Category Archives: Church Formation / Education

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.]

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‘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.


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?

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What is it to be Holy?

The Judean desert, where Jesus may have fasted and resisted temptation

What exactly is holiness? Will we know it when we see it? Is it attainable by anyone, or only by those who have made a lifelong commitment to the ‘religious’ or ‘consecrated’ life and to celibacy? How does holiness relate – if at all – to the secular virtue of integrity? 

In The Charismatic Structure of the Church: Priesthood and Religious Life at Vatican II and Beyond, Michael McGuckian SJ 1The Charismatic Structure of the Church: Priesthood and Religious Life at Vatican II and Beyond, Michael McGuckian SJ, Xlibris US, 2021provides essential historical background to the long debate on holiness in the Catholic Church and explains why complete agreement by Catholic bishops at Vatican II proved impossible to achieve. Arrested by this unexpected discovery, the author is currently busy on a sequel – not only to reinforce the call to all to ‘be perfect’ but to explain why no one should suppose that this calling is ever impossible for themselves, whatever their situation or time of life.


That all Catholics are called to holiness by Lumen Gentium (‘Light of Nations’ – a key document of Vatican II 1962-65) – is known at least vaguely to many of that generation and later.  However, if asked to explain clearly what holiness is and how that call can best be answered, how many could confidently respond?  If asked, perhaps scathingly, what the purpose or point of holiness could be now – by someone of a secular mindset – how many would be ‘up’ for that as well?

Necessarily the standard for holiness for all Christians was set by their founder, Jesus of Nazareth – and from the beginning those called by him to ‘follow’ and to ‘be perfect’ needed to discern how exactly to do that. Given that Jesus’s own ‘way’ was not simply one of poverty and celibacy but of exceptional risk, suffering and – in the end – catastrophe, was it even sensible to think of following all of that perfectly?  If not, what ‘way’ would be best?

The greatest virtue of The Charismatic Structure of the Church is the copious evidence it provides for the conclusion that there has never been a time in the long history of the church when Christian ‘holiness’ was a settled question, with its meaning and practice harmoniously agreed by all who sought to follow and to teach.

To marry in uncertain times, or not?

St Paul, Apostle

The difficulty of the choice between the married and celibate states was an obvious one from the start, a choice made more problematic in the first century by uncertainty over how soon Jesus would return in glory, for the Final Judgement.  St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians clearly reveals that this was an issue in his time (e.g. 1 Cor 7).

St Monica, Mother of St Augustine of Hippo

Those who opted for perpetual virginity in those early years set an example that proved durable down the centuries, but so did those who did not.  From the latter came subsequently many Saints who then themselves became enthusiasts for virginity.  A notable example is St Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century, who strongly advocated celibacy following his conversion.  If his sainted mother Monica had been able to opt for virginity when of marriageable age, and had been so inclined, the medieval church would have been deprived unknowingly of one of its greatest luminaries.

The Monastic Model – and ‘Secular’ Clergy

Soon also there were those who decided that ‘following’ required a way of life that was separated entirely from the distracting and profligate ‘world’, and was lived within a separated community of like-minded ‘ascetics’.  This ‘coenobitic’ option was the origin of monasticism.

And yet – especially after the early fourth century legalisation of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine – the diocesan successors of the apostles needed local parish ‘presbyters’ or clerics who would not live in a separated and dedicated community but in ‘the world’ among ordinary citizens. This was the origin of the ‘secular’ or ‘diocesan’ clergy – and for the first Christian millennium many of the latter lived married rather than virginal lives.

St John Chrysostom

It followed, then, that from an early stage there could and would be strong differences of opinion on how best to follow Jesus faithfully.  Where St John Chrysostom (347-407) would insist that none of the baptised should feel unable to follow the Lord faithfully, others took Jesus’s solitary and debatable reference to ‘eunuchs’ (Matt 19: 11-12) as an injunction to lifelong celibacy.  That inevitably consigned the married state to the relative disapproval of many of those who chose that option.

We are the Holiest

The question of who was the holiest became even more unsettled with the arrival of the mendicant orders – e.g. the Franciscans and Dominicans –  in the 1200s.  Given a universal missionary mandate by the pope, they inevitably came into conflict with the hierarchical claim of diocesan bishops – that even the monks and friars should consider themselves subordinate to themselves in the scale of holiness – since ‘perfection’ was a distinctive ‘sign’ or attribute of the bishop’s apostolic office.

St Thomas Aquinas

When the Dominican friar St Thomas Aquinas disagreed and prioritised three ‘evangelical counsels’  – of poverty, chastity (i.e. celibacy) and obedience, as a ‘holocaust’ or total consecration of the person to God (1256), he was therefore setting this ascetic option up in opposition to any association of a superior holiness with the hierarchical principle – and a centuries-long disagreement between ‘secular clergy’ and ‘religious’ ensued.

That such tensions could exist between ‘regular’ clergy (those who belong to religious orders whose members are bound to a founder’s ‘rule of life’) and ‘secular’ clergy (those directly under the authority of a diocesan bishop) will astonish those lay Catholics who may fondly have supposed that no historic disharmony could ever have intruded into the equally edifying holiness of all of their ordained ministers.

Vatican II – Same Old Same Old

However, many will be even more mind-boggled to learn that this same dispute was to surface – 800 years later – at Vatican II (1962-65).

Whereas there was strong support among many bishops at the council for an emphatic statement in Lumen Gentium that regular clergy, secular clergy and laity (married or unmarried) were equally called to and capable of manifesting the same holiness (by God’s grace), a powerful lobby for the manifest superior claim of the evangelical counsels was eventually successful in frustrating that aim.

Two consequences followed: not only does Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium (‘The Universal Call to Holiness in the Church’) lack the insistence that all of the baptised are called to the same holiness, but immediately following, in a separate chapter entitled ‘Religious‘, there is an assertion of the superior claim to holiness for the following of the evangelical counsels, including celibacy.

As a result, while Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium stresses that all in the church are called to holiness, Chapter 6 of the same document insists that the evangelical counsels of poverty, celibacy and obedience ‘are based upon the words and examples of the Lord’.  Furthermore, this ‘religious state whose purpose is to free its members from earthly cares, more fully manifests to all believers the presence of heavenly goods already possessed here below’. (44)

That marriage and the nurturing and the safeguarding of children are thereby declared ‘earthly cares’ that are inherently less capable of ‘manifesting the presence of heavenly goods’ (i.e. of holiness) will baffle lay Catholics today,  especially in light of the revelations of the last three decades. Global church events since the 1980s have raised the most serious questions over any claim to a moral or spiritual superiority for any chosen ‘state of life’ or hierarchical office – up to and including the office of pope.  Jesus’s most solemn adjurations re the protection of the innocence of children have had a new and shocking impact. Pope Francis’s frank and welcome admission that he too is a sinner – and has also made mistakes in handling clerical child abuse – provides a postscript to Lumen Gentium Chapter 6 that underlines its shortcomings.

An Unsatisfactory Confusion

Michael McGuckian therefore concludes that at present the church’s formal teaching position on holiness is ambivalent and unsatisfactory. Whereas all are called to holiness by Lumen Gentium, this is not clearly – in this important document – the same call to the same holiness. By implication the holiness to which lay people can aspire can only be, at best, the avoidance of serious sin. Those bishops who insisted on the insertion of Chapter 6 into Lumen Gentium could not agree to the use of the phrase ‘same holiness’ in any part of the document other than article 39 – where it clearly refers only to those who observe the evangelical counsels. Subsequent magisterial treatments of holiness – e.g.  Vita Consecrata by St John Paul II (1996) – have not resolved this problem either, in his view.

Can we avoid the conclusion that the recruitment crisis for the celibate priesthood is still preventing a full and unequivocal acknowledgement of the equal call to, and potential for, holiness of the unordained and non-celibate majority of the baptised people of God?

In light of this situation, and the hovering threat of the Vatican watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, what Catholic evangelist today would take on to preach on the meaning of holiness for lay people – especially in the wake of the revelation that, apparently, integrity – so emphatically modelled for us by Jesus – was never a consideration or an issue at Vatican II when holiness was under discussion?

Are Christian holiness and Christian love the same?

In a subsequent recorded interview Michael McGuckian promotes a persuasive solution to the problem of defining holiness:  we should look to the Great Commandments of love of God above all, and of neighbour as oneself – the Shema Israel still recited and sung  by observant Jews today and reiterated by Jesus (eg. In Matt 22: 37-40). We should look also to Jesus’s own new commandment in John 13:34 – to love one another as he has loved us. These, Michael insists, are a non-postponeable and binding call to be perfect in love – a call that can be heard and obeyed at any stage of life – or in any state of life – by any of the baptised without distinction.

On discovering that St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas had agreed that these Great Commandments of Jesus and the Torah were not real commandments  – because they demand an unattainable perfection – Michael McGuckian was unimpressed and unconvinced, and is now bent on explaining why.

If anyone else has ever wondered why, in the wake of Vatican II, no Irish bishop ever convened his people of God to consider together how they could ‘consecrate the world to God’ (Lumen Gentium 34), this book will greatly help to explain all that. It has not only addressed most of my own questions on holiness, but given me an invaluable historical overview of the issue. My only slight complaint relates to its title. While ‘The Charismatic Structure of the Church’ may signal the book’s content clearly to experts on church structure, something like ‘Holiness? A History of Disagreement’ would have made it a ‘must read’ for me as soon as it was launched in April 2021.

It must surely be seen also now that the citation out of context of Matthew 19:12  in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Article 1579) – the sole reference by Jesus to celibacy in the Gospels – is a scandalous leaning on the scales in the cause of making celibacy a necessary condition of ordination.  That Gospel context was a discussion of Jesus’s teaching against easy divorce, a teaching that was obviously also ‘for the sake of the kingdom of God’. In light of the known contemporary Jewish expectation that religious men would marry, by far the most sensible inference to be drawn from Jesus’s subsequent reference to eunuchs is that celibacy could also serve the kingdom, not that it would better or would best serve the kingdom.

Holiness and Integrity

This needs especially to be said at this time, in light of the global revelation that priestly celibacy can as readily be a matter of mere appearances as of fact. Here Jesus’s denunciations of hypocrisy – of seeking to be regarded as holy – have not yet received the attention they deserve (e.g. Matt 6:1-6). That unknown multitudes of innocent children and vulnerable adults have suffered lifelong agonies as a consequence is now indisputable, and the cost of centuries of concealment of this reality has not yet been fully acknowledged and redressed.

Fr Michael McGuckian SJ

We can therefore anticipate that in his next book – on that same subject – Michael McGuckian will be citing Jesus’s story of the equal reward given to the latecomers in the vineyard to question any claim that any office or chosen state of life can entitle anyone to a superior expectation of ‘the treasure hidden in the field’.  We can also hope that the critical importance of integrity – the conformity of behaviour with what is vowed and professed, or is implied by any church role or office – will be emphasised.

The ancient belief that personal holiness must come automatically with the conferring of any particular office, even that of bishop, must surely also be finally rejected. Here Lord Acton’s comment on the danger of attributing holiness to a person solely on account of that person’s role or official status has too long been ignored: ‘There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.’2Lord Acton, letter to Mandell Creighton, 1887

Can disobedience be holy?

Also – in regard to the virtue of obedience – that a good conscience can oblige anyone to disobey a religious superior needs now also to be emphasised – since everyone understands now that unholy obedience was also a major factor in the global tide of recent scandal. Why, for so long, was Jesus’s courage in challenging the Jewish religious hierarchies of his own time never seen as a distinctive mark of his sanctity? That a fetish for lace-laden clerical attire could be preferred as a sign of holiness in the long era of clericalist illusion will forever be remembered.

St Mary McKillop
The Holiness of the Family

The canonisation of the Australian Saint Mary McKillop in 2010 is conclusive proof of the need to qualify the elevation of obedience as a requirement for holiness. Personally pilloried for her calling out of a clerical abuser in Australia, the cross of excommunication she was obliged to carry in 1871 is a dire warning against a pernicious religious authoritarianism – the expectation of deference in all circumstances by a religious superior.

Finally, the ongoing promotion of the ‘domestic church’ to an indispensable role in the faith formation of adults as well as children has its own logic.  If parents and grandparents are truly to have the primary responsibility for encouraging and guiding the faith development of their children, must this not be recognised as a call to a sacred role and a holy task, modelled on the example of the Holy Family?  That we should still be so distant from a full and unequivocal recognition of the same call to every baptised person – to respond sincerely to the greatest commandments of integrity and love in whatever space we currently occupy – speaks loudly for the timeliness of this book.


  1. The Charismatic Structure of the Church: Priesthood and Religious Life at Vatican II and Beyond, Michael McGuckian SJ, Xlibris US, 2021
  2. Lord Acton, letter to Mandell Creighton, 1887

Sean O’Conaill, 19th August 2021 
(This article first appeared on the website of the Association of Catholics in Ireland)

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The Creed is for Whistle-Blowers, not Dogmatists

Tony Flannery – who in 2020 asked: ‘What is the point of the Creeds?’

By far the worst thing ever to happen to the Christian Creeds of the early centuries was that they became tools of persecution by hunters of Christian heretics in the Middle Ages. (c. 476 CE – c. 1453)

The second-worst thing that happened to them was their use by the compilers of Catechisms – for the persecution of many generations of Christian children who could be beaten in school for failing to remember what the Catechism said.

With one self-defeating arm of the bureaucracy of  the Catholic Church in pursuit of heretics until recently, it is no wonder that cancelled Catholic priest Tony Flannery should ask in 2020 What is the point of the Creeds?’1‘From the Outside: Rethinking Church Doctrine’, Tony Flannery, Red Stripe Press, 2020

The shortest answer to this question goes as follows:

First, the Apostles Creed is a summary of the faith the led the earliest church through its worst persecutions. It was a passport through persecution, NOT a licence for persecution – and should never have been used for that purpose.

Second, the Nicene Creed is a mere ‘tweaking’ of the Apostles Creed, to insist upon the equality of all three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It should never have been used as a tool of religious oppression either.

The ‘Credo’ of Jesus of Nazareth

The English word ‘Creed’ derives from the Latin word ‘Credo’ which means ‘I believe’. Every firm believer is in need of a summary of what they believe – and Jesus’ own people, the Jews had that.  Called the ‘Shema‘ (the Hebrew word for ‘Listen’ or ‘Hear’) it was recalled by Jesus when he was asked, in Mark’s Gospel, what was the greatest of the commandments.

He replied as follows:

‘This is the first: Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one, only Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’  (Mark 12: 29-31)

This was a direct quotation from one of the oldest of the Hebrew scriptures, or ‘Old Testament’, the Book of Deuteronomy. ‘“Hear O Israel: Yahweh our God is the one, the only Yahweh. You must love Yahweh your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.” (Deut 6: 4,5)

Because the Apostles Creed affirms Jesus as ‘Son of God’ it follows that what Jesus believed is also binding for Christians, so we believe ourselves also bound by the ‘Shema’ as the basis of all other laws, including the Ten Commandments given to Moses.

As explained by Luke Timothy Johnson in ‘The Creed’, the Apostles Creed grew naturally out of the Shema – to explain to Jews and Gentiles why Jesus’s story was central to Christian belief.

Jesus’s Crucifixion was a Beginning, not an End

The earliest Christians believed firmly in Jesus’s survival of crucifixion. What is impossible for many who are attracted to Jesus’s teachings today – the belief that he had been somehow raised from the death proscribed by a Roman governor of Palestine, in about 30 CE — was the firm belief of those who compiled the four Gospels and the Creed.

It is obvious also why that belief was affirmed in the Creed. It reassured the Christian believer that his or her own life would endure beyond physical death –  as a follower of this man who had not been simply obliterated by the worst persecution that the greatest empire of the time could devise.

It is the most grotesque irony of the history of Christianity that the Creed should itself in later centuries have become an instrument of persecution. To call Jesus ‘Lord’ was, for the first Christians, to deny supreme authority to Caesar – and therefore to endanger oneself, as Jesus himself had done by criticising the religious elite of his own time.

On the third day he rose again.

This insistence on the truth of the Resurrection of Jesus is the central and pivotal statement in the Creed – explaining everything that comes before that in the Creed, and everything that followed. For the purpose of the Creed was to assure the believer that in following Jesus, as a mere human, the same victory over death could be achieved. The power claimed by Rome, or any other authority, was thereby ‘relativised’ – reduced to mere appearances and ‘passing away’ – temporary.

That Jesus was human also – as vulnerable to suffering and death as the rest of us – was therefore also to be believed.  For otherwise how could survival of death be possible for merely human believers in Jesus?

But Jesus was also ‘Son of God’ and himself divine.  So therefore, somehow, he had been ‘conceived’ by – or ‘brought into being by’ – the Holy Spirit of God.

How are we to understand today the insistence upon the ‘virginity’ of Mary, the mother of Jesus?  Some scripture scholars tell us that the original meaning of the word did not originally imply that Jesus’s conception happened without sexual intercourse, but that probably cannot be proven,  What is certain is that the process by which Jesus was ‘conceived’ or ‘begotten’ by God was for early Christians a secondary matter – dependent upon the conviction that through Jesus we come to know God – and to know that God is love.

The Creed Summarises the Gospels

Because the Creed was in later centuries used to justify the persecution of Christian ‘rebels’ or ‘heretics’,  it is sometimes alleged that it was the product of the Constantinian Roman Empire – and therefore NOT what Christians originally believed.  This can be disproven simply by comparing it with what is asserted in the four Gospels.

To take just the Gospel of Matthew to start with, it is clear that the belief that God is a ‘Trinity’ of three persons was central to the early church.  Completed probably by as early as 100 CE Matthew’s Gospel gives us in Chapter 28 Jesus’s final instruction to his followers, AFTER the crucifixion:

Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matt 28: 19)

Although the Nicene Creed – to the right – did emerge in the wake of Constantine’s decision to approve Christian belief it is also clearly a mirror of the earlier wording.  What is distinctive about it is simply its insistence upon Jesus as an equal member of the Trinity – something questioned by Arianism, a ‘heresy’ of the time that made Jesus clearly inferior in status to the Father.

In that one Gospel, therefore, completed centuries before Constantine, we find the central beliefs of the Creed – that Jesus had survived crucifixion and taught that God was a Trinity.

The Nicene Creed also affirms the equality of the Trinity

Can Unarmed Love Conquer Death?

Think about it just for ten seconds. Other than the complete faith of the founders of the Christian tradition that Jesus had risen, what else can explain why there ever was a Christian tradition?

That faith has proved far stronger than the Roman imperial conviction that crucifixion would do what the Romans were certain it would do – scrub anyone who suffered it completely from historical memory. 

All merely human empires are built on a premise of permanence via the shaming of others, and almost everyone knows now what a ghastly and doomed premise that is.

The Creed simply means that it is unarmed truth in the face of armed power that drives history forward. Through their courage and their vulnerability, it is the speakers of unarmed truth to power who are best remembered and best loved.

Because, somehow, truth-tellers, whistleblowers, are definitely not ever, in any circumstances – truly alone.

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‘Holy Sacrifice?’

Without question our Irish Catholic chapels – especially the smallest – are both holy sanctuaries and places of sacrifice.

That is, they are places set aside for the sacrifice of time… for contemplation… of a life given totally to others, in love.  The life of Jesus.

And places for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the celebration of that greatest gift ever given, and of the gifts that we now make of ourselves. 

And places of celebration of the other lives that loved him, the life of Mary, the Mother of God, of Joseph. The lives and holy deaths of the Saints.

Places of proof that such a life is not only possible but historically verified in all the lives that have followed, in hopeful imitation, over so many generations.

Of that life that did not ever end, that rose from death, that is alive still in the memory and bodies of local people who came with their own sacrifices of penitence and self-giving.

Places for the shedding of whatever in us that is unholy, selfish, dark – and therefore places of penitence, forgiveness, light, generosity, restoration and renewal.

For the shedding of tears over centuries and centuries – wrenched by miseries that only the angels have total record of …

And places of sacred bonding in marriage, of sacred parting in the mystery of death.

And places of Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, weekly Mass – the rites of passage from womb to tomb – in stubborn hope of the eternity that children trust to in their own innocence and wisdom.

These churches memorialise those who designed and built them with love – with that letting go of the little wealth they could donate, for the sake of that dream of eternity.

What could it mean that such places – and especially the smallest – could now be under threat of closure, of the dying of the sanctuary lamp, of shuttering, of decay or transfer to another usage?

What better source of meaning has replaced the Creed that built these Holy Places?

None whatever! Merely the novelty of meaninglessness, the entrancement of a commerce that glories in novelty, illusion, unreality – the endless screenings of stories of superheroism that deny human vulnerability and the facticity of death.

If our chapels are in danger of closure, that is not because the Trinity are absent but simply because our pastors are temporarily without passion for the Creed and the Gospel , and cannot convey to us why Holy Sacrifice is still the only trustable path to the future.

We must now therefore make holy sacrifice of a different kind – in our own vigilance and prayer and study – to keep these places safe and holy for a better time, for a renewed Eucharistic ministry. 

For, built in confidence in the power of Holy Sacrifice, they belong to the future, to the Omega, the Christ, the One who is coming – who must find them clean and warm, lit and welcoming.

They must not be sacrificed to the dark, grasping, confused and baffled present.

Views: 102

Catholic Education and the Future: Insights from René Girard

By Sean O’Conaill and Eugene McElhinney

 “I have integrity, but when winning gets in the way of integrity, integrity goes out the window.” 1Lord Sugar launches his search for a new Young Apprentice; BBC Media Centre, 2011

Attributed in 2011 to a seventeen-year-old contestant in the UK televised reality show, Young Apprentice, this comment resists easy assessment.  Read lightly it can certainly be understood as the facetious acting-out of an ebullient stage persona, by a shrewd young aspirant to stardom who knew there can be media advantage in appearing outrageous.

However, this student’s own Catholic school might have worried that such enthusiastic public support for amorality could be taken more seriously by the school’s competitors, and even by prospecting parents, in a widely diverse and still conflicted society (Northern Ireland).

As former teaching colleagues in that very school we two add our own misgivings over that to other concerning data – to raise the question of the impact of even the best catechetical formation in Catholic schools when set against the background of a fragmented student experience that is far wider and weightier, and is now seriously impacted by international media of all kinds.  This wider formative experience – of the school as well as the student – increasingly pressurises schools to succeed in terms of ‘winning’ something – and cannot be subject to the intent of the church’s General Directory for Catechesis.

Under the heading of ‘other concerning data’ we mention especially the implications of the two-to-one rejection of the church’s official position on the Irish referendum to repeal the 8th amendment to the constitution (forbidding abortion) on May 25th, 2018 – with younger generations proving even more solidly in favour of repeal.  This reinforces the implications of the widely observed departure of school-going teenagers from religious observance In Ireland, and the testimony given by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin to Pope Benedict XVI in 2006: “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.”2Irish bishops in Rome for talks with Pope, Irish Times,  Mon, Oct 16, 2006

We hear also from our own contacts that, increasingly, young people will freely declare that they find such observance too often ‘boring’ and ‘irrelevant to our lives’.  This is supported by sample research reported by the US Barna Group in 2017 – suggesting that less than one in three young people in the Republic feel they have a clear grasp of core Christian beliefs, while one in four may be facing a crisis of faith.  The same report found that, increasingly, young people are dissatisfied with what they see as the passive/conformist faith of older generations, while one in four now claims to have no religious belief at all.3Finding Faith in Ireland: the Shifting Spiritual Landscape of Teens and Young Adults in the Republic of Ireland, Barna Group, 2017.  (This report is based on both qualitative and quantitative study of 790 subjects in the 14-25 age range, and interviews with 63 youth workers.)

 It seems that increasingly while our Catholic schools are considered successful in teaching a ‘life-readying’ curriculum they are less effective in their efforts to pass on an observant and committed Catholic faith.

Reasons for Optimism

Nevertheless, despite these worrying indicators, we two are far from pessimistic about the long-term dominance of that wider disintegrated student experience, heavily influenced as it is by post-modernist scepticism.  Furthermore, we foresee a new adult faith formation initiative that will change the mind of any adult who thinks that their school formation taught them all they could wish to know about the meaning of the Gospel.

The reason for our optimism is simple. We see unmistakably, in an international context, the beginnings of a deeply rational response to secular scepticism, a response of extraordinary explanatory and educative power – and we see that gentle ‘force’ growing.  Heavily influenced as they are just now by the scepticism and relativism of the secular Enlightenment – currently cresting in Ireland – the ‘human sciences’ are nevertheless, in all cases, under growing international challenge from an academic movement inspired by a single powerful 20th century insight – an insight that strongly supports orthodox Christian belief.4See e.g. the website of the international Colloquium on Violence and Religion

This is the observation that we humans do not in fact behave as though ‘naturally’ free to choose our own separate destinies, as the secular Enlightenment tends to teach.  We tend instead to be trapped unconsciously in replication of one another’s desires, because – at least to begin with – we literally do not know what we want.  

This insight first surfaced in the late 1950s in the context of literary criticism.  René Girard, a French émigré academic in the US state of Indiana, came to notice a pattern in the heroes of five ‘classic’ European novels.  In every case the desires of those heroes had been absorbed from a model, an historical or contemporaneous ‘other’, to whom those heroes were drawn by the supposed superiority of that model.

For example, Flaubert’s provincial heroine Madame Bovary is absorbed by the supposedly far more glamorous lives of the Parisian society women in her magazines, and seeks to model herself upon them, with fateful consequences.

In all such cases these heroes find freedom from mimetic ‘followership’ only in the tragic realisation that this captivity has prevented them from being their fearful yet real ‘selves’.  In the case of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, this character has literally been ‘out of his own mind’ in wanting to be the mythical medieval knight, Amadis of Gaul.5Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure by René Girard, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966

In writing these stories these great novelists (Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Proust) had also been admitting their own vanity in once supposing themselves heroic authors of their own destiny.  Furthermore, in the case of Stendhal (The Red and the Black), the hero of this novel, Julien Sorel, points to an earlier historical sequence in the case of his own heroic model, Napoleon I.  Through his many admiring biographers this same non-fictional Emperor of the French was well known in Stendhal’s time to have modelled his own career on classical European military predecessors, Alexander of Macedon and Julius Caesar of ancient Rome.

For Girard this raised the question of what other literary sources might point to this phenomenon of ‘mimetic desire’ (desire acquired unconsciously from someone else) – as a dominant influence on human behaviour, and therefore as a pervasive ‘human problem’ of which the secular Enlightenment seemed oblivious.  Already possessing a doctorate in medieval history Girard had no doubt that this phenomenon was important not only in literature, but in ‘real life’- as a potent source of real violence.

Pursuing this interest Girard branched into anthropology and philosophy, and came to identify mimetic desire as a dominant theme of world literature – with special attention to the Judeo-Christian texts that we know as the Bible.  As the imitation of the desires of a living person is obviously dangerous (e.g. in the case of the desire of Paris, prince of Troy, for Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta; or the desires of both Argentina and Great Britain to control the Falkland Islands in 1982; or the desire of Joseph’s brothers for his coloured coat) how had humanity coped with and survived this problem from earliest times?

Girard theorised then that the answer to this question was to be found in archaic religion, centred on the practice of ritual sacrifice, and that the thrice uttered climactic warning in the Decalogue of Moses – not to ‘covet anything your neighbour has’ – was also an attempt to limit the potential damage of doing just that, by simple prohibition.

The singular importance of the Bible lies, according to Girard, in its exposure of the typical culmination of the dangerous enmities caused by mimetic rivalry. Wanting what another also wants will lead easily to the striking of a blow if the object of desire cannot be shared, and the first blow struck in anger can then quickly escalate to a civil crisis – especially in any society without adequate policing and judicial structures. The human tendency to evade responsibility for our own mistakes has led always naturally to the unjust blaming of someone else. Those with most to lose from any such escalating crisis will therefore tend to sink their own differences in the accusation of, and then the killing or expulsion of, an isolated individual – the ‘scapegoat’. This has the effect of ‘saving the community’ by releasing the tensions of the crisis at minimum cost, bringing a temporary peace.

Again and again this phenomenon is revealed in scripture to Girard’s lens: in the throwing overboard of Jonah by the entire crew of the ship on which he has attempted to flee; in the story of Joseph and his brothers;  in the many psalms which tell of a single victim surrounded by enemies; in the story of Job who is deserted and accused even by his own friends; in the ‘suffering servant’ of Isaiah; in the Gospel case of the intended stoning of the ‘woman taken in adultery’ (John 7:53–8:11).  Finally, the meaning of what is happening is explicitly identified by Caiaphas in his justification of the killing of Jesus: “you fail to see that it is to your advantage that one man should die for the people, rather than that the whole nation should perish”.  (John 11: 49)

Ritualised sacrifice in archaic religion was, according to Girard, the half-conscious commemoration of this spontaneous scapegoating event.  In that ritual the essential all-against-one character of the event was faithfully replicated, as was the shedding of the victim’s blood.6For Girard, Christian sacrifice as ritualised in the Mass is radically different – because no deflection of violence onto another is involved. Jesus as the model for the sacrificing priest was also victim, the ‘giver of himself’.  In exposing the injustice of the scapegoating process Jesus also provided a ritualised bloodless alternative to the sacrifices of the ancient world and now bids all believers to imitate this self-giving.  It is implicit that no further victimisation should follow.

As Girard is being taken seriously by Catholic theologians, as well as by academics in the entire range of the human sciences – from philosophy and history to anthropology, literature, economics, political science and even psychiatry – it is surely appropriate for all who have an interest in Catholic education – and in the wider influences that now also impact on all students – to pay attention.  As Girard’s insight can explain also such enveloping phenomena as celebrity mania, high-street fashion, body-fixation, life-style modelling, Internet trolling and needless ‘consumerism’- and the unpredictable violence and many other developing crises of our era – it should, we believe, be in discussion in Catholic schools wherever curriculum development is taken seriously.

In our particular experience of that one school (which ended for O’Conaill in 1996 and for McElhinney in 2003) it was not on the school’s pressurised timetable to discuss the impact of that changing wider society, or even of what was being learned in ‘secular’ subjects, on ‘faith development’.  To our regret we never met as colleagues to discuss the possible impact of the curriculum of the History department, or of classes on ‘current affairs’ (O’Conaill) on the programme of ‘RE’ (McElhinney), or vice versa.  Looking back we find this an important reflection on the current situation – especially because O’Conaill had a particular interest in the 18th century Enlightenment and McElhinney was simultaneously fighting that very challenge.  We know that now we would want to be discussing ‘mimetic desire’ as an obviously overlapping concern – and with other humanities departments too, as a ‘whole school’ concern.

The History Teacher

Back then O’Conaill was typically explaining things in history class as follows:  England’s ‘1066’ as ‘the rivalry of kings’; Henry II’s invasion of Ireland in 1171 as ‘acquisitive imperialism’; Northern Ireland conflict as having to do with ‘clashing nationalisms’; the Cold War as ‘a struggle for global hegemony’.  Now he would probably view Islamic Jihadism in western cities as ‘frustrated envy of the West’. To see and say that all of these might simply also be ‘wanting what your neighbour wants’ would have appeared far too naïve back then.

O’Conaill was noticing also the apparent reciprocal need that each of the far extremes in NI politics had to ‘feed off’ the enmity and opposition of the other, their clashing yet ‘symbiotic’ relationship.  He notices now, and regrets, this need for an elaborate vocabulary for the pervasive phenomenon of rivalry, the inevitable ‘locked in’ nature of each of two ‘neighbours’ wanting always what the other wants – sovereign power.  He would also probably be utilising some of the resources of the nearby Corrymeela community, in Ballycastle, where Protestant teachers seeking peace have been drawing also from the Girardian well.7See e.g. The Far Side of Revenge: Reflections on the Northern Ireland Peace Process, Duncan Morrow, 2016

Now also O’Conaill would wish to know what biblical stories are currently being covered in RE classes at all age levels, and could be confident that he shared a basic common explanatory vocabulary with RE.  He would be interested in knowing when the story of Tom Sawyer’s painting of his Aunt Polly’s fence was likely to be discussed in English class, or if Pip’s desire to become ‘a gentleman’ in order to court Estella, Miss Havisham’s niece, might be ‘coming up’ in Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ – or with what year group Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ might occur, the dictator of Rome who was ‘neighbour’ to and envied target of ‘lean and hungry’ Cassius.

The RE Teacher

As a young teacher of Religious Education back in the late 1960s, McElhinney’s received wisdom was that the subject had to move away from the apologetics that had marked his own experience of it as a schoolboy. Two influential educationalists, Fr. Josef Jungmann, an Austrian Jesuit, and, later, Johannes Hoffinger, were now advocating what they called the kerygmatic approach. To them scripture was the kerygma, or herald of the good news of salvation. The emphasis switched from dogma to scripture, liturgy, doctrine and service.

Although this was seen as an improvement on the old creed-based approach it was still removed from pupils’ experiences of living out their faith.  As we moved into the seventies and eighties an Irish Catechetical Programme was drawn up for use in Key Stage 3 which was more pupil-centred.  It drew on pupils’ experiences and used modern interactive methods such as song, story, discussion and  illustration to engage pupils with content that touched on scripture, sacrament and liturgy.

An important element of this programme was the complementary support that was hoped for from the home and the parish. In retrospect these programmes were attempting to present to young teenagers the history of salvation and the church’s mediation of that salvation through sacrament in a way that was supposedly suited to their physical, cognitive, moral, social and religious development. In Key Stages 4 and 5, less overtly catechetical programmes dominated with greater emphasis being place on the academic aspect of Religious Education which meant that it had to pursue a more academic and open approach to religious belief.

While religious education teachers were ‘delivering’ this prescribed curriculum within the confines of their classrooms, societal changes were exerting powerful influences outside the school that were to challenge, and in some cases undermine, the liturgical and moral beliefs and practices of the religious education being followed. The growing inter-connectedness of the world, revealing greater success in the natural sciences, coupled with largely unregulated and unchallenged dissemination of information and ideologies, left religious education teachers having to counter an avalanche of counter cultures.  There was no coming of age in this new dispensation and little coming to terms with these pervasive pressures. In a generation we had moved from a village culture to a global one and we were not prepared for the latter. As Barry warned us back in the mid nineties the “.. influence of culture escapes our consciousness”. We need to find “… how any of us encultured human beings can become free enough from our culture to be believers”.8Barry, W., U.S. Culture and Contemporary Spirituality. Review for Religious 54, 6-21 (1995)

From 1985 McElhinney became aware of the seminal influence of the counter culture led by René Girard (1923-2015). This French academic, who began his academic life as a teacher of medieval history, had from about 1961 begun to expose in a series of books and articles, elements of culture that were to advance our understanding of our anthropology.  This helped many catechists to find that way sought by Barry to free ourselves from our culture in order to proclaim the Good News in a new way.

Girard’s mimetic theory engendered McElhinney’s own conversion from seeing the world and social relations in a binary perspective to understanding it in a triangular one. That is, in addition to an object of desire and the person who desires it, there is also, pervasively, a third party – the admired person, the model whose desire has been mimicked.  The Romantic Lie of the 18th century Enlightenment had led the academic world to believe that we have autonomy in decision making and that we are autonomous in our social relations and in our sense of self. Girard’s exposure of this lie has revealed to us, as Michael Kirwan expresses it: “The self is, rather, an ‘unstable, constantly changing, evanescent structure’ brought into existence by desire.”9Kirwan, M., Discovering Girard, Darton, Longman and Todd (2004), (p. 19)

McElhinney was led by the realisation of this dynamic to a deeper understanding of teacher/pupil relationships; pupil/pupil relationships; culture/pupil relationships and the Judeo/Christian history of salvation. Put simply, he now believes that the role of the Religious Education teacher in a Catholic school has to take account of Girard’s mimetic theory because at the core of the relationship between the teacher (catechist) and the pupil must be the quality of authenticity.

McElhinney was introduced to this idea in 1985 by a Dutch Academic, Roel Kaptein, who explained it like this. The teacher wishes the pupils to learn and the pupils wish to learn because it is the wish of the teacher. This is mimesis. At those times when the pupils do not wish to learn we teachers tend to wonder what is wrong with them. That is the wrong question to ask. We should ask, what is wrong with us? If the teacher is not wishing (in heart and mind) for the pupils to learn, the pupils who are in mimesis with the teacher will recognise this and cease to wish to learn. We need to understand that mimesis is not just something of the head, and teaching is not just something of the head either.  It is related to the totality of one’s being. Otherwise the teacher is just using words. When this is the case the pupils also will only deal in words – because again they will be in mimesis with the teacher.

A particular problem in this regard for the Catechist is that because schools place such a high priority on academic success and hence provide a breeding ground for rivalry and envious desire, pupils need to be reminded that while there is a corresponding academic aspiration for success in religious education, there is also a requirement to follow the prospectus set out in the Sermon on the Mount. The religious education teacher has to witness to this in his/her classroom and in his/her life.

The matter of autonomy exercises the minds of teenagers greatly. They feel constrained by some of the sexual moral teaching of the Church, which they think outdated and repressive. The prohibitions of the Decalogue seem to them like a blunt instrument to subdue and spoil their enjoyment of life. In pre-Girardian days McElhinney’s teaching on moral issues upheld the orthodox approach of the Catholic Catechism. Today he would approach moral issues via an exploration of the mimetic dynamic of the reciprocity of desire and self-identity.  He would be challenging students to look for mimetic models of their own desires – and to note the impact of Christian servant-leader models, beginning with Jesus, upon the behaviour of countless ‘followers’ throughout history.

This is not to say that sexual fidelity and discipline should cease to be a deep concern of a Christian school. In fact mimetic theory also exposes the role so often played by mimetic competition in the destabilising of sexual relationships. Girard was very supportive of the Augustinian understanding of ‘disordered desire’ (concupiscence) as a very real phenomenon that continues to cause intense harm and suffering.  His insight helps us to see this disorder more clearly in the all-too-frequent ‘conspiring’ of sexual desire and mimetic desire to form a dangerous ‘perfect storm’ – a theme that Shakespeare and so many others have so often visited.

Other disciplines

As authenticity and enthusiasm will be present in all effective teaching – and all of the ‘humanities’ must now address a gathering human crisis – both of us see enormous potential in Girardian insight for the entire second level school curriculum.

With respect to the environmental crisis, we wonder how Geography and Economics explain the frustrating reluctance to grapple with that now, in arguably the world’s most advanced ‘consumer society’?  How do these academic subjects explain desire for the latest iteration of the iPhone when it is not truly needed – or why Rory McIlroy finds it so profitable to wear the Nike logo – the ‘swoosh’ – on his golf cap?  For those who now study politics, how is the rivalry of one-time close political colleagues – so often a potent source of political instability – to be explained?

When it comes to the personal welfare of pupils we wonder if the phenomenon of online ‘trolling’ is being addressed as an inevitable effect of mimetic rivalry and of competition for the ultimate put-down – rivalry that must happen when an audience of unknown size is known to be observing a ‘discussion’. What of the dynamic of the bullying of a pupil, if it happens within the school itself, or via mobile devices outside?  Are some pupils perhaps dangerously over-needy of attention, and resentful that others may be getting more of that?  What explains the pull of ‘social media’ and ‘fear of missing out’ if not the discontent that arises from the apparently greater success and happiness of others – with ‘viral popularity’ and ‘celebrity’ as the supposed last horizons of human achievement? Is it time for all schools to challenge – head on – the deepest mistake of contemporary culture – the belief that our value as individual human beings (and the worth of any school) is determined by social accolade?

We two also remember vividly the occasion of the loss by one pupil of a treasured role in a school musical – a part then given to her close friend, whose friendship she then rejected bitterly.  Is it now understood why that rupture happened (and could happen again to others) and why the pupil concerned felt that she could not remain at the school?

Under the heading of pupil welfare and the possibility of ‘self-harming’ (in the context of media obsessed with body image), who in the school might read with benefit Girard’s essay on the coincidence of the very first clinical diagnoses of anorexia with the rise of 19th century printed popular media – media that obsessed over the body rivalries of highly connected ‘beauties’, including ‘Sissi’, Empress Elizabeth of Austria (1854-98) and Eugénie, Empress of France (1853-71)?10Eating Disorders and Mimetic Desire, René Girard, Contagion 3, 1996

As for that 2011 declaration by a bright pupil of our own old school – that, when it came to winning, his integrity would go ‘out the window’ – was that not simply a case of ‘catching’ the very same desire that motivated his rivals (‘mimetic contagion’)?  And might the young author of the comment now be able to see that he was explaining, albeit unconsciously, the cause of so many failures of integrity, in all eras?

Teachers of the ‘hard’ sciences should surely be interested also, as they will be aware of the accusation that modern science has destabilised the human ecosystem.  Nor can they be indifferent to instances of the corruption of scientific research through intense mimetic competition for global fame.  Is the misuse of science – for example in the nuclear arms race – not in itself a scientific conundrum that needs our deepest attention?  Girardian insight into ‘coveting’ makes RE a compelling component of a ‘rounded education’ for students who specialise in science or computing – or in languages.


The gravitational pull of the problem of sexuality has for too long unbalanced Christian moralism and education.  Jesus’s own celibacy has facilitated an idealisation of that specific life-choice as the sine-qua-non of sanctity, while his obvious rejection of the status-seeking and power-seeking cultural models of the ancient world has received far less attention.

Girard’s insight teaches us to look more closely at those temptations of Jesus that are recorded in the synoptic Gospels, at the start of his ministry.  None of these was sexual. All three were invitations to aspire to power and status – of the sorcerers of the ancient world; of the Jewish Temple hierarchy; and of the kings and emperors of Jesus’s own era (e.g. Matt 4: 1-11).  That is, they were appeals to mimetic desire. Jesus himself claimed to have overcome not the problem of sexual attraction but the problem of ‘the world’, i.e. of an enveloping culture that provided so many dangerous models of desire to distract him from his mission of bringing all humans back to the spirituality of Psalm 23, i.e. to intimate relationship with ‘the Father’.

That ‘sinlessness’ has therefore centrally to do with overcoming covetousness – understood as mimetic desire – becomes clear in the Girardian lens.  That Jesus’s supreme achievement lay in this rather than in his celibacy could not be so easily seen or preached in the long centuries of Christendom.  Beginning with Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, the church was always then beholden to state power won by force, from whose military elites it so often drew its own hierarchs.  How, for example, could the Christian bishops of Constantine’s time see covetousness (i.e. mimetic rivalry) in the decisive battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, when Constantine’s supporters were insisting that he had been told by Jesus’s God to defeat Maxentius under the sign of the cross?  The self-censorship – even connivance – that fell then upon Christian hierarchs in their relations with their own state actors and social elites was to persist into our own time – with deeply scandalous consequences.

Now that the tide of Christendom is fast receding, René Girard’s insight has revealed that phenomenon of covetousness as the dominant human and political problem of both past and present – and given an entirely fresh relevance to the Creeds.  We feel confident that this insight is set to redirect the Enlightenment, to revolutionise the way that future generations will interpret the world, and to undo what Pope Benedict XVI has termed ‘the dictatorship of relativism’.

Knowing well that Enlightenment scepticism derives huge leverage from the argument that all claims to an ‘objective truth’ are necessarily oppressive, we know also that there can be no question of imposing Girardian mimetic theory on any school, or any teacher.  As the bishops of Vatican II observed in 1965, “Truth can impose itself on the mind of man only in virtue of its own truth, which wins over the mind with both gentleness and power.”.11Vatican II – Declaration on Religious Freedom, 1, 1965

 In the end it can only be the explanatory power of Girard’s insight, and its verification in the personal experience and observation of any teacher, that will together ‘win over’ anyone.  We two can only ask:  Do we humans tend to imitate those we see as ‘modelling’ our own ideal lives? Is there danger or futility in many of the ‘models’ or ‘icons’ that our pupils encounter these times?  And has evangelical secularism yet explained, or even squarely addressed, its own Utopian failures?

If Girard is correct about the dominance of unconscious imitation in the desires that drive us, it follows that we humans simply cannot do without models—that we are necessarily ‘mimetic’. We can all surely agree that Christianity, and Catholicism – in contrast to ‘media culture’ – have many real models of integrity.  These in turn have sought to model their own lives on the one who denied himself the kingdoms of the earth – and who called us to attend to those whom the world miscalls ‘losers’.  To be ‘counter-cultural’ is to continue that tradition. If we are to learn how to do that now, decisively, in our own time we surely need to observe closely how the wider culture ‘works’, and come to our own conclusions on why this happens.

For us two retired Catholic teachers the central Christian belief in the human importance of a historical model of complete integrity is now amply supported by rational mimetic theory.12René Girard’s Mimetic Theory by Wolfgang Palaver (Michigan State University Press),2013

Challenging philosophical relativism on its own ground, this seems to us the best explanation so far of the failure of the secular Enlightenment to take us to liberty, equality and fraternity in over two centuries of trying. We are confident that a thoroughly integrated and coherent Christian second-level curriculum – and a thoroughly reorganised adult faith formation system – will someday bear witness to this.


  1. Lord Sugar launches his search for a new Young Apprentice; BBC Media Centre, 2011
  2. Irish bishops in Rome for talks with Pope, Irish Times,  Mon, Oct 16, 2006
  3. Finding Faith in Ireland: the Shifting Spiritual Landscape of Teens and Young Adults in the Republic of Ireland, Barna Group, 2017.  (This report is based on both qualitative and quantitative study of 790 subjects in the 14-25 age range, and interviews with 63 youth workers.)
  4. See e.g. the website of the international Colloquium on Violence and Religion
  5. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure by René Girard, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966
  6. For Girard, Christian sacrifice as ritualised in the Mass is radically different – because no deflection of violence onto another is involved. Jesus as the model for the sacrificing priest was also victim, the ‘giver of himself’.  In exposing the injustice of the scapegoating process Jesus also provided a ritualised bloodless alternative to the sacrifices of the ancient world and now bids all believers to imitate this self-giving.  It is implicit that no further victimisation should follow.
  7. See e.g. The Far Side of Revenge: Reflections on the Northern Ireland Peace Process, Duncan Morrow, 2016
  8. Barry, W., U.S. Culture and Contemporary Spirituality. Review for Religious 54, 6-21 (1995)
  9. Kirwan, M., Discovering Girard, Darton, Longman and Todd (2004), (p. 19)
  10. Eating Disorders and Mimetic Desire, René Girard, Contagion 3, 1996
  11. Vatican II – Declaration on Religious Freedom, 1, 1965
  12. René Girard’s Mimetic Theory by Wolfgang Palaver (Michigan State University Press),2013

Views: 246

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Views: 188

‘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.)

Views: 21

Faith Formation and Fear of Shame

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

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


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

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

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”.2Survey reveals low level of religious knowledge in young, Irish Times, April 9th 2007

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.3Share the Good News, p.55 (Veritas) (My italics.)

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

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

?Do Irish bishops fear what serious research could reveal?

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

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

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

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

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

Currently ongoing are:

Irish clerical fear of shame over:

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

North Irish fear of shame over:

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

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 of social contexts, from the night club to the corporate boardroom to the yachting marina;
  • Politico-economic theories that rely on maintaining unsustainable consumption by the ‘winners’ of this race for social prestige, i.e. this race to avoid peer-shaming;
  • The tardiness of governments in grappling with this crisis, for fear of reaction from environmentally misguided political forces.

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

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

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

Uniquely, Jesus completely overcame the human fear of shame.

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

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

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

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


  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.

Views: 100

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


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,
Co. Derry.

Views: 38