THERE are few things on earth smugger or more insufferable than an evangelical atheist.
Worse still are those who call themselves humanists – people who seem to believe that, simply by rejecting religion, they have proven themselves more intelligent and sophisticated than the rest of humanity.
That smugness is best illustrated by a quote from American author Kurt Vonnegut, who once declared: “Being a humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead.”
Except, of course, that there’s no evidence humanists do the right thing at all, a fact confirmed by a new study which found that non-believers give the least to charity.
Humanists, of course, would argue that the generosity of the faithful doesn’t really count, because they’re only doing it in the hope of some future heavenly reward.
But that still doesn’t explain why those who don’t believe in God don’t dig deep.
A kinder interpretation of religious generosity is that they contribute more to charity because they just happen to think that it’s the right thing to do – though if so, that does starkly expose the altogether less magnanimous attitude of the four Magdalene orders, who are still steadfastly refusing to contribute money to the €58m fund established to help women who passed through the doors of church-run laundries.
The Magdalene nuns are not alone in this practice. Catholic dioceses have previously transferred funds so that they don’t have to pay proven victims of clerical abuse. They have a raft of excuses on hand – the money doesn’t really belong to them, it’s held in trust for future generations of the faithful, blah blah.
It doesn’t answer the question which is meant to be at the heart of the Christian life: What Would Jesus Do?
Squirreling away cash has nothing to do with Christianity at all.
It’s simply another variation on the usual corporate excuses, scrabbling around for loopholes as a cover for greedily protecting their assets from the little people – and it’s all the more galling when the Pope has recently been in Brazil for ceremonies marking World Youth Day, calling on “everybody, according to his or her particular opportunities and responsibilities . . . to make a personal contribution to putting an end to so many social injustices.”
Pope Francis, who ironically shares his name with the saint who devoted himself to poverty, even declared: “I would like to make an appeal to those in possession of greater resources and to all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity!”
In a week when the Magdalene orders were once again refusing to contribute to the fund set up to compensate sick and unhappy old women for the hard labour, humiliation, cold and hunger which was inflicted on them when they were young and powerless, the Papal slogans feel almost like an added insult.
Isn’t there some saying in the New Testament about removing the beam from your own eye before taking out the mote in someone else’s?
The hypocrisy exposed by Pope Francis’s superficial words was breathtaking.
The gap between what is said and what is done a yawning chasm.
There was another such own goal recently from Bill Donohue, president of the US-based Catholic League, who airily dismissed public horror at conditions in the Magdalene laundries with the words: “There was no holocaust, there was no gulag. No one was murdered . . . Not a single woman was sexually abused by a nun . . . It’s all a lie.”
There is an argument to be made that a secular media has exploited this tragedy in order to attack the church, and that the religious orders treated women in their care no worse than any other part of Irish society at the time.
Any such debate, however, has to start from an understanding that the right adverb to describe how the vulnerable were treated at that time, whoever was responsible, is “appallingly” or “horrendously” or “unforgivably”.
What happened to them certainly shouldn’t be belittled for rhetorical effect.
That’s as dishonest and cynical as exaggerating it for propaganda purposes too.
The more swivel-eyed ranks of Catholic apologists seem to think that the Magdalene women should be grateful for not being murdered or sexually abused, and that, far from being compensated for their time in the laundries, they should be sent a bill for their five-star care.
The only reason they’re able to make such feeble excuses for the religious orders at all is because of the unsatisfactory McAleese report, which bizarrely rejected any suggestion that there had been physical abuse by nuns of inmates in the laundries, a conclusion which flies in the face of a raft of testimony from many of the women themselves, who spoke of regular beatings and other cruel punishments, and whose stories, taken together, build an altogether different picture of the regime in the laundries than the sanitised one which is now being substituted by the aforementioned swivel eyed ranks in an effort to obliterate their collective memories.
Whether Christian or humanist, the only decent starting point of any discussion of the Magdalene laundries should be to listen respectfully to the stories of the women who were actually there, rather than cherry-picking their experiences in order to wage an ideological war either against, or on behalf of, the Catholic hierarchy.
These women have been used enough. In many ways, they are the ultimate symbolic representatives of the failure of this country at every level to treat its own people with dignity.
They were abandoned first by family and friends, who allowed their daughters and sisters to be packed away, out of sight and mind, to expiate their own sense of shame; then they were abandoned by a civic society which saw human beings as an expensive nuisance rather than individuals with rights and feelings; finally they felt abandoned too by whatever twisted version of God the Magdalene orders imposed on them.
That wasn’t even the worst of it.
The worst of it is that the Magdalene women came to believe that they weren’t worth any greater consideration, and had defeatedly reconciled themselves, in many cases, to dying quietly, without a fuss, unheard, the injustice of their plight unacknowledged, much less recompensed.
It’s like a variation on the old line “what do you give the man who has everything?”
Only this was more a case of “what do you give the women who expect nothing?”
In the case of the Magdalene orders, jealously tightening the corporate purse strings, the answer seems to be: More of the same nothing.
Is that really the “culture of solidarity” with the weak and poor which Pope Francis professed to be proclaiming in the slums of Brazil last week?