What have these orders got in common: the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Sisters of Mercy, the Religious Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd? Yes, they are all holy nuns who have devoted their lives to the love of God and neighbour. But there is another common factor: nuns from these orders appear in the recent Martin McAleese report as running the Magdalene laundries in Ireland.
Thus, some of their members apparently decided that their vocations were consistent with long-term cruelty to the young women in their care, and a denial to them of the most basic human rights.
But before we look at this troubling question we may consider another story. This is the Robert Francis report on the Mid Staffs Hospital. We may have presumed that those who join the medical professions place the highest importance on the standard of patient care. Instead, it would appear that some NHS staff have been similarly guilty of care-less cruelty to the patients in their care, and a denial to them of the most basic human rights. “Staff who spoke out felt ignored and there is strong evidence that many were deterred from doing so through fear and bullying,” the report says.
In both instances the point was made that the neglect spread to the senior authorities who had responsibility for supervising the institutions.
We are horrified, indeed deeply shocked, by the hypocrisy of the stark contrast between vocation and performance. But we should not be surprised, for these are no more than evidence of the great distortions of morality which can occur as a result of the moral tone of societies, or of groups within society. If we witness such corruption in what we might have judged to be the most holy or most caring cultures what do we expect from the secular and commercial cultures in which we move? Or indeed within our own cultures.
The very word “moral” comes from the Latin word mores, which means customs. And it is true that for most people most of the time the immediate guide to moral behaviour is the standard laid down in the culture of the group. Few people develop their moral understanding further than this, and so do not ordinarily make independent moral judgments. This moral immaturity is often the result of poor education, except for Catholics of my own older generation – when programmed moral judgment was taught as a matter of policy.
The mores of the group are hardwired into the brain by way of a neural signalling method which gives us an error signal when we do not conform, and jogs our mind to fall into line.
If that does not correct our path, the tendency of a group to shun or bully dissidents may do the trick. And, relevant to the examples we are using, a low status group, with little power, needs greater conformity for its protection. Similarly relevant is the tendency for people, who are unable to leave a group whose activities they know to be deceitful, to learn quickly how to justify such activities. We may suppose that this happened in those “respectable” banks punished for widespread mis-selling of financial products.
Moral standards founded on group consensus are surprisingly volatile. It takes a dissident view held initially by about 10 per cent to swing a group. Study the incidence of paedophile reports in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. They move from virtually nil in 1930 to a dramatic peak in the 1970s, and fall again to virtually nil by 2000. This was not an exceptional group who just happened to have in-built paedophilia. The tsunami of general dissidence which followed Humanae Vitae was psychologically predictable. Once the controlling dam of group mores is breached, the waters flow. And the higher the dam, the more powerful the water.
There is a problem here. Morally sensitive though we may judge ourselves to be, we are influenced at some level by group mores. But let me just stay with myself. It is a practical certainty that I hold on to some moral views and attitudes which owe more to my social grouping (which includes the Church) than I owe to my own moral judgment.
I conclude this from my past. I was, for instance, brought up with the idea that a sentence to eternal punishment was continually hanging over my head. It would fall if I carelessly missed Mass or allowed an impure thought, and happened to disappear under a bus. I do not now believe in this tyrant God I was asked to accept.
I finished 10 years of the finest Catholic education with the settled belief, as I watched the crowds in Piccadilly, that all these people were destined to hell. They had had plenty of opportunity to examine the unquestionable claims of the Catholic Church, and had rejected them to their peril.
While I continue to believe in the Natural Law, and thus think that the Creator’s will can properly be deduced from human nature, I now see that this deduction is far more complex and subtle than could ever be apparent to the pre-scientific thought of Aquinas and Aristotle.
If you are younger than me and think that these old beliefs are too grotesque for even the simple-minded, suspend your judgment. Ask yourself again in 20 years whether your own beliefs have changed. And if not, why not?
I leave you with Michael Deacon’s question in the Telegraph following the report on the Mid-Staffs hospital: “A problem of systems and culture, we were told. Didn’t this involve humans at all?”
Mechanism of social conformity
SanFrancisco clergy (thanks to John Candido)