Sean O’Conaill © Irish Times July 2005
(This article was originally published under a title not chosen by me – ‘Celebrity-grovelling and elitist bias of the Catholic Church’ in the ‘Rite and Reason’ column of the Irish Times. I regretted this nonsensical attribution of snobbery to the church as a whole. The vice is attributable only to those who approve of, and benefit from, its monarchical and aristocratic leadership structure. I sincerely hope that the assault apparently being made on that by Pope Francis (from 2013) will be sustained and effective. His term ‘spiritual worldliness’ in Evangelii Gaudium marks for me the first explicit recognition by a pope that much ostentatious Catholicism has far more to do with worldly status seeking than with genuine Christianity.)
“If Jesus was born in a stable and died on the cross, why does the pope live in a palace?”
This question came at me quite frequently from the children to whom I taught history in a Catholic Grammar school in NI. The safest answer was the triumph of the faith of the early Christian martyrs – in the adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century.
It was never a satisfying answer, however, because the child’s question arose from an obvious clash between Jesus’ life of mendicant service, and the role of the pope as an international dignitary, ensconced in one of the world’s prime pieces of real estate, surrounded by priceless artistic treasures.
It arose also from the child’s identification with the ideal of social equality – and I was all too aware of the Catholic hierarchy’s disastrous historic resistance to that ideal until fairly recently. Catholics of my generation will be familiar with Maynooth-trained clergy insisting that people cannot be equal for the extraordinary reason that we are ‘all different’.
How could one explain to that child that Maynooth itself was founded in 1795 in a fascinating collaboration between anti-democratic Catholic hierarchs and British grandees who engineered the Act of Union a few years later? That our ‘national seminary’ arose for reasons that Jesus of Nazareth would have found very strange – an identification of the One True Church with a social order that was passing away because it obstructed the historical advance of a key Gospel value: the equality in dignity of all human beings?
That mis-identification of Catholicism with a supposedly sacred medieval social order is best called ‘Haute Cuisine Catholicism’. It survives still in the cult of the papacy – the automatic transformation of a human being into a sacred icon on his election – epitomised by a recent letter to the Irish Times that ecstatically described the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics as the ‘Benedict XVI sect’.
It survives also in absurd snobberies like ‘papal knighthoods’ – one of which went in 1998 to Rupert Murdoch, probably the world’s greatest pornographer.
Another relic of haute cuisine Catholicism is Opus Dei, whose recently canonised founder made much of his spurious Spanish nobility. This privileged Catholic organisation sets out to recreate Christendom by recruiting today’s young intelligentsia as a new Catholic elite.
The celebrity-grovelling that goes on among so many Catholic newspapers is another such remnant: we are supposed to ‘take pride’ in the fact that ‘famous people’ like Graham Greene, Alec Guinness and (God help us) Ann Widdecombe have ‘joined the fold’. From the Catholic Herald one gets the impression that English Catholicism will finally lose its inferiority complex only when it has recaptured the monarchy from Anglicanism.
The effort put by the Catholic clergy in Ireland into educating the children of the middle classes had a similar elitist bias. The conversion of the European military elite in the middle ages had been followed by the surface conversion of their dependents, and by the hierarchical church’s conviction that it need only retain the allegiance of social elites to discharge its obligation to its founder. Thus blessed by the successors of the apostles, these social elites felt all the more secure.
The liberal capitalism that enabled Rupert Murdoch to buy a papal knighthood through charitable donations has also torpedoed this cosy alliance, however. It was the secular Enlightenment that created modern Europe, so post-modern scepticism has replaced Christianity as the chosen faith of Europe’s technocracy – and, taught conformity at Catholic school, Ireland’s best-educated teenagers now typically conform to this secularist faith almost as soon as they leave.
This is the predicament our Irish bishops now find themselves in. Educated to socialise with an Irish Catholic social elite that is now increasingly no longer Catholic, they also find themselves pilloried by media for whom church scandals are meat and drink. Their laments at the rise of ‘á la carte Catholicism’ invite an obvious retort from our inner cities: why did you abandon the accepted practice of bishops in the first four centuries of the church’s history – of eating regularly with the poor?
The answer is, again, sixteen centuries of haute cuisine Catholicism. This liberated Christendom’s hierarchy from the Gospel obligation of social humility – which was then delegated to the lay poor. With the recent papal enthronement of the cleric who aligned his church with Latin America’s appalling elites, I don’t now expect to live to see its final demise.
As Cardinal Ratzinger once told an interviewer in Bavaria:
“It would be a mistake to believe that the Holy Spirit picks the pope, because there are too many examples of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have chosen.”