Category Archives: Spirituality

What is it to be Holy?

The Judean desert, where Jesus may have fasted and resisted temptation

What exactly is holiness? Will we know it when we see it? Is it attainable by anyone, or only by those who have made a lifelong commitment to the ‘religious’ or ‘consecrated’ life and to celibacy? How does holiness relate – if at all – to the secular virtue of integrity? 

In The Charismatic Structure of the Church: Priesthood and Religious Life at Vatican II and Beyond, Michael McGuckian SJ 1The Charismatic Structure of the Church: Priesthood and Religious Life at Vatican II and Beyond, Michael McGuckian SJ, Xlibris US, 2021provides essential historical background to the long debate on holiness in the Catholic Church and explains why complete agreement by Catholic bishops at Vatican II proved impossible to achieve. Arrested by this unexpected discovery, the author is currently busy on a sequel – not only to reinforce the call to all to ‘be perfect’ but to explain why no one should suppose that this calling is ever impossible for themselves, whatever their situation or time of life.

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That all Catholics are called to holiness by Lumen Gentium (‘Light of Nations’ – a key document of Vatican II 1962-65) – is known at least vaguely to many of that generation and later.  However, if asked to explain clearly what holiness is and how that call can best be answered, how many could confidently respond?  If asked, perhaps scathingly, what the purpose or point of holiness could be now – by someone of a secular mindset – how many would be ‘up’ for that as well?

Necessarily the standard for holiness for all Christians was set by their founder, Jesus of Nazareth – and from the beginning those called by him to ‘follow’ and to ‘be perfect’ needed to discern how exactly to do that. Given that Jesus’s own ‘way’ was not simply one of poverty and celibacy but of exceptional risk, suffering and – in the end – catastrophe, was it even sensible to think of following all of that perfectly?  If not, what ‘way’ would be best?

The greatest virtue of The Charismatic Structure of the Church is the copious evidence it provides for the conclusion that there has never been a time in the long history of the church when Christian ‘holiness’ was a settled question, with its meaning and practice harmoniously agreed by all who sought to follow and to teach.

To marry in uncertain times, or not?

St Paul, Apostle

The difficulty of the choice between the married and celibate states was an obvious one from the start, a choice made more problematic in the first century by uncertainty over how soon Jesus would return in glory, for the Final Judgement.  St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians clearly reveals that this was an issue in his time (e.g. 1 Cor 7).

St Monica, Mother of St Augustine of Hippo

Those who opted for perpetual virginity in those early years set an example that proved durable down the centuries, but so did those who did not.  From the latter came subsequently many Saints who then themselves became enthusiasts for virginity.  A notable example is St Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century, who strongly advocated celibacy following his conversion.  If his sainted mother Monica had been able to opt for virginity when of marriageable age, and had been so inclined, the medieval church would have been deprived unknowingly of one of its greatest luminaries.

The Monastic Model – and ‘Secular’ Clergy

Soon also there were those who decided that ‘following’ required a way of life that was separated entirely from the distracting and profligate ‘world’, and was lived within a separated community of like-minded ‘ascetics’.  This ‘coenobitic’ option was the origin of monasticism.

And yet – especially after the early fourth century legalisation of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine – the diocesan successors of the apostles needed local parish ‘presbyters’ or clerics who would not live in a separated and dedicated community but in ‘the world’ among ordinary citizens. This was the origin of the ‘secular’ or ‘diocesan’ clergy – and for the first Christian millennium many of the latter lived married rather than virginal lives.

St John Chrysostom

It followed, then, that from an early stage there could and would be strong differences of opinion on how best to follow Jesus faithfully.  Where St John Chrysostom (347-407) would insist that none of the baptised should feel unable to follow the Lord faithfully, others took Jesus’s solitary and debatable reference to ‘eunuchs’ (Matt 19: 11-12) as an injunction to lifelong celibacy.  That inevitably consigned the married state to the relative disapproval of many of those who chose that option.

We are the Holiest

The question of who was the holiest became even more unsettled with the arrival of the mendicant orders – e.g. the Franciscans and Dominicans –  in the 1200s.  Given a universal missionary mandate by the pope, they inevitably came into conflict with the hierarchical claim of diocesan bishops – that even the monks and friars should consider themselves subordinate to themselves in the scale of holiness – since ‘perfection’ was a distinctive ‘sign’ or attribute of the bishop’s apostolic office.

St Thomas Aquinas

When the Dominican friar St Thomas Aquinas disagreed and prioritised three ‘evangelical counsels’  – of poverty, chastity (i.e. celibacy) and obedience, as a ‘holocaust’ or total consecration of the person to God (1256), he was therefore setting this ascetic option up in opposition to any association of a superior holiness with the hierarchical principle – and a centuries-long disagreement between ‘secular clergy’ and ‘religious’ ensued.

That such tensions could exist between ‘regular’ clergy (those who belong to religious orders whose members are bound to a founder’s ‘rule of life’) and ‘secular’ clergy (those directly under the authority of a diocesan bishop) will astonish those lay Catholics who may fondly have supposed that no historic disharmony could ever have intruded into the equally edifying holiness of all of their ordained ministers.

Vatican II – Same Old Same Old

However, many will be even more mind-boggled to learn that this same dispute was to surface – 800 years later – at Vatican II (1962-65).

Whereas there was strong support among many bishops at the council for an emphatic statement in Lumen Gentium that regular clergy, secular clergy and laity (married or unmarried) were equally called to and capable of manifesting the same holiness (by God’s grace), a powerful lobby for the manifest superior claim of the evangelical counsels was eventually successful in frustrating that aim.

Two consequences followed: not only does Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium (‘The Universal Call to Holiness in the Church’) lack the insistence that all of the baptised are called to the same holiness, but immediately following, in a separate chapter entitled ‘Religious‘, there is an assertion of the superior claim to holiness for the following of the evangelical counsels, including celibacy.

As a result, while Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium stresses that all in the church are called to holiness, Chapter 6 of the same document insists that the evangelical counsels of poverty, celibacy and obedience ‘are based upon the words and examples of the Lord’.  Furthermore, this ‘religious state whose purpose is to free its members from earthly cares, more fully manifests to all believers the presence of heavenly goods already possessed here below’. (44)

That marriage and the nurturing and the safeguarding of children are thereby declared ‘earthly cares’ that are inherently less capable of ‘manifesting the presence of heavenly goods’ (i.e. of holiness) will baffle lay Catholics today,  especially in light of the revelations of the last three decades. Global church events since the 1980s have raised the most serious questions over any claim to a moral or spiritual superiority for any chosen ‘state of life’ or hierarchical office – up to and including the office of pope.  Jesus’s most solemn adjurations re the protection of the innocence of children have had a new and shocking impact. Pope Francis’s frank and welcome admission that he too is a sinner – and has also made mistakes in handling clerical child abuse – provides a postscript to Lumen Gentium Chapter 6 that underlines its shortcomings.

An Unsatisfactory Confusion

Michael McGuckian therefore concludes that at present the church’s formal teaching position on holiness is ambivalent and unsatisfactory. Whereas all are called to holiness by Lumen Gentium, this is not clearly – in this important document – the same call to the same holiness. By implication the holiness to which lay people can aspire can only be, at best, the avoidance of serious sin. Those bishops who insisted on the insertion of Chapter 6 into Lumen Gentium could not agree to the use of the phrase ‘same holiness’ in any part of the document other than article 39 – where it clearly refers only to those who observe the evangelical counsels. Subsequent magisterial treatments of holiness – e.g.  Vita Consecrata by St John Paul II (1996) – have not resolved this problem either, in his view.

Can we avoid the conclusion that the recruitment crisis for the celibate priesthood is still preventing a full and unequivocal acknowledgement of the equal call to, and potential for, holiness of the unordained and non-celibate majority of the baptised people of God?

In light of this situation, and the hovering threat of the Vatican watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, what Catholic evangelist today would take on to preach on the meaning of holiness for lay people – especially in the wake of the revelation that, apparently, integrity – so emphatically modelled for us by Jesus – was never a consideration or an issue at Vatican II when holiness was under discussion?

Are Christian holiness and Christian love the same?

In a subsequent recorded interview Michael McGuckian promotes a persuasive solution to the problem of defining holiness:  we should look to the Great Commandments of love of God above all, and of neighbour as oneself – the Shema Israel still recited and sung  by observant Jews today and reiterated by Jesus (eg. In Matt 22: 37-40). We should look also to Jesus’s own new commandment in John 13:34 – to love one another as he has loved us. These, Michael insists, are a non-postponeable and binding call to be perfect in love – a call that can be heard and obeyed at any stage of life – or in any state of life – by any of the baptised without distinction.

On discovering that St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas had agreed that these Great Commandments of Jesus and the Torah were not real commandments  – because they demand an unattainable perfection – Michael McGuckian was unimpressed and unconvinced, and is now bent on explaining why.

If anyone else has ever wondered why, in the wake of Vatican II, no Irish bishop ever convened his people of God to consider together how they could ‘consecrate the world to God’ (Lumen Gentium 34), this book will greatly help to explain all that. It has not only addressed most of my own questions on holiness, but given me an invaluable historical overview of the issue. My only slight complaint relates to its title. While ‘The Charismatic Structure of the Church’ may signal the book’s content clearly to experts on church structure, something like ‘Holiness? A History of Disagreement’ would have made it a ‘must read’ for me as soon as it was launched in April 2021.

It must surely be seen also now that the citation out of context of Matthew 19:12  in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Article 1579) – the sole reference by Jesus to celibacy in the Gospels – is a scandalous leaning on the scales in the cause of making celibacy a necessary condition of ordination.  That Gospel context was a discussion of Jesus’s teaching against easy divorce, a teaching that was obviously also ‘for the sake of the kingdom of God’. In light of the known contemporary Jewish expectation that religious men would marry, by far the most sensible inference to be drawn from Jesus’s subsequent reference to eunuchs is that celibacy could also serve the kingdom, not that it would better or would best serve the kingdom.

Holiness and Integrity

This needs especially to be said at this time, in light of the global revelation that priestly celibacy can as readily be a matter of mere appearances as of fact. Here Jesus’s denunciations of hypocrisy – of seeking to be regarded as holy – have not yet received the attention they deserve (e.g. Matt 6:1-6). That unknown multitudes of innocent children and vulnerable adults have suffered lifelong agonies as a consequence is now indisputable, and the cost of centuries of concealment of this reality has not yet been fully acknowledged and redressed.

Fr Michael McGuckian SJ

We can therefore anticipate that in his next book – on that same subject – Michael McGuckian will be citing Jesus’s story of the equal reward given to the latecomers in the vineyard to question any claim that any office or chosen state of life can entitle anyone to a superior expectation of ‘the treasure hidden in the field’.  We can also hope that the critical importance of integrity – the conformity of behaviour with what is vowed and professed, or is implied by any church role or office – will be emphasised.

The ancient belief that personal holiness must come automatically with the conferring of any particular office, even that of bishop, must surely also be finally rejected. Here Lord Acton’s comment on the danger of attributing holiness to a person solely on account of that person’s role or official status has too long been ignored: ‘There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.’2Lord Acton, letter to Mandell Creighton, 1887

Can disobedience be holy?

Also – in regard to the virtue of obedience – that a good conscience can oblige anyone to disobey a religious superior needs now also to be emphasised – since everyone understands now that unholy obedience was also a major factor in the global tide of recent scandal. Why, for so long, was Jesus’s courage in challenging the Jewish religious hierarchies of his own time never seen as a distinctive mark of his sanctity? That a fetish for lace-laden clerical attire could be preferred as a sign of holiness in the long era of clericalist illusion will forever be remembered.

St Mary McKillop
1842-1909
The Holiness of the Family

The canonisation of the Australian Saint Mary McKillop in 2010 is conclusive proof of the need to qualify the elevation of obedience as a requirement for holiness. Personally pilloried for her calling out of a clerical abuser in Australia, the cross of excommunication she was obliged to carry in 1871 is a dire warning against a pernicious religious authoritarianism – the expectation of deference in all circumstances by a religious superior.

Finally, the ongoing promotion of the ‘domestic church’ to an indispensable role in the faith formation of adults as well as children has its own logic.  If parents and grandparents are truly to have the primary responsibility for encouraging and guiding the faith development of their children, must this not be recognised as a call to a sacred role and a holy task, modelled on the example of the Holy Family?  That we should still be so distant from a full and unequivocal recognition of the same call to every baptised person – to respond sincerely to the greatest commandments of integrity and love in whatever space we currently occupy – speaks loudly for the timeliness of this book.

Notes

  1. The Charismatic Structure of the Church: Priesthood and Religious Life at Vatican II and Beyond, Michael McGuckian SJ, Xlibris US, 2021
  2. Lord Acton, letter to Mandell Creighton, 1887

Sean O’Conaill, 19th August 2021 
(This article first appeared on the website of the Association of Catholics in Ireland)

The Spirit of Vatican II

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  September 2012

What exactly was ‘the spirit of Vatican II’? Ignorant voices are sometimes raised these times to misrepresent it merely as the spirit of 1960s secular liberalism. This trend has led to an even more dangerous and unjust one: to blame ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ and those who speak of it for ‘all that has gone wrong’ since.

This Catholic did his Leaving Cert in 1960, and was at UCD when news of the council broke. I remember vividly what the spirit of Vatican II meant to me. In essence it was the spirit of confidence, love and hope that led Pope John XXIII to call the council in the first place. It was also the spirit led him to support the movement among so many bishops to abandon a quite contrary spirit – the spirit of fear, chauvinism and triumphalism, of anathemas and overbearing paternalism, that had tended to dominate the governance of the church in the nineteenth century. It was also the spirit that led Pope John XXIII to visit a Roman prison and speak off the cuff about the equal compassion of God for all of us.

It was never a spirit of heady conformity to 1960s hedonism. I never associated ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ with the so-called ‘sexual revolution’, or with the naivety of ‘all you need is love’. It was a spirit that called me instead to discipleship, and therefore to discipline also. It was a call to maturity, to responsibility, to holiness (i.e. to prayer, goodness and kindness), to joy, and to learning. And it was a call to every baptised Catholic.

I felt confident in the world Catholic magisterium of that time, despite the obvious fact that so many Irish bishops harked back to the fearful and controlling paternalism of the pre-conciliar period. As a young teacher after the council I felt sure that the spirit of the council would soon prevail in Ireland also, especially through dialogical and collegial church structures that would arise inevitably out of Lumen Gentium Article 37.

And so I am certain that ‘all that has gone wrong since’ is a result of the failure of the Catholic magisterium to maintain the spirit of Vatican II – that spirit of hope and confidence and equal dignity in the church. Above all it was the result of a betrayal by the magisterium of not just the spirit but the letter of Lumen Gentium.

One illustration will suffice. According to Lumen Gentium 37 (1965) Catholic lay people would be “empowered to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church” …. “through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose”.

Let’s suppose that had actually happened in Ireland, say in the 1970s. If there had existed in Ireland truly representative and open diocesan and parish forums from the early 1970s, would the parents of Irish clerical abuse victims of the late 70s and 80s and 90s have had to rely from then on only on the integrity of secretive Catholic bishops and their underlings to protect other Catholic children? Could, for example, Brendan Smyth have continued to run rampant through Ireland until 1993 – if Irish Catholic lay people had learned much earlier the confidence to question their bishops openly on administrative matters, ‘through structures established for that purpose’?

Now in 2012, the CDF’s “promoter of justice” Mgr Charles Scicluna tells us that in this matter of child protection ‘Bishops are accountable to the Lord, but also to their people.’ None of us would have needed telling of this if the magisterium had held on to the spirit of Vatican II, and implemented its letter also.

Yet the summary report of the Vatican visitators to Ireland makes no mention of Irish bishops being accountable to their people! The magisterium’s clock is still stuck in 1965, still stuck in Curial fear of any Catholic assembly it cannot control and manipulate. What an ocean of tears has been shed in consequence!

And the letter of Lumen Gentium remains unhonoured to this day. Whatever spirit has determined that, it isn’t the spirit of Vatican II. It isn’t the Holy Spirit either.

Of Good and Evil: V – Abba

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Jul/Aug 2010

We are chronically unsure of our own value!

We may be so unsure of it that we may waste years in search of the admiration of others.

Until one day we realise that we have wasted our time.

Only then are we ready to live.

Never in human history have we humans had access to so much knowledge. Never has the possession of knowledge had such prestige. Especially the kind of knowledge that allows financial information to be controlled and communicated through the world’s computer systems.

And never has there been less interest in making some kind of meaningful pattern of the knowledge at our disposal. What people call western civilisation was founded on a passionate search for an overarching truth that would make sense of everything. Today you are likely to get the blankest of looks if you ask one of today’s university graduates any truly important question.

Such as: “Why have reason and science alone been unable to build a perfect world?”

Or: “What important conclusions are you able to draw from everything you know?”

Or: “Why do you think the world is in crisis?”

Or: “What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?”

Focused on increasingly narrow areas of expertise, aimed usually at making a living, our educated people have mostly lost confidence in their own ability to discern a deeper truth. They may even have bought into an arrogant “we know it all” attitude that disparages all the wisdom of the past.

Wisdom such as is compressed in the following story.

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no-one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'”

All Christians will be familiar with this story, but we have still to exhaust the wisdom it contains, or to apply it properly to our own time. No one may ever have pointed out to us to a key element of the story, the key that unlocks a meaning that would have been plain to every Jewish listener in Jesus’ time.

The fact that the son who left home and ‘squandered his wealth’ was the younger son.

Younger sons were especially doubtful of their own value in ancient times. Noticing and envying the dominant role of their fathers, they also noticed that their fathers tended to favour their eldest sons. And those eldest sons would inherit all of the prestige of their fathers some day. Younger sons could all too easily conclude: “Here I will always be second to someone – never first. I must go elsewhere to make a name for myself!”

Story after story in the Bible tells us of the rivalry that develops between brothers – and usually the rivalry has to do with the very same problem that we all have today:

We are chronically unsure of our own value, and have an extraordinary need for the reassurance of others.

And, repeating in our own lives the story of the ‘Prodigal Son’, we can cause ourselves extreme suffering in the years we spend looking for that reassurance. It is always a vain search, because most of those we look to for reassurance are looking for exactly the same thing themselves.

Does God punish us?

But this short story had an even greater meaning for Jesus’ Jewish listeners. To summarise their history, they were a people who went wandering in search of glory, who lost faith in the God who had delivered them from slavery, who suffered a second exile in Babylon, and who then found themselves in Jesus’ time under the captivity of Rome. For some of the Jews these humiliations were God’s punishment for their own waywardness.

But Jesus had an entirely different ‘take’ on these events. The parable just related explains it fully. Our worst humiliations are a self-punishment. They follow naturally from our vanity. But the God of Israel, and of all of us, is ‘Abba‘ – the father who never forgets his wayward sons. He sees us while we are ‘still a long way off’ and runs to us as we approach.

And today in Ireland?

We in Ireland desperately need to apply the parable to our own recent history. In times of despair in the past we sought meaning and solace in such stories – in the reassurance they bring that we are never forgotten, never ‘out of sight’, and always of value.

There were never more prodigal sons, and daughters, in need of such reassurance, than there are in Ireland today.

One of the main obstacles in the way of us seeking that reassurance is the fact that so many today are stuck fast in the Sargasso Sea of post-modern doubt. This is the intellectual outlook that pours scorn on any possibility that the Christian story told in the Creeds could be true after all. This outlook has been greatly strengthened by the revelations of ‘scandals in high places’ that Catholicism is still suffering.

Nevertheless, some of us still go to Mass today – because we have found ‘Abba’ in our own crises – and are confident that He sees everyone ‘far off’ . We need to equip ourselves to show the same compassion for those who will come seeking encouragement in the same story.

We need above all to have the confidence to ask: “What meaning can we derive from the facts of our own history?” and the confidence to pray for an answer.

It was in prayer that Jesus communed with ‘Abba’ – and found the strength to proclaim his truth until his last breath. It will be in prayer, and in reflection on the Gospels, that we will find a way of speaking the same truth to all those who are currently lost.

The worse things get, the closer everyone will be to understanding that mere facts are not enough, and that we must look for the meaning behind the facts to be truly knowledgeable.

It will always be through Jesus’ love of Abba that we human prodigals will most readily rediscover the kingdom of God – the realisation that Abba has always known us, and understands better than we do why we harm ourselves.

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: X – The Emerging Church

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

Nothing could be more obviously needed by the Catholic Church in Ireland than a clearly defined role for lay people – a role in renewing and revitalizing the whole church.

And nothing could be more obviously lacking in our church at present than structures that would require and allow lay people to meet creatively – under the banner of their church – at parish, diocesan and national level – to respond to the current crisis by building a prayerful sense of common purpose and ownership of our own faith.

The fact that four decades after Vatican II the Catholic church in Ireland has a conference of bishops, and a conference of priests, but still no conference of the Catholic laity – is a monument to the inertia of the church’s leadership, to Irish Catholic clericalism and to hierarchical disloyalty to Vatican II.

The fundamental problem of clericalism is that it is obsessed with the status of clergy – an entirely worldly concern. It fears lay people exercising initiative, freely debating the multitude of problems that beset their church and society, and taking action to put them right. It privileges clerical control, so it places a high value on lay docility and passivity and prefers lay people to be in a permanent state of inadequacy and need. Raising lay obedience to the pinnacle of its value system, it trains us for permanent inertia.

“Leave everything always to us!” This is the central message of clericalism. “We will do all your thinking for you, and tell you when and how to respond.”

As a result our church is in deep danger of disappearing altogether when the present generations of clergy pass on – as they are rapidly doing. No adult in Ireland is now unaware that the continuity of the faith is critically challenged. Clericalism is building nothing to replace itself, because it can envisage nothing but a clerically-controlled church.

And lay people are especially disheartened when some of those priests who have sought a reputation for forward thinking have been heard to say to their new and fragile pastoral councils: “What you propose is not going to happen: remember I am the parish priest”.

Yet the conviction behind this series of articles is that already lay people are being called into thought and action – and are laying the foundations of a different kind of church. A deep sense of crisis is calling people into prayer, and the continuing absence of an adequate clerical response to that crisis is forcing lay people out of their inertia. When clerical leadership fails, lay people are clearly themselves called to lead.

This does not mean that we are called to promote and preach new and radical theologies. Our specific task as laity has been already clearly defined by Vatican II: to consecrate the world to God. Our current priority is to understand what that means, and to communicate that meaning to one another and to the secular world in which we live.

I am convinced that it means infusing secular space with the values and wisdom of the Gospels – so that no one is abandoned to loneliness, depression, addiction, suicide or neglect. It means understanding why secularism alone is not enough, and why prayer is necessary to human health and development. It means nothing more than making Ireland a truly welcoming, safe and compassionate society.

The ideology of secularism began just two-and-a-half centuries ago, when many intellectuals in western Europe became convinced that religion was the source of most human problems. Under the banner of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ secularism set out to change the world – as though nothing more than a snappy slogan was needed.

This movement had no sooner begun in 1789 than it discovered it needed a guillotine to get rid of its opponents. And then these same secular evangelists began to use the same guillotine on one another. Their outstanding legacy to the world was the word ‘terrorism’

Two-and-a-half centuries later freedom, equality and brotherhood are in as short supply as ever – and terrorism is a global problem. And the Gospels tell us why.

The reason is that whatever slogans we may agree with one another politically, we are all secretly afflicted with a tendency to put ourselves first, by acquiring a superior status. (‘Lord, which of us is the greatest?’).

This is a moral and spiritual, not an intellectual, problem – and it has therefore only a spiritual solution. Every one of us needs to be engaged daily in a struggle with our own selfishness, our own ego.

The most effective means of waging that struggle is to understand that true freedom and self-respect lie in meeting the needs of others – the reason Jesus calls us to serve. If we use our personal gifts merely for personal advancement we miss the joy that lies in using them freely for others.

Many people in Ireland today are discovering exactly that. The search for spirituality – and for answers to problems such as addiction, depression, family breakdown and loneliness – are all leading us in the same direction. We cannot find personal fulfillment as isolated individuals: we are fulfilled only when somehow we are involved in meeting the needs of community.

The search for status – for the admiration of others – the search that underlies excess consumption and workaholism – is the root of most social problems – including the collapse of community. If there is nothing beyond this world (the basic precept of advanced secularism) then every one of us must compete for status with everyone else – by building the largest palace on the outskirts of town, with the most expensive cars in the driveway. Every town in Ireland is now encircled by these ridiculous monuments to human vanity – while community collapses.

And so everyone who lives in such a palace must also become increasingly security-conscious. Soon enough in Ireland the rich will be doing what the rich elsewhere are obliged to do: building high walls and fences around their palaces to defend ourselves against the envy they evoke, permanently protected by closed circuit TV.

It is the search for social status that underlies both social violence and the environmental problem. The iron law that tells us that we must desire what others find desirable is heading the human population rapidly towards social and environmental catastrophe. This iron law is nothing other than the biblical sin of covetousness.

Spirituality – the search for a relationship with the Spirit of Goodness and Truth – leads us on another path: towards personal frugality and an ethic of compassion, generosity and service.

This union of religion and spirituality is the challenge that Vatican II threw down to Ireland and the whole of the church forty years ago. It threatens no-one, and can answer the supreme question that secularism poses: how can we be prosperous and happy as well?

It can meet also the other challenge that Vatican II threw down – to ‘engage with culture’. How are we to avoid absorbing every new cultural wave that rolls in from across the Atlantic or elsewhere? (Some of these now encourage children to engage in sexual activity as soon as they reach puberty.) How are we to define, improve and preserve our own cultural identity, bequeathing solid values to our children?

The answer lies in understanding why we so easily absorb the culture of others. The reason is nothing other than a lack of self-respect – and this too is a deep spiritual problem. To overcome the fear of being different we need to understand that spiritual development offers especially the courage to be different – the courage to be ourselves. For Christians, this is the great gift and programme of the Holy Spirit.

Understanding all of this – and much more – is the wisdom that Ireland now needs. To develop this wisdom lay people need to be meeting together as adult Christians, taking responsibility for the first time.

Too many of our clerical leaders are, so far, afraid to sponsor and encourage this process – because they are still mostly wedded to the strange notion that the Holy Spirit wants clergy to be always in charge.

Their own inertia – and the growing confidence and independence of the Irish laity – is proving something else: that God gives intelligence to everyone, and calls everyone to prayer, so that we can freely spiritualise our own lives, and spiritualise also the secular space we occupy. The many thoughtful responses this series of articles has received from lay people prove exactly that.

So lay people must not feel guilty that they have outgrown the inadequate structures that the clerical church provides the wider church. Growth is the particular business of the Holy Spirit, who is calling us into a new maturity. The decision taken recently by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin that all parishes in his Dublin archdiocese should have parish councils, and his challenge to clerical authoritarianism, are pointing the way forward for clergy in all dioceses.

Our challenge as laity is to humanise and spiritualise a secular world that does not understand the limits of mere secularism. That is our own lay task, our own adventure – and no one is entitled to take it from us. We need no-one’s permission to begin it, as we have always been called to do it – by our baptism and by the Eucharistic liturgy.

For the moment we must use every means and opportunity that secular space provides. In time, as usual, the clerical church will catch up – and belatedly sponsor a process that it cannot, and must not, stop.

Fifteen centuries ago when the faith was new in Ireland, our missionary saints set out to restore Christian values to a world devastated by imperialistic and militaristic values. Now Ireland has been given a different challenge: to put our faith to work to meet the challenge of a fundamentalist secularism that does not understand its own shortcomings, or why the world it has built is headed towards disaster.

We Catholics in Ireland are now called to respond to that challenge, and to teach the world once more. This time we must teach by doing – by helping to build a compassionate, just, free and wise society, using the insight and inspiration that the Gospels provide.

There is probably no town or village in Ireland where some have not already begun.

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

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Alain deBotton, Status Anxiety, Hamish Hamilton 2004

The Search for Spiritual Intelligence

Sean O’Conaill  © Spirituality 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Ubi caritas …’

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2003

In 1975, at the age of five, my only daughter, Cliona, told me to stop smoking:  she had just heard on TV that every cigarette shortened my life by a few minutes.

I stopped straight away, touched by the directness of the child’s heart and mind. Certainly that decision gave me good physical health for most of the ensuing period.

Cliona was named after an Irish goddess of the waves. Drawn to the Gospel story early on, she found herself as an adolescent repelled from a church that seemed to her sin-obsessed and authoritarian. Leaving for London in her early twenties she fitted perfectly into the New Age mould of that time – environmentally aware and drawn to oriental mysticism. The Catholic worldview of her childhood simply slipped away and she became a free spirit, travelling widely and becoming a writer.

Now in June 2003 when Cliona heard of my cancer she had the same child’s directness: she travelled to Coleraine with her partner, Ajay, a disciple of the mystic Osho. She also proposed that she and Ajay give me a Buddhist therapy called Tibetan pulsing – directed at the seat of the cancer in my bladder.

I had initial misgivings – to do with the fact that I had handed my condition over to the Great Physician, the Lord Jesus Christ. But then I remembered again the Taizé hymn I had heard in hospital: “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.” (Wherever there is caring and love, God is also.) Had I not accepted the ministry of everyone in the hospital, irrespective of their faith, so why not that of my own daughter?

So I received three sessions of Tibetan pulsing – involving relaxation to rhythmic music, gentle massage, and meditation upon the role of the body part being affected. I learnt that the bladder was a delicate reservoir for the waters that I needed to preserve life – not a mere receptacle for waste. This eastern spiritual perception of the human body is so different from the western one, in which we have too readily learned to think of the body as a machine, with the doctor in the role of mechanic. It blended easily with my Christian perception of the body as sacrament of love.

At the beginning Ajay invited me to call into the therapy whatever spiritual presence I wished – so, of course, I called upon Jesus to heal whatever was awry. Ajay said that he detected that this was a particularly powerful prayer.

At the end of the last session Ajay asked if anything unusual had happened. I said, truthfully, yes – as I had seen an image of the cross, and superimposed upon it, an image of a fern leaf uncoiling as it does in spring. I had taken this to mean that the cross was the tree of life, and that my healing process had begun.

Now that my chemotherapy regime has just ended, with another CT scan scheduled for next week, I feel certain that there has been a great healing over those three months.

But, far more precious to me has been the healing of my relationship with my daughter. I believe I had resented her throwing away apparently everything she had received from her home and school, in which both of her parents had taught. Now I found her very sharp and intuitive about the pressures in my own life that had led to my illness. Especially the habit of being glued to the electronic media to collect data on the deteriorating world around me. She was also an invaluable guide to the organic diet I now moved on to, with great benefit.

She was also a mature and wise person, capable of communicating the necessity of spirituality to her own generation.

Best of all, I can see so much of myself in her – intellectual independence, a desire to communicate insights, a preference for wisdom before knowledge.

From this latest experience I have learned also not to be afraid to let my God mix freely with those of other faiths, confident of his ability to make his presence known in imagery that will communicate across all barriers.

Now Ajay will never again associate the cross merely with suffering, and will be open to contact with other Christian influences in his own country. The gentle pacifism of Buddhism, and the robust pacifism of Jesus, cannot be antithetical to one another. The truth is that Christian violence – too often sanctioned by Popes – has always been a betrayal of the Gospels, and it is time to recall the Church to the full pacific intent of the Gospels. The Dalai Lama and Ghandi call us in the same direction – and it is time we followed.

So, using the formula Ubi Caritas, no Catholic need be afraid of being unable to discern how to behave in the context of the many different faiths we encounter today. And we should not be afraid to let our children experience these faiths and cultures, and to ask their own questions. The truth need fear nothing from the truth. All of us are pilgrims whose paths cross for a purpose – to enrich everyone with the gifts of wisdom that are then exchanged.

Already the departure lounge had given me insight into the wondrous transaction that takes place between carers and patients. Now it had healed a relationship of great importance to me. In both cases, I had been learning something new – something I could write about – giving myself an added impetus to survive.

Next Monday I receive another CT scan, and a fortnight later the consultant will report the findings to me. Already I am confident that the cancer has receded generally, as I have practically no bladder discomfort, and the bladder has recovered its full capacity. Will I still need an operation to remove the bladder then?

I must wait and see – praying as I do so – for prayer has already proven to me its power to heal.

Encounters with the Force

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2002

Back in 1977 in Dublin I took my daughter aged seven and my eldest son, five, to see the first of George Lucas’s Star Wars films, now entitled A New Hope. When we got home the five-year-old solemnly related the entire plot, scene by scene, to his grandfather. The latter was so impressed that he just had to watch the Christmas TV premiere a few years later, aged about 70 – totally enthralled. Our attic still holds boxes of the spin-off merchandising that boomed in the wake of the series and made Lucas one of the wealthiest and most influential figures in cinema.

All of these films centre on the struggle of the Jedi knights – assisted by the light side of ‘The Force’ – against the disciples of the dark side, especially the towering Darth Vader. Half man, half glistening ebony machine – head and face hidden by a black mask like the coal-scuttle helmet worn by the Wehrmacht in World War II – the cloaked Vader strode onto the deck of a captured starship in the very first sequence of A New Hope, and became every child’s icon of dread. In the latest film, Attack of the Clones, the second ‘prequel’ to the first-produced series, we are to learn how it was that Vader, who had himself been a Jedi apprentice, began his journey to the dark side.

(Lucas originally conceived an epic series of nine films – three series of three. He made the middle series first, and is now two-thirds of the way through the first series. He presently insists he won’t actually complete the last three – but somebody probably will.)

The whole story, we are told, took place in a distant galaxy ‘long, long ago and far away’, where a multi-world republic is subverted by a sinister imperial tendency linked with the dark side. This device allows Lucas to blend elements of medieval knight-errantry with inter-stellar technology, ancient myth and mysticism – to tell the kind of riveting yarn that earlier generations would have experienced in the Arthurian knights of the round table.

The preferred weapon of the Jedi is not a ‘blaster’ – a projectile weapon – but a light sabre, a sword whose blade is a shaft of luminous energy. This weapon not only allows Lucas to recreate the fencing duels of Robin Hood and the samurai in a different cosmos, but to explore the idea of ‘the Force’ itself. Letting the Force flow through him, the Jedi can learn to anticipate and use his light sabre to deflect a plasma bolt fired at himself. (Jedis typically try diplomacy before resorting to defensive violence.)

What is the Force? The script limitations of an action film don’t allow Lucas much scope for theology, and on the whole this is probably just as well. Luke Skywalker, the hero of the first-produced films, is schooled by the old Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi, as follows:

“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

Observing this lesson, the contraband smuggler Han Solo laconically observes:  “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”

Solo’s hard-bitten pursuit of profit serves as counterpoint to Luke’s search for a cause. However, Solo is also smitten by Princess Leia, leader of the republican remnant. She can handle a blaster as well as anyone – and this earned her points with seventies children, despite her very impractical coiffure of two enormous side buns which must have given her a headache.

Meanwhile Darth Vader, on the enormous pursuing battle cruiser, is demonstrating the power of the dark side to a sceptical imperial officer by raising him by the throat from his seat with an invisible hand.

Pushing the special effects of the 1970s beyond their previous limits Lucas achieved in A New Hope an unprecedented persuasiveness for the science fiction genre. Using profits from the spin-off merchandising he stayed at the leading edge in this field, designing state-of the-art cinema technology in both sound and vision. The latest film was shot with specially designed digital movie cameras – heralding the end of the ‘spool’ era, and the distribution of all movies by digital means. (Though it will take time for all cinemas to make use of this.)

Lucas, raised as a Methodist and later influenced by the cult mythology guru Joseph Campbell, tells us that he introduced the idea of the Force to get children to think about spirituality. “Rather than do some angry, socially relevant film, I realised there was another relevance that is even more important – dreams and fantasies, getting children to believe there is more to life than garbage and killing and all that real stuff like stealing hubcaps. A whole generation was growing up without fairytales.”

Elsewhere, expanding on this he says: “I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people–more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery. Not having enough interest in the mysteries of life to ask the question, ‘Is there a God or is there not a God?’–that is for me the worst thing that can happen. I think you should have an opinion about that. Or you should be saying, ‘I’m looking. I’m very curious about this, and I am going to continue to look until I can find an answer, and if I can’t find an answer, then I’ll die trying.’ I think it’s important to have a belief system and to have faith.”

Interviewed about his latest film and asked if he knows yet what turns Anakin Skywalker, the nine-year-old hero of the last film, into Darth Vader in the next, Lucas answered:

“Yes, I know what that is. The groundwork has been laid in this episode. The film is ultimately about the dark side and the light side, and those sides are designed around compassion and greed. The issue of greed, of getting things and owning things and having things and not being able to let go of things, is the opposite of compassion – of not thinking of yourself all the time. These are the two sides – the good force and the bad force. They’re the simplest parts of a complex cosmic construction.”

So, the light side of the Force demands that its disciples, the Jedi, master themselves in order to use the Force, which gives them powers of mind control, anticipation and telekinesis (a limited ability to move objects with the power of thought). Interestingly also they are supposed to remain celibate – another of the things that the nineteen year old Anakin Skywalker has problems with in the latest film!

It’s no secret now that Anakin, who will transmute into Vader in the next and last ‘prequel’, is Luke’s own father. We learned this in The Empire Strikes Back – when Luke was learning to control his own impulsiveness. Obi-Wan Kenobi, played majestically in the first series by Alec Guinness, had been Anakin’s mentor before he became Luke’s. In A New Hope Obi-Wan fought a final duel with Vader, dematerialising as Vader’s light sabre swept through him. Then he became a wraith who returned to mentor Luke at the climax of the film, the breathtaking battle with the Death Star, a space battle station the size of a small planet. Luke’s mentoring was continued by the diminutive Yoda, drawn by computer in this latest film.

Luke learns from Yoda in Empire that he himself is his own most dangerous opponent, and loses his arm in a duel with Vader. His sidekick Han Solo is immured in a block of ice at the climax, but resurrected in part three – Return of the Jedi. In that film Luke manages to control his anger, resisting torture to give his father, Anakin/Vader, a chance of redemption. Does Vader take it? Go watch the film, which will certainly be reprised soon in the wake of the prequel. (Digital TV will probably run all of the previous four films in plot sequence.)

Although it’s at first sight odd that Lucas would tell the story of the son before that of the earlier life of the father, it’s also oddly right – as evil for the 1970s generation is the more important problem to understand just now, especially for an America fascinated by military technology and sure of its own virtue. Anakin was a nine-year-old slave in
Phantom Menace, recruited to the Jedi because of his uncommon empathy with the Force. His journey to the dark side is for me almost as compelling as that of the youthful Michael Corleone in the Godfather series – that other transposition of a medieval family honour code into a twentieth-century republican setting. It’s also right that new generations of children will have immediate access on video and digital TV to Vader’s chance of redemption by his own son – something that couldn’t happen to Michael’s father, the brooding Vito, played by Marlon Brando.

Although Lucas has been criticised for ‘mindless hokum’ it is remarkable that anyone in mass entertainment should set out to deal seriously with the themes of good and evil, self-control, self-sacrifice, corruption, redemption – and even life-after-death – in a medium seemingly designed for popcorn and short attention spans. His meticulous eye for detail in the design of everything from starship interiors to planetary topography, clothing, strange animals and robots create a visual feast for children of the space age.

My fascination with these films began as soon as I saw my own children hooked. They tell us that most children are still thrilled by ancient themes of heroism and self-sacrifice – and in need of a spirituality, a sense of a deeper reality lying behind the one-dimensional digital world that we now live in. As this planet’s own beauty is increasingly tortured by technology, an escape into the awesome mysteries of the unexplored extra-terrestrial cosmos becomes increasingly necessary for rising generations, and Lucas has done as much as Gene Roddenberry (the creator of
Star Trek) to liberate the child’s cosmic imagination.

The films also show us what Cervantes dealt with in Don Quixote – the power of male nostalgia for a role in which knightly virtues of discipline, military skill and valour still make sense. We long for a world in which good and evil appear in such stark contrast that choices become easy again, and our own role becomes clear. In the wake of what US citizens now call 9/11 we also need a mass cultural experience that will allow angry Christians to reflect on how this very anger, encased in awesome military hardware, can easily shift the West again to the dark side of another civilisation’s experience. (There’s absolutely no sign that Christian fundamentalism is making any effort to develop that understanding.)

And although the technologies on view in that distant galaxy are awesome, Lucas is at pains to underline the dangers and limits of technology itself. Vader’s lack of compassion is connected with the fact that he is mostly prosthesis.  A New Hope conveys the message that technology can be a hindrance to spirituality. At the climax of the battle with the Death Star, Luke prepares to use a complicated computerised bomb sight to lob a small nuclear device down a narrow shaft in the battle station to detonate at its heart. At Obi Wan’s whispered command he pulls this technology aside and trusts to the Force instead. The subsequent detonation was cheered wildly in all cinemas in the US in 1977. Youthful courage, spiritually empowered, had transcended even the computer age.

That there is indeed a cosmic spiritual ‘force’ or power for good is an essential part of the Christian message, and that courage and self-sacrifice express this power most nobly is part of that message also. Do we need to worry that Lucas does not introduce explicit Christian concepts such as the Trinity and grace, and above all the truths of the personhood of God and the incarnation? Just a little – but these lacunae give all teachers their own role and relevance – and after all we don’t know yet how redemption is achieved in other galaxies! (Although we can be sure that fundamentalism won’t cut it.)

And the fact that the hero of the present series transmutes into the villain of the second gives scope for raising with older children the sophisticated issue of the ambiguity of all military heroism – the fact that great evil can flow from the age-old association of heroism with violence. This, after all, was the tragedy of Christendom – its beautiful origin in a rejection of violence and its disgrace in the wake of the military adventurer Constantine’s confusion of cross with sword. (The stories of the search for the Holy Grail by Arthur’s knights were a mediaeval attempt to reconcile those contradictions.)

That five-year-old who encountered the Force for the first time in 1977 is now a thirty-year-old computer programmer. He doesn’t think that children as children really ‘get’ the Christian echoes of these films explicitly, but sees them now himself. ‘Star Wars’ remains a vivid memory for all three generations still, and exercises a mysterious fascination as a shared experience that annihilates the almost sixty years between us. And all three will again get to see Attack of the Clones  this year, God willing.

We worry greatly these times about the growing gap between adolescents and the mean age of clergy. How does one go about teaching Christianity to the children of cool? Nothing is more certain than that we all need to experience at least some of what’s cool, and start from there. Lucas gives us reference points, characters and visuals that everyone in Christian education, and every parent, can know and make use of.

So this summer all you uninitiated Jedi should ‘get out more’, switch off your theological bomb sights, let the Force flow through you, and then go figure out how to explain why prayer, grace and the Holy Spirit are so much cooler. And make sure it’s all in a film script that will have children of all ages cheering their heads off.

Rethinking Freedom

Sean O’Conaill © Spirituality 2002

This era should be one of unprecedented freedom. A revolutionary period lasting over two centuries has seen the overthrow of a series of political tyrannies, from absolute monarchy to Fascism and totalitarian Communism. Yet the absurd violence of these times, in which addiction can drive individuals to random mugging and murder in the streets of the richest cities, and international terrorism can send a jumbo jet through the office windows high above, was inconceivable when this era began.

Freedom from fear seems even more remote than when FDR made it one of his Four Freedoms in January 1941. Freedom from want should be far behind us also – given the extraordinary productiveness of our economic systems – but this too eludes many millions around the globe, as do freedom of speech and freedom of religion still in many parts of the world.

What is the root of the problem? Why are we still oppressed?

The standard answer is that capitalism is inherently evil – as though evil was a function of economic and political organisation. Logically this analysis proposes a repetition forever of the capitalist/socialist face-off that dominated the period before 1989. Who really wants to go through all that again? There is need for a new analysis – one that does not scapegoat ‘systems’ for human failure, but looks for the root of the human failing that prevents capitalism from developing a truly human face. That failing clearly warped political socialism also, especially when it gained control of a sizeable economy – creating an oligarchy of ideologues even more nasty than the reactionary aristocracy of the ancien regime.

We can gain some insight into this by remembering one of the most obvious anomalies of the Soviet Union in its last years – those secret shops that imported western consumer goods and sold them only to the soviet socialist elite. Western hi-fis, videos and large-screen TVs – and no doubt Irish whiskey – passed through these places into the luxurious dachas of the politburo outside Moscow – and it was eventually the shortfall in such goods (as well as Reagan’s proposed Star Wars anti-missile defence system) that convinced Gorbachev that Marxism-Leninism as he knew it could not match the West either technically or economically. The world’s greatest experiment in socialism failed at that moment.

The soviet demand for such goods can be explained simply as mimetic desire – an irresistible and largely unacknowledged urge to possess what is possessed by others – especially those with whom one is in rivalry. It can be guessed that Khrushchev’s goggle-eyed amazement at US consumer society on his visit to the US in 1959 led directly to these Orwellian purchases, which eventually bankrupted the integrity of his own revolutionary generation.

Rene Girard insists that where we find conflict we should look for similarity, not difference. As a teacher of history I was trained to explain the Cold War as essentially a struggle of contradictory ideologies – free market liberalism versus Marxist totalitarianism. However, there was also simple rivalry for global dominance between two societies that had both risen to the status of superpower in the preceding two centuries, their armies meeting along the Elbe in 1945. Wherever human endeavour brings triumph, an antithetical challenge will sooner or later emerge.

Mimetic desire (that is, desire borrowed by imitation) and rivalry also dominate the current face-off between Islamic radicalism and the west. Osama bin Laden emphasises the differences between his ultra-puritanical version of Islam and western decadence, as the root of his quarrel with America. Why then not simply take pride in this moral superiority and leave the West to perish in its decadence? The fact is that the west possesses something that bin Laden wants – supremacy in technology, especially military technology, and the geopolitical supremacy this also brings. Radical Islam is, through people like Bin Laden, in rivalry for global political, cultural and religious supremacy with the West.

So, wherever there is conflict look not for differences, but for similarities – especially similarity in objectives. President Bush is currently riding on the crest of a wave of patriotic fervour in the US, with many feeling that the original zeal of the American dream is being restored. Yet every TV picture of the flaunted stars and stripes is bound now to call forth equally chauvinistic Islamism when redisplayed by El Jazeera. Outside Latin America the ‘War on Terrorism’ seems to have only Islamic targets – Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen and possibly even Indonesia – and this can only feed into the polarisation bin Laden and his followers seek. It is above all TV that declares who is glorious and who is impoverished today – and TV currently contrasts the ruins of Afghanistan and the lush lawns of Hollywood, stating clearly the disparity that Islamic radicalism seeks to end in blood.

And similarities too explain the current crisis between India and Pakistan. Both states want undisputed possession of Kashmir, but neither government can yield it and survive.

As for Ireland’s conflict, although the surface complexities have deterred people as intelligent as Graham Green from attempting an analysis, it’s clear by now that simple rivalry for dominance of the north-east lies at the back of the contest between green and orange paramilitarism. The latter emerged in mimetic response to the rise of Provisionalism in the early 1970s, until then the focus of the global media. Although Sinn Fein has stressed its leftist credentials, it has not rejected suggestions that it might become the crutch supporting Fianna Fail if the latter again fails to win an overall majority in a general election this year – so mimetic desire for political status is clearly paramount for this supposedly new political broom also. And the standard explanation for the original outbreak of the Troubles in the late 1960s is that a newly educated young Catholic intelligentsia found itself shut out of the usual economic rewards in a discriminatory Unionist society. That is, frustrated desire for wealth and status was again crucial in explaining the onset of violence in 1969.

As for the random violence of the streets, in London in early January of this year a teenager was shot in the head when she objected to the theft of her mobile phone – currently the most saleable and portable of consumer durables. The wealth-producing sector of western society must display the fruits of its labour – infuriating those who still remain outside that sector, especially if they also belong to a racially disadvantaged minority. This same factor was clearly at work in the race riots that traumatised several British cities in the summer of 2001.

What of that other western anomaly – school violence – the focus of so much American angst prior to what they now call 9/11? Significantly, the leading spirit in the worst example of that violence, Eric Harris, confided to video the root of his alienation before shooting twelve of his schoolmates dead in Littleton, Colorado: “Everywhere I went I had to start again at the bottom.” He was referring to the problem posed by his semi-nomadic soldier father – moved about from base to base. US High Schools too are pyramids of esteem – an extraordinary fact in the state supposedly founded upon the principle of human equality.

The root of the violence that oppresses the world can therefore, it seems, be reduced to conflicting mimetic desire. The possessions, status and power we acquire through success, automatically become desirable to those without these. Our media flaunt our Western success globally in the faces of the uneducated and impoverished. Where these have inherited a proud memory of earlier cultural and military achievement – and this is especially true of the Arab world – we can expect a deadly rivalry to flourish.

Rivalry is also the basic dynamic of the power games played by competing political parties in the democratic world, and often causes internal fissures within parties as well – as the relationship between chancellor and prime minister in Britain currently illustrates. Here again the media are misled into looking for differences between rivals, rather than similarities. Very little of ideological importance now divides the parties or personalities that alternate in office in the major democracies.

Yet real equality remains elusive. A large underclass, often educationally disadvantaged, seems permanently shut out of the ‘good life’ shared by the ‘meritocratic’ elites. And it is this underclass that suffers most from addiction, unemployment and urban violence. Meritocracy is, of course the self-promoting ideology of the ‘bright’ people who currently enjoy the western gravy train.

Post modernism tends to argue that all ideologies are designed to empower those who purvey them. Very little separates this insight from the basic Christian premise that, unredeemed, we are a selfish species that makes war upon our own weakest members. Mimetic desire describes our basic weakness precisely, in a manner that makes it rationally inescapable.

The conclusion is inescapable also: western politics can be rejuvenated only by a realisation that true freedom and equality can be achieved only through a recovery of spirituality. The deep well of corruption that alienated voters from British Conservatism in the early nineties is now beginning to taint pristine New Labour – and in Ireland cynicism on the same evil knows no bounds. Although Ireland is now gearing up for another general election, the political polarities of the 1920s that provide the only logic of our two-party system are now entirely meaningless. There is a need for an entirely new kind of politics here and throughout the West.

It will be based upon a value system that will roundly challenge liberal meritocracy by arguing that humans everywhere are inalienably equal in dignity, and can never lose or gain in that respect. We are indeed differentially gifted, but this asymmetry should be seen as similar to that of an orchestra, in which the differing contributions of all are of equal value. Education will be redesigned to develop all intelligences equally – including, above all, spiritual intelligence.

There is this much wisdom in liberalism: that genuine equality is indeed the only route to freedom. However, how come that in the most ‘egalitarian’ societies liberal politicians are themselves tolerant of a social hierarchy almost as layered in terms of social esteem as any that preceded it? How come they accept that some people become more equal than others by hogging media attention as well as power, and then rigging tax and educational systems to perpetuate that inequality? How come they are blind to the dynamics of rivalry, which explains their corruptibility as well as their conflicts? They above all need to become spiritually aware.

For Christians this awareness is best expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. Only a deep appreciation of its wisdom can undermine the whole notion of celebrity that currently fuels the upward journey of millions. Media-borne celebrity is the supreme mirage – the stupid notion that some people are truly deserving of separation onto a higher plane of being. It is also the supreme object of political mimetic desire, as Tony Blair’s air borne posturing so well illustrates.

Which means in turn that the next Pope will need to include this in the re-evaluation of the role of the papacy that John Paul II has called for. As mimetic desire is the root of oppression and injustice, every spiritual leader should be emphasising that no-one ever really becomes more important, more worthy, than anyone else – and behaving accordingly.

This really should be no problem for any Christian. Nothing more characterises Jesus of Nazareth than the refusal of worldly elevation – from his first step down into the Jordan to join the sinners, to his acceptance of the cross. If the west is to deliver freedom to the world it must rediscover Christ as the gentlest but greatest enemy of mimetic desire. Imitating Him in this alone can indeed set the world free at last.

Twelve Steps to Being Christian

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 2001

How are we to understand and explain the basic vocabulary of Christianity today? It is a truism that people no longer understand ‘Sin’ as our grandparents did – which means that ‘Salvation’ too becomes problematic. Told recently that ‘Jesus Saves’ my twenty-one year old sceptical son inquired ‘at what rate of interest? Most of his generation wishes above all to be saved from the saved – so we surely need to revisit the original story of salvation to understand what relevance it might have in the twenty-first century.

Richard Rohr, the American Franciscan, helps us part of the way by observing that in this era most of the deepest spiritual work is being done in the basements rather than the naves of churches in the US. There, closest to the earth, the twelve-step programmes for alcoholics, gamblers, compulsive shoppers, partner-beaters and every other kind of self-destructive addict are worked through. It is clear that we live in a deeply addictive culture that – in the media cliché – ‘ruins lives’. What is the root of this addictiveness, and how does it relate to ‘sin’ as Jesus might have understood it? And how does the invocation of a ‘higher power’ – the basic strategy of the twelve-step program – relate to what he taught?

Talking recently to a close friend who is working through such a programme, I was struck by his insistence that the invariable problem of the addict is low or even non-existent self-esteem. A childhood deprivation of parental care or affection, an experience of abuse or systematic bullying or humiliation in early life, an inability to keep a job or a partner – these and other examples of rejection, failure, derision or contempt keep cropping up. And the result in the addict is a pervasive sense of shame and fear, a chronic inability to love the self.

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ What happens if we translate ‘poor in spirit’ as self-rejecting – bankrupt of self-esteem – rather than as simply poor in an economic sense?

Coming at this as an historian rather than a theologian I see the ancient world as everywhere a pyramid of esteem or worthiness. At its summit in Jesus’s time were Roman God-Emperors whose exaltation had usually emerged out of military rivalry and conquest. Essentially this applied even in the Jewish world view, where David, the Lord’s anointed, was archetypally a military hero, the boy-slayer of the Philistine giant Goliath and father of Solomon, builder of the first temple.

And it was Herod’s temple in Jesus’ time that was the focal point of the religion of most Jews, the place where sacrificial propitiation of the Deity took place.

But those who came to John for baptism must have been outside the temple system – and the key to this is to understand that temple sacrifice and expiation was a relatively expensive business, involving the hiring of religious lawyers for advice, the purchase of sacrificial offerings, and the making of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem – all seriously problematic for those at the base of the economic pyramid.

It followed from this that the poor were thus also usually the poorest in spirit, the lowest in self-esteem, the shamed, the sinners – the ones looking for an inexpensive route to ritual cleanliness and divine forgiveness. These were the people who followed John and Jesus. Peter’s astonishment over Jesus’ observation that the rich would have trouble entering his kingdom tells us this also: good fortune was interpreted then as evidence of divine favour; ill fortune as proof of God’s anger. This was the reason that Jesus’ forgiveness of sin – offered freely to those who sought his help, without any interrogation – was so astonishing to his disciples, and so bitterly opposed by the hierarchs whose power rested upon respect for the Temple system.

‘You are beloved of God’: this was Jesus insistent message to those who had felt excluded – and this is the Good News. It follows that Jesus was overturning the pyramid of esteem of the Ancient World – and that this was the fundamental reason for Christianity’s growth within the Roman Empire also in the early centuries. Evangelisation was the doorway into divine esteem for those who thought they could never enter. And it was also an entry into the church as community.

‘You are loved by God’ was not, however, news at all to those who already held position in the older Pagan and Jewish pyramids of esteem. They felt sure of it already.

How then did Christianity become in the end so often associated with social respectability, coercion and sexual fear; and salvation a hypothetical eternal life insurance – pie in the sky by-and-by?

History again provides the answer. Christianity’s own success was eventually noticed by one of the many upwardly mobile military adventurers of the ancient world. “In this sign, conquer” – this was the message conveniently seen by Constantine underneath a fiery cross on his way to the battle of the Milvian bridge. Most Christian hierarchs tragically swallowed this gambit whole – as an offer they couldn’t refuse – and the result was a marriage of Christianity with the state that was to persist for more than fifteen hundred years. Augustine’s identification of sin with wayward sexuality rather than social unworthiness allowed the upper classes (of which he was a member) to retain their social eminence as well as their sense of chosenness. Conversion usually became a matter of attaching first the rulers of kingdoms rather than their subjects – these would soon follow out of deference.

It followed inexorably that Christianity would become associated with respectability and coercion, and that gradually the meaning of the story recited in the creeds – would become lost. In particular we lost the meaning of Jesus’ social descent as an expression of divine solidarity with the ‘losers’ of the ancient world. Medieval theology came to explain the crucifixion as the price exacted by a divine system of justice which insisted that God’s ‘honour’ demanded satisfaction by nothing less than the death of his son. Thus the ruling classes of the Middle Ages redefined God in their own image, scapegoating him for the death of Christ, and thus eventually making ‘salvation’ wholly unintelligible. It became merely inclusion in a scheme of divine providence that must wait upon the death of the one ‘saved’. It followed also that it need not mean full inclusion in the benefits of community on earth, and so became valueless to those who remained excluded from it.

But in our own time when the educated classes have mostly followed the Enlightenment in concluding that Christianity was nonsense, this opened the way for the retrieval of the meaning of the crucifixion by those at the base of our own pyramids of esteem in this era. The ‘junkie’ – the one discarded – is the very image of the stone discarded that became the cornerstone of the early church. The crucifixion is essentially not about the physical pain of Jesus, but about acceptance of the obverse of glory – ultimate shame and humiliation – and this can now be recovered when the socially esteemed can find no meaning in it.

The implications of this for evangelisation, and for how we think of ‘church’, are profound. In particular those who wish to revive Christianity in the third millennium must understand that social vertigo is the greatest barrier to success. We need to advance on two fronts – attacking the complacency and the intellectual assumptions of those at the summit of our own pyramids of esteem today, and learning to lose our inherited prejudices towards the socially outcast, the ‘losers’ of the world.

It must surely be obvious that if we organise life as a race, losers must outnumber winners. It follows inexorably that the root cause of failure is nothing other than the worship of ‘success’. Even a meritocracy involves judgement and rejection, i.e. crucifixion. That the UK’s chief executive should be both an enthusiastic meritocrat and an avowed Christian shows how far we need to go still in disentangling one from the other. All pyramids of esteem inevitably create shame at their base.

For on what Christian grounds should we declare that some are entitled to esteem, while others are not? If the answer is that those who don’t work don’t deserve esteem, why then do we tolerate those who live on nothing other than shrewd investments? For their shrewdness? If so our kingdom is for the shrewd only – and our world becomes an intellectual pyramid of esteem, deadly for those whose gifts may lie in other directions. Is this intelligent? More important, is it wise? Most important, is it Christian?

For me, the essence of Christianity is the assertion of the eternal and equal value of every single human person, irrespective of race, intelligence, gender, wealth or whatever. It follows logically that everyone is equally important, equally to be cherished. And that the cult of celebrity must be a target of a revived Christianity also. No-one ever was, ever is, or ever will be, more ‘worth it’ than anyone else.

It follows inexorably also that churches cannot be pyramids of esteem. As a lay Catholic I am now totally alienated from the papal system as it has been exercised in this overlong pontificate. The Pope’s own invitation to the church to reconsider how this office should be exercised should be accepted with alacrity, for celebrity Popes cannot undermine pyramids of esteem without attacking celebrity per se. The notion that you can re-evangelise the west by elevating a single individual to semi-sacred status, upon whose every word we all must hang, is the residual myth of a bankrupt Christendom. It ignores the patently obvious fact that by loading spiritual dignity onto one individual you withdraw it from the rest – the root cause of the sense of spiritual inferiority and incompetence that afflicts many lay Catholics today. It is also spiritually obtuse and abusive, for it deprives even the ordinary Christian of the gift given by Christ – a sense of our own dignity as brother or sister of the Lord. No title can bestow greater honour than this – not even Pope.

Remarkably, one of the essential characteristics of the twelve-step process is the absence of hierarchy, the complete equality of all participants. All acknowledge their own brokenness, so none can claim precedence. Equally, no-one can be shamed or rejected. Yet the need for repentance – for taking full responsibility for all the hurt one has caused to others – is emphasised as an essential part of the process.

“Which of us is the greatest?” This insistent question from the disciples warns us that pride afflicts pastors also. Jesus’s response tells us that the essence of Christian community is nothing other than moral equality.

To the objection that only hierarchy can protect truth there is a simple answer. The creeds hierarchies protect have virtually lost their meaning in the very creation of ecclesiastical hierarchy, including the altogether scandalous notion of ‘princes of the church’. As history proved time and time again – for example, in the Crusades – it is perfectly possible to recite a verbal formula summarising the love of God one moment, and to disembowel someone the next. The urgent task of all Christians is to recover fully the meaning of the creeds. The only recoverable meaning that can change our world for the better is that God in allowing his son to be crucified renounced his own hierarchical privilege in favour of reclaiming those at the base of all worldly hierarchies. If hierarchical Christianity cannot rise to the challenge of such a God, it is unworthy of Him, and deserves to die.

On the other hand, it is the addict’s recognition of his brokenness in that of Jesus on Calvary that suggests that not even the Constantines of this world can prevail in the end. It is the shamed – the most prodigal sons and daughters – who can speak with greatest understanding of the love of the one who scans the horizon for their return, and even sends them his most precious son to meet them at the moment of their own ultimate humiliation.