Category Archives: Secularisation

Consecrating the World?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

In resisting the ‘clericalisation’ of the laity, Pope John Paul II has insisted in Christifideles Laici upon the quite separate and unique lay role of ‘consecrating the world to God’. In so doing he reiterated a central theme of Lumen Gentium. Dismissed by many as a mere stratagem for maintaining the clerical monopoly of power in the church, this verbal reinforcement of Vatican II needs to be taken far more seriously as an opportunity for freeing the Holy Spirit to enlighten and encourage both clergy and laity at a critical time.

But ‘the consecration of the world to God’ is a formula that needs teasing out. If we understand it simply as a ‘churching’ of the world, a matter of ‘ outdoor worship’ – of ostentatious religiosity in the form of mass processions and other grand liturgical events designed for media coverage – we are attempting something else, the recreation of that public power the clerical Catholic Church in Ireland and elsewhere sought to express in the pre-Vatican II era. Christendom and Christianity were never the same thing – and the distinction is critical if we are to communicate to lay people their own crucial and indispensable role in worldly consecration.

Nor can the consecration of the world be achieved by subterfuge, by inducting laity into clerically inspired and controlled pseudo-lay movements that seek to ‘infiltrate’ secular space. Conspiratorial Catholicism is one of the most powerful de-Christianising forces in history, because it proposes to seize by stealth what Christ aimed to transform by nothing more, or less, than unconditional and universal love. By now every Catholic – from Pope to first communicant – should know the fundamental equation proved by recent events: secrecy is – in itself – scandalous.

The fundamental values of the Gospel are not specifically Catholic, or in need of secret stratagems or movements, or alien to the secularised world, or out of place in any human relationship. They are the inalienable sacredness of every human person, and therefore also the sacredness of every human space – and the right of all persons to know and cherish their own dignity and freedom as dearly beloved of God. They have to do, centrally, with unconditional respect for one another, and for ourselves.

It follows that instead of lamenting the half-emptiness of the glass of secularisation, Catholicism should be celebrating its half-fullness – the fact that it emphasises some rights that are implicit in the Gospels, and provides a peaceful neutral space in which all can freely discuss their own spiritual journeys and dilemmas. Victimisation and oppression are also anathema to ideological secularism – and this is a victory for the cross as well, even though we must point to the obvious anomaly of abortion and the drift towards a degrading separation of sexuality from binding relationships.

We Catholics cherish our sacraments as signs of divine love – but we have also forcibly baptised conquered peoples, and therefore made baptism also – for some – a contradictory sign of oppression. Religious freedom was a goal of secularism before it was a principle of our Church – so secularism is for many a more convincing sign of their own liberation, and therefore, to that extent, in that respect – and for those people – more sacramental than the church.

It follows inexorably that there are secular sacraments as well as Catholic ones – sacraments that point nevertheless to the same truths. It follows that they too are worthy of Catholic respect. This discovery was fundamental to the work of Fr John Courtney Murray whose respect for separation of church and state in his own country guided the Vatican II affirmation of the principle of religious liberty.

Which means in turn that we must believe that whenever the Church fails in its assigned role of mediating liberation and salvation to the world, God will find other means. We must therefore learn to recognise them – rather than to condemn them because they are not Catholic. Karl Rahner’s ‘anonymous Christians’ are no mere theoretical possibility: they exist wherever human beings idealise human equality and freedom – even if they mis-recognise Christ as a God of oppression through our fault.

This perspective is very different to the one currently taught in our schools. Although we have abandoned the formula ‘no salvation outside the Church’ we have nevertheless supposed and taught that somehow sometime our Church will be vindicated as the central vehicle of human salvation, and that divine grace must sometime be mediated to all through its sacraments. We are also taught to fear secularism, rather than to celebrate the freedoms it provides.

The lives of people such as Nelson Mandela, Andrey Sakharov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and George Mitchell prove that our God is always greater than we are, and has other strings to his bow. And that he does not wait for our Church to get its act together.

What the Gospels centrally reveal is the existence of a divine force for good, concerned for the fulfilment of every human person. That does not mean that we must suppose God wants everyone to be like us.

In fact, to be truly Catholic, we must be ready to acknowledge that many are Godly who are very unlike us – and celebrate that difference. As Richard Rohr and Ronald Rohlheiser have emphasised, Jesus never told us to be right, to be sure of our own religious and intellectual superiority. Becoming wise is a matter of letting go the need to be right – and it is far more important for the Church to be wise than dominant.

If this seems to be a capitulation to ‘ relativism’, the mistake is in supposing that our God is confined to revealing himself through us. We write and speak of a hierarchy of truth, and so oblige ourselves to identify what lies at the summit of that hierarchy. We need to be very sure that we do not place ourselves there, by deifying our Church.

For me the summit of that hierarchy is the inalienable dignity of every person – including those who differ from me. Their right to differ is therefore in itself sacred – so that I cannot claim the last word. This seems to me to be at the centre of the Word I worship.

And that is very close to the Enlightenment principle of intellectual freedom – one of the keystones of secular modernism.

It follows inexorably that Catholicism needs to re-evaluate its performance vis-a-vis the Enlightenment and Christendom – and this amounts to a revolution in Catholic thought. To consecrate the world to God we are called to co-operate with – rather than to convert – all who centre themselves upon principles of equality, freedom, community and inclusion.

Just as the domination of the secular world today cannot be considered the manifest destiny of any secular superpower, neither can the spiritual domination of the world be considered the manifest destiny of Catholicism. To be truly a great sacrament of human spiritual liberation it must let go of the need to be recognised by all as right, while maintaining its own right to adhere to its own faith. If its mandate is to liberate the world – the central meaning of salvation – it must unequivocally affirm that its own core values include the right of others to remain forever outside.

It follows from all of this that the role of laity in consecrating the world to God must not be seen as one of simply following the instructions of the clerical church, or of reversing secularisation. Clerical paternalism has already placed faithful Catholic laity in the obnoxious position of appearing to be simply forelock-tugging ‘yes’ people with no intellectual autonomy, a kind of ‘Catholic Mafia’ still wedded to the cause of re-clericalising secular space.

We Catholics must all become far more aware of the degree to which fundamental Christian and Catholic values are already out there in the world, informing the best of secular culture. Previous articles on the Harry Potter and Star Wars phenomena have pointed to the central Christian ideas of self-sacrifice for the good of others, and there are many more examples of the same. The very real example that now dominates the imagination of the west was that of the policemen and firemen who raced into terrifying danger, with no violent intent, on September 11th 2001.

What made the priesthood of Christ quite unique was that it had both a secular and a religious significance. Traditional priestly animal sacrifice was essentially the deflection onto a non-human creature of violence that must otherwise fall upon the sacrificing community, or upon at least one of its members. There was, on the part of the priest, an inevitable element of substitution and evasion. Sacred violence in the ancient world was therefore inevitably morally compromised – the fundamental reason for the obsession with ritual cleanliness. Furthermore, the spheres of the sacred and the profane were inevitably divorced and almost antagonistic to one another, as the priest had to be apart from the rest of men.

This evasion and separation was obliterated by the cross. Jesus sacrificed himself alone for the cause of a forgiving and peaceful world. As Paul noted in Ephesians, every Christian can emulate this sacrifice of Christ in his own body, to some degree, for the benefit of others. This real self-sacrifice incarnates the mercy of God, and the sacrifice of Christ, in a manner that is in no way inferior to the liturgical sacrifice of the Mass. Indeed, to the degree that sacrifice remains a merely liturgical phenomenon, Catholicism has failed.

Which means in turn that there should not be any difference in dignity between the lay Catholic and the Catholic priest in the church’s own internal structures. I have remarked here before on the fact that lay Catholics recently wronged by their clergy have found in secular structures a personal dignity and a vindication they could not discover in their Church. This is a scandal that must be righted urgently if the Church superstructure is to recover any of the prestige it once had in secular Ireland, and among its own laity.

Autonomy is an essential sign of dignity, and the lack of autonomy that lay people suffer in the church is the essential cause of the spiritual diffidence, resentment and intellectual immaturity that characterise so many of us. The ‘consecration of the world to God’ requires therefore the creation of autonomous lay structures within which lay men and women can develop their own special and irreplaceable vocations.

These structures are needed not for radical theological innovation, but for the empowering of laity to incarnate the values of the gospel that belong especially to lay people – the values of sacrifice and service that presently lie largely dormant because the Church remains an essentially clerical apparatus. For centuries that apparatus has called laity to worship without freeing laity to serve – for fear of losing clerical control. It still hangs fearfully unready to free the Holy Spirit that now calls so many lay people. It is that fear above all that now retards the development of the whole church as an instrument of worldly consecration.

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April Epiphanies

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life  June 2002

April 2002 was another riveting month in the gathering crisis of our Church. At Maynooth and Rome high level conferences occurred whose subject matter was the problem of clerical child abuse. In the statements that emerged from both there were abject apologies and firm assurances that leaders who had been remiss in the past would do better in future.

Unmentioned in these was a far greater scandal that future church historians must record. It was not the pain of sexual abuse itself that had prompted these conferences – for this had occurred long before – but media exposure of subsequent administrative abuse by bishops – abuse which had caused additional, unnecessary and even graver suffering.

Church historians must therefore record also that in April 2002 the leaderships of the Irish and American churches – and even the Papacy itself – lost their moral authority. For if it is to the secular media we must look to make our leaders even partially accountable, what does this say about their own unforced sense of moral obligation to their own flock? What does it say also about the church system under which these leaders have received and exercise their responsibilities, and to which they still resist any change?

The point needs to be made with absolute clarity. In April 2002 the whole population of this planet saw the highest leaders of the Catholic Church respond not to the accumulated wrongs of Catholic lambs – but to secular media exposure of these.

All of the facts the media revealed were already known to at least some of the highest administrators in the Irish and US churches: it was public presentation of those facts – sometimes by the victims themselves – that precipitated public expressions of remorse and atonement from those bishops, and galvanised the papacy. Their public remorse, scandalously, did not precede their public exposure. It followed it, and was therefore wholly unconvincing. Further, that exposure was achieved not by some internal Catholic checking mechanism, but by the BBC and the Boston Globe, entirely secular agencies.

Until those facts are recorded and addressed by the church at the highest level it follows inexorably that we Catholics must expect to continue to see our church’s accumulated dirty linen washed periodically in the full glare of the global media. Eight years ago, following another BBC documentary on Brendan Smyth, another Irish churchman resigned, the Abbot of Kilnacrott, Kevin Smyth. In that case too it was the secular world that had belatedly taught basic Christianity to leaders of the Irish church – but that fact and its significance went unrecorded by the Irish hierarchy. If it passes unobserved this time we Catholics can expect to see, by about 2010, the next great Irish Catholic embarrassment.

No improved set of rules and guidelines on any specific issue can affect this, because the basic flaw of the system that pertained in 1994 is still there today, and still has not been even mentioned by the leadership – that to the bishop alone all responsibility for following any guidelines on any matter are still entrusted. Every bishop remains his own sole guardian, so a flawed bishop still has the very same power to be unjust – and the only recourse of the lay person for protection and vindication in that event will be to secular agencies still. The Church as a community can still guarantee the wronged lay person no protection or vindication by his own church: we must look still to the secular world for these.

It follows from this in turn that the sense of our church as a moral community has been dealt a damaging blow by the current church leadership. For if secular structures are a better guarantee of justice from one’s own church – and its leadership shows no sign of noticing this – how is it possible to argue that God walks with them, guiding and advising them?

Another deeply counter-evangelical conclusion has been drawn from April’s events by many supposedly unsophisticated Catholics: that the status and dignity of the lay person in the eyes of the Catholic hierarchy generally is inferior to the status the lay person enjoys as a member of his secular community. And there is very good reason for this conclusion.

Why otherwise would Marie Collins have had to wait for a media furore in April 2002 to win for her the apology she was clearly due years earlier, and certainly no later than 2001, when she had presented the very same facts? Why otherwise would Colm O’Gorman and the other young men whose story precipitated the BBC program of March 2002 have had to wait until then for the resignation of the Bishop of Ferns, and for the Maynooth conference that followed? Why else would the rest of the Irish Catholic laity still lack an opportunity to put, as members of the same church community, their own questions about this and other vital matters to their own bishops?

To put it bluntly, why must an Irish Catholic, in almost all dioceses in Ireland, become a media person to put a public question to a Catholic bishop?

The answer seems to be that many of our bishops see us as persons of equal dignity only after the media have established that status for us. Until then we are simply ‘the simple faithful’ whose obligation is silent loyalty – mere faces in the applauding crowd.

Convinced as I am that my church does indeed stand for the equal dignity of all – and that it must say so not just verbally, but in the way it administers itself, I say, again, that the aristocratic structures and style of the hierarchy, which allow no internal check against hierarchical malfeasance and arrogance, must change. Pope, cardinals and bishops must stop and ask themselves why it is that the secularism many of them detest offers a better prospect of justice, and dignity, to a Catholic lay person than the structures of the church itself.

It would be entirely naïve to suppose that this has anything to do with a higher secular morality. It results from the simple fact that power in the secular world is distributed, not concentrated. Although secular Ireland is, in fact, very corrupt (as we were also reminded in April by a report from the British Rowntree Foundation), there are mechanisms for discovering this, and media independent of government flourish by this discovery. As we also saw in April, a politician who trespasses on the independence of a judge can be called to account, publicly, by the judge in question, with final consequences for his career.

But no such separation, and no such freedom of information, is possible in a church whose hierarchical culture still owes most to the European ancien regime, very little to the Gospels, and nothing at all to the past three centuries of administrative and political science. Even after the Vatican conference of April it was clear that the Pope considers renewed holiness to be the only solution to clerical malfeasance. But if divine grace did not prevent the most appalling injustice being done by priests and bishops in the past, and if the small justice eventually done is owed to the separation of powers in the secular world, hasn’t God now clearly spoken? Mustn’t there be a separation of powers (which does not mean a separation of doctrine also) – and freedom of information – in the Catholic Church?

How this might be arranged without imperilling the unity of the church is a matter for serious thought and prayer by the whole church. At the very least it demands the existence in every diocese of an independent body, with lay membership elected by and therefore answerable only to, the laity. This body’s remit should include the posing of questions for the bishop from any member of the laity, and, where appropriate, the publication of those answers to the whole diocese. It should include also oversight of clerical appointments and financial administration. Its membership should include also people of expertise in matters such as education, law and psychology, co-opted by the elected membership, in an advisory role for the whole diocese.

To argue that any such arrangement would damage the church is to close one’s eyes completely to the appalling damage already done by the concentration of power and responsibility in the hands of one person. The church’s present system of governance is a global scandal that makes the very idea of an apostolic succession seem ridiculous. True, we do not yet know what the findings of the state inquiry into the events in Ferns will be. However, there is already more than enough evidence from events throughout the world to convince any balanced observer that the day of the aristocratic bishop, monarch of what little he now surveys, must pass into history.

Catholic self-respect, justice, communication, participation and renewal, now demand that responsibility in the church be shared by, and discussed by, the whole church – including those entrusted by Lumen Gentium with the consecration of the secular world to God – the laity. Otherwise the proposal that our church can play any part in re-evangelising Ireland and the West will continue to receive, and to deserve, a hollow laugh – not just from the secular world, but from all Catholics also.

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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?

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Secularism and an Adult Church

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 1997

“Ireland is becoming a secular country.” With these words Bishop Thomas Flynn responded in April 1997 to questions from the Irish Times about a reported 70% support in Ireland for those causes espoused by the liberal Catholic petitionary movement originating in Austria in 1995 (advocating female ordination and an end to mandatory priestly celibacy etc.).

What struck me at the time was that Bishop Flynn’s comment coincided with a determined effort by the Catholic hierarchy to prevent their influence over education in Ireland being eroded by proposed (but subsequently abandoned) legislation by the Rainbow Coalition. If Ireland is becoming a secular country, I asked myself, is this in spite of, or because of, Catholic determination of the ‘ethos’ of most schools in Ireland? As a teacher of history for thirty years in Catholic schools in Northern Ireland I was fairly well placed to ask such a question, but it is in fact extraordinarily complex.

What is secularism?

First, secularism is a slippery concept. Are we talking simply about the undogmatic tendency of humans to give priority, most of the time, to the immediate concerns of this life – for food, shelter, career, financial security, entertainment. Or are we referring to an ideological commitment by those in control of policy to exclude all religious concerns and values? Or do we mean specifically anti-clericalism – the desire to wrest intellectual authority from the clergy? As the first is a constant throughout history, even Irish history, I presume that Bishop Flynn is talking about the second or third – perhaps both. Modern secularism originated in the eighteenth century enlightenment’s determination to wrest control of ideas and public policy from the clergies, so a dogmatic and exclusive ‘this world only’ outlook, and anti-clericalism, are historically closely related.

In assessing the impact of this kind of secularism upon schools in Ireland, and, through them, upon the church, we must remember that in all schools on both sides of the border there is a secular curriculum, legally enforced, which occupies more than 85% of the time of all pupils. It is against this curriculum that young people are tested at the end of their school careers in probably the most demanding ‘rite of passage’ they will face in their lives. How influential, in this context, can a spiritual ethos actually be, no matter how well used the 10-15% of time remaining?

Less influential now than heretofore, apparently – education has been secularised in this sense for generations, but only now do we discern the dominance of secularism as an exclusive cast of mind, threatening to disinherit the Church in Ireland. It seems that, ‘catholic ethos’ notwithstanding, the spiritual cast of mind so sedulously developed in up to fourteen years of education is soon consigned by most school leavers to the attic, along with the files of leaving cert and A level notes. Religious practice often ceases at the same time. This is a phenomenon that deserves serious attention and study far beyond the scope of this article, but some observations based upon my own experience as both pupil and teacher over the period 1953-1996 may be useful.

First, it is an educational truism that an answer which precedes a question will bypass the pupil. It is far easier to pose an historical problem in the classroom and arouse an interest in all possible answers, or to structure a chemistry experiment, than to create in the same situation the complex of life circumstances which lead to deep religious questions, and deep receptivity to Christian answers. If Jesus is to be a model for our educational praxis it’s worth pointing out that far from advocating the systematic ‘inculcation of ethos’ in children, He held them up, uneducated, as an example towards which the adult should aspire. And the adults chosen were usually those who turned up, often in anguish, with their own needs and questions. The original church was founded upon adult suffering and uncertainty, not childhood habituation, and grew in this mode for centuries.

Paradox

This observation explains an anomaly in my own life. My doubts about the faith started at the precise moment I was first told insistently (about the age of ten) that the Catholic Church was the One True Church. I had encountered no reason to doubt it before this, so now I wondered why so much of a song and dance was being made. Hey (lightbulb flickers) maybe ….! Yet after a subsequent half-lifetime of intellectual swithering between a purely secular and a Christian outlook I became deeply and totally committed, at about the age of fifty, to the latter. This happened as the consequence of a deep personal crisis, and was deeply influenced also by an experience of the liturgy and culture of the school in which I had taught for a quarter of a century. But paradoxically many of the most intelligent children I taught, including my own, felt ‘suffocated’ by that same experience. There are several reasons for this paradox.

The first is that, evaluating my own life, I was asking those deep ultimate questions to which Christianity is the most beautiful possible answer, whereas most young people have no occasion to do so – at least until late adolescence. Another is the fact that as a teacher I was not subject to the mandatory RE curriculum in the same manner as my own children, captives rather than determiners of the system. To put it simply, I had the power of initiative, whereas catholic education is based upon the presumption that children are from baptism committed catholics. And they are treated accordingly at every stage of their school career. From early in secondary school our children are given total freedom to choose a secular career (from a more and more dazzling array). To choose a religious faith – the most sacred right defended by Vatican II – they are given no significant moment of freedom whatsoever: Faith is poured on aboriginally at baptism and assumed to be growing constantly thereafter, like appetite or a birthmark. We take our children’s faith for granted – although it is a matter of grace, and therefore not in our gift.

No sacramental rite of passage to adulthood

The result is the most fundamental flaw in the church’s present structure: despite our total freedom to determine the age at which the sacraments are administered, for the lay ‘cradle’ Catholic no sacrament marks and celebrates the free decision – which can be taken only by an adult – to commit oneself totally to Christ. The Eucharist is first administered before the child can understand the extraordinary gift of Christ’s sacrifice of His own body in an appalling personal and completely human crisis; Confirmation before the child can possibly understand the need and opportunity for the descent of the Spirit following the Ascension and Christ’s joyous reunion with the Father. For the Catholic baptised at infancy there is no sacramental rite of passage from habitual religious adolescence into Christian adulthood. Experientially awesome sacraments – received by the apostles before and after a supreme trauma – are administered as though their efficacy was similar to that of the whooping cough vaccine – totally independent of the psychological readiness of the recipient. The life role designed for the layperson involves no power of initiative either, so passivity is all that is required throughout life.

This familiar but awful truth helps to explain what is currently happening to the church in Ireland: few lay Catholics voluntarily make the transition to an adult commitment and vocation. When the social conventions which once supported school habituation in adult life are removed, we mostly breath a sigh of relief and play truant. Further, we subsequently see the clergy as opposed to our own free maturation, as advocates of this unequal system which pre-empts and presumes what should and could be both freely offered and freely chosen. Catholic education, as currently conceived, is thus itself a major part of the reason for the early flight by many young adults into secularism and anti-clericalism in Ireland, although it does ‘work’ for a gentle, mostly female, minority. For the typical independent-minded eighteen-year-old, Catholicism represents not freedom, but captivity.

Our typical deeply pathological lay-cleric relationship also begins here: clerical paternalism and pre-emption offer only two easy options for the layperson – a childish deference and passivity, or anti-clericalism. An easy adult-to-adult relationship, founded upon the fundamental equality of responsibility and fellowship offered by Christ, is the exception rather than the norm. This is why clerical scandals are regarded as an almost opportune and therapeutic vindication of the anticlerical option.

So what?

One further consequence of modern secularism is pervasive: scepticism about the fundamental truth of all truth claims. Cartesian doubt is a remote cause. The expansion of the media and advertising, and clerical and secular scandals, are more potent. So is the application of discipline to the evaluation of sources – as a teacher of History this has been the single most important development in my lifetime. All of this produces the ‘so what?’ syndrome – a caustic disrespect and suspicion of all claims to authority.

The popular actress Maggie Hoosit says ‘Drift’ washes whitest? So what? She’s paid handsomely to do so. The lesson derived from this truism is to look for self-interest in all attempts to control our behaviour. Applied to the church as presently ordered this method of authority-testing is devastating. The Pope/bishop/priest says we must go to Mass? So what? He’s worried about losing your family’s weekly pound in the envelope!

The consequence of this cynical sophistication in the evaluation of clerical claims to life-changing authority – achieved by most by the age of about sixteen – are obvious. The Tridentine concentration of initiative and authority in the hands of a professional clerical elite – supported financially by a relatively inexpert and psychologically and spiritually immature laity – has become a colossal inspirational liability for the church of the twenty-first century. Clerical scandals simply reinforce this weakness.

Secularism in deep crisis

Yet this is far from being the end of the story. Its impact upon the church should not obscure the fact that secularism, as an ideology, is also in deep trouble, and this provides a moment of extraordinary opportunity for the church. The systematic secular ideologies which emerged following the enlightenment (liberalism, democratic socialism, Marxism, Fascism chiefly) have all failed to deliver a spiritually, socially and intellectually respectable alternative to practical Christianity. In the aftermath of the Cold War, many western societies, Ireland included, have discovered some of their most eminent secular leaders to have been essentially corrupt.

So there is a growing awareness of the importance of community, but little understanding of the relationship between community and overarching religious beliefs. So, exclusive secularism produces a growing casualty list, a dysfunctional society, and thus a new receptivity to religious claims. This exposes millions to quackery and cultism – everything from astrology to ‘New Age’ vapourware to ‘aromatherapy’ to Scientology to the X files and Yogic trampolining – but it prepares them also to listen to the truth, and trains them to recognise it when they experience it. It can also cast a new light upon the Christian cosmology inherited from centuries ago and delivered so hopefully at school.

The enlightenment, the fount of secularism, was in turn inspired by the belief that science – wonderfully boosted by the recent Newtonian synthesis – would answer all questions and solve all problems. More than two centuries later, after a period of unprecedented scientific and technological advance, we can now evaluate that prediction. In fact, runaway technology threatens to create a global wilderness of greed and deprivation. And science at its leading edges has exposed mysteries as deep and awesome as those which baffled and inspired the ancients. The imagination of children, alienated from the mess we are making of this world, reaches into deep space and distant futures. Ancient legends set in a terrestrial landscape, find a new vogue and audience when set in cinematic planetary systems way out far beyond the reach of present and foreseeable technologies. The holocaust and the nuclear winter and substance addiction have had their own horrific impact. Mystery, chaos and terror have come back into the world, although the enlightenment predicted the opposite.

This is very similar to the spiritual landscape into which Christ came.

Why did Christ undergo humiliation?

Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Church’s central agency for monitoring theologians, is my favourite clerical bête noir. His role, awesome knowledge and super-cool confidence create an impression of Olympian omniscience and remoteness. So he recently rose greatly in my estimation when he admitted that he didn’t quite understand why Christ had to fail – had to be humiliated and crucified.1In Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium – published interview with Peter Seewald, (1997)

My layman’s ‘take’ on this, for what it’s worth, is that God is overwhelmed by compassion for the ordinary human being, the ‘loser’, for whom failure, humiliation and a lonely death are the norm. The ordinary human solution to the anticipation of this fate is to seek wealth and power – but this is in fact the basic cause of the complaint, the despoliation and enslavement of other losers, the eternal sin which will dog mankind eternally through time, and maybe destroy the whole of creation through the limitless potential of human intelligence. So God wants us to see another solution: the living of one’s life, and, if need be, the dying, for others. This will break the pattern – inspire a new creation.

That’s easy for God to advocate, we will complain, so He makes it difficult for himself also – He sends His only and most precious son to live this life and meet this death as a fully human archetype. The option he does not take (authoritarians take note) is to compel – because human freedom is part of human dignity and therefore inviolable. Secular power is a temptation for the Son as for us – but He remains faithful to His father’s vision. Rejecting the option of secular empowerment (which would enslave us) He is publicly humiliated and physically destroyed by it. This ‘death to oneself’ is morally superior to the ethic that supports the empire that killed him, and to all others of the same type. While the memory of this death and its reward, remain alive there is hope in the world, for from this seed a human and cosmic transformation can evolve. All the Christian churches carry this memory. Ours daily celebrates this loser’s death and invites us to physically link with the real body that suffered it.

Freedom?

Modern secularism is all about personal freedom. That is the glory and the tragedy of western society at the end of the second millennium. Intellectual freedom has indeed transformed the world. Freedom from material want is often achieved, but then misused – with catastrophic consequences for both the individual and society. Never before has there been the possibility of worldly success for so many people – but those who achieve it mostly haven’t a clue what to do with it. In scaling the pinnacle of modern ‘success’ – by possessing wealth – we discover that there is no beautiful vista on the other side. Today’s power symbol (the Pentium PC or Porsche) becomes tomorrow’s waste disposal problem. At the moment of triumph aspired to by teenagers the world over, the pop idol implodes into addiction, or shuts himself away in a compound to escape stalkers, thieves or the media. Our wealth is achieved at enormous environmental and personal cost. When we surf the Internet we learn that 200 million children around the world rot in sweatshops or brothels or on rubbish tips – but there appears to be no solution. We were never more knowledgeable or technologically powerful – why then are we so morally impotent?

It is questions of this kind that bring us back to reality and spirituality. Christ’s response to the worldliness of his own time was not to criticise the secular agenda of the Roman empire but to show solidarity with the weak and the miserable – at the level of the individual. There is not in the whole of the new testament a shred of evidence that Christ foresaw a role for the secular state in building His kingdom. That development had to wait for over three centuries, for the adoption of Christianity as the faith of the Roman Empire (a very mixed blessing, as time was to prove). Christ’s appeal was not to institutions or their leaders (their primary morality is always self-preservation) but to individuals on society’s margins. This is important, because it is at the level of the individual that western society is currently breaking down. Christ’s appeal to the individual – to perceive that it is only in giving that we receive, that only in service to others do we find true freedom – was never more relevant in a world devastated by selfishness and licence.

Yes, the power of secularism in Ireland today is in the ascendant. But it is forcing us all to realise and accept that priests too are only human, that we are all equally flawed, and that the church is not a given which will always be here no matter what. Many of us laity are now trying for the first time to identify what it is about our Catholic inheritance that must be salvaged. And realising that there is here after all a light with power enough to pierce through all possible futures – if we too cherish and carry it.

So I am not depressed by the rise of secularism in Ireland. The Roman Empire was the matrix of secular suffering and darkness into which Christ came. Its enormous power crushed him bodily as carelessly as one would a fly, but the relevance of his teaching, and the impact of his Resurrection upon his followers, conquered all fear and gradually overcame that empire, which now is but ruins and a memory. Its brutality was overthrown by Christ’s solidarity with its casualties, and his power to give them a certainty of their own worth that no worldly power or ideology could destroy. Today’s secular world produces even more of such casualties. They are today’s and tomorrow’s harvest – to which we are all invited.

To those who are convinced that the ‘old church’ is dying I would simply say this. The old and the new never occupy totally separate eras. They will always overlap. Alongside the old there is a new emerging church, because the Spirit is there whenever we reach out, not waiting for a change of Pope. A Catholic education joyfully forgotten at eighteen may be remembered, in its essentials, at a moment of supreme adult crisis. The central office of the priest, celebration of the Mass, saves lives eternally. But the priest now needs us, the laity, to share the church’s non-sacramental burdens in fellowship – everything from administration to evangelisation. It is this spirit of fellowship, rather than the Summa Theologia or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that is most needed just now – although they too have their place. Christ’s burden for us is far lighter and more portable – simply the news that with that extraordinary death a light came into the world that will never go out. And it shines, believe me, equally on us all.

So keep an eye out for this emerging church, if you have not already discovered it. Its harbingers may not be wearing any recognisable uniform. One of them may confront you soon in your bedroom mirror. The closer you are to despair, the more likely it is that this will happen – if you express that feeling in heartfelt prayer, even in tears. I have the very best of reasons to be certain of this.

Notes

  1. In Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium – published interview with Peter Seewald, (1997)

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