Born in Dublin in 1943, I studied English and History at UCD in the early 1960s. Developing a deep interest in the European Enlightenment – the historical origin of modern secularism – I was also fascinated by the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church, ongoing in those years. My abiding intellectual fascination has been the problem of reconciling faith and personal freedom.
For thirty years a teacher of secular history in Catholic schools in Northern Ireland, I retired from teaching in 1996 to write on the gathering crisis of church and culture in the West.
Since the 1960s I have been increasingly concerned about the failure of the designated Catholic leadership in Ireland to realise the Vatican II vision of the church as the ‘people of God’. The parallel rise of secularism in Ireland has flowed from the continued identification of ‘church’ with clergy – an identification that is all the more troubling as the mean age of priests now rises almost year-on-year, and younger generations abandon religious practice.
However, secularism has not overcome its own crisis of confidence, so poorly named by the term postmodernism. It is my deepest conviction that the Lord of the Gospels speaks to this crisis also, and that the salvation of the western church will lie in discovering the voice and the lifestyle through which he can do so.
This tends to be the theme of much of what I write – especially of the short reflection on western history Scattering the Proud (1999 and 2012). Essentially I am arguing that we need to reconnect our understanding of good and evil with the most constant theme of the scriptures – the dramatic conflict between humility and vanity.
Vanity arises out of our human insecurity. Uncertain always of our own value we typically look for the approval and admiration of others. From this springs our tendency to mimic the desires and the lifestyle of others – the foundation of most culture. This is the simple source of social hierarchy, of injustice, of tyranny and of all violence – including the violation of our own environment.
But these afflictions compel us always to seek a deeper source of inspiration and self-validation. The source we find in many different ways speaks to us of the need for humility – self-unconcern and concern for others. This source found its most obedient servant in Jesus of Nazareth, and speaks to us most powerfully through him.
Although the long association of the church with political power has unfortunately compromised its ability to convey this truth, the Gospels, and the continuing tradition of renewal and reform, convey it to us – and call us now to find a mode of life that can respond to the crisis of secularism.
The Articles page lists chronologically the shorter pieces I have written for various Irish Catholic and secular media since 1995. These will often point to sources outside the Gospels that I have also found inspirational.