Irish Catholicism: A church in need

Sean O’Conaill © Céide, 2001

The Irish wake is our traditional rural solution to the problem of radical discontinuity – especially the death of someone who has dominated our emotional landscape. We are shocked into huddling together – not simply to remember the departed, but to occupy the space that must otherwise remain a vacuum. Whatever roles and responsibilities are now vacant must fall on other shoulders – and the sons and daughters of a departed parent will in this moment begin their growth into a new reality, welcomed into it by the extended family and friendship network they will now need.

The problem of Irish Catholicism today is essentially the presence of a corpse that is unacknowledged – so that no wake has been formally declared. The corpse is that of clerical Catholicism – an inculturation of the gospels which has been, until very recently, obsessed with the dangers of sexual desire and blind to the moral problems of presumption, power and ambition. Sacraments revolved largely around cleansing after sexual error (from which their ministers were supposedly exempt); justice was a secondary issue that could remain forever aspirational; salvation had nothing to do with psychic health in this life; the gospels were effectively owned by an elitist male and avowedly celibate and secretive order that could never see the second temptation of Jesus as the temptation to climb a priestly career pyramid. Instead the cult of the papacy was essentially a celebration of ultimate success in that process, and it was the Pope who in the end would interpret the gospels.

And thus the relevance of the gospels to the secular pyramid of privilege, power and presumption, now rising ever higher under the many cranes in Ireland, has almost been lost. Catholic Ireland since the famine has managed to create a society almost as layered and unjust as the one next door – with the complicity of an educational system which trumpeted its Catholic ethos. The secular elite thus produced, would, (the theory went), make Ireland Catholic forever, from the top down. That Jesus was protesting about the very existence of any social or clerical pyramid of esteem never became part of the curriculum – with the result that our secular elite feel absolutely no qualms about their building of another, and can ditch Christianity altogether when it falls out of intellectual fashion.

Although school bullying has always been a feature of Catholic education, it never registered with the Tridentine church that the process is simply a childish re-enactment of the power game that has always gone on in the world, by which leaders become leaders, and the weak become victims – the process of crucifixion archetypally revealed by Jesus of Nazareth. That event had to be seen in isolation from all other crucifixions as part of a divine program which would also explain why the Church was a clerical estate. We laity pinned Jesus to the cross by our sexual indiscipline – God’s supposed obsession: damnation would inevitably follow unless we accepted the only possible means of escape – subordination to, and support of, clergy and their sacramental system. That this effectively scapegoated the first person of the Trinity for the crucifixion never seemed to register with most theologians, for they were clergy too.

So, when we say ‘Glory be to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ we do not associate ‘glory’ with ‘fame’ and ‘celebrity’ – its contemporary reality. That the shining of a spotlight on some has always corrupted them, while allowing others to be abused in the shadows, and that, in rejecting the worldly glory that went with military dominance Jesus was also questioning the essence of human hierarchy, could not be seen. So our intelligentsias can now tout ‘meritocracy’ as the end of history, never questioning their own merit – for are they not in control? The iron law of all history – that if some must merit eminence and wealth, then many more others must also merit neglect and poverty – must never surface in the ‘spin’.

And that the bible reveals this more clearly than any other book could never be acknowledged by a central clerical apparatus fixated on the ‘power of the media’, determined to put their own man in the spotlight, and to keep him there. Christianity ceased to be the ethic of humility lived by Christ, and liveable by anyone, and instead became whatever the Pope would choose to say next – and of course he would say it as beautifully as possible, dressed in virginal white in the centre of vast crowds, and headed for the top spot of Time’s Man of the Year. That no-one could follow such an act never seemed to register – and this too is part of the unacknowledged corpse of the clerical system – to define a model of spiritual excellence that must remain sterile.

Yet all can empathise with an old man in decline, now a powerful symbol of a system also in terminal decline. His greatest achievement has been the acknowledgement of the church’s long association with betrayal of the gospels in the areas of intolerance, violence and injustice, and this must inevitably take us sometime to an acknowledgment that the beginning of that problem was the hierarchical acceptance of state patronage in return for clerical support for secular hierarchy and its corollary – victimisation. That popes could ever have practised capital punishment and crucifixion of minorities is traceable to no other source – and John Paul II’s call for a review of how the papacy should operate may take us in time to a pope as free of panoply and crowd control as the dalai lama. Such a pope will insist that no-one ever was unimportant to God – that all are therefore equally, infinitely important. He will then ask the media to go away and film Christ in the 250 million children around the world who are living in slavery.

So what we need, and what we are inexorably approaching, is an extended Irish wake for a way of being church that is now truly dead. Compassionate towards those in denial of this, we need – female and male, young and old – to build together a church that is intimate, gentle, egalitarian, open, courageous, just – and related, like the old Celtic church, to the soil, the humus, of Ireland. There is no immediate prospect of Rome initiating an Irish wake, so why not let let the dead bury the dead, while the living gather to shoulder tomorrow?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *