When Archbishop Michael Neary said in November 2014 that we are hearing the ‘death rattle’ of Christendom he was clearly not saying that secularism has defeated the church – as the Irish Catholic mistakenly claimed in its headline of November 13. (‘Church has ‘lost the battle’ with secularism – archbishop’)
The term ‘secularism’ does not appear at all in the Archbishop’s complete homily. A close reading makes it clear that Dr Neary distinguishes between Christendom and Christianity, that he has not given up on the latter, and that he is therefore not at all as pessimistic as the Irish Catholic’s headline could suggest. He has simply recognised that a long era in the history of the church has come to a close.
Dr Neary describes Christendom as a ‘shared set of assumptions about life and its purpose, reflected in use of language, in culture and in the law’. These shared assumptions were always formed principally by a close relationship between church and state. This relationship created a social envelope in most of Europe from the fourth century onward – an envelope into which most people were born and from which they gained their understanding of the faith.
This relationship between church and state always severely distorted the church’s message and limited its evangelical impact – giving rise to the very scandals that led to the secularist reaction in the modern era. When the church aligned itself with emperors and kings who had acquired their power by violent competition, its bishops were soon mostly recruited from these very same military-aristocratic elites, and the Gospel message of social humility, peace and welcome for the stranger was necessarily compromised. The pattern of seeking to ‘convert’ social elites in the expectation that their underclasses would then conform made clergy generally content with mere conformism, not at all the same thing as deep Christian conversion.
The worst scandals of Christendom followed: the persecutions of Jews, ‘witches’, ‘heretics’ and other minorities, the horrific excesses of the Crusades, the churches’ alignment with European global imperialism, and even the corruption of popes and papal courts. From the latter followed the splintering of western Christianity in the 1500s and the inter-Christian religious wars that had alienated so many by the end of the following century. This set the scene for the 18th century reaction historians call the ‘Enlightenment’, the cradle of modern secularism. The ideal of a better world was taken over by democratic political reformers – and this process was consolidated in the later 1700s when Christian hierarchies threw their lot in with the landowning ascendancy from which they themselves had too often been recruited.
And that was when Ireland’s major seminary, Maynooth, came into being – formed in 1795 by an alliance of landowning aristocrats and Catholic bishops who were equally determined to oppose social and political transformation. Is it any wonder that modern Catholic social teaching never gripped the imaginations of most Irish secular clergy, and has therefore made so little impact on our political culture? Instead our clergy remained predominantly socially and politically conservative – setting the church up for the secularist reaction of recent decades.
It was the Irish church’s consequent blindness to social elitism and snobbery that led to the worst scandals of the present. In the wake of Irish political independence in the last century the dangers of a close relationship between church and state were illustrated in church-run institutions that cruelly abused the most socially disadvantaged women and children – a scandal still being revealed.
Another effect of Christendom was the unbalancing of Catholic moral theology. Beholden to social elites, clergy too often became blind to the origins of elitism, violence and injustice in the disease of status anxiety (what the Gospel calls ‘worldliness’), and in the sin of covetousness – yearning for what the wealthiest have. Clerical attention became diverted instead into a fixation with the minutiae of people’s sexual lives. This imbalance inevitably distorted the theological understanding of many generations of Catholics.
It is clear from the scriptures that the weight of divine anger falls against injustice and lack of social compassion – the specific faults of social elites – but this emphasis was far too often replaced in Catholic preaching and censure by an obsession with sex. The God whom so many now reject is this same sex-obsessed – and non-existent – God.
Given the distorting straitjacket of Christendom it is truly miraculous that Christianity nevertheless survived – in the lives of saints, in the best theology, in the mystical tradition and in the arts. Nevertheless the long alignment of the church with social elites and the state had done so much damage that an anti-religious secularism was inevitable.
So the death of Christendom is not to be lamented. Instead its benefits should be welcomed and even celebrated – as the necessary precondition for the next phase in the history of Irish Christianity.
The very rapid growth of Catholic Christianity in China – under a regime that regards it with the deepest suspicion and refuses relations with the Holy See – proves that the faith can flourish without the church-state relationship characterised by Christendom. So did the very rapid growth of the church in the Roman empire before it was legalised by Constantine. Many Chinese Christian intellectuals also trace the decline of the western church to the church-state relationships of Christendom, and fear the corruptive potential of state patronage in China. We should pay very close attention to that perception.
The 13th century Franciscan movement was essentially a protest against the corruptions of Christendom, so the reign of the first pope to be called Francis is an ideal moment to begin a new era in Ireland.