I never heard the expression mental reservation until I read the Dublin diocese report, but I’ve seen it in action many times. It isn’t something the Catholic church hold a monopoly on, although they seem to have reduced it to a new level of dishonesty.
Mental reservation is a way of telling lies while being able to claim that you’ve been completely honest. For instance, Cardinal Desmond Connell was comfortable with telling journalists that diocesan funds are not used to pay off the victims of clerical abusers, and he was very pleased with the subtlety of his language. He took great satisfaction in explaining that he didn’t say such funds were not used in the past, and if the journalists happened to be hoodwinked by his clever use of language, why that was just their own misfortune for not being as slippery smart as Des. Likewise, the diocese explained to a priest representing Marie Collins that they said they had cooperated with the police investigation, but not that they had cooperated fully. That was mental reservation, you see, holding back the word fully, and thinking it but not actually saying it.
This kind of linguistic game-playing is common among the likes of Connell and his fellow bishops who have the luxury of debating abstract moral propositions that carry no personal consequences for them, as they share a glass of port in their seminary or their palace. The detachment from reality that they grew up with transfers into a detachment from real people’s lives and an indifference to their suffering.
I doubt if this kind of thinking is confined to seminaries.
By the same token, we saw Bill Clinton, a former Rhodes Scholar, insist that he did not have sexual relations with that woman, when most guys in his position would be more than happy to think of what he got up to as just that.
If you’re old enough to remember the Australian Spycatcher affair, you might recall Sir Robert Armstrong producing the magnificent phrase “economical with the truth”. No doubt Sir Robert, now Baron Armstrong, became well-acquainted with abstruse, detached word-play during his time at Eton and Oxford, where he absorbed the languid, dishonest and ruthless demeanour of his class.
The world loved the patent absurdity of Armstrong’s phrase, and laughed at it, because we all understood what he meant. Economical with the truth. Every parent knows who took the sweets, or put a football through the window. It was Mister Nobody.
And just as deceitfulness is not unique to princes of the church and Old Etonians, there is not always a formal training in evasion and equivocation. Sometimes, a Mr Nobody is born with the native cunning to lie, evade and deceive as we saw with Bertie Ahern and his treatment of the Tribunals.
There are two big differences.
Neither Baron Armstrong nor Bill Cinton nor Bertie Ahern, for all his faults, claim to wield any moral authority, or to lecture the population at large on how their private lives should be conducted. And likewise, Armstrong, Clinton and Ahern had to give some account of themselves to the civil power, however inadequate that account might have been.
The Catholic clergy, on the other hand, owe their primary allegiance to a foreign State, the Vatican, and furthermore claim to be the ultimate authority on what is ethical and what is not.
Therefore, when you examine it in the context of the Vatican’s snub to the Commission, and the Papal Nuncio’s refusal to acknowledge its letters, you would have to conclude that mental reservation as practised by the Catholic clergy is just one more calculated finger of contempt towards the people of this country.
Now let me ask you this. How long are you prepared to live with someone who holds you in contempt?