Category Archives: Theology

How White Men Lost the Meaning of Redemption

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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)

Here James Cone is 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 on Synodality 2023-24, Cardinal 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 ]

The Mass: a ‘Holy Sacrifice’?

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Josefa de Ayala, The Sacrificial Lamb (c. 1670-1684)

Must Catholics believe that God is violent? Taught that the Mass is a ‘Holy Sacrifice’ must we therefore believe that ‘the Father’ required a violent sacrifice to still his anger, and that this is the central message of the Eucharist?

Never having heard an Irish Catholic cleric squarely address such questions, and therefore inferring more than a little uncertainty, I (and others in Ireland) have followed with fascination the key ideas of the late American-French anthropologist René Girard and his collaborators. (These can be traced from the website of the Girardian Colloquium on Violence and Religion.)

René Girard 1923-2015

Girard argues that the historical origins of all religion lie in an attempt to minimise social violence by focussing it upon a single victim. He argues also that the Judeo-Christian scriptures point to a unique critique of this religious violence – and especially of the ancient practice of blood sacrifice. His work has therefore been exploited by some theologians to deny that the death of Jesus, or the Mass, can safely be understood as a sacrifice.

However, Girard himself famously changed his mind on this very issue. Influenced especially by the Austrian theologian, Raymund Schwager, Girard concluded in his mature work that the meaning of ‘sacrifice’ is itself undergoing a shift in the course of the Judeo-Christian texts. The ‘precious gift to God’ aspect of sacrifice had always accompanied the ‘killing’ aspect (for example in Abraham’s intention to sacrifice Isaac). This story shows how this ‘gift’ aspect gradually becomes predominant – in the end supplanting, in Jesus self-giving, the element of priestly killing. In offering himself, Jesus united the always previously separate roles of priest and victim – defining a sacrifice that resists all projection of the consequences of sin onto someone else. This leaves open an interpretation of ‘Christian’ sacrifice as directly oppositional to violence, and as ‘self-emptying’ or ‘self-giving’ – utterly uncompromised by any suffering inflicted upon a third party.

In the latest issue of the Girardian journal Contagion, Anthony R. Lusvardi S.J. argues that theologians who use Girardian anthropology to reject any concept of the Mass as ‘Holy Sacrifice’ are therefore mistaken. Lusvardi tracks this scholarly debate with detailed footnotes and makes the case for regarding the Mass as a divinely inspired act of worship that makes present “that central moment in human history when seemingly endless cycles of violence and falsity are brought to a halt by the limitless self-offering of God” (‘Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”: Mimetic Theory and Eucharistic Theology’, Contagion Vol. 24, 2017 ).

For me this article strengthens a conclusion that it is unnecessary to oppose an understanding of the Mass as ‘holy sacrifice’ on the one hand, to its character as celebratory ‘communal meal’ on the other. If Christian sacrifice is self-giving, the ‘communal meal’ implication also follows logically from that understanding. In this understanding to ‘sacrifice’ is ‘to give completely of oneself’ – a meaning wholly compatible with contemporary understandings of ‘goodness’ and ‘heroism’.  It is the ‘Offering’, the self-giving ritual in which we all can join, that makes possible the communal meal, and no violence is implied by the Christians who practise this sacrifice – even if blood is nevertheless shed by others who misunderstand. The ‘bloodiness’ of Jesus crucifixion was solely due to the human sin that impelled his persecutors, in defiance of God – not to divine need, wish or intent. For Girard, the Calvary event starkly revealed the archetypal practice of scapegoating or ‘lynching’ – the unjust blaming of any individual for any social crisis to save the community. The Cross therefore lies at the root of the principle of ‘human rights’ – in opposition to all scapegoating.

Far from requiring our assent to his ‘divine violence’, the Father can therefore be understood as true to Jesus’ teaching that ‘the Father and I are one’ – in the rejection of violence, as in all other matters. The Mass is a ‘holy sacrifice’ because non-violent self-giving is central to the divine nature – and to heroic human potential also, when aided by grace. It is to that self-offering that all of us are called.

Clerical reticence on ‘divine violence’ and ‘sacrifice’ surely began with the fourth century acquiescence by Christian bishops in Constantine’s assertion that his violent acquisition of imperial power had been sanctioned and assisted by the Christian God. That acquiescence lies also at the foundations of Christendom – the long and often horrifically scandalous imbroglio of church and state that lasted into the twentieth century. Girard’s insights, and those of theologians who continue to be stimulated by Girardian theory, allow for a re-evaluation of all that, without in any way compromising the Creeds. Pacific self-offering was never utterly absent under Christendom, proving the subliminal counteraction of the Cross to all violence.

The secular Enlightenment was partially motivated by a revulsion at the semi-religious wars that followed the Reformations of the 1500s, but is still lacking a convincing explanation of human violence. On the other hand, Girard’s insight into the origins of our own aggressive desire in the desire of someone else – vindicating the thrice-repeated biblical ban on ‘coveting’ – is as copiously illustrated in the daily news as it is in the TV epic Game of Thrones.

Meanwhile Christian fundamentalism continues to scapegoat the Father for the crucifixion, and to cloud our thinking on Christian sacrifice. This can be regarded as a time-limited hangover of Christendom. Anthony Lusvardi’s article well illustrates how Girardian anthropology, and the theology it inspires, give us a far better pair of glasses.

(Anthony Lusvardi’s article is available for download from the website of the Association of Catholics in Ireland, by clicking the title below.)
Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”

Was Jesus a whistleblower too?

Views: 380

On Jan 24th, 2017 the Irish Government established a commission of inquiry into the origin of false allegations of sexual abuse against the Garda whistleblower, Maurice McCabe. This is the latest in a long series of deeply depressing scandals involving all of the institutions once respected in Ireland, including the Catholic Church. Sean O’Conaill asks why integrity seems to be so rare, and how we are to find it.

Nothing in Ireland has been as dispiriting in recent decades as non-stop revelations of misuse of power and even of serious corruption in high places. All major institutions of church and civil society have been implicated. Not even the major beneficiary of these scandals, the media, have been exempt.

We have long known that all power tends to be abused, but Irish revelations of abuses of power have become almost epidemic in the lifetime of everyone born before 1990 – so much so that we can come to wonder, like Diogenes, whether an honest individual can any longer be found in high places. That whistleblowers – those who shout ‘stop’ to abuses of power – still do surface is a bright light in the darkness, but Garda Maurice McCabe’s experience of malicious ‘blowback’, of the most damaging of false allegations and even possibly of high-level ‘fitting up’, is truly frightening. Everyone who might still be called upon to be a whistleblower in Ireland knows now what could happen to themselves in the very worst case.

The standard secular solution to this problem of abuse of power is to divide and limit power by making it always subject to accountability. Strictly applied this means that everyone exercising power must be ready to account for their actions to someone else, and ready to resign or be sacked if found wanting. Yet here again there is huge depression in Ireland over apparent mass immunity from the accountability principle. The guiltiest individuals will take great pains to hide their tracks, while tribunals of inquiry are always costly and tend to grant immunity to witnesses in exchange for testimony. This then leads to a dispiriting popular verdict on all of Ireland’s educated elites: ‘those people always look out for one another’. In reviewing the Garda McCabe case, and an earlier Garda precedent, the ‘Kerry Babies’ case of 1984, the historian Diarmaid Ferriter concluded recently that the McCabe commission may unveil the truth of what happened – but (he finished) ‘don’t expect justice‘. There is a real danger of the total victory of cynicism in Irish society – even a loss of faith in human nature itself.

Secularism has never stemmed the human desire for privilege

No Irish secularising intellectual has yet pointed out that this near-despair directly challenges the basic optimism of the secular Enlightenment – the belief that human nature, freed by science-based ‘reason’ from religious faith, can build Utopia. Mass rational education alone, it was argued by some in the 1700s, would give everyone an honest livelihood, put an end to all crime and social hierarchy – and create a society at perfect peace. That same faith in reason, to the exclusion of any faith in God, still undergirds the Irish secularising establishment today. I haven’t yet seen any persuasive rationalist explanation of the complete failure of that optimistic 18th century prophecy.

What the secular Enlightenment ‘got wrong’, it seems to me, was to suppose that, freed from ‘faith’ by ‘reason’, everyone – with just enough education – would become heroically virtuous. Those secularising evangelists did not see how dependent we are on others to shape even our desires for wealth and status.  They hugely overestimated the capacity of any of us to stand freely apart from the human context in which we find ourselves. That we are always hugely dependent upon peer groups for self-esteem and self-fulfillment – and even for a sense of personal security and safety – was overlooked. That mass education would produce not equality but a sense of entitlement to privilege among the most successful, was not foreseen.

If we abandon all faith that there can be any higher power than this ‘society’, we may then, as individuals, be totally bereft of support in the face of ‘peer pressure’ – the pressure simply to conform to the norms of the group we aspire to belong to. Secular egalitarianism has never found a cure for the human desire for social superiority, but still cannot acknowledge this failure.

Catholic hierarchy was also a corruptive force in Ireland

The former Magdalen Laundry, Sean McDermott St., Dublin

Far from advocating here a restoration of the power of ‘the church’ as it was before 1992, I would argue instead that the Catholic clerical establishment in Ireland was also oblivious of its own power to corrupt individuals – especially by exaggerating the individual Catholic’s obligation to defer to higher clerical authority in matters of moral judgement, as a matter of faith. Why else would no cleric – and no strong lay voice – have cried ‘shame’ when defenceless young women were imprisoned and shamed by the Magdalen system? Why else would whistleblowers have been so scarce among the religious orders that ran the institutions for helpless children indicted in the Ryan report of 2005? Why else would Bishop Jim Moriarty have been the sole bishop to confess serious personal failure in the handling of clerical abuse in the Dublin archdiocese, following the Murphy report of 2009? And why else would Dublin Gardai in some instances have failed to investigate credible allegations of criminal clerical abuse, at the request of a bishop?

The ‘prevailing culture’ that Bishop Moriarty agreed he had failed to challenge in Dublin was precisely analogous to the culture of toleration by the Gardai of the abuses that Maurice McCabe reported, while the harm caused to countless children by clerical failure was far greater than the harm caused by Garda inconsistency in the awarding of motoring penalty points. We must never forget that the Irish clerical establishment left it to outraged Catholic families to blow the whistle on the fact of – and the deadly dangers of – clerical sexual abuse of children.

This blindness, to the harm caused to the church – the people of God – by the equation of faith with unquestioning obedience to clerical authority, continues to this day. And this in turn is surely the reason that the full contemporary significance of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is neither seen nor preached by our clergy, in the context of the growing crisis of hope in Irish civic society. Never can it be seen or said (at least in my experience) that in Gethsemane Jesus was resisting precisely that fear of ‘the world’ – the threat of ‘blowback’ from our always hierarchical human power systems – that confronts every genuine whistleblower today.

Instead it is (or at least it was until recently) far more typical of clergy to contrast ‘the world’ with ‘the church’, to characterise ‘the world’ as at best ‘dangerous’ and at worst ‘profane’ while ‘the church’ – always to be equated with clergy – was to be seen always as ‘holy’ and unquestionable. ‘Worldliness’ got translated, mistakenly, as merely getting ‘caught up’ in the pleasures and distractions of the ‘material world’, while Jesus and his clergy could necessarily have their minds only on ‘heavenly things’. In accepting crucifixion Jesus was merely atoning for human historical sin at his Father’s request, not setting an inspiring example of courage and integrity for all of us to try to emulate.

Nothing could be better calculated to make the story of the crucifixion totally incomprehensible to the modern mind – and to make the Catholic sacramental system irrelevant to the crisis of hope that afflicts Ireland today.

Jesus the abused whistleblower

That religious system that Jesus opposed was also abusive of power. It excluded the poorest from a sense of God’s compassion, by imposing money barriers to divine mercy. It shut the Temple door on all of the ‘unclean’, including lepers and menstruating women. What if we were to see Jesus in Gethsemane as an exemplary whistleblower – awaiting the most excruciating humiliation for his rejection of that oppressive religious system? What if we were to see him as standing in solidarity with all who were and still are excluded and oppressed – including the church’s own victims? What if we were to see him at the side of Garda Maurice McCabe – and at the side of the falsely accused priest as well as the clerical abuse survivor – when their trials are at their worst?

In the world you will have tribulation, but be courageous. I have overcome the world.’ (John 16: 33). What if we could believe that here Jesus is speaking precisely to this time in Ireland today – and speaking also for the power of belief in a transcendent reality to give us the integrity we so desperately need, the grace to withstand the world – i.e. ‘the prevailing culture’ of our own peer group’s abuses, whatever those may be – in church or business, bank or civil service, TV studio or political party, policing unit or even Olympic sport?

And what if Jesus’ strength – the grace of integrity – is also the grace on offer in the Eucharist – for those who can believe these things? Those given charge of the Eucharist have surely a special obligation to discover its relationship to the supreme moral problem of our time – the problem of maintaining integrity in the face of corrupt power. That it could have no such relationship is unthinkable.  It is far more likely that integrity and holiness are one and the same.

New Light on the Problem of Atonement

Views: 412

In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus asked, in terror and anguish: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:39)

As we know, the cup was not taken from him. Jesus then suffered arrest, isolation, humiliation and an excruciating death. Are we then to blame Abba, our Father too, for the crucifixion? Did he ‘make Jesus die in reparation for our sins’ as people sometimes say?

This question – the problem of atonement – is possibly the most difficult in all theology. Even Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Church’s top theological official in 1997, asked “Why does God reign from the Cross?” Dean Andrew Furlong of the Church of Ireland admitted in 2002 that he could not accept any of the classical theories of atonement – one of his reasons for rejecting Jesus’ divinity.

Atonement means simply ‘at-one-ment’: the coming together, or reconciliation, of ourselves and God. So the problem of atonement is to understand how Jesus’s passion and death bring us humans and God together.  It is also the problem of understanding what could be called the necessity of the cross.

The earliest theory of atonement, the one probably held by all the apostles, was that in some sense we humans had been enslaved by Satan, and that Jesus’ death had somehow purchased our liberty. However, in the Middle Ages theologians came to doubt that any debt to Satan could have warranted such a high price. One of them, St Anselm, proposed another theory, the satisfaction theory.

To understand this we need to remember that in the middle ages people were very unequal in dignity or ‘worth’. The king at the summit of the social pyramid was held to be far more ‘worthy’ than the barons and knights, who were in turn far more worthy than the farmers and peasants or serfs. So, for a serf to steal from a king was a far more serious matter than for a serf to steal from another serf. In order to make good the injury to the king the serf would have to pay a far higher penalty, so that the debt to him would be satisfied.

St Anselm pointed out that God is at the summit of the heavenly pyramid, so that every sin we commit is an extremely severe offence to Him. He taught that no matter how much we may suffer for our sins, we are incapable of paying the full price of making good the injury, as we are so much less worthy than God. So Jesus died to make up the difference – because his life was worth so much more to the Father. In that way humanity’s debt to God was satisfied.

Although other theologians have argued against this, in the absence of anything more persuasive it became a standard explanation for the crucifixion. In the highly rated Alpha programme devised for evangelisation in our own time by the Anglican Church, a very similar explanation – the substitution theory – is used. Nicky Gumbel tells the story of two friends separated for many years who meet one another eventually in court. One is the defendant who has committed a crime for which a heavy fine has to be paid – so heavy that he cannot pay it. The other is the judge, who must find him guilty according to the law. The judge does so – but then descends from his high bench and pays the fine, as a friend. Justice is served – but the guilty man has been ‘redeemed’ from the full price of his crime, which would have been imprisonment.1Since this article was written the Alpha programme has changed this particular story in video 3 – with Nicky Gumbel now referencing instead the story of Fr Maximilian Kolbe – who took the place of another prisoner sentenced to death in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1941. Alpha’s emphasis upon God’s unfailing love for everyone counteracts any mistaken inference that it is God the Father who was responsible for Fr Kolbe’s death, so the video is an opportunity to discuss the fascinating history of the theology of atonement.

That story is in the end unsatisfactory. The problem is that if we see God as all powerful, we see him also as in a position simply to cancel the debt – something the judge in Gumbel’s story obviously could not do. The ordinary person finds it very difficult to square God’s infinite justice with God’s infinite mercy – but tends to believe that an infinite God could manage to do so – sparing his own son.

The Gospels seem to support this difficulty. In explaining the ‘Kingdom of God’ Jesus tells the story of a king who cancels the debt of a servant, as an example of the forgiveness we should ourselves show one another (Matt 18: 23-35). The story of the father who welcomes back the erring prodigal son, without conditions, teaches the same lesson (Luke 15:11-32) – God does not hold back on his forgiveness. And it was especially for his habit of forgiveness that Jesus was accused. Since He taught us that when we see Him we also see the Father, we expect that Father to be as forgiving as he was.

Maybe we are right to be dissatisfied with the satisfaction theory. There is another possible explanation for the crucifixion: that the Father and the Son both suffer for our sake: to release us from a captivity we could not otherwise escape from – the captivity of violence, the culmination of every other evil.

In the ancient world there were broadly speaking two main sources of violence. One was warfare, brought about by the mimetic desire and ambition of warrior kings. The greatest of these was Alexander, King of Macedon, who built an empire reaching from Greece to the Himalayas and Egypt. His victories were unprecedented in the ancient world, and made him in the eyes of many, a God. We can see this as the fulfilment of the temptation offered in the Garden of Eden – ‘thou shalt be as Gods’. Julius Caesar set out to emulate Alexander in the century before Christ – and became indeed the founding God of the very empire into which Jesus was born.

In the temptation in the desert, Jesus is offered an even greater empire, ‘the kingdoms of the world’, by Satan (Matt 4: 8-10) – but resists this temptation. He will not be a warrior king, like Alexander, Caesar, or even David – Israel’s greatest military hero. This must mean that he will be vulnerable to those whose power is based upon violence: the Roman government in Palestine.

The second kind of violence in the ancient world was internal: the practice of scapegoating violence – the murder or expulsion of vulnerable individuals as a means of defusing internal conflict.

To understand this we must simply grasp that the ancient world did not have advanced policing and judicial systems, like modern societies. This meant that a blow struck by one member of one tribe or family against another was liable to be reciprocated – and then to escalate uncontrollably. We are an intensely mimetic species – i.e. we often unconsciously mimic one another’s behaviour. Where there was no restraint upon this by a developed policing and court system, such mimetic violence – fuelled by the usual resentments that develop out of human competition, jealousy and rivalry – could escalate out of control.

What happened then is well illustrated by the story of the woman ‘taken in adultery’ in St John’s Gospel – the woman brought into the presence of Jesus in the Temple Court. This woman would – in the normal course of events – be stoned to death by all who wished to participate. The selection of a vulnerable individual, shamed so that no-one would take her part, allowed all to defuse their anger in such a way that there could be no retaliation. In this way, one person could literally be made to pay the price for the aggression – i.e. the sins – of all. And a peace – temporary of course – would then fall. We should see this isolation, humiliation and intended murder of the woman ‘taken in adultery’ as a rehearsal for the very similar process soon to be mounted against Jesus himself.

In the accusation and crucifixion of Jesus, both forms of violence come together – the violence born of internal rivalries, and the violence born of political ambition. Caiaphas insists that the death of this one man will ‘save the nation’ i.e. defuse an internal Jewish crisis threatening to undermine his own power. It will thus also prevent another Roman assault upon the Jewish people to restore order. The semi-riot he then foments persuades Pilate, the Roman governor, that Rome’s control is also at stake.

At Gethsemane, Peter offers the standard riposte to violence – more violence. But a violent God can set only the same violent example as Caesar and Alexander, and the name of Jesus must stand far above theirs. His kingdom can only be built on forgiveness – and so the cup that he dreads cannot pass him by. The Father gives him the strength to stand alone – for the sake of en entirely different kind of kingdom – one for which no blow may be struck – either to win, or to retain, power. And one that will never sacrifice individuals for the sake of its own survival.

Thus, the crucifixion brings humankind and God together – because it is God who first moves towards us. But we also then move towards him, because Jesus is human, and can therefore be imitated in his spirit of self-sacrifice – for example, by Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz. To sacrifice oneself for another is the very opposite of sacrificing someone else for oneself. Following Jesus, we move towards the Father.

The early understanding of atonement: that it broke the power of Satan – can easily be reconciled with this – because the power of Satan does indeed culminate in violence – the violence of ambition, and the violence of victimisation. And the crucifixion did indeed break this power.

Not immediately, of course. Traumatised by the persecutions of early Christians by Rome, the bishops of the Church made an unfortunate pact with another military adventurer in the fourth century – the Emperor Constantine. This was the beginning of the process by which the Church became itself a privileged and powerful – and victimising – institution in the medieval period. This was why St Anselm could not see the crucifixion as a protest against all violence – for Constantine too was supposedly the benefactor of the Church. Modernity has stripped away that power – as Pope John Paul I recognised with gladness. It is time the inadequate medieval theory of atonement – which argues, foolishly, that Abba is too proud to bend – was put to rest as well.

Today, as we try to build a new Ireland upon the principle of forgiveness, not violence, we should see Jesus of Nazareth, and his Father – and the Holy Spirit that unites them – as the real founders of that ideal kingdom. And with him all those who were also innocent victims of political ambition. We too need to atone – to be spiritually, if not politically, ‘at one’ – in grief for all those we have lost.

And all others can move towards God through Christ – all those driven by social and political humiliation to addiction, criminality and violence. In the kingdom of God no one is to be humiliated or left out in order to secure the peace of all the rest.

There is another important reason for welcoming the insights of René Girard for the light they throw on the problem of atonement.  The competing mimetic desire or covetousness that lies at the root of all violence is also the root of human over-consumption – the most important cause of Earth’s growing environmental crisis.  Awareness of this is also in the gift of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion.  This strongly supports Richard Rohr’s conclusion that Jesus’ life, teaching and death all tend towards changing our minds about God, rather than changing God’s mind about us – and towards warding off all of the dangers that gather around the future of humankind.

See also ‘Why did Jesus of Nazareth accept crucifixion?’

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For an excellent overview of Girard’s understanding of the relationship between religion and violence, I recommend René Girard’s Mimetic Theory by Wolfgang Palaver, MSU 2013.  

Sean O’Conaill – May 2015

We need to face up to Five Dysfunctions of the Church

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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?

Trusting the Gifts of the Spirit among the People of God

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Sean O’Conaill  ©  Doctrine and Life  May/June 2012

FOR WHAT exactly is the Holy Spirit supposed to be waiting, to move the Irish Church into vibrant and visible recovery and renewal? This question seems to me to be critical to any response we might make to the predicament that so many find themselves in just now in Ireland. This is related above all to two problems: frustration with the current governing system of the Church, and a still-appalled reflection on a series of Irish government-led reports on child abuse within the Irish Church, beginning in 2006.

Seeking to guide us in our response to those reports the Holy Father issued a pastoral letter in March 2010, and in April 2012 we received the summary report of the apostolic visitation to Ireland that had followed that pastoral.1Summary of the Findings of the Apostolic Visitation in Ireland, March 2012

It is largely my frustration with this summary report that leads me to ask the question posed at the start. In a previous article here I offered the conclusion that Catholic authoritarianism had been a key factor in the moral failure of Catholic officials in Irish state and Church to protest most vehemently against the abuse and endangerment of children.2S. O’Conaill, ‘Authoritarianism and Moral Cowardice’, Doctrine & Life, May-June 2010

Elsewhere I later argued that the Church’s governing system has been thoroughly disgraced not just by the scale of the abuse crisis, but by the fact that the initial revelation of this horror had been a product of secular structures and processes arising historically out of the Protestant Reformation and the European ‘Enlightenment’ of the eighteenth century.3S. O’Conaill, ‘The Disgracing of Catholic Monarchism’, in The Dublin/Murphy Report: A Watershed for Irish Catholicism?, eds. John Littleton and Eamon Maher, Columba Press, Dublin, 2010

I simply cannot get my head fully around the clear fact that my Church was finally moved to protect children not by the watchfulness, love and courage of its own leaders but by policemen, journalists, judges and jury members who often owed no debt of loyalty whatsoever to the Catholic Church. And that this process began in one of the most secularised societies on the planet: the USA.

Why did the church not uncover the problem itself?

The problem now for me is this. The summary report makes no allusion to the failure of the governing system of the Church to reveal to its leaders the scale of the abuse horror, and to act spontaneously long ago as it began to act in Ireland in 1994. Nor does it clearly explain the moral failure of so many Catholic officials, many of them ordained. In its references to the incompatibility of renewal and dissent it also seems me to seek to clamp down on the free expression of honest opinion within the Church in Ireland. So, as I began this article I was not even sure that it could be published.

Praying about all of this has led me somehow back to a reflection on my Confirmation at the age of about ten or eleven in 1953/54, when, as I distinctly remember, I was told the sacrament conferred upon me the dignity of becoming a ‘Temple of the Holy Spirit’. That sense of my own dignity within the Church has never completely left me, mainly because it was further reinforced by the mentoring I received at University College Dublin in the 1960s, by clergy heavily influenced by Vatican II. I caught the excitement of the time. The expectation of reform has heavily influenced my life ever since, especially since 1994, when the abuse crisis first emerged.

Learning from Scripture

It is strange how prayerful meditation on what life was like as a child of ten or eleven can somehow recover for us the hopes, dreams and vulnerability of childhood. Doing this in Lent in 2012 led me frequently into tears, and into recovered memory of matters long suppressed, such as my late mother’s strange illness that was not finally named for me until I was in my fifties. It led me also, by a process too circuitous to need tracing here, to a reflection on my early experiences of the Bible.

One of these in particular stands out: the story of Susanna and the Elders in the Book of Daniel.

Briefly, this story tells us that during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, beautiful Susanna was lusted after by two Jewish judge elders. They conspired to tell her that they would publicly allege that they had seen her in adulterous intimacy with a fourth party if she did not satisfy their lust. When Susanna even so resisted their joint intimidation, they proceeded with their plan publicly to accuse her of adultery. As two witnesses were all that were required by Jewish law to satisfy their assembly, their accusation was accepted as true by that assembly. Susanna was being led away to die when she passionately declared her innocence. Then, according to the text, this happened:

The Lord heard her cry and as she was being led away to die, he roused the Holy Spirit in a young boy called Daniel who began to shout, ‘I am innocent of this woman’s death!’ At this all the people turned to him and asked ‘what do you mean by that?’ Standing in the middle of the crowd he replied , ‘ Are you so stupid, children of Israel, as to condemn a daughter of Israel unheard, and without troubling to find out the truth? Go back to the scene of the trial: these men have given false evidence against her. (Daniel 13: 46-49)

We are told then that the other judge elders of the assembly not only acted on the young Daniel’s advice, but asked him to sit with them and advise them further. He suggested separating the two accusers, and questioning them as to the precise circumstances in which they had seen Susanna committing adultery. When this was done the conspirators gave different accounts, proving Susanna’s innocence. (Everyone has seen much the same thing happen today in TV police procedural dramas.)

Rousing the spirit of youth!

Remembering this in the aftermath of the apostolic visitation summary report, I was prompted to explore in my mind precisely what could have been involved in the Lord ‘rousing’ the Holy Spirit in a young boy, to the extent that he could stand alone in an assembly dominated by elderly judges and shout ‘stop’?

Could it be any of these, the virtues that can arise out of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as listed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord?4Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1845
And could it be also be the fruit of the Great Commandment: to love God above all, and our neighbour as ourselves?

My mind fastens particularly on the words ‘fortitude’, ‘understanding’ and ‘love’. Does the Catholic magisterium, and its method of exercising authority, nourish these virtues? Does it allow for the possibility that prayerful young people especially might ever be gifted with an understanding and an insight that might lead them to ask difficult questions, and with the courage to stand up and ask them, no matter what? Especially all of the questions that arise out of the leadership catastrophe we have suffered?

I have to say that my experience of the magisterium since about 1968 is that it seems to have a fearful attitude to the creation of circumstances within the Church that could encourage young people especially, but lay people in general, to ask difficult questions of itself, and of those in ordained ministry. Many of those difficult questions pertain to the issue of sexuality. It is true that individual bishops have been an exception to this rule, and that some have held open and honest forums in the aftermath of the Irish state abuse reports. But there is still no sign that such assemblies will become embedded in the regular and normal life of the Church.

‘Bishops are accountable to the people’

And that brings me back to what I see as the enormous gaps in the summary report:

First, its failure to address the question of widespread moral cowardice among so many Catholic adults, and especially among those who carried the full weight of the magisterium’s expectation that they would be loyal to it, and would avoid scandalous revelations.

Second, its failure to explain why it was that it is to Irish secular agencies that we owe both the revelation of the abuse horror in Ireland, and the momentum that led to Catholic bishops becoming for the first time ostentatious in the cause of child protection.

Third, its failure to predict that the mooted reorganisation of the Irish Church will include structural reforms that will mandate a principle stated by Monsignor Charles Scicluna earlier this year at a clerical child abuse forum in Rome: ‘Bishops are accountable to the Lord, but also to their people.’’5Monsignor Charles Scicluna, as reported by the National Catholic Reporter on February 8, 2012.

As the apostolic visitation and its summary report also arose out of a secular process of discovery, I am prompted to ask then also how the Holy Spirit might be moving Irish Catholics today to respond to the crisis that now still weighs on us. Could one of those ways be a questioning why the elimination of dissent among Irish Catholic clergy loyal to Vatican II should be a priority of the magisterium at this time – when it has so many questions still to answer about its own failures? And when there is still no promise of structural reform?

Committed to Justice

I also ask, finally, whether the unwillingness of the magisterium to encourage questioning from lay people at every age from Confirmation on might be a key factor in the continuing inertia of the Irish Church, and especially the departure of young people from it. The forgetting that as early as ten our Church has given to all of us the dignity of being Temples of the Holy Spirit is widespread in Ireland, especially among young men. Isn’t it time to remind all of the Irish three million plus who claim to be Catholics that this privilege is still theirs? And to ask them to pray to the Holy Spirit, above all for the gifts of insight, love, wisdom and fortitude? And to provide church structures as worthy of the People of God as those that allowed the Holy Spirit to prompt an honest young man to ask, in open assembly, life-saving questions of his elders long before the time of Christ?

Apropos the latter, according to the Vatican’s own website, ‘Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna is the “promoter of justice” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.’6Vatican website: www.vatican.va : type ‘Monsignor Charles Scicluna’ into the site’s ‘Search’ option
Isn’t justice also a gift of the Holy Spirit? Wasn’t justice precisely what was involved in the case of Daniel and Susanna, and wasn’t it precisely justice that was lacking in so many cases when the parents of victims of clerical abuse came to the administrators of Catholic dioceses and religious congregation? How are we to encourage young Daniels in Ireland, and to ensure that our child protection is not again subverted by clericalism, if our Church structures continue to patronise and exclude all lay people, and especially young people?

I am entirely convinced that the continued holding back on Church structural reform by the magisterium, and in the meantime its encouragement of unjust and covert delating of those who do ask difficult questions, subverts the work of the Holy Spirit and delays the recovery of our Church.

Notes

  1. Summary of the Findings of the Apostolic Visitation in Ireland, March 2012
  2. S. O’Conaill, ‘Authoritarianism and Moral Cowardice’, Doctrine & Life, May-June 2010
  3. S. O’Conaill, ‘The Disgracing of Catholic Monarchism’, in The Dublin/Murphy Report: A Watershed for Irish Catholicism?, eds. John Littleton and Eamon Maher, Columba Press, Dublin, 2010
  4. Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1845
  5. Monsignor Charles Scicluna, as reported by the National Catholic Reporter on February 8, 2012.
  6. Vatican website: www.vatican.va : type ‘Monsignor Charles Scicluna’ into the site’s ‘Search’ option

Endless Deference or Integrity?

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Sean O’Conaill   Blog   April 2012

In preparation for Confirmation around the age  of ten, Catholic children are taught that this sacrament will confer on them the dignity ‘Temple of the Holy Spirit’. Are they taught how to recognise the Holy Spirit moving within them then?  If their hearts were then to burn strongly for other Temples of the Holy Spirit who were violated in the past, or they were to feel a just anger against bishops who knowingly allowed that to happen, or they were to shed tears for the mothers so cruelly betrayed – would any of those manifestations of moral indignation signify to them that the Holy Spirit was now at work within themselves?

I ask this question because of the stunning failure of the apostolic visitation to Ireland to address two other questions:

First, why Irish Catholic church administrators, politicians, civil servants and police officers – all also Temples of the Holy Spirit – were not moved to moral outrage and effective action by the cruelties revealed by the series of state reports into abuse:  in Ferns, Dublin, the Catholic residential institutions and Cloyne.

Second, why it was that the church’s clerical system did not become ostentatious in the cause of child protection until secular courts, media and state forced it to act?

The apostolic visitation to Ireland was itself the result of secular revelation but its summary report shows absolutely no sign of an honest acknowledgement of this.  Are Ireland’s young Temples supposed to be forever unable to notice this, and forever unprompted by courage, honesty and love, to ask why?

Did the visitators even ask these questions of themselves?  If not, how can they convince us Irish Catholics that the visitation was not in the main just another holy show, primarily designed to distract attention from those questions, and from the fact that the concealment of abuse within the church is a global and not just an Irish problem?

As a Catholic educated in the era of Vatican II, and subsequently by the Catholic children I taught for thirty years, I can say with the deepest conviction that those young hearts do indeed burn, feel anger and weep for all cruelty and injustice.  But while the Holy Spirit is indeed moving those children in this way they are simultaneously being taught something quite contrary by the Catholic magisterium: deference to itself, and mute obedience to its minute theological formulae as the sine qua non of Catholic loyalty.

And this is still the obsession of the magisterium, as revealed by the passage  in the summary report that insists that renewal of the church forbids dissent.

What this means is that the magisterium is still not paying attention to the effect of the prioritisation of obedience to itself above moral outrage.  What this teaches is not honesty, initiative, courage and love, but subterfuge, irresponsibility, fear and malice.  We need look no further for the moral inertia of Irish Catholic officials who were forever afraid to act rightly on behalf of the weakest of our children.

I respectfully challenge here and now the Catholic magisterium to refute this, and to explain why the  revelation and the tackling of the grotesque evil of abuse within the church had to come from the secular world.  The sacraments are one thing, but the church’s governing system is something else entirely – something that frustrates the brilliant work of Catholic teachers.  They too must be wondering now whether the magisterium will ever, like good Catholic children, sit up, wake up, and pay full attention.

For example to the obvious fact that Catholic children have been far better served by the principle of the separation of executive, legislative and judicial power in secular society than by the church’s own vertical power system in which there are no checks on the power of the most powerful, and insufficient protection for the weakest.

And this is obviously because the magisterium has forgotten article 32 of Lumen Gentium: “Although by Christ’s will some are appointed teachers, dispensers of the mysteries and pastors for the others, yet all the faithful enjoy a true equality with regard to the dignity and the activity which they share in the building up of the body of Christ!'” 

The Irish church still has absolutely no structures to vindicate this principle, and no Irish lay person has a structured right to question a bishop on obvious derelictions of duty.  And the summary report of the apostolic visitation ignores this problem also.

To this day there has been no response to the historical argument presented in 2010, and again here on this site, that the rescuing of Catholic children from the most depraved evil owes far more to the Protestant Reformation and the ‘Enlightenment’ than to the Catholic magisterium.   (See The Disgracing of Catholic Monarchism)

So again I ask: how exactly is the Holy Spirit supposed to be moving the young Catholics of Ireland and globally ‘to renew the face of the earth’?  I’ve been saying the prayer ‘Come Holy Spirit’ all my life, and the fact is that I’ve learnt far more about how that could actually happen from Catholic clergy loyal to Vatican II (now again under covert intimidation in Ireland) and from Charles Dickens, than I have from the Catholic magisterium since 1968.

If it is argued that Irish Catholic lay people need to be protected from priests who would want to explore controversial issues, has the magisterium considered the impact of this upon our morale – through the inferences that the Holy See apparently believes the Holy Spirit denies the Irish people the gift of discernment and that we are not even to be allowed to suppose that an Irish priest could actually be speaking his own mind?

Our own bishops can’t even have the courage to demand that the Holy Spirit be freed to enable them to determine the language of the Mass for us.  What kind of leadership is this?  And what kind of theology?

The crisis in secular society offers an opportunity for the church

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Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Nov 2011

The recovery of the Catholic church in Ireland will occur just as soon as its leaders realise that they need to share responsibility with lay people for evangelising secular culture.

The summer months of 2011 saw an intensification of the crisis of the Catholic Church in Ireland.  The Cloyne report showed how the powers exercised by Catholic bishops could be used to frustrate even the church’s own child protection guidelines as late as 2008.  Once again, despite the warning provided by previous scandals,  an Irish bishop had totally mishandled this issue – to the detriment of victims of abuse, and to the disgrace of his church.  With other dioceses now undergoing investigation, we wonder how Irish Catholic bishops can ever regain the trust and confidence of their people.

Soon after, something entirely different happened in a neighbouring society.  London, Birmingham and other major British cities were convulsed by terrifying riots that saw wide scale looting and destruction.  In the aftermath over 1,300 rioters were brought before emergency courts – and media commentators agonised over this unexpected event.  Many spoke of the alienation of too many young men from modern society, but none saw any easy solution.   The most honest pundits confessed to total bewilderment.

How would the Irish Catholic church react if similar events were to take place in Irish cities?  There is no precedent for the emergency that would then present itself, and no precedent for the calling together of the Irish faithful to respond to such a secular crisis.  And that encapsulates the problem of the Irish Catholic church today.  With no reason to believe that what happened in Britain could not happen here, our Irish church occupies itself entirely with internal diversionary matters – for example, ‘World Youth Day’ and the Eucharistic Congress scheduled for 2012.

It is a state of affairs that cannot continue.  Sometime soon Ireland will reach a tipping point – a severe and immediate crisis that will precipitate a realisation on the part of church leadership that the division of the church into clerical insiders and non-clerical outsiders simply cannot and must not be maintained.   We are sleepwalking at present on the edge of a cliff, maintaining a model of church that prevents us from doing something basic to the health of every social entity –  communicating with one another over a host of vital issues.

We obviously need to communicate, for example, about the desperation of so many young people, and about the vulnerability of the family – and the role of adult males in mentoring and providing role models for young men.  We need to acknowledge also that the fragile forces that prevent the collapse of any society into chaos are in need of support from every concerned citizen.  We need to talk about the relevance of Catholic social teaching to the vast disillusionment that has overtaken Irish society in recent years.  We need to discuss how we are to counter the dangerous negativity that threatens to overwhelm Irish life, and to replace it with a soundly-based optimism. In a climate of deep cynicism created by so many failures of leadership, we need to restore confidence in the possibility of unselfish public service.

We need to develop together also a deeper understanding of the perils of consumerism and the relevance of the Gospels.  It simply will not do to go on moralising about ‘materialism’ from the pulpit when it is absolutely clear that we humans are entirely uninterested in ‘matter’ for its own sake.  What drives consumerism is the search for social status, the status that is supposedly conferred by possession of advanced technology and expensively ‘styled’ possessions of all kinds.  Churchmen need to become aware that the search for status is a problem they also have – it is actually the root cause of their aloofness, their preference for the company of their peers and their distance from their people.

This ‘Status Anxiety’ is also the trigger for ‘contagious greed’ – the infectious manias that drove, for example, the Irish property bubble, and even, partially, the craze for ‘designer drugs’.  At a more benign level ‘contagious greed’ even maintains the higher consumer spending that economists tell us we need to revitalise the global economy.  We really need an opportunity to discuss all of this – because unbridled contagious greed is also obviously the trigger for looting.

How many Irish priests and bishops are able to connect in their homilies these obvious phenomena of Status Anxiety and infectious greed with Jesus warnings against seeking status and against coveting a neighbour’s possessions?

Is it too dangerous to ‘go there’, perhaps?   Is Status Anxiety also the root problem of the Irish church, the source of clerical aloofness – the basic reason that Catholic clergy – and especially Catholic bishops – are afraid to make open discussion the weekly diet of a church in deep crisis?  Was it also the underlying reason for the cover-up of clerical child abuse? Are clergy basically fearful of losing their status in the church if they lose control?  Is clerical Status Anxiety the root cause of the widespread weakness of preaching at Mass these times?

Preaching would be far stronger also if clergy could confidently assert that it is possible to overcome status anxiet’.  That is in essence what Jesus did – and what Francis of Assisi and every other great saint of the church did.  They lost the fear of descending to the base of society because they were already secure in the love of God.  When secular commentators ponder the nature of ‘strength of character’ we all need to be ready to point out, confidently, the source of the greatest strength. Spirituality is not just for monks – it is the soundest basis of moral character and of civic responsibility.

If the seeking of status is the root source of the growing secular crisis, how is the church to say so if it cannot criticise and dismantle its own status pyramid?  How many humiliations must the church experience before it chooses the path of humility willingly?

It will choose that path soon enough in any case – there will be no alternative.  With austerity set to intensify in Ireland in the months ahead the scene is set for a tipping point that will get us all talking at last – and using the Gospel as a source of salvation.

That cannot happen soon enough, but why do we need to wait?  The relevance of the Gospel to every major problem threatening us is clear enough.  It is only our absurd church structures that prevent us from sharing our understanding of that, and from bringing far better news to a secular society desperately in need of hope.

Rethinking Catholic Formation

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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.

Of Good and Evil: V – Abba

Views: 64

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Jul/Aug 2010

We are chronically unsure of our own value!

We may be so unsure of it that we may waste years in search of the admiration of others.

Until one day we realise that we have wasted our time.

Only then are we ready to live.

Never in human history have we humans had access to so much knowledge. Never has the possession of knowledge had such prestige. Especially the kind of knowledge that allows financial information to be controlled and communicated through the world’s computer systems.

And never has there been less interest in making some kind of meaningful pattern of the knowledge at our disposal. What people call western civilisation was founded on a passionate search for an overarching truth that would make sense of everything. Today you are likely to get the blankest of looks if you ask one of today’s university graduates any truly important question.

Such as: “Why have reason and science alone been unable to build a perfect world?”

Or: “What important conclusions are you able to draw from everything you know?”

Or: “Why do you think the world is in crisis?”

Or: “What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?”

Focused on increasingly narrow areas of expertise, aimed usually at making a living, our educated people have mostly lost confidence in their own ability to discern a deeper truth. They may even have bought into an arrogant “we know it all” attitude that disparages all the wisdom of the past.

Wisdom such as is compressed in the following story.

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no-one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'”
(Gospel of Luke Ch 15:11-32)

All Christians will be familiar with this story, but we have still to exhaust the wisdom it contains, or to apply it properly to our own time. No one may ever have pointed to a key element of the story, the key that unlocks a meaning that would have been plain to every Jewish listener in Jesus’ time.

The fact that the son who left home and ‘squandered his wealth’ was the younger son.

Younger sons were especially doubtful of their own value in ancient times. Noticing and envying the dominant role of their fathers, they also noticed that their fathers tended to favour their eldest sons. And those eldest sons would inherit all of the prestige of their fathers some day. Younger sons could all too easily conclude: “Here I will always be second to someone – never first. I must go elsewhere to make a name for myself!”

Story after story in the Bible tells us of the rivalry that develops between brothers – and usually the rivalry has to do with the very same problem that we all have today:

We are chronically unsure of our own value, and have an extraordinary need for the reassurance of others.

And, repeating in our own lives the story of the ‘Prodigal Son’, we can cause ourselves extreme suffering in the years we spend looking for that reassurance. It is always a vain search, because most of those we look to for reassurance are looking for exactly the same thing themselves.

Does God punish us?

But this short story had an even greater meaning for Jesus’ Jewish listeners. To summarise their history, they were a people who went wandering in search of glory, who lost faith in the God who had delivered them from slavery, who suffered a second exile in Babylon, and who then found themselves in Jesus’ time under the captivity of Rome. For some of the Jews these humiliations were God’s punishment for their own waywardness.

But Jesus had an entirely different ‘take’ on these events. The parable just related explains it fully. Our worst humiliations are a self-punishment. They follow naturally from our vanity. But the God of Israel, and of all of us, is ‘Abba‘ – the father who never forgets his wayward sons. He sees us while we are ‘still a long way off’ and runs to us as we approach.

And today in Ireland?

We in Ireland desperately need to apply the parable to our own recent history. In times of despair in the past we sought meaning and solace in such stories – in the reassurance they bring that we are never forgotten, never ‘out of sight’, and always of value.

There were never more prodigal sons, and daughters, in need of such reassurance, than there are in Ireland today.

One of the main obstacles in the way of us seeking that reassurance is the fact that so many today are stuck fast in the Sargasso Sea of post-modern doubt. This is the intellectual outlook that pours scorn on any possibility that the Christian story told in the Creeds could be true after all. This outlook has been greatly strengthened by the revelations of ‘scandals in high places’ that Catholicism is still suffering.

Nevertheless, some of us still go to Mass today – because we have found ‘Abba’ in our own crises – and are confident that He sees everyone ‘far off’ . We need to equip ourselves to show the same compassion for those who will come seeking encouragement in the same story.

We need above all to have the confidence to ask: “What meaning can we derive from the facts of our own history?” and the confidence to pray for an answer.

It was in prayer that Jesus communed with ‘Abba’ – and found the strength to proclaim his truth until his last breath. It will be in prayer, and in reflection on the Gospels, that we will find a way of speaking the same truth to all those who are currently lost.

The worse things get, the closer everyone will be to understanding that mere facts are not enough, and that we must look for the meaning behind the facts to be truly knowledgeable.

It will always be through Jesus’ love of Abba that we human prodigals will most readily rediscover the kingdom of God – the realisation that Abba has always known us, and understands better than we do why we harm ourselves.