Sunday, February 10, 2013

Magdalene Laundries, Vatican II and Treating People As If They Were Their Sins

The Magdalene Laundry story exemplifies the historic attitude of the Church and the society Church influence created as it applied to poor women.  If some high placed men in the Church have their way, history will repeat itself.

I spent part of this weekend reading the recently released report on the Magdalen Laundries in Ireland.  The first thing that stands out in my mind is that past residents are almost unanimous that they experienced no real physical abuse, as opposed to their experiences in Irish State residential schools.  The abuse was psychological and emotional, and it was consistent between various laundries.  That may seem to make the laundries more humane, but the singular psychological abuse employed was keeping the girls and women completely in the dark about why they were there and when, or if, they could ever leave.  Physical abuse ends, this form of psychological abuse is endless precisely because it has no defined end.  There is no light at the end of the tunnel.  Professional interrogators have learned that applied psychological and emotional abuse of this type is more effective than physical abuse or even physical torture in manipulating behavior.

In some respects it seems the congregations that ran these laundries transferred their enclosed rules for religious life as a sort of day by day operations manual for the laundries. The girls became perpetual novices whose institutionalized lifestyle was assumed by it's religious nature to have the capacity to reform them.  Given this, I didn't find it particularly surprising that the nuns who over saw their lives would see anything particularly abusive in how that management was done on a day to day basis.  Of course this totally overlooks the fact novices who undergo this kind of regimen voluntary choose it because they believe they have a vocation. The Magdalene's, for the most part, had no idea why they were even there, and simply endured a life style where their inexpensive maintenance and forced labor benefited the economic situation of their employers. In too many cases, the 'conversion' was to a dependency on the institution, and not to living a reformed life on the outside.  Not so different from many nuns who left enclosed convents and had a hugely difficult time adjusting the 'world outside'.

The other intriguing, and I think very important observation, is that the entire approach used by nuns dramatically changed for the better after Vatican II.  This point is made by the survivors, the nuns themselves, clinical professionals, and lay support staff.  Vatican II had a very positive effect on the reality within the laundries, if not so much on how a girl found themselves in the laundries.  It would take Irish society quite awhile longer to move past the reasoning which necessitated the creation of Magdalene Laundries in the first place.

I think one of the most influential changes wrought in Catholicism by Vatican II was it's emphasis on seeing people as people, and not as sinners in need of correction.  It's really hard to relate compassionately to someone who you 'see' as a sinner first and person second.  Unfortunately, Catholicism seems to be returning to this conceptualization.  The 'reform of the reform' with it's emphasis on sexual morality, is taking us right back to the mindset that created the Magdalene Laundries.  People are once again becoming their sins, and being related to as the embodiment of a given sin.  This is really becoming evident in the argumentation of conservative Catholics on too many Catholic blog sights, but it also seems to underlie the argumentation of the USCCB with it's tendency to define women as 'selfish consumers of birth control' or selfish murderers of their unborn fetuses---or gays as something more than selfish promiscuous purveyors of intrinsically evil sex.  Should Catholicism get re entrenched on this path of relating to people as various classes of sin, and not as legitimate people with dignity beyond their 'sin', Vatican II will surely have been aborted.

I suppose the ironic thing about this transformation after Vatican II, is that in the case of bishops, it's a different story.  For too many Catholics of all persuasions, 'bishop' has become a definition for a particular sin, and bishops themselves are being treated as a sin and not as a person with dignity in their own right. I can't say that most of them haven't earned it, either by commission or ommission.  They have been so consistent in their behavior that it's understandable why this has occurred. What I wish they might do this Lent is meditate on this phenomenon of  'bishop as another name for sin', and not spend so much time calling for the conversion of the laity.  The real conversion that will make a real difference for laity is their own conversion.  Maybe then all the People of God acting together would have a chance at reforming the unexamined abuses built with in the Catholic system that have led to all kinds of these other abuses.  Perhaps as a start, all our bishops could do their own laundry as a Lenten penance.


  1. The accounts of mental abuse are just as bad as the physical abuse that went on in children's homes. One writer on the Magdalene Laundries has pointed out that the Irish state had little choice but to rely on Catholic institutions for social welfare purposes as the government had little money after independence.

  2. I want to say that this may be one of your most insightful posts.

    First the focus on psychological abuse and that it has no end. Second, the Vatican II Council made things better for the nuns and the Magdalens when people began to see each other as persons. If anything, this to me, is the great achievement of that Council. Third, trying to begin to relate to bishops as persons.

    Finally your Lenten call for the bishops, I presume of the US, to do some soul searching for their own participation in sin. Let the bishops forget for this penitential season the need to call everyone else but themselves to conversion.

    This is probably too much to hope for; all of us, bishops, laity, sinners all looking for the "unexamined abuses built with in the Catholic system."

  3. Thanks wild. Vatican II so dovetailed with the humanistic psychology movement and it's emphasis on not labeling or judging clients that for me the two became entwined. People are people, they are not classes of sin or mental dysfunction---or wealth or sarcedotal ability.

  4. I think that's the reason the report makes a big distinction about the laundries before and after 1922. Same function but different pathways for entrance, and different funding sources.

  5. 'Bishop' as another name for sin and equally 'priest' as another name for sin. I still think in cases of child molestation that the molester is worse than the person who covers it up. Marginally perhaps but still worse.

    As for bishops and better yet cardinals doing their own laundry as a Lenten penance: What? And risk all that delicate lace to the inexpert laundry ability of the bishop? lol

  6. That's a really great point, and somehow I had never tied the timelines of the humanistic perspective and Vatican II together. One point made in "Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church" (by Marie Keenan) is that our current Western criminology we've put a huge importance on causes of crime stemming from the individual-- a sort of purely individualistic sense of accountability I guess-- while completely ignoring any other environmental factors. These factors, in the Church, obviously include things like seminary formation, current theology & morality of sexuality, etc.

    Is the Church reflecting this individualistic criminology in terms of sin-first? How do we talk to people who will only see the Church as sinful, especially when they aren't Catholic and are not necessarily more informed on Church happenings than what they get on CNN (or other major news outlet)? Is there any way to help stop this general slide, both religious and secular, towards "sinner" rather than "person"?