Category Archives: Formation

‘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 recently 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?

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’).

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.

 

No research, ever, on school-centred faith formation in Irish Catholic Schools?

classroom-with-crucifix

On June 2nd, 2016, the letter below appeared in the ‘Letters’ page of the Irish Catholic.  Since then no response has been received to the central question posed: whether the effectiveness of Irish Catholic schools in forming faith has ever been seriously researched in Ireland.

Educationists in all fields conduct research – and school-going pupils are always available to participate.  In an era when Christian faith is increasingly challenged it stands to reason that Catholic educationists – as well as teachers, clergy and parents – will need to know exactly what is ongoing in the area of faith development if they are to respond effectively.

It now appears that there is a very serious issue here.  If no such research has ever been conducted in Ireland – despite, for example, a reply to this writer from one Irish bishop in 2005 that the issue would be raised at an impending regional meeting of bishops – what is the reason for this?  Why is our knowledge on this issue so partial – based on individual experience, and therefore still merely anecdotal?

In 2011 Irish bishops adopted a strategy of switching the focus of faith development to adults, with the long-term intention of placing this responsibility on parishes and families.  As outlined by the document Share the Good News  this shift was to take place over a ten-year period – yet in my own diocese, Derry, there is still no sign of this shift even beginning.  In a growing general crisis of continuity – including a crisis of clerical manpower and clerical ageing – inertia too widely reigns.  Unaccountably, we remain substantially ignorant of the scale and nature of this crisis.  There is surely no excuse for this.

Why don’t we know reliably already – from pupils at the upper end of our second-level schools – why increasingly they do not show any interest in Catholic sacramental practice?  

From the Irish Catholic, June 2nd, 2016:

Huge research deficit on issue of Catholic education

Dear Editor,

These days our bishops and educationists are again circling the wagons against the encroachment of ‘faith-neutral’ models of religious education in Catholic schools. So, for example, we hear Dr Eugene Duffy of St Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, insisting that: “Parents, if they’re sending their children to a faith-based school, will have a genuine expectation that their children will be formed within their faith tradition.” (‘School religious ed will suffer under new Govt plan – experts’, IC 12/05/2016)

Upon what reliable research evidence is this assertion based? Back in 2006 Archbishop Diarmuid Martin 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.”

Why should we believe that the predominant motive of Catholic parents in favouring Catholic schools is not simply their belief that those schools are academically effective and well disciplined, meeting educational ends that are not strictly religious, but actually secular?

My point is not to attack the principle of Catholic schooling but to question the huge and inexcusable research deficit in Ireland on the entire issue of Catholic education – especially the reasons that despite our virtually total reliance on schools for faith formation our Irish Church is facing a radical crisis of continuity.

As a teacher in a Catholic second-level school for three decades, I had many times to supervise Catholic pupils responding to research projects initiated by the education department of a local university. Never once had any of those projects been sponsored by the Catholic Church, with the issue of faith development foremost – even though it has been known for decades that many of those same pupils are not only disinterested but often alienated from faith observance.

Everything we hear at present shouts to us that our school-reliant system of faith development is not maintaining – on its own – the continuity of the Catholic faith. Are our bishops afraid to confront that issue directly, by conducting reliable research on the issue?

Yours etc.,

Sean O’Conaill,
Coleraine,
Co. Derry.

Faith Formation? Take it out of schools altogether!

Sean O’Conaill argues that with the continuity of Catholic faith in Ireland now seriously in question – and with controversy growing over equal access to primary schooling for all – it is time to realise that school-centred Catholic faith formation is itself a barrier to the radical change needed in our understanding of adult faith formation.

Why should we Catholics still suppose that a committed faith will be ‘formed’ by Catholic schooling from the age of four or five when it is staring us in the face that this rarely happens?

The virtually complete failure of that system was well summed up by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin in 2006 when he told Pope Benedict:  “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.”

As someone who spent a total of forty-eight years in Catholic schools, as student and teacher, and did not come to a deeply committed faith until the age of fifty-one, I am now convinced that abandonment of the delusion that schooling will form faith is an essential key to a revival of effective faith development in Ireland, at all ages.

To begin with, informed faith is not an outcome of instruction but of a combination of experience, questioning and insight – and school is not the most likely context for that required combination to occur.

Baptised in infancy, and raised in Catholic schools, the experience that brought me to a committed faith eventually was the realisation that as a teacher of history and current affairs – in a Catholic school – I could not connect the data of my own teaching expertise with the loss of faith of my own children.

“I don’t believe all this Jesus stuff,” said my youngest, aged fourteen in 1994.  “And most of my class don’t either.”

He was a third-year pupil in the same Catholic school.

Faith cannot develop properly in adults who opt out of responsibility for passing it on!

Until that moment I had never taken any serious responsibility for discussing ‘faith’ with my own children.  I had seen all that as the responsibility of the RE professionals and the clergy – and opted out.    My own focus was the growing secular crisis in Ireland – especially the crisis of violence, of inequality and of the environment – in Northern Ireland and in the wider world more generally.  I didn’t see, then, how the Gospels were in any way connected with that crisis.

I am now convinced that to leave that option open to Irish Catholic parents – of handing over  the role of addressing the questions, doubts and moral formation of our children to school professionals and to clergy – is to hobble the faith development of both adults and children – and to enable clergy generally to dodge the challenge of dialogue with adults.    Our school-centred system of ‘faith formation’ is a major factor in the growing crisis of Catholic faith in Ireland.

The reason is simple.  Even Catholic secondary schools have now been essentially  ‘secularised’ by the very weight of their vocational curriculum – and by the fashionable faith-averse or faith-indifferent formation of most of their teachers at third level.  Even Catholic teachers of History or English or Geography or Economics are taught to see faith development as the responsibility of someone else, while the expertise they have acquired at university has for many decades used a language that makes little or no contact with Christian faith or wisdom.

Even in Irish Catholic primary schools now there is news of eyebrow-raising in staff rooms at the arrival of more committed younger teachers.   Those teachers are struggling vainly, in all schools, against the tide.

And what of parents of teenagers concerned about the growing dangers that face their children in that rapidly changing world?  Too often they find that weekend homilies show no understanding whatsoever of the relevance of the Gospel to that world – so both they and their children stop coming to church.  Our retained reliance on the schools tells them it’s not their problem – or within their competence – to grapple with the faith formation of their children.  Our entire system says to parents  ‘don’t you worry’ when everything else tells them they must.

It was a profound mistake to ‘professionalise’ the faith formation of children and young adults in schools for the following reasons:

  • Even the usual educational ambience of Catholic schools is now secular and secularising – in the sense of finding religious faith irrelevant in most subjects, even the humanities;
  • Teachers in second-level schools are primarily absorbed by the public exam requirements of their own subjects, and usually never meet to assess or discuss the overall impact of the entire school curriculum upon the developing – or more usually dwindling – faith of their students;
  • Teachers of RE can generally have no detailed knowledge of their students as individuals – the knowledge that only their parents can have;
  • Those parents are mostly completely ‘out of the loop’ – deprived of both the responsibility, and of any sense of competence, for developing the faith understanding of their children;
  • Adult faith formation is at present usually poorly resourced, and unconnected with parenting responsibilities. Seen usually as an option for retirees, not as a life-requirement for all, it mostly doesn’t happen at all.
  • The peer-group culture of teenagers is now generally sophisticated in its disdain for the faith formation system we still retain.   Connected with a globalised online world that warns of the dangers of cults and promotes intellectual independence, young people are increasingly scornful of a system they often come to see as ‘brainwashing for children’;
  • Without any responsibility for faith formation, lay Catholic adults have no compelling need to demand regular dialogue with clergy;
  • Clergy too generally opt out of that obligation, because ‘the schools are taking care of it’ – and the half-century gulf in age between the average priest and the average teenager is now seldom addressed by the weekly homily;
  • As they can see that their parents have usually been given no vital role in the faith-continuity of the church, most teenagers are currently being taught by that very fact that Catholicism will have no vital adult role for them either – so why bother?

It would be a radical step to face parents and parishes now with the main responsibility for faith development – but doing that could be a complete game-changer for everyone, because:

  • Christian faith matures usually only at a time of adult life-crisis, often long after a throwing-off of early-stage faith;
  • Parents need to be faced with the reality that unless their own faith is in ongoing development they will not be equipped to speak to their children about that vital issue;
  • Parents are more likely than their children to be asking the mature questions that only a mature faith can answer;
  • It will be the developing faith of their parents – and their recognised role as responsible adults in the church – that will make most impression on children;
  • The imperative need for ongoing dialogue in the church between people and clergy will then become unavoidable by both;
  • There is no other way of challenging the growing secular crisis – deriving mainly from a loss of meaning and the collapse of integrity on the part of the secular establishment;
  • The changing of our major focus to adult faith development will not otherwise happen;
  •  Adult faith development is the most important adventure that anyone can have, and home video screens are ultimately depressive and mind-numbing if they become a substitute for real personal development face-to-face.

It is time for a loud wake-up call to – and from – the leadership of the Irish Church:   our inherited faith formation system is failing and needs to be replaced by a system that allows no one to opt out.

Struggling Orchestra in Search of a Maestro

Huge longing, as well as potential, for renewal – but also, among many, a deep frustration with an Irish church system no longer remotely fit for purpose. That was the impression I took away from the three-day day Irish Catholic National Pastoral Conference in Athlone in late September 2014 – ‘Growing in Faith Together as Local Church Community’.

Robert Schreiter from Chicago, an eloquent proponent of the need for ‘local theologies’, was the headline speaker from Thursday to Saturday. Well aware of the historical legacy to the wider global church of Irish Christianity in the past, he challenged all of us to think about a likely global crisis of ecological stress and of human displacement and growing conflict in the years ahead. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Irish Church is just about as well prepared for that scenario now as the whole country was for five years of total war in 1914.

Nonetheless this first-timer in Athlone was impressed by the representation at this event from the Irish Bishops Conference. My own invite had come in a letter to the Belfast <em> Irish News</em>  last February from Bishop Donal McKeown, of the bishops’ <em>Council for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development</em> – and Bishop Donal was present throughout the first and last day. The newly appointed Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin, was present to meet attendees on Thursday – and I would guess that most of the other Irish bishops spent some time in Athlone also.

What exactly is the local church, and what exactly could and should it be doing to prepare for ‘future shock’? This latter question in my own head was amply answered by the three days: the last thing we should be doing is waiting for orders from the summit. Bishop Donal said as much on the opening day when he declared that the conference would not produce a master plan for the future – and it was clear throughout that as yet no musical maestro has emerged in Ireland with the flair to get all of the instruments in the Irish church orchestra to make beautiful music together.

My own conviction is that the fundamental gift required is a pedagogical one – an ability to hold and articulate a Catholic faith that can confidently address the full dimensions of the gathering crisis. There was still far too much reliance at the conference upon weighty printed sources – such as the new catechetical plan <em>’Share the Good News'</em> and the recently launched <em>’Irish Catholic Catechism for Adults'</em>. Both are weighty and worthy tomes, but by their nature neither can be sung to a rousing tune that captures the need of the moment.

The greatest merit of ‘<em>Share the Good News</em>’ is that it implicitly admits the fundamental shortcoming of the church’s current systems of education and formation – they remove all responsibility for that from the <em>merely</em> baptised and place that in the hands of duly trained professionals. Nothing could be better designed to achieve two objectives simultaneously – to persuade all of us that in the end the faith can reside only in the heads of experts, and to create so many printed sources that the task of recovering a vibrant faith appears way beyond most of us. It is a supreme irony of Irish Catholicism that it was transmitted far more effectively by a preponderantly oral and isolated culture in the past than it is these days in a ‘connected’ literate society by a professional educational elite.

The main reason for this is the many decades of conditioning we have received in the always-greater wisdom of external summit authority. We have thus been made as insecure in our own understanding of the Creeds as the inhabitants of Kazakhstan were in their understanding of the Communist Manifesto by the Moscow politburo. While Irish Catholic bishops will agree that the whole weight of the Catechism derives from a vital core of meaning – the creedal truths that lie at the summit of the whole hierarchy of Catholic truth – none has yet managed to articulate that core in a way that can set fire to the imagination and help us all to make beautiful music together.

The consequences were clearly evident in Athlone – a sincere anxiety to be as demanding of ourselves as we are of those who lead us, combined with a frustration that the bishops have not yet managed to appoint a national coordinator for the new Catechetical strategy. There is also deep frustration with the canonical constraints upon parish pastoral councils. Without any assurance of continuity when parish clergy are changed, those who currently man those councils are rowing against the tide of disillusionment that so often prevails ‘where the rubber hits the road’.

In this situation it is difficult to see how these biennial conferences in Athlone can survive without a clear signal from the Irish Bishops Conference that it will change this state of affairs, and give parish councils genuine power, responsibility and continuity. It is the dead hand of clericalism that prevents that happening and that leaves us still defenceless against the likely storms of future decades.

Do things really have to get even worse before they can get better – when they are already surely far worse than they should ever have been allowed to get?

As for the local church, I must suppose that begins with the parish – and that I should begin by telling all in my own space that we should definitely not hang about with our hands in our pockets, waiting for clarion commands from on high. We need to discover right now what exactly our Catholic faith means to us – while there is still a parish community of some kind to speak of. There are no experts in the proactivity that Ireland now needs to become again a vital habitat of ‘the faith’.

Trusting the Gifts of the Spirit among the People of God

Sean O’Conaill  ©  Doctrine and Life  May/June 2012

FOR WHAT exactly is the Holy Spirit supposed to be waiting, to move the Irish Church into vibrant and visible recovery and renewal? This question seems to me to be critical to any response we might make to the predicament that so many find themselves in just now in Ireland. This is related above all to two problems: frustration with the current governing system of the Church, and a still-appalled reflection on a series of Irish government-led reports on child abuse within the Irish Church, beginning in 2006.

Seeking to guide us in our response to those reports the Holy Father issued a pastoral letter in March 2010, and in April 2012 we received the summary report of the apostolic visitation to Ireland that had followed that pastoral.1

It is largely my frustration with this summary report that leads me to ask the question posed at the start. In a previous article here I offered the conclusion that Catholic authoritarianism had been a key factor in the moral failure of Catholic officials in Irish state and Church to protest most vehemently against the abuse and endangerment of children.2

Elsewhere I later argued that the Church’s governing system has been thoroughly disgraced not just by the scale of the abuse crisis, but by the fact that the initial revelation of this horror had been a product of secular structures and processes arising historically out of the Protestant Reformation and the European ‘Enlightenment’ of the eighteenth century.3

I simply cannot get my head fully around the clear fact that my Church was finally moved to protect children not by the watchfulness, love and courage of its own leaders but by policemen, journalists, judges and jury members who often owed no debt of loyalty whatsoever to the Catholic Church. And that this process began in one of the most secularised societies on the planet: the USA.

Why did the church not uncover the problem itself?

The problem now for me is this. The summary report makes no allusion to the failure of the governing system of the Church to reveal to its leaders the scale of the abuse horror, and to act spontaneously long ago as it began to act in Ireland in 1994. Nor does it clearly explain the moral failure of so many Catholic officials, many of them ordained. In its references to the incompatibility of renewal and dissent it also seems me to seek to clamp down on the free expression of honest opinion within the Church in Ireland. So, as I began this article I was not even sure that it could be published.

Praying about all of this has led me somehow back to a reflection on my Confirmation at the age of about ten or eleven in 1953/54, when, as I distinctly remember, I was told the sacrament conferred upon me the dignity of becoming a ‘Temple of the Holy Spirit’. That sense of my own dignity within the Church has never completely left me, mainly because it was further reinforced by the mentoring I received at University College Dublin in the 1960s, by clergy heavily influenced by Vatican II. I caught the excitement of the time. The expectation of reform has heavily influenced my life ever since, especially since 1994, when the abuse crisis first emerged.

Learning from Scripture

It is strange how prayerful meditation on what life was like as a child of ten or eleven can somehow recover for us the hopes, dreams and vulnerability of childhood. Doing this in Lent in 2012 led me frequently into tears, and into recovered memory of matters long suppressed, such as my late mother’s strange illness that was not finally named for me until I was in my fifties. It led me also, by a process too circuitous to need tracing here, to a reflection on my early experiences of the Bible.

One of these in particular stands out: the story of Susanna and the Elders in the Book of Daniel.

Briefly, this story tells us that during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, beautiful Susanna was lusted after by two Jewish judge elders. They conspired to tell her that they would publicly allege that they had seen her in adulterous intimacy with a fourth party if she did not satisfy their lust. When Susanna even so resisted their joint intimidation, they proceeded with their plan publicly to accuse her of adultery. As two witnesses were all that were required by Jewish law to satisfy their assembly, their accusation was accepted as true by that assembly. Susanna was being led away to die when she passionately declared her innocence. Then, according to the text, this happened:

The Lord heard her cry and as she was being led away to die, he roused the Holy Spirit in a young boy called Daniel who began to shout, ‘I am innocent of this woman’s death!’ At this all the people turned to him and asked ‘what do you mean by that?’ Standing in the middle of the crowd he replied , ‘ Are you so stupid, children of Israel, as to condemn a daughter of Israel unheard, and without troubling to find out the truth? Go back to the scene of the trial: these men have given false evidence against her. (Daniel 13: 46-49)

We are told then that the other judge elders of the assembly not only acted on the young Daniel’s advice, but asked him to sit with them and advise them further. He suggested separating the two accusers, and questioning them as to the precise circumstances in which they had seen Susanna committing adultery. When this was done the conspirators gave different accounts, proving Susanna’s innocence. (Everyone has seen much the same thing happen today in TV police procedural dramas.)

Rousing the spirit of youth!

Remembering this in the aftermath of the apostolic visitation summary report, I was prompted to explore in my mind precisely what could have been involved in the Lord ‘rousing’ the Holy Spirit in a young boy, to the extent that he could stand alone in an assembly dominated by elderly judges and shout ‘stop’?

Could it be any of these, the virtues that can arise out of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as listed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord?And could it be also be the fruit of the Great Commandment: to love God above all, and our neighbour as ourselves?

My mind fastens particularly on the words ‘fortitude’, ‘understanding’ and ‘love’. Does the Catholic magisterium, and its method of exercising authority, nourish these virtues? Does it allow for the possibility that prayerful young people especially might ever be gifted with an understanding and an insight that might lead them to ask difficult questions, and with the courage to stand up and ask them, no matter what? Especially all of the questions that arise out of the leadership catastrophe we have suffered?

I have to say that my experience of the magisterium since about 1968 is that it seems to have a fearful attitude to the creation of circumstances within the Church that could encourage young people especially, but lay people in general, to ask difficult questions of itself, and of those in ordained ministry. Many of those difficult questions pertain to the issue of sexuality. It is true that individual bishops have been an exception to this rule, and that some have held open and honest forums in the aftermath of the Irish state abuse reports. But there is still no sign that such assemblies will become embedded in the regular and normal life of the Church.

‘Bishops are accountable to the people’

And that brings me back to what I see as the enormous gaps in the summary report:

First, its failure to address the question of widespread moral cowardice among so many Catholic adults, and especially among those who carried the full weight of the magisterium’s expectation that they would be loyal to it, and would avoid scandalous revelations.

Second, its failure to explain why it was that it is to Irish secular agencies that we owe both the revelation of the abuse horror in Ireland, and the momentum that led to Catholic bishops becoming for the first time ostentatious in the cause of child protection.

Third, its failure to predict that the mooted reorganisation of the Irish Church will include structural reforms that will mandate a principle stated by Monsignor Charles Scicluna earlier this year at a clerical child abuse forum in Rome: ‘Bishops are accountable to the Lord, but also to their people.’’5

As the apostolic visitation and its summary report also arose out of a secular process of discovery, I am prompted to ask then also how the Holy Spirit might be moving Irish Catholics today to respond to the crisis that now still weighs on us. Could one of those ways be a questioning why the elimination of dissent among Irish Catholic clergy loyal to Vatican II should be a priority of the magisterium at this time – when it has so many questions still to answer about its own failures? And when there is still no promise of structural reform?

Committed to Justice

I also ask, finally, whether the unwillingness of the magisterium to encourage questioning from lay people at every age from Confirmation on might be a key factor in the continuing inertia of the Irish Church, and especially the departure of young people from it. The forgetting that as early as ten our Church has given to all of us the dignity of being Temples of the Holy Spirit is widespread in Ireland, especially among young men. Isn’t it time to remind all of the Irish three million plus who claim to be Catholics that this privilege is still theirs? And to ask them to pray to the Holy Spirit, above all for the gifts of insight, love, wisdom and fortitude? And to provide church structures as worthy of the People of God as those that allowed the Holy Spirit to prompt an honest young man to ask, in open assembly, life-saving questions of his elders long before the time of Christ?

Apropos the latter, according to the Vatican’s own website, ‘Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna is the “promoter of justice” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.’6 Isn’t justice also a gift of the Holy Spirit? Wasn’t justice precisely what was involved in the case of Daniel and Susanna, and wasn’t it precisely justice that was lacking in so many cases when the parents of victims of clerical abuse came to the administrators of Catholic dioceses and religious congregation? How are we to encourage young Daniels in Ireland, and to ensure that our child protection is not again subverted by clericalism, if our Church structures continue to patronise and exclude all lay people, and especially young people?

I am entirely convinced that the continued holding back on Church structural reform by the magisterium, and in the meantime its encouragement of unjust and covert delating of those who do ask difficult questions, subverts the work of the Holy Spirit and delays the recovery of our Church.

Notes

  1. Summary of the Findings of the Apostolic Visitation in Ireland, March 2012
  2. S. O’Conaill, ‘Authoritarianism and Moral Cowardice’, Doctrine & Life, May-June 2010
  3. S. O’Conaill, ‘The Disgracing of Catholic Monarchism’, in The Dublin/Murphy Report: A Watershed for Irish Catholicism?, eds. John Littleton and Eamon Maher, Columba Press, Dublin, 2010
  4. Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1845
  5. Monsignor Charles Scicluna, as reported by the National Catholic Reporter on February 8, 2012.
  6. Vatican website: www.vatican.va : type ‘Monsignor Charles Scicluna’ into the site’s ‘Search’ option

Rethinking Catholic Formation

Sean O’Conaill  ©  Reality Feb 2011

As more and more teenagers and young adults fall away from the practice of the faith, we need to rethink the timing of baptism and the other sacraments of initiation.

~*~

For the earliest Christians, initiation into the life of the church was a deeply experienced event occurring in adulthood. Those who had actually known Jesus of Nazareth, and who had experienced the Pentecostal flame, were profoundly changed by that experience, and spoke of a ‘new life’ beginning at that point. So did St Paul, who had an equivalent experience. As an often persecuted minority living in an environment that was usually unpredictable, those early Christians had a highly compressed sense of future time. Typically they expected that the ‘end times’ – the return of the Lord and the ‘coming of the kingdom’ – could happen very soon, quite possibly in their own lifetime.

Consequently they saw the baptismal initiation of other adults into this new life as the most urgent priority, and as the sacramental equivalent of the Pentecostal experience. All New Testment accounts of Baptism are accounts of the Baptism of adults. Preparation for this event was at first also an urgent affair, stressing the ethical challenge that Jesus had posed, rather than setting out a systematic Christian theology. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find an account of the instruction and Baptism of children. That is not to say that this didn’t happen: it is more than likely that parents would have wanted their children to be instructed and baptised – but we have no account of that in the New Testament.

It’s clear instead from the earliest accounts that the church grew rapidly at first mainly through the deep conversion of adults who were attracted to the spirituality, discipline and warmth of the Christian community. Baptism typically celebrated the conscious beginning of an adult life of faith – after a period of formation known as the Catechumenate. The profound culminating experience of Baptism was thought of as the beginning of an eternal life in union with the Trinity. ‘Salvation’ was believed to begin with this experience – this ‘dying to the self’ – rather than after physical death.

As these early centuries passed and the church grew rapidly, that early sense of urgency gradually evaporated also. With the Emperor Constantine’s legalisation of Christianity early in the fourth century, persecution ceased and new questions arose. If Baptism was actually necessary for salvation, what happened to the ‘catechumens’ – those waiting for Baptism – if they died beforehand? Prudence counselled the wisdom of earlier and earlier baptism. So did the strictest teachings on original sin developed by St Augustine of Hippo. By the end of the fifth century, infant baptism had become the norm.

By that time also, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman empire. Infant baptism and the expectation that children would grow up within a Christian society meant that an entirely different sequence had overtaken Christian formation. Instead of first being instructed in the faith and then freely choosing baptism as adults, most Christians were first baptised as infants and then received as they grew some kind of formal or informal Christian education.

This had profound implications. For those baptised as infants – the overwhelming majority – there was no longer an overwhelming sacramental ‘rite of passage’ into an adult life of faith. It was simply assumed that the Christian social environment would gradually complete the process begun for the infant at Baptism.

The Catholic educational system we know today was first developed in this ‘Christendom’ social context – in which the state and the surrounding society supported the church and protected it from unorthodox ideas. The Protestant Reformation of the 1500s did not radically change this system in Catholic societies. The development of Catholic schooling in the modern era continued to be based upon the assumption that the individual baptised in infancy would be somehow formed into Catholic adulthood by the Catholic environment, especially the school. Increasingly, responsibility for Catholic education was delegated to professionals – trained Catholic teachers who were usually at first also priests or religious.

The assumption that this Catholic sacramental and educational system would in itself automatically ‘form’ adult Catholics was never subjected to a radical open questioning by the leaders of the church. This was despite the fact that the history of the church shows that many of its greatest saints had experienced a deep adult conversion arising out of unpredictable life experience – usually a deep personal crisis of some kind. (St Augustine of Hippo, St Patrick of Ireland, St Francis of Assisi, St Alphonsus de Liguori and St Ignatius Loyola spring readily to mind.)

In the eighteenth century the secularising intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment began seriously to undermine this ‘Christendom’ environment. Even Catholic schools had eventually to devote the bulk of their curriculum to secular subjects. In our own time in Ireland we have seen the rapid disappearance of priests and religious from Catholic schools – and at the same time the development of a powerful ‘youth culture’ that erodes parental influence during the child’s early adolescence.

Yet still today the ‘cradle’ Catholic child will usually receive the three Christian rites of initiation – Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation – before adolescence sets in – as though Christendom was still in place and no environment hostile to faith awaited the teenager. The assumption of major responsibility for formation by the school has meant that typically parents feel incompetent to assist in the formation of teenage children. We still tend to rely upon our schools to do what we have been taught to believe they always did: form the Catholic adult. If they don’t succeed we often assume the fault must lie with the educational professionals.

Our sacramental system continues to deny most ‘cradle Catholics’ what the earliest Christians all took for granted – an adult sacramental ‘rite of passage’. Thus the Catholic teenager has no such event to look forward to, no opportunity to opt in as an adult. (Neither ordination nor marriage adequately fill this need.) It is a huge mistake to take teenagers for granted – this is undoubtedly a major cause of many of them opting out.

Since infant baptism became the norm in the fifth century the most rigorous teachings of St Augustine on original sin and salvation have been modified by Catholic theology. We no longer believe as he did that the unbaptised are denied heaven. Even less rigorous teachings on the existence of Limbo for unbaptised infants have been superseded. The Holy Spirit is now believed to be at work in the conscience of all humans, and the church teaches that divine grace will save the eternal lives of all who sincerely respond. It follows that the original argument for infant baptism has evaporated.

As for our Catholic formation system, it has always been the case that life experience will raise questions that children usually have neither the ability nor the need to think deeply about. Many adult Catholics will attest to later life experiences that made early instruction deeply meaningful for the first time. The deepest ‘conversion’ is almost always an adult affair. Nevertheless ‘adult faith formation’ is still just an option for a minority.

Those who have deeply studied the development of religious faith now agree that this usually happens in a sequence of stages. One of these is typically a period of the deepest questioning of early life instruction. A mature adult faith involves a deep experience of the mystery and beauty that lies behind childhood conceptions that are typically too literal and naive. It follows that it was always a mistake to suppose that faith can be guaranteed by childhood instruction alone, and to trust that Catholic schools should be able to ‘produce’ committed and fully formed Catholics.

The question must therefore arise: why is our formation system, including the timing of our sacraments of initiation, not now undergoing a radical reappraisal? Current circumstances for Catholicism in the West are increasingly closer to the crisis of the early church than they are to the era of Christendom – so why do we continue to behave as though Christendom was still in place?

It seems to me that three interrelated shifts need now to take place in our formation system.

First, we need to switch our major formation effort from childhood to adulthood. This does not mean that we abandon child religious education, but that we cease to think of it as a stand-alone system for ‘perpetuating the faith’. It means also that we need explicitly to tell our children that the deepest Christian faith does not usually come through school instruction, but through adult experience and through the graces available when we meet a crisis in our teenage or adult years.

Second, responsibility for adult formation must be relocated in the Christian community and combined with the missionary and evangelical effort that will now be required to meet the all-enveloping crisis we are facing. Adult faith formation must become part of the ordinary experience of all Catholics – not just an option for those who can afford the cost and the time. Catholic parents who are developing their own faith will need to become much more involved in the Christian formation of their teenage children. Those who argue that Catholic formation must be left to ‘the professionals’ need to recall that the word ‘professional’ is derived from the verb ‘to profess’, i.e. to adhere to and to avow, a faith. It is faith itself that best develops faith, and faith cannot be guaranteed by any professional training.

Thirdly, the adult experience of deep conversion must receive some kind of liturgical celebration, a ‘rite of passage’ organised by and for the Christian community. It simply does not make sense to confine all Catholic rites of initiation to the pre-adolescent phase of life when we know that the Pentecostal experience is almost always an adult experience, and when we know also that there is no eternal penalty for those who die unbaptised . We need to rethink the sequencing of our Catholic sacramental system, timed and structured as it is for an era that is now rapidly passing into history. As it stands it fosters clericalism – the assumption of all major responsibility for the church by ordained clergy, and the abdication of that responsibility by most of ‘the people of God’. It is clericalism above all that stands in the way of a revitalised church.

Christian faith in the end is not something passively received as a child, but something deliberately embraced as an adult. Our Catholic formation and sacramental system needs urgently to reflect that fact, while there are still some of us left.

Secularism and Hesitant Preaching

Sean O’Conaill  © The Furrow Jul/Aug 2008

“So why don’t we focus on this huge issue for a while, devise policies to deal with it and leave aside tangential issues for the moment?”

This was Vincent Brown in the Irish Times in April 20081.  To his great credit his ‘huge issue’ was the awful problem of all forms of sexual violence, as quantified by the SAVI report of 20022.  If its figures are correct, about 1.2 million Irish people are victims – and, as Brown keeps reminding us,  we can’t really suppose that the scale of the problem has diminished significantly since 2002.

But it was the word ‘policies’ that caught my attention, because it seemed totally inadequate to describe what’s needed to get a grip of not just this but a whole series of related problems in Irish life.  A policy is something debated (often endlessly) by pundits and politicians, then promoted to win support,  and then (if adopted) resourced out of taxation.  Given the many claims on the latter in a ‘flat’ economy, given the low-tax climate that a healthy economy supposedly demands, and given the cost of, for example, intensive counselling and psychotherapy, no foreseeable state-sponsored policy on sexual abuse seems remotely capable of addressing the scale of what confronts us in Ireland, even if we isolate just this one problem.

And given the common connection between sexual abuse and the abuse of alcohol and other substances, it’s equally clear that any effective policy on the former would need to address the latter.  And given the connection between substance abuse and the low personal morale often caused by economic insecurity and relationship issues, can we really propose to solve any one such ‘huge issue’ in isolation?

Moreover, what about the moral momentum required to completely change an abusive lifestyle?  How can a policy devised at the state level reach the deepest core of an individual who is experiencing so radical and subterranean a challenge?  Effective state policies can indeed change our external environment for the better, but what about inner, deep-seated dysfunction that so often occurs within the privacy of the home?

In an earlier era in Ireland there would have been a very different kind of response to a crisis of the scale described in the SAVI report – and it would have originated with the church (understanding that term in the widest sense).  The nineteenth century temperance movement is a good example.  It is another reflection of the depth of our current social crisis that we have now apparently no alternative to secular policy to change our society radically for the better  – and that the churches seem incapable of providing that alternative.  (Especially if we focus these days on sexual abuse.)

But in fact political secularism – the atomisation,  rationalisation and politicisation of every problem – is very much part of the fix we are in – because it tends to disempower the ordinary individual in his own space.  Teaching us to delegate everything upwards to politicians and professional experts, it has virtually no power to engage individual citizens in a deep, voluntary commitment to behave honourably, and to join with others spontaneously in doing good, in their own space.  The recent debate on what to do about alcohol abuse and other forms of addiction in Irish life proves this conclusively, because we have not moved one step forward on that issue either.

What is required, then, to mobilise the moral idealism of a society, and especially of its youth?

The problem with the moral programme of the church as we have commonly understood it is twofold.  First, we have not fully grasped the compelling human and community reasons for the most important behavioural boundaries prescribed by our Christian tradition (e.g. the taboo against serious intoxication).  As a result we tend to resent God for making rules that don’t make sense.  We tend to suppose these rules exist for God’s sake rather than for ours – mainly because we mistakenly suppose that God shares our own basic tendency to be self-absorbed.

Secondly, because of this, we have not understood the connection between these boundaries and the church’s basic positive law – the law of love.

To resolve these problems we need to do two things.  The first is to wake up to what our daily news bulletins are telling us:  that all dysfunctional behaviour is abusive of others and of ourselves, and to recognise (i.e. to know anew) all of the most important moral boundaries in those terms.  St Thomas Aquinas’ profoundest observation – that God is not offended until we hurt ourselves – applies to all sin, including sexual sin.  Our society is radically self-harming, and  we urgently need to reconfigure our understanding of sin in those terms .

The second vital connection is to understand why people self-harm.  Congenitally unsure of our own value, we become seriously dysfunctional if our society tells us we don’t have any.  And that is the message we receive daily when the media remind us that we are not important enough to be the source of the images we see.  The teenage girl who cuts herself or starves herself in anger at her inability to fit the ideal media-prescribed body shape unwittingly explains all self-harm.  Secular society (‘the world’) rewards the seeking of attention over the giving of it – and that is precisely why social respect, and self-respect – are so scarce.

And that in turn is why the Christian ‘prime directive’ is to love God first of all – the only reliable source of self-respect – allowing us then to love both ourselves and our neighbours, unconditionally, and to build a mutually respectful community.

It takes only a moment’s reflection to realise that Jesus’ love for the poor was in fact a deep respect for them, as they are.  In teaching us the reverse of that – that respect can only be acquired by upward mobility, by changing ourselves in some way to win the approval of others – secularism both deceives and condemns us to endless frustration and self-harm.

It also disempowers us in our own space by telling us to wait for experts, delegated politicians and their civil servants to come up with a policy that will change everything that ails us.  This is the shell game of secular democracy:  ‘give us power so that we can solve all your problems, and meanwhile wait inertly for us to do so’.  We could wait forever.

To tell someone the reverse of that: that they already have the power, and the obligation, to love themselves and others, now and always, in their own space – and by so doing to change that space radically for themselves and others – is true empowerment of the individual.  And that is essentially what the Gospel is telling us.

Our inability to value ourselves as we are – to love ourselves – lies at the root of every one of the huge problems that secular politics patently cannot solve:

  • Addiction: (This is usually rooted in fear of failure, or in self-hatred or shame, and is best addressed by e.g. the twelve-step programme which restores a realistic and robust sense of self-worth.)
  • Environmental collapse: (The global pursuit of an unsustainable lifestyle is also driven by media-induced shame at not having what the wealthiest have.)
  • Depression: (The challenges of life in an individualistic culture can lead to a critical loss of hope and self-belief– because individualism also leads to a loss of supportive and affirming family and community relationships);
  • Inequality and injustice: (All desire to be superior arises out of a fear of being considered inferior.)
  • Violence: (This is also mostly rooted in competition for dominance out of a fear of inferiority.  Even the violence that arises out of addiction usually has its origins in shame and fear of failure, because that is where most addiction begins.)
  • Abuse: (Self-absorption and lack of empathy also originate in lack of self-love – often due to a serious deficit in early nurturing.  The person who deeply respects himself is most unlikely to disrespect others.  The person who has been deeply loved as a child is most unlikely ever to abuse children.)

There is therefore absolutely no reason for the hesitancy that has overtaken the preaching of the Gospel in Ireland in recent decades, for the common feeling that faith is socially irrelevant, or for the assumption that the future lies with secularism.  There is instead a dire need to seize the initiative by arguing that religious faith, accompanied by reason, can supply the only binding and compelling power available to us to deal directly with the problems of our own local environment as our crisis grows.

We are hindered in doing this presently only by our own inability to connect the Gospels with the problems of our own time and to realise the danger of a force every bit as dangerous as undisciplined sexuality.  This is vanity – the seeking of admiration.  It arises out of our natural inability to value ourselves as we are, and it lies at the root of the widest variety of evils, from rampant careerism (even in the church) to workplace bullying, and consumerism.   It also destroys community and family by leading us into individualism, social climbing and dysfunction.

It is the inability to make these connections that leads to the present chasm between church and society in Ireland.  Clericalism, including lay clericalism, deepens this chasm by fixating on the behaviour that the priest regulates in church, and by disregarding what is equally important – the individual lay person’s role in, and understanding of, the secular world.   We have almost lost the connection between a healthy spirituality and a healthy community, and Catholic education and parish life too often fail to restore that connection when we most need it – when we are adults.

Sadly, although love is not lacking in the church, and many Sunday homilists do indeed convey the importance of love, few ever explore the pervasive pursuit of celebrity in modern culture, or the reasons for it.  I have yet to hear a good homily on the problem of vanity, as revealed in, for example, the debates among the apostles on which of them was the greatest, and in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  No one ever notices the particular problem of the second son (he supposes he will never have the status his father enjoys while he stays at home).  And invariably the reluctance of the rich young man to follow Jesus is supposed to be all about loss of money and security, never about loss of the social status that wealth always provides.

Almost certainly this strange inability to ‘get’ such a constant theme in the Gospels  has to do with the fact that the church is still emerging from a long period of clerical social pre-eminence.  But, now that this period is at an end in the West, why is institutional Catholicism still very much a status pyramid, despite the insistence of Lumen Gentium and Canon Law that we are all equal in dignity?  Do our seminaries fail to ask this question (and to point out that the Gospel answers it) because they too are status pyramids of a kind?

It is time we all understood what was going on in the Gospel when the apostles competed for status – and almost came to blows.  And noticed also that spiritual health always involves a deep consciousness of one’s own dignity and a loss of fear of what others may think. Only when we have understood the vital community role of spiritual health, and of spiritual insight into what is wrong with us – and then commissioned our laity to rebuild their own local communities by loving one another – can we revive our church, and our society.

Notes

  1. ‘Appalling incidence of sexual abuse virtually ignored’, Vincent Browne, Irish Times 23-04-08
  2. The SAVI Report – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, Sponsored by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Published by Liffey Press, 2002.

Love before Knowledge: The search for portable truth

Sean O’Conaill  © The Furrow Sep 2005

Serving on a Cursillo weekend I was once struck by the attitude of a priest sampling it for the first time. He was himself, he told us, a trained Catechist, who had years of experience of putting on courses. For various reasons he simply wouldn’t do things this way. He had thawed out by the Sunday, but his haughty negativity was a severe challenge while it lasted.

I need to explain here, perhaps, that the Cursillo experience is essentially one of Christian community. Its central message – that each of us is equally and infinitely loved – is conveyed not so much through a sophisticated verbal theology as through the manner in which the largely lay Cursillo team welcome, show compassion for, and entertain the first-timers, the ‘candidates’ – who are often casualties of our intellectually meritocratic culture. The expert priest’s problem was that his greater intellectual sophistication gave him a vantage point from which he felt obliged to be negative about the unsophisticated doctrinal content of the course.

I remember the incident as an illustration of something that I believe to be seriously blocking the development of the church at present: the apparent belief of so many experts, and of much of the hierarchy, that to move lay people into Christian commitment there is a need for the delivery of a very substantial body of knowledge – knowledge that only they can be trusted to determine, package and deliver. As often as not it tends to be a substantial sampling of the Catechism.

What is called Catholic ‘adult education’ tends as a consequence to be a heavy, texty, affair, couched in a heavily Latinated terminology – and costing so much to deliver that only a few people can afford it. Furthermore, it is, in my experience, difficult to see the positive results in terms of the buzzing parishes we would all like to see. Those who receive this experience may know more – but not what to do next.

Already, of course, I need to guard myself against the conclusion that I am anti-intellectual. Quite the contrary: I have been a teacher for most of my adult life, preparing adolescents for higher education, and so have a considerable stake in raising the intellectual horizons of lay people generally. But to do this we need first of all to develop the confidence of the learner, and the present content-heavy method of Catholic instruction very often has the opposite effect. Too often it mistakenly implies that the more that is known of the detailed minutiae of Catholic doctrine, the closer one necessarily comes to a grasp of the whole : that quantity equals quality.

I am now convinced that what the magisterium should do is what every good teacher always does: decide on what belongs at the summit of what it calls the hierarchy of truths, and teach that as a priority, right from the start.

What is it that lies there? What is it above all we must not only know, but keep present in mind at all times, as an encapsulation of all that the Catechism, and the Gospels contain? Knowledge is a diffuse, potentially limitless thing, which we cannot carry in toto as we go through our day. While we think of one thing, a lot of others ‘slip out the back’ – perhaps something vital. So wouldn’t it be useful to state, in the shortest form possible, the one vital thing we must all never forget? Wouldn’t this small burden of truth be portable at all times, a summary of all that lies below it in the hierarchy of truths?

I have thought about this for some considerable time over the past decade, and propose the following:

The most important thing for a Christian to know
Is that the most important thing for her/him to DO
Is NOT to KNOW
But to LOVE.

To establish this, I feel I need only point out what Jesus said four times in the Gospel of John, and what was repeated nine further times in the new Testament. He never emphasised knowing as such – ‘being right’: the instruction is to love, first and always. Knowledge is important, and especially knowledge of the basic story related in the creeds and the Rosary, but it must never be given a greater importance than the obligation to love, and must always be interpreted in the light of that principle.

If quantitative knowledge is given primacy, love and relationship are very likely to be lost – and mere intellectual ostentation to be in the ascendant. The Crusaders, or at least their leaders, knew the creeds, but their primary obligation of love had been tragically left behind in the tabernacles of Europe. The Inquisition – the source of so much continuing alienation from Christianity – was grounded on the same sad foundation.

Further, the primacy given by Jesus to love is a call, not primarily to endless study, but to relationship – especially, first of all (in the teaching context), the relationship of teacher to student. The light burden Jesus gave us – if we can remember it – will establish from the start between student and teacher the great truth they both share: because they are both equally and infinitely loved, they are bound in love to one another – and therefore bound to respect one another also. Knowing what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths, the student has already completed the most important part of the course.

Further, from that very first moment the student is called into action also. There is no need to complete the course to discover what its most important application should be – the ‘bottom line’. The primacy of the obligation to love can enlighten, and move, from the first moment it is learnt and experienced.

Take the case of a highly qualified catechist tasked with the delivery of one of those substantial courses we too often see. His professional obligation – to ‘complete the course’ – is quite likely to be oppressive from the very start. Furthermore these times, it is likely that course members will have problems with an obscure terminology – and even with some point of doctrine. Suppose an argument develops, and the catechist stands firm to what he believes the Catechism says. Or, more likely, frustration or boredom set in soon after the initial enthusiasm. And course members walk away, never to return.

Two things have happened here. First, the catechist has actually lost sight of what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths. In the pressures of the ‘big course’ the key truth has indeed ‘dropped out the back’. Second, some of his students may now never find it – even though it was deliverable in the very first minutes of the course. Nothing of any great importance has been taught, when something vital could have been.

Furthermore, this approach would address the problem that lies at the heart of the issue of ‘non reception’ – such a vital issue these days. Lay people tend to feel talked down to – and the sheer heaviness of what is proposed is often very intimidating to them. This is a very bad start to the teacher-student relationship – the so obvious inequality between teacher and student. It is a recipe for trouble, tedium, group shrinkage, even total failure, right from the start.

But if both teacher and student share from the start, and never allow to drop out of sight, what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths, there is a continuing basic equality between them. The student has understood the most vital thing a Christian must know, and must not forget, and so has succeeded in establishing his/her competence and intelligence.

I would argue strongly that the failure to lighten and organise Catholic instruction as radically as this lies at the heart of its current problems. We are so worried by the task of ‘passing on the faith’, and so concerned to leave nothing out, that we have often actually dropped that beautiful burden – disguised it, concealed it, lost it – and many children and adults now never receive it. Taking exception to some rebuff or scandal or frustration – or an endless diet of doctrine that seems never to ‘cut to the chase’ – they leave the church and proclaim that it is a tyrannical institution that indoctrinates people.

And so it does if it puts knowledge – especially large quantities of it – before love itself.

I fear that this is precisely what the magisterium has too often unwittingly done. Proclaiming the Catechism as the best answer to all our problems, and failing to privilege love over knowledge, it has privileged quantitative knowledge over love – failing to deliver what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths.

Binding itself also, apparently, to non-accountability and secrecy it has failed to learn that these are the only two parents that scandal needs – severely damaging the bond of love and trust that binds the whole church together. Although scandal after scandal has revealed that the secular implementation of the Christian principle of accountability has given more protection and vindication to injured Catholic children and their families than the hierarchy’s own (still non-accountable) apparatus, it refuses to learn from that experience.

One must ask: if the magisterium has forgotten what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths, and refuses to learn from every lesson it receives on its own apparent inability to love – and on how it might love better – by what argument can it justify its authority to teach? Doesn’t, for example, the Cursillo, which, at its best, prioritises love, compassion and relationship over knowledge, teach better?

I ask this question especially on behalf of those theologians who have been silenced for supposed heterodoxy – and also on behalf of those committed supporters of orthodoxy who often fear that they are considered merely ‘company men’ because they have not been silenced.

The excuse given for this coercion – that ‘the faithful’ would be endangered by the ideas of powerful intellectuals – is entirely misconceived, even, I suspect, bogus. Those without an interest in fine theological distinctions, but with no shortage of spiritual intelligence, very quickly lose interest in those distinctions – so long as the basic truths of the creeds are not in dispute. Knowing the church of their own local community as a loving institution, they are content to know what the worriers apparently do not: that loving is more important than knowing. Those who love and pray do not give primacy to knowledge or ‘big ideas’ – but to love. And if they suspect that any thinker is challenging their faith in that principle, they typically lose interest also in what he, or she, may have to teach.

Furthermore, such people are now, in parts of Northern Ireland, finding that the same small but beautiful burden is carried by many Christians of the reformed traditions. Knowing and sharing the principle of equal respect they meet and discuss what is shared with surprise and joy. Feeling comfortable they even explore differences with curiosity rather than fear, and often with mutual enrichment.

And this raises another question. Why should relationships between Catholics and other Christian traditions be troubled by the supposed problem of merging and reconciling vast theologies, vast bodies of knowledge? If trust and love are given precedence, what the different church’s theologians may disagree about is relatively insignificant in both relational and ‘truth’ terms. That is a matter for experts – but not for those whose primary goal is friendship and cordiality – the essence of their faith.

Why then is priority given to knowledge over love? I suggest that this has to do with a totally mistaken historical conception of what Christianity is all about. It is not about ‘my truth’, but the obligation to love even those whose truth is different.

My truth is, of course, where I stand – and Christians must know where to stand: but if that place does not include the primary obligation of love even of those who stand elsewhere, it lacks something essential to Christianity. It is not the very best place to stand. Early disputes, and the sad history of Christianity’s connection with the state, misled us all into what can be called ‘competitive knowing’: my truth is greater than your truth, and must therefore prevail. Jesus never said so – he simply lived and died for the beautiful truth – that love cannot coerce anyone – and is the primary obligation of a Christian.

That beautiful truth is now increasingly shared by Christians of other denominations. (I heard Steve Chalke, a Baptist minister, proclaim it movingly in Limavady in early January.) It is now highly desirable that the Catholic magisterium should receive it also – before it embarrasses itself, and the wider church, still further.

If knowledge continues to be prioritised over love and accountability, it will be clear that this can only be for reasons of power, not love. It will be revealed beyond question that the magisterium imitates rather than challenges our meritocratic culture, by deploying knowledge to avoid relinquishing status.

And the most beautiful truth, the summit of the hierarchy of truths, the truth any child can carry – that in God’s eyes we all enjoy the same high status – will have been obscured and lost by those who tell us their primary obligation and intention is to teach and to preserve it.