All posts by Sean O'Conaill

About Sean O'Conaill

Retired teacher of high school history, now commenting on a variety of issues. A fuller profile can be found on my site.

2018: A year of rescue from the belly of the whale?

So impossible is the Bible story of Jonah that we surely must take it as a sacred allegory, a storied metaphor for the many and varied disasters that can transform completely the lives of those who suffer them.  Any of us can get thrown overboard when we least expect it these days – and then find ourselves in an impossible darkness, a place of disorientation and apparent defeat.

So has it been in recent years for all who remember a totally different ‘Catholic Ireland’ – when the church’s future seemed secure, and no shipwreck was on anyone’s horizon. Now we find ourselves both underwater and in the dark, thrown off the deck of a secularising Ireland by those who have decided that we and our faith stand in the way of all ‘progress’.

Patsy McGarry – Religious affairs correspondent of the Irish Times

As if to wave a final goodbye, Patsy McGarry of the Irish Times told us on Nov. 7th, 2017 that our schools had failed to provide Ireland’s commercial and banking elites with the moral backbone to resist the excesses of the ‘Celtic Tiger’.

“Would developers have been as reckless had church-run schools been effective? Would bankers have driven the economy over a cliff? Whatever happened that laudable ‘Protestant probity’ once associated with Irish banks?”  These and other questions underlie the growing defection of younger generations from church practice, according to McGarry.

The mention of ‘Protestant probity’ tells us that we are not the only ones to be thrown off the deck:  Christianity itself is to be challenged, and probably all religion –  charged with  moral bankruptcy.

Faith schools – morally ineffective?

This is, of course, grist to the mill of the Enlightenment’s claim that reason, shorn of Christian faith, can deliver Utopia – and that Catholic schools especially are a barrier to that.  That Ireland’s developers and bankers might in fact have been in thrall to the economic ideology of the Enlightenment (beginning with Adam Smith) rather than to the call of the Christian Gospel did not occur to Patsy McGarry.  ‘It’s all the fault of faith schools’ is the more saleable cry of the moment.

Yet before we all protest this obvious scapegoating of the churches we need to remember  why Jonah had found himself on board that ship to begin with.  Had he not been running away from  the risk of facing Nineveh with its imperfections?

                Really?

To the same effect, was Catholic social teaching ever advanced with sufficient strength by our clergy and educationists in Ireland – in all schools and parishes – as part of a critique of the social blindness of our rising commercial and political elites?  Similarly,  was ‘worldliness’ ever unpacked as we lauded the effectiveness of our schools in producing ‘successful people’.  Can anyone remember a homily – or a clergy-led parish discussion – on the dangers of measuring ‘success’ in terms of social acclaim, or on the vanity of celebrity-seeking?  Who has heard a sermon on the silliness of supposing that an iPhone X, or even an iPhone XXX – or a Lamborghini – will make us instantly, more worthy?  Are Catholic teenagers even yet being told in school and church that the aim of becoming famous just for the sake of being well known is the very last word in futility?

Following Vatican II, did any parish community anywhere in Ireland experience regular opportunities for critical discussion of the huge changes that came to Ireland then – of the rising power of media to make us ‘lose the run of ourselves’, and of the moral dangers of excess that could come with easier times?

And must we not indeed wonder why Ireland’s political elites – mostly the products of our Catholic schools – are so complacent in the face of the homelessness of so many children, while so many adolescents wait endlessly for attention to their mental health issues, and so many urban families wonder if their incomes will cover their mortgage payments next year?

It could not be a better time to ask such questions, with Ireland set to receive a visit from the Pope in 2018.  In the whale’s belly still – in terms of morale – we have an opportunity this Advent to reflect not only on the problems of the family but on the necessary role of the family in teaching social solidarity, moderation and generosity of spirit.  The decades of denial of adult dialogue that underlies the serious weakness of the Irish Church can now be repaired, beginning in 2018 – if our bishops especially have had enough of the whale’s belly.  Who better than Francis to pull us out?

Cardinal Farrell

This is a time for reorientation, and the means for that lie to hand.  Cardinal Kevin Farrell (Prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life) assures us that the pope will challenge us to a new era of mission – and not just to mission in Ireland. To begin to consider that is to address the question of what underlies the pursuit of social acclaim through personal aggrandisement – globally. What have we Catholics lost as a result of our demotion by media, other than our complacency and our illusions?  Do we really need to restore those?  Are we now not in the very best position to proclaim that God loves  us even so – and to ask the most searching questions of an Ireland once more in ‘economic recovery mode’?

For example, how wise is it to suppose that if we can accumulate a  million ‘Likes’ on social media, or two million Euro in business, or even a few movie Oscars or a houseful of sporting trophies – we have added anything of real importance to our central ‘being’?  Are all of the ‘games’ that the world now arranges for us not in fact a whirlwind of distraction from the reality that we were always, and will always be, ‘somebodies‘?

That the value of every human person is sacred from the beginning, and then unchangeable forever, is central to Christianity.
That the value of every human person is sacred from the beginning, and then unchangeable forever, is central to Christianity.  The whale’s belly is merely a ‘wake up’ call to the futility of trying to add value to ourselves – by ‘looking to others for glory’. No message is more needed by an Ireland in thrall to the illusion that we do not already possess the treasure that we seek.

Yes, folks, this is indeed an early plug for Christmas 2017!  Rescued as we soon again will be from the fear that we have been forgotten, we Catholics will be very well placed indeed to ask such questions, and to deliver that message.  We might even be ready to tell Pope Francis  next August exactly what he needs to hear.  Trained well by experience of ‘social trauma’, and woken up to the central ‘good news’ of the Gospel, we can and must become the ‘field hospital’ for the many other casualties of entirely bogus ‘failure’ in Ireland.

It will soon be time for all of us to wake up to rescue from the belly of the whale – to the realisation that we must not look to media – the new brokers of honour and shame – to pass the final verdict on the record of  our church in Ireland.  What matters is our own relationship with the living truth, the Lord who forgives and then restores the soul. There is no such thing as a ‘ruined life’ when the Lord dwells within and among us – so why not wake up fully right away to the challenge of using all of our gifts to restore the dignity of the poorest in our society?  Is this not what our missal texts are telling us these days?

Our Irish church is surely called just now – by the times we are still going through as well as by Pope Francis – to become yet another ‘sign of Jonah’ – proof of the power of the Holy Spirit to ‘make all things new’.

Is Archbishop Diarmuid Martin failing Dublin?

I could spend all my time being concerned about the people who come to church, but they’re — you know I don’t want to be nasty — but they’re a dying breed. … The situation is changing, but Irish Catholicism hasn’t changed with it.

Attributed to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, this quote from an article in the New York Times on December 2nd 2017, came in for strong pushback from the Irish Catholic on December 7th.  In an article headed Archbishop accused of demoralising effect on priests the paper quoted copiously from the psychiatric criticism of Professor Patricia Casey of UCD.  She argued that the reference to observant Catholics as a ‘dying breed’ was both negative and unlikely to spark the interest of young people – whose absence from so many of his churches was observed by the Archbishop as early as 2006.

Archbishop Martin has justly won international praise for his handling of the acute crisis that faced the Dublin Archdiocese in 2003 when he was named as coadjuter to Archbishop Desmond Connell, then under siege.  For victims of clerical sexual abuse in the archdiocese he represented a distinctly ‘new broom’.  Adept in responding to the media storm in the years that followed, he is credited by some with the following admission by the Irish Bishops’ Conference in December 2009, in the wake of the Murphy Report:

“We are deeply shocked by the scale and depravity of abuse as described in the Report. We are shamed by the extent to which child sexual abuse was covered up in the Archdiocese of Dublin and recognise that this indicates a culture that was widespread in the Church. The avoidance of scandal, the preservation of the reputations of individuals and of the Church, took precedence over the safety and welfare of children. This should never have happened and must never be allowed to happen again. We humbly ask for forgiveness.” 

This marked a substantial shift in the readiness of Irish bishops to admit the term ‘cover up’ in their handling of allegations of abuse, and must never be forgotten in any assessment of Archbishop Martin’s term in Dublin.

However, if ‘Irish Catholicism hasn’t changed’ in the fourteen years of that term, can he himself be completely exonerated?  Granted, his strong performance on the Murphy Report was certain to alienate at least some of the Dublin clergy, and this in turn was likely to impede the lively development of parish pastoral councils, which he also strongly promoted.

However, why does the diocese still lack a forum for whole-diocese deliberation on its pastoral needs – if the archbishop is so strongly in favour of change?  And why is the capital of Ireland leaving it to e.g. Limerick diocese to experiment with a diocesan synod, when Archbishop Connell was known to have one planned for Dublin at the end of his term?

Time and again in the intervening period Archbishop Martin has asserted that the central problem of the Irish church is not structural but a matter of insufficient faith.  As early as 2005 he said the following:

“My primary interest … is in seeing that as many Irish men and women as possible in 2030 will be allowing themselves to be daily “surprised by the Gospel” and will be attempting to make that leap of faith and then shaping their lives coherently according to consequences of their belief.

” Whether that happens or not will be determined by the style and the pastoral structures of the Church today.   I believe, for example, that many in our society fail to make the leap to faith, because we, as Church, as an institution and as a community of believers, have never made that leap to the full.  We have never fully abandoned ourselves to the God who can make us free, but still cling on to the things we falsely feel can bring us security.  Faith is always a leap in the dark, but in the confidence that Jesus has not left us orphans.  We will never be able to lead others into the depths of faith and the joy of our hope if we remain entrapped in the limitedness of our current world vision.”  

Elsewhere the Archbishop has lamented the lack of an educated and vociferous Irish laity who could effectively stem the tide of secularism, as in his Würzburg address earlier this year:  “The Church in Ireland is very lacking precisely in ‘keen intellects and prolific pens addressing the pressing subjects of the day’”.

If the archbishop is so keen to encourage ‘keen intellects and prolific pens’ what efforts has he made to seek out and develop such talents in his own archdiocese?  Did he ever consider doing what Pope Francis has done – the creation of an entirely new personal advisory team, consisting of both lay men and women and forward-looking clergy?

And what of the apparent failure of Catholic Social Teaching to penetrate the minds of Dublin’s political intelligentsia – in relation to the problem of homelessness, for example?  Did it never occur to him to seek resourcing for a regular annual Dublin conference centred on that very fount of Catholic wisdom – as a means of addressing the very intellectual deficit he so often complains about?

Too glibly dismissed as ‘Blessed Martin of Tours’ by some Dublin clergy for his distant lectures on the state of the Irish church, the Archbishop must nevertheless bear some responsibility for the undeveloped state of what should be Ireland’s flagship diocese – especially when it comes to the obvious structural and dialogical deficit.  Was he himself over-inhibited by fear of a ‘leap in the dark’ when it came to faith in his own people?  And over-inclined to believe that he should accept a distant invitation to lecture abroad, rather than take that travelling and speaking time to listen at home instead?  Why can he not understand that the absence of regular, structured opportunities to listen to his own people is a clear barrier to the change he professes to support – and a scandalous barrier to faith also?

Given Archbishop Martin’s own age (72 this year), merely to dismiss observant Catholics as a ‘dying breed’ comes across to me as a combination of both arrogance and presumptuous ignorance – not to mention lack of faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to grant insight to any of the baptised.  Has he somehow concluded that only he could be a conduit of graced wisdom in his own diocese?

Too long out of Dublin to be sure of my own grasp of the detail of that whole situation I can only raise these questions here.  I am glad of Archbishop Martin’s frank courage on the abuse issue – but frankly disappointed that my own native city is not visibly much further advanced in developing the ‘role of the laity’ since I left it in in 1966.

The Scandal of the 2011 Missal


Why exactly did we find ourselves in 2011 suddenly obliged to declare that Jesus as Son of God is ‘consubstantial’ with the Father?  Why had it been supposed that this would clarify what had been meant by ‘of one being with’ the Father – the previous translation of the Creed from the Roman missal, used in Ireland since 1972?

And why in the same prayer were we now saying that ‘For us men and for our salvation’ Jesus had come down from heaven, when ‘for us and our salvation’ would have left half of the human race untroubled by the possibility that only those with male chromosomes could fully enthuse about that event?

As for terms such as ‘oblation’, ‘prevenient grace’ and ‘sustenance’ – and flatly ugly and incomprehensible phrases such as ‘merit to become co-heirs’ – who exactly had supposed that the liturgy had been improved in solemnity and clarity by these?  Had English truly been the vernacular of the person or persons who had delivered these galumphing atrocities?

And why those impossibly long sentences in the Eucharistic Prayers at the centre of the Mass, prayers that so often lead officiating clergy to substitute Eucharistic Prayer II, the most succinct of the four, for any of the other three?

For a truly literate, succinct and quite shocking explanation of these mysteries the curious reader need look no further than ‘Lost in Translation’ by O’Collins and Wilkins.  In just over 100 pages this (for me indispensable) book tells us not only why we are still trying to pronounce the unpronounceable at Mass, but why we should instead be using a far superior translation of the missal prepared by people who could speak and write English – a translation that was shelved in 1998 in the cause of what looks extraordinarily like Roman pique and amour propre.

The timeline at the foot of this review will summarise the complete dreadful tale – of what can only be interpreted as Roman resentment that Vatican II had given Catholic bishops anywhere the strange notion that they could do without Roman supervision when it came to deciding what wordage was to convey the meaning of the liturgy in Ireland, England, New Zealand, The United States, Australia et al.

It was especially interesting to learn here why such luminaries as Evagrius of Antioch, St Thomas Aquinas and Blessed John Henry Newman had long ago rejected the practice of translating sacred texts in a simple word-for-word sequence, carrying over even the elaborate structure of complex Latin sentences to a language that still lives.  As brevity, simplicity and clarity are exemplified in, for example, Jesus’s rendition of the Lord’s prayer, it is surely to these ideals and to the meaning of the original that the translator needs to be faithful first of all.  Liturgiam Authenticam – the document that in 2001 mandated that translation take place on the basis of a quite contrary word-for-word method – flew in the face of advice given by St Thomas in the 13th century:

“It is . . . the task of the good translator, when translating material dealing with the Catholic faith, to preserve the meaning but to adapt the mode of expression, so that it is in harmony with the idiom of the language into which he is translating.”

Yet this greatest of the medieval theologians was drawing on a far older tradition of paying attention first of all to the sense of the original.  As early as the fourth century Evagrius of Antioch had translated from Greek into Latin a life of St. Antony of Egypt – advising in the preface that “A word-for-word translation from one language into another conceals the meaning and strangles it, even as spreading couch grass [does to] a field of corn… Whatever lack may be in the words, there is none in the meaning. Let others go hunting after letters and syllables; do you seek for the meaning.”

How then could it have happened that in 2011 there would come a translation of the Missal that would flagrantly flout that long-established principle, and inflict the couch grass of ‘oblation’, ‘merit to’ – and the syntax of Cicero – etc upon all of us?  This slim volume cuts to the chase on this admirably.

It does far more than that.  It compares key passages in the 2011 Missal with what we might now be using instead, if the 1998 ICEL translation – the one that had satisfied eleven conferences of anglophone bishops and that is still gathering dust – had been accepted almost two decades ago by the Holy See.  Here, for example are comparable renditions of the prayer over the offerings for the feast of the Immaculate Conception:

1998 rejected ICEL version

In your goodness, Lord, receive the sacrifice of salvation which we offer on the feast of the immaculate conception. We profess in faith that your grace preserved the Virgin Mary from every stain of sin; through her intercession deliver us from all our faults.

2011 Missal version

Graciously accept the saving sacrifice which we offer you, O Lord, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and grant that, as we profess her, on account of your prevenient grace, to be untouched by any stain of sin, so through her intercession, we may be delivered from all our faults.

To compare just these two passages is to see clearly the impact of the translation protocols at work in the 2011 missal.  Obsequious courtly terms such as ‘graciously’ and ‘solemnity’ – and theological power terms such as ‘prevenient’ must clutter up and extend the verbiage, and the passage must also be one long single sentence.  The normal conventions of punctuation, aimed at the needs of the celebrant who must enunciate the text, have been sacrificed in the cause of pomposity.  Most importantly, the meaning of ‘prevenient’ – perfectly rendered in the 1998 translation – has been lost in the 2011 version.

As I obviously cannot go on here with further such comparisons I can only urge those interested to read this book – to be convinced that the cause of the restoration of the discarded 1998 translation needs the most urgent support.

There is an even more important point made by this book:  that in overruling the anglophone bishops’ conferences on the missal this curial interference of the late 1900s was a flouting of a key principle of Vatican II – that key responsibility for church governance belongs to regional conferences of bishops also.  If the bishops of Ireland, England, Wales etc can so easily capitulate to such flagrant and foolish overreach, what kind of precedent has been set for the future, and what conclusions should those bishops now come to regarding other matters critical to the health of their own congregations – under a jurisdiction inclined (for how long?) towards decentralisation?  Those bishops too should read this book – as a warning to seek the gifts of the Holy Spirit (including fortitude) in any such future assault on Vatican II, the only sure gateway to the future – and to pray for those gifts right now also, in urgent consideration of a missal that clearly should not still be in required use.

I chose carefully the word ‘scandal’ for the title of this article.  A scandal is a ‘stumbling block’ – an obstacle to belief.  This short book explains how and why the 2011 missal became a clear obstacle to the belief that common sense, scholarship and wisdom will always guide the leaders of our church – and makes a formidable case for the conclusion that this travesty needs to be cleared out of everyone’s way as speedily as possible.

~

Timeline

1963 – Sacrosanctum Concilium – Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy – stipulates that responsibility for determining the liturgy would rest with the Holy See and the bishops of different regions.  It allows translation into the vernacular, to be ‘approved’ by regional bishops, and makes no mention of the need to have such translations ‘recognized’ by the Holy See.

1964 – Sacram Liturgiam – a motu proprio or personal edict by Pope Paul VI prescribes submitting translations to the Holy See for an official recognitio or approval.

1972 – ICEL – (The International Commission on English in the Liturgy) – introduces first vernacular translation of the Roman Missal.  This comes into use in 1973, and remains in use until 2011.

1981 – ICEL begins painstaking revision of the 1972 Missal.

1998 – ICEL wins support for new English translation from eleven English-speaking bishops’ conferences and submits this completed translation to Rome.  It is rejected without discussion by Cardinal Medina Estévez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, who also then demands radical changes to ICEL which place it under Vatican control.

2001 – A new document, Liturgiam Authenticam, is issued by the CDW, changing the rules for translation of the liturgy and emphasising the need for word-for-word (rather than meaning-for-meaning) translation.

2011 – The 1972 missal is replaced by a new word-by-word translation prepared by a reconstituted ICEL, gifting English-speaking congregations everywhere with e.g. ‘consubstantial’ in place of ‘of one being’ in the Nicene Creed.  Lengthy sentences following the structure of Ciceronian Latin are declared literally ‘unspeakable’ by some priests – and in Ireland some clergy continue to use the 1972 translation.

2016 – Pope Francis appoints a commission to revisit the rules for translation set out in Liturgiam Authenticam .

2017 – (September) Pope Francis in the motu proprio ‘Magnum Principium’ restores to the conferences of English-speaking bishops the authority to translate the liturgy.

‘A Lost Tribe’ – a story that should not have ended this way

I had the most eerie feeling on first scanning the back-cover blurb of this novel.* Not only would the story’s narrative arc begin in Dublin in 1962 (with seminarians hopefully watching the opening of Vatican II in Rome on a just-arrived TV set): the author is now parish priest of Rathmines, Dublin.

My frisson had to do with the fact that not only was I confirmed (c.1954) in Fr King’s own parish Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners (by none other than the ‘High Command’ of the novel, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid) but that I might have mingled at UCD with some of the seminarians who inspired his fictional protagonists during those years of the Council.

Very much influenced by the Council, and by some of the clerical personalities who taught in, or visited, Earlsfort Terrace at that time, I was immediately agog to discover how the novel would treat of such encounters and then explore the intervening decades.  By what fervent early reformist convictions would his protagonists be gripped, and what would happen to them?  Something obviously had ‘gone wrong’ for that generation of budding Dublin priests – for the story to end in the ignominy of 2009 – but what exactly had that ‘something’ been?  What passionate arguments and dramatic defeats had transpired after 1965 – to compare, perhaps, with the bitter Parnell dispute in Joyce’s ‘Portrait of an Artist‘?  What would the novel have to say of clerical interchange with lay people, during and after the council – to test the boundaries of what was possible en route to implementing the baptismal principle of the equal dignity of all within the church, and the theological truth of the Holy Spirit who blows where God wills?

To ‘cut to the chase’, this novel hints that Vatican II was already doomed in Dublin by the time that generation of clerical students had been ordained.  None of the clerical characters of this novel develops a passionate vision of the potential of the ‘merely-baptised’ – enlivened by the Holy Spirit – to change not only the church but the secular culture of the time.  (One Charles J. Haughey was also an up-and-comer then, and sometimes visible in the environs of Kildare Street, St Stephen’s Green and Earlsfort Terrace.)  One character dismisses the thought of ever ministering to the inhabitants of a Dublin tenement, and there is not a single counterpointing reference to Catholic social teaching by any character at any stage in the story’s arc. Not even in those council years did one of these fictional  students make contact with a lay person of theological bent – and not once afterwards is there an episode of clergy-lay interchange or experiment on what might have transpired for Vatican II by way of hope.

The absence of any slight reference to Lumen Gentium 37 is also deeply poignant.  That article of that Vatican II document predicted for my generation the creation of church structures through which lay people would make their pastoral needs known to their pastors.  It was the complete absence of any such structures that doomed the Dublin archdiocese – and all of the country – to the total disgrace of the Murphy Report over four decades later.

Instead this story is about just three clerical types:  the sharp-eyed and sometimes toadying careerist bent on high academia or Rome; the diffident also-ran, too unsure of himself to rise above the role of dogsbody-to-the-bishop; the refugee-in-waiting for whom ‘change’ meant essentially a hoped-for and never-arriving end to mandatory priestly celibacy.  None of these was ever likely to challenge the High Command’s 1965 dismissal of the relevance of Vatican II for Ireland.

So, although careerism and Rome often get the blame for ‘what happened’ in Ireland after 1965, this novel strongly suggests another possible contributor:  that this 1960s generation of Dublin seminarians – despite what was also happening in Dublin and UCD at that time –  simply never caught – with any life-changing passion – what Vatican II envisioned for the transformation of the role of the ‘merely-baptised’ within the church.

Never in this novel does any of the characters encounter a lay person of the vision and Christian commitment of  the RTE personality Seán McRéamoinn – or even a clerical visionary of the calibre of a Joe Dunn, an Austin Flannery or a Fergal O’Connor.  All four of these men were meeting (re the Council) with some UCD students at that time, where the documentary producer Joe was also chaplain and Fergal a lecturer in philosophy and politics.  Austin, also Dublin-based, was a translator of the Council documents into English and a convenor of ‘Flannery’s Harriers’ – a discussion forum that included, for example, David Thornley, the TCD academic and Kevin O’Kelly of RTE.  None of King’s characters – some of whom travel to UCD in pursuit of degrees in Arts or Philosophy –  falls in with anyone who reminds this 1962-66 UCD alumnus of any of these men or of the deeply committed philosophy student Denys Turner, whom I also knew.  (Denys later became a leading academic in the UK.)

All of the most serious interchanges in this novel are therefore confined to proto- or actual clerics (with the exception of personal interchanges between the central ‘dogsbody’, Galvin, and his female romantic confidantes).  The overall pattern impressed upon the reader is of a hermetically closed clerical world that no one on the inside could or would seriously attempt to open to the wider Irish world, to let the merely-baptised in.   Moreover, neither Galvin nor any other character ever reveals any abiding theological questioning or conviction of his own in the seminary, or any moment of theological or spiritual epiphany thereafter.

The novel is therefore a tale that could have only one possible ending.  The careerists toe the Humanae Vitae line after 1968, themselves helping to end all prospect of ‘change from the top’.  The academics do the same in hope of a diocese – or else languish in seminaries and colleges.  The dogsbodies keep their noses to a pre-shaped grindstone and then go to seed or to dementia in rural parishes – or succumb to (or get the blame for) clerical child abuse (or the ‘cover up’).  The refugees take flight, sooner more often than later, and disappear without trace.  That fictional seminary of “St Paul’s” left no one in this novel with a fire-in-the belly that was sufficient to the challenge of staying put and fighting seriously for Vatican II.  That would certainly have been a losing fight, but no theological passion ever even surfaces in this story to precipitate a confrontation over Vatican II: we are always dismally distant from any prospect of an Irish Pentecost.

Perhaps, of course, William King has written – or has still to write – another novel, about a true Vatican II ‘rebel’ of that era – someone for whom a seed of Christian commitment and passion survived the deadening influence of the ‘clerical club’?  I was impressed enough by this novel to want to find that out.  This one was instead for me at different times amusing, moving, bitterly disappointing and deeply tragic in roughly equal parts.  I learned from it that I need to be more sympathetic (and prayerful) for what remains of that 60s ‘club – but I am left feeling that I was deeply naive in leaving Dublin in 1966 with the firm conviction that radical change would come inevitably in my own lifetime.   If this particular novel is historically representative and reliable, that Catholic clerical club in Dublin in 1962-65 was doomed from the start to remain an unhappy simulacrum of the ‘rat race’ it might instead have been ready to change for the better – until that shut-out external world ran out of any interest in maintaining it.  A true Christian communion of all of the baptised was never on any fervent clerical agenda in 1960s “St Paul’s”.

Sean O’Conaill, 3rd Nov., 2017

The ‘war’ against Pope Francis: where do Irish bishops stand?

“The central dispute is between Catholics who believe that the church should set the agenda for the world, and those who think the world must set the agenda for the church.”

So wrote Andrew Brown in the Manchester Guardian on Friday October 27th, 2017 – in an extended attempt to explain what he calls ‘The war against Pope Francis’. Brown calls the first of these camps the ‘introverts’, and the second the ‘extroverts’. Placing, for example, Cardinal Raymond Burke in the first camp, and Pope Francis in the second, Brown implies that the pope believes that the world must set the agenda for the church. Though Brown appears to be sympathetic to the pope, no description of the situation could better serve the cause of Cardinal Burke.  For that school of thought ‘the world’ is the church’s greatest threat – an advocate of ‘anything goes’ rather than the teachings of Jesus.  Cardinal Burke’s most outrageous supporters see Francis as a heretic because they too believe that ‘the world’ has taken him over.

What does Christian leadership require today?

Of course it is true that the usual ‘conservative v liberal’ analysis of Catholic differences is trite and misleading. So is ‘reformers v traditionalists’ – by implying that only those who oppose reform are true to the church’s oldest traditions. However, ‘introvert v extrovert’ is worse still, especially as it could imply that Pope Francis, as an ‘extrovert’, is a shallow populist bent on changing everything to please the masses, whereas Cardinal Burke is a stern and deeply thoughtful disciplinarian who stands for timeless truths. This is to turn the real difference on its head. It is the pope who has thought hardest about what timeless truths require of Christian bishops in the present era – and it is the pope who is most truly ‘counter-cultural’.

The central dispute in the church is over the exercise of power and teaching authority, specifically the papal office. As the papacy is a model for all bishops, this dispute has implications for the role of Catholic bishops everywhere.

As revealed by both his behaviour and his writings, Pope Francis believes that Christian leadership has primarily to do with loving accompaniment of always fallible people on their journeys towards ‘the kingdom of God’. For Cardinal Burke on the other hand it is clear that the primary role of the Christian leader is verbally to define Christian obligations and to insist upon adherence to certain of those obligations as a condition of full access to the church’s central sacrament, the Eucharist. For Burke the accompaniment of the sinner can have only secondary importance.

In a sense the dispute is over the proper relationship between ‘teaching’, ‘ruling’ and ‘sanctifying – the three most important duties of a bishop.

Remembering that the word ‘companion’ is derived from the practice of sharing bread together, it would therefore be fairer to both parties in this dispute to describe them as idealising either a ‘companioning’ or ‘rule-making’ relationship with those they wish to lead to the living truth, Jesus the Christ.

How is conscience ‘formed’?

The difference is most clearly stated in article 37 of Amoris Laetitia, where Francis writes:

We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.

Formers of conscience rather than replacers of conscience. That is the fork in the road for Francis, and, by implication, for all bishops. To seek simply to legislate, to make up the minds of others by mere magisterial declaration, is, by implication, not necessarily to form conscience – and the Pope and the bishops must – according to the present pope – seek to do the latter.

To spend even half-an-hour contemplating the implications of this teaching is to realise the profound silliness of describing this manner of leading the church as a mere ‘style’. Pope Francis is instead advocating and leading an abandonment by Catholic bishops of the role of sequestered and elevated legalist, imposing rules from above – to take up the role of companion of struggling Everyman, a companion who begins by discerning the drama of that struggle before speaking to it of the risen Lord. Only in that way, he insists, can consciences be formed.

A Change of Era

For Pope Francis “we are not living an era of change but a change of era.” Another way of saying that is: “this is a different time“. Cardinal Burke’s liking for the full panoply of the cardinal’s attire – including the page-borne fifteen-foot silken cloak, the cappa magna, tells us that he tends to idealise the era when cardinals had the social and civil status of the highest nobles at the court of the king. That fits perfectly with his apparent tendency to think that to rule is also to teach and to sanctify.

For the pope, clearly, sanctity demands humility – and bishops should model the latter as well if they are to teach. Companioning was an essential aspect of Jesus’s ‘teaching style’ – he was both persuasive and edifying. Pope Francis’ teaching style therefore represents a return to the earliest teaching tradition of the church – centuries before bishops became aristocrats. Few people today take handed-down edicts – declarations of law – as effective teaching. They simply tune out.

The Irish Experience

It will take just another half-hour to realise that nowhere in the world has the truth of this conclusion been more clearly demonstrated than in Ireland. As distant rule-makers since 1968 Irish bishops have steadily lost the attention of the large majority of Irish people who describe themselves as Catholic. Never persistently trying to convince their people directly of the wisdom of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical banning contraception, they relied on the equivalent of a recorded message to convey this ruling and were proven ineffectual – as they have been on every similar stand taken since.

We are standing in the midst of the ruins that this ‘style’ of leadership has created – especially the bewilderment of unaccompanied younger generations and their incomprehension of key Catholic terms such as ‘sin’, ‘grace’, ‘sacrifice’ and ‘priest’. Caught between that elevated legalism and a rapidly changing society, the generation of Irish clergy that welcomed Vatican II was left stranded, disappointed, tongue-tied and hobbled. Already, with congregations dwindling by the week, the closure of some Irish Catholic churches is under discussion.

To be companioned by a convinced Christian like Pope Francis is to be given both a glimpse and a promise of the ‘kingdom of God’ – that kingdom in which rivalry for status has been replaced by mutual love and support – true ‘family’. That is the choice that Francis is presenting to Irish bishops too, especially by his promise to attend the World Meeting of Families next year. Will our bishops be ‘up’ for companioning rather than aloof rule-stating – for the forming rather than the replacing of consciences? The near future of the Irish Church will depend upon their response. Megaphone Irish Catholic leadership, a leadership that considered regular dialogue unnecessary, has had its day. The Irish church is facing extinction because it has been deprived for half-a-century of a true communion of clergy and people.

As for the more distant future, the global popularity of the present pope is surely due to a recognition that his leadership is more closely modelled on that of the church’s founder than on the distant imperial bishops of the medieval church – and that no other ‘style’ can now bear timeless fruit.

The Mass: a ‘Holy Sacrifice’?

Josefa de Ayala, The Sacrificial Lamb (c. 1670-1684)

Must Catholics believe that God is violent? Taught that the Mass is a ‘Holy Sacrifice’ must we therefore believe that ‘the Father’ required a violent sacrifice to still his anger, and that this is the central message of the Eucharist?

Never having heard an Irish Catholic cleric squarely address such questions, and therefore inferring more than a little uncertainty, I (and others in Ireland) have followed with fascination the key ideas of the late American-French anthropologist René Girard and his collaborators. (These can be traced from the website of the Girardian Colloquium on Violence and Religion.)

René Girard 1923-2015

Girard argues that the historical origins of all religion lie in an attempt to minimise social violence by focussing it upon a single victim. He argues also that the Judeo-Christian scriptures point to a unique critique of this religious violence – and especially of the ancient practice of blood sacrifice. His work has therefore been exploited by some theologians to deny that the death of Jesus, or the Mass, can safely be understood as a sacrifice.

However, Girard himself famously changed his mind on this very issue. Influenced especially by the Austrian theologian, Raymund Schwager, Girard concluded in his mature work that the meaning of ‘sacrifice’ is itself undergoing a shift in the course of the Judeo-Christian texts. The ‘precious gift to God’ aspect of sacrifice had always accompanied the ‘killing’ aspect (for example in Abraham’s intention to sacrifice Isaac). This story shows how this ‘gift’ aspect gradually becomes predominant – in the end supplanting, in Jesus self-giving, the element of priestly killing. In offering himself, Jesus united the always previously separate roles of priest and victim – defining a sacrifice that resists all projection of the consequences of sin onto someone else. This leaves open an interpretation of ‘Christian’ sacrifice as directly oppositional to violence, and as ‘self-emptying’ or ‘self-giving’ – utterly uncompromised by any suffering inflicted upon a third party.

In the latest issue of the Girardian journal Contagion, Anthony R. Lusvardi S.J. argues that theologians who use Girardian anthropology to reject any concept of the Mass as ‘Holy Sacrifice’ are therefore mistaken. Lusvardi tracks this scholarly debate with detailed footnotes and makes the case for regarding the Mass as a divinely inspired act of worship that makes present “that central moment in human history when seemingly endless cycles of violence and falsity are brought to a halt by the limitless self-offering of God” (‘Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”: Mimetic Theory and Eucharistic Theology’, Contagion Vol. 24, 2017 ).

For me this article strengthens a conclusion that it is unnecessary to oppose an understanding of the Mass as ‘holy sacrifice’ on the one hand, to its character as celebratory ‘communal meal’ on the other. If Christian sacrifice is self-giving, the ‘communal meal’ implication also follows logically from that understanding. In this understanding to ‘sacrifice’ is ‘to give completely of oneself’ – a meaning wholly compatible with contemporary understandings of ‘goodness’ and ‘heroism’.  It is the ‘Offering’, the self-giving ritual in which we all can join, that makes possible the communal meal, and no violence is implied by the Christians who practise this sacrifice – even if blood is nevertheless shed by others who misunderstand. The ‘bloodiness’ of Jesus crucifixion was solely due to the human sin that impelled his persecutors, in defiance of God – not to divine need, wish or intent. For Girard, the Calvary event starkly revealed the archetypal practice of scapegoating or ‘lynching’ – the unjust blaming of any individual for any social crisis to save the community. The Cross therefore lies at the root of the principle of ‘human rights’ – in opposition to all scapegoating.

Far from requiring our assent to his ‘divine violence’, the Father can therefore be understood as true to Jesus’ teaching that ‘the Father and I are one’ – in the rejection of violence, as in all other matters. The Mass is a ‘holy sacrifice’ because non-violent self-giving is central to the divine nature – and to heroic human potential also, when aided by grace. It is to that self-offering that all of us are called.

Clerical reticence on ‘divine violence’ and ‘sacrifice’ surely began with the fourth century acquiescence by Christian bishops in Constantine’s assertion that his violent acquisition of imperial power had been sanctioned and assisted by the Christian God. That acquiescence lies also at the foundations of Christendom – the long and often horrifically scandalous imbroglio of church and state that lasted into the twentieth century. Girard’s insights, and those of theologians who continue to be stimulated by Girardian theory, allow for a re-evaluation of all that, without in any way compromising the Creeds. Pacific self-offering was never utterly absent under Christendom, proving the subliminal counteraction of the Cross to all violence.

The secular Enlightenment was partially motivated by a revulsion at the semi-religious wars that followed the Reformations of the 1500s, but is still lacking a convincing explanation of human violence. On the other hand, Girard’s insight into the origins of our own aggressive desire in the desire of someone else – vindicating the thrice-repeated biblical ban on ‘coveting’ – is as copiously illustrated in the daily news as it is in the TV epic Game of Thrones.

Meanwhile Christian fundamentalism continues to scapegoat the Father for the crucifixion, and to cloud our thinking on Christian sacrifice. This can be regarded as a time-limited hangover of Christendom. Anthony Lusvardi’s article well illustrates how Girardian anthropology, and the theology it inspires, give us a far better pair of glasses.

(Anthony Lusvardi’s article is available for download from the website of the Association of Catholics in Ireland, by clicking the title below.)
Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”

 

‘Faith Formation and Fear of Shame’: History of an Article

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin defending faith schools in 2017

“Given what we know about the falling away in church attendance of teenagers, ongoing for over a decade – as well as the availability of our school-going teenagers for research that would probe the reasons for this – what research has been sponsored, or is currently projected, by the Irish Bishops’ Conference on this issue?”

This query from me to the ‘Contact’ address of the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference on December 31st, 2016 had not received a response by May 2017.

Concluding that no such research had been undertaken in the 21st century, and that none was projected,  I set out to explore the reasons for this strange reluctance of Ireland’s bishops to research the effectiveness of Ireland’s Catholic schools in forming the faith of Irish Catholic children.

Arguing that it is most likely fear of the results of such research, this article – Faith Formation and Fear of Shame – appeared in the July /August 2017 issue of ‘The Furrow, published at Maynooth.   The Furrow‘s editor has also kindly allowed it to appear on the website of the Association of Catholics in Ireland (ACI).  (Click here to read the complete article on the ACI site.)

The article also appeared in the Irish News (Belfast) on Thursday Sep 7th, 2017.

If you wish to comment on the article, please do that on the ACI site rather than here – as there is an urgent need for a conversation in Ireland about the multi-faceted crisis the Irish Catholic Church is now facing.

I emphasise strongly that I do not fault Catholic schools for the alienation of younger generations from the church, or doubt the commitment of the many teachers who conscientiously prepare children for the sacraments or set out to advance their faith in secondary schools.  I argue instead for a new realism about the typical story of faith development – an acknowledgement that adult faith develops through a sequence of stages, may be severely tested in the teenage years, and is rarely an immediate result of school instruction.

I strongly believe that the problem of alienation from the church at all ages in Ireland  is a consequence of two things:

  • first, decades of non-communication between clergy and people, originating in a clerical inability to dialogue directly with lay people over, especially, family matters;
  • second, a series of clerical sex-related scandals, beginning in 1992 – these too have not yet been fully ‘put behind’ us by frank, open dialogue.

Future historians will wonder why faith formation was one of the critical issues that parish clergy and parents were never convened to discuss together following the second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968).  The campaign by bishops to defend faith schools is still completely ignoring this crucial failure.  Against that reality, to pretend any longer that responsibility for faith formation can effectively be discharged by schools in the absence of an open dialogical culture in the Irish church is to be in critical denial at a time of huge challenge.

It is time to end that culture of denial – while there are still many grandparents ready to speak wisely about faith to younger generations.

(I also help out at the website of the Association of Catholics in Ireland.)

Faith Formation and Fear of Shame

While the absence of teenagers and young people generally from our churches has been growing for more than a decade, there is no evidence that the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference has ever systematically researched the causes of this.  Why is this, when the departing Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, warned in 2017 of an impending ‘cliff edge’ for the Irish church?

In this article, republished here with the permission of the editor of the Maynooth Catholic monthly, The Furrow, Sean O’Conaill offers a possible solution to the puzzle.

~*~

?“Given what we know about the falling away in church attendance of teenagers, ongoing for over a decade – as well as the availability of our school-going teenagers for research that would probe the reasons for this – what research has been sponsored, or is currently projected, by the Irish Bishops’ Conference on this issue?”

This emailed query from me to the ‘Contact’ address of the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference on December 1st, 2016 had not received a response by the time of writing this (May 1st, 2017). That query was the culmination of efforts to trace evidence of consultable research, undertaken by the Irish Catholic educational establishment, into a phenomenon flagged up at the highest level at least as early as 2006. In that year the Irish Times reported that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin had recently told Pope Benedict XVI: “I can go to parishes on a Sunday where I find no person in the congregations between the ages of 16 and 36. None at all.” 1

I am not alone in my interest in this question. Also in 2006, the Catholic Iona Institute joined with the (Protestant) Evangelical Alliance to conduct a sample poll of young people, aimed at evaluating the state of basic Christian knowledge in this cohort. The results were summarised in an Irish Times report of April 2007, beginning: “Only 5 per cent, or one in 20, of 15 to 24 year-olds could quote the first of the 10 Commandments when interviewed for a new survey in Ireland. Almost one third (32 per cent) could not say where Jesus was born and more than one third (35 per cent) did not know what is celebrated at Easter.” Further down, David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute, was reported as calling for an examination of the reasons why knowledge of the faith was “in such sharp decline”2.

New Irish Catechetical directory – ‘Share the Good News’ – 2011

No news emerged subsequently of the fate of this appeal, but in 2011 the launch of Share the Good News – a new Catholic scheme for Catechetics in Ireland – suggested that Ireland’s bishops were not completely indifferent to David Quinn’s challenge. Announcing a pivotal shift in emphasis, this document declared that: “The model for all catechesis is the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults … In fact, for the community of the Church, the catechesis of adults is the chief form of catechesis.3 (My italics.)

Envisioning as it does an ideal situation to be realised over a ten-year period, Share the Good News (2011) should six years later be shaping vibrant adult faith formation everywhere in Ireland. I see no sign of this in my north-western sphere, while the lapsing of school-going teens and the dwindling of parish congregations prevails widely. An urgent ‘wake up’ call to all adults is needed, but none so far has had urgency enough.

It follows that our church leadership is so far failing to confront, publicly and head-on, the challenges of faith formation in what is now a post-Christendom society. We are severely handicapped in facing those realities by recent failure to conduct basic research into the typical vicissitudes of Catholic faith in contemporary Ireland, beginning in secondary school. Given our investment in Catholic schooling and the crisis of continuity that now prevails – as well as the ready availability of our teenagers for such research – there is surely a mystery here. Why is it that publicly consultable research on this vital issue has not happened in this century, is not ongoing and is not, apparently, even yet projected?

?Do Irish bishops fear what serious research could reveal?
In the absence of any other explanation I feel compelled to suggest the following. In a now highly sexualised and media-dominated culture, Irish Catholic educationists and other leaders are likely to have been advised by personal networks that puberty soon poses a radical challenge to pre-adolescent Catholic faith and practice in Ireland. They probably also have reason to believe that this challenge typically causes Irish teenagers to lose interest in a clerical church that seems obsessive about the minutiae of sexual relationships, deeply scandal-prone itself in that sphere, and increasingly unable to connect helpfully with their own most vital interests.

Just as an experienced barrister will know to avoid asking a question of a trial witness that could elicit an answer that would sabotage the barrister’s own cause, our Irish Catholic educational establishment is likely to be fearful to conduct research among Irish teenagers and young adults that could elicit public answers that would strengthen the secularist challenge to the very existence of Catholic schools – at the very moment when that challenge is most severe.

We appear to be in a bind therefore. We lack an authoritative body of data that could bring us to a wakeful consensus on the nature of the ongoing challenge to the continuity of Catholic tradition in Ireland – and we seem to fear to compile that data in case this would add another apparent scandal to the series we have recently suffered – the scandal of an ‘own-goal’ revelation that the Irish Catholic school system is not in most cases forming a faith that can withstand even the challenge of adolescence.

If I am right about this, there is a corollary that suggests a root source of this bind. Fearful of a powerful secularising media that now brokers honour and shame in Irish society, our bishops feel unable to be completely frank with their people about the true scale of the crisis of continuity we now face. Already deeply shamed by media, they are held captive to a debilitating extent by fear of even more media shaming.

I am not at all inclined to be dismissive of this concern. Far from seeing fear of shame as a specifically clerical, or even Irish, problem, I now see that problem everywhere in a range of contemporary global crises – and see only one way out for all of us: to realise that fear of shame is the central human challenge globally – not simply to morality but to life on earth.

Currently ongoing are:

Irish clerical fear of shame over:

  • The report from the ongoing Mother and Baby Homes inquiry, due in 2018;
  • A possible referendum on Amendment 8 of the Irish Constitution, forbidding abortion;
  • These possibly overlapping with a World Meeting of Families in Dublin, in August 2018, and a forecast papal visit to that.

North Irish fear of shame over:

  • Possible defeat of the Unionist cause in the upheaval caused by Brexit;
  • Possible defeat of the cause of Irish unity by a failure to take full advantage of the same upheaval;
  • What is seen by some as the continuing British ‘occupation’ of Ireland, felt as shameful by Republican dissidents who threaten the lives of NI security personnel. (In the words of the renowned US prison psychiatrist, James Gilligan, ‘all violence is an attempt to replace shame with self-esteem’.4)

Geo-political crisis over:

  • The likely failure of politically expedient but unrealisable promises by the new US administration, made in the presidential election campaign of 2016;
  • That same administration’s likely perceived need for ‘wins’ in another sphere – geo-politics (re North Korea, Russia/Ukraine, Iran, China, the Middle-East);
  • North Korean, Russian, Chinese, Syrian, Iranian fear of shame if their own establishments’ perceived interests lose out in any of these contests.(Fear of shame is always a component of any deeply-felt need to ‘win’, and the driver of any campaign to make any nation ‘great again’. )

Gathering environmental crisis caused by:

  • ‘Consumerism’, caused largely by unnecessary private accumulation of resources and financial credit to avoid the shame of ‘losing out’ to social peers in a multitude pf social contexts, from the night club to the corporate boardroom to the yachting marina;
  • Politico-economic theories that rely on maintaining unsustainable consumption by the ‘winners’ of this race for social prestige, i.e. this race to avoid peer-shaming;
  • The tardiness of governments in grappling with this crisis, for fear of reaction from environmentally misguided political forces.

A gathering global crisis in mental health, caused largely by:

  • The shaming power of media of all kinds, including especially the digital social media to which adolescents seeking peer esteem turn in increasing futility – because of the reflexive shaming (‘trolling’) they then experience;
  • The non-allocation by states of the medical resources needed to deal with this crisis, due to dependence of politicians on the electoral support of the more fortunate – who have other consumerist and careerist priorities, as detailed above.

If I am correct in interpreting this gathering global crisis as based centrally on fear of shame, it follows that there is no need for anyone to feel ‘got at’ if that analysis is applied also to themselves. Furthermore, it is far from clear that a global solution to this fear of shame can ever come from a secular politics – or from a secular media – bereft of any faith in a transcendent power. If there is no such power then we are doomed to dependence upon the good opinion of other humans for assurance of our own ‘success’ and ‘self-fulfillment’. If we believe that in the end our own value is dependent upon peer esteem, we are trapped in their good or bad opinion of us (potential or actual) without any possible means of escape other than winning some kind of ascendancy (the ‘zero-sum game’).

Uniquely, Jesus completely overcame the human fear of shame.
Christians especially have no reason to believe this – because the victory of the cross was essentially the complete victory of one person over fear of shame. Jesus called that victory ‘overcoming the world’. The fate of the world now arguably depends upon the spreading of that same conviction – that our value as individuals is not in the end ‘socially mediated’. It has to do with our relationship with a transcendent source of truth, the living Truth that has told us that our value is inviolable – and that the shaming of anyone is always a mistake. Pope Francis’ central message of Mercy is surely making exactly the same point.

My own experience tells me that teenagers lose interest in the church when they can no longer see its relevance. Yet, suffering also from fear of shame, we Irish Catholics are undergoing the experiential re-education that the church needs to become everywhere relevant again. Modern media determine that among everything else that is subject to globalisation, so are absurdist ‘celebrity’ on the one hand and disgrace on the other. This power of media of all kinds both entices and threatens all of us – and a secularism bent upon the control of media and the denial of any transcendent truth will offer inadequate recourse against it.

I therefore believe that until our clerical leaders can see their own likely fear of shame as merely a reflection of a pervasive human crisis, they will not be able passionately to preach the relevance of the Gospel to all generations – including our teenagers. If our faith has survived the traumas of the past two decades, it must have been somewhat purified also. It cannot any longer rest on the expectation that our church leaders will be paragons of virtue or wisdom. It follows that we can forgive them anything – because it is the Gospel for which they stand that nevertheless points to the ‘narrow door’ through which this earthly family may yet, God helping, save the Earth.

On the other hand, if my diagnosis of what prevents our bishops from researching the problems of teenage defection and of faith formation in Ireland is entirely mistaken, they need only explain the true reasons for that circumstance. The frankest dialogue on our central predicament can no longer be postponed – if adult ‘co-responsibility’ is truly on offer.

Notes:
1 ‘Irish bishops in Rome for talks with Pope‘, Irish Times, Mon, Oct 16, 2006
2 Survey reveals low level of religious knowledge in young, Irish Times, April 9th 2007
3 Share the Good News, p.55 (Veritas)
4 Quoted by the author Jon Ronson, in a New York Times interview.

Resurrection?

“The resurrection of Jesus is fundamental to our faith, but that does not mean it happened exactly as it is described in the various biblical accounts. What it does tell us is that, after the desolation of Jesus followers as a result of his death, they gradually began to realise that in a mysterious, but very real, way he was still with them. In other words, maybe their experience of the reality of Jesus in their lives wasn’t that different to how we can also experience him in our own lives, and in our communities when we gather to pray and celebrate. The detail of how this happened doesn’t really matter very much.”

~*~

In these 113 words Fr Tony Flannery has given us a glimpse of his current thinking on a foundational principle of Christian belief and practice. An experience of transformational importance for the earliest Christians – an experience resulting in detailed, insistent accounts of a touchable, resurrected Jesus who had eaten real food with his friends – seems to become for Fr Flannery something very different, even nebulous.

The experience we have today of ‘Jesus in our lives’ can vary enormously in intensity and ‘realness’, and surely depends on the degree to which we can believe the Gospel assurance of a complete victory of Christ over death. Tony Flannery’s account as it stands could be taken to mean that those first Gospel witnesses to a ‘Resurrection’ were merely reconstructing Jesus from memory.  This would be for many a severe test of faith, rather than an affirmation of it.

If this is indeed Tony’s meaning I cannot believe that he has reflected seriously on the full import of this conclusion. It would imply that the Gospel accounts were deliberate, even if well-intended, fabrications. That would make the entire history of Christianity inexplicable.

Why, to begin with, would Jesus have been considered worthy of such remembrance if his own predictions of his restoration to life had been proved delusional? Who would then stake his own life to proclaim possibilities that had led Jesus himself only to ridicule and the cross? What possible psychological profile could explain the restoration of the Christian community on a known basis of mere make-believe?

My understanding is that most scripture scholars, even those who can’t believe in the Resurrection, agree that the trajectory of Jesus’ faith and mission of obedience to the God of Abraham led him to a lonely death, and that his followers lacked the firmness of conviction to stand with him at the end. This poses two critical mysteries, even for the most sceptical. First, what was the source of Jesus’ strength of faith and character? Second, what was it that subsequently transformed those thoroughly frightened and runaway followers into death-defying proclaimers of his resurrection?

Tony Flannery’s current answer to the second question seems to be that this extraordinary transformation arose simply out of fond remembrances of a man whose faith had proved delusional – culminating in an agreement to maintain that it had not. It would seem to follow logically that these deliberate myth-makers did this while knowing that Jesus had probably been mentally unbalanced – and that they were now ready to die in defence of a claim they had no reason to believe themselves.

Is all of that truly more plausible than that these earliest Christians experienced something so totally unexpected and unusual as to convince them that far from being both mad and dead, Jesus had correctly predicted an event that they themselves had factually witnessed – the intervention of the Father to whom Jesus had appealed, to raise Jesus from the dead in conclusive defeat of the attempt to erase him, bodily and finally, from life and history?

To be clear here, I am not claiming to know what exactly the experience of that intervention was, or even to understand completely the Gospel accounts of it. I am arguing instead that those accounts are a clear anticipation of any ‘non-real’ explanation of what happened, including the ‘sorrowful reminiscence’ version.

In particular the account of the radical doubt of the apostle Thomas in the Gospel of John is clear evidence of the anticipation by the author of all scepticism about the historical truth of the event. That account, including Thomas’ subsequent touching of Jesus, makes that Gospel a most cynical fabrication if that encounter was known not to have happened, in literal fact. I cannot believe that the author was recounting anything other than what he sincerely believed, on credible testimony, to be historically true as described. To think otherwise is to consign that Gospel to the ‘deliberate alternative facts’ shelf. How could deceit of that order have founded a martyr’s faith?

As to the ‘scientific possibility’ of bodily resurrection, given the expanding mystery of all matter, including every atom in the human body – the fact that this mystery grows rather than shrinks the more closely scientists study the particles that compose the atom and the relationships between them – who can any longer speak of ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ phenomena, as though that distinction was any longer clear? The whole of material creation remains an unexplained mystery.

And given the healing mystery that Jesus also is to us – especially as a source of hope that our own lives may just be starting – why resort to banalities to replace the belief that so many generations of Christians have relied upon, especially in the deepest grief and fear? If Jesus’ central belief was delusional, and his trust in the Father was in vain – and his earliest followers were capable of such deceit – why should anyone gather today to celebrate his memory? What hope or consolation could come from such a gathering?

St Paul, not a witness to the Resurrection, believed in it nevertheless. He knew what was at stake.

“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ cannot have been raised either, and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is without substance, and so is your faith. What is more, we have proved to be false witnesses to God, for testifying against God that he raised Christ to life when he did not raise him — if it is true that the dead are not raised. For, if the dead are not raised, neither is Christ; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is pointless and you have not, after all, been released from your sins. In addition, those who have fallen asleep in Christ are utterly lost. If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are of all people the most pitiable. In fact, however, Christ has been raised from the dead, as the first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep.” (1 Cor 15: 13-20)

Tony Flannery knows this passage as well as I do, so perhaps as a commentator and teacher he is simply kite-flying, tongue-in-cheek – in the cause of adult education. He has certainly got me going with this particular kite. He is right to question the usefulness of ‘too much’ doctrine, but all prayer and faith is founded on a core of vital belief. If St Paul’s stated belief in the Resurrection was also either a delusion or a fond fabrication, what Christian conviction can remain to sustain anyone?

Was Jesus a whistleblower too?

On Jan 24th, 2017 the Irish Government established a commission of inquiry into the origin of false allegations of sexual abuse against the Garda whistleblower, Maurice McCabe. This is the latest in a long series of deeply depressing scandals involving all of the institutions once respected in Ireland, including the Catholic Church. Sean O’Conaill asks why integrity seems to be so rare, and how we are to find it.

Nothing in Ireland has been as dispiriting in recent decades as non-stop revelations of misuse of power and even of serious corruption in high places. All major institutions of church and civil society have been implicated. Not even the major beneficiary of these scandals, the media, have been exempt.

We have long known that all power tends to be abused, but Irish revelations of abuses of power have become almost epidemic in the lifetime of everyone born before 1990 – so much so that we can come to wonder, like Diogenes, whether an honest individual can any longer be found in high places. That whistleblowers – those who shout ‘stop’ to abuses of power – still do surface is a bright light in the darkness, but Garda Maurice McCabe’s experience of malicious ‘blowback’, of the most damaging of false allegations and even possibly of high-level ‘fitting up’, is truly frightening. Everyone who might still be called upon to be a whistleblower in Ireland knows now what could happen to themselves in the very worst case.

The standard secular solution to this problem of abuse of power is to divide and limit power by making it always subject to accountability. Strictly applied this means that everyone exercising power must be ready to account for their actions to someone else, and ready to resign or be sacked if found wanting. Yet here again there is huge depression in Ireland over apparent mass immunity from the accountability principle. The guiltiest individuals will take great pains to hide their tracks, while tribunals of inquiry are always costly and tend to grant immunity to witnesses in exchange for testimony. This then leads to a dispiriting popular verdict on all of Ireland’s educated elites: ‘those people always look out for one another’. In reviewing the Garda McCabe case, and an earlier Garda precedent, the ‘Kerry Babies’ case of 1984, the historian Diarmaid Ferriter concluded recently that the McCabe commission may unveil the truth of what happened – but (he finished) ‘don’t expect justice‘. There is a real danger of the total victory of cynicism in Irish society – even a loss of faith in human nature itself.

Secularism has never stemmed the human desire for privilege

No Irish secularising intellectual has yet pointed out that this near-despair directly challenges the basic optimism of the secular Enlightenment – the belief that human nature, freed by science-based ‘reason’ from religious faith, can build Utopia. Mass rational education alone, it was argued by some in the 1700s, would give everyone an honest livelihood, put an end to all crime and social hierarchy – and create a society at perfect peace. That same faith in reason, to the exclusion of any faith in God, still undergirds the Irish secularising establishment today. I haven’t yet seen any persuasive rationalist explanation of the complete failure of that optimistic 18th century prophecy.

What the secular Enlightenment ‘got wrong’, it seems to me, was to suppose that, freed from ‘faith’ by ‘reason’, everyone – with just enough education – would become heroically virtuous. Those secularising evangelists did not see how dependent we are on others to shape even our desires for wealth and status.  They hugely overestimated the capacity of any of us to stand freely apart from the human context in which we find ourselves. That we are always hugely dependent upon peer groups for self-esteem and self-fulfillment – and even for a sense of personal security and safety – was overlooked. That mass education would produce not equality but a sense of entitlement to privilege among the most successful, was not foreseen.

If we abandon all faith that there can be any higher power than this ‘society’, we may then, as individuals, be totally bereft of support in the face of ‘peer pressure’ – the pressure simply to conform to the norms of the group we aspire to belong to. Secular egalitarianism has never found a cure for the human desire for social superiority, but still cannot acknowledge this failure.

Catholic hierarchy was also a corruptive force in Ireland

The former Magdalen Laundry, Sean McDermott St., Dublin

Far from advocating here a restoration of the power of ‘the church’ as it was before 1992, I would argue instead that the Catholic clerical establishment in Ireland was also oblivious of its own power to corrupt individuals – especially by exaggerating the individual Catholic’s obligation to defer to higher clerical authority in matters of moral judgement, as a matter of faith. Why else would no cleric – and no strong lay voice – have cried ‘shame’ when defenceless young women were imprisoned and shamed by the Magdalen system? Why else would whistleblowers have been so scarce among the religious orders that ran the institutions for helpless children indicted in the Ryan report of 2005? Why else would Bishop Jim Moriarty have been the sole bishop to confess serious personal failure in the handling of clerical abuse in the Dublin archdiocese, following the Murphy report of 2009? And why else would Dublin Gardai in some instances have failed to investigate credible allegations of criminal clerical abuse, at the request of a bishop?

The ‘prevailing culture’ that Bishop Moriarty agreed he had failed to challenge in Dublin was precisely analogous to the culture of toleration by the Gardai of the abuses that Maurice McCabe reported, while the harm caused to countless children by clerical failure was far greater than the harm caused by Garda inconsistency in the awarding of motoring penalty points. We must never forget that the Irish clerical establishment left it to outraged Catholic families to blow the whistle on the fact of – and the deadly dangers of – clerical sexual abuse of children.

This blindness, to the harm caused to the church – the people of God – by the equation of faith with unquestioning obedience to clerical authority, continues to this day. And this in turn is surely the reason that the full contemporary significance of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is neither seen nor preached by our clergy, in the context of the growing crisis of hope in Irish civic society. Never can it be seen or said (at least in my experience) that in Gethsemane Jesus was resisting precisely that fear of ‘the world’ – the threat of ‘blowback’ from our always hierarchical human power systems – that confronts every genuine whistleblower today.

Instead it is (or at least it was until recently) far more typical of clergy to contrast ‘the world’ with ‘the church’, to characterise ‘the world’ as at best ‘dangerous’ and at worst ‘profane’ while ‘the church’ – always to be equated with clergy – was to be seen always as ‘holy’ and unquestionable. ‘Worldliness’ got translated, mistakenly, as merely getting ‘caught up’ in the pleasures and distractions of the ‘material world’, while Jesus and his clergy could necessarily have their minds only on ‘heavenly things’. In accepting crucifixion Jesus was merely atoning for human historical sin at his Father’s request, not setting an inspiring example of courage and integrity for all of us to try to emulate.

Nothing could be better calculated to make the story of the crucifixion totally incomprehensible to the modern mind – and to make the Catholic sacramental system irrelevant to the crisis of hope that afflicts Ireland today.

Jesus the abused whistleblower

That religious system that Jesus opposed was also abusive of power. It excluded the poorest from a sense of God’s compassion, by imposing money barriers to divine mercy. It shut the Temple door on all of the ‘unclean’, including lepers and menstruating women. What if we were to see Jesus in Gethsemane as an exemplary whistleblower – awaiting the most excruciating humiliation for his rejection of that oppressive religious system? What if we were to see him as standing in solidarity with all who were and still are excluded and oppressed – including the church’s own victims? What if we were to see him at the side of Garda Maurice McCabe – and at the side of the falsely accused priest as well as the clerical abuse survivor – when their trials are at their worst?

In the world you will have tribulation, but be courageous. I have overcome the world.’ (John 16: 33). What if we could believe that here Jesus is speaking precisely to this time in Ireland today – and speaking also for the power of belief in a transcendent reality to give us the integrity we so desperately need, the grace to withstand the world – i.e. ‘the prevailing culture’ of our own peer group’s abuses, whatever those may be – in church or business, bank or civil service, TV studio or political party, policing unit or even Olympic sport?

And what if Jesus’ strength – the grace of integrity – is also the grace on offer in the Eucharist – for those who can believe these things? Those given charge of the Eucharist have surely a special obligation to discover its relationship to the supreme moral problem of our time – the problem of maintaining integrity in the face of corrupt power. That it could have no such relationship is unthinkable.  It is far more likely that integrity and holiness are one and the same.