Category Archives: Status Anxiety

Secularism and Hesitant Preaching

Views: 21

Sean O’Conaill  © The Furrow Jul/Aug 2008

“So why don’t we focus on this huge issue for a while, devise policies to deal with it and leave aside tangential issues for the moment?”

This was Vincent Brown in the Irish Times in April 20081Appalling incidence of sexual abuse virtually ignored’, Vincent Browne, Irish Times 23-04-08.  To his great credit his ‘huge issue’ was the awful problem of all forms of sexual violence, as quantified by the SAVI report of 20022The SAVI Report – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, Sponsored by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Published by Liffey Press, 2002.  If its figures are correct, about 1.2 million Irish people are victims – and, as Brown keeps reminding us,  we can’t really suppose that the scale of the problem has diminished significantly since 2002.

But it was the word ‘policies’ that caught my attention, because it seemed totally inadequate to describe what’s needed to get a grip of not just this but a whole series of related problems in Irish life.  A policy is something debated (often endlessly) by pundits and politicians, then promoted to win support,  and then (if adopted) resourced out of taxation.  Given the many claims on the latter in a ‘flat’ economy, given the low-tax climate that a healthy economy supposedly demands, and given the cost of, for example, intensive counselling and psychotherapy, no foreseeable state-sponsored policy on sexual abuse seems remotely capable of addressing the scale of what confronts us in Ireland, even if we isolate just this one problem.

And given the common connection between sexual abuse and the abuse of alcohol and other substances, it’s equally clear that any effective policy on the former would need to address the latter.  And given the connection between substance abuse and the low personal morale often caused by economic insecurity and relationship issues, can we really propose to solve any one such ‘huge issue’ in isolation?

Moreover, what about the moral momentum required to completely change an abusive lifestyle?  How can a policy devised at the state level reach the deepest core of an individual who is experiencing so radical and subterranean a challenge?  Effective state policies can indeed change our external environment for the better, but what about inner, deep-seated dysfunction that so often occurs within the privacy of the home?

In an earlier era in Ireland there would have been a very different kind of response to a crisis of the scale described in the SAVI report – and it would have originated with the church (understanding that term in the widest sense).  The nineteenth century temperance movement is a good example.  It is another reflection of the depth of our current social crisis that we have now apparently no alternative to secular policy to change our society radically for the better  – and that the churches seem incapable of providing that alternative.  (Especially if we focus these days on sexual abuse.)

But in fact political secularism – the atomisation,  rationalisation and politicisation of every problem – is very much part of the fix we are in – because it tends to disempower the ordinary individual in his own space.  Teaching us to delegate everything upwards to politicians and professional experts, it has virtually no power to engage individual citizens in a deep, voluntary commitment to behave honourably, and to join with others spontaneously in doing good, in their own space.  The recent debate on what to do about alcohol abuse and other forms of addiction in Irish life proves this conclusively, because we have not moved one step forward on that issue either.

What is required, then, to mobilise the moral idealism of a society, and especially of its youth?

The problem with the moral programme of the church as we have commonly understood it is twofold.  First, we have not fully grasped the compelling human and community reasons for the most important behavioural boundaries prescribed by our Christian tradition (e.g. the taboo against serious intoxication).  As a result we tend to resent God for making rules that don’t make sense.  We tend to suppose these rules exist for God’s sake rather than for ours – mainly because we mistakenly suppose that God shares our own basic tendency to be self-absorbed.

Secondly, because of this, we have not understood the connection between these boundaries and the church’s basic positive law – the law of love.

To resolve these problems we need to do two things.  The first is to wake up to what our daily news bulletins are telling us:  that all dysfunctional behaviour is abusive of others and of ourselves, and to recognise (i.e. to know anew) all of the most important moral boundaries in those terms.  St Thomas Aquinas’ profoundest observation – that God is not offended until we hurt ourselves – applies to all sin, including sexual sin.  Our society is radically self-harming, and  we urgently need to reconfigure our understanding of sin in those terms .

The second vital connection is to understand why people self-harm.  Congenitally unsure of our own value, we become seriously dysfunctional if our society tells us we don’t have any.  And that is the message we receive daily when the media remind us that we are not important enough to be the source of the images we see.  The teenage girl who cuts herself or starves herself in anger at her inability to fit the ideal media-prescribed body shape unwittingly explains all self-harm.  Secular society (‘the world’) rewards the seeking of attention over the giving of it – and that is precisely why social respect, and self-respect – are so scarce.

And that in turn is why the Christian ‘prime directive’ is to love God first of all – the only reliable source of self-respect – allowing us then to love both ourselves and our neighbours, unconditionally, and to build a mutually respectful community.

It takes only a moment’s reflection to realise that Jesus’ love for the poor was in fact a deep respect for them, as they are.  In teaching us the reverse of that – that respect can only be acquired by upward mobility, by changing ourselves in some way to win the approval of others – secularism both deceives and condemns us to endless frustration and self-harm.

It also disempowers us in our own space by telling us to wait for experts, delegated politicians and their civil servants to come up with a policy that will change everything that ails us.  This is the shell game of secular democracy:  ‘give us power so that we can solve all your problems, and meanwhile wait inertly for us to do so’.  We could wait forever.

To tell someone the reverse of that: that they already have the power, and the obligation, to love themselves and others, now and always, in their own space – and by so doing to change that space radically for themselves and others – is true empowerment of the individual.  And that is essentially what the Gospel is telling us.

Our inability to value ourselves as we are – to love ourselves – lies at the root of every one of the huge problems that secular politics patently cannot solve:

  • Addiction: (This is usually rooted in fear of failure, or in self-hatred or shame, and is best addressed by e.g. the twelve-step programme which restores a realistic and robust sense of self-worth.)
  • Environmental collapse: (The global pursuit of an unsustainable lifestyle is also driven by media-induced shame at not having what the wealthiest have.)
  • Depression: (The challenges of life in an individualistic culture can lead to a critical loss of hope and self-belief– because individualism also leads to a loss of supportive and affirming family and community relationships);
  • Inequality and injustice: (All desire to be superior arises out of a fear of being considered inferior.)
  • Violence: (This is also mostly rooted in competition for dominance out of a fear of inferiority.  Even the violence that arises out of addiction usually has its origins in shame and fear of failure, because that is where most addiction begins.)
  • Abuse: (Self-absorption and lack of empathy also originate in lack of self-love – often due to a serious deficit in early nurturing.  The person who deeply respects himself is most unlikely to disrespect others.  The person who has been deeply loved as a child is most unlikely ever to abuse children.)

There is therefore absolutely no reason for the hesitancy that has overtaken the preaching of the Gospel in Ireland in recent decades, for the common feeling that faith is socially irrelevant, or for the assumption that the future lies with secularism.  There is instead a dire need to seize the initiative by arguing that religious faith, accompanied by reason, can supply the only binding and compelling power available to us to deal directly with the problems of our own local environment as our crisis grows.

We are hindered in doing this presently only by our own inability to connect the Gospels with the problems of our own time and to realise the danger of a force every bit as dangerous as undisciplined sexuality.  This is vanity – the seeking of admiration.  It arises out of our natural inability to value ourselves as we are, and it lies at the root of the widest variety of evils, from rampant careerism (even in the church) to workplace bullying, and consumerism.   It also destroys community and family by leading us into individualism, social climbing and dysfunction.

It is the inability to make these connections that leads to the present chasm between church and society in Ireland.  Clericalism, including lay clericalism, deepens this chasm by fixating on the behaviour that the priest regulates in church, and by disregarding what is equally important – the individual lay person’s role in, and understanding of, the secular world.   We have almost lost the connection between a healthy spirituality and a healthy community, and Catholic education and parish life too often fail to restore that connection when we most need it – when we are adults.

Sadly, although love is not lacking in the church, and many Sunday homilists do indeed convey the importance of love, few ever explore the pervasive pursuit of celebrity in modern culture, or the reasons for it.  I have yet to hear a good homily on the problem of vanity, as revealed in, for example, the debates among the apostles on which of them was the greatest, and in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  No one ever notices the particular problem of the second son (he supposes he will never have the status his father enjoys while he stays at home).  And invariably the reluctance of the rich young man to follow Jesus is supposed to be all about loss of money and security, never about loss of the social status that wealth always provides.

Almost certainly this strange inability to ‘get’ such a constant theme in the Gospels  has to do with the fact that the church is still emerging from a long period of clerical social pre-eminence.  But, now that this period is at an end in the West, why is institutional Catholicism still very much a status pyramid, despite the insistence of Lumen Gentium and Canon Law that we are all equal in dignity?  Do our seminaries fail to ask this question (and to point out that the Gospel answers it) because they too are status pyramids of a kind?

It is time we all understood what was going on in the Gospel when the apostles competed for status – and almost came to blows.  And noticed also that spiritual health always involves a deep consciousness of one’s own dignity and a loss of fear of what others may think. Only when we have understood the vital community role of spiritual health, and of spiritual insight into what is wrong with us – and then commissioned our laity to rebuild their own local communities by loving one another – can we revive our church, and our society.

Notes

  1. ‘Appalling incidence of sexual abuse virtually ignored’, Vincent Browne, Irish Times 23-04-08
  2. The SAVI Report – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, Sponsored by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Published by Liffey Press, 2002.

A Short History of Haute Cuisine Catholicism

Views: 13

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.

My Kind of Pope

Views: 16

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.”

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: VI – The World and the Kingdom of God

Views: 51

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004 

Christians have always seen Christ as a king who will reign visibly some day, but what kind of ‘king’ would he be? How would his ‘kingdom’ differ from a modern state? And in the meantime, how should the idea of ‘the kingdom of God’ influence the way we think about the secular world?

These questions are particularly relevant at a time when western political life seems increasingly corrupt. Modern media place a searing spotlight on all prominent people, revealing their private as well as public weaknesses. The flaws of nearby royalty are now common knowledge, so that the whole idea of a ‘kingdom’ is also out of fashion. We associate it with snobbery and inequality, and we cling to the ideal of a truly equal society. Does this mean we should forget about the whole idea of a ‘Kingdom of God’?

The answer is a definite ‘no’ – because we need to understand Jesus’ ‘kingdom’ to have any hope of building a truly equal and just and peaceful society – especially here in Ireland.

The first thing to note about Jesus is that he differed in a quite remarkable way from the great kings of Israel: he never entered into rivalry with anyone, or sought to exercise an authority based upon force, or even the threat of force. Nor did he ever establish a court from which to overawe people and dominate politically. He had already acquired the only status that mattered to him: closeness to the Lord God of Israel.

The most interesting thing about the kingdom of Saul, David and Solomon is that it was seen by the God of Samuel as a rejection of his own kingdom. The Bible tells us:

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” (1 Sam 8:4,5)

Notice that these elders wanted a kingdom such as all the other nations have. This tells us something of crucial importance – that the earthly kingdom of Israel arose out of covetousness – the desire to possess something possessed by others – because they possess it. The supposed greater power of the surrounding monarchical systems – especially that of the Philistines – led the Israelite elders to envy them, to suppose that it was these systems that gave them this greater power, and to undervalue the system they already had. This was one in which prophets and judges ruled in a relationship of equality and familiarity rather than hierarchy and splendour.

The text goes on to tell us that Samuel was displeased by that request, but that the Lord God told him:

“Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.”

So, according to the text, the kingdom of Israel essentially involved the rejection of an earlier ‘kingdom of God’ over which the Lord ‘reigned’ through the prophet Samuel, but without placing Samuel on some sacred plane above other men – a ‘kingdom’ that God preferred, and one without a palace or court.

The word ‘kingdom’ in that context obviously has the widest possible meaning: that over which there is some kind of rule or dominion. We ought not, therefore, when attempting to understand Jesus’ ‘kingdom of God’, begin with the military kingdom of David or Solomon – for these were inferior to the original kingdom of God. Nor should we suppose that the kingdom of God is incompatible with a modern democracy.

The Bible is also unsparing in its account of the flaws of the three great kings of Israel. Despite their anointing they all suffered from the very sin that lay at the root of the foundation of that kingdom – mimetic desire or covetousness. David’s victory over Goliath made him the hero of the women of Israel, who accorded less glory to Saul – and Saul became murderously jealous. In other words he entered into rivalry with David for esteem – as did Absalom later, with equally tragic consequences. But David disgraced himself also by committing murder in order to possess Bathsheba – the wife of a subject. The fact that she was already married meant that David’s essential weakness also was associated with covetousness.

As for Solomon, he became renowned for his wisdom and, according to the text, ultimately preferred this renown to fidelity to the God who had given him this gift. ‘Renown’ is simply wider esteem. The need of the man of eminence to be esteemed by other humans had become his undoing also. And this same weakness was the root source of the brutality of the Herods in Jesus’ time.

The whole idea of sacred kingship essentially turned a mere human being into a mystical being – with the consequence that the individual so honoured usually became virtually obsessed with his own reputation or ‘glory’. Another consequence was the inevitable withdrawal of dignity from the people – those ‘subjects’ who could never expect to come close to this semi-sacred being. Here again the book of Samuel is highly specific:

“This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” 1 Sam 8:11-18

This is a remarkable account of the consequences of earthly kingship – giving essentially the same reasons for the rejection of monarchy as the American subjects of George III were to use in 1776 – about three thousand years after the foundation of the kingdom of Israel. People eventually resent being treated as inferior by other people who are obviously as flawed as they are.

Here we find the essential difference between Jesus’ ‘kingdom of God’ and any state built originally in the world by force: it is built first of all within the person, by a spiritual process. Those who live in it are governed by their love of the king who placed it there, not by fear of the consequences of disobedience. Equality is part of its essence. As Thomas Merton observed, the Gospels lead us to a state of mind and heart in which ‘there are no strangers’.

We should remember this when trying to picture any future ‘kingdom of God’ – even one in which Christ visibly reigns. God does not desire our subjection. Indeed God will endure personal humiliation rather than reign through fear: why else would he have tolerated crucifixion in preference to the use of force?

It follows that we need to ponder on ‘the kingdom of God’ to understand the mysteries of our own time – especially the mystery of inequality. Why is it that almost three centuries after equality became the central goal of western political life our societies are still deeply flawed by snobbery and inequality?

Again the bible tells us clearly: we want to be ‘as Gods’ – that is, superior to one another. A perfect political illustration of this is the history of the British Labour party over the last century. Founded to achieve the socialist ideals of people like George Bernard Shaw it became ‘New Labour’ in the 1990s, bound to the ‘meritocratic’ ideals of Tony Blair.

A ‘meritocrat’ is someone very like the said Tony – a clever chap who has ‘risen to the top’ because he supposedly ‘merits’ it. It is clear that to rise to the top there must be a ‘top’ to begin with, so ‘meritocracy’ is based upon the acceptance of inequality. And so it is not essentially different from ‘aristocracy’, which means simply rule of the best.

Irish political life demonstrates the same paradox over the same period. In Ireland in 1922 a political elite emerged out of a violent revolution, promising to cherish all of the nation’s children equally. It now secures its own privileges by a taxation system that favours the wealthy. One of its most outstanding second generation products scandalised the country by aping the aristocratic lifestyle of a member of the 18th century Irish ascendancy, complete with country house and lavish entertainment – all financed by corruption.

If this could happen to the revolutionary parties that emerged out of the period 1916-22, there is absolutely no reason to believe it will not happen to parties emerging out of more recent violence. Today’s populist revolutionaries almost inevitably become tomorrow’s aristocratic elite.

The root of inequality lies in the very same ‘sin’ that founded the kingdom of Israel: covetousness, or mimetic desire – we choose our goals and objectives by imitation of those who seem superior. Which means in turn that deep down we are dissatisfied with ourselves, unsure of our own value. We are prisoners of ‘the world’, our own enveloping culture – nowadays represented by the media which tell us who the ‘superior’ people are, and what they own – so that we can know what we should desire.

And this is why ‘the kingdom of God’ is such a crucial concept – because in consciously seeking it we seek also a consciousness of our own value as Christians, followers of Christ. As a brother or sister of Christ we have a dignity that is greater than any honour ‘the world’ can confer – and a true equality also.

We acquire this title and this dignity through our baptism. The unfortunate tendency of our church leadership to confer other supposed honours upon themselves – honours accessible only through ordination – has undermined the dignity of Christian baptism. It has also deprived lay Catholics of the awareness that they are equally invited into the closest possible relationship with God through Jesus of Nazareth.

All Christians are now called to develop a ‘kingdom’ spirituality, and to explain to the secular world why inequality arises out of worldliness – the search for status.

If our Catholic leadership is to respond to that call it must begin by ending the radical inequality within the Church, and by honouring the dignity with which baptism endows every lay person.

That inequality represents not the will of God, but the corruption of our church by clericalism – the belief that ordination confers a higher status than baptism. It is also the root of all the problems that now beset us.

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

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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

Is There an Haute Cuisine Catholicism?

Views: 167

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

Continue reading Is There an Haute Cuisine Catholicism?

The Search for Spiritual Intelligence

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Sean O’Conaill  © Spirituality 2003

When I began my teaching career in 1966 human intelligence was still considered to be a single indivisible entity, easily measurable as  ‘IQ’.  Now the convention is to believe that there are at least eight, and possibly nine, different kinds of human intelligence.  The ninth, currently under consideration, is spiritual intelligence, labelled SQ for convenience.  A search of the Internet will discover at least four books on the subject.

A quick reading of these will discover tantalising glimpses of the phenomenon, but no clear delineation.  Other kinds of intelligence will either discover or discern something ( e.g. scientific and mathematical intelligence) or create something (e.g. artistic and musical intelligence.)  What specific work does spiritual intelligence actually do, or what does it create?  The existing literature is unhelpful here.  Richard Wolman* delineates eight ‘dimensions’ of SQ, but these are merely descriptive of the behaviours of those considered spiritually focused – such as religious observance or the reading of sacred texts.  There is a strong element of condescension here, a tendency to equate spiritual intelligence with mere awareness or activity rather than with any clear achievement.

Another peculiarity of this literature is its tendency to draw most of its inspiration either from oriental sources such as Buddhism, or from contemporary science – such as research into the human brain.  The foundational spiritual texts of the west, collectively known as the Bible, receive generally little more than a passing nod.  Does the biblical concept of wisdom relate to SQ, and if so how?  Nowhere so far is this question pursued in any systematic way.

One way of approaching this is through the fascinating story of Isaac Newton’s famous quarrel with the German intellectual Gottfried Leibniz.

By 1684 Newton’s greatest work had been completed, but not yet revealed to the European intelligentsia – including the discovery of the prismatic nature of white light, the universal principle of gravity and the laws of motion.  In that year  Leibniz published a paper on Calculus, a new branch of maths, which Newton had himself already developed, again without publishing.  Unable to believe that Leibniz might independently have made exactly the same discovery, Newton accused him, quite unreasonably, of plagiarism.  He pursued the matter even beyond Leibniz’ death, encouraging his own doctoral students to make overt attacks upon Leibniz in their theses, remaining fixated on the matter for the last twenty-five years of his life.

The point is, of course, that although there is no doubting Newton’s superb scientific and mathematical intelligence, we find him here gripped unknowingly by an overwhelming desire for the renown of primacy in this one discovery, even though it was far less significant than his other work, and even though this quarrel diminished his stature in European intellectual life during his own lifetime.  He was, in a word, unwise.  So are those now notorious scientists who have faked research or altered research data to prove their own already-published conclusions.

All competitive desire for renown is mimetic desire – an imitative desire acquired from the simple cultural fact that others possess the same desire.  The Newton-Leibniz story establishes both that there is a distinctive and important kind of intelligence different from the superb scientific intelligence that Newton undoubtedly possessed, and that its absence in matters of this kind is a serious and self-destructive human flaw.

The reason this story should arrest the attention of SQ theorists is that the Bible may easily be described as a text centred upon the human problem of mimetic desire.  To take an extreme example, the Herod who slaughtered the innocents in Bethlehem could not tolerate the possibility that his own primacy might be challenged in his own lifetime by some upstart.  His problem was that his self-esteem had become indissolubly attached to his conscious possession of renown.  It was essentially the same fixation of another Herod that doomed John the Baptist a generation later.  And Newton’s fixation with Leibniz was the same problem.

Renown is an almost archaic term.  To distinguish it from self-esteem we might call it other-esteem – the esteem of others.  According to the biblical texts, its loss, or the possibility of its loss, can drive people to extremes.  For Saul the loss of the other-esteem of the women of Israel was the source of his vendetta against David.  For Solomon, the other-esteem his wisdom brought was also the source of his apostasy from the God who had answered his prayer for wisdom.

Solomon’s earlier resolution of the problem posed by the two women who claimed the same child is a fascinating example of biblical wisdom.  So familiar is it that we may miss its full significance.  We need to note not so much the innocent mother whose love for her child allowed her to give it up, but the guilty woman who was willing to allow it to be divided.  She had woken first, realising that she had rolled on her own infant in the night, smothering it.  Remembering that in that culture a woman’s status was tightly bound up with fertility, we need to empathise with her predicament:  soon the other woman would wake up, becoming the first to scorn her neighbour’s carelessness.  This day this useless mother would become identified as such – losing all other-esteem among her peers.  But the living infant was all that differentiated her from the successful mother still sleeping close by – hence the substitution.  Her ‘covetousness’ was irresistible, as her final shame was imminent.

Solomon’s wisdom penetrated to the heart of the crime, understanding the difference between love and desire, and understanding also the problem posed to the guilty woman by the threatened loss of other-esteem.   The living child could cover her shame – and so could a half child divided at the command of the king.  The real mother, on the other hand, was willing to accept shame to save the child.

No matter what else may have changed since Old Testament times, the fear of shame is a constant.  It lies at the root of much criminality and addiction – and especially at the root of many instances of outrageous violence in our own time.  David Copeland, the bomber of gay bars in England in 1999, insisted:  ‘If no-one knows who you were, you never existed.’  And Robert Steinhaeuser, who killed sixteen in a school in Bavaria in April 2002, was facing his parents’ imminent discovery that he had been prevented from sitting final exams by the school in question – for forging medical notes to explain his frequent absences.

Given the self-conscious anguish of adolescents over everything from acne to lack of the (media-defined) perfect body, it is a remarkable fact that Catholic education still lacks a proper appreciation of the significance of the spiritual intelligence of the Bible.  As a teacher for thirty years I can attest to its supreme relevance in the rough and tumble of a teenager’s life.

In one instance, two fifteen-year-old girls who had been close friends fell out bitterly over the leading role in a school musical.  Shiela (not her name) was originally chosen for the part, which she acted very proficiently.  Then it was discovered that her singing voice simply hadn’t the range for the music she was required to sing.  She was asked to relinquish the part, which was then given to her friend Patricia (another pseudonym), who had been learning the role while watching Shiela.  The two were irreconcilable, as Shiela insisted that Patricia had betrayed her.  Furthermore, Shiela insisted that she could not remain at the school, and had to be relocated.

Of course there was bad management here on the part of those producing the show – but the story illustrates the power of mimetic desire to cause conflict, and the connection of self-esteem with other-esteem in the minds of even the most intelligent young people these times.

In another case, more recently, a teenager entered a media competition for one of the singing ‘bands’ that now proliferate  – a competition for which she was ineligible as she was younger by two years than the required minimum age.  When she won a much-coveted place through sheer talent, she was interviewed live for a TV ‘profile’ – and inadvertently let slip her real age.  When this was noticed she was caught on camera in a series of increasingly embarrassing attempts to justify her original lie – until her family (very belatedly) decided to end her misery.

In both instances, the mimetic desire for other-esteem had profoundly affected the behaviour and self-esteem of young people whose Catholic education had no explicit relevance to this problem.

The phenomenon of bullying could on its own justify the teaching of spiritual intelligence in school.  Bullies are essentially mini-warlords making a bid for the bank of other esteem in their class or year group.  Very often they are themselves driven by fear of shame – perhaps over lesser academic ability.  By orchestrating contempt against an even more vulnerable member of the group they can deflect shame from themselves, and enjoy the eminence of power, as well as the certitude that they themselves will not suffer shame.  The fear they deploy – of being shamed –  will keep it at bay.

Does a fiercely competitive educational system inevitably deploy fear of shame as means of motivating children?  If so, is it spiritually intelligent?

And how many teachers of RE would be able to point to the treatment of the adulterous woman in St John’s gospel as an archetypal example of bullying?  Jesus’s riposte is far more than a brilliant stratagem.  It identifies the purpose behind all such violence – to relieve everyone’s fear of shame by depositing all shame on this one execrated individual.  Every stone thrown at her would be an unloading of the sin of the one who threw it, a statement of personal inculpability.

And this in turn allows us to see Jesus’ acceptance of crucifixion as a willingness to be the scapegoat for the sake of our enlightenment, our realisation of what lies behind all such scapegoating.  Indeed the entire life and mission of Jesus can be understood as an exposure of the cultural processes through which elites not only acquire power and other-esteem, but deploy shame to maintain their power.

How was Jesus able to plough this extraordinary furrow, facing the extremity of crucifixion – the instrument of ultimate shame – totally alone?  This is the central mystery of our faith, the question that faces us with a wondrous truth:  that he was in his deepest consciousness connected to a source of truth that allowed him to do without the other-esteem of his enveloping human culture.  No other explanation is possible for his unique achievement in ‘overcoming the world’.

Spiritual intelligence depends in the end upon spirituality – upon relationship with this extraordinary source of wisdom that allows love to overcome desire.  We need to see this as the central purpose and theme of biblical revelation – connecting this with the problems of shame as our culture defines them for individuals.  The teenagers who today live in fear of shame, and in constant search of media attention, need to understand that the Bible addresses their predicaments like no other book, and draws them to an alternative and unfailing source of self-esteem.

The West will understand spiritual intelligence fully only when it looks with unbiased interest at the resource that lies under its nose, separating it from the uncomprehending triumphalism of Christian fundamentalism.  For their own survival the mainstream churches need to discover this first – that the Bible is as rich a source for understanding ourselves, and modern culture, as for understanding God.

(*Richard N Wolman, Thinking With Your Soul:  Spiritual Intelligence and Why It Matters, Harmony Books)

The Lost Sin

Views: 19

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 2003

As part of his ‘progressive’ assault on the Old Testament, the retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, J S Spong, inquires scornfully “Who nowadays covets his neighbour’s ox or donkey?”

But if we are to believe the French Catholic anthropologist René Girard* the whole of Christian revelation pivots on covetousness, whose full meaning we have almost lost.

According to Girard covetousness is not simply what the Catechism describes as a disordered desire for possessions per se – the desire for more – but a desire acquired specifically from our neighbour, a desire to possess what he possesses because  he possesses it.  So, a covetable ox would be one that belonged to someone able to afford a better one than we could.  And the car we will covet is the one that belongs to the corporate high flyer who can afford the model that we cannot.  In this interpretation, covetousness is the root of the very modern vice described as ‘keeping up with the Joneses’.

To re-establish this understanding of covetousness Girard gives it the more descriptive name mimetic desire – desire that unconsciously mimics that of someone else.   One of these days a new wave of adolescent mimetic desire will begin as streaming video cell phones make all previous models obsolete.

As the modern global economy is centred on this human weakness, this understanding of covetousness has radical implications for Christian thought on – for example – the future of the human environment.  The accepted Christian explanation for over-consumption is materialism – an intellectual bias.  But no car manufacturer makes a selling point of the chemical elements that constitute its products.  Instead we are invited to believe that the car will enhance our status or give us access to a more exclusive lifestyle – and this is what mimetic desire is all about.

Even more provocative, however, is Girard’s insistence that covetousness is the root source of all human violence, and that this is central to biblical revelation.  The archetypal biblical act of violence – that committed by Cain – had to do with Cain’s desire for the divine preference that had apparently been given to Abel.  Similarly, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery because Jacob favoured Joseph above them.  Saul hated David because the women of Israel preferred the boy hero – dispossessing Saul of this privilege.  Absalom’s fate too had to do with rivalry – mimetic desire for the status that belonged to his father’s role as king.  And so on.

In the ancient world, Girard argues, the internal social tensions and resentments provoked by mimetic desire were the original source of sacrificial religion.   Not having the judicial and policing systems characteristic of modern societies, primitive societies were in real danger of collapsing into an orgy of reciprocal (i.e. mimetic) violence.  In such a crisis the universal cultural mechanism that came into play was scapegoating violence – the accusation that a given marginal individual, a stranger or cripple, say, was the source of the crisis or contagion.  Such an accusation would focus the aggression of all upon someone whose death or expulsion would end the cycle, because he or she had no connections who would retaliate.

This, Girard believes, was the real origin of human, and later animal, sacrifice – which was simply the ritualization of scapegoating murder as a means of containing violence.  He sees the four Gospels as texts that uniquely reveal the scapegoating process in all of its essential injustice.  Caiaphas’ assertion that the death of Jesus would ‘save the nation’ was the archetypal formula that justified the scapegoating of an individual to restore communal peace.

In this analysis, the episode of the ‘woman taken in adultery’ assumes a new significance.  In suggesting that the one without sin could cast the first stone Jesus was identifying and confronting the real purpose of the accusation – to make the woman bear the punishment due to all for their sins.  And this in turn makes perfectly comprehensible the traditional Christian understanding of the meaning of the crucifixion – as an acceptance by Jesus of the role of punishment-bearer for all humanity.

More important, it suggests a Christology centred upon Jesus’s freedom from – and exposure of – mimetic desire.  Far from coveting the role of High Priest, Jesus had stepped down into the Jordan with the sinners.  Then in the desert he had resisted the temptations to political and religious supremacy.  Afterwards he had scandalized the religious establishment by associating with the dregs of Galilean society, assaulted the ‘for show’ aspects of much religion, and then made an assault upon the Temple system by freely forgiving sins without sacrifice.  Supposing Jesus to be a rival, Caiaphas had focused the scapegoating mechanism on him.  Had covetousness been Jesus’s motivation, he would have attempted to reverse this process, focusing contempt upon Caiaphas.  The fact that he didn’t reveals instead not only Caiaphas’s hidden thoughts – but also ‘things hidden since the foundation of the world’ (Matt 13:35) – this for Girard is the scapegoating process itself.

It is the Bible’s stark revelation of the origins of violence in mimetic desire that makes it, for Girard, supreme in ancient literatures.  The Greeks, by contrast, could not confront the reality of scapegoating – in, for example, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia in the Greeks’ mimetic pursuit of Helen, or in the tale of Oedipus.  ‘Plague’ for Girard is the standard historical metaphor for contagious internal violence – used for example to justify Christian scapegoating pogroms of Jews in the middle ages – so the real reason for Oedipus’s expulsion from Thebes is revealed by the fact that Oedipus was both a cripple and a stranger.  He was the perfect victim of the scapegoating process intended to focus and expel that plague.  Even in the era of the great Greek playwrights, Greek religion included the ritual assassination of the pharmakos, a lowly victim selected for this precise purpose – but neither Greek drama nor classical Greek philosophy dared to confront this injustice directly.

And this understanding of the Christ event gives it the uniqueness that modern relativism threatens to strip away completely.  None of the other great religions both exposes mimetic desire as the major source of violence, and confronts its effects in the scapegoating process.

Even if we don’t swallow Girard whole, his exposure of the theme of mimetic desire in the Bible, and of the origins of much human conflict in competing mimetic desires, is extraordinarily suggestive in the context of our modern predicament about sin in general.  The Augustinian analysis of sin as centred upon concupiscence, inherited through sexual generation, is clearly a dead end that discredits orthodox Christianity – especially in the context of the current clerical sex abuse scandals.  Meanwhile all around us – and even in the church – we can see the appalling effects of human competitive self-advancement.  This fault alone threatens to make the planet uninhabitable.

So an understanding of Jesus as the one person who completely overcame covetousness, and exposed it as the source of social injustice and victimisation generally, is extraordinarily timely.  It suggests that Christian revelation is centrally about exposing the source of the greatest modern evils – runaway consumption,  environmental crisis, and violence – in a way that can be understood in completely secular terms.  Nothing could be more pervasive in modern society than mimetic desire, or more dangerous to humankind.

In the Jubilee year the ‘artist’ known as Madonna declared her intention to become better known than God.   Remembering that celebrity was indeed a distinctive possession of ancient Gods we can interpret even original sin in mimetic terms – the desire to possess what Gods possess  (‘You shall be as Gods’ – Gen 3:5) – and to see the mimetic pursuit of celebrity, now rampant globally, as evidence of this universal flaw.

But this in turn has radical implications for the role of the papacy – which went out of its way to create a global personality cult centred upon John Paul II.  The logic behind this seemed secure enough – that the better known the Pope became, the more pervasive would be Christian principles.  But Time magazine made John Paul II man of the year twice, while demolishing creedal Christianity in a series of feature articles.   And John Paul has himself recently wondered why the western church generally has rejected so much of the church’s official teaching on sexuality.   The pope’s failure to convert the west on the issue of abortion speaks for itself.  Celebrity as such is patently no guarantee of moral impact – while the pursuit of it is clearly a very modern pathology.

Moreover, it appears to be connected to some of the most outrageous acts of violence committed in the west in recent years.  David Copeland, the bomber who devastated gay bars in London in April 1999 declared:  “If no-one knows who you are, you never existed.”  Eric Harris, one of the duo responsible for the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, was fascinated by Hitler’s celebrity and complained about his own failure to climb the school pyramid of esteem (his family had to move home frequently to follow his serviceman father).  More recently Robert Steinhaeuser told a friend that he too would be famous some day – shortly before shooting sixteen in a school in Bavaria when he was prevented from sitting final exams.

All of this suggests that the contrast between rampant media celebrity and the lack of attention received by many young people today due to adult careerism is a deadly combination that is simply not addressed by any of the Church’s most cherished ethical causes.  Could the reason for this again be a Christian failure to perceive the lost sin of covetousness, and its impact upon modernity?

As someone who has lived through 32 years of violence in Northern Ireland I judge mimetic desire to be an essential component of that also.  It fuelled the initial civil rights movement by arguing, with much justice, that the Unionist political monopoly was the source of greater Protestant prosperity.  This meant that educated Catholic ambition came to have a political, and destabilising, focus.  Mimetic desire was always present in Irish separatist nationalism – a desire for exclusive ownership of the island.  (Just as it was always a component of the European imperialism that had brought English power to Ireland in the first place.)  It also explains the protestant paramilitary backlash – a bid to wrest media attention from the exclusive possession of the NI minority.  And nothing could be more mimetic than the stone and bomb throwing along Belfast interfaces these days.  To paraphrase Girard, nothing could be more like a Catholic republican youth throwing a stone than a Protestant loyalist youth picking up the same stone and throwing it back.

Mimetic desire is also clearly a component of the present global ‘war on terrorism’, as the Islamic world surveys the enormous economic and military supremacy of the west.  And the Kashmir issue is a classic instance of mimetic rivalry.

But all of this in turn raises the question of how such an obvious human flaw could ever have been overlooked by the Church’s episcopal magisterium.  Could the reason be simply its acceptance of social elevation in the period after Constantine the Great?  What bishop could then have described Constantine’s military ascent as driven by covetousness?  And bishops who now enjoyed the wealth and social eminence of the pagan priesthood  would scarcely want to be made aware of ecclesiastical ambition as a spiritual flaw.  Nor would the younger sons of the landed nobility of the ancien regime who dominated the episcopacy at the dawn of modernity.  Nor would those bishops whose careerism Cardinal Gantin deplored as recently as 1999.

Indeed the present humiliations of many western bishops suggests that we may now be close to the end of an arc of episcopal social ascent, then descent, stretching through the whole ‘Christendom’ era, and affecting the Catholic episcopacy generally.  Perhaps we must wait for the descent of all bishops to the ground the rest of us occupy before we can expect a Catholic revival.  Especially if we can then make our faith relevant to the aspirations, as well as the problems, of the young.

There is much to be said for the recovery of the full meaning of covetousness as mimetic desire – but how will the hierarchical church respond to the possibility that it has been editing the Decalogue, to the detriment of the faith, for over sixteen centuries?

(*René  Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Orbis Books, NY, 2001)

Christianity and the Environment

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Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

The scientific and technological revolutions that have transformed the earth over the past three centuries began in western Europe and were spread quickly across the globe by European migration, colonisation, trade and imperialism.  They were accompanied by a secularisation of thought in reaction against a Christian clerical intellectual monopoly, and when the secular mind came to consider in the late twentieth century the origins of the environmental catastrophe then threatening, one available option was to scapegoat the Judeo-Christian tradition for the rapacious aspects of western expansion and power.

Had not Genesis exhorted humans to ‘increase, multiply and subdue the earth’ ?  Had not Christendom exterminated a European paganism more in harmony with nature?  Had not European capitalism been grounded in the Protestant work ethic?  Had not the industrial revolution been funded by the proceeds of Christian imperialist expansion, driven by a Christian missionary as well as a commercial zeal?  Wasn’t the global western empire that provided the global market essential for mass production born initially out of a Christian evangelical sense of global mission?

There is a little truth in some of this, but it would be far more true to say that the wellspring of western spirituality, the Jewish and Christian texts we know as the Bible, were both a forewarning of the crisis now upon us, and the only diagnostic tool the human family possesses that can take us to the root of the problem, and provide a solution.  For the fact is that we humans have always been rapacious and acquisitive, and this has always caused us problems.  It is not merely coincidental, but providential, that the West’s central repository of spiritual insight should so clearly identify the source of that rapacity, and the most likely means of escape from it.

First, the essential theme of Genesis, and of the Bible throughout, is the goodness of Creation.  This stands in opposition to much of the mythology of mankind which suggests that Creation is malevolent.  It is now believed that Genesis was Judaism’s response to the Babylonian myth, the Enuma Elish, whose primary God was worshipped for matricide.  Tiamat, mother of all the Gods, had plotted their destruction for the noise they made, only to be thwarted by Marduk, whose dismemberment of her created the cosmos.  This central theme of a malevolent origin to everything is what lies behind much human violence – including much of the subjugatory rhetoric of western expansion.

For the fact is that Christendom represented not the victory of Christianity in the west, but a fateful compromise between Christianity and violence.  It was the gift of Constantine and other military despots, not of Christ – and Constantine was far closer to Marduk than Yahweh, the Jewish God (as Constantine well illustrated by asphyxiating his wife in a steam-filled room).

Not only does Genesis repetitively insist upon the goodness of creation – it tells us also that the fate of the earth is bound up with the fate of humankind – and that human goodness alone can save it.  As the level of the global ocean rises with the melting of the icecaps we do indeed need, like Noah, to look to the problem of rescuing as much of the biological inheritance as we can, and of developing lifestyles that lean least heavily upon our biosphere.

So Genesis insists that Creation is interested in us, cherishes us and looks to us for the salvation of the earth.  And the rest of the Old Testament insists that Creation will make and remake covenants with us to that end.  The text that most powerfully expresses the creative power of God – the book of Job – suggests that this alone is sufficient to reconcile us with our own sufferings and humiliation, the pain of being.  So overwhelmed is Job by the fertility of the creative process that in the end he falls silent, taken out of himself.

So Creation is, first, good, and, second, patient – unwilling to leave us to our fate.  But, third, it reveals to us the source of our rapacity – our unwillingness to be less than Gods.

In the ancient world, long before capitalism developed the power to overwhelm the earth, military conquest was the quickest route to glory, the sign of Godhood.  Living as he thought upon a planar disc with boundaries – the ends of the earth – Alexander drove eastwards to find them, conquering as he went.  His military successes convinced him of his own divinity.

The positive legacy of the Alexandrian epic has concealed the negative: the identification of heroism with violence.  This has plagued western culture ever since.  Yet the Jewish texts clearly identify the spiritual fault that lies behind it: the desire to be ‘as Gods’, that is to have what Gods have – including power and adulation.  Named as covetousness in the Decalogue, this desire for the possessions of another is based upon the unarticulated perception that we can somehow acquire the being, or dignity, or worth, of another by possessing those things that appear to distinguish that other.  To emphasise that we are not simply talking about ‘greed’ it’s best to call this problem mimetic desire – desire based upon unconscious imitation.

That violence should be a more striking consequence of mimetic desire in the ancient world than environmental destruction is due to the simple fact that modern mass production was both impossible and inconceivable then.

But the Decalogue makes clear that covetousness has to do with envy of our neighbour, and that we can covet any of his possessions.  It is against this backdrop that we need to place the New Testament story of Jesus – the man who would not reign as king.  His very birth was beset with danger, as it threatened Herod with the loss of what gave him his self-esteem, his priority as King.  This repetition of the story of Saul demonstrates the fact that mimetically inspired violence was the key feature of ancient culture – a flaw so repetitive and predictable, yet so unobserved, that it might well have plagued this planet forever.

What broke the spell was the unprecedented resistance to mimetic desire of Jesus himself.  His humble birth did not set the scene for a subsequent rise to fame and glory – the basic plot of many another ancient tale.  It established a pattern of rejection of mimetic behaviour from first to last.  The refusal of the offers of promotion to the summit of either the religious or political pyramids of the ancient world – the temptations in the desert – was followed by a teaching mission that led ultimately to the accusation ‘we know you do not regard the rank of anyone – so tell us is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’  And those teachings refer far more often to the problem of spiritual presumption, which was linked then with social status, than to what later became the fixation of hierarchs: sexual sin.

If we emphasise the humanity of Jesus, we also emphasise the mystery:  from where did he acquire the psychological strength to undertake so suicidal a mission, ending in a lonely and shameful death?   And even more imponderable – from where did his followers, who had deserted him in the end, receive the strength later to advance his cause, at similar cost to themselves?  The answer to both questions is the same:  all were equally free of that need for other-esteem that underlies all mimetic desire.  It was this that ensured that the mission of the early church was directed to ‘the poor in spirit’ of the Roman Empire – those who thought least of themselves because the world too thought so little of them.

And this in turn is why covetousness became the ‘lost sin’ of the post-Constantinian Church.  The promotion of Bishops to wealth and social influence meant that for the next sixteen hundred years the role of successor to the apostles became itself a covetable title.

How then could those bishops generally convey a spirituality centred upon the equal worthiness of all, and God’s solicitude for the least regarded?  Instead, Augustine’s spirituality of dread of sexual weakness won primacy, and how convenient that was for men who need only practice sexual discretion and aristocratic aloofness to remain worthy of social respect.  The table fellowship of Jesus and the original apostles – the most important social sacrament of the early church – passed into history, while episcopacy became part of the patronage of the social elite.

This transition is vital if we are to understand why it was that the Christian churches, and especially the Catholic Church, came so late to the addressing of the problem of the environment.  For centuries churchmen supposed that Christ’s primary purpose was to rescue the human family from ‘concupiscence’, rather than to challenge the human pyramid of esteem that arises out of, and is sustained by, mimetic desire.    This fixation stayed with most of the Christian missionaries who followed on the heels of Columbus and the other merchant adventurers who made the global ocean a European lake in the period 1480-1660.  The baptism of slaves would somehow make up for their exploitation, and the exporting of European covetousness around the globe need not be radically challenged.  Especially since this would challenge the ‘order’ created globally by European power.

Inevitably the theology of the Middle Ages had distanced the God who for Jesus and the Apostles had dwelt within – which meant in turn that the spirituality that had grounded the egalitarianism of the early church was also almost lost.  Abba was scapegoated with the crucifixion by the Anselmian doctrine of atonement, and ‘salvation’ became merely an after-death experience.  To achieve it one merely must not die in sexual sin – while covetousness simply didn’t measure up as a moral problem, and its true meaning was virtually invisible.

This applied equally to the Protestant Reformation, with the result that England and Holland could pioneer the basic institutions of capitalism and plough energy into an industrial revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The ability to mass produce goods held out the prospect of wealth for all.  The rise of secularism in this era also diverted the churches from the need to ponder the acquisitive drive and its origins – which came to be attributed to ‘materialism’ – an ideology – and therefore something to be combated intellectually rather than spiritually.  And of course, because of this misperception, the assault upon ‘materialism’ has been a total failure.

This remains the situation to this day.  Modern advertising discovered mimetic desire before the churches did – associating all consumer products with social success, with celebrity, or with an enviable ‘lifestyle’.  The cloned images of celebrities wearing or using or driving or consuming this or that regale us at every turn, while ecclesiastics housed mostly in palaces maunder on about materialism to nil effect.  Their problem is that were they to divine the real source of mimetic desire – lack of self-esteem – and to remember that Jesus resolved this problem by joining the people of low self-esteem – the poor in spirit – they would be obliged to do likewise.  (It is good to see the beginnings of a realisation of this among a minority of bishops.)

The basic foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that the only secure sense of our own value comes from a spiritual relationship with God.  The history of the Jewish people seems to prove that they learned more about God from hardship, exile and privation than from worldly success – and this suggests that the environmental crisis may grow much deeper before many will begin to address its cause.

Yet the man who invited us to consider the lilies of the field, who assured us that we are loved whatever we own, must eventually be seen as the one who did more than anyone else in human history to question the basic irrationality of considering some people more ‘worth it’ than others, and of amassing wealth to prove it.  We cannot add a cubit to our height, and the sun and rain fall on rich and poor alike.  God’s love is unconditional, and it is from the experience of his love for us as individuals that liberation from mimetic desire will eventually flow.

This is crucial to tackling all of today’s major problems – including the environmental crisis.  Over-consumption is directly related to the dearth of self-respect that media consumption inevitably creates – as it prepares the viewer for the advertisements that intersperse the celebrity coverage, the advertisements that tempt us to believe that personal significance can be purchased.

It is above all the Christian Gospels that offer the best hope of mass discernment of the trap of mimetic desire – before the environmental catastrophe becomes unstoppable.  More clearly than any other texts they address the very fault upon which western ambition is based, and point to our salvation – the triune God who honours simplicity by dwelling within.

Defining Clericalism

Views: 21

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Oct 2002

Betty is a widow in her eighties, living alone in a rural parish in the north of Ireland.  Contacting me after reading some of my work she tells me of her bewilderment with a succession of local clergy who have passed through her life since Vatican II.  One anecdote stands out.

Sometime about 1975 her young local curate came to call, with a visiting curate friend of the same age.  Her own priest drew the visitor’s attention to a picture of the Sacred Heart sitting in an alcove in her living room wall.

“Very nice,” said the visiting priest, turning to Betty “but if I were you I would take that picture out and put in a clock!”

What kind of mindset, I ask myself, would consider that a spiritually defensible sally – somehow reconcilable with basic courtesy and this man’s own pastoral responsibility?  What did it say about his attitude to women per se, especially older women?  What did it reveal about the reasons for the suspicion many lay Catholics had, and have, towards the changes that followed – and didn’t follow – Vatican II?

There is certainly behind it a presumption of the priest’s role as one of expert adviser in all matters of religion, as well as a presumption of Betty’s incompetence in such matters.  The relationship it was intended to establish was one of knowledgeable teacher to backward pupil – despite the difference in ages.  Humour, doubtless, was intended also.  This man was, perhaps, on the crest of his own conception of the new wave that had emerged out of Vatican II – and saw this particular devotion as one of the old wineskins that could not carry the new wine that he now carried.  Whatever that was, Betty has, understandably, no recollection.

For Betty remembers this sally for what it was – a gratuitous insult delivered by a priest in her own home.  Knowing as I do what the Sacred Heart on the wall symbolised for Catholic families of her generation and place – the gracious presence in the humblest home of God’s personal love  – I was totally at a loss to express what I felt.  Especially about the misrepresentation of what Vatican II had to offer people like Betty in terms of self-respect and spiritual affirmation.   The story will always remain for me a classic example of how the disease of clericalism could seek to exploit even all that was good and liberating in Vatican II, and, by emphasising the unassailable superiority of the priest’s own role, keep the Irish Church in a state of spiritual and intellectual paralysis.

I tell this story because another of my articles provoked an irate anonymous letter from another priest, who explained that my writing was an expression of nothing more than an irrational ‘spasm of anger’ working its way through the Church at this time.  Clericalism, ‘whatever that may be’, was not the problem.

Convinced that clericalism is the essence of all of the problems that now face us, I have wondered since exactly how I would define it.  Tentatively, and for wider consideration, I suggest this:  The abuse of priestly expertise and authority to maintain clerical dominance of the people of God, by maintaining the dependence and inertia of laity.

Betty also helps me map at least one of the typical stratagems used in this cause.  Called by all the hierarchy at one of the many peaks of violence in NI  to devise a public service for peace in the town, a good proportion of her parish assembled to hear the parish priest expatiate on this.  It soon became clear that he didn’t want such a service, for his address consisted mainly of the same simple sentence repeated at least thrice for emphasis:  “We pray in for peace, we don’t pray out.”

The crassness of the example helps to reveal the rhetorical stratagem:  the assertion of a logical antithesis where none exists – in this case between private and public prayer.  We can call this the use of false antithesis to undermine a project one dislikes.  Who will dare to question such an antithesis if a parish priest – with years of seminary training behind him – feels ready to place all of his authority behind it?

Betty, unwisely, dared.  “Why can’t we do both?”

The response was uncompromising and angry: “Mrs Doherty, you are naïve.”

The assembled laity didn’t agree, and said so.  They elected a committee that included Betty to devise such a public service, respectfully appointing the parish priest to convene this committee.  He never did so.  On one occasion, spotting Betty waiting to ask him why, he retraced his steps and left the parish church by another route.   No peace service was held in the parish on that occasion.

I do not need to emphasise the demoralising – the antispiritual – effects of behaviour such as this.  Intended to raise up, spiritual authority was used to do precisely the reverse – to deny the competence of laity even in so simple and innocuous a matter, and to blast the earliest shoots of lay initiative and maturity on the vine.

“Naïve” was an especially destructive term – aimed, Betty thought, at her own lack of the kind of education that had allowed the priest to arrive at the false antithesis he had so confidently stated.  So some years later when her diocese organised a course in Catholic adult education she eagerly signed up, attending weekly lectures over two years.

Then she took stock, wondering what use she might make of her new knowledge.  Anxious not to venture into controversial areas where she might conflict with the views of a new parish priest, she drew up a written summary of the more interesting things she had learned – including the archaic autonomy of individual bishops – and added some supplementary questions of her own.  She passed this on to the parish priest, asking for his confirmation or rebuttal of its contents.

He never either returned it or discussed it with her, eventually simply apologising, without explanation, for his inability to do so.  His attitude was one that told her that she was really a bit of an eccentric for bothering her head about such matters.

This story perfectly illustrates the bind that laity are in at present.  Anxious not to be disrespectful towards clergy, they find that their deference is pocketed as the priest’s traditional due – without reciprocal respect.  Yet if they challenge this, they instinctively feel sure that this challenge will be interpreted as disrespectful.  This is the root source of the deep anger that many laity now feel and express to one another – the fact that they are faced with a stark choice between their traditional infantile role of deference to clergy, and complete alienation from the church.  And this in turn reveals another element of clericalism – its tendency to regard the priest as the personification of the church, and the layperson as necessarily deficient and dependent – essentially a second class Catholic, and certainly not worth listening to.

These three stories outline the reasons for Betty’s present bewilderment.  What is her role in the Church?  How is she to confidently express her own faith, in her own environment?  What is the point of lay personal education if clergy cannot acknowledge it?

While incidents such as these occurred close at hand, Betty was meanwhile collecting press cuttings that mapped the national and international controversies of Catholicism, beginning about 1968 with Humanae Vitae.  She was sure that God was calling her to develop her own comprehension of her own role as a Catholic lay woman in her own parish, but bewildered by the failure of her local church and clergy to offer any scope for discovering this.  She wondered, and still wonders, why this was.

I would ask the hierarchical and clerical church the very same question.  As part of the high stone wall they have erected against any change, they sometimes poignantly depict the simplicity of traditional untutored Irish faith, and the danger of disturbing it.  Betty, in her eighties, is far more deeply disturbed by something else:  about being patronised and insulted by clergy whose whole concept of their own role was one that simply did not allow for the ‘radical equality’ the Church says it is in business to uphold.

Having had an often very different experience of clergy I can only empathise with her, and ask again for the revolution in secular clerical attitudes towards laity the whole church needs in Ireland if our churches are not to decay into discos and bingo halls.

At the core of such a revolution is basic integrity.  If the purpose of the Church is to raise the entire human race to an understanding of its spiritual dignity, why is this dignity not available now to lay people who have been Catholic all their lives, and who wish to gather together to discuss – with clergy – the radical problems facing their church?  Especially the prospect of radical discontinuity of the faith in the lifetime of their own children?

If there is a genuine fear of theological heterodoxy or even schism emerging from any such process, where is the faith of the clergy?  Those lay people I know who are most anxious to be active as Catholics have no driving interest in theological controversy.  They simply want the freedom to express their own grasp of the creed – that it declares that no-one is outside the love and compassion of God.  They greatly respect those priests who greatly respect them, but find the rest insufferable, whatever theological flag they travel under.

Another lay acquaintance from an urban setting describes a parish situation in which two priests are in constant rivalry with one another, but totally unaware of this as a spiritual failing.  Rivalry, arrogance and ambition are clearly as great a temptation for a priest as for anyone else – but this seems not to have been part of the training of secular clergy in Ireland.  Instead the bottom line seems to be: keep control – as though that was ever part of the Gospels.

Which means that many committed Irish Catholics cannot now confidently affirm the integrity of their own leaders.  Reconciled to a process of decay that must eventually deprive those leaders of the clerical power they still cling to, they wonder how long this will take.

Betty Doherty (not her real name, of course) has paid a high price for Father’s amour propre – her own diminishment and disillusionment.  I am sure there are many such in Ireland – many women especially.  They deserve documentation, as they too are the poor in spirit whose humiliation is the price of the egotism of the world.

Clericalism in the end is simply priestly worldliness – the priest’s use of his office and expertise to flatter and empower himself.  Our church will never be free of it – or healthy and renascent – until it is faced, acknowledged, and repudiated by clergy themselves as a distortion and diminishment of their ministry.