Category Archives: Bullying

Media: Cruel arbiter of youthful self-respect

According to Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute, one in four Irish teenage girls aged 16-18 is self-harming, and obesity rates among young people are higher for those socially less advantaged. This news of Nov 3rd 2016 shows that Ireland is following a pattern that is uniform throughout the developed world: a new tyranny is growing, far more insidious than any that preceded the rise of electronic and print media.

Under British imperial occupation Ireland suffered huge psychological damage that has still not been overcome, but at least we had far closer bonds with one another than is happening today. We could join to celebrate what we had retained of our historical memory, and dream together of a future truly free.

But what does true freedom mean today for Irish young people, when stereotypes of physical attractiveness, celebrity and success are mercilessly relayed to them by ‘must have’ devices that wake them in the early morning. And when trolls, fashion police and ransom honey-pots lie in wait on ‘social media’ throughout their waking hours?

This ‘media colonisation’ was impending even before Ireland’s 20th century overthrow of ‘the British yoke’. The very first clinical diagnoses of what are today termed eating disorders occurred in the 1800s, in an era of expanding print mass media. The latter exploited the appetite of young women for every detail of the costume and ‘lifestyle’ of highly placed ‘beauties’ – such as Sisi, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria (1837-1898), wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I.

It was this ‘new woman’ who, along with her good friend the Empress Eugénie of France, wife of Emperor Napoleon III, put an end to the wearing of the crinoline and made slimness de rigeur for fashionable women from then on. According to one account they had in their early friendship retired to a private room to measure their waists – inaugurating what is now the global craze for competitive thinness. Ominously, Sisi insisted upon a rigid low calorie diet and dedicated herself to physically demanding sports – and it wasn’t long before the highly placed female readership of the growing print media was aware of every detail of this new ‘must’ for the ‘new woman’.

The first clinical descriptions of what is now called anorexia were written when Sisi and Eugenie were most influential, in 1860 and 1873.*

The habit of imitating social models began much earlier, of course, but the media  multiplication of images of the model ‘socialite’ meant that body-shape competition intensified – and the least ‘body-confident’ girls among the upper classes were necessarily in most danger. Now every young woman is subject to the same threat.

As for rates of obesity, those too are now known to correlate with social disadvantage and the self-dislike to which the least fortunate give way. ‘Comfort eating’ is far from being a myth for those subject to media, yet incapable of participation in any of the competitions for status that they see.  Self-cutting is obviously closely related, an expression of the deepest self-rejection.

For commercial media, competition of all kinds is the ‘gift that keeps on giving’ – because of a singular human frailty: our tendency to agree that our worth is indeed determined by other humans, by ‘society’. There is a complete uniformity in the damage done to young men who ingest steroids to ‘bulk up’, and young women who swallow dieting doctrine, by virtue of the same conviction: ‘I must not be shamed by my body’.  Media are almost uniformly the conduit of this merciless dogma: beware at all costs of social contempt; seek honour through conformity.

Those who see religious faith as the greatest threat to freedom have not yet noticed that it is now from a thoroughly secularised media, dominated by purely commercial interests, that a far greater danger threatens. Or that, as the greatest theme of all great religion is the equal sacred and inviolable value of every one of us – no matter what ‘society says’ – it is only through those who believe this passionately that true freedom will come.

‘What happened to sin?’ asked the late Sean Fagan. Answer: it became ‘self harm’. (For St Thomas Aquinas ‘God is not offended until we harm ourselves’.)  Irish Catholic clergy, many still despondent over their own recent shaming, need to remember that it is only from their current social altitude that the Gospel can be effectively preached.

Only now, released from its mistaken role at the pinnacle of social respectability,  can the Irish Catholic church – clergy and people together – effectively uphold the full Gospel of the equal and infinite value of every person.  The power of Christendom to teach the whole Gospel was always an illusion, because it was in those centuries of the clergy’s greatest social power that the deepest meaning of the Resurrection was almost lost: that our value, our worth, is God given and is therefore not in the gift – or justly subject to the contempt – of any other power: not ‘society’, not media and not even the Church.

*    See: Eating Disorders and Mimetic Desire, René Girard  [Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 3 (Spring 1996)]

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Honour and Shame – and Ireland’s ‘Culture War’

“Galway historian finds 800 babies in septic tank grave”, reported the Boston Globe in early June, 2014. As it happened I was in Boston when this story broke, and was soon reading of the necessary corrections by the historian concerned, Catherine Corless.

Yes, close to 800 babies had died in a Tuam mother-and-baby home between 1925 and 1961, but only some remains had been observed by two boys as long ago as 1975, in an area that had once enclosed a sewage tank. The precise location of the rest of those remains is today unknown. Before we can assess as Catholics the full import of these events we must wait for the report of an Irish state-sponsored investigation of this and other similar establishments in the same era.

‘Culture War’?

The phrase ‘culture war’ originated in the United States – to describe especially the battle over the legalisation of abortion and the promotion of gay legal rights. Socially conservative Christians determined to exert pressure on the state to apply its coercive power against the principle of ‘choice’ in these areas are deeply embattled against those who believe the state should have no such role.

In Ireland over recent years an analogous ‘culture war’ has developed – focused especially on the responsibility of the Catholic Church for Ireland’s 20th century miseries. In Ireland too there are ongoing political battles over abortion and gay rights, and inevitably Catholicism is often scapegoated for all that was unjust in the recent past – as a means of undermining any residual hold it might have upon the present and future.

Resentful of this trend, and deeply hurt by over two decades of church scandals, some Irish Catholics are now inclined to hit back with equal vigour. ‘Blood libel’ is one Catholic commentator’s characterisation of the worst of the ‘Tuam Babies’ stories.

However, there is a real danger of a loss of balance here, and of a failure to recognise the genuine shortcomings of Catholic culture and practice in Ireland in the last century. This can very easily lead to a failure to recognise similar shortcomings in the present.

Why did Irish Catholic clergy collaborate in shaming women?

Why in particular was there no effective opposition by Catholic clergy in the last century to the social shaming of pregnant and unmarried women? Clergy then were far from slow in naming a wide range of moral defects, especially those in any way concerning the 6th commandment – so why the failure to indict a clear breach of the Great Commandment – ‘Thou shalt Love’ – in the treatment of those seen as failing in that area of sexuality? Why was the compassion so often shown by God in the Bible for the shamed woman not exemplified, vociferously and generally, by our clergy?

In the stories of Hagar the slave girl, of Susanna and the Elders, of the Samaritan woman at the Well and of the woman rescued by Jesus in the Temple, the inalienable dignity of the less fortunate woman is affirmed – so why was this never a major theme of Catholic evangelisation in Ireland? Why instead was there complete Catholic toleration, if not positive encouragement, of the shaming and scapegoating of unfortunate women?

And why was the generic evil of all shaming and shunning, so clearly identified in the Gospels, never strongly targeted in Irish Catholic clerical moralism? Why was it never noticed that the passion of Jesus is centrally about such shaming, expulsion and marginalisation – that the mocking of Jesus with a crown of thorns, and with crucifixion itself, is a divine exposure of the self-righteousness and lack of compassion, and deep injustice, that is present in all such practices?

Snobbery never a sin?

Recently in the Derry Journal Bishop Donal McKeown identified ‘greed and snobbery’ as the two human qualities he least admires. It was above all Irish middle-class Catholic snobbery – a ‘looking down’ on others – that lay at the root of the ostracisation of the unmarried and pregnant female. It is almost certainly today a continuing factor in the problem of abortion also – so why is snobbery never (in my long experience at least) a target of the homily?

The answer must surely lie in the clerical church’s too long alignment with social elites, in a deficient theological preparation for Catholic ministry, and in the male monopoly of the pulpit.

There is a treasure to be regained by recovering a theological understanding of the dimension that runs between social honour and social shame, so well revealed in the whole of scripture, and especially in the New Testament. It was especially the contemporary brokers of honour and shame in Jesus’ time – the Herods and the Caesars – who were to be exposed and overthrown by the wisdom and humility of Jesus, as promised in Mary’s prophesy, the Magnificat. By implication, all social presumption in the whole of human history is indicted and destined for overthrow.

Centuries of clerical alignment with social elites

The fault underlying all Catholic shaming of the unfortunate surely began with the church’s association with social elites, sealed in the fourth century by the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine. Only slowly, as Catholicism loses all privilege, are we separating ourselves from that mindset. We should surely now see the ongoing revelation of the shortcomings of so much of the Catholic culture of the recent past not as cause for resentment or animosity towards those who revel in it, but as an opportunity to identify the generic problem of social elitism, and to separate ourselves totally from it.

The worst mistake would be to focus solely on the injustices of the anti-Catholic campaign that is indeed being waged. There are indeed new brokers of honour and shame in 21st century Ireland, many clamouring unjustly on this medium, the Internet. There is indeed a tendency now among some to scapegoat Catholic clergy and religious for all that was wrong with Ireland in the last century and even this one. However, to fail to recognise the benefits of the loss of social power and prestige that has overtaken the church in this transition would be another disastrous Catholic ‘own goal’.

Social disempowerment was the role deliberately chosen by the church’s founder.  The church in Ireland will only begin to recover when it realises that disempowerment is a necessary condition of Christian wisdom. We will not be seeing the world as God sees it unless we can see it through the eyes of those today who still suffer social exclusion and marginalisation (for example, asylum seekers). That should be our primary learning from this most recent event, not the need for a new offensive in the culture wars.

Good riddance to Christendom

The recovery of Christianity in the West generally cannot begin until we fully absorb the lessons in humility that all scandals provide. What’s ongoing in Ireland is also ongoing throughout the West – the necessary demise of Christendom – that attitude of arrogant power that is the fount of all Christian scandal. Loss of all social power and vanity is the very necessary prelude to the recovery of what is truly greatest in our Christian tradition.

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My Kind of Pope

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality June 2005

For an immigrant worker in Ireland suffering racial bullying, discrimination and isolation – who has more immediate power to improve the quality of his life and to proclaim the presence of Christ: his Irish Catholic workmates, or the Pope?

For the bullied child in an Irish classroom, whose compassion is more likely to make a difference – that of her Catholic classmates, or that of the Roman curia, twelve hundred miles away?

For those 300,000 Irish people who are clinically depressed because they have been deprived by modern society of all sense of their own beauty and dignity, who has more power to restore it: the pope in Rome, or their Catholic neighbours – prayerfully conscious of their obligation to build a warm, affirming and friendly community?

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The nub of all these questions is this: in exalting the papacy and central government of the Church, do we Catholics tend to undervalue our own potential – and evade our own obligation – to hasten the coming of the kingdom of God by exercising Christian leadership and initiative in our own space?

“I have the impression that the figure of the pope is praised too much. There is the danger of falling into the cult of the personality, which I absolutely do not want….”

It might surprise many Catholics that the source of these reservations about the papacy was none other than Pope John Paul I – and that they reflect very well indeed the attitude of the greatest pope of my lifetime, John XXIII. Had it not been for his calling of the second Vatican council in 1962, it is extremely doubtful that I would be a Catholic today.

It was Vatican II that proclaimed that truth itself ‘conveys itself by virtue of its own truth’ – not by virtue of the degree of pressure or coercion behind it. In accepting this principle of religious freedom – which had been ridiculed by Pope Pius IX – the church had set out decisively on a new relationship with modern society. The Church’s long toleration of religious coercion – justified by Augustine and many other great Catholic saints – had come to an end.

Own up to past mistakes

This process of owning up to the Church’s past mistakes continued under Pope John Paul II, and this for me was the most important creative aspect of his papacy. As a teacher of global history to schoolchildren I had often to deal with their dismay on hearing of the Inquisition, the long Catholic toleration of slavery, the forced baptism of the new subjects of Imperial Spain and Portugal, the persecution of the Jews. I could remain a Catholic only because my church had embarked on a road that would take it eventually – I felt sure – to an acknowledgement of its original mistake: the union of church and state under Constantine and his successors in the fourth century.

My ideal pope will acknowledge that mistake too, and fully endorse the principle of separating church and state, detaching the church finally from any association with coercive power.

It was Pope John XXIII also who insisted, in Pacem in Terris that the peace of the world depended upon the principle of the equal dignity of all. The Pope that I would like to see will insist that this principle applies to the papacy also. The process of removing all the pomp of a medieval monarchy must continue, demystifying the papacy. The tendency of the papal court to be self-regarding, and to exalt the pope as the only source of wisdom in the church, is a spiritual blemish that will become steadily more obvious in the television age.

Point to the Hollowness of Celebrity

And because my ideal pope will believe passionately in the principle of the equal dignity of all, he will also see through the hollowness of celebrity – perhaps the most dangerous feature of modern culture. Throughout the world, surveys of teenagers report that fame has become the great goal of most. Their ‘icons’ are pop singers, super models, film stars, sporting heroes. It is the advertised lifestyle of such people that fuels consumerism and endangers the global environment.

The desire for status, fame and singularity is what the Gospels call worldliness. In seeking to identify with those who are obscure, Jesus condemned it utterly. In accepting a shameful death he overcame it completely. His resurrection signifies especially his father’s exaltation of the virtue of humility.

A complete papal understanding of worldliness will therefore be expressed in uncompromising terms: it is not the pope, but the poor who stand highest in God’s hierarchy – so the media should give far more attention to the latter.

My ideal pope will therefore be self-deprecating, dismissive of pomp and inclined to send up media awe of himself. He will encourage every Catholic adult and child to ‘love God and do what you will’ to bring the reign of God in his and her own environment – because he, the pope, has less power to do so.

Restoring the freedom of the local church

Towards the end of the last papacy there was a celebrated debate between German Cardinals Ratzinger and Kasper over the relative importance of the universal and local church. Cardinal Ratzinger, a centralist, stressed the priority of the uniformity of the whole church, as determined by Rome. Cardinal Kasper stressed that the freedom of the local church is essential to its vibrancy – and therefore to the health of the whole. For him, unless the church is allowed to be primarily local, it will have no vital existence.

My ideal Pope will keep these two things in harmonious balance, so that Irish Catholicism can be free to be itself, without losing its Catholicity. There always has been a specifically Irish way of being Catholic – and we need to rediscover this with confidence.

Affirm the Mind of the Laity

Even in the era of Pope Pius XII Catholic children were taught to see themselves as temples of the Holy Spirit. Since wisdom is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, it is a restriction of the freedom of the Holy Spirit to deprive lay Catholics, young people especially, of a thinking and speaking role in their Church, a role especially in interpreting their own responsibility, given them by Vatican II – to consecrate the world to God.

This denial lies at the root of the alienation of a generation of young educated Irish Catholics from their own church in my lifetime. Although Irish bishops now often bemoan the rise of anticlericalism in Ireland, they still apparently cannot see that its most important source lies in their failure to create what Vatican II clearly envisaged – church structures that would allow all of the faithful to participate in a learning dialogue with their clergy and with one another.

As a consequence, all Irish Catholic life and education has suffered. Children who are subjected to an endless monologue from above soon lose interest – because they have effectively been told that their own questions, and their own intellects, are unimportant. Their role is merely to absorb the wisdom of someone else – like recording machines.

This was especially true in an era when virtually everyone became used to a learning environment in which students and teachers collaborate in asking, and answering, important questions. Unquestionable authorities, fearful of any divergence from the rigid verbal formulae of the catechism, and working out of an outdated understanding of education, have had a soporific, deadening effect on Catholic religious education generally.

Nothing else can explain the evaporation of baptised and confirmed Irish Catholic young people from our churches in recent times, almost as soon as they leave school.

This lack of respect for the mind of the laity, resulting in the continued denial of structures for internal dialogue and mutual enrichment, was the single greatest weakness of the last papacy. John Paul II virtually acknowledged this himself when, in September 2004 he told the US bishops that to hasten the healing of relationships in their own country they should create ‘better structures of participation, consultation and shared responsibility’.

As Vatican II had envisaged these by 1965, there never has been any good reason for four decades of delay in building them. Their absence as a means of hastening an earlier resolution of the problem of clerical child abuse, and avoiding the appalling scandals of the past decade, has had almost catastrophic consequences for the universal church.

End Clericalism

So my ideal pope will have no sympathy with the following:

“This church is in essence an unequal society, that is to say a society comprising two categories of persons, the shepherd and the flock….these categories are so distinct that the right and authority necessary for promoting and guiding all the members toward the goal of society reside only in the pastoral body; as to the multitude, its sole duty is that of allowing itself to be led and of following its pastors as a docile flock.”

This was a pronouncement of Pope Pius X – for whom lay people could never aspire to a leadership role. Instead, my ideal pope will say something like this:

“Having given all of his children the natural gift of intelligence, and having assured them also that the Holy Spirit would be with the whole church, the Trinity clearly intends that all of the faithful should participate in forming the mind of the church – especially in an era of universal education. Living as they do at the interface between the world and the church, the experience of lay people is a vital source of insight on the question of how we Christians are to help transform modern secular culture and reverse its steady disintegration. Bishops should therefore not only listen to their laity, but provide regular opportunities for doing so.”

Build a Global Family

Finally, my ideal pope will grasp fully the enormous potential of the church in a globally networked world to help build among all peoples, in cooperation with the other Christian and monotheistic traditions, a sense of global society as an extended family network – with the compassion to care for everyone.

Caring, like all popes, for the stability of family life he will call on all of us to make the world a safer place for children, less concerned with individual ambition than with the sufferings of those who can’t compete.

He might also at some point say:

“Every Christian adult or child, in reaching out spontaneously and lovingly towards another person in need, becomes a vicar of Christ – doing what we in Rome cannot. Popes should recognise that God often wishes to move his children directly. We must not get in the way by trying to control everything. We too need to trust in God, and to ‘chill out’ – for God has everything in hand.”

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