Further to the commentary series by Tom McMahon looking at the systemic causes of the Clerical Abuse Crisis – as well as our on going conversations about the future for the priesthood and religious life – ACU researcher, Associate Professor Denis McLaughlin, sent us an interesting study he undertook a few years ago on Edmund Ignatius Rice, founder of the Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers. Catholica editor, Brian Coyne, has been reading the book over the weekend and has prepared this essay, based on the findings of Denis McLaughlin, that provide further valuable fodder for our conversations.
The Distortion that crept into the vision of Edmund Rice
In a sense it can be argued that the world-wide clerical abuse crisis first began to emerge into the public consciousness somewhere between 15 and 20 years before the scandal really blew internationally with the revelations in Boston in the United States. The initial places where the scandal began to surface into the public air were in Australia and in Canada in orphanages run by the Christian Brothers founded nearly nearly 200 years before by Edmund Ignatius Rice. The film that has led to this present conversation on Catholica, The Boys of St Vincent, was originally screened in the early 1990s and concerned events that had been uncovered in Newfoundland, Canada in the previous decade. The scandal, and embarrassment for the Christian Brothers had surfaced in the same time frame in Australia, mainly centred on orphanages and schools for the disadvantaged in Western Australia and Victoria.
The Christian Brothers collectively were one of the first communities within the Catholic Church in modern times that had to come up with some sort of response to the abuse crisis. It has not been the only challenge they have faced. Coinciding with the abuse crisis has been a massive drop-off in vocations in recent decades, especially in the Western world. This crisis in vocations, coupled with changing social attitudes towards religion — including the enormous drop-off in participation amongst ordinary lay Catholics — has led to a decades' long process of discernment within the Brothers about the future of the Congregation. I sense that process of discernment is still going on and I think that is reflected in this recent talk given by the Congregational Leader of the Brothers, Philip Pinto, in Queensland recently.
This book that is the focus of this essay appears to be a further fruit of this long process of discernment that I've been observing for the past couple of decades at least, and for a time when I was producing a newsletter for the Brothers, at fairly close quarters. Even from the relatively short amount I've read so far, this is a very impressive piece of research. The footnotes on each page alone are testimony to the sources Dr McLaughlin has consulted — the main chapter I'll be referring to in this essay has 256 footnotes in just 45 pages. Surprisingly, I did not find the footnotes intrusive as often happens in academic research. Denis McLaughlin's writing style is very accessible. He's "telling a story". And I found it an engrossing one.
The search for the authentic and original vision of Edmund Rice...
I think most Brothers today would admit that for a long time little was known about the founder of their Congregation and what he was endeavouring to achieve. What was known tended to be more in the nature of folklore than genuine understanding of his vision and charism. Denis McLaughlin who, like myself, has an obvious affection for the Christian Brothers, appears partly inspired by his own curiosity to go back and try and discover what Edmund Rice was really on about and what he set out to achieve. It is also evident that he was given great encouragement by the Congregation to undertake this research and given much latitude to do it thoroughly.
Roughly the first half of the book is this search for the authentic and original vision of Edmund Rice. It also tells the story of what led him to set up an educational system for the poor and the struggle he had logistically to fund it and staff it. The body of the book is 397 pages long and that first part takes us up to about page 253. Then we come to two chapters which are the interesting ones in the context of our present conversations on Catholica. McLaughlin has entitled them Distorting Edmund Rice Education [Chapter 6] and Further Distortions of Edmund Rice Education [Chapter 7].
Edmund Rice was born in 1762. He married in 1785 and his pregnant wife was severely injured in an accident in 1789 and subsequently died giving birth to their daughter, Mary, who was born with significant disabilities. In the early 1790s his aspirations to devote his life to educating the poor emerge. His first school is established in 1802. Rice, and by then some companions, finally take religious vows in 1809. The initial community is subject to the control of local Bishops — and they eventually become the Presentation Brothers. It isn't until 1822 when Rice is nearly 60 years of age that he receives approval from Rome to establish a Pontifical religious congregation. That's when the Christian Brothers Congregation is formed.
What is evident from Denis McLaughlin's narration is that these first twenty years were an enormous struggle financially — even at the level of putting a meal on the table for the Brothers. At times they were reduced to teaching all day and then going out in the evening to beg, door to door, for money to sustain their endeavour.
The financial challenges...
It was the financial exigencies that began to emerge in the 1820s that forced Rice to try and find solutions to the constant money worries. He sought permission from Rome to open pay schools for the better off which would help subsidise the main focus which was providing education for the poor who could not afford fees. Initially Rome refused and some of the local bishops refused to support this proposal also. Eventually in 1832 Rice finds a solution that leads to more financial stability for at least some of his schools when the National Board of Education is established in Ireland and government support becomes available. Seven of Rice's twelve schools avail themselves of this support.
Chapter Six of Denis McLaughlin's book is devoted to exploring the tensions caused within his communities over this matter of becoming affiliated with the government and the National Board of Education. McLaughlin's argument is that it is this tension which leads to the first distortion of the original vision of Edmund Rice. Curiously enough, the fly in the ointment wasn't so much money, it was about Irish Nationalism and the ideological refusal of some to have anything to do with the government.
Edmund Rice comes across not as some ideologue but as a pragmatist. He had a vision — the education of the poor (those whose parents could not otherwise have the financial means to educate their children). He was also a flexible man. McLaughlin concludes the chapter with this observation:
The Edmund Rice vision has the priority, and structures are respected as means to implement the vision and not to become ends in themselves.
What comes across to me is that Rice's vision is truly a religious or spiritual vision modelled on the service to others encouraged by Christ. He's not ideological or obsessed about what means will be used to give life to the vision. His priority is "the service of others" (in this case the poor) not in becoming obsessed with structures and the relationships necessary to bring that vision to reality. For others the focus becomes the structure and the means of trying to achieve the vision. Ideological and dogmatic Catholicism tends to get in the way.
By this stage, 1832 onwards to Edmund Rice's death in 1844, Rice is beginning to lose control, perhaps simply as a result of the aging process as much as anything else, and a new generation of Brothers have emerged with a different vision — and the means to implement it.
In the next chapter, Further Distortions of Edmund Rice Education [Chapter 7], which I'll explore more fully in a follow-up to this commentary on Wednesday, Denis McLaughlin goes on to demonstrate how Irish Nationalism, ideology and secular and ecclesial politics began to distort the original Edmund Rice vision. The structure and the methodologies become the focus rather than the original Christ-inspired vision and objective. This gets into some of he territory which Tom McMahon was exploring in his commentary last Friday – and perhaps has relevance to the situation today a long way removed from the Christian Brothers and those still trying to give life to the vision of Edmund Rice.
Link to further information about the book, including the Foreword by Cardinal Edward Clancy in the Catholica Spiritual Marketplace:
Brian Coyne, 22 Oct 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?