Category Archives: Catechesis

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.

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

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

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin defending faith schools in 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith Formation and Fear of Shame

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

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


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

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

Faith Formation? Take it out of schools altogether!

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

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

The virtually complete failure of that system was well summed up by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin in 2006 when he told Pope Benedict:  “I can go to parishes on a Sunday where I find no person in the congregations between the ages of 16 and 36. None at all.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love before Knowledge: The search for portable truth

Sean O’Conaill  © The Furrow Sep 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The most important thing for a Christian to know
Is that the most important thing for her/him to DO
But to LOVE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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