Saturday, May 23, 2015

Joy in Ireland

Supporters at Dublin Castle
I’ve been listening to Irish music all day.  Volume at full blast.  Dancing around my room.  With the shades up.  Don’t care who knows I’ve gone out of my mind with joy.  

Ah, Ireland.  How could I have ever doubted you?  Ever said a bad word?  Ever failed to note the charms of the Emerald Isle?

It’s called getting carried away.  You don’t get to do it that often anymore.  So much bad news out there.  ISIS.  The Republican Party.  The collapse of American democracy.  Name your reason for feeling blue, and we’ll put it on the long list.  But not today.  Today, the Irish have made the world a much better place.  It’s the first time a nation has voted to extend full rights to its oppressed lesbian and gay minority.  By referendum. Not by forcing the tyrannizing majority to live up to its constitution.  Not by getting its legislature off their bums and doing the right thing.  But by popular vote.  By going to the polls in record numbers and making equality happen.  It just doesn’t get any better than this.

It was a nail biter there for a while.  It wasn’t that long ago we had great hopes that Proposition 8 would fail.*   Polls indicated it would.   And then the Catholic Church came in and pissed in the soup.  Got together with their Mormon and evangelical friends and pointed us back toward the Middle Ages for a while until we could get that decision overturned in the courts and get marriage rights back for same-sex couples in California.

I thought this would be the season of waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to make a decision next month.  That we would all hold our breaths until the U.S. goes one way or the other on federal protections for LGBT people.  But then this Irish Referendum came along and snatched our focus away and made us all realize we were maybe too focused on the U.S.  We needed to watch what was going on in the larger world as it moved, slowly but surely, toward full implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The tension will build again, as the U.S. Supreme Court decision gets closer.  But this decision in Ireland today somehow makes the wait seem bearable.  The trend is clear.  And there is hope.

I was in Ireland only once.  I travelled through England, Scotland and Ireland on my way home from a junior year abroad in college.  I was 21, I didn’t have much money, but since I was already east of the pond, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to take in all I could before heading back to finish college.  I had no plans, but the name Galway Bay had stuck in my head from songs I had heard as a child. I found my way to the western edge of Dublin, stuck out my finger and left my itinerary and my schedule to fate.  It was 1962, and once out in the country cars were few and far between.  The upside of that, though, was that most cars would stop.

My first ride of any length (it seemed people were only going from one town to the next) was a man who saw immediately that I was American.  “From what part of the States?” he asked.  “I’m from Winsted, Connecticut,” I said.  “Ah, St. Joseph’s!” he responded.  “Did you go to St. Anthony’s?”  I don’t know what was more bizarre, the coincidence that this Irishman should know my home town of 7000 people, or that he should immediately associate it with the single Catholic Church and its parochial school.  I hated to disappoint him, but he didn’t wait for an answer anyway.  “Ah, yes,” he said.  “The church is the soul of life!”

I assumed I had happened upon a religious fanatic.  But that same night, after finding my way to a youth hostel outside of Galway, I found myself in a dorm room with several men of all ages, most of whom got down on their knees before going to bed.  One continued to pray the rosary after retiring. What is it about this country? I asked myself.

The morning after I arrived in Galway it started to rain.  So hard that the power went off and we found ourselves cut off.  There were no provisions and I ended up going from house to house with members of the IRA (a story for another day) begging potatoes for a soup to keep the ten or so of us in the youth hostel going until the roads cleared.  By the time they did, we were one happy family and so when somebody suggested we go to church, I went along.  The homily was given in Irish, but I didn’t care.   I was 21 and I was at the edge of the civilized world, and this was an extraordinarily good adventure.

That experience colored my view of Ireland for years afterwards.  Only Poland gave it a run for its money when it came to Catholicism.  To be Irish was to be Catholic.  Or so I thought.  And with good reason.  The Irish constitution opens with the words, "In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority..." and makes reference to "obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial."    The Irish church, not the state, has virtual control over the entire education system.   As late as 1984, nearly 90 percent of Irish Catholics still went to Mass every week.  And that meant, of course, that the Irish had regular instruction on the importance of being anti-gay, anti-divorce, anti-birth control, anti-just about everything. 

Then the church began its decline.  By 2011, only 18 percent still went to mass. 

But there was always another Ireland.  I grew up in New England and there were Irish everywhere – mostly cops and priests, it seemed – and when I wore orange one St. Patrick’s Day to mark my Scottish Protestant roots, the message backfired.  Everybody, Irish or not, thought I was a bad sport.  Everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, I learned.  “It’s a great day to be Irish,” they said.  Whether you were actually Irish or not.  The Irish were the underdogs, associated with poverty and a stifling addiction to religion, and people of good will stressed their contribution to music and poetry.   I’ll take you home again, Kathleen,  My Wild Irish Rose, – these were as familiar as any American folk songs, part of everyday life.  And who doesn’t love an Irish tenor doing Danny Boy?  

So Ireland has always had much going for it.  Despite the weight of British rule, despite the dead hand of the church, it grew and maintained a vibrant culture, full of life and art and talent and imagination, full of poetry and song.  Once noted for potato blights and grand famines, loss of almost half its population to starvation and emigration in the early 20th century, partition and civil war, by the 1990s it had acquired the reputation of being “The Celtic Tiger,” so great were its successes in developing its industry.

Socially, the church held onto tremendous power.  On April 19, 1908 a decree issued by Pope Pius X went into effect known by its Latin name, Ne Temere.  It declared that marriages not properly performed and registered by the church were invalid, i.e., all non-Catholic marriages.  If a Catholic married a non-Catholic, children must be baptized and raised Catholic.  Ne Temere was in force in Ireland until 1970.   

But as the above figures related to mass attendance by 2011 indicate, it became clear that the Irish people were moving away from Catholic church teachings.  Polls on the issue of abortion, also, demonstrate the change.  Despite strict insistence that abortion would never be permitted under any circumstances according to church doctrine, polls showed in 1997 that 77% of the population thought it should be permitted under certain circumstances such as the health of the mother.  By 2004, 51% of people under age 45 supported abortion on demand.   By January 2010 60% of those under 35 thought it should be legalized, and 75% thought the morning-after pill should be made available as an over-the-counter drug (i.e., not just by prescription).    

And now, the Irish have demonstrated with their overwhelming approval of same-sex marriage that the Church really has lost its hold on the country.  As Ronan Mullen, an opponent of “gay marriage,” put it, in a lovely example of the Irish way with the English language, “Some Yes campaigners might be tempted to say Catholic Ireland was executed today and will be buried in a humanist ceremony on Monday.” 

Ireland’s vote was stunning.  Of 43 parliamentary districts, 42 voted yes.  And the one single hold-out kept it from being unanimous by a no-vote of only 51.42% to 48.58% yesses.  Even in the very rural county of Roscommon almost half the people voted in favor of equality.  To be fair, the vote was close in many districts.  Only in Dublin did it go as high as 84% in some parts of the urban area.  But as one writer in the Irish Times put it, “Dublin needed to push hard, we thought, to carry the rest of the country home. Rubbish. The rest of the country did that themselves.” 

“The decency of the Irish people,” she continued, “was not limited to the liberal leafy suburbs of Dublin, nor the solidarity from the flats, but that decency came from the cliffs of Donegal, the lakes of Cavan, the farmyards of Kildare, the lanes of Kerry."

People more knowledgeable about Irish society than I will debate whether the still mostly Catholic people of Ireland won this battle or whether the Church lost it.  There are ready explanations for the official Roman Catholic Church’s tail-spin.  The world learned the story of the 30,000 women confined to Irish asylums when a mass grave of 155 corpses was discovered at a former convent in Dublin in 1993, largely from the film, The Magdalene Sisters, based on the events.  Astonishingly, the church is still fighting against having to pay restitution in the courts despite demands from the Irish government, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the UN Committee Against Torture.    A 2009 article in the Guardian makes the case that “rape and sexual molestation were ‘endemic’ in Irish Catholic church-run industrial schools and orphanages.”   It’s hardly a secret anymore that the moral authority of the church has gone up in smoke.  I would prefer some evidence that people came to their senses on the importance of seeing gay people as no better and no worse than anybody else, but I suspect it took the hypocrisy and arrogance of the Irish Catholic Church to shake people out of apathy and blind obedience to doctrine hostile to the human spirit.  That and the breadth and depth of unspeakable abuse.  If you’re not familiar with the Ryan Report, have a look.  It’s a mind-blower.

On the other hand, to say that it was the church’s corruption and hunger for power and control that made this happen sidesteps the possibility that it simply made itself irrelevant.  People didn’t vote out of anger at the church.  They voted without regard to the church.

And it bears repeating that we still do ourselves no favors by allowing the clerical authorities from the pope down to the bishops to think they speak for the church.  One doesn’t stop being Catholic necessarily when one stops going to church.  One source states that 80% still define themselves as Catholic.  They simply take responsibility for defining religion outside the grasp of the clericals.  Or, as those within the church tend to see it, the problem is not with the church or with the Christian message; it’s a problem of a demonstrably toxic clericalism, and with an institution seriously lacking in credibility.

That’s not my issue, however.  Not today, anyway.  Today, I simply want to listen to the Clancy Brothers, put on some green socks, and wear my Celtic family name with pride, knowing that most people think it’s Irish.

Today, that’s more than OK with me.

photo credit: supporters at Dublin Castle

*On May 15,  2008, the California Supreme Court struck down Proposition 22, which had declared marriage in California could only be between a man and a woman.  That enabled same-sex couples to marry.  A new proposition, Proposition 8, was put together with money from the Knights of Columbus, the Mormon Church and others, including right-winger Howard Ahmanson, opponent of evolution and promoter of intelligent design.  It was supported by 85% of those who identified themselves as evangelical or born-again.  To LGBT people's dismay, the Proposition passed, and the right to marry was taken away.  After a long battle in the courts, that right was restored on June 26, 2013.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

On falling down and getting up

Kevin Wallin
"accomplished priest"
A friend just sent me a link to the news in this morning’s paper that Kevin Wallin has been sentenced to five years and five months in jail for being a meth dealer. 

Meth dealers go to jail all the time, so this would hardly be news but for the fact that this 63-year old man from Bridgeport, Connecticut was a priest.  The papers are referring to him as “Monsignor Meth.”  He was also an addict, himself.  And a cross-dressing party-loving man known for his love of Broadway musicals.  And apparently a capable secretary to two bishops, and described by his own colleagues as a "gifted, compassionate and accomplished priest."

I know only what I read in the papers, of course, and am not in a position to judge the man, even if I wanted to – I don’t.  But this man appears to have two characteristics which, in the long run, were bound to cause his downfall.  He was able to live a double life like some character out of Breaking Bad.  And he lacked the strength of character to ride out some serious financial challenges.  The Catholic Church is up against a loss of membership, for reasons that remain speculative.  But it is also suffering from the collapse of the financial markets in 2008.  Wallin was a fundraiser and this hit him hard.  So he turned to drugs.

My first response to the news story of his sentencing was Schadenfreude.  Every example of hypocrisy in the Catholic Church brings out the “sock it to’em” impulse that lurks in some corner of my mind.  Try as I may to separate the good that is in the church from the bad, there is a part of me which is still a church basher, so intense is the loathing I have built up over the years over the church’s efforts to keep women dependent on men and to guilt gays and lesbians into a life of sexual denial and indignity.  And, more recently, its willingness to throw its weight behind Republican causes, closing its eyes to how often it represents the interests of the moneyed classes at the expense of the rest of us.

Stories like this one keep popping up.  Inevitably, I am reminded of the claims of people like David Berger, that up to half of the priesthood is made up of homosexually inclined men, most of whom live lives of denial, and many of whom channel their resentment into sexual aggression and project their self-loathing into ardent support for its anti-gay policies.  Nothing is more characteristic of the Roman Catholic Church (and they are not alone in this among Christian groups, obviously) than repressed sexuality.  The consequences of that mindset have been deadly.  Over and over, again and again, opportunities for healthy growth are denied as the alleged virtues of sexual denial and suppression are touted as the will of God.

This story captured my attention this morning because I had been discussing the ramifications of the Pew Research Group report the past couple of days  on how many people are falling away from organized religion in America.  I celebrate this fact, but at the same time I realize this spells heartbreak for religious friends and members of my family.

It’s an old old story, and things are not likely to change, no matter how many more cases like this one will come to our attention.  People with messed up sexualities find their way into the church, hide behind the rule of celibacy without recognizing the long-term cost of denial.  The moral code some Christians claim is the strongest selling-point for being Christian in the first place - (“Without the church, what would keep us all from killing each other!?”) – has been twisted.  Instead of focusing on the virtues of compassion and generosity and love and forgiveness, the church has made morality all about sex.  About not touching yourself down there.  About not having sex unless you are generating future souls.  About constructing a society that argues it is protecting women when it is more interested in controlling them and keeping them dependent on men.

Kevin Wallin is easy to ridicule.  A priest wearing a dress and high heels.  Singing and dancing to Broadway show tunes.  What a clown.  What a joke.  What an obscenity.  Let’s laugh and make fun of this hypocrite.  This weakling.  One Spanish-language blog even describes his fall as "La caĆ­da de la bestia" - the fall of the beast.  

Then again, let’s not.  Let’s recognize what happens when an autocratic institution grabs hold of a weak man like Kevin Wallin and makes him do its bidding.  Makes him hide his doubts about his beliefs.  Makes him hide his true sexual nature.

In the long run, you will take sides on the basis of your own personal and political philosophy.  Do you tend to form your own sense of morality by moving from the individual to the collective?  Or the other way around?  Are you a law and order type who believes the individual must, in most cases, surrender to the good of the collective?  Or are you a staunch individualist who believes one of the great aspects of the American political system is having a Supreme Court that judges cases on the basis of the rights of the individual, and overturns the will of the majority on occasion, when they judge the individual to have been wronged?  I’m oversimplifying greatly, obviously, to make a point.

But I’ve reached my own penchant for stressing individual rights over collective ones because I’ve been on the business end of abusive laws and customs of a tyrannical, unjust, and ungenerous majority.

same guy as above - demonized
This is a philosophical issue.  Do you blame Kevin?  Stress his personal weakness?  Focus on the harm he has caused himself and other victims of drug addiction?  Kevin Wallin is easy to demonize.
It's easy to frame this story as being about a man who has sinned and who has to pick himself up, make restitution, get right with the Lord again.

Or do you focus on the misguided institution to which he has devoted his life?  Apparently he is seeking forgiveness and seeking to reenter the church as a member in good standing.  If he is reinstated – and I think he will be – his contrition appears to be genuine – it will be because he acknowledges his wrongdoing and throws himself on the mercy of the institution.  He may then go back to denying his sexual nature and live a life of celibacy.  

If he pays that price, the church will have won out.  And the harm that generated the worldview that brought him down will continue.

And that will be a great pity.

Photo credits:

1. Kevin Wallin, priest

2. Kevin Wallin, beast
3. Kevin Wallin, demonized

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


For reasons I can't explain, I've been feeling the need to grouse about the evolution of the English language lately.  As a trained linguist, I know (or maybe I just ought to say I buy into the fact) that language standards are largely impotent attempts by power structures to maintain control, and language evolves on the basis of actual usage.  Language is, in the long run, what people say, not what somebody says they ought to say.

Language use conservatives may wail all they (we) like.  Sooner or later most of the “breakdown” in rules becomes a new standard.  In high school my English teachers were ruthless in not allowing me to split infinitives.  I don’t think young people today can even tell you what that means.  Teachers may still try to really convince you you ought to never split an infinitive, but they are fighting a losing battle.

And remember the sentence, “That is a situation up with which I will not put,” making fun of the rule that you never “use a preposition to end a sentence with”?  That, too, illustrates a rule that has fallen by the wayside.

At my local supermarket there are two fast lanes with signs declaring they are for people who have “Fewer than 12 items.”  I actually made a point of thanking the manager.  The fewer/less distinction seems to be falling by the wayside.  I am delighted some are holding on to tradition.

There is no logical or esthetic reason we should maintain the count/non-count distinction.  No reason we shouldn’t say “less people” and “amount of people” instead of “fewer people” and “number of people” respectively.  But I feel a twinge of sadness, a sense that the world is going to hell when people misuse words, whether in spelling – like discrete for discreet or pour over for  pore over (a mistake I made not so long ago in a blog) ­– or in word choice – like using the non-words like irregardless and firstly or choosing to say point in time when time is perfectly adequate.  Some insist firstly is simply more formal than first when used as an adverb, but what the hell does that mean? 

Why is it I have become so conservative about language use, I wonder.  I really care about the its/it's distinction and the placement of commas (and I always take criticism seriously from people who tell me I am an over-user) and about using lie-lay-lain as an intransitive verb and lay-laid-laid as its transitive equivalent, another rule apparently on its last legs.  I’m not only conservative; I’m chauvinistic when it comes to regionalisms.  In the part of the country where I grew up nobody would think of saying, “If you would have come, you would have had a good time.”  But in huge sections of the country, the sentence appears to be quite acceptable. 

Nothing new hear here.  Language is in flux.  The world is changing.  Sometimes you go with the flow, and sometimes you try to channel that flow or even damn dam it up entirely.  Usually you fail.  The flow’s the thing.

Like this article I just came across which inspired this rant:

A new survey from the  Pew Research Center indicates that the amount [sic] of American Christians is declining, while the amount [sic] of Americans who don't identify with any organized religion is increasing.

Oh well.  Lose a little here, win a little there.