Category Archives: Education

2018: A year of rescue from the belly of the whale?

So impossible is the Bible story of Jonah that we surely must take it as a sacred allegory, a storied metaphor for the many and varied disasters that can transform completely the lives of those who suffer them.  Any of us can get thrown overboard when we least expect it these days – and then find ourselves in an impossible darkness, a place of disorientation and apparent defeat.

So has it been in recent years for all who remember a totally different ‘Catholic Ireland’ – when the church’s future seemed secure, and no shipwreck was on anyone’s horizon. Now we find ourselves both underwater and in the dark, thrown off the deck of a secularising Ireland by those who have decided that we and our faith stand in the way of all ‘progress’.

As if to wave a final goodbye, Patsy McGarry of the Irish Times told us on Nov. 7th, 2017 that our schools had failed to provide Ireland’s commercial and banking elites with the moral backbone to resist the excesses of the ‘Celtic Tiger’.

“Would developers have been as reckless had church-run schools been effective? Would bankers have driven the economy over a cliff? Whatever happened that laudable ‘Protestant probity’ once associated with Irish banks?”  These and other questions underlie the growing defection of younger generations from church practice, according to McGarry.

The mention of ‘Protestant probity’ tells us that we are not the only ones to be thrown off the deck:  Christianity itself is to be challenged, and probably all religion –  charged with  moral bankruptcy.

This is, of course, grist to the mill of the Enlightenment’s claim that reason, shorn of Christian faith, can deliver Utopia – and that Catholic schools especially are a barrier to that.  That Ireland’s developers and bankers might in fact have been in thrall to the economic ideology of the Enlightenment (beginning with Adam Smith) rather than to the call of the Christian Gospel did not occur to Patsy McGarry.  ‘It’s all the fault of faith schools’ is the more saleable cry of the moment.

Yet before we all protest this obvious scapegoating of the churches we need to remember  why Jonah had found himself on board that ship to begin with.  Had he not been running away from  the risk of facing Nineveh with its imperfections?

To the same effect, was Catholic social teaching ever advanced with sufficient strength by our clergy and educationists in Ireland – in all schools and parishes – as part of a critique of the social blindness of our rising commercial and political elites?  Similarly,  was ‘worldliness’ ever unpacked as we lauded the effectiveness of our schools in producing ‘successful people’.  Can anyone remember a homily – or a clergy-led parish discussion – on the dangers of measuring ‘success’ in terms of social acclaim, or on the vanity of celebrity-seeking?  Who has heard a sermon on the silliness of supposing that an iPhone X, or even an iPhone XXX – or a Lamborghini – will make us instantly, more worthy?  Are Catholic teenagers even yet being told in school and church that the aim of becoming famous just for the sake of being well known is the very last word in futility?

Following Vatican II, did any parish community anywhere in Ireland experience regular opportunities for critical discussion of the huge changes that came to Ireland then – of the rising power of media to make us ‘lose the run of ourselves’, and of the moral dangers of excess that could come with easier times?

And must we not indeed wonder why Ireland’s political elites – mostly the products of our Catholic schools – are so complacent in the face of the homelessness of so many children, while so many adolescents wait endlessly for attention to their mental health issues, and so many urban families wonder if their incomes will cover their mortgage payments next year?

It could not be a better time to ask such questions, with Ireland set to receive a visit from the Pope in 2018.  In the whale’s belly still – in terms of morale – we have an opportunity this Advent to reflect not only on the problems of the family but on the necessary role of the family in teaching social solidarity, moderation and generosity of spirit.  The decades of denial of adult dialogue that underlies the serious weakness of the Irish Church can now be repaired, beginning in 2018 – if our bishops especially have had enough of the whale’s belly.  Who better than Francis to pull us out?

This is a time for reorientation, and the means for that lie to hand.  Cardinal Kevin Farrell (Prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life) assures us that the pope will challenge us to a new era of mission – and not just to mission in Ireland. To begin to consider that is to address the question of what underlies the pursuit of social acclaim through personal aggrandisement – globally. What have we Catholics lost as a result of our demotion by media, other than our complacency and our illusions?  Do we really need to restore those?  Are we now not in the very best position to proclaim that God loves  us even so – and to ask the most searching questions of an Ireland once more in ‘economic recovery mode’?

For example, how wise is it to suppose that if we can accumulate a  million ‘Likes’ on social media, or two million Euro in business, or even a few movie Oscars or a houseful of sporting trophies – we have added anything of real importance to our central ‘being’?  Are all of the ‘games’ that the world now arranges for us not in fact a whirlwind of distraction from the reality that we were always, and will always be, ‘somebodies‘?

That the value of every human person is sacred from the beginning, and then unchangeable forever, is central to Christianity.
That the value of every human person is sacred from the beginning, and then unchangeable forever, is central to Christianity.  The whale’s belly is merely a ‘wake up’ call to the futility of trying to add value to ourselves – by ‘looking to others for glory’. No message is more needed by an Ireland in thrall to the illusion that we do not already possess the treasure that we seek.

Yes, folks, this is indeed an early plug for Christmas 2017!  Rescued as we soon again will be from the fear that we have been forgotten, we Catholics will be very well placed indeed to ask such questions, and to deliver that message.  We might even be ready to tell Pope Francis  next August exactly what he needs to hear.  Trained well by experience of ‘social trauma’, and woken up to the central ‘good news’ of the Gospel, we can and must become the ‘field hospital’ for the many other casualties of entirely bogus ‘failure’ in Ireland.

It will soon be time for all of us to wake up to rescue from the belly of the whale – to the realisation that we must not look to media – the new brokers of honour and shame – to pass the final verdict on the record of  our church in Ireland.  What matters is our own relationship with the living truth, the Lord who forgives and then restores the soul. There is no such thing as a ‘ruined life’ when the Lord dwells within and among us – so why not wake up fully right away to the challenge of using all of our gifts to restore the dignity of the poorest in our society?  Is this not what our missal texts are telling us these days?

Our Irish church is surely called just now – by the times we are still going through as well as by Pope Francis – to become yet another ‘sign of Jonah’ – proof of the power of the Holy Spirit to ‘make all things new’.

No research, ever, on school-centred faith formation in Irish Catholic Schools?

classroom-with-crucifix

On June 2nd, 2016, the letter below appeared in the ‘Letters’ page of the Irish Catholic.  Since then no response has been received to the central question posed: whether the effectiveness of Irish Catholic schools in forming faith has ever been seriously researched in Ireland.

Educationists in all fields conduct research – and school-going pupils are always available to participate.  In an era when Christian faith is increasingly challenged it stands to reason that Catholic educationists – as well as teachers, clergy and parents – will need to know exactly what is ongoing in the area of faith development if they are to respond effectively.

It now appears that there is a very serious issue here.  If no such research has ever been conducted in Ireland – despite, for example, a reply to this writer from one Irish bishop in 2005 that the issue would be raised at an impending regional meeting of bishops – what is the reason for this?  Why is our knowledge on this issue so partial – based on individual experience, and therefore still merely anecdotal?

In 2011 Irish bishops adopted a strategy of switching the focus of faith development to adults, with the long-term intention of placing this responsibility on parishes and families.  As outlined by the document Share the Good News  this shift was to take place over a ten-year period – yet in my own diocese, Derry, there is still no sign of this shift even beginning.  In a growing general crisis of continuity – including a crisis of clerical manpower and clerical ageing – inertia too widely reigns.  Unaccountably, we remain substantially ignorant of the scale and nature of this crisis.  There is surely no excuse for this.

Why don’t we know reliably already – from pupils at the upper end of our second-level schools – why increasingly they do not show any interest in Catholic sacramental practice?  

From the Irish Catholic, June 2nd, 2016:

Huge research deficit on issue of Catholic education

Dear Editor,

These days our bishops and educationists are again circling the wagons against the encroachment of ‘faith-neutral’ models of religious education in Catholic schools. So, for example, we hear Dr Eugene Duffy of St Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, insisting that: “Parents, if they’re sending their children to a faith-based school, will have a genuine expectation that their children will be formed within their faith tradition.” (‘School religious ed will suffer under new Govt plan – experts’, IC 12/05/2016)

Upon what reliable research evidence is this assertion based? Back in 2006 Archbishop Diarmuid Martin told Pope Benedict XVI: “I can go to parishes on a Sunday where I find no person in the congregations between the ages of 16 and 36. None at all.”

Why should we believe that the predominant motive of Catholic parents in favouring Catholic schools is not simply their belief that those schools are academically effective and well disciplined, meeting educational ends that are not strictly religious, but actually secular?

My point is not to attack the principle of Catholic schooling but to question the huge and inexcusable research deficit in Ireland on the entire issue of Catholic education – especially the reasons that despite our virtually total reliance on schools for faith formation our Irish Church is facing a radical crisis of continuity.

As a teacher in a Catholic second-level school for three decades, I had many times to supervise Catholic pupils responding to research projects initiated by the education department of a local university. Never once had any of those projects been sponsored by the Catholic Church, with the issue of faith development foremost – even though it has been known for decades that many of those same pupils are not only disinterested but often alienated from faith observance.

Everything we hear at present shouts to us that our school-reliant system of faith development is not maintaining – on its own – the continuity of the Catholic faith. Are our bishops afraid to confront that issue directly, by conducting reliable research on the issue?

Yours etc.,

Sean O’Conaill,
Coleraine,
Co. Derry.

‘The Chain That Binds the Earth’ – Novel now on sale

This project preoccupied me for months:  the experiment of a novel that would test the power of Girardian mimetic theory to explain to young people a wide range of modern ills – from the global threat to the environment to violence of all kinds – including school bullying.

The project arose out of a realisation that were I still in the classroom I would be proposing that we do often unconsciously absorb the desires of others  – as a tool to explain such events as the assassination of Julius Caesar, the burning of Joan of Arc, the World Wars of the 20th century, the Cold War – and the Troubles of Northern Ireland.

Would it have been feasible to do so?  Do young people already notice ‘unconscious copying’ as a dominant feature of human behaviour, and even as a potential source of conflict?

The second crucial factor heading me in the direction of fiction was the simple fact that my classroom days are over.  Now in my seventies I am retired from formal teaching – but very much committed still to what lies behind all teaching:  the task of maintaining a living tradition of insight into so much of what ails us, and especially of passing that insight on to young people concerned for the future of the planet.

So could I write a story that would have eleven-year-olds stumble upon the significance of our human weakness for adopting the desires of others, and then have them argue their case in their own school context?

I have tried to do that, in any case.  It is for young people themselves to tell me if I have succeeded.  My very first young readers of a late draft have been enthusiastic, but I have no way of knowing how representative they are.

As I was obliged to self-publish this story, the initial retail cost of the paperback version on Amazon is too high.    I am setting out to make copies available soon at what they cost me, ordered in quantities at a discount.  I will update this page to log progress in this attempt.

Can Morality be taught without ‘Myth’?

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish Times  Tuesday November 22 2011

RITE AND REASON: The attempt to identify Christianity with basic biblical literalism and violence is dishonest, writes SEÁN O’CONAILL

HOW DO we humans develop moral values? It is fascinating to see this question being raised by the “new atheism” (Rite and Reason, Michael Nugent, October 18th, 25th, Nov 1st).

Rejecting all religious storytelling (‘myth-making’), Nugent backs the scientific method and assures us that “we can best live together with other sentient beings by empathising with them and seeking to maximise their well-being and minimise their suffering”.

Nugent did not tell us, however, how he would go about teaching empathy. Would this be a matter of compiling empirical data about the impact of, say, abuse upon children, and then presenting these facts – as Powerpoint presentations maybe – to other children and adults? Does he think this kind of exposition would hook them and turn them into moral paragons, or bore them to tears?

Does Mr Nugent empathise at all with the children in Dickens’s Hard Times to whom that other devotee of empirical science, Mr Gradgrind, wished to teach nothing but hard facts? Does he see any virtue in Dickens’s manner of teaching morality – by creating vivid fictional characters and tracing their lives through boldly dramatic plots? Can he think of a better way of persuading an errant capitalist to empathise and ‘think again’ (ie repent) than by sitting him down to read or watch A Christmas Carol ?

These questions are important because, for all of recorded time, human culture has found storytelling to be the most effective method of holding the attention of the widest range of people, and of evoking the strongest empathy and deepest reflection. Has the new atheism come up with something not only radically different but empirically proven to be more effective?

If so, is it not time we heard about it? If not, just how empirically justifiable is the new atheism’s contempt for religious myth as a transgenerational conveyor of moral values?

The meaning of the word “myth” is contested. At the simplest level, a myth is a story to which we attribute overarching importance as a conveyor of “life meaning”. We now live, we are told, in the postmodern era, when no such “grand narrative” is respectable, so the word “myth” has come to mean something close to a “lie”.

Can the new atheism prove that this is an entirely safe place to be, morally? Is there evidence that, deprived of all myth, human beings become more moral, and more empathetic? If no superior myth has emerged purely out of the scientific method after four centuries, is there no reason to fear that science, for all of its power to change our environment, may be morally sterile and indifferent?

Although you cannot depend upon the new atheists to tell you this, the Christian myth has been told in different ways. Augustine’s sex-centred interpretation of the Bible is hugely different from Teilhard de Chardin’s evolutionary account.

Emerging Christianity is busy discussing how to connect Christian salvation with planetary salvation, and finding that task well within its compass. The call to generosity and simplicity of life is meeting a Christian response as varied and relevant today as the medieval monastic movement and the Franciscan renewal of the 13th century.

The new atheism’s attempt to identify Christianity simply with fundamentalist biblical literalism and violence is transparently dishonest.

On the other hand, Nugent’s interest in morality is greatly to be welcomed. It signifies a realisation that the problem of evil is as far from resolution today as it was when some of the 18th century rationalists proposed that universal education would bring a moral Utopia. Why are we so prone to self-harm as a species? Mr Nugent needs to ask himself if his optimism about the moral benefit of demolishing all religious myth might not be just another example of empirically unsubstantiated faith.

Rethinking Catholic Formation

Sean O’Conaill  ©  Reality Feb 2011

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

~*~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catholic Schools: why they are not maintaining the faith

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish News  21st June 2007

 “This will spell the end of Catholicism as a taught programme for good.”

That was one published reaction to recent news of pending inter-faith schools in Northern Ireland. A senior priest in Tyrone has publicly challenged Down and Connor Auxiliary Bishop Donal McKeown for supporting the idea.

But for Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas, nothing is ever taught until something has been deeply learned. This is the principle known to Catholic thought as reception. By contrast, according to a recent poll organised from Dublin, only one in twenty young people on the island can identify the first of the Ten Commandments, and most cannot even name the Blessed Trinity. A clear majority of those young people are products of Catholic schools.

The virtually total absence of young people in the age range 15-35 from Sunday Mass in most of the country tells the same story. So does the experience of Catholic chaplains in our universities – to whom only a small minority of nominally Catholic students ever introduce themselves. What was assiduously presented in Catholic schools over the past several decades was in most cases not received – certainly not at a depth that could retain key doctrine or maintain a lifetime’s interest or commitment from then on.

It is high time that all involved in Catholic education face up to this, and ask a fundamental question. Why should we ever have supposed that Catholic formation could effectively be confined to the years of childhood – the years before childhood faith is tested by further education, secularist challenge, adult trials and adult questions? Why should we ever have thought that greenhousing our children could educate and perpetuate our church?

The answer was provided in 2002 by Cardinal Cahal Daly at a conference in Maynooth. Commenting on the phenomenon of over 90% Mass observance in Ireland until recent decades he observed that beneath “the pleasing surface” of those times there had been “dangers of conformism and routine” and even “sometimes hypocrisy, with people, for reasons of expediency, professing in public views which they rejected in private discussion or contradicted in private behaviour”.

No one is more ready to conform than a child. Catholic religious education as presently managed depends almost entirely upon the compliance of children. This explains not only why Catholic children conform to the Catholic faith norms of their schools, but why they then so quickly conform to the secular faith norms of their society when they leave school.

People of strong faith are never mere conformists: they have been encouraged to ask their own deepest questions, and to find their own faith, in freedom – and this is an adult affair. There is no scriptural evidence that Jesus spent any time instructing children. The virtually complete indifference to adult Catholic faith formation in Ireland (usually a small minority option for the well heeled) has been a tragic miscalculation. That miscalculation occurred because clericalism mistakenly supposed that to educate the child was to educate the adult as well.

It was the mass conformism of Irish Catholicism in the 1960s that misled the Irish Catholic hierarchy into supposing that the reforms of Vatican II weren’t needed in Ireland. These invited lay people to leave the passivity of childhood faith and to adopt an adult role, based upon a theology of church as ‘the people of God’. An era of dialogue and learning at all levels was supposed to ensue.

It never truly did in Ireland. Clericalism – the tendency of too many clergy to prefer the passive compliance of their people – continued to dominate. Clericalism is uncomfortable with dialogue, because dialogue presumes that people will relate as adults. Valuing conformity and docility above all other virtues, clericalism prefers lay people to remain children forever.

So, the huge efforts of well educated teachers to instruct Catholic children in the theology of Vatican II were unsupported by an adult programme that would have allowed the parents of those children to understand and reinforce that theology. A huge gulf developed between the generations. Passive parents, expected to ‘pay, pray and obey’ could not inspire their children with enthusiasm for the same passive role. It is the anticipation of responsibility that primarily motivates learning, and clericalism leaves lay people – parents included – without any real responsibility.

So children whose teachers told them that at Confirmation they became ‘Temples of the Holy Spirit’ soon found that, strangely, they would never have an adult speaking role in their own church. Clericalism insists that ordination trumps all the other sacraments, leaving nothing for lay people to discover or to say.

How then could those children ever rise to the challenge posed by Vatican II to the laity – to ‘consecrate the world to God’? Their parents had never been invited to discuss as adults what that might mean – and their bishops showed no sign of inviting their own generations to do so. So what were we ever educating our children for? The answer was shown in the failure even to develop parish or diocesan pastoral councils in most cases: for perpetual Catholic childhood. No wonder so many former Catholics in Ireland say: “I have outgrown all of that!” 

A radical crisis of continuity now obliges Irish Catholics to completely rethink and reorganise our faith formation system. It is time to refocus that upon adult needs and adult questions, to discover as adults how to be church together – priests and people – and to make parents once more the chief religious educators of their children – while there is still time.

A reflexive resistance to any change – in defence of the failed totem of the segregated Catholic school system – is not the answer. To go on supposing that to instruct the child is also to educate the adult would be to deny a mountain of evidence to the contrary, and to guarantee the disappearance of our Irish Catholic tradition.

‘Towards Healing’ (2005): A promise that must be kept

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Sep 2005

[This article related to a short document published by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference in 2005.  This proposed that the whole Irish people of God would together address the many problems posed by all varieties of sexual abuse of children.  This proposal was never followed through.  It wasn’t even ever discussed with the Irish Catholic people, apparently falling victim to the abiding terror of their hierarchy and clergy about discussing anything relating to sexuality.  So the challenge posed by this problem in wider Irish society remains unmet by the largest denomination on the island.  The promise implicit in ‘Towards Healing’ (2005) still remains hollow in 2014.  SOC]

The Document Towards Healing, from the Irish bishops’ conference, arrived at an important moment. As a Lenten reflection it struck a welcome and conciliatory note of repentance. It included also a powerful appeal for the pooling of the resources and compassion of the whole church community to address the plight of all who have suffered abuse in Irish society.

Moreover, it stated the intention of the bishops’ conference ‘to publish further reflections on other aspects of this painful and complex reality’. It would therefore be both uncharitable and unwise to dismiss the document on the grounds of incompleteness. Far better to place oneself in the same Lenten spirit of repentance and humility, and respond from there – with a view to informing whatever future documents lie in store.

In that spirit we all need to accept fully that the vast majority of those who have been abused on this island have not been abused by Catholic clergy or religious. The scale of the problem of abuse generally, and many of the most lurid media-reported instances, tell us emphatically that power over others is misused by a depressing proportion of all who exercise it – including parents, employers, work colleagues – and adults generally in relation to children.

Moreover, in Ireland’s ‘culture wars’, instances of clerical child abuse have been placed on a special plane of obloquy by commentators anxious to denigrate the Catholic Church as a body, and to deny due respect to the many selfless clerics and religious whose lives are entirely exemplary. The fond and naïve theory that if we can but banish all Catholic belief and personnel from Irish society, all evils will be banished also, has driven many a tendentious media event in recent years.

At the same time, however, it would be an inadequate response to the specific issues of Catholic clerical child abuse, and of the hierarchy’s too frequent administrative failings in dealing with it, if we were not, as church members, to address the fact that abuses of power have occurred in our church also – and to do all in our power to understand and to prevent these.

It is regrettable, therefore, that this document does not repair the failure of all Catholic church pronouncements on this issue so far to state the most important facts about Catholic clerical child abuse. (By ‘important’ here I mean in the context of dealing most effectively with the problem, and of making Catholic children as safe as they should be.)

First, the power exercised by the abusing priest is too often connected with the special status of the priest in relation to the Catholic family, by virtue of the clerical church’s own typical representation of the priest as an iconic moral exemplar. To put this more simply, the child or young person has typically been taught to see the priest as an unquestionable moral authority – as, indeed, the final authority on right and wrong. The Catholic child’s, and young person’s, special vulnerability in relation to the priest has therefore been inseparable from the priesthood of the priest – and acknowledgement of this is long overdue. It is vitally important that Catholic children are taught, for their own protection, that Catholic clergy must not be thought of, or represented to children as, incapable of abusing power and trust, and that all adults must observe the same boundaries in relation to children.

As our most streetwise teenagers now know this anyway, it is foolish of our hierarchy to stop short of saying it. Surely they should explicitly advise that this practical wisdom be systematically taught in Catholic schools, and by parents to their children – in the context of separating due respect for clergy from the malady known as clericalism.

Second, while Towards Healing applauds the media for ‘bringing the sexual abuse of children into the public arena’ it does not seize the opportunity to acknowledge fully the hierarchical church’s own historical tendency to do the very opposite – systematically, and even as a matter of principle, to conceal the phenomenon, often at the expense of other children who might otherwise have escaped life-challenging injury. True repentance requires a full acknowledgement of error, and future documents on this issue must surely fully address this particular error – the error and sin of secrecy in the church.

It is difficult to see how the church leadership can do this without acknowledging the reason that lay Catholics must still typically look to the secular media, and to other secular institutions, for a full revelation of the abuse problem within the church. This is the absence of structures of accountability within the church itself, of personnel empowered and employed to represent solely the interests of those to whom clerical power will inevitably sometimes represent a danger – that is, the Catholic laity, and, especially, Catholic children.

In light of the four-decade failure of the church leadership to implement what was clearly implied by the documents of Vatican II, this is an especially serious shortcoming in Towards Healing.

To establish this we need only quote Lumen Gentium Article 37:

Like all Christians, the laity have the right to receive in abundance the help of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially that of the word of God and the sacraments from the pastors. To the latter the laity should disclose their needs and desires with that liberty and confidence which befits children of God and brothers of Christ. By reason of the knowledge, competence or pre-eminence which they have the laity are empowered-indeed sometimes obliged-to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church. If the occasion should arise this should be done through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose and always with truth, courage and prudence and with reverence and charity towards those who, by reason of their office, represent the person of Christ.

Mustn’t the repentance of our hierarchy fully address a failure that has turned out to be a critical factor in the development of all Irish church scandals since 1992: the absence of non-clerical agencies within the church that could have fully and effectively represented the interests of lay people and their children? Wasn’t it essentially the absence of such structures that ensured that it was solely to external secular structures that Catholic laity could look – and must still look – to seek full disclosure and redress?

There is another overpowering reason for making this point now. The call from our bishops in Towards Healing for a massive effort from the whole church community on behalf of the abused represents an enormous organisational challenge. What is the scale of the problem of all kinds of abuse in every diocese? How are we to determine this? What resources are already available? What will be the implications of a continuing decline in numbers of ordained clergy in addressing the issue? What new skills and aptitudes will be required? What educational resources will need to be deployed? How should this impact upon Catholic education and culture generally? Who is to co-ordinate all of this?

These and many other questions now demand attention. The absence of church fora in which these, and other issues could be discussed by ‘the whole church community’, is a stark inhibiting circumstance right now. The arguments for permanent diocesan and national synods or conferences are now more than compelling – they are irresistible.

Hopefully, a new administration in Rome will take the opportunity to address this problem immediately. Pope John Paul II’s call in September 2004 to American bishops to establish “better structures of participation, consultation and shared responsibility” should be seen as a green light in Ireland also, where relations between laity and hierarchy have suffered an almost equal shock over the very same issue – the maladministration of clerical child abuse.

To continue to ignore or deny the need for radical organisational change in the church would be to raise the most serious questions about the sincerity of the so-welcome spirit of repentance in Towards Healing. It would be another disaster if the document turned out to be nothing more than a diversionary stratagem, designed to blur and fudge the issues with which it deals, and to postpone addressing the issue of accountability within the church. Disillusionment over that too would be an even greater tragedy than everything that has happened so far.

To obviate any suggestion that Towards Healing seeks to distract the focus of Catholic concern away from clerical child abuse, the Catholic hierarchy must surely also make a far greater effort to show their concern for those whom it has alienated, especially victims of such abuse. It is not reassuring that when in February of this year I asked the Catholic Communications Office if Irish bishops had any idea of the scale of that alienation, or the proportion of those abused who had been reconciled with the church, I was given an answer that implied that the victims’ need for privacy precluded any such assessment, and paralyses even our ability to poll our own members. Future documents on this theme, and the proposed whole church response to abuse in Irish society, must surely address the need to convince the ‘whole church community’ that we care deeply about , and hope someday to be reconciled with, our alienated brothers and sisters. At present it would be difficult to find conclusive evidence that our church leadership has not simply preferred to forget them.

It is not reassuring either that Irish bishops still appear unable to discuss such issues freely with their people. For over a decade now no Irish bishop has felt able to come before a representative gathering of his flock to answer questions on these issues. A shepherd who is patently wary of his flock cannot inspire confidence and trust – and this inevitably impacts upon his authority also.

It follows inevitably that while Towards Healing must be welcomed as setting a new direction for the Irish church, many lay people remain to be convinced that Irish bishops generally possess the corporate will, and the clarity of thought, that are needed to lead us emphatically out of the present wilderness. It will take more than a single aspirational document to move the Irish church out of its present, dangerous, inertia.

However, the coincidence of Towards Healing with a change of pope presents an unprecedented opportunity to address all of these issues – and especially to accord to Irish lay people the dignity of full partnership in restoring the moral prestige of the Irish Catholic Church. It is an opportunity that must not be wasted.

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: I – Crisis

Sean O’Conaill © Copyright Reality 2004

“Let’s face it – the Catholic Church is on its way out wherever economic progress and universal education take hold. It is a relic of the distant past when uneducated people needed to believe in a superior being up in the sky and priests to do their thinking for them. It has no place in the twenty-first century. In Ireland, where the power of clergy has finally been broken, it will soon be a distant memory.”

This seems to be the shared opinion of most of Ireland’s media pundits these days. Resentful of the power of clergy to dominate the educational system, and even to control politicians as late as the 1980s, Ireland’s mostly anticlerical intellectuals were delighted to see Irish Catholic bishops score a series of devastating own goals in the 1990s. This process continued into the third millennium. In September 2003 Fintan O’Toole declared in the Irish Times that the struggle he and other liberal and leftist intellectuals had waged since the 1960s against the influence of the Irish Catholic hierarchy was virtually over, with victory going to his side of the argument.

Now lay Catholics themselves can list a hatful of critical problems that together seem destined to sideline their church, making it even less influential here than the Church of England next door. Here are ten that seem to me to be of special importance.

First, a series of media scandals has undermined the moral authority of Catholic bishops, the supreme teachers in the Church. The policy of concealment of the sexual abuse of Irish Catholic children by some priests, coupled with the frequent absence of Christian love in the treatment of victims and their families – has shocked the Catholic laity far more deeply than the abuse itself. In the absence of any other explanation by the bishops, laity are forced to conclude that the first priority of Catholic leadership was, in too many cases, to preserve the public image and prestige of clergy generally, rather than to protect the innocence of children and to obey the great command of the Gospels – the law of love. This has shattered the bond of trust that led laity to respect Catholic teaching on, for example, the importance of the family, the dignity of every human being, and sexual matters generally. It’s not clear what the bishop’s crosier symbolises anymore, if it doesn’t mean that children will always come first.

Second, the ability of the Catholic clergy to attract young men into their ranks, already weakening in the early 1990s, has collapsed altogether in the wake of these scandals. This now affects all the religious orders, as well as the diocesan clergy. Moreover, the rapid economic growth of the 1990s has made the career of a celibate priest increasingly less attractive especially when priests themselves complain about poor leadership and too little room for initiative. As clergy have – at least in the experience of everyone now alive – always run the church, how can it survive if there aren’t any?

Third, older clergy often seem ill equipped to explain how Catholic belief is relevant to the needs and questions of lay people today. The Creeds were written over fifteen hundred years ago. What do they mean in a world of mobile phones and universal education? What do they have to do with the problems of raising teenagers whose minds are tuned in to Hollywood, science fiction and the music industry? How do they help in grappling with problems such as addiction, depression and suicide? A generally aging clergy seem more and more out of touch with the minds of rising generations. Too often they don’t either like or understand youth culture, and can’t seem to get through. Too often they complain about the modern world and seem to want to live in the past. That’s often why so many teenagers can’t stick weekly Mass anymore: they find it boring and meaningless.

Fourth, despite the hierarchy’s verbal emphasis on human dignity, lay people are not equally respected in their own church. They are talked at, not listened to. The wisdom and concerns of women especially get no hearing. Parents have not been invited to discuss with clergy the growing problem of influencing young people who are now targeted by culture-changing and alien commercial influences. Most bishops avoid occasions where they will be questioned by lay people, or obliged to listen to them. This makes it impossible for parents to defend Catholic teaching effectively. It seems to prove also that secular culture – where the intelligence of lay people is equally respected – is superior, even in Christian terms.

Fifth, clergy generally are either unhealthily hung up on sex, or unwilling or unable to talk about it. The sexual scandals, and the problems that many priests obviously have with celibacy, have seriously undermined the credibility of the official policy on, for example, birth control – which very few lay people can understand. When teenagers are taught that cohabitation offends God as much as genocide they fall about laughing. This makes many of them wonder about abortion too, and whether their Church is really committed to fighting Aids. The Church has lost its persuasiveness on sexual issues at the very time when clear, balanced sensible teaching is really needed.

Sixth, this clerical hang-up on sex has tended to create a false popular impression that Catholicism has more to do with sexual repression than liberation of the spirit and enlightenment of the mind. This is partly why the growing secular interest in spirituality has led many to suppose that the Bible is a less useful source than oriental mysticism. Furthermore, lay people often get the impression that they are considered spiritually second rate by clerics because they are not celibate. A recent beatification reinforced this impression by emphasizing that the beatified couple had slept separately for decades before death. Such events make Catholicism more the butt of crude TV humour than an object of curiosity and respect. More seriously, they erode the dignity and morale of Catholic parents who have every reason to believe that spirituality and a full sexual relationship are as complementary and compatible now as they were in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

Seventh, the secular world allows lay people to look together freely for solutions to the great problems of today – depression and addiction, for example. It has even empowered young people whom the church has harmed and then tried to forget about. It gives them the freedom to organise and to support one another. The clerical church, on the other hand, seems afraid of freedom, of letting lay people organize freely. Laity anxious to be active in their church far too often find that, if they try to take some initiative, someone will soon tell them the priest or the bishop won’t like it. (To be fair, it is too often another lay person who tells them that.)

Eighth, even where effective priests get lay people working together in parishes discussing the Bible, say, that priest can be changed by the bishop without asking anyone, and his replacement may well decide he doesn’t want that group to continue. It folds up straight away. This makes lay people despair. Parishes need some kind of permanent structure that will give lay people an enduring role and provide continuity in parish life – but there’s no sign of this yet.

Ninth, despite generations of Catholic control of education, Catholic thought has now virtually no prestige in secular Ireland. Worse still, most of those in whom the Church invested its greatest educational efforts – the children of the middle classes – have shown virtually no commitment as adults to social justice. They now support a political culture that privileges themselves at the expense of the poorest underclass in western Europe. Although often nominally Catholic still, most take little part in church life, and are content to complain from the sidelines. Irish Catholic education requires a complete reappraisal on these grounds alone.

Another argument for this is that a Catholic formation that ended for most adults in their teens is inadequate to carry them through life, especially in a rapidly changing culture. Now, as adults, with much more experience of life, they have new questions, and a need to update their ideas. However, Catholic adult education is in very short supply and even where it exists it too often works on the old one-way pattern, with people being handed the Catechism, for example, and told to learn that. Parents can’t be expected simply to parrot answers when young people will ask: “What do [you] really believe?” We need far better adult education, focused upon real problems and involving completely free discussion. There’s no sign of that happening either.

Reconsideration of the Irish church’s entire educational effort is especially important in light of the specific mission given to the laity by Vatican II: to consecrate the world to God . If laity are to understand this mission and begin to carry it out together, they need to be called together to discern and discuss its many implications, and their own role. Many educated and once-committed lay people have lost hope that this will ever happen. Many have also abandoned the church as a consequence.

Tenth, the church generally seems deeply divided between ‘liberals’ who want more change, and ‘conservatives’ who think that change has already gone too far. These differences are so wide it’s sometimes difficult to see how the church can hold together.

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No doubt, some of you will disagree with this list of problems, or the way they are described – and others may see other problems I have missed. If so, why not pitch in with your point of view?

I will be approaching these problems not as an expert theologian but as a layman with a lay perspective. What I have to say will be both challenging and in need of challenge, because none of us has a monopoly of wisdom. We inherit a great tradition, but have difficulty in discerning what it is asking of us in a rapidly changing world. The mind and insight and enthusiasm of the whole people of God need somehow to be engaged if we are to rise to the enormous problems that now face us all.

Why Ireland is Godless: Secularism as Divine Retribution

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish Times 1998

Recently Joe Foyle wondered why ‘God is missing but not missed’ from the common discourse of Ireland. The reasons he gave were interesting but came nowhere near the nub of the matter. Although the advance of liberal secularism is clearly God’s verdict on Catholic hierarchical paternalism, we simply haven’t woken up to this yet. We still blame God for this paternalism instead of crediting Him with its demise.

In the seventeenth century the Catholic hierarchy alienated the scientists of Europe by silencing Galileo. In the eighteenth it alienated most other intellectuals by indiscriminately rejecting the Enlightenment. From 1789 it alienated the disciples of liberal democracy by opposing the perfectly Christian notion of political and social equality. Having identified Christ with obscurantism, tyranny, inequality and selfishness it made sure He would be (almost) rejected by history itself. Since the future lay with science and democracy the hierarchy was effectively secularising the future. Anticlerical secularism would inevitably take its revenge in Ireland also. What’s surprising is that it should take so long to do so.

The delay is largely down to British imperialism and the Protestant ascendancy. While Europe’s Catholic intelligentsia were being alienated from the Church from the mid 1600s, Ireland’s were being alienated by Protestant England. Ireland’s history was therefore dominated until this century by political separatism rather than by ideological secularism. As the Catholic clergy shared the exclusion of the Catholic masses they were not alienated from them by privilege as in Catholic France. Instead, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, they gained a position of unexampled influence. Their services to the cause of schooling the Catholic masses, deliberately deprived of education by a frightened Protestant ascendancy, will never be forgotten.

However, the political liberation of Ireland in the 20th century was the beginning of the end of Catholic clerical domination. The reason was simple. At independence the Church gained a position of fatal dominance over the intellectual and political life of Ireland, putting itself in the invidious position of the French Catholic Church in the eighteenth century. In occupying the position of intellectual conservatism and dominance previously held by a Protestant and English ascendancy it was setting itself up as the bête noir of the next phase of Irish liberation.

And meanwhile the Enlightenment had brought a political, social and economic revolution to the rest of western Europe. This eventually revolutionised the content of Irish education also. The Church might control the ethos of most Irish schools, but it could not prevent the secularisation of the curriculum. This eventually enabled an economic revolution and a growth of intellectual independence and sophistication.

Fatally, although Ireland had thrown off a ‘Big House’ social and political system in the 1920s, the Irish Catholic Church retained a ‘Big House’ clerical structure. The opportunity to abandon this with the 2nd Vatican Council in the 1960s was thrown away by the arch- obscurantist John Charles McQuaid. Irish Catholicism remained, at its summit, paternalistic – as Cardinal Conway admitted at the time.

However, clerical paternalism functions by maintaining a mystique of moral superiority around the clergy themselves. So it is peculiarly vulnerable to sexual scandal, and in the 1990s a series of these struck the Irish Church with the force of a hurricane. Just as Voltaire and others had destroyed the mystique of French clericalism by satirising the sexual peccadillos of churchmen in the 1700s, the Irish fourth estate luxuriated in a series of Irish clerical own – goals, beginning with the revelation of Bishop Casey’s fertile affair with Annie Murphy in 1992. In the five years since then the wider attack upon the church which began with the Enlightenment has left the Irish hierarchy shell-shocked and disorientated.

The most recent example of this was Archbishop Desmond Connell’s lament for Ireland’s old political and intellectual order in the Irish Times on October 14th last. That he should propose the return of Ireland’s legislative sovereignty to God – or, by implication, to himself and the rest of the Irish Catholic hierarchy as God’s representatives – is a measure of how rapidly Ireland has changed, and changed forever, in five years. Now we would no sooner return to Europe’s intellectual Ancien Régime than we would to its economic and social system.

Yet there is retributive element in all of this that justifies rather than undermines a belief in the Christian God. Humanity, driven by the irrepressible human desire for freedom and equality, has seen off a whole series of tyrannies these past three hundred years. Would the Christ of the Sermon on the Mount really identify with the social hierarchy of the Ancien Regime? Would the Christ who washed the feet of the apostles regret the advance of social and political equality? Would the Christ who lambasted the hypocrisy of the Pharisees have wanted that of Bishop Casey and other clerics to remain forever secret?

And the truth is also that although the Catholic hierarchy has fought tooth and nail against the reduction of its worldly power in this period, it is far healthier morally as a consequence. Had not Napoleon I and Italian nationalism weakened the Papacy’s territorial control of central Italy when would the Papacy on its own have released the Jews from their ghettoes there? At the end of the 20th century who could take seriously the Church’s claim to identify with the weak and the poor globally were it still a serious European political power, even possibly a full member of the EU?

In fact, if the church is to regain its credibility generally it should explicitly recognise the contradiction inherent in seeking worldly power through its bishops while seeking to serve and to evangelise through its priests and its laity. Christ was unequivocal about worldly power: it was the temptation of the devil. That is why his choice of crucifixion rather than domination still guides the history of the church. If the Irish Catholic Church is to restore God to centre stage in Ireland it must be faithful to the Mass rather than to Peter’s weakness – the tendency to reach for the sword. There is a mass of misery in Ireland today, and it is there, as originally, Christ will be found – not in verbal exhortations aimed at the empowerment of an elite – however well intentioned.

Were Ireland’s Catholic hierarchy instead to recognise that the Church’s greatest historical mistakes resulted from a mistaken search for worldly power, this could free Ireland from the fear of Catholicism that lies at the root of Unionist obduracy in Ireland. It could also make the faith as bright and new as it was when Ireland was an example to Europe – helping to free many throughout the world from the fear that the Christian God is in the end a God of coercion. What an event that would be to mark the new millennium!

In the end Christ and history are in agreement. Both rebuke Peter’s inclination to power, and both tend towards the empowerment of the weak. Why should this be a reason for disbelief?