Secularism and an Adult Church

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 1997

“Ireland is becoming a secular country.” With these words Bishop Thomas Flynn responded in April 1997 to questions from the Irish Times about a reported 70% support in Ireland for those causes espoused by the liberal Catholic petitionary movement originating in Austria in 1995 (advocating female ordination and an end to mandatory priestly celibacy etc.).

What struck me at the time was that Bishop Flynn’s comment coincided with a determined effort by the Catholic hierarchy to prevent their influence over education in Ireland being eroded by proposed (but subsequently abandoned) legislation by the Rainbow Coalition. If Ireland is becoming a secular country, I asked myself, is this in spite of, or because of, Catholic determination of the ‘ethos’ of most schools in Ireland? As a teacher of history for thirty years in Catholic schools in Northern Ireland I was fairly well placed to ask such a question, but it is in fact extraordinarily complex.

What is secularism?

First, secularism is a slippery concept. Are we talking simply about the undogmatic tendency of humans to give priority, most of the time, to the immediate concerns of this life – for food, shelter, career, financial security, entertainment. Or are we referring to an ideological commitment by those in control of policy to exclude all religious concerns and values? Or do we mean specifically anti-clericalism – the desire to wrest intellectual authority from the clergy? As the first is a constant throughout history, even Irish history, I presume that Bishop Flynn is talking about the second or third – perhaps both. Modern secularism originated in the eighteenth century enlightenment’s determination to wrest control of ideas and public policy from the clergies, so a dogmatic and exclusive ‘this world only’ outlook, and anti-clericalism, are historically closely related.

In assessing the impact of this kind of secularism upon schools in Ireland, and, through them, upon the church, we must remember that in all schools on both sides of the border there is a secular curriculum, legally enforced, which occupies more than 85% of the time of all pupils. It is against this curriculum that young people are tested at the end of their school careers in probably the most demanding ‘rite of passage’ they will face in their lives. How influential, in this context, can a spiritual ethos actually be, no matter how well used the 10-15% of time remaining?

Less influential now than heretofore, apparently – education has been secularised in this sense for generations, but only now do we discern the dominance of secularism as an exclusive cast of mind, threatening to disinherit the Church in Ireland. It seems that, ‘catholic ethos’ notwithstanding, the spiritual cast of mind so sedulously developed in up to fourteen years of education is soon consigned by most school leavers to the attic, along with the files of leaving cert and A level notes. Religious practice often ceases at the same time. This is a phenomenon that deserves serious attention and study far beyond the scope of this article, but some observations based upon my own experience as both pupil and teacher over the period 1953-1996 may be useful.

First, it is an educational truism that an answer which precedes a question will bypass the pupil. It is far easier to pose an historical problem in the classroom and arouse an interest in all possible answers, or to structure a chemistry experiment, than to create in the same situation the complex of life circumstances which lead to deep religious questions, and deep receptivity to Christian answers. If Jesus is to be a model for our educational praxis it’s worth pointing out that far from advocating the systematic ‘inculcation of ethos’ in children, He held them up, uneducated, as an example towards which the adult should aspire. And the adults chosen were usually those who turned up, often in anguish, with their own needs and questions. The original church was founded upon adult suffering and uncertainty, not childhood habituation, and grew in this mode for centuries.

Paradox

This observation explains an anomaly in my own life. My doubts about the faith started at the precise moment I was first told insistently (about the age of ten) that the Catholic Church was the One True Church. I had encountered no reason to doubt it before this, so now I wondered why so much of a song and dance was being made. Hey (lightbulb flickers) maybe ….! Yet after a subsequent half-lifetime of intellectual swithering between a purely secular and a Christian outlook I became deeply and totally committed, at about the age of fifty, to the latter. This happened as the consequence of a deep personal crisis, and was deeply influenced also by an experience of the liturgy and culture of the school in which I had taught for a quarter of a century. But paradoxically many of the most intelligent children I taught, including my own, felt ‘suffocated’ by that same experience. There are several reasons for this paradox.

The first is that, evaluating my own life, I was asking those deep ultimate questions to which Christianity is the most beautiful possible answer, whereas most young people have no occasion to do so – at least until late adolescence. Another is the fact that as a teacher I was not subject to the mandatory RE curriculum in the same manner as my own children, captives rather than determiners of the system. To put it simply, I had the power of initiative, whereas catholic education is based upon the presumption that children are from baptism committed catholics. And they are treated accordingly at every stage of their school career. From early in secondary school our children are given total freedom to choose a secular career (from a more and more dazzling array). To choose a religious faith – the most sacred right defended by Vatican II – they are given no significant moment of freedom whatsoever: Faith is poured on aboriginally at baptism and assumed to be growing constantly thereafter, like appetite or a birthmark. We take our children’s faith for granted – although it is a matter of grace, and therefore not in our gift.

No sacramental rite of passage to adulthood

The result is the most fundamental flaw in the church’s present structure: despite our total freedom to determine the age at which the sacraments are administered, for the lay ‘cradle’ Catholic no sacrament marks and celebrates the free decision – which can be taken only by an adult – to commit oneself totally to Christ. The Eucharist is first administered before the child can understand the extraordinary gift of Christ’s sacrifice of His own body in an appalling personal and completely human crisis; Confirmation before the child can possibly understand the need and opportunity for the descent of the Spirit following the Ascension and Christ’s joyous reunion with the Father. For the Catholic baptised at infancy there is no sacramental rite of passage from habitual religious adolescence into Christian adulthood. Experientially awesome sacraments – received by the apostles before and after a supreme trauma – are administered as though their efficacy was similar to that of the whooping cough vaccine – totally independent of the psychological readiness of the recipient. The life role designed for the layperson involves no power of initiative either, so passivity is all that is required throughout life.

This familiar but awful truth helps to explain what is currently happening to the church in Ireland: few lay Catholics voluntarily make the transition to an adult commitment and vocation. When the social conventions which once supported school habituation in adult life are removed, we mostly breath a sigh of relief and play truant. Further, we subsequently see the clergy as opposed to our own free maturation, as advocates of this unequal system which pre-empts and presumes what should and could be both freely offered and freely chosen. Catholic education, as currently conceived, is thus itself a major part of the reason for the early flight by many young adults into secularism and anti-clericalism in Ireland, although it does ‘work’ for a gentle, mostly female, minority. For the typical independent-minded eighteen-year-old, Catholicism represents not freedom, but captivity.

Our typical deeply pathological lay-cleric relationship also begins here: clerical paternalism and pre-emption offer only two easy options for the layperson – a childish deference and passivity, or anti-clericalism. An easy adult-to-adult relationship, founded upon the fundamental equality of responsibility and fellowship offered by Christ, is the exception rather than the norm. This is why clerical scandals are regarded as an almost opportune and therapeutic vindication of the anticlerical option.

So what?

One further consequence of modern secularism is pervasive: scepticism about the fundamental truth of all truth claims. Cartesian doubt is a remote cause. The expansion of the media and advertising, and clerical and secular scandals, are more potent. So is the application of discipline to the evaluation of sources – as a teacher of History this has been the single most important development in my lifetime. All of this produces the ‘so what?’ syndrome – a caustic disrespect and suspicion of all claims to authority.

The popular actress Maggie Hoosit says ‘Drift’ washes whitest? So what? She’s paid handsomely to do so. The lesson derived from this truism is to look for self-interest in all attempts to control our behaviour. Applied to the church as presently ordered this method of authority-testing is devastating. The Pope/bishop/priest says we must go to Mass? So what? He’s worried about losing your family’s weekly pound in the envelope!

The consequence of this cynical sophistication in the evaluation of clerical claims to life-changing authority – achieved by most by the age of about sixteen – are obvious. The Tridentine concentration of initiative and authority in the hands of a professional clerical elite – supported financially by a relatively inexpert and psychologically and spiritually immature laity – has become a colossal inspirational liability for the church of the twenty-first century. Clerical scandals simply reinforce this weakness.

Secularism in deep crisis

Yet this is far from being the end of the story. Its impact upon the church should not obscure the fact that secularism, as an ideology, is also in deep trouble, and this provides a moment of extraordinary opportunity for the church. The systematic secular ideologies which emerged following the enlightenment (liberalism, democratic socialism, Marxism, Fascism chiefly) have all failed to deliver a spiritually, socially and intellectually respectable alternative to practical Christianity. In the aftermath of the Cold War, many western societies, Ireland included, have discovered some of their most eminent secular leaders to have been essentially corrupt.

So there is a growing awareness of the importance of community, but little understanding of the relationship between community and overarching religious beliefs. So, exclusive secularism produces a growing casualty list, a dysfunctional society, and thus a new receptivity to religious claims. This exposes millions to quackery and cultism – everything from astrology to ‘New Age’ vapourware to ‘aromatherapy’ to Scientology to the X files and Yogic trampolining – but it prepares them also to listen to the truth, and trains them to recognise it when they experience it. It can also cast a new light upon the Christian cosmology inherited from centuries ago and delivered so hopefully at school.

The enlightenment, the fount of secularism, was in turn inspired by the belief that science – wonderfully boosted by the recent Newtonian synthesis – would answer all questions and solve all problems. More than two centuries later, after a period of unprecedented scientific and technological advance, we can now evaluate that prediction. In fact, runaway technology threatens to create a global wilderness of greed and deprivation. And science at its leading edges has exposed mysteries as deep and awesome as those which baffled and inspired the ancients. The imagination of children, alienated from the mess we are making of this world, reaches into deep space and distant futures. Ancient legends set in a terrestrial landscape, find a new vogue and audience when set in cinematic planetary systems way out far beyond the reach of present and foreseeable technologies. The holocaust and the nuclear winter and substance addiction have had their own horrific impact. Mystery, chaos and terror have come back into the world, although the enlightenment predicted the opposite.

This is very similar to the spiritual landscape into which Christ came.

Why did Christ undergo humiliation?

Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Church’s central agency for monitoring theologians, is my favourite clerical bête noir. His role, awesome knowledge and super-cool confidence create an impression of Olympian omniscience and remoteness. So he recently rose greatly in my estimation when he admitted that he didn’t quite understand why Christ had to fail – had to be humiliated and crucified.

My layman’s ‘take’ on this, for what it’s worth, is that God is overwhelmed by compassion for the ordinary human being, the ‘loser’, for whom failure, humiliation and a lonely death are the norm. The ordinary human solution to the anticipation of this fate is to seek wealth and power – but this is in fact the basic cause of the complaint, the despoliation and enslavement of other losers, the eternal sin which will dog mankind eternally through time, and maybe destroy the whole of creation through the limitless potential of human intelligence. So God wants us to see another solution: the living of one’s life, and, if need be, the dying, for others. This will break the pattern – inspire a new creation.

That’s easy for God to advocate, we will complain, so He makes it difficult for himself also – He sends His only and most precious son to live this life and meet this death as a fully human archetype. The option he does not take (authoritarians take note) is to compel – because human feedom is part of human dignity and therefore inviolable. Secular power is a temptation for the Son as for us – but He remains faithful to His father’s vision. Rejecting the option of secular empowerment (which would enslave us) He is publicly humiliated and physically destroyed by it. This ‘death to oneself’ is morally superior to the ethic that supports the empire that killed him, and to all others of the same type. While the memory of this death and its reward, remain alive there is hope in the world, for from this seed a human and cosmic transformation can evolve. All the Christian churches carry this memory. Ours daily celebrates this loser’s death and invites us to physically link with the real body that suffered it.

Freedom?

Modern secularism is all about personal freedom. That is the glory and the tragedy of western society at the end of the second millennium. Intellectual freedom has indeed transformed the world. Freedom from material want is often achieved, but then misused – with catastrophic consequences for both the individual and society. Never before has there been the possibility of worldly success for so many people – but those who achieve it mostly haven’t a clue what to do with it. In scaling the pinnacle of modern ‘success’ – by possessing wealth – we discover that there is no beautiful vista on the other side. Today’s power symbol (the Pentium PC or Porsche) becomes tomorrow’s waste disposal problem. At the moment of triumph aspired to by teenagers the world over, the pop idol implodes into addiction, or shuts himself away in a compound to escape stalkers, thieves or the media. Our wealth is achieved at enormous environmental and personal cost. When we surf the Internet we learn that 200 million children around the world rot in sweatshops or brothels or on rubbish tips – but there appears to be no solution. We were never more knowledgeable or technologically powerful – why then are we so morally impotent?

It is questions of this kind that bring us back to reality and spirituality. Christ’s response to the worldliness of his own time was not to criticise the secular agenda of the Roman empire but to show solidarity with the weak and the miserable – at the level of the individual. There is not in the whole of the new testament a shred of evidence that Christ foresaw a role for the secular state in building His kingdom. That development had to wait for over three centuries, for the adoption of Christianity as the faith of the Roman Empire (a very mixed blessing, as time was to prove). Christ’s appeal was not to institutions or their leaders (their primary morality is always self-preservation) but to individuals on society’s margins. This is important, because it is at the level of the individual that western society is currently breaking down. Christ’s appeal to the individual – to perceive that it is only in giving that we receive, that only in service to others do we find true freedom – was never more relevant in a world devastated by selfishness and licence.

Yes, the power of secularism in Ireland today is in the ascendant. But it is forcing us all to realise and accept that priests too are only human, that we are all equally flawed, and that the church is not a given which will always be here no matter what. Many of us laity are now trying for the first time to identify what it is about our Catholic inheritance that must be salvaged. And realising that there is here after all a light with power enough to pierce through all possible futures – if we too cherish and carry it.

So I am not depressed by the rise of secularism in Ireland. The Roman Empire was the matrix of secular suffering and darkness into which Christ came. Its enormous power crushed him bodily as carelessly as one would a fly, but the relevance of his teaching, and the impact of his Resurrection upon his followers, conquered all fear and gradually overcame that empire, which now is but ruins and a memory. Its brutality was overthrown by Christ’s solidarity with its casualties, and his power to give them a certainty of their own worth that no worldly power or ideology could destroy. Today’s secular world produces even more of such casualties. They are today’s and tomorrow’s harvest – to which we are all invited.

To those who are convinced that the ‘old church’ is dying I would simply say this. The old and the new never occupy totally separate eras. They will always overlap. Alongside the old there is a new emerging church, because the Spirit is there whenever we reach out, not waiting for a change of Pope. A Catholic education joyfully forgotten at eighteen may be remembered, in its essentials, at a moment of supreme adult crisis. The central office of the priest, celebration of the Mass, saves lives eternally. But the priest now needs us, the laity, to share the church’s non-sacramental burdens in fellowship – everything from administration to evangelisation. It is this spirit of fellowship, rather than theSumma Theologia or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that is most needed just now – although they too have their place. Christ’s burden for us is far lighter and more portable – simply the news that with that extraordinary death a light came into the world that will never go out. And it shines, believe me, equally on us all.

So keep an eye out for this emerging church, if you have not already discovered it. Its harbingers may not be wearing any recognisable uniform. One of them may confront you soon in your bedroom mirror. The closer you are to despair, the more likely it is that this will happen – if you express that feeling in heartfelt prayer, even in tears. I have the very best of reasons to be certain of this.

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