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Abusing the Truth – the Dublin Archdiocese and ‘mental reservation’

November 27, 2009

My wife told me of a cartoon she remembers from years back. The vicar’s wife answers the parsonage door to an unwanted caller. She informs said caller that the vicar is ‘in the bath’ and thus unavailable. The second panel had the clergyman, fully dressed standing in the bath. Oh how we laughed! The comedy is the the technical telling of the truth.

I was reminded of the perennial challenge to answer the question of whether another’s bum looks big in whatever piece of clothing. Sometimes a little lie is necessary.

I thought again about all this when I read reports in the media emanating from the Commission of Investigation into the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. Like the Ryan report earlier in the year it makes deeply disturbing reading, and particularly about the doctrine of mental reservation or mental equivocation. As Patsy McGarry said in today’s Irish Times,

nothing quite as perfectly illustrates the moral rot at the core of institutional Catholicism in Ireland as the concept of ‘mental reservation’.

Under such theological legal genius, clergy are permitted to mislead another person without, in the eyes of the church, being guilty of lying. Thus, as the report says, if a troublesome parishioner comes to the parish priest to make a complaint, and the PP sees him coming, he can tell a curate to answer the door and tell the parishioner that the PP is not in. Whilst this is manifestly untrue, the curate is not guilty in the Church’s eyes if he mentally reserves  the words ‘to you’.

This sophisticated casuistry, allegedly developed by the Jesuits in the Middle Ages (so it’s not new), means that truth is constructed partly in speech and partly in the mind. Strictly speaking mentalis restrictio is considered unjustified without grave reason for withholding the truth. That this is so makes the deceit over child abuse utterly horrific, because successive leaders considered the preservation of the institution and it’s assets and the avoidance of scandal an overriding priority, even higher than the preservation of the innocence of children. Utterly outrageous.

It is almost inconceivable. To try and enter the mind of someone who could make this argument in justification is too distressing. And they did it not just once, but over decades, and successive archbishops in the diocese, and even when the problem became structural and institutional.

There can be no equivocation now. No legalistic gymnastics. If there is to be a future for the Catholic Church, indeed for any church, then it must lie in the direction of truth and the willingness to see the institution die rather than compromise it. As I have seen it and experienced it, there isn’t an institutional church on the island who wouldn’t sacrifice an individual, even one of it’s clergy, on the altar of self-preservation. I’ve said it before, all human institutions survive on human sacrifice.

But now I must also look to my own truth-telling, lest I become a hypocrite.

From → news, Theology

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