Holy Families

I caught a little bit of a discussion on Radio 1 a few days back about the Roscommon Child Care case. Mary O’Rourke, speaking for the government, began by saying that the cause of the abuse was that there are very evil people in the world, and that responsibility for the abuse of the children lay with the parents, who are now being punished for that.

The problem with this way of looking at things is that if some people are simply evil and that is the end of it, then they can’t be held responsible. This is a point Terry Eagleton makes in ‘On Evil’. To say that people are just evil is to let them off the hook. At the same time, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the failures on the part of the authorities were set in train by the actions of the parents.

If we’re not prepared to accept pure evil as the cause, and I don’t think we should be, then we’d need to look at why some parents do these things to their children, as well as why state bodies fail to uphold the basic rights of children. These questions ought not be treated separately.

That is, if the law, and consequently state institutions, define families in a certain way, what effect does that have on how parents treat their children? And, on the other hand, what effect does family life have on the way law is written and acted upon? What I’m talking about here is what Adorno, in Education After Auschwitz, describes as the ‘societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms’. I don’t know how best to answer these questions, so I am just going to sketch out a few things that might assist in thinking about it.

Some conservatives, especially religious ones, see the family as the linchpin of society. When people get married, and have families, this produces social cohesion, virtue, stability, and protection. Every Christmas there is a lot of preaching about the virtue of the Holy Family, how Jesus, Mary and Joseph provide the ideal template for a family. This is in spite of the fact that there isn’t a great deal said in the Gospels about what they all got up to together.

There are different ways of looking at the Christmas myth. But most people know the bare bones of the story. Joseph had to take himself and his betrothed to Bethlehem for the census, because that is where Joseph was from (an absurd way of conducting a census, but there we go). There was no room at the inn (curiously, none of Joseph’s family was around either) so Mary and Joseph had to give birth in a stable. And then shepherds and wise men came to visit, and so both the humble shepherd and the learned sage, occupying opposing poles of the earthly order, both recognised that this baby was the Son of God.

One way of interpreting this is that all families should conform to what the existing order confers on them: if you’re born in a manger surrounded by muck and shit, then as the story of Jesus’s family shows, if it was good enough for Jesus, then it’s good enough for you.

Likewise, if you have to give birth in a manger, after traipsing across the country on a donkey while nine months pregnant, well, we don’t hear any details about Mary complaining, do we? And as for Joseph, good on him for not getting into any arguments with the innkeepers.

That was pretty much the version of the Christmas story I heard time and again from priests, religious, and lay teachers. ‘Because there was no room for them in the inn’ were words declared simply as a matter of fact. They were never repeated with any sarcasm or scare quotes, which, if I somehow landed a job teaching the Bible, I would be sure to include.

Persisting with the conservative vision for the moment, if the family ideal is incarnate in Mary and Joseph, and then Jesus, then it is a vision of people who have to uproot themselves from their homes, and from any help they might receive from the community in which they live, in order to conform to the demands of the bureaucracy of the imperial state. They do this acceptingly, the teaching goes, because it is all part of God’s plan.

It is not at all that the conservative teaching on this is blind to the suffering this entails: on the contrary, Mary puts up with all this on account of her acceptance of God’s will, (‘Let what you have said be done unto me’), and consequently, patriarchal authority turns her into a designated object of veneration.

Mary’s supposed unquestioning acceptance of the gruelling treatment God has in store for her is elevated, in Ireland and elsewhere, to the model of behaviour that every woman must seek to emulate. Her example, and the failure to honour it, becomes an effective form of social control. To give one example from the Atlas and Cyclopedia of Ireland, 1900:

THERE is a remarkable coincidence in the fact that a wild, desolate region of the remote, unflourishing county of Mayo, should, in the same year, become the scene of the inauguration of a mighty political movement that shook the social foundations to their center, namely the Land League, and also of a supernatural apparition the most wonderful.

A remarkable coincidence indeed.

A document on the excellent Lux Occulta blog – Family Prayers and Mixed Marriages, from the Catholic Truth Society, gives a useful example of how Catholic priests called forth their own particular conception of family within a natural order:

It is natural for us to be grateful. It is also natural for us to respect those who are cleverer than ourselves, or stronger, or more important, or even -although we stoutly deny it- those who are richer. A small boy is rapt in hero-worship of his big brother with his rifle, and his immense greatcoat and his iron shod boots. We naturally revere the queen, and, at least in principle, we respect the Government. We admire those who can quote volumes of poetry without taking thought or breath. We collect the autographs of famous footballers, actors, xylophone players and all the rest of them. We try to be superior, but we do admire excellence in other people, in whatever things they excel. We respect and have reverence for it, because it is natural to us.

Father Kevin Byrne, the author of the pamphlet, saw this natural sense of reverence toward the natural superior as the basis for relations between parents and children:

We feel this reverence and respect particularly for our parents. They gave us life; they listened undismayed to our infant screams, and suffered our childish faults in moderate silence, they educated us, with some help from the State; they fed us; they clothed us;  they even loved us. In return, there waxes and grows in every man a mysterious feeling of awe and reverence and love for his parents.

The idea that all parents, and their relations with their children are essentially the same flows through Kevin Byrne’s writing, as it does with many modern religious conservatives. What would it mean to question one’s parents?

One of the worst things we can say about anyone is that he neglects his parents, or is cruel to them; and the greatest punishment he can receive is to be treated in the same way by his own children because it is unnatural for children not to reverence their parents. If we follow our instincts, we must fulfil our duties to them.

Family life, then, is a matter of domination and submission. To fail to have reverence for this natural order was of itself a perversion. Parents, regardless of who they are, or what they do, are all deserving of the same reverence. It flows from this that the greater the lapse of reverence, the greater the cruelty of the punishment inflicted on the parent.

In practice, this would mean that a child who dared to question the punishment inflicted by the parent was simply proving the unnatural perversions that the parent had sought to correct in the first instance. From this, the more cruel and degrading the punishment, the greater the likelihood that the child would accept this punishment as just desert. And the greater the likelihood that the child, on becoming an adult, would recreate the same punishment and abuse on other children.

What was the relationship between this family and wider society?

Your family is part of you, it is an extension of your own personality. You and your family are inextricably bound together into one unit. Society is made up of families, not of individuals. The State is not like a giant ant-heap, with millions of lonely citizens rushing in and out of its citadel with huge burdens on their backs, and no thoughts in their heads but to increase productivity or perish. The State is composed of thousands of families, just as the body is composed of thousands of cells; and God made the family.

Only within the loving shelter of the family can a child be adequately educated in body and soul. God intended the human race to continue, and if it were not for the natural institution of marriage -that permanent union of man and wife in mutual love and fidelity- the human race could not remain, because the children could not survive without it.

Though Kevin Byrne’s vision of domination and submission within the family unit is not laid out in the Irish constitution, his conception of the relation between the family and society certainly is:

The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.

The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.

In short, the Irish State’s definition of the family, resting on a very similar conception of the family developed in Catholic teaching and practice, provided a reference point, and a basic legitimacy, for a particular vision of families, which is to say, isolated authoritarian units that demanded obedience from children, reverence toward parents and the natural order, and treated any form of disobedience as a perversion.

Given the relative power of Church institutions in Ireland post-independence, it is also worth considering how the idea of the family was mobilised as a means of combatting the perceived threat of socialism.

Another document –A Catechism of The Social Question– from the US Social Action Department, also from the Lux Occulta site, provides an insight into part of an institution that was seeking to meet the perceived challenge to Church authority from socialism. The document is worth reading in its entirety. For the most part, it is way to the left of any mainstream political party in present-day Ireland. But it is its treatment of the family that is of interest. On the attitude of the Socialist Party (that is, the US party of Eugene Debs and Helen Keller) toward the family:

Socialism holds that the family, too, is merely a product of economic conditions, that the good of society is paramount, and that society must dominate men and their families. The family is not to their mind a unit with natural rights. The ties of the family should be very loose, so that society can intervene very easily, and, according to its desires, or the desires of the majority, do whatever it wills with the children and the whole family unit. Consequently, it favors the freest kind of divorce, and in the name of freedom proclaims its adherence to a loose conception of family ties.

The preservation of the family as the necessary basis of social order, then, was also the protection of society against the godless reds. Hence the opposition to state provision of free health care, infamously so in the Mother and Child Scheme affair. A Hierarchy letter to John A. Costello illustrates the stance involved:

The powers taken by the State in the proposed Mother and Child Health Service are in direct opposition to the rights of the family and of the individual and are liable to very great abuse. Their character is such that no assurance that they would be used in moderation could justify their enactment. If enacted they would constitute a ready-made instrument for future totalitarian aggression.

Cited in John Charles McQuaid: Ruler of Catholic Ireland, by John Cooney

Shades of the sort of billionaire-funded right-wing sentiment on display in the US over the modest health reforms planned by the Obama administration. It is not too hard to imagine a parish priest denouncing Noel Browne’s planned death panels. The point, though, is the interplay of Church doctrine and State law, which itself drew heavily on Church influence, setting the boundaries on how people’s lives were lived, and how they ought to look after each other.

If Mary Harney looked the other day as though she had been washed in the blood of the lamb, it was not least because the health system, in so far as such a thing exists, is an improvised bulwark against ‘totalitarian aggression”, in the Church’s terms, or, as others might call it, “freedom”.

As it turned out, the reds didn’t get a look in. The chief victims of totalitarian aggression were  children. The totalitarian aggression was promoted and sustained by the Church, and enabled by the law. When evidence was found that the sacred unit, the basic moral institution, could fail, its victims were spirited off to slave labour.

Diarmuid Ferriter, reviewing memoirs of Irish childhood, reports the following:

Given the emphasis on the family in Irish life it might have been thought that Irish society would be particularly conscious of its responsibilities towards the welfare of children. Disturbingly, many of the memoirs reveal it was often the institution of the family which could mask a calculated savagery in its treatment of children and furthermore, that some of these children taken away from the family -supposedly because of its failings- were subjected to a childhood of brutality and harshness in institutions failed by the state and were in effect deprived of any childhood. In this sense, any analysis of child abuse in twentieth century Ireland must take cognisance of the interaction of family, church and state and the extent to which a crucial part of Catholic social teaching was continually being promoted – that the state had no right to interfere with the personal domain of the family when it came to perceived private issues of health and morality, and that the church would seek to maintain absolute control over its perceived areas of interest.

It’s worth considering whether adequate dividing lines can be drawn that allow us to discern three separate but interacting entities of family, church, and state. That is, if we talk about the family, do we mean the form outlined in the constitution, which in turn derives from church teaching? Do we gravitate toward a particular form of the family -the unitary building block- which has been instituted as a universal ideal?

For the Roscommon children, the universal ideal of the family as a moral institution had catastrophic consequences. Social workers were ‘were unduly optimistic about the parents’ ability and willingness to care adequately for their children’. The children’s own voices were ignored, with ‘an over-reliance on parental accounts of their well-being’.

There has been a lot of focus on the intervention of Mena Bean Ui Chribin intervened directly in proceedings, since the High Court injunction she achieved meant that the Western Health Board did not remove the children from the way of severe harm from their parents. But whilst Bean Ui Chribin is rightly portrayed as an unwelcome relic of more authoritarian times, the decisive intervention here was that of the High Court, on account of its interpretation of the constitution and in particular, the rights of the parents. It might be reassuring to tell this tale in terms of a malign action of a wicked witch from the past, but the legal scene had been set for a long time for such an appearance.

In terms of the state body intended to protect the children’s welfare, Bean Ui Chribin had nothing to do with the ‘extraordinary optimism’ in the parents’ ability to change. Nor with ‘the squalor in which the children almost constantly lived’.

In a way Fr Kevin Byrne would surely have approved, the social workers ‘accepted largely at face value’ the ‘views and opinions of the parents’, and, in a way consistent with the necessary ‘mysterious feeling of awe and reverence’ for parents Fr Byrne identifies, they ‘lacked the assertiveness to confront the parents appropriately when required and did not adequately challenge them regarding the effect their behaviour was having on the children’.

But there was no discernible religious extremism in the fact that, in the case conferences supposed to be concerned with the children’s protection, ‘frequently the decisions and recommendations emerged were not linked to matters of primary concern, namely the needs of the children’, or in the fact that ‘there is still no targeted family support service in Roscommon for families with young children where informal family support, or universal family support services, are not adequate to meet the needs of the children and families’.

How to explain a system that pays no importance to the views of children, trusts parents when there is no justification for so doing, and leaves families with young children to fend for themselves? I think it has to do with the dominant conception of the family in Irish society. It is both the product and the instrument of an authoritarian culture. I noted on another occasion that:

‘But the Church grinds on with its project of sustaining the family as the foundation of the social order, resisting anything and everything that it sees as militating against its sanctity.

It does so seemingly blind to, or willfully ignorant of, how, as Marx put it, “the bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parents and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of Modern Industry, all the family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour”.’

I would need to revise this a bit. It’s not that the Church was blind to such ‘disgusting bourgeois clap-trap’: it needed it to conserve its power. And Irish children continue to suffer the consequences. So we can either make up seductive stories about evil people, extremist witches and negligent social workers, or we can take a long hard look at how the supposed sacred family unit has laid waste to countless lives in the service of the state’s rulers, leaving a population trained to show reverence to natural superiors and take whatever punishment is dished out.

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1 Response to “Holy Families”


  1. 1 Eoin November 3, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    Jeez, Hugh. I am not sure where to begin with this post. Firstly can I also state my admiration for the work at Lex Occulta. His blogroll alone is a goldmine for my own work.

    I was reading an article last week about how official uses of ‘community’ as a rhetorical device obscured real divisions in Ireland long after its usefulness as a unifying concept, post-Civil War, had passed. O’Carroll writes how Ireland is an extreme case of a “failure to discriminate adequately between the nature and appropriate functions of the community, the public sphere and the state.” A central part of my own work in that seemingly abstract notions of community, who ‘the public’ is and in whose interests power acts are translated in the actions of organisations, large and small at differing scales. It is evident from the Roscommon case that the HSE officers sought not to challenge the dominated (as in Bourdieu) sense of their own power. How are these ideas of encroaching state power conceived and how are they acted on on different terrains and scales?

    As many people would have it, the Irish state is ‘only now, coming out from under the yoke of a dominant church’. As you argue above however, that same state takes its lead from a Constitution derived in many parts from pre-Vatican II Catholic Social Teaching. (And I don’t draw the temporal distinction to contrast it with problematic CST post-1965.) In drawing attention to the parallels between Fr Byrne’s views and the actions of HSE officers, you are questioning the basis upon which ‘we’ think of ourselves in these ‘big’ and ‘small’ scales. Might we think then of the state’s structured negligence as a sort of meme, echoing as it does a kind of folk memory (I know, I know) of non-intervention? In this context, who makes up the community?

    I do not have answers really but am puzzled by any and all uses of the term ‘community’ to describe collective responsibility when clearly it is about decisions taken by individuals in collaboration with others not to get involved. There must be more to social life than falling back upon the emptiness of the individual moral conscience, free-floating, enrobed in the hubris of the zero-point?

    Philip Lawton asks similar questions about responsibility for the crash over on Ireland After NAMA but to me, in slightly less nuanced ways.


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