those trapped by witchcraft, paganism and superstition, was seen as self-sacrificing, a noble thing to do. Further, the mission schools were often of a high educational standard. The White Fathers, who worked in North Africa among the Muslim populations, often became distinguished Arabic scholars. And the film “Of Gods and Men” tells its own heroic story.
I am sure Mary Robinson did good work in highlighting injustices around the globe during her time as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – but she needs to avoid a certain self-righteous and Left-wing attitude when pointing to the Church’s missionary past.