n reading accounts of the bones of at least 800 children found in a septic tank in the west of Ireland I am hearing the dark side of Irish history, with the long, imposing shadow of the Catholic Church in plain sight. This is both cultural and personal. My father was born in Dublin and brought to London where I was born a Catholic fundamentalism that would not be unfamiliar to American religious fundamentalists in the Deep South. After he had a few whiskeys and pints of sturdy lager I could hear my father’s “Jesus, Mary, Joseph” anthem from the third floor of our London flat, a theological-aided retribution and curse for what he considered my mother’s indiscretions before they were married. For the man when overcome by the spirit there seemed to be only one sin and that was “sexual” in nature. This seems learned behavior rooted in the Church’s theology about women and sexuality. The children referred to earlier were found in a place called the Home run by the Bon Secours nuns. It was a place for unwed mothers to give birth to their “illegitimate children,” many apparently the result of rape. Children who survived were placed in indentured servitude for the rest of their lives. The Home operated from 1925 to 1961. The Irish Mai reported, based on documented provided by an historian investigating this horror, that neglect, malnutrition, and pneumonia killed many of the children. Those who survived were the untouchables to their schoolmates and the local community. Nathaniel Hawthorne could not design a Scarlet Letter large enough to cover the shame heaped on these poor women and children by parish priests who elevated so-called sexual sins above all others. I read that a few dozen Italian women sent a group letter to Pope Francis asking that they be permitted to marry their lovers who happen to be priests. This got the usual online chatter about celibacy being a discipline, not a doctrine, and could therefore be changed. Pope Francis has said as much, adding that the benefits of the discipline still outweigh any disadvantages. I thought: wrong answer; wrong question. I grew up in the grips of a harsh Catholicism that haunts me to this day. I was abused by a priest before I got out of town and
joined the military. I have tried to rid myself of this demon influence for almost forty years through academic writing, poetry and novels. In my PhD dissertation on the Catholic Imagination I explored why so many “Catholic” writers had so much difficulty with the feminine and especially with sexuality that in fiction was often seen as a form of crucifixion. The writers I studied tended to view women as either virgin or whore, a dramatization and offense that have roots in Catholic doctrine. I’m not going to discuss the Virgin birth or Immaculate Conception here; only the implications. Anyway, I’m not qualified to enter that arena. I will note that the Immaculate Conception became doctrine only in 1854, followed by the doctrine of the Assumption in 1950. These developments represent the tardy result of almost two centuries of theological back-and-forth that had huge implications for how male and female sexuality are perceived. It was as if the Church elevated Mary to offset a very patriarchal Trinity. This is where I leave theology and move into depth psychology with the help of Dr. James Hillman, a psychologist and author of “Re-Visioning Psychology” which examines how Church Fathers attempted to rid the church of anima influences, personification, and image-making not supported by doctrine. At the second council of Nicea in 787 attendees declared that “the composition of religious imagery is not left to the initiative of artists, but is formed upon principles laid down by the Catholic Church and religious tradition.” Hillman writes that “Painters were to be mere technicians following the instructions of Church officials regarding subject, selection, and arrangement of the images.” It is mildly ironic, even during centuries of anima repression that anima continued to greet us from the porches of cathedrals, on our banknotes and coins, and on the medieval stage. Hillman notes that this assault on the image was continued at the Council of Trent in the “Ottomiddle of the sixteenth century, which established doctrine for the modern period. This Council was largely a response to the Protestant Reformation but also voted to remove, In Hillman’s words, “substance and virtue from all holy images.” Artists couldn’t represent in their work profanity, paganism, and nudity, including when showing the baby Jesus. The Council forbade depictions of the Death of the Virgin, a popular image since medieval times and emphasized the Assumption that would become doctrine three hundred years later. One hundred years later Cromwell’s Protestants “tore down and smashed images of Christ, Mary, and the Saints in the English cathedrals because, to their Puritan minds, images were not Christian. Because subjectivities can be made visible in images, these were especially damnable; smashing them furthered the destruction of the visible carriers of personifying.” An intolerance of images results in a loss of imagination. Christian churches have had to deal with this fate ever since. From here there is no easy way to get back to the West of Ireland and the children dumped in the septic tank. We do know that in the remote parishes of Ireland female sexual purity often trumped life itself. Equally clear is that the Cult of the Virgin was often distorted and sexual sin was elevated above all others.