After Ferns: the Rise of Christian Secularism?

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Mar 2006

The Ferns report forces those Catholics who read it to pinch themselves hard at least twice.

The first pinch is for the startling revelation that, in the words of the report itself “bishops put the interests of the church ahead of children”. As I pointed out in an earlier article this is not strictly true – because those children were a vital part of the church. However, if we rewrite this sentence to read “bishops put the clerical governing system of the church before children” this verdict becomes unquestionable – and even more damning.

The second pinch is for the revelation that it is now to the secular state, and secular society, we must look to realise key Catholic values, such as the safety of children, the inviolability of the family, the primacy of truth and the dignity of the unordained.

This second pinch needs to be a really hard one – to make sure we stay awake and absorb all of the consequences. One of these consequences is surely that we must seriously consider the possibility that for lay Catholics – deprived of all direct influence over their church’s clerical governing system – the way forward is to exploit the opportunities provided by secular society for the realisation of our gifts and social vision as lay Catholic Christians.

I don’t know the religious affiliation of Judge Murphy and the other members of the Ferns inquiry team. What I do know is that by acting with diligence and integrity they have done more to vindicate some key Christian and Catholic values than most of our bishops. In particular, acting under an entirely secular remit, they have made our church a safer place for our own Catholic children than it was when our bishops had total and unquestioned control of it.

This raises a most serious question over the conventional wisdom that secularism and Catholicism are incompatible. Two things now seem clear instead. First, our church as currently organised makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for Catholic bishops to behave with complete integrity – and therefore to model Christ. Second, Catholic lay people have more freedom to act creatively as Christians in their role as citizens of a secular republic than they do as members of their own church.

This second revelation will take time to sink in. When it does it will make us realise that we are now in an entirely new era in the history of the Irish church. Before Ferns (BF) we were taught to see secularism as a threat to faith. After Ferns (AF) we must see less of a threat than an opportunity in the secular world – to exercise leadership in making our society a safer and happier and more hopeful place for all children, and to rescue the reputation of our church.

That is not to say that the old war between secularist intellectuals and church leaders will come to an end overnight. The secularist tendency to see religion as a threat to freedom will continue, and so will the conservative Catholic clerical tendency to see secularism as a threat to faith. But those secularists who accept that the secular state does not automatically deliver a caring and decent society, and needs to find its values wherever it can, and those Catholics who believe in the timeless validity of Christian values, can engage in a new and fruitful dialogue.

However, this possibility didn’t begin in 2005. The conflict between secularism and faith has been based from the beginning upon some fundamental misconceptions – especially the failure to see that some of secularism’s enduring key values were from the beginning derived from Europe’s Christian heritage.

Throughout the world only three centuries ago the state’s role was still confined to keeping order internally and keeping external threats at bay, by naked force. It wasn’t until the 1700s that a new generation of European thinkers conceived the possibility of building a perfect society by uniting the power of the state with the power of the rational human mind, empowered by Newtonian science. These intellectuals, called in France the philosophes, were the founders of modern secularism, because they saw Christian clerical thought as both elitist and defeatist.

That is, they saw in the doctrines of original sin and Christian salvation after death a pessimistic acceptance of an unjust world order which placed a landowning social elite in permanent control of the world. A legally privileged landed aristocracy dominated the conservative political systems of Europe, while the younger brothers of that aristocracy ran the established churches of Europe. This was the ‘Old Order’ – the Ancien Régime – which needed overthrowing by a rational secular revolution.

This was the beginning of the clash between secularism and religion that still continues today. However, as John Paul II himself remarked in 1980, the key values of the very first secular revolution in France – liberty, equality and fraternity – were essentially Christian values.

They were not seen as such in 1789 because the leaders of the established churches of that era were themselves aristocrats who saw their world as the best that was possible, given the sinfulness of our species. Also, secular thinkers who found themselves opposed by Christian clergy, saw Christianity as focused upon the next world rather than upon improving this one. The very first intellectuals to use the term ‘secularism’ were Englishmen who saw the Anglican church as the conservative ally of the Tory politicians who opposed social progress.

The ultimate fall from power of the old landowning classes, and the decline in the political power of the churches, has made that original quarrel obsolete. Once the churches became focused upon issues like poverty and the education of the underclass they effectively became part of the effort to equalise the benefits of modern life – part of the original secularist revolution.

The quarrel continued largely because clergies resented the loss of their role as the dominant thinkers of their societies, and because the secular revolution moved on to espouse new causes like sexual liberation, which have become increasingly problematic. But classical liberals more concerned about economic injustice than the sexual revolution, and Christian intellectuals focused upon social justice rather than maintaining clerical control, have a huge amount in common nowadays.

The Ferns report in Ireland should be a moment of epiphany for Ireland’s Catholic leaders – because it represents a moral victory for the secular principle of achieving accountability by dividing up the powers by which society is governed . It was a free media who began this process by focusing a national spotlight upon victims of clerical child sex abuse. It was an aroused public opinion that then forced an elected government to set up the Ferns inquiry team. And that team was composed of members of Ireland’s secular intelligentsia, including the judiciary. The beneficiaries of this process are the abused children of Catholic families – the disempowered members of the church that failed to deliver justice to them through its own governing system. And that failure clearly had to do with the lack of structures of downward accountability in the church itself.

But even if Ireland’s Catholic bishops learn nothing from these events, the attitudes of Irish lay Catholics will be profoundly affected. They have seen that basic Christian values are not a monopoly of their clergy, and can be better implemented by secular means.

Meanwhile across the Irish sea the leaders of Britain’s ‘New Labour’ secular establishment try to set in motion what they call the ‘respect agenda’ – an end to ‘yobbism’ and ‘neighbours from hell’, to rampant school and workplace bullying, to teenagers spitting in the faces of pensioners, to racial and religious insults. Secularism, it seems, is now casting around for ways of reviving basic community values and respect for the weak – to save us from the appalling consequences of a complete breakdown in civil society.

We may well be closer to the same situation in Ireland than we would wish, and ‘equality of respect’ is too close to ‘equality of dignity’ for us Catholics to miss. The time has come to be fully Catholic in the secular world, without seeking to restore the unquestionable power of clergy.

It is time for Christian secularism – because secularism needs to return to its original aspiration towards a truly just and peaceful world, and because Christianity remains the greatest source of inspiration, wisdom and consolation for all who aim at that goal.

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