The news media in Ireland have, over the past week, been full of angry statements about two issues with a serious ethical dimension. The first of these concerns the ‘will-they-won’t-they’ procrastination of various Roman Catholic bishops in Ireland on whether to resign as a result of the role they played in the Dublin archdiocese when it was busily covering up child sexual abuse by priests. The second concerns the truly extraordinary goings-on in Listowel, Co Kerry, where a significant proportion of the townspeople seem to be anxious to show solidarity with a man convicted of a sexual assault. There are two aspects that link these stories: one is the role of priests, with Fr Sean Sheehy being amongst those in Listowel who supported the perpetrator; the other is the fact that such things seem to be happening in part because we have no real idea of what constitutes an acceptable moral code.
Take the Most Revd. Eamonn Walsh, one of the auxiliary bishops of Dublin who was in office for some of the time when cases of sexual abuse were being covered up (but who was not directly criticised in the report on the Dublin archdiocese). There have been calls on him (and on the other bishops in office in Dublin at the time) to resign. He has resisted this, and on December 18 he stated that while he might have to go if he had become a ‘block on the gospel’ (I’m not absolutely sure what that means, by the way), but that if this happened it would be an ‘injustice’. Asking for someone’s resignation always raises difficult issues. But here the bishop is showing a sense of personal indignation at his own probable fate, sending out the signal that the genuinely huge injustice of the sexual abuse has still not been accepted for what it is. In fact, I had been unsure about what should happen to Bishop Walsh, but once he made this statement I began to think he had to go.
Amidst all this mess, it is at least heartening that the Dublin diocese now has an archbishop who commands respect and who has been doing the right thing in seeking to clean it up. And I feel for the many good priests and faithful who have been let down so terribly.
And how do you even begin to talk about the behaviour witnessed in Listowel?
And yet, all the moral outrage that has filled the letters pages of the newspapers seems to me to be missing something: that these men (and it’s all men) gained their ethical compass in the same way that the rest of Irish society did. I remember being absolutely stunned at a student debate in Trinity College in 1975 at which a prominent Roman Catholic priest said that Irish catholics were uniquely privileged because they would never have to ask searching questions about morality: all the answers had already been provided for them and were ready to be displayed to them by the church whenever the occasion required it. The topic of the debate was contraception, but anything else would also have prompted the same ethical framework. And now that these unique privileges have been lost or rejected, we don’t know where we stand. Who is telling us now about right and wrong? And why is it so difficult to get it right?
My concern is that the academic community has made no major contribution to this debate. There have been plenty of academics to discuss child abuse, sexual misuse of power, and lots of other topics. But who has made any really visible contribution to a debate about morality and ethics in modern Ireland? Why is our academic community so uninvolved in what is perhaps the defining question of our era?
I don’t really know the answer, but I hope that DCU’s Institute of Ethics, established a couple of years ago, will play a leading role as it develops its agenda. But I also hope that the academic community more generally will get active: not as a new community of moralisers, but as an academy that can set out the issues we must face if we are to be a genuinely ethical society at all levels.