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St Patrick – from victim of trafficking to founder of the rescue industry

Probably not a real nun

As it’s St Patrick’s Day on Monday I thought a few thoughts on trafficking, sex work, nuns and the rescue industry, might be in order.

Interesting guy St Patrick. We don’t know a lot about him – where or when he was born, whether or how he banished snakes from Ireland – but he did write a short autobiographical document, his Confessions.

At the age of 16 he was captured by pirates, trafficked to Ireland and forced to work as a shepherd.

I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, of the settlement [vicus] of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people, according to our deserts, for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought down on us the fury of his being and scattered us among many nations, even to the ends of the earth, where I, in my smallness, am now to be found among foreigners.

After six years he escaped and eventually made it back home to (it is thought) Cumbria, only to be told in a vision to return and convert the pagan Irish. This he did with some enthusiasm. He seems to have taken particular relish in rescuing wealthy women from their families and encouraging them to become virgins of Christ – nuns.

So, how is it that in Ireland, where they never had any knowledge of God but, always, until now, cherished idols and unclean things, they are lately become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God; the sons of the Irish and the daughters of the chieftains are to be seen as monks and virgins of Christ.

And there was, besides, a most beautiful, blessed, native-born noble Irish woman of adult age whom I baptized; and a few days later she had reason to come to us to intimate that she had received a prophecy from a divine messenger [who] advised her that she should become a virgin of Christ and she would draw nearer to God. Thanks be to God, six days from then, opportunely and most eagerly, she took the course that all virgins of God take, not with their fathers’ consent but enduring the persecutions and deceitful hindrances of their parents. Notwithstanding that, their number increases, (we do not know the number of them that are so reborn) besides the widows, and those who practise self-denial. Those who are kept in slavery suffer the most. They endure terrors and constant threats, but the Lord has given grace to many of his handmaidens, for even though they are forbidden to do so, still they resolutely follow his example.

From victim of trafficking and forced labour to founder of the Irish rescue industry!

In that second quotation you can’t really miss the emphasis on virginity, chastity and self-denial. The Catholic church has always had a problem with sex, almost as if it rather wished the good Lord had never invented the whole messy business. Some of us would argue that the problem is actually entirely of the church’s own making. The popes and their assorted minions have all taken vows of celibacy, and so by definition they can have no first-hand knowledge of healthy sexual relationships: every sexual experience will inevitably be tainted with guilt, a form of emotional blackmail that the Catholic church is so very good at. With that kind of baggage is it any wonder their god has an unhealthy interest in what consenting adults get up to in the privacy of their bedrooms?

St Patrick’s converts not only gave up on sex, they also escaped from family life and work. Devoting oneself to the religious life meant, and still means, giving up on the everyday pressures of working to provide for one’s family. Deprived of family life and children, and without secular work, no nun or priest can know the mixed feelings, compromises and judgement calls that the rest of us make in our daily family and working lives – all work is both a blessing and a curse, whether we are accountants, journalists, sex workers, health professionals or shepherds.

The Church also claims to be the guardian, source and arbiter of morality – a claim based on its ownership of the ultimate guide to moral behaviour: the 10 Commandments. But as Sam Harris, among many others, has pointed out, this is a complete con-trick. The first four commandments have nothing whatever to do with morality – no other gods, no idols, no taking god’s name in vain, and keeping the sabbath. The remaining six are hardly a complete statement of morality – honouring parents, no adultery, no murder, no lying, no theft, and no coveting – and there are seriously important areas of morality that the commandments completely neglect. For example, every civilized society accepts that slavery is immoral, but where is that forbidden in the ten commandments? And what about abusing children and the vulnerable? The closest the commandments come is the injunction to children to honour their father and mother. Is it a coincidence that the church has got itself into such trouble over the behaviour of its agents towards children and vulnerable young mothers, when its moral code is silent?

Slavery was not abolished because the bible condemns it – the New Testament accepts it, and the Old Testament in places positively encourages it. It was abolished because once people mix together they realise they share a common humanity and deserve the same rights and freedoms. That’s where real morality comes from.

As another Irishman, George Bernard Shaw famously said:

Why should we take advice on sex from the pope? If he knows anything about it, he shouldn’t!

Quite. But I’d go further. Why should we take advice on sex work from nuns? They know nothing about sex, very little about work, and nothing worth knowing about morality.

There are arguments and discussions to be had about healthy sexual relationships, healthy working relationships, and healthy moral values; but not with nuns.

And finally, whether you’re celebrating Ireland’s Six Nations triumph or St Paddy’s expulsion of the snakes: enjoy the craic!

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