Atoning Shame?Feminist Theology


M. Clough
Gender Studies / Religious studies


The Atonement and Democracy

A. D. Belden

The Rationale of the Atonement

J. Taylor

The Diplomacy of Shame

Michael L. Krenn

Sex and Shame: Clinical Dilemmas

S. Jaffe


Feminist Theology 2014, Vol. 23(1) 6 –17 © The Author(s) 2014

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DOI: 10.1177/0966735014542374 1. McAleese (2013: 160) documents 14,607 known admissions to Magdalen laundries between the establishment of the Irish State on 6 December 1922 and the closure of the last laundry in 1996. Excluding repeat admissions, 11,198 women and girls are recorded as entering

Magdalen laundries in this period. This figure excludes admissions to the laundries at Dun

Laioghaire, for which no register exists, and Galway, which is analysed separately as records are incomplete. Note that McAleese (2013: i) summarizes this figure as ‘approximately 10,000 women’, reducing the figure even further in the public mind – it is the summary, not the full report, that is most likely to be widely read.

Atoning Shame?

Miryam Clough

Abstract ‘Wrongdoing does not remain isolated in time’ (Radzik, 2009: 4). In February 2013 the McAleese

Report confirmed that more than 11,000 women and girls were incarcerated in Ireland’s

Magdalen laundries between 1922 and 1996. These women were arguably the scapegoats of

Ireland’s national shame as it struggled to develop its identity as a morally pure state following independence, of familial shame as communities fought to hide abuse and illegitimacy, and of male shame, as men (lay and clerical) sought to have their cake and eat it. What does ‘atonement’ – a concept that embodies connection and integration (at-one-ment) mean in the context of shame – a state that signifies rupture, separation and isolation? This paper will explore the role of shame in the dis-integration of relationships and lives and ask whether the Christian concept of atonement can be utilized to put this right. In a moral climate where past abuses in church-run (as well as secular) institutions are increasingly coming to light, what value does atonement have in the way we respond to the on-going reverberations of shaming and shameful wrongdoing?


Shame, atonement, Magdalen laundries

More than 11,000 women and girls lost their liberty and their reputations to Ireland’s

Magdalen laundries between 1922 and 1996 (McAleese, 2013: 160).1 In June 2013, the

Corresponding author:

Miryam Clough

Email: 542374 FTH0010.1177/0966735014542374Feminist Theology 23(1)Clough research-article2014

Article at UNIVERSIDAD DE SEVILLA on January 12, 2015fth.sagepub.comDownloaded from

Clough 7 2. Irrespective of public opinions as to the veracity of physical or sexual abuse claims (which range from support for survivor testimony to representation in film to disbelieving accusations of ‘Catholic bashing’) and recognizing that individual experiences naturally vary, the very fact of this prolonged and large scale incarceration was undeniably a gross abuse of women’s human rights. 3. For details see ‘The Magdalen Commission Report: Report of Mr Justice John Quirke on the Establishment of an Ex Gratia Scheme and Related Matters for the Benefit of Those

Women Who were Admitted to and Worked in the Magdalen Laundries’, May 2013. http:// pdf/Files/2.%20THE%20MAGDALEN%20COMMISSION%20REPORT.pdf

Department of Justice and Equality announced the details of a restorative justice scheme to compensate these women for their stolen years, their unpaid labour, their lost children, social standing and self-esteem, for the abuses they experienced,2 for the educational disadvantages, poor health and the compromised standard of living that many have suffered as a result.3 To comment on the adequacy or otherwise of the details of the proposed package is not the intention of this paper. Indeed, any commentary begs the question: can we ever adequately compensate for such losses and violations? Instead, what I would like to do is to highlight the role of two concepts that I believe to be both central to the functioning of Ireland’s Magdalen laundries and relevant to any attempt at redress: shame and atonement.

I suggest that the Irish Church and state, through the Magdalen laundries, utilized both shame and atonement (the latter in its punitive, penitential form), as mechanisms for social control and to shore up their own power, and that this power and control was achieved via the containment of the feminine. Additionally, following Linda Radzik (2009) whose excellent study of atonement proposes an appropriate reconciliatory response from the Church for the scandal of the Magdalen laundries, I explore an alternative concept of atonement, in the form of making amends and reconciliation, as a way of approaching the painfully debilitating lived experience of shame. I also caution that atonement can either hinder or promote the healing of shame, depending on the way it is understood and utilized.

Shame is a universal affect and emotion that is little talked about, often lurking as the unacknowledged elephant in the room. Its implications for individuals and for communities are far reaching. Understanding shame is crucial to any pastorally based ministry or engagement, to the growth of individuals and the maturation of relationships of all kinds.

As a pointer to pride, shame can have a positive role in the moral lives of individuals and communities. It facilitates respect for ourselves and others and prompts us to behave in ways that are congruent with our values (Probyn, 2005; Stiles, 2008). In its unhealthy guise, shame impedes individual growth and mature relationships, preventing openness, honesty, and creativity; and fostering blame, aggression and secrecy, as well as shady social practices like discrimination and abuse (Nussbaum, 2004). Shame, I suggest, is closely bound up with wrongdoing and with perceptions of sin.

In Christian theology, atonement is a response to sin – either to sinful acts or a sinful state of being. In secular thought, atonement is a response to interpersonal wrongs or moral violations against others (Radzik, 2009: 10). Radzik, a philosopher, says: at UNIVERSIDAD DE SEVILLA on January 12, 2015fth.sagepub.comDownloaded from 8 Feminist Theology 23(1) 4. Sedgwick and Frank (1995) identified nine affects each operating at varying levels of intensity and with their own physiological manifestations and facial expressions: interest-excitement, enjoyment-joy, surprise-startle, distress-anguish, anger-rage, fear-terror, shame-humiliation, dissmell and disgust (the affects are discrete whereas emotions are complex, and they differ from Freud’s concept of drives – life and death (eros and thanatos) sex and hunger, in lacking an object). [w]rongdoing does not remain isolated in time. The effects and significance of a wrongful act often continue to upset the lives of those involved by causing resentment or guilt, injury or selfhatred, a desire for revenge, or an impulse to rationalize. Moreover, past violations lead to future transgressions both in private life and the history of peoples (2009: 3).