The Protestant & the Catholic Conscience (May/June 2001)

Friday, 01 April 2011 07:42

OpenMind - Journal of the mental health association MIND

May/June 2001

The Protestant & the Catholic Conscience

Dorothy Rowe

In an article in the Guardian the Irish playwright Conor McPherson wondered why, with a population of only 4 million, Ireland had produced so many great playwrights – Synge, O’Casey, Shaw, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, Friel, Tom Murphy, Billy Roche, Sebastian Barry and so on. His answer was in terms of the Catholic and Protestant conscience. He wrote,

"Irish plays tend to explore the inner workings of the human being, how it feels to be alive, and the difficulty we have in communicating our feelings. British plays veer toward journalism: 'Look at the state of the NHS/British socialism/what Thatcher did/drugs among our youth/Aids/power struggles in the home/police/my flat/London ect.'"

Not all Irish playwrights were Catholics but they grew up in a Catholic culture. Conor McPherson wrote,

"When I started school at the age of four, I was educated to believe that I was a bad person. I was told I’d be lucky if God forgave me. Every week I was made to confess to a priest. Until I was nine, corporal punishment was legal. I grew up in a working class area and the same teachers who taught us religion also physically attacked us.
"As a kid I became used to being hit by an adult every day. Some used their hands, some sticks of wood. I remember the exhaustion in a teacher’s face after he’d lined up the whole class and beaten each one because we were talking to one another while he left the room. I was eight at the time.
"If this constant reinforcement of your badness and guilt happens to you at such a vulnerable age, it seems that you are going to start thinking about the quality of your character. Am I a good person? And that starts you thinking about character in general."

Raised as a Presbyterian, I can say that being brought up in a Protestant culture is no easier. Nowadays children might not be beaten by their parents in the way I was beaten by my mother, and teachers can no longer deal out a sharp slap with a ruler for every mistake a child makes, as my teachers slapped me, but the Protestant conscience is still forged with the unequivocal message the child receives, ‘You must try harder and do better. Nevertheless, no matter how hard you try, it will never be enough.’

Protestantism demands that we be keepers of our own conscience. No priest can pardon our sins, so we carry our guilt until Judgement Day. Protestantism began as a protest against Catholicism, and so Protestants are allowed to protest about the conditions of their life. Many Protestant playwrights – Pinter, Hare, Brenton, Edgar, Wesker – as McPherson said, ‘argue that their work has political validity’ whereas ‘Irish writers are a bit scared.’ For Catholic playwrights, ‘If there’s a message, it’s a simple one: “I know you’re afraid of dying alone in a ditch. I am too. Let’s be together.”’

When we are depressed we both fear and long for death, but also in depression the differences between the Protestant and the Catholic conscience are very marked. To become depressed you have to turn against yourself and see yourself as being unforgivably wicked. The precise form this wickedness depends on the way wickedness was defined in the religion in which the person was raised. Catholic wickedness resides in the essence of the person’s being, while Protestant wickedness is the failure of the person to meet the demands of an implacable conscience.

Thus the Catholic person who is depressed can feel himself to be at the mercy of an all-seeing, all-knowing God who might at any moment pluck him from the earth’s surface like a flea off a dog’s coat and fling him into space. The Protestant person who is depressed has become his own insatiable judge, demanding greater and greater achievements along with greater and greater punishments for the person’s failures.

Depression reveals the extremes of the Catholic and the Protestant conscience. To escape forever from the prison of depression a person has to recognise that these cruel, excessive demands by his conscience originated in his childhood when he believed without question what the adults around him told him, but that now, as an adult, he is free to question and to change his beliefs. He can now form a conscience which is supportive and kind to him and which recognises that we are all fallible people living in a world where nothing is can be perfect because every event and idea has both good and bad implications.

Conscience is necessary to create a society, but only a kindly, realistic conscience allows us the understanding and empathy necessary for us to care for one another.

Dorothy Rowe