Parity of misbehaviour

Mar 28th, 2008 | By | Category: Ireland

Controversy has arisen over the conduct in Nepal of an Irish writer whose poetry appears on Irish schools’ reading lists. There is no controversy surrounding his work. Does his conduct invalidate the acceptability of what he has written?

If writers were judged by their conduct, there would be many question marks in the past, even sweetly domestic William Wordsworth seems to have had a very odd sort of relationship with his sister. How many writers have had irregular relationships, or were distinctly unconventional in their behaviour?

There has always been a tradition of separating the worker from his product, even in the church. The Thirty Nine Articles of Religion, the Sixteenth Century outline of Anglican doctrine, has the following about clergy with question marks over them,

Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments.

Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in
hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men. Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally, being found guilty, by just
judgment be deposed.

It makes me wonder about the media hounding of Bertie Ahern. His first duty is to govern: I didn’t vote for him, but a large proportion of the Irish people did, in the knowledge that there were question marks, so, presumably, the proper response to allegations is that he should focus on what he was elected to do?

If he is to leave office, it should be after inquiry and just judgment. Even politicians are entitled to the same treatment as writers and clergy.

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  1. I think it depends on what they have done to some degree. We removed a book from the playcentre shelves by William Mayne after he was convicted for child abuse. The book went in the bin. He had used his position as an author to lure children into his house. The children in the playcentre may not have known this and enjoyed his book anyway but my colleague and I both wanted his book off the shelf when we found this out. It left a distinctly bitter taste.

  2. Maybe the passing of time also makes a difference. The silly behaviour of P.G Wodehouse during World war II comes to mind. He was to live in exile thirty years, but few people now would even think about his broadcasts from Berlin.

  3. I don’t think you can separate the person from their acts of folly/abuse. It’s like allowing prisoners to profit from telling their stories or a paedophile to hold a Department of Community services portfolio. As for ‘evil’ ministries . . how can the sacraments be delivered by evil men . .ministers are God’s representatives and need to be wholesome, truthful and live the doctrine they teach otherwise, I agree with Paula again, it’s a misplacement of trust and entirely hypocritical.

  4. I really must comment on your site when I’m awake and not at 7 in the morning!

  5. I think my concern is about “just judgment”. Everyone is entitled to due process and in our media driven age, things quite irrelevant are sometimes adduced as a reason for attacking a person.

    Clergy are never “worthy”. I think the Sixteenth Century of “evil” would have reflected a fairly lengthy list of prohibitions – wasting time would probably have been amongst them!

    I did not vote for Ahern or his Government, but I do believe that if he is to go from office, it should be through the proper process of losing a vote in the Dail and not because of certain editorial lines – just judgment is required.

  6. If you mean Cathal O Searcaigh (apologies for my rubbish Irish spelling), I think the controversy relates to trips to Nepal not Thailand.

    The point about the efficacy of the sacraments in the hands of evil ministers is surely that God can work even through inadequate vessels. Unless one believes romantically in the actions of the muse, literature doesn’t arise in quite the same way. I would argue strongly that the art can be good even when the person isn’t (I’m a Wagner fan!), but it depends how far the art can be disentangled from the person, and this is harder with a living artist. In the case Paula mentions, the writer seems to have used his writing in a horrible way and I too would feel it was tainted by that use. The situation of a politician is different again, because elected politicians act through popular mandate. If Bertie Ahern has lost the confidence of the electorate then his authority and right to govern is undermined.

  7. Alice, thanks for the correction, I have a habit of screening nasty stories out of my mind and then getting the details wrong! I have changed it.

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