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Shorter pieces written for journals and other articles since 1995.

Apocalypse Soon – or New Pentecost?

fire next time

If the Catholic church is in crisis in 2024, so is the world.

When scientists tell us we are exhausting the key resources of our planet, and political leaders struggle to contain the violence that can erupt anywhere – and extremists invent conspiracies freely on the Internet to justify hatred and scapegoating – who can now share the 18th century optimism that Reason would create a perfect world, without Faith?

Instead, allied to science and technology, human covetousness has created an egregious overclass whose indifference to the suffering of a far larger underclass now threatens the world with dystopia, tyranny and cataclysm.

Not without optimism has every pope since Leo XIII predicted a New Pentecost. Pope Francis did that again in Dublin in 2018.

“Each new day in the life of our families, and each new generation, brings the promise of a new Pentecost, a domestic Pentecost, a fresh outpouring of the Spirit, the Paraclete, whom Jesus sends as our Advocate, our Consoler and indeed our Encourager.”

So what is it that faces us – New Pentecost as prayed for by popes, or Disaster – the Apocalypse as understood by popular media – the end of everything? When environmental scientists hesitate to beget children we are truly faced by a nightmare rather than the Utopia prophesied by the most naive at the 18th century dawn of secular liberalism.

And yet the word Apocalypse means not disaster but revelation, the breaking in of insight – exactly what is needed to precipitate a global sharing of the truth that was glimpsed in the pandemic of 2019-22. To the basic needs of food, clean water, clean air and shelter we need to add the realisation that we are all both interconnected and in need of peace and climatic safety – above all else.

Superyachts and Helicopters?

Who can sensibly be dreaming of superyachts and helicopters in such a time, or survival bunkers somewhere in New Zealand? That we tend to want what others want – choosing our own desires from the preferred options of the mega-rich – is now as obvious as the futility of doing just that. Everyone everywhere is threatened by the self-indulgence of those who can currently choose what they want from the conveyer belts of the 2024 global economy.

Who cannot see this choice as a turning point of human history – with salvation on offer only if we opt for simplicity, the Gospel of just enough?

Reason to be reasonable must now see what Faith has always taught: that there is no wisdom alternative to the Great Commandments. This is a most dangerous time – but also a time for confidence that, despite its obvious faults, our church has not led us astray.

It’s not a choice of Apocalypse OR New Pentecost that now faces us. In an intensifying global crisis radical rethinking is unavoidable, as well as prayer. Revelation and New Pentecost will come to us together. The leaders of tomorrow will be the first to experience this – the first to absorb the whole truth.

Sean O’Conaill, May 2024

Views: 356

Why did Jesus of Nazareth accept Crucifixion?

  1. To rescue us from fear of the judgement of others – what Jesus calls ‘the world’ (John 16:33) – by overthrowing, without violence, the judgement of the world of his time, and all time. This fear of judgement, which comes not from God but from the Adversary, is the root of all Status Anxiety (fear of ‘what people think’), status seeking, inequality and violence.
  2. So that we might follow him out of love rather than fear.
  3. To teach us to forgive as He did.
  4. To reveal to us the origin of all violence in Status Anxiety – and the Satanic historical pattern of the accusation and scapegoating of the innocent that arises from the Status Anxiety of those seeking or wielding punitive power.
  5. To give us a limitless horizon – beyond mere consumption, sexual fixation and death.
  6. To offer freedom from fear to those challenged to speak the truth to abusive power, the whistle-blowers who are needed even in the church.
  7. To allow us always to review the history of the church and to lament the Status Anxiety that misled it too often into too close an alliance with state power (c.313 CE to c.1918 CE) under Christendom, and the many victimisations, enslavements and compromises with violence that followed – including the abuse of children by ordained clergy.
  8. To take away even those sins when we have seen them, and properly atoned.
  9. To clarify our understanding of sin as stemming from doubt of our own value, leading to the coveting of status in the positive regard of others – and all other unloving and unjust actions.
  10. To make way for the Holy Spirit, close counsellor of everyone.
  11. To bring us back to the Father our maker – and sender of Jesus our Rescuer and the Holy Spirit our counsellor.
  12. To save the world in an always New Creation – through our conversion and our witness to the Blessed Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who accompany us always and forever.

If the earliest Christians were given new life by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and a vision of a new creation in a violent world now passing away, why should Christians of our time not always see this world of now as equally limited in judgement, and the Trinity as calling them always to a new and peaceful Kingdom of God, beyond all ambition and conflict? The medieval God seen by St Anselm of Canterbury as bent only on balancing the scales of an eternal justice is not the God of the apostles or of Irenaeus or the other early fathers, for whom it was God the Father who had burst their chains by sending them His Son.

Using the psychological and anthropological insights of Alain de Botton and René Girard it is time to return to the early church’s vision of Jesus of Nazareth as Christus Victor, who with the father’s help has overturned the verdict of the world, by exposing the real author of the lies that had condemned him. In the words of Gustav Aulén, interpreting Irenaeus:

First, then, it must be emphasised that the work of atone­ment is regarded as carried through by God Himself; and this, not merely in the sense that God authorises, sanctions, and initiates the plan of salvation, but that He Himself is the effective agent in the redemptive work, from beginning to end. It is the Word of God incarnate who overcomes the tyrants which hold man in bondage; God Himself enters into the world of sin and death, that He may reconcile the world to Himself. Therefore Incarnation and Atonement stand in no sort of antithesis; rather, they belong inseparably together. It is God’s Love, the Divine agape, that removes the sentence that rested upon mankind, and creates a new relation between the human race and Himself, a relation which is altogether different from any sort of justification by legal righteousness. The whole dispensation is the work of grace.” [Gustav Aulén, Christus Victor, 1931. S.P.C.K. edition 1965, p 34.]

Views: 226

‘The Lightest Burden’ – Origin and Purpose

“…there is a crisis in transmission of faith … we are unsure about how to evangelise in the modern world…”

Clipped from the Irish national synodal synthesis of August 2022 this conclusion is obviously derived from the 26 diocesan synodal reports of that year – with 25 of those dioceses echoing an urgent need for adult faith formation – to address a critical problem of younger generational drift from Catholic faith practice.

My own diocese, Derry, in June 2022 reported that “There was a widespread desire among participants to learn more about their faith and many believed that adult faith formation should be available within, and between more parishes.” Further on we were told that “Plans for developing a programme of adult faith formation are already well underway in the diocese.

Despite this assurance, Derry diocese was still without an ongoing programme for adult faith development in the spring of 2024 – when I attended a two-day course in synodal leadership led by members of Ireland’s Synodal Pathway steering group, in Drumalis House, Larne (March 14,15).

Alpha & Drumalis

Embarked already from early 2024 on an invigorating Alpha course in Coleraine, I found myself challenged on the Drumalis leadership course to discern a personal synodal mission. This soon focused upon the unresolved Derry faith formation issue, with the hope of simplifying the faith formation task by starting with something familiar – the Rosary prayers – and taking a new look at those. I thought that this focus could both complement the higher-tech inter-church Alpha programme by adding a specifically Catholic dimension to it, and provide a low-tech and easily portable tool to enable family and small group use.

(The Alpha programme requires considerable investment of effort by quite a large team, as well as video projection equipment and premises that will permit the provision of refreshment.)

Concerned above all to convey the truth that Catholic Christian core beliefs are portable by any young adult I aimed at verbal compression and simplicity – and gave the pages the title ‘The Lightest Burden ‘. If Jesus insists that ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light’ should not every effort be made at verbal simplicity and brevity – and joy – when trying to encapsulate the faith – especially for young people?

The Creed as Celebration of Jesus’ Victory over Evil

Moreover, wasn’t the original Good News simply the news of Jesus’ resurrection and therefore also of the defeat of the Accuser, Satan, the father of lies – beginning with the lies told against Jesus at his trial?

What we call the Apostles Creed was centred on this core belief in the Resurrection as the downfall of Satan the Accuser (for our sake) – and yet the history of Christendom determined that this short summary of Catholic belief was in need of vast expansion into what is often referred to as the ‘deposit of faith’. That by c. 1100 this deposit had come to include a very different emphasis – God the Father’s supposed need for satisfaction for sin – is surely the core problem of Christian evangelisation and faith formation today.

The Rosary as Celebration

The Joyful mysteries of the Rosary surely centre on the promise of Jesus’ victory over Satan – the source of all evil. The Glorious mysteries celebrate, in turn, that same victory, then the coming of the Paraclete – the defender of the oppressed – and then the enthronement of the mother of God. In between the Sorrowful mysteries take us through the suffering that won the victory.

That the Rosary is potentially always a celebratory prayer is as obvious as the fact that all too often it is recited as a penance.

‘Satisfaction’?

Why did it happen that in the second Christian millennium the Father who sent Jesus to liberate the earliest Christians – consciously – from the pall of evil that overshadowed the ancient world became instead the demanding Father who had sent Jesus to satisfy the demands of his eternal justice – i.e. primarily for his own satisfaction?

That this theological development accompanied the maximal political empowerment of the church c. 1100 CE is surely suggestive of an answer. The church had by then itself a crucial political role: the support of nominally edifying Christian European rulers – so God the Father had by then supposedly no need to liberate the world. On the other hand a very distant God who needed satisfaction for sin was very like a distant medieval king who needed his people to be obedient above all, and therefore more than a little fearful as well.

Salvation as Liberation, Now

And this is surely why there has been an argument in our own time over liberation theology. History – the history of Christendom – has seriously confused our understanding of the Creed – and made us prefer to recite it quickly and then walk away – rather than seek a new clarity that meets our current dire need for Hope.

And yet, arrested unjustly for blasphemy, in e.g. Pakistan, any Christian today could recite the Creed internally with exactly the same purpose as a Christian under the Roman emperor Diocletian – to remind herself that the Father who has raised Jesus from the dead, and the Holy Spirit who is now her advocate, will not abandon her whatever happens.

And doesn’t every young person in the world today need to know that the same stern guardians of truth are at their elbow – if the very same Accuser and liar targets them on the Internet?

That even as yet our Catholic clergy cannot emphatically tell our younger generations this is part of the legacy of Christendom – the historical empowerment of the church that has confused its theology and made Christian faith formation still problematic.

Jesus diagnosed the central human problem long ago – our tendency to look for glory from one another, rather than from God. It is our fear of one another’s scorn that leads to the telling of lies – and the need for the One who would never bow to falsehood.

The Victory of Truth is Certain

It is surely high time to stop simply reciting the Creed as a series of disconnected verbal dogmas – to restore its power as inward reassurance that Christ’s victory – and the victory of truth itself – is certain. Jewish people sometimes actually dance to the Shema Israel (‘Hear O Israel’) – the recitation of the great commandments of Israel – the commandments of love (Deut 6:4-9). Someday surely we catholic Christians must have cause to dance to the Creed?

Views: 237

On Exodus? From What?

“We are afflicted by a congenital uncertainty as to our own value.”

So wrote Alain de Botton, philosopher, in 2004. His name for this affliction – Status Anxiety – is the title of an accessible book on the subject.1Status Anxiety, A de Botton, Penguin 2005 Outlining its role in Victorian snobbery, class conflict, consumerism, the idea of ‘meritocracy’ and many other things he makes a persuasive case for Status Anxiety as a pernicious source of unhappiness in all eras and cultures – but especially in the West today.

De Botton suggests also that religion, especially Christianity, might be a cure. Could this offer insight into our ongoing hesitation over ‘mission’, and maybe much more than that?

Status Anxiety in the Church

Take, for example, the ‘shock’ expressed by the late Cardinal Bernardin Gantin in 1999, for the rampant ‘social climbing’ of bishops who had looked to him, as a Vatican official, for transfer to ‘more prestigious’ dioceses.2See Wikipedia article on Bernardin Gantin If other Vatican officials were not prone to the same affliction would there have been a ‘Vati-leaks’ affair in 2012, or a papal retirement the following year?

[It is, of course, untrue that Irish parishes and dioceses are ranked in much the same way by Irish clergy, and that transfer to the least prestigious (poorest) parish or diocese is regarded as demotion – even if scurrilous rumours of this persist!]

Take also the embarrassment suffered now by sincere clergy over the plethora of questionable clerical titles such as ‘Monsignor’ (My Lord) or ‘Canon’. Would so many of those have been invented if ordination was an instant cure for the yearning for higher status?

Take then something far more pernicious – the practice by Irish bishops until 1994 of secrecy on clerical child sex abuse. When the bishops of Ireland admitted in December 2009 that this had arisen out of a desire to preserve ‘the reputations of individuals and of the Church’ were they not also admitting to the role of clerical Status Anxiety in the deepest church scandal of our time?3Statement of the Winter 2009 Conference of Bishops in Ireland

The Crisis of Faith Formation

Why, finally, are Irish bishops so slow in getting to grips with what is now an existential problem for Irish Catholicism – described in the August 2022 national synodal report as ‘a crisis in the transmission of faith’?4Synthesis of the Consultation in Ireland for the Diocesan Stage of the Universal Synod 2021-23 Why the failure, over decades, to conduct and publish research on the effectiveness of school-dependent faith formation – to get to the root of the indifference of so many baptised teenagers while still at school? Are we to believe there is no fear of further embarrassment by Irish campaigners against faith schools, on foot of any such research?

Could it be also that although now committed – at least on paper – to permanent synodal ‘mission’ we lack even a clear view of the ‘salvation’ from the ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ that the ‘Good News’ promises? Are we Irish Catholics largely inarticulate about our faith simply because we have failed to recognise that our own national history of imperial conquest and occupation has made us especially inclined to doubt our own value – i.e. to suffer from Status Anxiety – and embarrassed even to admit this to be an ‘affliction’ in need of a spiritual cure?

If the sixth commandment was especially emphasised in the past by Irish clergy was that because we could not see the repeated ban on covetousness in commandments nine and ten as a warning against desire for the higher status that our wealthy neighbours, secular or religious, might ‘show off’ in their possessions or titles? Has our inability to categorise status seeking as a spiritual problem – and often also our uncritical embracing of a ‘meritocratic’ ethos in our schools – been a huge beam in our discerning eye – an inability to focus something deeply problematic that was always in plain sight?

Have we even yet fully absorbed the meaning of the Catholic social principle that all of us, as children of God, are already strictly equal in dignity – and St Peter’s own mature conclusion that ‘God has no favourites’ (Acts 10:34)?

Could it even be that Status Anxiety is at the root of the ongoing reluctance of many priests to engage in fully committed synodal discussion?

On Exodus?

‘We are a people on Exodus,’ said Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry in 2016.5‘Bishop Donal McKeown welcomes delegates to the European Laity Forum Study Assembly’ This reminder of the association of the God of Israel, and of Jesus, with ‘redemption’ – i.e. with liberation from enslavement – surely prompts a critical question for faith formation today: From what enslavement is the Gospel offering us – the people of Ireland and the world – liberation today?

‘From the power of evil’ is surely true, but also far too abstract to be helpful. In what visible, real phenomena do we see that power of evil begin to work?

If we find that question baffling, could that be the root of our problem with articulating the ‘Good News’ to younger generations?

That Jesus of Nazareth, though born in poverty, was entirely free of Status Anxiety is a dominant theme of the Gospels. ‘Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you,’ say those seeking to entrap him in political opposition to Rome (Matt 22:16). ‘Why do you eat with sinners?‘ is another frequent complaint (e.g. Luke 5:30).

‘Why do you worry about what you wear?’ Jesus asks in return (Matt 6:28). Berating the tendency of religious hypocrites to dress up to impress others was he not identifying their Status Anxiety as their core problem? (Matt 23:5)

Before the crisis of the crucifixion the apostles were also clearly trapped in deference to the honour pyramids of their world. ‘An argument also began between them about who should be reckoned the greatest.’ (Luke 22:28) James and John, the sons of Zebedee, looked for a promise of the highest places in Jesus’s future kingdom (Mark 10:35-45) – pointing to what lies at the root of all conflict. Then finally Jesus’ forecast of his own crucifixion – the fate of a rebellious slave – was for Peter an impossible prospect (Matt 16:22). As Jesus’ first lieutenant, how could he himself now escape ultimate social disaster?

So when Peter told Jesus that his crucifixion ‘must not happen’, and Jesus called him ‘Satan’, are we being told to look to Peter’s fear of shame – to his Status Anxiety – as the wellspring of all evil?

Overthrowing the Judgement of the World

Our sense of identity is held captive by the judgements of those we live among.

This for Alain de Botton is the self-imprisoning consequence of Status Anxiety. All seeking of the positive regard of others can follow only from the mistake of attributing to those others the authority to evaluate ourselves. Who can justly claim such authority?

When Jesus asked his critics why they looked only to one another for glory was he not nailing a mistake we all tend to make? When he assured his more attentive listeners that some Galileans recently slaughtered by Pilate were not worse sinners than anyone else was he not revealing that Jews of that time were drawing exactly that conclusion from Roman occupation and brutality – that this was a ‘thumbs down’ from their own God as well? (Luke 13:1-4)

‘Do not judge,’ insisted Jesus. The religious elites of his time, the pharisees and scribes, were inclined to do exactly that. An ability to memorise and deploy any of the 613 laws of Leviticus led naturally to hypocrisy and judgementalism – and therefore also to extreme Status Anxiety on the part of the poor and illiterate. Is not that what it was to be ‘poor in spirit’?

I have overcome the world,’ said Jesus in response to his own impending judgement (John 16:33). Did he not obviously mean that he had overcome the human tendency to internalise the criticism and judgement of others – including those at the summit of the honour pyramids of his own time, in both ‘church’ and state?

Saying this, has he not told us also the purpose of the crucifixion: to subvert our tendency to fear the judgement of others, a tendency that empowers all who are ready to exploit it – from schoolroom and workplace and media trolls to religious charlatans, globalising entrepreneurs, racist agitators and scandal-hungry journalists?

How could Jesus have challenged us to face, and to overcome, in prayer, our own fear of shame if he had not faced that same challenge?

That Jesus’ resurrection was for the first Christians liberation from the fear of being looked down upon, especially by Rome and by their own religious elites, is altogether plain in the detail and conviction of the New Testament texts. What else could St Paul have meant when he wrote of a ‘new creation’? (2 Cor 5:17)

And was not Status Anxiety – this human tendency to doubt our own value as we are – also the original human frailty attributed to Adam and Eve in the Genesis allegory? Do we need seriously to rethink what we mean by original sin?

Lying at the root of all social ambition was it not Status Anxiety that drove Alexander the Great, the Pharaohs and the Caesars? Is it not the wellspring of all modern imperialism, inequality, oppression and conflict – and now of the rampant desire to be media icons?

Deployed now by social media as a core strategy for making digital addicts even of children, is not the fostering of Status Anxiety – via the lottery of ‘going viral’ and ‘celebrity’ and ‘influence’ – the most pernicious of global plagues?

Is the Gospel truly irrelevant there, especially for the victims of all ages?

Salvation?

Jesus insisted: ‘whoever sees me sees the one who sent me‘ (John 12:45). Why then is Christianity, and Catholicism – and faith formation – still vexed by the medieval notion that the crucifixion of Jesus was demanded by a heavenly father who needed ‘satisfaction’ for the offence caused to him by sin? Why this attribution to God the Father of the same affliction of Status Anxiety that Adam and Eve – and medieval monarchs – had, when Jesus had no such problem?

The earliest Christians made no such charge. They clearly understood the passion and resurrection of Jesus in a totally different way: as liberation for themselves – by the Father – from fear of judgement and humiliation by the ‘principalities and powers’ of their own time (e.g. Rom 8:38).

Why should we not believe that the challenging and healing of Status Anxiety – essentially fear of shame from the negative judgement of others – was from the beginning the purpose of the Incarnation, the intention of the Trinity? When we say in the Creed that we believe in Jesus as final judge of ‘the living and the dead’ have we ‘relativised’ all other judges?

As for the Eucharist don’t we need to restore its meaning as a celebration of release from fear of the judgementalism of our own time, if we are to be joyfully ‘on Exodus’?

From what do we think we have we been liberated when we say:

‘Lord, by your cross and resurrection you have set us free.’ ?

As for the marginalised and the self-harming and the lonely – all those who are supposedly in need of our ‘mission’ – from what do they need liberation most of all? If we do not already know, why is that?

Notes

  1. Status Anxiety, A de Botton, Penguin 2005
  2. See Wikipedia article on Bernardin Gantin
  3. Statement of the Winter 2009 Conference of Bishops in Ireland
  4. Synthesis of the Consultation in Ireland for the Diocesan Stage of the Universal Synod 2021-23
  5. Bishop Donal McKeown welcomes delegates to the European Laity Forum Study Assembly’, June 23, 2016 – Irish Catholic Bishops Conference website.
[This article appeared first in The Furrow (Maynooth) in January 2024.]

Views: 225

2024: Irish Catholic Vocations Office Mired in Clericalism

 Front page of the Irish National Vocations Office website in January 2024

“Is God Calling You to be a Diocesan Priest? Come and See. Take the Risk for Christ.” This is what faces you when you click https://vocations.ie/ the website of Ireland’s Catholic “National Vocations Office”.

Asked by Ardal O’Hanlon on his RTE documentary what risk was involved in opting for the celibate priestly vocation today, the National Vocations Coordinator, Fr Willie Purcell, responded:

“Anyone who is presenting himself for priesthood nowadays is really being counter-cultural. It really is a radical decision. The risk really is giving yourself completely to Christ that others might come to know him through you.  There really is a lot of humility involved in it, of self-sacrifice involved in it, but most important of all a vocation is a selfless decision, to give yourself to Christ and then to give yourself to others.”

Yet again we are being asked here to ignore what the Gospel clearly tells us about Jesus, viz.:

  • That he was never a member of the priestly religious institution of his own time and place;
  • That his definitive role in ‘salvation’ was not sacramental or liturgical (i.e. symbolic) but the direct prophetic challenging of a religious system he saw as both exploitative and hypocritical, to the danger of his own life;
  • That it was therefore his integrity, not his celibacy, that constitutes the central sacrifice that he did indeed ask us to repeat in memory of him;
  • That the definitive Christian calling to ‘follow’ him was therefore NOT to males only to join an exclusively male religious institution but to the same self-giving and integrity in whatever social role we baptised Catholic Christians find ourselves – whatever our gender, age or occupation.

Why does the National Vocations Office see only the risk to clergy?

Why is it not obvious to the Irish National Vocations Office that any social role, in any society, can and does involve these challenges to integrity – and that risk can attach to any of these?

It isn’t only the lives and trials of outstanding Irish individuals such as Veronica Guerin, Maurice McCabe and Martin Ridge that demonstrate this. Public service, especially for women, has become notably more risky and challenging for anyone who approaches it with integrity in the age of the Internet. With Pope Francis now calling all of us, even teenagers, to ‘mission’ today – and with Irish Garda, nurses, firefighters and paramedics at risk on every callout in certain locales in Ireland  – why was this not obvious to whoever dreamt up the slogan ‘Take the risk for Christ’ – implying that the risk of Christian witness attaches solely to the male celibate sacramental calling?

Lessons of the Pandemic

Did not the Pandemic teach us that in an interdependent society the lives of all of us can depend upon those who risk turning up even to man the check-out in the local supermarket or the counter in a dispensary?

Isn’t even any Irish teenager who stands in school against sexual harassment or homophobic bullying – or online trolling of a friend – at risk, and is not this the risk that attaches to the common priesthood of the people of God, the risk that comes to all who affirm their Baptism?

Why does Fr Purcell imply that only the diocesan priest has the responsibility to bring the message of Christ to others, when the key message of synodality is that this responsibility comes to all of us with Baptism?

The Priests who spoke out

As for the specific risks that do indeed attach to the sacramental priesthood, how would Fr Purcell account for what happened to those Irish priests who did prophetically challenge the injustices of church policies in relation to women, the LGBT community and the mishandling by bishops of the issue of clerical sexual abuse of children in Ireland, back in 2012?

What a shame that Ardal O’Hanlon did not think to ask if that was indeed the ‘risk’ that the National Vocations Office has in mind!

Child Safeguarding and Risk

And if he had asked that question, would Fr Purcell have recalled  that we have never yet had an open conversation on the role and obligation of private conscience when faced with an abuse of authority in the church, as could happen, for example, to any of the child safeguarding personnel we now depend upon?

With synodality far from firmly embedded in our Catholic culture, and canon law still a mess, the risks for every servant of the church that are still posed by the church itself are far from merely notional or historic. Does Ireland’s National Vocations Office truly serve the church by apparently forgetting all of that?

Why in 2024 can we not instead have a properly balanced understanding  of ‘vocation’ that does not associate counter-cultural Christian self-sacrifice and ‘humility’ solely with the male celibate sacramental priestly role or imply that for all lay people the risk of Christian witness must be secondary?

Is it not to this clericalist talking-up of the sacramental role alone – and the consequent forgetting of the priestly and prophetic calling of all of us – that we must ascribe the incomprehension of so many young people about the Christian call to themselves?

Baptism the Primary Sacrament of the Priestly People of God

Finally, given the paramount importance of communicating the meaning of our common priesthood, why is the restoration of the primacy of Baptism still lagging totally in Ireland? Is that no concern of the National Vocations Office, or of the Irish Bishops Conference?

In its singular concern for the survival of the sacramental Catholic priesthood in Ireland the Irish National Vocations Office has presented us yet again with an understanding of the Christian vocation that is stridently and essentially clericalist.  This can only undermine the central message of synodality and delay the emergence of the co-responsible church we so badly need.

17th Jan 2024

Views: 274

Church Is Mission?

Without official rejection of a mistaken medieval understanding of ‘redemption’ the call to mission is futile.

~

Rather than saying that the Church has a mission, we affirm that Church ‘is’ mission.

Those are just two of 110 occurrences of the word mission in the Synthesis Report of the October 2023 16th Synod of Bishops in Rome.

Nowhere is there a convincing manifesto for this mission.  With the Irish national synodal synthesis of 2022 saying that ‘we are unsure about how to evangelise in the modern world‘ there is no help with that problem in the forty-one pages of the report.  

So far also the two Irish bishop representatives at the synod – Brendan Leahy of Limerick and Alan McGuckian of Raphoe – are also unhelpful.  All Catholic bishops are still imprisoned by a medieval theology of atonement and redemption that no missionary in Ireland today could offer as ‘Good News’? 

Blaming the Father

Originating with St Anselm of Canterbury in the late 11th century this theology proposes that the crucifixion of Jesus was demanded by the Father who sent him – to give ‘satisfaction’ for the ‘dishonour’ caused to the Father by all of our sins – by dying an excruciating death in ‘substitution’ for ourselves.  (CCC 615)

God the Father was Liberator for the early church.
This was not the theology of the early church. The very idea of ‘redemption’ derives from the ‘buying back’ of the freedom of a slave.  It was to God the Father that the first Christians attributed their own liberation from fear of the condemnation of their own Roman world.  The greatest power of that time had been proven powerless to overwhelm an ever-living  truth – by Jesus’ Resurrection.


What exactly do Irish bishops believe: that the Father of the mission we are now to embark upon is bent upon our liberation from the source of all oppression and fear in our present world – or that he is still, as he was for St Anselm in 1098 CE – in the business of calling in debts? 

This theology never even liberated any bishop. No Catholic bishop anywhere in the world is known to have warned his flock about the possibility of clerical sex abuse of children – before victims of that abuse or their families took secular legal action themselves.  In December 2009 the Irish Conference of Catholic bishops named the fear that had paralysed them: of a loss of ‘reputation’ if the truth was known.

The Root of All Evil?

An overbearing concern for ‘reputation’ now has a name – Status Anxiety – given in 2004 by the philosopher Alain de Botton. If our bishops cannot see this same affliction in every aspect of the evils that surround us – from manic consumerism, absurd inequality and climate change to compulsive cosmetic plastic surgery, stalking and mass shootings – and even invasive imperialism in Ukraine and violence in the Holy Land – how are we to convince anyone that Jesus has anything to do with overthrowing the power of evil?  If they cannot see it also in the problem of clericalism, how are we to overcome that? 

Status Anxiety is essentially fear of scorn – of being ‘cast out’ – the fear that stalks our dreams. It also drives the pursuit of ‘likes’, admiration, influence, celebrity – and power.  This explains the absorption of younger generations with digital media.  A globalized personal ‘brand’ can now be created, via a handheld device, even by children. 

Meanwhile our prisons and psychiatric hospitals and addiction centres struggle to cope with the depression, self-harm,  trolling, addiction and criminality that results from the lack of status – even the shame – that the victims of the digital age must feel. 

Jesus the Whistle-Blower
Is not Status Anxiety also the source of the fear that attacks would-be whistle-blowers everywhere?  Is that not what Jesus was – a whistle-blower against all injustice, who stood firm – without violence – against the merciless judgement of that ancient world? Did he not name his own mission, when he said, just before his own judgement, that he had ‘overcome the world’ – the fear of that judgement? Did he not by his crucifixion and resurrection dissolve the same fear in his earliest followers, who then took up their own crosses – and changed an empire? 


We Catholic Christians urgently need official recognition that the first person of the Trinity, far from being himself trapped in medieval Status Anxiety, is still bent – with the Son and the Holy Spirit – on rescuing us from that affliction. Until that happens the mission ahead will be ‘mission on pause’.

First published on the website of the Association of Catholic Priests of Ireland – Nov 21st 2023.

Views: 247

René Girard: The Creed Overcomes the World

First published in the Japan Mission Journal, Autumn 2023

As soon as I began exploring the Internet from the mid 1990s, I ran into arguments against Christian belief that were couched in the following terms: ‘To believe in an objective truth, to believe that history has a meaning and a destiny, is necessarily to wish to impose that understanding on others. All such “overarching stories”– otherwise known as “meta-narratives” or “master narratives”—are necessarily intolerant and violent—the Christian Creed included. The history of Christianity proves exactly that.

This is the argument for relativism, for the impossibility—and the danger—of any Creed, any overarching ‘story of salvation.’ It is the Gospel according to postmodernism. Yet when Pope Benedict XVI launched an intellectual assault on what he called ‘the dictatorship of relativism’ in 2005, he found a firm supporter in the influential literary, anthropological, and philosophical thinker René Girard (1923-2015).

Girard upholds the objective truth of the Christian doctrine of the Atonement, but gives it an anthropological reading that renders it credible in a fresh way. He sets up the Creed against the World in a battle for the human soul. Here I shall meditate on two Girardian themes: the influence of mimetic rivalry in history, and the way in which the Gospel weans us from seeking glory from one another (showing the importance of this for young people dealing with social media today).

A native of Avignon, France, who spent the bulk of his career in the United States, Girard insisted that he was never a theologian. He was first (in chronological order) a historian, then a literary critic, then a cultural anthropologist, and then a philosopher of violence in his ground-breaking work La Violence et le Sacré.1 René Girard, 1972. La Violence et le Sacré. (Paris: Grasset, 1972); Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976) He came from a French intellectual tradition that was, on his father’s side, secularist and anticlerical. Nevertheless in the 1970s he came to the firm conclusion that the Jewish and Christian scriptures, known to us as the Bible, had revealed, more clearly than any other texts, a fundamental inescapable truth about human nature – a truth that lies, he argues, at the root of all violence.

This is as follows: after we have satisfied our basic physical needs we humans literally do not know what we should want. Someone else who is apparently more important than ourselves must show us what to want or desire. We are therefore, necessarily, imitative beings. We learn by copying, subliminally, the behavior we see, as soon as we begin to see. We cannot help but adopt as our own at least some of the desires that we also see—especially the desires we observe in those who appear to have greater ‘being’ or status or fame. Girard calls this copied desire ‘mimetic desire.’ He identifies it with the tendency we are warned against in the 9th and 10th commandments—not to covet what belongs to a neighbor—not to want anything that belongs to a neighbor.

To covet is not a matter of simple greed or desire; it entails an element of rivalry and imitation. The repetition of the word ‘neighbor’ is, Girard argued, all-important. It is through that lens that he interpreted the tales of violence in Scripture and indeed the entire historical record. (He had previously uncovered the dynamics of mimetic desire in studies of the modern novel, including Cervantes, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, and Proust.)2See René Girard, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Paris: Grasset, 1961); Desire, Deceit, and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).

Mimetic Desire in History

Take, for example, the young 6thcentury Irish monk, Columba. His coveted object was the laboriously handwritten and unique copy of the Psalms owned and prized by his eminent neighbor St Finnian. According to one version of the story there followed from this clashing desire the collision of two Ulster Gaelic noble families in the battle of Cul Dreimne in 561—–and Columba’s penitential exile on Iona. The history of copyright law began at that point, according to Wikipedia.

Henry II of England coveted the lands of his nearest neighbors to the west, the Irish. There was a ready excuse for appropriating them: the allegedly lower moral and religious standards of us Irish back then. No eminent cleric in England, or Rome, demurred (as far as I know) when Henry performed his religious duty—by invading Ireland in 1171. Note both the ostensible religious motive for that invasion and the far more likely motive—simply wanting what your neighbor has that you do not. Those who want to see in religion the cause of all violence do not ever want to notice what almost always lies beneath.

How could Henry II of England so easily get away with that? Recall that since the fourth century Christianity had come to be allied with state actors in a contract that seemed to benefit both. Charles the Great (Charlemagne) crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800, had built that empire, avowedly, in the cause of the one true faith. He did that, often, with immense cruelty.

And then, in 1095 came the famous speech attributed to Pope Urban II at Clermont—the oration that launched the first Crusade against the Islamic world. One historical source has Urban saying the following:

Can anyone tolerate that we [Europeans] do not even share equally with the Moslems the inhabited earth? They have made Asia, which is a third of the world, their homeland…. They have also forcibly held Africa, the second portion of the world, for over 200 years. There remains Europe, the third continent. How small a portion of it is inhabited by us Christians.3Quoted in P Johnson, A History of Christianity, (London: Penguin, 1976, p. 244

Yes of course there were very good religious reasons for heading off to Jerusalem with an army, but was the occupation of the Holy Land by the Crusaders truly all about religious zeal? Exactly the same question applies to the global Christian imperialism that set in with the voyages of discovery in the 1400s, with Portugal and Spain in the lead. In the summer of 2022 Pope Francis was faced with the so called ‘doctrine of discovery’ that justified all that.

The New Digital Imperialism

In our own time, following the rise and fall of the prestige of Christian churches (over twenty centuries) a new global empire has arisen: the empire of global electronic media. Everywhere the teenagers of today can look for proof of their own significance on screens they need never darken. The screen itself, easily portable on a mobile smartphone, is a mimetic magnet. If a friend is absorbed in her phone that surely signifies the existence of a more important social universe via the phone than can exist without one, so the phone becomes a ‘must have’, a ‘portal’ to the irresistible possibility of ‘going viral’. And yet ‘virality’ too is a scarce resource, so fractious rivalries—this time in an arena that is potentially global—are the inevitable consequence of this online mimetic competition for attention.

The result? The verdict of many studies confirms the research of an Oxford University team: screen time correlates with poor mental health and ‘the association of well-being with regularly eating potatoes was nearly as negative as the association with technology use.’ Furthermore, the renowned US psychologist Dr Jean Twenge found in 2022 that the correlation between social media consumption and mental health challenges for young girls was even stronger.

The link between social media use and poor mental health for girls was 10 times as large as what the Oxford paper identified for “screen time.” A recent paper by two Spanish statisticians also examined the Oxford researchers’ techniques and also found a much stronger link. These findings fit with Facebook’s internal research, leaked by a whistleblower and published last fall, which concluded that Instagram led to depression and body image issues, particularly among teenage girls.’ (Washington Post, 16 February 2022)

The power of ‘social media’ lies in the simplest of mistaken assumptions —that our value and importance are determined by the judgment of others. Disappointment and elation, obscurity or recognition, honor and shame are in the gift of a handheld device that tells us at a glance where we stand. Anyone can therefore fall victim to an iron law of history—the very same law that governed the rivalries of the ancient world. Wherever there is a search for status there will also be the formation of alliances in the shaming of those who are in any way vulnerable.

That many of the young are now mentally distressed and disturbed as a consequence is well established. To believe in the Internet, or in media generally, as the arbiter of a person’s worth is to fall into spiritual poverty. It is also to be in danger of entrapment in cults or conspiracy theories, completely isolated from reality. Already there have been tragic instances of youthful suicide directly related to the power of social media to determine the mood and the behavior of its most vulnerable devotees. It is not far-fetched to describe social media fixation as algorithm enslavement, and the deployers of those algorithms—aiming as they do at ‘hooking’ and retaining the attention of all who enter—as digital imperialists and enslavers.

The Creed as Antidote to Digital Imperialism

The logic of crucifixion in the ancient Roman world was also squarely based upon the proposition that the value and significance of any human life is determined by social verdict. Why take the time to make a spectacle of crucifying anyone if the expected payoff was not the consolidation of the power and status of Rome, by convincing the beholders that there could be no greater power?

And yet the crucifixion of Jesus had the opposite effect on those who firmly believed that, somehow, Jesus had not been obliterated by it. Hence the conviction of the converted Paul of Tarsus that a ‘New Creation’ was now in process, and that the power of Rome was ‘passing away.’ With its trinitarian and resurrectionist core already expressed in the Gospel of Matthew by the end of the first century, the Creedal narrative was clearly in its origins a rebuttal not only of the Lordship of the Caesars, but a portable indestructible passport through any tyranny—to be recited in time of trial as a reminder of where the greater power always lay. The survival and growth of the church in the first three centuries, despite three separate waves of persecution, is testament to a core of belief that warded off all contrary social verdicts. The Creed is the densest expression of that core, even if, under Christendom, it was later misapplied as a catalogue of dogmas serving as an instrument of clerical control.

Now, with clerical control receding into history, the essence of the Creed—the proclamation that Jesus has been resurrected and vindicated by the Father, and raised to the status of supreme judge of the living and the dead—is ready for rediscovery as a rebuttal of the fallacy that anyone but Jesus is valid final judge of any one of us, and therefore as rejection of the orgy of judgmentalism—and of ‘viral’ global ambition—that plagues the Internet. No one should ever consider the verdicts of YouTube or Instagram or TikTok or any other online arena to be definitive of the value of anyone, least of all of oneself.

What has the Experience of Media Shaming taught Irish clergy?

An Irish Catholic Church that has fallen from high social prestige to social disgrace in little over a generation has so far adjusted poorly to this situation. Clergy whose vocations began before ‘the fall’ were themselves teenagers when their own corporation was a power-broker of both honor and shame in Ireland. Resentment and even anger (much of it justified) can be their default reaction to the reversal of fortunes they have experienced.

There is another option: to look again at that human tendency to see ‘honor’ as truly at the mercy of other humans, and to identify this as the driving force of all ascent to social superiority, in all eras, and as the ‘worldliness’ that Jesus came to conquer. The Gospel story exposes that mistake, and the fallibility of human judgment even when all are in agreement. So perhaps we may see the disgracing of the Irish church, at the hands of a secularizing media, as deliverance in disguise. It was to protect its social eminence, its ‘reputation,’ that the clerical institution failed to be truly Christian in its protection of Catholic children. Now their own ‘humiliation by media’ may free them to celebrate and re-affirm the Creed—the shortest summary of the story of Jesus, and of Catholic belief—in the face of a secularism that direly needs it.

Certainly there must be many Irish (and Japanese) teenagers ready for saving from the mistake of believing their dignity is decided by the Internet, so intensely controlled merely by ‘the market.’ Our Creed, rightly understood, can be an instrument of that rescue. It is a calling for all of us to take up that instrument and use it to overcome this new form of enslavement.


[1] René Girard, 1972. La Violence et le Sacré. (Paris: Grasset, 1972); Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
[2] See René Girard, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Paris: Grasset, 1961); Desire, Deceit, and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
[3] Quoted in P Johnson, A History of Christianity, (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 244.

Views: 238

Comeuppance or Confession – A ‘Reckoning’ on Clerical Abuse?

Faced with apparently unending scandal – and dwindling credibility and authority in the societies it has scandalised – should Catholic church leadership look to scripture, especially the story of King David of Israel, for insight into a scenario for resolution?

In 2023, with the global tide of clerical sex abuse scandals still surging in places as far apart as Poland, Ireland and the US state of Illinois, Catholic church leadership seems as bereft as ever of a strategy for ‘getting ahead’ of such revelations.

In December 2022 Irish bishops agreed with the conclusion of Ireland’s national synodal synthesis of August 2022 – that a ‘reckoning’ on the disaster has still to be achieved 1Statement following the winter meeting of the Irish Bishops Conference, 7th December 2022 – but it is far from clear that the Universal Synod on Synodality, to culminate in Rome in the autumn of 2024, will rise to this challenge.

What ‘shape’ could such a reckoning take in any case? How, in particular, would the victims of clerical sexual abuse and their closest kin, picture that?

Comeuppances

Popular secular culture provides one obvious model for closure on high-level concealment of malfeasance. In the classic movie ‘All the President’s Men’ the final sequence is a montage of press headlines, culminating in President Nixon’s resignation announcement – on foot of the Washington Post’s remorseless investigation of the origins of the Watergate burglary of 1972. This was Nixon’s ‘comeuppance’ – the deserved consequence of his paranoid detestation of a critical media.

Similarly a fictional streaming TV epic, the HBO series ‘Succession’, ends with the rivalrous adult children of another ‘mogul’ visiting a variety of betrayals and indignities upon one another – including the takeover by an interloper of the media empire they had all plotted to inherit.

This ‘comeuppance’ scenario satisfies the natural human desire to see what TV readily provides in the form of ‘perp walks’ – the bitter experience of downfall by the highest conspirators, with merited suffering etched clearly on faces. Who can forget Richard Nixon’s grotesque attempts at facial denial of the defeat he had fought tooth-and-nail to prevent, or the fictional Kendall Roy’s final frozen stare into his own endless horizon of failure?

No such comeuppance is possible for the long-dead originators of the Catholic policy of secrecy on clerical sexual abuse.  There is as yet no official history of this cover-up but the best short unofficial account2A Very Short History of Clergy Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church, Thomas Doyle tells us that the decisive steps that affected living victims had already been taken by 1962. Already in 2023 the first decisive media revelations of the phenomenon – those relating to the abuser Gilbert Gauthe in Louisiana ­– are almost four decades old, and very few if any bishops have ever been criminally sanctioned by secular courts anywhere for a cover-up since then.  The secularising principles of distance between church and state, and freedom of the press, have exposed the dysfunctions of power as exercised by the Catholic hierarchy but new state laws cannot now be made against concealment of clerical child abuse in the past.

Would it ever be sufficient in any case to see only some individuals suffer for what is in essence a colossal global institutional failure, with ramifications that must utterly change the nature of our church relationships if they do not shatter the church altogether? Would it not be more satisfying – and redemptive – for the leaders of the affected institution to uncover and confess an utterly mistaken and sinful sequence of decisions that sacrificed the innocence and future of children to preserve the celibate reputation of the clerical institution itself – a sequence that can nowhere find justification in the texts that the church claims as foundational?

Cover Up and Betrayal in the Bible

Are not those texts – the books of the Old and New Testament, the Bible – replete instead with stories of betrayal, victimisation of the innocent and then concealment by those exercising power – including spiritual power? Why has it not yet happened that these scriptural patterns of misuse of power and of divine intolerance of injustice have been officially recognised in the Catholic clerical church’s mishandling of clerical sexual abuse of children and the scandalous revelations that still remorselessly follow?

Take, for example, the two Jewish elders in Babylon who tried to intimidate Susanna into yielding to their lust, well aware that just two elder testimonies to any woman’s adultery would usually be sufficient for a sentence of death by stoning. Those two were thwarted only by the inspired young Daniel’s stratagem for discerning their conspiracy. (Susanna and the Elders: Book of Daniel).

Similarly Jezebel’s scheme for dispossessing Naboth of his vineyard, and then murdering him, was empowered by the divinely anointed status of Jezebel’s husband, the Israelite King Ahab -condemned later by the prophet Elijah for his connivance. (1 Kings 21)

The exposure of the crime of the brothers of Joseph, the most favoured son of Jacob, grandson of the founding patriarch Abraham, took much longer but was also implicitly a result of divine providence – the raising of Joseph to supreme favour in Egypt, where he had been taken when sold into slavery by those siblings. (Genesis 37-50)

Leaving aside the question of the historicity of these and other such narratives, the central focus of their authors follows always the same pattern: power is misused to satisfy the desires of power-wielders at the expense of victims who are innocent – and the God of Israel is revealed as wholly intolerant of this injustice.

Even if it can be argued that there was ignorance on the part of offending bishops of the likely effects of clerical abuse upon children, this raises its own questions as to the safety and wisdom of the church’s governing system – given especially Jesus’s most vehement warning against any adult misleading of a child (Matt 18: 6). Do we not need to know why the clerical church, with an experience of pederasty dating from the earliest centuries3See The Didache, had to look in the end to secular psychiatry for the truth of the impact of such abuse on the young?

Status Anxiety the Root of Secrecy

Another connection implicit in all of these biblical stories is that between the Status Anxiety of the conspirators and the secrecy they try to maintain over their own motivations and actions. By ‘Status Anxiety’ I mean fear of shame, of social condemnation and rejection, in consequence of revelation of the selfish exercise of power. These biblical stories surely reveal a pattern that should have warned against clerical secrecy over clerical abuse – especially because of the repeating pattern of divine intervention on the side of victims.

That this identical pattern has been replicated in the case of secrecy in Ireland must now be obvious. Not until the first criminal prosecutions for clerical sex abuse in 1994 did Irish bishops begin to act decisively in the cause of child safeguarding. Then it took the Murphy report of 2009 to precipitate the Irish bishops’ declaration that there had indeed been a widespread culture of cover-up, motivated by a desire to protect the reputations of individuals as well as that of the church4Statement following the winter meeting of the Irish Bishops Conference, 9th December 2009.

However, this same declaration, seemingly regretted by some Irish bishops at the time, now points to a future church document that builds upon scriptural examples of ‘reckoning’ – to admit that the great conspiratorial sins of Old Testament archetypes have had a near equivalent, with countless child victims, in our own time. That document will surely reference the greatest of all failures by an anointed leader of Israel – King David – and draw inspiration from his example of contrition.

King David’s Confession

Who cannot see that the most obvious reason for David’s betrayal of the Hittite elite soldier Uriah was also David’s Status Anxiety, his desire to conceal his self-indulgent seduction and impregnation of Uriah’s wife Bathsheba – while Uriah was himself away from home, fighting Israel’s enemies? At length the book of Samuel has previously extolled David’s youthful climb to celebrity, with the women of Israel chanting of his military exploits and his superiority to Israel’s first anointed king, Saul. The fall from grace that David faced in the matter of Bathsheba’s pregnancy was in direct proportion to this unparalleled status – and far too much for him to bear. His despicable betrayal and murder-by-proxy of Uriah then followed. (2 Samuel)

And yet, according to the same narrative, Israel itself was preserved in the Old Testament telling, by the courage of the prophet Nathan and by David’s reciprocal compunction and contrition. This too – the eventual victory of the truth, and not the celebration of any individual or caste – is the true glory of ancient Israel, and of our church’s foundational texts.

It is surely inevitable that the Catholic clerical leadership will someday admit that their institution sinned against children, their families and the Trinity by attempting to keep secret the hard and vitally important fact that a small but significant proportion of ordained Catholic priests could mislead and violate children.  They could also recognise that in making use of the inspired secular principle of a division of power to reveal this mistake the Trinity are not only vindicating all child victims but revealing the future of Catholic church governance.

In the meantime are we not all living in the Limbo of our church leadership’s inability to grasp decisively the nettle of compunction and contrition? We are surely in these days as ancient Israel was in the time between King David’s crimes and his heartfelt and full confession. This time of high-level hesitation and bitter revelation cannot end soon enough for a myriad of living victims, and for all of us.

Notes

  1. Statement following the winter meeting of the Irish Bishops Conference, 7th December 2022
  2. A Very Short History of Clergy Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church, Thomas Doyle
  3. See The Didache
  4. Statement following the winter meeting of the Irish Bishops Conference, 9th December 2009

Sean O’Conaill
June 2023


This article appeared first in La Croix International on June 7th, 2023.

Views: 264

A Reckoning on Catholic Clerical Abuse? Seriously?

Are Irish bishops truly serious in echoing the view of Ireland’s National Synodal Synthesis – that a conclusive ‘reckoning’ on the issue of clerical sexual abuse of children has yet to happen in the church? If so will they now call upon the Pope and the Universal Synod of Bishops to remove the obvious barriers to such a reckoning that the hierarchical church has maintained since the abuse crisis began in 1984?
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In a December 2022 statement Irish bishops repeated the assertion of the Irish National Synodal Synthesis that a ‘reckoning’ on abuse in the church has still to happen. They quoted the following paragraph from the National Synthesis:

“There was a palpable sense that despite many efforts by the Church, a ‘reckoning’ had not yet taken place, and the synodal process generated a clear imperative to place this issue at the heart of any Church renewal and reform. A submission noted: We must pledge ourselves to journey with survivors, to meet with them, preferably in small groups where dialogue is possible and opens us to the presence of the Spirit.”

Who do Ireland’s church leaders suppose should initiate such a ‘reckoning’ after three decades of church scandal, when everywhere the hierarchical church has deliberately dealt with survivors individually – often imposing non-disclosure agreements on receivers of settlements – and failed to provide victims of abuse in the church – or the people of God – with any corporate representative structures?

No Irish diocese has ever even projected a full reckoning on the issue of abuse, to end the isolation of survivors with a view to final reconciliation. This effectively means that the Irish church remains divided into three separate bodies: first, clergy; second, clerical abuse survivors; third, the now radically declining body of church goers. 

Furthermore the Irish Catholic Church has never published any account of the current wellbeing or otherwise of the survivor community, leaving the wider church completely in the dark on the wellbeing and health status of survivors. It is for all the world as though they are all out of sight and out of mind, and deliberately so.  If a ‘reckoning’ is sincerely contemplated now, shouldn’t survivors be asked, openly, what exactly that would mean?  

The 2022 synodal process received only one distinctive survivor submission – from only seven Irish survivors – and their submission was an indictment of the ongoing typical treatment of survivors as adversaries – by church servants who too often showed an inclination ‘to sacrifice survivors for what they considered to be the good of the Church‘.

And no Irish diocese yet has a permanent forum where anyone could ask why this is still so.

This is the deliberate maintenance of an imbalance of power between survivors and Irish church leaders, and the isolation of survivors from the wider church-going community.

When and Why did Secrecy Begin?

Meanwhile there has never been even a hint of an in-house attempt to uncover and reveal the root of the ghastly mishandling of the issue via secrecy and recycling of malefactors. What reason do survivors have to believe that they will live to see such a reckoning?

Ad nauseam we have been assured that celibacy does not cause clerical child abuse – but what caused the cover up by bishops everywhere, which empowered abusers and protracted this disease for centuries? When and why did it become standard procedure for the hierarchical church to ignore what Jesus had said should happen to those who caused children to stumble (Matt 18:6) – and to hide, systematically, the fact that the ordained could ever do this?

Did the rule of celibacy and the elevation of celibate clergy as exemplary models of Christ truly have nothing to do with the intensification of the practice of secrecy since the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, and especially from c. 1869 – as outlined by Tom Doyle in his brief history of this issue?

Given that Rome has not ever offered even a hint of interest in discovering the roots of this malignant secrecy, the onus must surely rest with the hierarchical church to prove that this had nothing to do with the preservation of the myth of a celibate clergy.

The obvious block on the disclosure of the full historical record, at the highest level, is a barrier to belief that living survivors will ever see a full reckoning. Those at the local level who don’t control access to the full historical record can speak of a reckoning easily enough, as another pious thought –  just something for the historians of the 2100s to get into.

Given the imbalance between the Irish hierarchy and the sufferers of abuse, the former can defer to the notion of a ‘reckoning’, while knowing full well that in their own time everything is being done at the centre to block all means of getting there.

So if Irish bishops are serious about a full reckoning, will they now call for a full disclosure of the historical origins of the greatest mistake ever made by church servants – the hiding of a phenomenon that has plagued the church for centuries and will continue to paralyse it until the mistake of secrecy is traced to its poisonous source?

Views: 198

The Gospel as a Takedown of Celebrity

Mind you tell no one anything! said Jesus to the man he had just cured of leprosy in the very first chapter of the Gospel of Mark. (Mark 1: 44)

Repeated many times in this Gospel, this warning by Jesus has puzzled commentators for centuries. As Jesus had already begun his public ministry at the river Jordan, and already signed up the earliest apostles for his mission of declaring the Kingdom of God, why did he then repeatedly warn against what our world calls ‘publicity’?

Almost always the explanation given by scripture commentators is that it wasn’t yet time for him to be ‘raised up’ on the cross in Jerusalem, to become celebrated by the sensation of his Resurrection within three days.

It follows that the glorious culmination of the Christian story is almost always misunderstood as a return of the visible individual person, Jesus Christ. Until then, despite the power of the Holy Spirit, it seems we must think there is something profoundly lacking on earth – because the King of Kings is not here, visibly, to take charge.

Many Christians even seem to believe that in the interim the power of evil must be stronger than the power of grace and that the world is headed for some kind of cataclysm in which God the Father finally loses patience and empowers some Christian leader to do what Jesus refused to do: knock all other human heads together to create a single global Christian kingdom, with Jesus then enthroned in Jerusalem as global monarch.

That Jesus must always have wanted to be celebrated in the twenty-first century sense – i.e. to be sometime a single visible personality and a focus of endless fascination for a global TV audience – is a key component of this typical misunderstanding of the Second Coming of the Lord – because of course then, it is supposed, he will indeed reign from some earthly place as King of the World, and even of the Universe.

The Failure of Christian Monarchy

That Jesus might have seen celebrity itself – the making of any living individual human an object of fascination and ‘crowd sensation’ – as hugely problematic and even disastrous – and might have come to warn against it, is not considered. In my own church the arrival of Pope John Paul II in 1978 to media stardom was seen for decades as beneficial for the cause of the Gospel. That too has become problematic – in light of the known internal abuses of power by Catholic clergy that John Paul II knew of from at least as early as 1984 – and did too little to resolve1See, e.g., https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/shame-john-paul-ii-how-sex-abuse-scandal-stained-his-papacy/. Thankfully a successor pope has set out from the start of his term of office in 2013 to demystify himself, and to point to the need for ‘walking together’ as equals to renew the church.

To continue to misunderstand the Gospel in this way is to fail to notice what history itself – and especially recent history – reveals about the problem of celebrity and the impossibility of a single global centre of government, or living individual, ever bringing about the kingdom of God. It is also to ignore the power of the Holy Spirit of God to move multiple human beings simultaneously in service to one another – directed not by some living super-person but simply by the needs of their neighbours and the wisdom gifts of the Trinity.

In the coronavirus pandemic of 2019-22 what purpose was served by the cult of celebrity when the direst need of so many was the compassion of their nearest neighbours, and no single global master plan could have made a difference in time? In multiple locations celebrated political individuals failed dismally to lead effectively, and more often became serious obstacles to the resolving of the surrounding crisis. Everywhere the elderly found themselves dependent upon the persons nearest to them – often people they had underestimated, at the very base of the social and economic pyramid.

Celebrity is essentially a mistaken fixation with individuals who become the focus of media attention for as long as it takes disappointment to set in. No wonder we hear so much now of ‘imposter syndrome’ – the latest celebrity’s inevitable fear of being shamed by some very different revelation, in tomorrow’s press.

This ‘take’ on where human history is heading – based upon the assumption that God could have no objection to celebrity as such – ignores everything that has been learned about the dangers of celebrity, and the cult of celebrity, in the global TV era. It also ignores the warning that the Gospel story itself gives us in its dramatic essence: we humans raise people up in expectation of endless sensation, and then, if they disappoint us, to exult in tearing them down. A celebrity is always a person from whom far more is expected than can be delivered – and therefore also a scapegoat in waiting, the person whom everyone will all too often agree to shame and vilify.

The Caesars Were Celebrities

The Caesars – the emperors of Rome – were the greatest celebrities of the ancient world, their power attained and maintained by the most ruthless use of force. Beginning with their founding ‘God’ – Julius Caesar (who envied Alexander the Great) – they were expanding the Roman empire to its greatest extent in the reign of Augustus Caesar (27 BCE – 14 CE) and the first century of the Christian era. It was during the reign of Augustus that Jesus was born, but from 312 CE until our own time Christians have tended also to look to Christian ‘strong men’ to protect the faith and the church – despite endless disappointment.

However, no Christian king in history has come close to realising the kingdom that Jesus spoke of – the Kingdom of God. Just as the story of Julius Caesar reveals the huge danger of murderous jealousy that arises out of the successful ambition of one man, the Gospel reveals the problem of rivalry that arises when any one living individual is identified as ‘it’ by their followers – the jostling for preference and promotion. Commonly called ‘palace rivalry and intrigue’ it happens even in the Vatican, where, above all, we should expect to see strict observance of the Petrine and Catholic principle that ‘God has no favourites’ (Acts 10: 34-48).

Jesus reveals, by his death as well as his verbal teachings, that it was never the intent of the Trinity to reign over us. Instead their kingdom can be realised only within and among us – when we turn to the ever-present source of all truth, wisdom and love.

This kingdom is always both close to us and distant from us – close because the gifts of the Holy Spirit are equally accessible by everyone through mindful prayer; distant because mindful prayer is almost always postponed until every other means of satisfying our needs and desires is exhausted. Too often these desires are unwise, causing greater suffering – and this endless delaying of wisdom is the cause of the sufferings of the least powerful people on the planet.

These futile desires are also, now, the root of a planetary crisis. Utter disaster looms unless we all soon ‘wise up’. The Gospel warns us not to look to celebrity, or to celebrities, to save ourselves. By far the greatest figure in all human history, Jesus of Nazareth is waiting always for our attention to turn to the Good News of the Gospel: the kingdom of God is still on offer, to everyone. We simply need to ‘think again’ about where we are going, and why equality is always a mirage.

From the time of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) the prideful search for celebrity, for the admiration of ‘the world’, has lain at the root of all inequality and violence – including the violation of the Earth itself. That is why Jesus overcame the world by allowing it to crucify him: we are here to love and to serve, not to be objects of envy and fascination. There never was any other way of saving us humans from ourselves – and of saving our world as well.

Only when we have realised the promise of the first Pentecost, that there is to be a second Pentecost – a complete realisation of the power of the Holy Spirit to make us wise – could there be a second visible coming of the Lord. Only then will we be ready, realising that it is the same Lord who has been with us, through the same Holy Spirit, all along.

Notes

  1. See, e.g., https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/shame-john-paul-ii-how-sex-abuse-scandal-stained-his-papacy/

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