This is a previously unpublished essay that I wrote about six months ago in response to the scandal at the (now closed) Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Ireland. I’m posting it here, because I think it dovetails nicely with my series on how the “culture of life” is anything but. At the time the story broke, the conservotrad blogosphere focused on debunking the claim that the bodies of hundreds of babies had been stuffed into a septic tank, ignoring the fact that the horrific conditions at Bon Secours and other unwed mother homes were an open secret in Irish society. The real scandal was how the children were treated as non-persons by their community when they were living. That their bodies ended up in a septic tank or some other anonymous mass grave was merely the natural outcome of a lifetime of indignity. If Ireland, perhaps the most Catholic country that ever Catholic-ed, couldn’t treat these children and their mothers (many of whom were the victims of sexual and physical abuse) with dignity and compassion, why should we expect a better outcome with a Catholic culture 2.0 (i.e., a “culture of life”)?
Since the publication of Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the phrase “culture of life” has been used by conservative Catholics and other social conservatives to describe the ideal society free of abortion, contraception, voluntary sterilization, stem cell research, and euthanasia, where human life is valued at all points from conception to natural death. Juxtaposed against the “culture is life” is the “culture of death,” which judges the value of human life from a utilitarian perspective and deems certain categories of people, such as fetuses, infants, the handicapped, and the elderly, as burdens to society that can be killed at will. The Roman Catholic Church has expended a great deal of effort in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries promoting its social vision of a “culture of life,” via political lobbying at the national level, education at the parish level, grassroots activism, and the use of the Holy See’s status as a permanent observer state at the United Nations.
However, the notion of the Catholic Church as the defender of innocent human life, already suffering because of the fallout from the clergy sex abuse scandal, took another hit earlier this month (i.e., June 2014), when Irish historian Catherine Corless discovered that the former site of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Ireland contained the unmarked graves of almost eight hundred babies and toddlers who had died on the premises between 1925 and 1961. While Corless has complained that the international media has distorted the details of the Tuam case, particularly the sensationalistic claim that the children were all buried in a septic tank, the core facts of the story are indisputable, namely that hundreds of “illegitimate” children died in large numbers in an institution run by a Catholic religious order, said children were denied baptism and religious burial due to the circumstances surrounding their conception and birth (not a light accusation, given that the Irish Church taught that unbaptized babies were denied a place in heaven), and Irish women who gave birth out of wedlock were treated as untouchables by their communities. The tragic fate of the mothers and babies imprisoned at the Bon Secours home in Tuam is not an aberration, but the natural conclusion when a society outlaws contraception, abortion, and sex education and stigmatizes unwed mothers.
To understand the logic that undergirded the actions taken by the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home, one has to examine Castii Connubii (On Christian Marriage), an encyclical by Pope Pius XI that was released three years after the institution was established. In this document, which was written in response to the Anglican Communion’s 1930 Lambert Conference that permitted married couples to use birth control, Pius XI bemoaned the threats to the “dignity of chaste wedlock,” namely abortion and contraception. He regarded artificial contraception as an “evil use of matrimony,” which should be denounced from the pulpit and in the confessional. Not only did Pius XI dismiss concerns about the deleterious effects of constant childbirth to the health of mothers, he admired the virtue of women who died in childbirth, saying:
Who is not filled with the greatest admiration when he sees a mother risking her life with heroic fortitude, that she may preserve the life of the offspring which she has conceived? God alone, all bountiful and all merciful as He is, can reward her for the fulfillment of the office allotted to her by nature, and will assuredly repay her in a measure full to overflowing.
Other dangers to the sanctity of Christian marriage that Pius XI fulminated against in Castii Connubii included voluntary sterilization, women’s rights, civil marriage, and inter-faith marriages. Perhaps most importantly in the context of the Tuam tragedy, Pius XI looked disapprovingly on the charitable support of unwed mothers, as a “certain inversion of the true order of things, [when] ready and bountiful assistance is provided for the unmarried mother and her illegitimate offspring which is denied to legitimate mothers or given sparingly or almost grudgingly.” While the pope added that the children of single mothers were deserving of society’s help, the implication was that such aid was indicative of misplaced priorities on the part of society.
All of the principles advocated by Pius XI in Castii Connubii for a chaste and well-ordered Catholic sexuality would be enshrined in law and community mores in twentieth century Ireland, where the Catholic Church operated as an unelected wing of the government. The Church held a monopoly on social services, operating schools, workhouses, orphanages, correctional facilities, hospitals, and the unwed mother homes that are now being investigated. These institutions were staffed by members of religious orders, but paid for with a mixture of public funds and private donations. Because the Church had a stranglehold on so many aspects of Irish life, generations of Irish men and women grew up without adequate sex education or access to contraception. However, frowning upon out-of-wedlock births, abortion, and contraception does not necessarily reduce the number of single mothers, it simply drives them out of sight and out of the moral consideration of the community. Although Irish society isolated and shamed unwed mothers (but not the men who impregnated them), the sheer number of women who passed through Irish mother and baby homes is proof enough that the Irish people were no less prone to “fornication” than their more worldly counterparts in the other parts of Western Europe.
While Catholic apologists try to explain away the dire conditions of the Tuam home by noting that Ireland as a whole was ridden with poverty and illness during the decades in which it was operational, the mortality rates at the mother and baby homes were significantly higher than those of society at large. The Irish Examiner reported in November 2013, prior to the current revelations about the Bon Secours home, that
…in the 1940s, the infant death rate for Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, Co Cork, was 44.6%, for Sean Ross, 33.7% and for Castlepolland, Co Weatmeath, 9.1%. In the mid-1940s there was a year in which out of 180 babies born at Bessborough, 100 died.
Former inmates at these mother and baby homes have said that they were denied painkillers during birth as a means of “atoning” for the sin of fornication, were forced to engage in hard labor without pay, and ultimately had their babies placed in orphanages or adopted out to “good Catholic” couples in the United States without their permission. The people of Tuam and other Irish towns have testified about how illegitimate children were shunned in social and academic settings. Far from being an unavoidable side effect of generalized poverty, the deaths at mother and baby homes were the inevitable results of a religious society that took Pius XI’s message about the regrettable nature of “ready and bountiful assistance” for unwed mothers to heart, and killed them through not so blind neglect. The general population in Ireland knew about the life and deaths of these children, but communal bonds of shame and guilt kept these atrocities secret until now.
The appalling conditions found in orphanages, unwed mothers homes, and foundling hospitals, as well as the widespread practice of infanticide, are the dirty secret of the pre-contraception age. Ostensibly Christian populaces were willing to ignore infanticide and later the high rates of morality in various forms of institutionalized child warehouses, because they understood that women (and society as a whole) had finite resources. Instances of infanticide dropped substantially in the West when sanitation improved, and because women were able to gain access to reproductive healthcare and bodily autonomy. Part of what makes the Tuam home case so unsettling is the fact that the events in question didn’t happen in the distant, medieval past, but during the very modern mid-twentieth century, when the other countries of Western Europe experienced major social strides, especially in the realm of women’s rights. In twentieth century Ireland, we can get a glimpse of what a Western society governed by strict religious principles, traditional gender roles, and the sexual scapegoating women is like, and the outcome isn’t pleasant. The mothers in these homes may have chosen life – or rather, been forced to give it – but the unfortunate life and death of these “blessings” is hardly the kind of “culture of life” envisioned by John Paul II or any other rational thinking person. While the issues surrounding contraception and the possibility of dying in childbirth may have been simple thought exercises for Pius XI and John Paul II, it was a matter of life and death for the women and babies suffering in Irish unwed mothers homes.
If nothing else, Ireland’s recent history refutes the social conservative claim that a mixture of societal pressure against unwed motherhood, the vigorous promotion of heterosexual marriage, and the criminalization of abortion are sufficient to eliminate the need for abortion and contraception. Whether the Tuam babies were buried in a septic tank or not is ultimately irrelevant to the larger issue this scandal raises, namely that unmarried mothers and their children were considered expendable by arguably the most Catholic country in the world. Is this not reminiscent of the “culture of death” that John Paul II criticized in Evangelium Vitae, a society in which there is
…a war of the powerful against the weak: a life which would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another. A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favoured tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated.
The Tuam babies fit all of the criteria for the type of lives that John Paul II claimed needed the most protection, but they were ultimately rejected by the very Catholic society that spawned them, because of the circumstances surrounding their birth and conception. These forgotten children were in dire need of the care and acceptance of society, but the stigma of pre-marital sex and single motherhood in twentieth century Ireland outweighed the injunction to care “the least of these.” Given the ingrained nature of Catholicism in Ireland, it is hard to argue that the Tuam case was an aberration of Catholic teachings, especially when it adhered so perfectly to the outline of Catholic sexuality found in Castii Connubii. The case of the Tuam babies shows that a “culture of life” can never be built on the dis-empowerment of women, nor on the institutionalization of shame.
John Paul II. “Evangelium Vitae.” http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae_en.html (accessed June 15, 2014).
Pius XI. “Castii Connubii.” http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_31121930_casti-connubii_en.html (accessed June 14, 2014).
White, Victoria. “Ireland’s generation of stolen children deserve to know who they are.” Irish Examiner, November 7, 2013. http://www.irishexaminer.com/viewpoints/columnists/victoria-white/irelands-generation-of-stolen-children-deserve-to-know-who-they-are-248731.html