Monday, April 27, 2015

Maria Monk Debunked and--Defended?

Sarah Laskow writes about The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, as Exhibited in a Narrative of Her Sufferings During a Residence of Five Years as a Novice and Two Years as a Black Nun, in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal in Lapham's Quarterly--yes, take a breath NOW:

The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk was the most-read book in America before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, selling a record 300,000 copies. First published in the States in January 1836—just a few months after Hoyt and his colleagues visited Mrs. Mills—the book recounts Maria’s time among Montreal’s Black Nuns at the Hotel Dieu Nunnery, first as a novice and then as an initiate. The book was ostensibly written by Maria herself, who is taught by a Protestant to read and write but sent to Catholic school to learn French. Some time later, having “attended several different schools for a short time,” Maria becomes “dissatisfied, having many and severe trials to endure at home.” She remembers her Catholic friends’ positive experiences with their religion, and she decides to become a nun. After she takes the veil, Maria alleges that, far from being a saintly community of celibates, the nuns were sexually abused by the city’s Catholic priests, a real-life tale seemingly ripped the pages of the Marquis de Sade. According to the book, the errant nuns became mothers, too—the babies they bore were baptized, smothered, and buried in a lime-layered pit in the basement of the nunnery. . . .

The shocking parts of Maria’s story are studded into a thorough attack on Catholicism: the Mother Superior is greedy about money, the priests disparage the Protestant Bible as a dangerous book, the nuns believe in ghosts. When Maria Monk was published, anti-Catholicism in America was on the rise. Irish immigrants had started to fill the cities of the Eastern seaboard; in 1834 a mob burned down a Catholic convent in Boston. Maria’s story was not the first account from an escaped nun, but it was the most successful. Her book was backed by a trio of Protestant leaders known to be campaigning against the influence of Catholicism in America: Theodore Dwight—supposedly related to Jonathan Edwards—and the reverends John Jay Slocum and George Bourne, all prominent nativist and abolitionist leaders. . . . They traveled with Maria from Montreal to promote the book in New York and other American cities, coached her, and, very likely, wrote her actual book. They also made significant amounts of money on it—and though Maria may have eked out a little profit, it was relatively small. She even tried, and failed, to sue them for her share.

And, of course, none of it was true. According to this website, the Catholic AND Protestant people of Montreal were upset by the attacks on their religious, whom they knew were good, charitable people:

The publication of defenses of the Hotel Dieu only added to the furor and sparked the publication of refutations of refutations. The Hotel Dieu and the Bishop of Montreal chose to remain above the fray and did not respond to the book. In attacking the Hotel Dieu, the nativists had chosen to attack one of the most respectable institutions in all of Canada. Picture a charity hospital run by the D.A.R. and you have some sense of the reputation of the place. The hospital was founded by Mlle. Jeanne Mance, a lay nurse, in 1642. She returned to France and convinced a group of nuns, members of the order of Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph, to come to Montreal to staff the hospital. In 1659, the convent was formed. Shortly before the publication of the Awful Disclosures, the nuns of the Hotel Dieu had distinguished themselves by their zeal in treating victims of a cholera epidemic. These women were venerated by the people of Montreal, Protestant and Catholic, and the whole community was outraged by the attack on them. Their champions published anonymously a refutation titled: Awful exposure of the atrocious plot formed by certain individuals against the clergy and nuns of lower Canada, through the intervention of Maria Monk. Well-reasoned and full of verifiable facts, the book was little read. It was denounced as a fabrication put out by the priests of Montreal.

In his Present Position of Catholics in England, Blessed John Henry Newman remarked on how the falsehoods of the Awful Disclosures were accepted because the readers want to think badly of Catholics and so they let the book's sinister depictions of convent life to influence their interpretation of things they would otherwise see as holy and innocent:

It is an idea, which, as I have already said, was naturally suggested to an impure mind, and forcibly addressed itself to a curious reader. Mankind necessarily proceeds upon the notion that what is within discloses itself by what is without; that the soul prompts the tongue, inspires the eye, and rules the demeanour; and such is the doctrine of Holy Writ, when it tells us that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh." Hence, when strangers visit a nunnery, and see the order, cheerfulness, and quiet which reigns through it, they naturally take all this as the indication of that inward peace and joy which ought to be the portion of its inmates. And again, when strangers attend Mass, and observe the venerable and awful character of the rite, they naturally are led to think that the priest is "holding up pure hands," and is as undefiled in heart as he is grave in aspect. Now it is the object of this Narrative to reverse this natural association, to establish the contrary principle, and to impress upon the mind that what is within is always what the outward appearance is not, and that the more of saintliness is in the exterior, the more certainly is there depravity and guilt in the heart. Of course it must be confessed, there have been cases where what looked fair and beautiful was but a whited sepulchre, "full within of dead men's bones and of all filthiness;" such cases have been and may be, but they are unnatural surely, not natural; the exception, not the rule. To consider this as the rule of things, you must destroy all trust in the senses; when a man laughs, you must say he is sad; when he cries, you must say he is merry; when he is overbearing in words, you must call him gentle; and when he says foolish things, you must call him wise; all because sad hearts sometimes wear cheerful countenances, and divine wisdom sometimes has condescended to look like folly. It is reported to have been said by an able diplomatist, that the use of words is to disguise men's thoughts; but the very wit of the remark lies in the preposterous principle it ironically implies. Yet still to the run of readers there is something attractive in this perverted and morbid notion, both from a sort of malevolence and love of scandal, which possesses the minds of the vulgar, and from the wish to prove that others, who seems religious, are even worse than themselves; and besides, from the desire of mystery and marvel, which prompts them, as I have said before, to have recourse to some monstrous tale of priestcraft for excitement, as they would betake themselves to a romance or a ghost story. . . .

Now observe the effect of all this. When a person, who never was in a Catholic church or convent, reads such particulars; when he reads, moreover, of the lattice-work of the confessional, of the stoup of holy water, and the custom of dipping the finger into it, of silence during dinner, and of recreation after it; of a priest saying Mass with his hands first joined together, and then spread, and his face to the altar; of his being addressed by the title of "my father," and speaking of his "children," and many other similar particulars; and then afterwards actually sees some Catholic establishment, he says to himself, "This is just what the book said;" "here is quite the very thing of which it gave me the picture;" and I repeat he has, in consequence of his reliance on it, so associated the acts of the ceremonial, the joined hands or the downcast eyes, with what his book went on slanderously to connect them, with horrible sin, that he cannot disconnect them in his imagination; and he thinks the Catholic priest already convicted of hypocrisy, because he observes those usages which all the world knows that he does observe, which he is obliged to observe, and which the Church has ever observed. Thus you see the very things, which are naturally so touching and so beautiful in the old Catholic forms of devotion, become by this artifice the means of infusing suspicion into the mind of the beholder.

In her Lapham's Quarterly article Sarah Laskow asks us to have some sympathy for Maria Monk, comparing her to the woman at the center of rape allegations at UVA in the recently debunked Rolling Stone article, and I think she expresses some of the warped view Newman mentions above:

It’s a sadly familiar tale: a woman comes forward with a terrible story, is embraced by the media, then is discredited and attacked as a sexually promiscuous liar. When Rolling Stone published the story of “Jackie” it followed a similar trajectory as Maria’s story, echoing an idea that had been gaining power: now, fraternities are bastions of rape culture; then, Catholicism is corrupt. Even after the Rolling Stone piece was investigated, Jackie was not entirely excoriated. Something traumatic happened to her, even if it was not exactly what she shared with a reporter. Was the same true of Maria?

Maybe Maria did have some cognitive disabilities, maybe she had, at some point, had sex for money or lived in a halfway house for sex workers. While relations between nuns and priests might have been as appropriate as advertised, how did they act toward powerless women like Maria? It’s not so hard to imagine a less-than-perfect priest trying to elicit stories of the “most improper and even revolting nature” during confession with a former prostitute. And no matter what, something did happen to her; she was taken advantage of. Whatever story she had, whatever bit of it might have been true, it was picked up by more powerful people who twisted it to their own ends. Maria didn’t profit from the book, or her infamy. She died poor and young—and, it seems, without anyone ever trying to reconstruct what had actually happened in her life. These days, we’re more willing to re-evaluate the stories of women and sex, especially when they’ve been controlled by powerful men. It’s almost impossible to find any real interrogation of the men involved in Maria Monk’s story: How did they find her? Who gave them the idea to use her as the figurehead of an anti-Catholic book? Where did they go wrong?

That's easy to answer: they went wrong because they hated and feared Catholics and Catholicism more than they loved truth.

Even Laskow is ready to think badly of Catholic priests, based on reputation and conjecture to imagine "a less-than-perfect priest" in the confessional questioning a penitent who is a prostitute. This discloses ignorance of the confessional, the penitent, and the priest, all based on imagination in the most subversive view as Newman outlines above.

Either something is true or it is not true. In my current job in Ethics and Compliance at a major manufacturing corporation, I often wear black and white, especially when offering a training session on some ethics and compliance issue!

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