Category Archives: Original Sin

Rethinking Catholic Formation

Sean O’Conaill  ©  Reality Feb 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Dark Materials of Children’s Fiction

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Dec 2004

New Line Productions, whose brilliant fantasy film The Return of the King won eleven Oscars in the spring of 2004, will release in 2005 or 2006 the first of a series of films based upon His Dark Materials, the epic trio of novels written by the English author Philip Pullman.

Pullman is an evangelical secularist and leading light in the UK’s ‘National Secular Society’, currently opposing the use of taxpayers’ money to fund any school in which religious belief is taught as truth. He is a close friend and ally of the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, for whom all religion is a mental aberration, and Catholicism especially so.

The Return of the King was the culmination of a three-movie epic based upon the fantasy The Lord of the Rings by the Catholic academic J.R.R Tolkien. While the Catholic Herald considered this epic a thoroughly Catholic and morally healthy allegory on original sin, it has described His Dark Materials as “truly the stuff of nightmares” and “worthy of the bonfire”.

Given Pullman’s deft exploitation of Catholicism’s historical authoritarian scandals, especially the Inquisition, this latter judgement could not have been better calculated to arrive on the long list of evaluations that appear inside the covers of paperbacks these times – and so it does on the pages of His Dark Materials, at Pullman’s request.

However, it is easy to understand the Catholic Herald’s indignation.  His Dark Materials pits two twelve-year-olds against a villainous power called ‘the church’, to break its cosmic hold over multiple universes in the name of ‘the Authority’, an arrogant, deceitful and decrepit ‘God’. They are presented quite deliberately as a new Adam and Eve who reverse the expulsion from Paradise by rescuing the dead from an underworld of deception to which the lie of ‘heaven’ has consigned them, and who assert the right of all children to grow into sexual maturity and responsible adulthood, freely making their own moral choices.

‘The church’ in the world of Lyra Belacqua, the first of these children, is ruled by a collection of institutions known as ‘the Magisterium’. The leader of the revolt against ‘the Authority’, Lord Asriel, is described as allowing a “spasm of disgust … to cross his face when they talk of the sacraments, and atonement, and redemption, and suchlike”.

However, this world is not quite Earth, but an Earth-type planet in another universe that interpenetrates ours. Pullman is playing with the notion made popular by speculative physics and cosmology that all historical possibilities eventuate somewhere, mixing elements of Milton’s Paradise Lost with history, science fiction, fantasy, New Age romanticism and anti-Catholic polemic. Lyra is a rebellious and adventurous urchin aroused by ecclesiastical tyranny directed against her friends.

The focus of this tyranny is a fear of ‘Dust’. In Lyra’s world ‘the church’ has discovered that a mysterious elementary particle tends to accumulate around adults, and has concluded that this ‘Dust’ is somehow connected with original sin. Through an institution known as the ‘General Oblation Board’, run by Lyra’s sinister mother, it has set up a laboratory in Lapland to see if, by operating upon children, it can prevent their corruption by this ‘Dust’.

To describe this operation it is necessary to explain that in Lyra’s world every human is accompanied by a visible daemon – a kind of external alter ego or twin soul of the opposite gender that always stays very close. Lyra’s daemon is called Pantalaimon. Like the daemon of every child his ‘form’ is not fixed. He can become a moth or a mouse or an ermine or a leopard, as circumstances demand, or as his desire takes him. He is also Lyra’s dearest companion, advising, warning, chiding and so on.

I must say that my first reaction to Lyra’s daemon was to suppose that she was a witch-in-training, and that the ‘daemon’ was her witch’s ‘familiar’ – but in fact the idea is closer to one expressed by Socrates – that he had an inner spiritual ‘voice’, close to a ‘muse’.

This fancy, the external shape-shifting daemon, is a brilliant fictional device that allows Pullman to explore the ‘soul’ of a character, even when that character has no human companion to converse with and is in dire straits.

It also allows him to devise the horrific experiment ‘the church’ is practising in Lapland at a place called Bolvangar – to see what happens when the bond between the child and the daemon is severed by a kind of guillotine. Will this prevent the accumulation of ‘Dust’, ‘saving’ the soul of the child?

Pullman’s purpose is clear enough. In Lyra’s world ‘the church’ is perversely prepared to destroy the true personality of a child in order to ‘save’ it – depriving the child of its dearest companion, its soul. It is also prepared to prevent the child developing into an independent adult. The symbolism of the ‘cutting’ of the bond between child and daemon is further developed in the following passage, in which one of Lyra’s allies, a true witch is exhorting her fellows:

“Some of you have seen what they did at Bolvangar. And that was horrible, but it is not the only such place, not the only such practice. Sisters, you know only the north: I have travelled in the south lands. There are churches there, believe me, that cut their children too, as the people of Bolvangar did – not in the same way, but just as horribly – they cut their sexual organs, yes, both boys and girls – they cut them with knives so that they shan’t feel. That is what the church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling. So if a war comes, and the church is on one side of it, we must be on the other, no matter what strange allies we find ourselves bound to.”

This obvious allusion to the castrati who once sang in the Sistine chapel reveals Pullman’s skill in weaving the most sensational facets of the church’s history into his narrative texture. It also, of course, tips his hand, undermining the power of the story as allegory and leading his readers by the nose to his own fondest conclusions.

The first novel in the series, Northern Lights, is nevertheless a brilliant work of imagination, and the writing is way above the norm for children’s fiction. His descriptions of the Aurora, of journeys across snowbound moonlit landscapes and other arctic scenes are breathtaking. Judging by the message-boards on websites devoted to the novels, children are deeply gripped by the idea of daemons, and by other extraordinary creations such as armoured polar bears who can speak and work metals. The novels are already a ‘phenomenon’, long before children will get a chance to see the film renditions. They are also far more sophisticated and involving than the Harry Potter stories of J.K. Rowling.

But how should Christian adults react to all this? Supposing a ten or twelve year old were to quote the above passage to a parent or an RE teacher – what would they say? And what on earth should our own magisterium make of all this, given that its supposed twin in an alternative universe already figures among the villainous and overbearing powers of the story? (The chosen director of the forthcoming films, Chris Weitz, has declared that although the film script will not refer to ‘the church’, the term ‘magisterium’ will be kept for the dark overbearing power.) To react as the Catholic Herald has done would be to add grist to Pullman’s mill and to become part of his publicity machine.

The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has already ploughed an entirely different furrow – one of welcoming the raising of great theological questions in children’s fiction and of rebutting the notion that the ‘God’ of His Dark Materials needs any defence. The drift of his assessment is that Pullman is merely excoriating the darkest and silliest Gnostic excesses of Christian fundamentalism, and that this is not at all a bad thing to do. His major misgiving is not so much over Pullman’s work as over the capability of the average believer to cope with the issues he raises.

Pullman insists that he is merely supporting values such as love, freedom, responsibility and compassion – and attacking nothing more laudable than fear, a misguided adult desire for control, and intellectual tyranny. This is all very well, up to a point.

That point came for me in the second novel, The Subtle Knife, when, on our planet Earth, the second of Pullman’s child protagonists, Will Parry, receives the following abbreviated history lesson from his father:

“There are two great powers … and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.”

‘Those who want us to obey and be humble and submit’ are, inevitably, ‘the church.’ By clear implication, all of the church’s enemies belong to the
children of light.

The best defence for Pullman here is that Will’s father, John, is about to expire and so has little time for nuance. Even so, how on earth could Pullman have entirely left out of Will’s education the capacity for tyranny, torture, conspiracy and lies of secularist authoritarians – from Napoleon I through Bismarck to Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Ceausescu, Sadaam Hussein and Kim Il Sung? Would he not need some small warning that all of us are prone to self-regard and a love for power, and that distrust of soutanes and zucchettos should not veer over entirely into naïve adulation of everyone damning God and dressed in mufti or military fatigues?

Will’s history lesson raises an interesting and crucial question for Catholic education. How effective are these novels, and others like them, in influencing the macrohistorical judgement of the children we educate?

By ‘macrohistorical’ I mean the ‘short story’ we compile for ourselves to summarise the meaning and overall drift of the past. I have seen a TV documentary on children’s fiction in which a young girl, no older than fourteen, delivered the following verdict on His Dark Materials:

“It shows how bad the church always was, and how silly Christianity is.”

Pullman couldn’t have asked for a more concise summary of the message of his own parable – for that, in the end, is what His Dark Materials attempts to be – a kind of secularist’s Pilgrim’s Progress for children, an Anti-Narnia. (Pullman’s contempt for C.S. Lewis knows no bounds.)

The problem with countering such ‘stories’ is that it is the more scandalous aspects of Christian history that tend both to accumulate in secular histories, and in the imagination. When events such as the Inquisition, the wars of religion, and the burning of witches are encountered by children in the context of both ongoing church scandals and stirring propaganda like His Dark Materials, what is the overall effect? What ‘story’ do Catholic children wind up with?

Someone needs to do some research on this, but in the meantime my inclination is to urge strongly upon all educators the need to be aware of what is flying underneath the radar into Catholic schools in the form of compulsively readable children’s fiction that is also blatant propaganda for evangelical secularism. Teachers of History, RE and English literature need to be especially concerned about this, and to develop a collaborative response.

The nub of this response should be, I believe, to point out that power over others is an essentially secular concern, that the clerical church became scandalous only when it bought too heavily into that secular concern, and that it will now do far better when it has been detached from it. And that despite these distortions of the church’s mission in the past, there was always in the background a church of wisdom and compassion whose positive contribution to human development far outshines that of militant atheism.

What would be the measure of our success? Nothing less, I believe, than the emergence of liberating Christian fiction from among our pupils, set in the real world of children today, and just as compelling as Pullman’s work. We need to ponder hard on the fact that Irish Catholic education has never yet done anything like that.

However, a morning spent interviewing six young Catholic readers of His Dark Materials, ranging in age from 12 to 17, has convinced me that there is no need for extreme alarm over the impact of these books. Three of these children read the stories as mere escapism, unrelated to their own lives, and had not noticed the agenda. The other three had noticed the anti-Catholic polemic, and two of these had found it ‘over-the-top’. The third had noted that their church did indeed hold to a defined truth, and was in that sense ‘authoritarian’, but did not seem unduly troubled by this. The eldest boy was impressively sophisticated in his understanding of what Pullman is up to.

My overall conclusion is that, far from wringing our hands over the possible impact of these films when they arrive, we should seize the opportunity to point out both the silliest excesses of secularist polemic, and the considerable shortfall in the Enlightenment’s programme to perfect the world by reason alone. Children need to know, for example, that ‘terrorism’ emerged out of the secular authoritarianism of the French Revolution, and that it is the secular God of North Korea who is currently testing chemical weapons on the bodies of children.

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His Dark Materials consists of three novels by Philip Pullman: Northern Lights, (known as The Golden Compass in the US), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. They are published by Scholastic Children’s Books.

Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams laudatory comments on the London stage production of His Dark Materials are at :

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2004/mar/10/theatre.religion

There is an interesting discussion between Pullman and the Archbishop at:

http://www.secondspring.co.uk/fantasy/williams_pullman.htm

Probably the best website to sample children’s reaction to the novels and to keep up to date on the forthcoming films:

http://www.bridgetothestars.net/

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The World of the Wannabe

Sean O’Conaill © Spirituality 2001

New verbal coinings sometimes reveal an aspect of contemporary culture that takes us back to the ancient world. ‘Wannabe’ is just such a word – a descriptor for the (usually) young person who ‘wants to be’ someone else. Most young black Americans, the polls tell us, ‘wannabe’ celebrities of some kind – rock musicians, TV or movie or basketball stars. Currently millions of adolescent girls wannabe the pop ‘sensation’ Britney Spears.

‘Wanting to be’ is probably the major problem of the moment. It is a state of alienation from the self – a sense that the ‘being’ one now has is not worth having, and so must be exchanged for another.

What happens if we relate this to the temptation in the garden of Eden, that place of greatest happiness, where Satan promised ‘you shall be as Gods’. Genesis tells us that we fell for this, and notice here the coincidence of the word ‘fell’. The Fall results from ‘wanting to be’ something other than we are, the loss of the sense of being already all we need to be.

We find a superb illustration of this in Robert Bolt’s screenplay for ‘A Man for All Seasons’. Young Richard Rich pesters Thomas More for patronage – the use of personal influence to advance another at court. Chancellor More, disillusioned by the corruption he sees in the court of Henry VIII, insists that this ambition is misconceived.

“Be a great teacher,” he says, offering Rich such a post in a local school.

“And if I was, who would know it?” Rich asks.

“You would know it; your pupils would know it – and so would God. Not a bad public.” More returns.

But Rich has set his sights on the political summit – and eventuallyperjures himself and betrays More – in order to become attorney general for Wales. More goes to the block.

Rich pesters More because he sees himself as being ‘out’ as well as ‘down’. More is a doorway ‘into’ the charmed circle of Henry’s court. If you are ‘in’ you are also ‘up’. So when More does not let him in, Rich tries another door – the unscrupulous Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell’s price is Rich’s perjury.

Here too we find the connection between ‘wanting to be’, personal corruption, and the desire to climb. The ‘higher’ we are, the more people will see us, and the ‘greater’ we become. Herein too lies the extraordinary power of modern electronic media. Alexander the Great’s desire to ‘conquer the world’ can be achieved today by an Andre Agassi, or a Tom Cruise – for each is known globally via the TV and cinema screen.

“Top of the world, Ma”, “We’re going to the Top”, “The Jet Set” – these familiar clichés also connect fulfilment with elevation – as though the world actually had a ‘top’. The building of political empires followed the same logic – to subject a world conceived as planar to a single political edifice at the centre. George Bush is probably as close to fulfilling Alexander’s ambition as anyone will ever get – hopefully.

But what happens to this logic when we reflect that Earth has no ‘top’, that every one of us occupies the same boundless surface, which has no ‘rim’ or ‘edge’ because it meets itself in all directions – and that logically therefore, since there is no ‘up’ we are all equal, and since there is no centre, no-one is ‘out’?

It follows that there is no need to ‘want to be’, for we already ‘are’.

In evolutionary terms, to get the global human population to this insight as quickly as possible, someone sometime had to affirm that no-one ever is ‘out’ or ‘below’. The man who set out to build a kingdom for all the rejected of the world – even before the limitless nature of human space was understood – and without violence or self-admiration – must surely take the prize. As a consequence we find the inclusive symbol of the cross on all continents – however ambiguously it may first have arrived.

However, the vertical structure of the church, the source of all the ambition within it – is now a serious barrier to the growth of this spiritual insight, and a relic of the flat earth consciousness of antiquity. The investment of so much reverence in the person of the Pope – despite the historical evidence that God does not invest all grace there – creates a ‘wannabe’ culture within the church itself – as Cardinal Gantin confirmed when complaining about episcopal careerism just a year or so ago.

What is the implication of organising monster meetings for the central purpose of getting close to the Pope, other than the notion that we thereby come closer to God than we can be in our own backyard or parish church? What is the implication of a papal ‘court’ other than the notion that this man is most worthy, more ‘in’ and higher ‘up’ than we?

Were the Pope on the other hand to insist that no-one needs to ‘want to be’ anyone other than he or she is – for all are equally important – what then? In asking the church to reconsider how his office might be exercised, John Paul II draws us closer to this eventuality also.

Nothing is more certain than the need to challenge the ‘wannabe’ problem head on. Adolescent girls starve themselves because they want to be the super slim model they see on the catwalk. Young men may often deny themselves participation in sport because they don’t possess the idealised physique that TV sports coverage tells them they should have. Self-rejection is a primary factor in suicide, clinical depression, addiction, and criminality. The political corruption we are currently uncovering in Ireland is clearly a result of ‘wanting to be’ the lavish Irish country squire – the centre of attention and power.

And ‘wanting to be’ is also at the root of rampant consumerism and environmental decay. Advertising has discovered that our sense of our own inadequacy can be exploited by associating consumer wares with the people we ‘want to be’.

Which means that ‘sin’ is centrally concerned with self-dislike and the self-advancement that follows. The fixation that sexual desire is the root of all evil is entirely misplaced. The Decalogue connects even adultery with covetousness – the desire to possess what someone else already has. The media deliberately create sexual desire by creating sexual stereotypes – icons of desirability to create dissatisfaction with the partners we already have.

The current Blairite craze for ‘meritocracy’ should be another target of spiritual awareness – for it implies a pyramid of worthiness without ever clarifying that most of the ‘worthy’ have simply purchased their privilege by virtue of an historical advantage that has nothing to do with ‘merit’. The principle that ‘everyone should be able to rise to whatever position their talent and efforts deserve’ implies a level playing field to begin with, an inequality of worthiness, and a perfect arbiter to determine who is worthy – while apparently the possession of vast inherited wealth and a drone lifestyle do not disqualify. The whole notion is palpable nonsense – a thin disguise for mere selfishness, and a source of disillusionment to those who find themselves rejected.

It disguises also the self-regard of the merely clever, and the elevation of a narrow kind of intelligence to power and privilege. Education today increasingly emphasises its capability to ‘change your life’ by making us ‘everything you want to be’. Thus, merely knowing has become more important than understanding, mere information more important than wisdom.

It is no accident either that meritocratic Britain is critically short of nurses and teachers – ‘wanting to be’ is taking over from wanting to serve.

Another wannabe problem results from the prominence given to theological expertise in the church – and especially the notion that the more theology one knows the wiser one necessarily becomes. This prominence creates the theological wannabe. Wisdom has to do with quality of being, not quantity of knowing. Of course we must know what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truth, but this is essentially quite simple: that each of us is infinitely loved by the creator of all being, and can never be alienated from that love. To peddle the notion that we can only arrive at this understanding by subjecting ourselves to a course in theology is essentially to do what the lawyers were accused of doing: using the key of knowledge to prevent others from entering, while not entering themselves. Here, I believe, we find the reason that theology often leads to nothing but arid debate – pride enters in to convince us that our greater knowledge entitles us to greater respect. The internet is often a theological battlefield as protagonists aspire to be ‘right’ when the only source of wisdom is the compulsion to love and let be.

As we mull over the strange failure of Catholic education to develop in Ireland a community at peace with itself, and in love with God, we need to acknowledge that in buying into the secular meritocratic mirage we pulled from underneath ourselves the essential truth: that respect cannot be merited. We owe one another respect because we are all equally flawed, yet equally and infinitely loved by the same God, and cannot add another cubit to our height, whatever we achieve.

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)

Discovery of the soul is discovery of the self – the self that we don’t wannabe, the core of our being that God knows and loves. We need urgently to acknowledge the power of global media to alienate us from the wisdom to be content to be ourselves – and counter it at every turn – by telling every wannabe that he or she already – gloriously – is.

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