Category: Archive

A View North Burdened with the ‘gift’ of Original Sin

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

As someone who was raised in the traditional Irish Catholic manner, as a little "gift" from God, I was particularly intrigued by Archbishop Desmond Connell’s recent and controversial remarks about planned babies. The archbishop was addressing the Life Society in Maynooth College when he said (as quoted in an Irish newspaper): "The child produced by the decision of the parents begins to look more and more like a technological produce. . . . A profound alteration in the relationship between parent and child may result when the child is no longer a gift but produced as it were to order. . . . The child no longer belongs to the family in a personal sense if it is radically a product rather than a person. . . . No child can be happy as a product: The child will find no meaning in a life produced by technology."

The archbishop was referring principally to such techniques as cloning, in vitro fertilization, genetic engineering and surrogate motherhood. But his remarks were clearly aimed at the whole idea of birth control, which gives women the option of choosing when they wanted to have a child and how many. Having control over your own reproductive life somehow turns "gifts," as Archbishop Connell quaintly puts it, into products.

His remarks were greeted with outrage. No longer can clerics talk rubbish and expect the Irish people to wag their tails like a pet dog content to listen to the master’s voice. The Rev. Connell was bombarded by the big batteries of liberal opinion for lacking charity, and being insensitive to all those women who have chosen to plan their families. How times have changed.

However, no one has so far reminded the archbishop what it was like in the old Irish Catholic tradition, when we were all "gifts." I would like to suggest to him that, in my experience, it was not much fun being a "gift." There were certain disadvantages, to which he does not allude. The main one was that each little gift arrived rather damaged, thanks to the doctrine of Original Sin.

I’m surprised that Archbishop Connell, who is something of a theologian, does not mention this, since it is at the core of Catholic doctrine in relation to conception and birth.

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Every little "gift" came stamped with the trademark of Original Sin. Though Original Sin was erased by baptism, each little gift was never allowed to forget that it had once been so marked. In fact, Archbishop Connell’s fellow clerics hammered it in at every opportunity. They loved to remind us "gifts" that we had sinned by the very fact of being. It was clearly outside the power of a "gift" to choose to come into existence. But the church had decreed that conception was a falling away from the perfect state of Grace which was God and therefore was designated a sin. The church fathers clearly regarded descent into physical being as a nasty unpleasant business. At least we "gifts" (the end product of this, pardon the word, process) were treated as if it were. Perhaps this is why though we were gifts we were often not treated like gifts, more like excrescence.

Given the doctrine of Original Sin this is hardly surprising. It gave generations of priests, brothers and nuns the theological framework for their deepest personal frustrations, which they vented on us "gifts" in beatings and general mistreatment. It was not only physical, of course. The whole philosophical context of the doctrine was that matter, physical reality itself, was a falling away from Grace. This was a great excuse to treat it with contempt. Unfortunately for us "gifts" — especially if we were "gifts" from the working-class section of society — we were the most readily available and vulnerable examples of that falling away. We were the walking reminders of the fall from Grace perpetrated by our parents.

The perniciousness of this belief was demonstrated in the way poor children were constantly reminded of how intrinsically worthless they were. After all, they had only been redeemed thanks to the ritual of baptism. It instilled in all of us a sense of shame at our very existence. That, of course, is what it was designed to do. In Ireland this expressed itself culturally in repressive, puritanical attitudes toward the human body, and a general disgust at basic physical needs, especially those associated with sex. The doctrine of Original Sin penalized women more than men, inevitably. Since virginity was prized more highly than the married state, it brought further pressure on young women to make them ashamed and embarrassed by "carnal desires." Anything to do with the body, after all, was suspect. Indeed, in Ireland this doctrine was at times carried to Manichean heights and verged on heresy. Its end result was often to set up a conflict between body and spirit, with the latter in the role of the Lone Ranger riding to rescue the poor physical entity besieged by demons of desire like a stage coach surrounded by Apaches. At least, that’s how we saw it in those days.

We could only think in metaphors about the matter, since it was so obviously beyond ours — or anyone’s — intellectual grasp. One of the most striking things I can recall was that of a Christian brother who introduced me to the notion of Original Sin. He told me to think of my soul as a lily white handkerchief, but whiter than anything the human eye has ever seen. That’s how it is when it is with God, he explained, in a state of Grace. But once it falls from that state, it is as if it were blotted by a stain of black ink which spreads across it. This stain is cleansed by baptism.

Little did we realize it at the time but Original Sin had its origins not in anything specifically Christian but in Pagan Greek philosophy. It was very much a Platonic notion, adopted by the early Christian sages to help gave their misanthropic view of the world a sort of philosophical gloss.

Anyway, perhaps the archbishop might be inspired to give some thought as to what might be the advantages of being a product not of one’s mother’s choice but of Original Sin. I can only think of one offhand: at least it meant you were never inclined to take yourself too seriously. You weren’t so much a "gift" as an ink blot.

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese