Category Archives: Snobbery

Christendom compromised Christianity – and gave birth to Secularism

knight in battle
Christendom – the long era of confusion of the Christian cross with the sword – the symbol of coercive state power

When Archbishop Michael Neary said in November 2014 that we are hearing the ‘death rattle’ of Christendom he was clearly not saying that secularism has defeated the church – as the Irish Catholic mistakenly claimed in its headline of November 13.  (‘Church has ‘lost the battle’ with secularism – archbishop’)

The term ‘secularism’ does not appear at all in the Archbishop’s complete homily. A close reading makes it clear that Dr Neary distinguishes between Christendom and Christianity, that he has not given up on the latter, and that he is therefore not at all as pessimistic as the Irish Catholic’s headline could suggest. He has simply recognised that a long era in the history of the church has come to a close.

Dr Neary describes Christendom as a ‘shared set of assumptions about life and its purpose, reflected in use of language, in culture and in the law’.  These shared assumptions were always formed principally by a close relationship between church and state. This relationship created a social envelope in most of Europe from the fourth century onward – an envelope into which most people were born and from which they gained their understanding of the faith.

This relationship between church and state always severely distorted the church’s message and limited its evangelical impact – giving rise to the very scandals that led to the secularist reaction in the modern era. When the church aligned itself with emperors and kings who had acquired their power by violent competition, its bishops were soon mostly recruited from these very same military-aristocratic elites, and the Gospel message of social humility, peace and welcome for the stranger was necessarily compromised.  The pattern of seeking to ‘convert’ social elites in the expectation that their underclasses would then conform made clergy generally content with mere conformism, not at all the same thing as deep Christian conversion.

The worst scandals of Christendom followed: the persecutions of Jews, ‘witches’, ‘heretics’ and other minorities, the horrific excesses of the Crusades, the churches’ alignment with European global imperialism, and even the corruption of popes and papal courts. From the latter followed the splintering of western Christianity in the 1500s and the inter-Christian religious wars that had alienated so many by the end of the following century. This set the scene for the 18th century reaction historians call the ‘Enlightenment’, the cradle of modern secularism. The ideal of a better world was taken over by democratic political reformers – and this process was consolidated in the later 1700s when Christian hierarchies threw their lot in with the landowning ascendancy from which they themselves had too often been recruited.

And that was when Ireland’s major seminary, Maynooth, came into being – formed in 1795 by an alliance of landowning aristocrats and Catholic bishops who were equally determined to oppose social and political transformation.  Is it any wonder that modern Catholic social teaching never gripped the imaginations of most Irish secular clergy, and has therefore made so little impact on our political culture? Instead our clergy remained predominantly socially and politically conservative – setting the church up for the secularist reaction of recent decades.

It was the Irish church’s consequent blindness to social elitism and snobbery that led to the worst scandals of the present. In the wake of Irish political independence in the last century the dangers of a close relationship between church and state were illustrated in church-run institutions that cruelly abused the most socially disadvantaged women and children – a scandal still being revealed.

The 'Cross of Sacrifice', Ypres Reservoir Cemetery, 1918. What does the image of the sword on the cross convey to you?
The ‘Cross of Sacrifice’, Ypres Reservoir War Cemetery, 1918.  What does the image of the sword on the face of the cross convey to you?

Another effect of Christendom was the unbalancing of Catholic moral theology. Beholden to social elites, clergy too often became blind to the origins of elitism, violence and injustice in the disease of Status Anxiety (what the Gospel calls ‘worldliness’), and in the sin of covetousness – yearning for what the wealthiest have. Clerical attention became diverted instead into a fixation with the minutiae of people’s sexual lives. This imbalance inevitably distorted the theological understanding of many generations of Catholics.

It is clear from the scriptures that the weight of divine anger falls against injustice and lack of social compassion – the specific faults of social elites – but this emphasis was far too often replaced in Catholic preaching and censure by an obsession with sex. The God whom so many now reject is this same sex-obsessed – and non-existent – God.

Given the distorting straitjacket of Christendom it is truly miraculous that Christianity nevertheless survived – in the lives of saints, in the best theology, in the mystical tradition and in the arts. Nevertheless the long alignment of the church with social elites and the state had done so much damage that an anti-religious secularism was inevitable.

So the death of Christendom is not to be lamented. Instead its benefits should be welcomed and even celebrated – as the necessary precondition for the next phase in the history of Irish Christianity.

The very rapid growth of Catholic Christianity in China – under a regime that regards it with the deepest suspicion and refuses relations with the Holy See – proves that the faith can flourish without the church-state relationship characterised by Christendom.  So did the very rapid growth of the church in the Roman empire before it was legalised by Constantine.  Many Chinese Christian intellectuals also trace the decline of the western church to the church-state relationships of Christendom, and fear the corruptive potential of state patronage in China.  We should pay very close attention to that perception.

The 13th century Franciscan movement was essentially a protest against the corruptions of Christendom, so the reign of the first pope to be called Francis is an ideal moment to begin a new era in Ireland.

 

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A Short History of Haute Cuisine Catholicism

Sean O’Conaill © Irish Times July 2005

(This article was originally published under a title not chosen by me – ‘Celebrity-grovelling and elitist bias of the Catholic Church’ in the  ‘Rite and Reason’ column of the Irish Times. I regretted this nonsensical attribution of snobbery to the church as a whole.  The vice is attributable only to those who approve of, and benefit from, its monarchical and aristocratic leadership structure. I sincerely hope that the assault apparently being made on that by Pope Francis (from 2013) will be sustained and effective.  His term ‘spiritual worldliness’ in Evangelii Gaudium marks for me the first explicit recognition by a pope that much ostentatious Catholicism has far more to do with worldly status seeking than with genuine Christianity.)

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“If Jesus was born in a stable and died on the cross, why does the pope live in a palace?”

This question came at me quite frequently from the children to whom I taught history in a Catholic Grammar school in NI. The safest answer was the triumph of the faith of the early Christian martyrs – in the adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century.

It was never a satisfying answer, however, because the child’s question arose from an obvious clash between Jesus’ life of mendicant service, and the role of the pope as an international dignitary, ensconced in one of the world’s prime pieces of real estate, surrounded by priceless artistic treasures.

It arose also from the child’s identification with the ideal of social equality – and I was all too aware of the Catholic hierarchy’s disastrous historic resistance to that ideal until fairly recently. Catholics of my generation will be familiar with Maynooth-trained clergy insisting that people cannot be equal for the extraordinary reason that we are ‘all different’.

How could one explain to that child that Maynooth itself was founded in 1795 in a fascinating collaboration between anti-democratic Catholic hierarchs and British grandees who engineered the Act of Union a few years later? That our ‘national seminary’ arose for reasons that Jesus of Nazareth would have found very strange – an identification of the One True Church with a social order that was passing away because it obstructed the historical advance of a key Gospel value: the equality in dignity of all human beings?

That mis-identification of Catholicism with a supposedly sacred medieval social order is best called ‘Haute Cuisine Catholicism’. It survives still in the cult of the papacy – the automatic transformation of a human being into a sacred icon on his election – epitomised by a recent letter to the Irish Times that ecstatically described the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics as the ‘Benedict XVI sect’.

It survives also in absurd snobberies like ‘papal knighthoods’ – one of which went in 1998 to Rupert Murdoch, probably the world’s greatest pornographer.

Another relic of haute cuisine Catholicism is Opus Dei, whose recently canonised founder made much of his spurious Spanish nobility. This privileged Catholic organisation sets out to recreate Christendom by recruiting today’s young intelligentsia as a new Catholic elite.

The celebrity-grovelling that goes on among so many Catholic newspapers is another such remnant: we are supposed to ‘take pride’ in the fact that ‘famous people’ like Graham Greene, Alec Guinness and (God help us) Ann Widdecombe have ‘joined the fold’. From the Catholic Herald one gets the impression that English Catholicism will finally lose its inferiority complex only when it has recaptured the monarchy from Anglicanism.

The effort put by the Catholic clergy in Ireland into educating the children of the middle classes had a similar elitist bias. The conversion of the European military elite in the middle ages had been followed by the surface conversion of their dependents, and by the hierarchical church’s conviction that it need only retain the allegiance of social elites to discharge its obligation to its founder. Thus blessed by the successors of the apostles, these social elites felt all the more secure.

The liberal capitalism that enabled Rupert Murdoch to buy a papal knighthood through charitable donations has also torpedoed this cosy alliance, however. It was the secular Enlightenment that created modern Europe, so post-modern scepticism has replaced Christianity as the chosen faith of Europe’s technocracy – and, taught conformity at Catholic school, Ireland’s best-educated teenagers now typically conform to this secularist faith almost as soon as they leave.

This is the predicament our Irish bishops now find themselves in. Educated to socialise with an Irish Catholic social elite that is now increasingly no longer Catholic, they also find themselves pilloried by media for whom church scandals are meat and drink. Their laments at the rise of ‘á la carte Catholicism’ invite an obvious retort from our inner cities: why did you abandon the accepted practice of bishops in the first four centuries of the church’s history – of eating regularly with the poor?

The answer is, again, sixteen centuries of haute cuisine Catholicism. This liberated Christendom’s hierarchy from the Gospel obligation of social humility – which was then delegated to the lay poor. With the recent papal enthronement of the cleric who aligned his church with Latin America’s appalling elites, I don’t now expect to live to see its final demise.

As Cardinal Ratzinger once told an interviewer in Bavaria:

“It would be a mistake to believe that the Holy Spirit picks the pope, because there are too many examples of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have chosen.”

Quite.

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Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: V – Snobbery and the Gospels

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

‘Master, we know … that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you …’ (Matt 22:16)

Jesus did not value people for their social status or wealth. It is surely this characteristic above all that draws most of us to him. We cannot read more than a few chapters of any one of the Gospels without realising that here was someone who never looked down his nose at humble people – someone who was always drawn to those ‘the world’ despised.

Not only was Jesus not a snob, he was an anti-snob. He took on the world’s pyramid of esteem – topped as usual by religious and political elites – and revealed its pretentiousness.

To get a complete mental fix on ‘snobbery’ we can think of a phrase that provided the title of a recent book of popular philosophy:  Status Anxiety*. Those who suffer from snobbery are insecure in their self-esteem, so they need the esteem of others, especially of those ‘highly placed’. The more social esteem they have, the higher their supposed status. They are perpetually anxious about this status.

Hyacinth Bucket of the TV comedy series Keeping Up Appearances is a classic snob. Terrified that someone might suppose her to be ‘lower class’ she insists on pronouncing her name ‘Bouquet’.  She collects prestige china, and visits English stately homes in the hope of meeting their aristocratic owners. The actress who plays Hyacinth, Patricia Routledge, catches perfectly a recognizable type of middle aged, well-to-do suburban Englishwoman.

We can’t be certain of the precise origin of the word ‘snob’, but it may have come from the abbreviation ‘s.nob.’ (for sine nobilitate – ‘without nobility’, a ‘commoner’) written in the 1820s opposite the names of Oxford and Cambridge university students who were not well connected.

To put that kind of ‘nobility’ in perspective we need to remember that aristocratic titles were originally granted to those who performed some service for a medieval king – and that the special talent of medieval kings was for murdering peasants en masse in the gentlemanly sport known as warfare. The original aristocrats in France were called ‘the nobility of the sword’ for this reason. These medieval ‘knights’ were very effective mass murderers because they encased themselves in steel armour – an advantage not bestowed upon the unlucky peasantry.

The Roman nobility of Jesus’ time – especially the Caesars – were equally implicated in mass murder. Knowing this perfectly well, Jesus was not in awe of them – or of the Jewish religious elites either. He recognised all elitism for what it was – a pretence at superiority, and a source of violence and injustice.

Alain deBotton, the author of Status Anxiety, notes that Christianity has usually managed to convey to Christians that they are equal in the sight of God. He also points out, however, that the churches were mostly unsuccessful in levelling the social status pyramids outside the walls of churches and monasteries.

The reason for this is fairly simple. By the year 312 the Christian community in the Roman empire had acquired considerable size, wealth and prestige. In that year a contestant for the imperial throne named Constantine decided to win over the Christians to his own political cause. He did what imperial candidates almost always did in this situation. He claimed an encounter with a God.

This vision was different, however, because Constantine claimed he had met not a pagan god such as Apollo, but Jesus Christ. The latter had shown him (he said) a vision of the cross, and, inscribed in the heavens above it in Latin, the words “In this sign, conquer.”

Today we can say with complete certainty that this vision was not genuine. Constantine never read the Gospels, and supposed that the God of the Christians was not unlike Mars, the Roman God of war. This militaristic Christ was completely out of character with the gentle person who waved away the sword of Peter in Gethsemane. He was also out of sync with the pacifism of the many Christian martyrs willing to suffer death rather than serve in the Roman army in the early centuries of the church.

This ‘vision’ was also the decisive event in the heretical identification of the Christian cross with the sword of the crusader and the imperial conqueror. It was, in other words, the historical source of the many centuries of murderous ‘Christian’ scandal for which Pope John Paul II felt obliged to ask pardon before the whole world in the year 2000.

Yet the Christian bishops of 312 swallowed Constantine’s story whole. Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (the ‘father’ of Church history) applauded Constantine (who went on to murder his wife and eldest son – after his ‘conversion’) in the most sickening terms. Eusebius was therefore also the true ‘father’ of Catholic snobbery – a disease that has disfigured the church ever since.

The spectacular conversion of Constantine set a new fashion for conversion of the military elites of first the Roman empire, and then of the barbarian states which followed it. Everywhere over the next five centuries the church fell under the power of rulers who were usually entirely ignorant of the Gospels. Sadly, some Christian thinkers adapted easily to this situation, developing theological ideas which portrayed God himself as an almighty snob who demanded ‘satisfaction’ for sin.

We can call this process the secularisation, or worldly contamination, of the church, because soon enough its bishops were part of this worldly aristocracy. As kings could often appoint bishops, they usually appointed the younger sons of the aristocracy. The popes themselves became political rulers – engaging in warfare, territorial acquisition and political intrigue. This system, called ‘Christendom’, baptised social inequality and so bore absolutely no resemblance to the ‘Kingdom of God’ that Jesus had described, but the illiteracy of most people in the Middle Ages prevented them from realizing this.

All over Europe, and in Ireland too, Christian missionaries placed the highest priority on the ‘conversion’ of the ruling classes. They ignored the fact that in most cases these conversions were merely a matter of snobbish imitation of those who set all trends – the powerful. Inevitably these aristocrats were taught to see their own good fortune as ‘God’s will’, and therefore to see the bad luck of their inferiors as ‘God’s will’ also. To pacify the latter, ‘salvation’ – which was for Jesus a new life that could begin anytime – was misrepresented as beginning only after death. In that way the miseries of the lives of ordinary people in aristocratic societies were justified.

Nevertheless, the story of Jesus – the king born in a stable who shared the lot of the least powerful – somehow kept alive for the poorest in Europe a dream of a better world. In the Middle Ages one reader of the Bible came up with the verses ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’  Inspired by stories from the Bible he (or she) was asking if God really approved of social inequality – and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was insistently raising the same question.

In the 1700s, following a scientific and economic revolution, a new educated lay elite emerged in Europe. Opposed to aristocratic bishops, it was determined to build a new world on the principles of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. Although Pope John Paul II admitted in 1989 that these values were also Gospel values, his predecessors in the period 1789-1900 condemned this revolutionary programme out of hand. The reason was that almost all bishops (popes included) were drawn still from the European nobility.

That is why modern egalitarianism (the movement towards social equality) tends to see Christianity as a force opposed to equality. It is also the main reason for the Catholic hierarchy’s dislike of liberalism and socialism – because these movements have greatly weakened the intellectual influence of the clerical church over the past two centuries.

However, two centuries after the birth of secular liberalism, western secular society today is still almost as unequal as the Church. Why is this?

The answer is that Status Anxiety (which Jesus called simply the power of ‘the world’) compels us to compete with one another. It is, in fact, the explanation for the biblical sin of  covetousness. We seek self-esteem through raising our status by greater wealth or celebrity. This inevitably means that we compete and conflict with one another. This is the everlasting problem of our species – and it now threatens the survival of our planet by involving us in endless competitive consumerism.

No longer based mainly on success in warfare, our status pyramids today are ‘meritocracies’ – ruled by those who have turned knowledge itself into wealth and power. The world’s most moneyed individual, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft – the supplier of the basic software for most of the world’s microcomputers – is a perfect example.

And our ‘poor in spirit’ are those who watch this parade of ‘success’ from the shadows of our urban wastelands. Their handicap is their own lack of talent for worldly competition, for winning these ‘glittering prizes’ of the twenty-first century.

There is only one solution to the problem of Status Anxiety – a solution that many in the secular world are now also pursuing: spirituality – a way of being that frees us from the compulsion to seek the approval of others.

The greatest spiritual teachers in all traditions have somehow made contact with a spiritual dimension that raised them to a new level of being – in which we realise that no-one ever truly has higher status than anyone else. All of them shared one outstanding characteristic: they were so secure in their own self-esteem that they had lost all snobbery. St Francis of Assisi was a typical example.

The greatest of all was Jesus of Nazareth, who died to bring all of us into relationship with this dimension. He knew that its ruler was none other than the heavenly father of the Old Testament prophets – the father he called ‘Abba’ – Dad.

The result of all status-seeking throughout history is a power pyramid that crushes the losers and tempts the winners to self-destruct. The Gospels reveal this truth to us, and invite us into relationship with the Father and the Son – through the Spirit who dwells within the heart and mind of those who truly seek this relationship.

Only in this relationship with the Trinity can we Christians, working alongside all those with a similar vision, build together – slowly – a truly peaceful, just, free and equal world.

Jesus called that ideal and spiritual world ‘the Kingdom of God’.

*Alain deBotton, Status Anxiety, Hamish Hamilton 2004

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Is There an Haute Cuisine Catholicism?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life April 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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