Category Archives: Evangelisation

Why did Jesus of Nazareth accept Crucifixion?

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

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

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

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

Views: 226

2024: Irish Catholic Vocations Office Mired in Clericalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons of the Pandemic

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

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

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

The Priests who spoke out

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

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

Child Safeguarding and Risk

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

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

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

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

Baptism the Primary Sacrament of the Priestly People of God

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

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

17th Jan 2024

Views: 274

Church Is Mission?

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

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

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

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

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

Blaming the Father

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

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


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

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

The Root of All Evil?

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

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

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

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


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

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

Views: 248

Did God want Jesus Dead?

Now committed to a synodal programme, Irish Catholics will struggle to make missionary sense of a medieval theology that implies a divine need for a divine victim – the crucifixion of Jesus on Calvary to repay a human debt of honour to the Father God of Creation.

Satisfaction and substitution, keywords of the medieval and early modern theology of the cross, are both used in the Catholic Catechism of 19941CCC615 ‘”For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5: 19) By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who “makes himself an offering for sin”, when “he bore the sin of many”, and who “shall make many to be accounted righteous”, for “he shall bear their iniquities”.  (Isaiah 53 10-12) Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father. – to explain why Jesus submitted to crucifixion on Calvary. Human sinfulness is so great, according to this theology, that the voluntary suffering and death of God’s only son was needed to atone, reconciling the Father to ourselves.

In this understanding Jesus ‘satisfied’ a cosmic debt, substituting himself as sufferer of the divine punishment that must otherwise fall upon ourselves. This is the essence of the redemption theology of the Catechism.

Paradoxically, however, this leaves the same Father God obviously open to a suspicion of unforgiveness, making Jesus’s own forgiveness of his accusers a startling contradiction. Any ‘new evangelisation’ in Ireland must contend with this theological Gordian knot. Has any of us have ever heard, in church, a convincing attempt to untie it?

How many are aware that this medieval emphasis on divine debt recovery was not the understanding of the early Christian church? For over a thousand years, until the time of St Anselm of Canterbury in the late 11th century, it was taught that Jesus’s self-sacrifice had ransomed humankind from the powers of darkness – from ‘Satan’.

In this understanding, God the Father – in raising Jesus from the dead – was co-liberator of humankind. To ‘redeem’ was to buy the freedom of a slave, and, in the early church’s understanding, humans had been in captivity to evil until the time of Jesus. For those earliest Christian believers, the God of Abraham had done for themselves – through Jesus – what he had earlier done for the Israelites enslaved by Pharaonic Egypt.

In Cur Deus Homo (‘Why God Became a Man’ – 1098 CE) Anselm argued that the life of the Son of God was worth far more than any debt that could have been owed to Satan. To undo this mistake he essentially attributed the captivity from which Jesus liberated humankind to God himself.

To understand this shift we need to remember that for Anselm and his contemporaries the monarchical political order of the time was God-ordained. From the fourth century adoption of Christianity by the failing Roman empire, Christian clergy had supported the authority of the political order that protected them, an authority that rested on military power. It did not make sense to Anselm that God the Father would not rescue Jesus by the same forceful means, unless the crucifixion had been necessary to restore the perfect creation described in Genesis.

Anselm’s explanation of the Crucifixion became the bedrock of the fundamentalist evangelical Christianity of our own time – a Christian extremism that can favour the Old Testament principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ and scorn any reference to the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

There Jesus insists that enemies be loved instead. Never does Christian fundamentalism attend to Jesus’s repetition of the warning of the prophet Hosea – that what pleases God is ‘mercy not sacrifice‘ (Matt 9:13).

With the church no longer beholden to any political elite in the West, St Anselm’s perspective is a missionary millstone. Who cannot see that a state power that rests upon force – rather than consent – is unjust and sinful? Who cannot see in political ambition the covetousness of the 9th and 10th commandments of Moses?

And who cannot now see that it was in his rejection of ambition – political or religious – that Jesus overcame the temptation of ‘the world’? Oblivious of this danger even Christian religious elites can be corrupted, the problem described as ’spiritual worldliness’ by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium (2013).

The crucifixion is explained simply by the refusal of the Trinity to force us to follow them. How could the Father be freely loved if he was less loving than the Son?

Violence – and victimisation – arise easily from human ambition. Jesus stands unique in the ancient world, as an historical figure who refused power on those terms, at staggering personal cost. That sacrifice bears witness to a source of moral strength that lies beyond any of us. It was in this non-violent self-giving that Jesus reached the summit of human achievement – bearing witness to a heavenly father who thinks the same way. His forgiving self-sacrifice finally abolished the contradiction between mercy and sacrifice. He died as he had lived, in solidarity with the most vulnerable – those many millions who have died to save the faces of the Caesars of history.

The sacred purpose of the Trinity is to free humankind from selfish ambition (the root of all imperialism), from elitism and from violence. We need to reconsider a theological perspective that falls scandalously short – by imputing self-absorption and a need for violent sacrifice to the Father.

Notes

  1. CCC615 ‘”For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5: 19) By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who “makes himself an offering for sin”, when “he bore the sin of many”, and who “shall make many to be accounted righteous”, for “he shall bear their iniquities”.  (Isaiah 53 10-12) Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.

See also: Why did Jesus of Nazareth accept crucifixion?

Views: 213

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.

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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
1842-1909
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.

Notes

  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)

Views: 214

How White Men Lost the Meaning of Redemption

For the earliest Christians, Jesus’s Resurrection had set them free from the worst kind of fear – that the judgement of Rome was God’s judgement also. Without an army, Jesus had defeated the world’s greatest power, simply by speaking the truth. The still living Jesus, their brother and Lord,  was now judge of the living as well as the dead. In their own minds and hearts, whatever others might think, they were beloved children of the only God who mattered.

If Crucifixion could not disgrace or kill Jesus it could not disgrace or kill those who believed that Jesus was indeed the way, the truth and the life.

And so St Paul could write :  Now this Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Cor 3: 17)

This was why Jesus was also called ‘Redeemer‘ – liberator – because his forgiveness, experienced before Baptism, had also liberated his earliest followers from the fear that eternal death would follow not only from the mistakes of their own earlier lives but from crucifixion

To redeem‘ was literally to buy the freedom of a Roman slave, so those earliest Christians were truly free in the most important sense.  The greatest power that Rome had – the power to both kill and shame by crucifixion – had been set at nought by Jesus.

That cruel Roman world was passing away.

Two thousand years later a Christian descendant of African slaves in the USA was to write as follows:

“The cross stands at the centre of the Christian faith of African-Americans because Jesus’ suffering was similar to their American experience. Just as Jesus Christ was crucified, so were blacks lynched. In the American experience, the cross is the lynching tree.”
(James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree,  Orbis Books, 2013)

James Cone was describing the belief that had led Martin Luther King to give his own life for the cause of African American civil equality in the USA, the Civil Rights campaign of 1956-68.

The same belief – that God and history are always on the side of the enslaved and the abused – the rejected ones – continues to make history today.

The paradox is that James Cone’s own ancestors had been enslaved by white Europeans who also thought themselves Christians. Those white Europeans had instead used the Bible to justify their own greed and brutality.

The white American landowners to whom they had sold their slaves had given the same Bible to those slaves in the hope that it would teach them obedience.  They had no expectation that something utterly different would happen:

Those slaves now saw in the story of the Israelites in Egypt their own story – and in the crucifixion they saw the lynchings that became all too frequent after the US Civil War defeat of the slave-holding southern states, in the period 1865-1945.

How had it happened that white European slavers – and even kings and popes – had forgotten what St Paul had also written about the Kingdom of God called into being by Jesus long ago: “There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female — for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3: 28)

The answer lies in an event that happened just three centuries after Jesus’s time on earth: the decision of the Roman Emperor Constantine to claim in 312 CE that the God of Jesus had helped him win power over his rivals, and would help him to further victories if he marched under a Christian symbol of that time – known as the Chi Rho.

The Chi Rho – early Christian symbol formed by placing the first two letters of the Greek word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos) on top of one another. It was adapted to become the battle standard of the armies of the Roman Emperor Constantine 312-337 CE

Not all Christians were convinced of the truth of Constantine’s claim – for it was also known that Constantine had earlier claimed the support of the pagan God Apollo.  However, a majority of the Christian bishops decided that the sufferings of Christians under periodic Roman persecution had finally been rewarded, and did not contest this claim.  By the end of that century, 400 CE, Christianity had replaced belief in the ancient Roman and Greek Gods as the official religion of the Roman empire.

This had a profound impact on European Christianity from then on, in three main ways:

  • First, as the Christian church was now under the protection of a military Roman upper class, it came itself to be organised in the same way – with Christian clergy organised also as an officer class and social hierarchy throughout western Europe.
  • Second, the social importance of Baptism lessened greatly.  Originally received by adults converted by the ‘Good News’ of Jesus life, death and resurrection, Baptism became gradually a sacrament received in infancy in Christian families.  This strongly contrasted with the rising social prestige of the adult sacrament of ordination – the gateway ‘rite of passage’ to the Christian clergy, the church’s own officer ranks.
  • This in turn meant that ‘Redemption’ for most European Christians no longer meant freedom in the present from fear of the judgement of others, but merely a promise of eternal life after death – if one was obedient to the Christian clergy who now formed society’s moral and intellectual elite. 

This was Christendom – an era that began in the 300s CE and lasted, as a semi-Christian society, until 1914 CE.  Its downfall came when five ‘great’ European imperial powers fought World War I, the most absurd and costly war in history – the Great War of 1914-18 – all claiming that the God of Jesus would help them to victory.

This disaster – its effects still ongoing – has greatly weakened those Christian churches that had supported those imperial powers. It has led many Christians in all traditions to recall that Jesus began his ministry by resisting the temptation to seek any form of political or ecclesiastical power, and that he died holding to that same course. Christendom was obviously not the Kingdom of God, and this is slowly being understood.

James Cone’s statement quoted above helps us greatly both to pinpoint the greatest mistake of European Christian churches in the past and to chart the future.

At the highest level of the church today it is also understood that the importance of Baptism took a negative turn following the Constantinian conversion in the 300s CE:

” Theology and the value of pastoral care in the family seen  as domestic Church took a negative turn in the fourth century, when the sacralization of priests and bishops took place, to the detriment of the common priesthood of baptism, which was beginning to lose its value. The more the institutionalization of the Church advanced, the more the nature and charism of the family as a domestic Church diminished.” (Secretary General to the Vatican Synod of Bishops, Bishop Mario Grech, Civilta Cattolica, 16th October 2020.)

And that is why defending the importance of Baptism and raising its status in the church needs to be a priority for all Irish Catholics today – especially because of the continuing power of clericalism – a mistaken exaggeration of the importance of ordination.  Clericalism pays only lip service to Baptism.  In particular, Irish clericalism still denies the baptised people of God the ordinary necessity of frequent dialogue. This in turn means that clergy are too often unable to help lay people to develop a mature Christian faith that is free of the need of clerical approval and oversight.

Yet, in 2020, as Catholic clerical morale reaches its lowest ever ebb in Ireland, many Irish Catholic lay people are discovering that the Holy Spirit, the counsellor promised by Jesus, is always at their elbow, reminding them that with the fullest understanding of the Apostles Creed comes a freedom greater than they have ever known. It does not matter that due to its mistaken alignment with wealth and power in the past, Catholicism is written off by today’s fashionable opinion-makers.

Those same opinion-makers existed in Jesus’s time – he called them ‘the world’. Knowing that world was passing away he left to all Christians a far greater faith in the living presence of the Holy Spirit and in the better world to come.

In the end all human judgement and social and spiritual pretence is set at nought by the Cross. It is our pride, our mistaken pursuit of superiority, that leads to snobbery, inequality, clericalism and injustice in all eras.

Prayer – especially reflective prayer on the Apostles Creed – will remind us that it is the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who are the true Lords of Time.  As ever we are all equally and infinitely loved, and need to believe this firmly to become a true Christian community – and heralds of the world to come.

[This article was published first at:  https://acireland.ie ]

Views: 374

‘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

We need to face up to Five Dysfunctions of the Church

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  March 2013

An admission of radical managerial fallibility on the part of the church’s leaders is the key to a successful New Evangelisation.

If the New Evangelisation is to have any hope of success, we Catholics must surely solve a problem that has been hanging over us since Vatican II. If we are not to continue repelling strangers by our divisions, if we are to convince them that we are indeed the body of Christ, we must learn to work together as an effective team. What is it exactly that prevents the church from operating with real unity of purpose?

Knowing that this problem interests me, a friend alerted me recently to a highly rated fable for business executives who want to build effective management teams: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Patrick Lencioni, 2002). Intrigued, I bought the book. I feel that its central argument deserves attention for the light it throws on the current state of our church.

According to the fable, the five key dysfunctions of a failing team are:

  1. Absence of trust
  2. Fear of conflict
  3. Lack of commitment
  4. Avoidance of accountability
  5. Inattention to results

For Lencioni, ‘trust’ is the confidence that every member of a team needs to have that even when opposed or criticised no personal harm is intended. This in turn will permit necessary conflict – that is, the conflict that may need to occur to resolve differences over how the overarching goals of the team are to be reached. But for this trust to exist, every member needs to put those team goals before personal status and success. Otherwise disagreements will be papered over, disillusioned members will focus on their own individual careers, commitment will be lacking, and individual and team failures will be ignored.

Far from being separate dysfunctions of a team, these five are therefore all interlinked in a circular chain, and the building of trust is essential for the building of an effective team. Lencioni sees the chief obstacle to mutual trust as a strong human tendency to avoid vulnerability – that is, to build defences and habits of avoidance that conceal the personal limitations we all have.

1. Absence of Trust

For me this fear of vulnerability is a diagnostic feature of what we call clericalism in the church. It begins at the summit with the unstated expectation of the magisterium that all wisdom and policy must begin and end with it. Although clearly our managers don’t know how to stem the outflow from the church in developed societies they cannot admit this, and must unceasingly claim to know, in minute detail, what we must all do next. There is no willingness to consider that in our present parlous state an admission that they don’t have all the answers might well be perceived as a welcome sign of humility and spiritual strength.

At present, for example, we are all supposedly waiting for the pope to provide us with a master plan for the New Evangelisation. In Ireland we are promised that a key to this will be a new catechetical directory called Share the Good News. This also emerged out of a summit process in accordance with the key principle of clericalism: we the ordained have all the answers – just you lay people sit there (again) and listen.

Meanwhile, many of us lay people are perfectly capable of seeing that it was a clerical fear of vulnerability that led to the most devastating modern scandal in the church – the preference for secrecy in dealing with clerical abuse of children, sometimes at the awful cost of further harm to other children. This too has deeply undermined the mutual trust our Catholic team needs if it is to welcome strangers.

As to the psychological dangers of that fear of vulnerability, are many Irish priests currently in danger from this, and from the burnout and demoralisation that comes from lack of honest ongoing dialogue? In this deepest of crises, are they in danger from the expectation that clergy will always be above it all – supermen apart who must not ever just be human, fallible, and in need of the most basic emotional support of ‘ordinary’ Catholics? Wouldn’t the first Christians have functioned often as a very vulnerable team whose members admitted to one another that they just didn’t have a clue what to do next? Wouldn’t they have prayed in a heartfelt way about that – together? (Could everyone please entertain for a moment the possibility that this may be exactly what we all need to do next?).

2. Fear of Conflict

It is the fear of conflict surely that prevents clergy, and especially bishops, from meeting with regular assemblies of the people of God for the open and honest raising of issues that concern all of us. All other regular church assemblies involving the unordained are carefully designed to avoid the possibility of frank disagreement and exchange of views. So a host of difficult questions raised by decades of scandal, of rampant social change and of ongoing crisis, remain unasked in regular open forums — and mostly unaddressed.

It is therefore unfortunately predictable that there will be an attempt to launch the New Evangelisation in a context of artificial harmony, in which all are expected to not raise uncomfortable issues. One can foresee the tone of this in recent entirely upbeat assessments of our situation from some of the most senior churchmen in Ireland, in the wake of the 2012 Eucharistic Congress. Unbalanced positivity, in the absence of any close analysis of the most challenging issues, is clearly designed to disarm any challenge or deep questioning. It may well culminate in a superficial tranquillity in place of an honest squaring up to deep crisis. This leadership pose is surely fully persuasive only to the dwindling number of lay people that is still convinced of the boundless and bottomless wisdom of the unchallengeable magisterium.

3. Lack of Commitment

I was present at an Irish diocesan meeting in 2003 where the bishop expressed broad approval of a plan to introduce a model of collaborative ministry in the diocese. The plan had been the product of years of work by a group that he himself had commissioned, called the ‘Ministry and Change’ group. The bishop now undertook to establish a new group, consisting of both clergy and people, to implement the report. He invited members of the now disbanding Ministry and Change team to volunteer for it. Three lay people did so. But that was the end of it; they never heard another word from the bishop about their report on collaborative ministry.

A decade later it’s clear that the problem of ministry and change in that diocese has followed the general pattern and become even more acute. Those lay people who volunteered years of their free time to no purpose will be slow ever to do so again. Lay people all over Ireland share very similar stories of having been misled up the clerical garden path ever since 1965.

There is an overwhelming danger that impending efforts to turn the tide will be frustrated by similar inadequate meetings to launch the New Evangelisation. Any denial then of the need for a culture of radical honesty in the church will inevitably create the opposite of that – a feigning of enthusiasm for a plan into which most have had not the slightest input. Ambiguity – a tendency of different people to speak differently about the prospects for success – accompanied by much covert disaffection, will probably reign once again. The deep commitment, mutual trust and unity of purpose that result from a passionate team engagement in resolving major differences will probably be lacking.

4. Avoidance of Accountability

We Catholics have seen this at the highest level in the church – in the failure of the Vatican to summarily dismiss bishops who have covered up the abuse of children by some clergy. Indeed, some bishops who have done so have been rewarded with key responsibilities in the church’s central administration. As I write, a US bishop convicted in a civil court for this offence of failure to report abusive behaviour to the civil authorities is still in charge of his diocese. If bishops cannot be held accountable by one another for such grossly disloyal behaviour, why should any Catholic impose accountability upon herself for obedience to Gospel values? News of highly visible unaccountability inevitably travels everywhere in the church, setting low standards and demoralising all of us. This problem too will help to frustrate the New Evangelisation.

It would seem that there are only ever two possible reasons for the dismissal of a bishop: personal sexual immorality or a mildly questioning attitude towards some aspect of the magisterial church’s positions on, for example, mandatory clerical celibacy or female ordination. It’s clear that, in the minds of our leaders, endangering the sanity and the lives of children do not compare with these failings in the scale of dangers to the church. This is a malignant wound in the body of Christ that continues to foster disbelief and distrust at every level.

5. Inattention to Results

What exactly is the overarching and immediate goal of the magisterium in promoting a New Evangelisation? Is it to reverse the outflow of members from the church in developed societies, or to tolerate (and maybe even encourage) an even lower membership in the interest of strict conformity to magisterial teaching on contentious issues? What model of church is envisaged? Will genuine dialogue be part of that? How will success in advancing the New Evangelisation be measured? Will we, for example, be prioritising the retention of those aged 15-35, and setting out to measure this on an annual basis?

As to the power of egotism to undermine team trust, harmony and collaboration, I have never in my life heard an adequate homily on the plague of self-absorption that so obviously threatens community at every level in modern society. This is in spite of the fact that Catholic social teaching idealises communal solidarity and spells out the need for individualism to be overturned by an ethic of service.

Informed lay Catholics are also well aware of the disillusionment often expressed by clergy themselves about egotism and careerism in the church. In 1999, following his retirement as prefect of the congregation for bishops, the late Cardinal Bernardin Gantin publicly lambasted bishops who ‘put career before God.’ He lamented his inability to stem a trend of bishops in ‘less important dioceses’ applying to people like himself for a transfer after just a few years. Despite several papal warnings about the danger that the church’s hierarchical system (which turns popes into global celebrities and bishops into local ones) could foster egotism and lack of dedication to service and the welfare of the church, the emphasis is still upon the need to safeguard the hierarchical principle at all costs, as though God himself could find not the slightest problem with it.  Isn’t there a huge beam in the hierarchical eye here, a beam that prevents the church from even noticing the cult of celebrity as a key dysfunction of modern society?

Turning Things Around

The greatest strength of this five-fold diagnosis of why teams fail is that it also offers a surprisingly simple strategy for addressing the problem. The key is for team leaders to understand the paradoxical strength that lies in admitting vulnerability, (e.g. “I too have made serious mistakes of leadership and may do so again! I need some advice here”). This can unlock everyone’s capacity for honesty and humility and create an entirely new binding dynamic. There is probably no other way.

Could Jesus have attracted so many of the vulnerable had he not always modelled vulnerability himself? Could anyone be more vulnerable than the babe in the manger, the wandering healer who had ‘nowhere to lay his head,’ the resolute leader who disturbed the peace of Jerusalem with a whip made only of cord, or the man who wept and then disarmed Peter at Gethsemane? Isn’t the crucifix above all else an icon of human vulnerability?

Didn’t St Paul insist that his only strength lay in his weakness? Wasn’t it the martyrs of the amphitheatres who converted brutal Rome? Would so many have been drawn to St Francis of Assisi had he not been so gentle, so careless of his own safety and comfort? Aren’t we also drawn now to the plight of so many of our priests, suffering humiliation so often from the secular world, and now also too often from tensions with the magisterium?

If vulnerability can foster a strange kind of strength and unity, doesn’t a posture of invulnerability from the magisterium (“only we have all the answers”) actually help to explain the distrust in and decline of the church at present? And how can there be real communion now, to resolve our crisis, if the leadership of the church cannot model Jesus’ courageous humility? Is a genuine togetherness possible without that? Could a change of course, an admission of radical managerial fallibility on the part of the church’s leaders, be the only key that can now unlock the secret of a church-wide New Evangelisation in the West?

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Is There an Haute Cuisine Catholicism?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life April 2004

“We are afflicted by a congenital uncertainty as to our own value,” observes Alain deBotton, author of an unfashionably lucid recent work of philosophy entitled Status Anxiety  1Alain deBotton, Status Anxiety, Hamish Hamilton, 2004. This affliction compels us to seek the attention and admiration of others – a quest virtually guaranteed failure since so many are now seeking the same from us.

Having reached much the same conclusion about the deepest human problem in a reflection on the history of Christianity published in 19992Sean O’Conaill, Scattering the Proud, Columba Press, 1999, I was intrigued especially by deBotton’s account of the role of Christianity in ameliorating Status Anxiety down the centuries. This account is not as detailed or complete as one would wish, but his conclusions are provocative and potentially fertile for others who might wish to take up the theme.

To begin with, he brackets Jesus with Socrates as an outstanding example of indifference to the opinion of others, and understands the Gospel concept of ‘worldliness’ as virtually identical to Status Anxiety – quite correctly in my view. He also correctly credits the Churches with insisting upon the equality of all in the sight of God. However, he goes on to insist that Christianity for most of its history did not seriously challenge, even philosophically, the worldly status pyramids outside the sacred spaces of cloister, chapel and cathedral.

He points out that St Augustine’s ‘two cities’ model of history did not allow for the defeat of the worldly, and therefore status-ridden, earthly city by the Church (the City of God) before the day of judgement. Though Christendom could affirm the dignity of the peasant ploughman – for example through the corporatist social model of John of Salisbury – (for whom rulers supplied the mind and peasantry the feet of society) – it has been less effective in ameliorating the impact of meritocratic ideas upon those of low status in a modern society. So much for the penetration of Catholic social teaching, and of Vatican II, into deBotton’s consciousness – but this is significant in its own way.

Meritocracy has, deBotton insists, increased rather than reduced Status Anxiety. In medieval society ‘the poor’ tended to think of their work as useful, of their lot as inevitable, and of their status as both acceptable and none of their own fault. However, the eighteenth century changed all of that. In came the ‘new story’ of Adam Smith – that it was the entrepreneurial spirit that not only produced most wealth, but made wealth potentially limitless. Social Darwinism – the theory that ‘success’ was proof of a genetic and even moral superiority – followed in the nineteenth century. This was countered for a time by ideological socialism, but the recent victory of laissez faire economics and liberal democracy has consolidated the status of a new aristocracy rooted in ceaseless energy, shrewd investment and entrepreneurial cleverness. The seemingly absolute and final ascendancy of a so-called meritocracy implies that the unsuccessful are without any merit – a supremely dispiriting conclusion for them at least.

The most entertaining part of the book is a robust treatment of snobbery, a term that may have originated in the 1820s with the use of ‘s. nob.’ to abbreviate ‘sine nobilitate’, inscribed opposite the names of non-aristocrats in Oxford and Cambridge examination lists. The snob is forever fearful of being considered insignificant through association with the common herd. A Punch cartoon of 1892 (reproduced in deBotton’s book) captures the problem precisely by observing a trio of stately London ladies parading through a park. One of these is looking after another similar trio that has just passed by. She says:

“There go the Spicer Wilcoxes, Mamma. I’m told they’re dying to know us. Hadn’t we better call?”
“Certainly not, Dear!” Mamma replies. “If they’re dying to know us they’re not worth knowing.  The only people worth Our knowing are the people who don’t want to know Us!”

When we recall that the person at the summit of that Victorian status pyramid was a monarch distinguished only by her longevity (and at one stage ironically hailed as ‘Mrs Brown’ by the London mob for her attachment to a Scottish manservant) we have even more reason to laugh at the follies of snobbery.

Snobbery and Status Anxiety are, of course, one and the same. Television situation comedy has exploited a rich vein here in recent years in the UK – in series such as Only Fools and Horses, Yes, Minister and Keeping up Appearances. The belief that advantages such as wealth and education – and country houses and exclusive china – make people somehow ‘better’, more worthy of respect, is, seemingly, a universal and timeless illusion.

That Christian thought and instruction should ceaselessly puncture snobbish pretensions is clear, but the fact is that the mainstream churches have never made a serious direct assault upon snobbery since Constantine. I cannot remember ever hearing a sermon on the subject – although I have been bored to tears all my life by the theme of ‘materialism’. As people acquire expensive property and luxury goods for reasons of status, never for their material composition, that complaint has always missed the mark.

Here in Ireland this failure to indict snobbery from the pulpit and the schoolroom has been especially destructive of the moral persuasiveness of Catholicism in a society aspiring to equality. It has allowed middle class prigs to dominate, and even to characterise, the public face of the church, while the inhabitants of our inner cities now tend to see Catholic bishops as snobbery in purple – simply because they almost always behave as remote grandees rather than accessible and socially relaxed pastors. Bishops generally have been delegating to others the virtue of humility since the fourth century – and this has now become the outstanding scandal in the Church, the root source of its alienation of egalitarian societies.

The part played by Irish Catholic snobbery in the maltreatment of those at the base of the secular period – too often by those at the base of the clerical pyramid – in mid twentieth century Ireland is something that surely needs to be explored in the context of the scandal of child abuse in Ireland. Status pyramids always deprive those at their base of a sense of their own dignity, and brutality is an almost inevitable consequence.

We need to re-evaluate also the devotion by the Irish church of so much educational capital to the children of the middle classes. The assumption that this investment would guarantee the fidelity of the Irish meritocracy to the values and truths of Catholicism was clearly sadly mistaken. There is now not a single national news medium in Ireland that can be said to be sympathetic to and supportive of the church – proof that its efforts on behalf of the middle classes are now interpreted as part of a right wing political agenda rather than as an example of social concern.

And in the context of the growing problem of bullying in our schools, and the self-hatred and self-harming that can follow, the failure of Irish Catholic education to make any explicit connection between social derision and the Gospel account of the crucifixion must be regarded as another disastrous failing.

All of this casts an interesting light upon deBotton’s analysis of the historical failure of the mainstream churches to tackle the spiritual challenge of snobbery in society at large. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that snobbery has become deeply embedded in the church itself.

Just as the secular world is now full of wine, food and all kinds of consumer snobbery, so do we find in the church the liturgy and sacred music snobs who just cannot abide the typical novus ordo mass or folk music hymns. There are even fashions for styles of meditation, for theologians and philosophers – and even ‘spiritualities’ – but little intellectual attention to fashion itself. The awarding of ‘papal knighthoods’ – even to globally notorious pornographers – speaks for itself – as does the English Catholic Herald’s obsession with eulogising supposedly high status converts to Catholicism such as Alec Guinness and Ann Widdecombe. Opus Dei’s recruitment priorities and social attitudes are snobbery incarnate. (It never fails to remind us of its founder’s alleged noblesse.)

Meanwhile we are urged by hierarchs to ‘engage with culture’ – without reflecting upon the very essence of culture itself – its mimetic character. That is what fashion and culture essentially are – the mimesis or imitation of the behaviour of those who have somehow acquired status. No Catholic bishop to my knowledge has yet connected the careerism of bishops – the subject of Cardinal Gantin’s astonishingly frank post-retirement outburst in 1999 – with status seeking in the secular world. This does not bode well for an effective ‘engagement’ by Irish bishops generally with the culture of meritocratic Ireland.

And this means that there is also scant hope at this stage for an effective national response to the challenge of ‘new evangelisation’. True evangelisation elicits an awakening from the mimetic compulsion to seek status and celebrity, an awakening to the good news that one is lovable for oneself and so can be both autonomous and spontaneous. Those who would propose to lead a ‘new evangelism’ in Ireland would need to be sure they have experienced this themselves.

DeBotton reminds us poignantly of one of Tolstoy’s greatest characters – Ivan Ilyich – who discovers on the brink of his own death that the status he has achieved in late 1800s St Petersburg does not mean that he is truly loved by either friends or family. He has sought all his life the regard of others, and so has taught his children to do the same. His supposedly cherished beliefs are the fashionable opinions of others, and nowhere near his heart. His work colleagues’ tepid sympathy cannot disguise their greater interest in who will benefit most from his demise.

Late nineteenth century St Petersburg was no less, and no more, Christian than 1950s Ireland – because (as Cardinal Cahal Daly has acknowledged in the case of Ireland) conformity in pursuit of status had become in both the norm – and conformity is just another word for fashion.

How could Christianity and conformity ever have become confused? It happened, surely, as soon as Constantine’s opportunistic vision was blessed by the Catholic bishops as the real thing, and this Caesarean mass murderer was eulogised in the most excruciating terms by Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, the proto-typical Catholic snob. This set a new priority for evangelism itself: to convert the socially elevated, because this would guarantee the setting of a spectacular conformist fashion among their ‘inferiors’. This fashion was already established in continental Europe before Patrick came to Ireland, and even Patrick could see the advantage of converting political and social elites first of all.

Thus the support of social elites became essential to the power of the Church all over Europe. And it was the social elitism of the Irish Catholic church that placed it in opposition to the equalising, and therefore, in that limited sense, more truly Christian, tide of modern secularism. Clerical elitism is also the root cause of the tide of clerical scandals that we have seen over the past twelve years – scandals that egalitarian secularism could almost gleefully exploit.

Work such as deBotton’s suggest, therefore, an essential preliminary to any attempt at a ‘new evangelism’ in Ireland – a revision of the history of the Church that correctly identifies Christendom as a failed attempt at evangelisation-through-elites – and military elites at that. It failed because it compromised the Gospels which are centrally an assault upon elitism itself, and especially elitist violence. It failed also, probably, because the Christian God could not let it succeed while remaining true to the radical egalitarianism of his Son.

I do not believe that neo-scholastic philosophy has yet produced a book as relevant, fascinating and revealing as this on the problem of status-seeking – one of the key components of the global environmental and social crisis. This too underlines the fact that the best of secular thought has much to teach the church – especially when secular thinkers reflect honestly upon the mysterious failure of secularism to achieve its original 18th century programme. When the apostles asked ‘which of us is the greatest?’ they were revealing what Christianity, and secularism, need to recognize as the basic human flaw – our boundless desire for priority, measured in the deference of others.

  1. Alain deBotton, Status Anxiety, Hamish Hamilton, 2004
  2. Sean O’Conaill, Scattering the Proud, Columba Press, 1999

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Towards a New Evangelism IV: ‘Search’

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2001

Of all the problems facing the church, that of passing on ‘the faith’ to a younger generation seems most intractable, yet most crucial. It is at this point that we come right up against the possibility of an unprecedented discontinuity in Irish life. If young people have now decided almost unanimously against the traditional Catholic vocations to celibate ministries, does this indicate a rejection of Catholicism and Christianity per se?

My experience of Cursillo in Derry led me to an offshoot, a ‘cut down’ version of the Cursillo provided for young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, called ‘Search’. Essentially the same features apply: the presentation, over a weekend, of a lifestyle centred on prayer, study and action; the ‘team’ drawn mostly from the peer group, supported by a few unobtrusive older adults; talks involving personal witness as well as exposition, given mostly by young people themselves. Could this formula possibly succeed among a generation now so much younger than the clerical mean in Ireland?

Again I was astonished by what I found: a complete lack of cynicism and derision; a poise and quiet confidence among the young team that I had never encountered previously in this generation; a willingness to be entirely open about the detours from the moral life that young people are now so endangered by; above all a maturity that proved that Christianity is far from being mere sentimentality and wishful thinking.

I was reminded also that nowadays young people are far from insulated from the horrors that can punctuate life in Northern Ireland – including even sectarian murder. Faith that in the darkest valleys the Lord will be found was as much present in the Search experience as in the Cursillo at Termonbacca.

One feature of Search that does not occur on the Cursillo is the dramatisation of issues such as peer pressure in relation to addictive substances or early sex. These are taken very seriously, an echo of the morality plays of the middle ages – and have enormous potential for development as Irish life becomes more sophisticated.

I was above all impressed by the demeanour of these young people before the Blessed Sacrament. Instead of a stiff formalism imposed by adults and undermined by childish giggles, or embarrassed make-believe, I found a relaxed celebration of a sacred presence, all the more sacred because the Lord was clearly understood above all as patient lover and friend of every individual present. Some sang impromptu to guitar accompaniment, while others knelt praying, or read their bibles. There was no orchestration of this, no monitoring adult presence – and no-one was disturbed by my presence either. People came and went quietly, as inclination took them.

This sense of being individually accepted and loved carried over to the relationships between all those present. The entire social and educational spectrum was covered, but the Lord’s inclusiveness was marvellously realised.

There was also a wonderful rapport between the youthful majority on the team, and their mature guides. The latter rely not upon close control but upon trust, built up for weeks before the weekend in planning and prayer sessions. Search was every bit as ‘horizontal’ as Cursillo. Indeed the gratitude of these young people for the trusting care of their elders was openly expressed in the prayers before the Blessed Sacrament that preceded the adult talks.

Speaking individually to some of the Search team later, I found myself talking to adults proud of their faith. This pride came mainly from a sense of doing important work – of proving the relevance of faith to peers often desperately in need of it. Significantly, all insisted that in the Search ministry (for this is what it is) they had received something their Catholic schooling had failed to provide: a context in which they could witness to their own faith, and receive the support of peers, free of the suspicion that they were merely ‘faking it’ for the approval of adult authority.

The essential element was the deep conviction that the spiritual life accords self-respect, as well as a capacity to be of service to those who can lose all direction in total immersion in current youth culture.

“What does ‘Salvation’ mean to you?” I asked Christine, a twenty-one year old computer student.

“That God loves you,” she said, without hesitation. That knowledge, simply expressed, had been gained almost solely through the Search experience – first as a candidate experiencing a weekend provided by others, and then several times afterwards as a member of the team. Christine is in every respect completely relaxed and natural, articulate and intelligent without any sense of superiority.

Christine is also ecumenically engaged, quite at home with Church of Ireland Christians on their annual Summer youth ‘bash’. This too is as true of Search as of Cursillo: pride in being Catholic does not preclude respect for other Christian traditions. Indeed there is often an honest admiration for the sturdy faith that Ulster Protestantism upholds in a generally cynical world.

As with Cursillo, those who gain most from Search make an ongoing commitment to attend regular meetings for prayer and preparation, becoming effectively part of an evangelising community. This last, is, I am convinced the essential secret of any ‘New Evangelism’ today. An evangelism that does no more than verbally assert the existence of a loving God is worse than useless, as it merely replicates the promise of a thousand commercial ventures to ‘change your life’ without changing the communal context in which it is lived.

Conclusions

Listening to ecclesiastics enthusing about the power of modern media to ‘spread the word’ I wonder how long this mirage will deflect the hierarchical church from the reality of the death of Christendom. That was an era when spectacular ‘conversions’ flowed from the success of the Church in commanding the political and intellectual heights. All of us remember when this was true of Ireland also, when much ‘faith’ was mere conformity by the upwardly aspiring.

Now in Ireland the only powerful church is Cynicism, spilling like acid from a thousand journalistic pens and broadcasts. In the general collapse of respect for all institutions, and their most prominent members, the Irish Catholic church is undergoing its most serious challenge since the Reformation. Indeed, the present challenge to Irish Catholicism is in some respects even more serious than that, for the Reformation was weakened in Ireland by the fact that its missionaries were generally considered lackeys of an alien oppressor, and Irish Catholicism was consequently strengthened by its utility as a badge of cultural and political identity.

With political independence the Catholic hierarchy here assumed the position of the Catholic hierarchy of the European ancien régime – elitist, hostile to modernity, (especially the principle of intellectual freedom), and condescending to the social base. Convinced that control of the intellectual heights and of the educational system would mean security for ever, it failed to take the opportunity to build an open egalitarian church provided by Vatican II – and is now reaping the proper reward of such a policy: the almost total collapse of hierarchical authority.

Yet in many ways those Catholics who still joyously serve are proving that a collapse of hierarchical authority is not a collapse of the authority of the Gospels. Wherever compassion reigns, God reigns also. It is only in the context of genuine compassion – not just mere publicity – that a New Evangelism can flourish. Young people who know this, and act upon it, are tomorrow’s church, and to restore our hope, and our authority, we must simply affirm and follow them – allowing them to teach their peers.

In all the examples I have seen of effective evangelism in Ireland today, it is lay people who play the key role – the peers of those who need convincing of the reality of Christian love. They convince not by virtue of their verbal eloquence or theological sophistication, but by their integrity – the fact that they embody genuine faith and the compassion they attribute to God. They also belong to the most morally challenged society in Ireland.

Northern Ireland is commonly considered the worst advertisement for Christianity in the whole of the west. Yet in the personal crises and traumas that it provides, there is a wealth of experience of the reality of grace. Out of these darkest valleys have come people – old and young – who walk more securely and wisely in their faith than I would have thought possible. This too surely is Good News – a promise that for the Irish church as a whole there will indeed be a resurrection, if we can all learn from the experience of humiliation.

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