Category Archives: Principles & Virtues

‘The Lightest Burden’ – Origin and Purpose

“…there is a crisis in transmission of faith … we are unsure about how to evangelise in the modern world…”

Clipped from the Irish national synodal synthesis of August 2022 this conclusion is obviously derived from the 26 diocesan synodal reports of that year – with 25 of those dioceses echoing an urgent need for adult faith formation – to address a critical problem of younger generational drift from Catholic faith practice.

My own diocese, Derry, in June 2022 reported that “There was a widespread desire among participants to learn more about their faith and many believed that adult faith formation should be available within, and between more parishes.” Further on we were told that “Plans for developing a programme of adult faith formation are already well underway in the diocese.

Despite this assurance, Derry diocese was still without an ongoing programme for adult faith development in the spring of 2024 – when I attended a two-day course in synodal leadership led by members of Ireland’s Synodal Pathway steering group, in Drumalis House, Larne (March 14,15).

Alpha & Drumalis

Embarked already from early 2024 on an invigorating Alpha course in Coleraine, I found myself challenged on the Drumalis leadership course to discern a personal synodal mission. This soon focused upon the unresolved Derry faith formation issue, with the hope of simplifying the faith formation task by starting with something familiar – the Rosary prayers – and taking a new look at those. I thought that this focus could both complement the higher-tech inter-church Alpha programme by adding a specifically Catholic dimension to it, and provide a low-tech and easily portable tool to enable family and small group use.

(The Alpha programme requires considerable investment of effort by quite a large team, as well as video projection equipment and premises that will permit the provision of refreshment.)

Concerned above all to convey the truth that Catholic Christian core beliefs are portable by any young adult I aimed at verbal compression and simplicity – and gave the pages the title ‘The Lightest Burden ‘. If Jesus insists that ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light’ should not every effort be made at verbal simplicity and brevity – and joy – when trying to encapsulate the faith – especially for young people?

The Creed as Celebration of Jesus’ Victory over Evil

Moreover, wasn’t the original Good News simply the news of Jesus’ resurrection and therefore also of the defeat of the Accuser, Satan, the father of lies – beginning with the lies told against Jesus at his trial?

What we call the Apostles Creed was centred on this core belief in the Resurrection as the downfall of Satan the Accuser (for our sake) – and yet the history of Christendom determined that this short summary of Catholic belief was in need of vast expansion into what is often referred to as the ‘deposit of faith’. That by c. 1100 this deposit had come to include a very different emphasis – God the Father’s supposed need for satisfaction for sin – is surely the core problem of Christian evangelisation and faith formation today.

The Rosary as Celebration

The Joyful mysteries of the Rosary surely centre on the promise of Jesus’ victory over Satan – the source of all evil. The Glorious mysteries celebrate, in turn, that same victory, then the coming of the Paraclete – the defender of the oppressed – and then the enthronement of the mother of God. In between the Sorrowful mysteries take us through the suffering that won the victory.

That the Rosary is potentially always a celebratory prayer is as obvious as the fact that all too often it is recited as a penance.

‘Satisfaction’?

Why did it happen that in the second Christian millennium the Father who sent Jesus to liberate the earliest Christians – consciously – from the pall of evil that overshadowed the ancient world became instead the demanding Father who had sent Jesus to satisfy the demands of his eternal justice – i.e. primarily for his own satisfaction?

That this theological development accompanied the maximal political empowerment of the church c. 1100 CE is surely suggestive of an answer. The church had by then itself a crucial political role: the support of nominally edifying Christian European rulers – so God the Father had by then supposedly no need to liberate the world. On the other hand a very distant God who needed satisfaction for sin was very like a distant medieval king who needed his people to be obedient above all, and therefore more than a little fearful as well.

Salvation as Liberation, Now

And this is surely why there has been an argument in our own time over liberation theology. History – the history of Christendom – has seriously confused our understanding of the Creed – and made us prefer to recite it quickly and then walk away – rather than seek a new clarity that meets our current dire need for Hope.

And yet, arrested unjustly for blasphemy, in e.g. Pakistan, any Christian today could recite the Creed internally with exactly the same purpose as a Christian under the Roman emperor Diocletian – to remind herself that the Father who has raised Jesus from the dead, and the Holy Spirit who is now her advocate, will not abandon her whatever happens.

And doesn’t every young person in the world today need to know that the same stern guardians of truth are at their elbow – if the very same Accuser and liar targets them on the Internet?

That even as yet our Catholic clergy cannot emphatically tell our younger generations this is part of the legacy of Christendom – the historical empowerment of the church that has confused its theology and made Christian faith formation still problematic.

Jesus diagnosed the central human problem long ago – our tendency to look for glory from one another, rather than from God. It is our fear of one another’s scorn that leads to the telling of lies – and the need for the One who would never bow to falsehood.

The Victory of Truth is Certain

It is surely high time to stop simply reciting the Creed as a series of disconnected verbal dogmas – to restore its power as inward reassurance that Christ’s victory – and the victory of truth itself – is certain. Jewish people sometimes actually dance to the Shema Israel (‘Hear O Israel’) – the recitation of the great commandments of Israel – the commandments of love (Deut 6:4-9). Someday surely we catholic Christians must have cause to dance to the Creed?

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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)

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St Mary’s, Dunboe on YouTube

Does the word ‘decrepit’ best describe the current state of Catholic Canon Law?

In what else could the Irish Church be ‘entrapped’ – to use the perfect word of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin – other than Catholic Canon Law?

And how else could the ‘We speak – you listen’ inertia of our Irish Catholic clerical culture have persisted – in a zombie state – for over half-a-century after Vatican II (1962-65)?

And how else could the dozy clericalism of the Down and Connor pastoral letter ‘To Follow Jesus Closely have found its way onto a leaflet to be read by adults at Easter 2019?

Then there had been an exploratory pilot study (EPS) of ‘lay involvement’ in Irish Catholic parishes, conducted by the steering group of the Association of Catholics in Ireland in the spring. Pending a more through professional report on this I could see three things right away from the returns:

First, ‘lay involvement’ can vary hugely from parish to parish – with the crucial factor always being the readiness of parish clergy to take time to develop that very thing. The reluctance of too many too-busy clergy simply to delegate parish development activities to lay people is crystal clear. The insistence of Pope Francis, that ‘making a mess‘ to begin with is OK, has fallen on far too many deaf ears.

Second, this sample of thirty-three different parishes was predicting that healthy parish pastoral councils are likely to be in a minority.

Third, some returnees expressed a fear of being known to have taken part in such a poll!

So, by July 2019, it was very clear to me that ‘things’ are very far from OK for the RCC on this island, and the Archbishop of Dublin is far from being the only Irish Catholic who feels ‘entrapped’.

But I wasn’t ‘entrapped’!

Not by lack of resources anyway. I hadn’t yet ever produced a video – but surely I could find someone who could help with that. And wasn’t there a perfect example of the very same ‘entrapment’ of a parish community on my own doorstep? By the system in which parish clergy are also ‘entrapped’.

And hadn’t I developed a bit of a ‘brass neck’ over the years, by just writing for public consumption? And wasn’t some persistent prayer for guidance on ‘entrapment’ making this neck brassier still?

And didn’t the example of the good ol’ Earl Bishop Frederick Hervey of Bristol in the 1780s and 1790s offer the perfect example of that proper respect for the good people of Dunboe that was so clearly missing from the canonical treatment of their community 2018-19?

Mind you, I had one detail of that story quite badly wrong, I am told. Since the voiceover for the video was recorded I have received the following from Jim Hunter of the Hervey Heritage Society, based in St Columb’s Cathedral, Derry.

Jim quotes Stephen Price as writing that:

Frederick [ the Earl Bishop ] stipulated in his will that Catholics living near Downhill should be allowed to hold a service in the Mussenden Temple every Sunday in the actual Temple itself and not in the less salubrious basement, as is more often recounted. He even laid aside a payment of £10 per year for the priest and decreed that he and his horse should be fed. The arrangement persisted until the 1850s, although a row over a missing book caused a priest to take his congregation into the basement, which was never the Earl Bishop’s intention.”

So that point in the video could have been made even more strongly!

What am I hoping for now?

First, that Catholics struck by this story would both pray and think about it – to clarify for themselves whether it seems important that this present state of affairs should be ended. Might everyone who does feel ‘entrapped’ ask themselves ‘Am I, really?’ and then decide on a course of action. It’s pointless to be complaining while doing nothing constructive oneself.

Not everyone can be, or needs to be, with myself and some friends, at the gateway of Maynooth College, Co. Kildare on October 1st, 2019 – when all Irish bishops next meet.

But those who cannot be there could instead write to their bishops on this matter, expressing an opinion.

And in the meantime you could be discussing this with some friends too.

Nothing will change without obvious and overwhelming momentum for change, an unstoppable ‘enough already’ tsunami of rejection of the non-accountable and non-transparent canonical clerical culture that keeps Irish Catholicism entrapped – in 2019 – in the legal detritus of the Middle Ages.

We’ll see – as my Mum used to say.

Views: 35

The Mass: a ‘Holy Sacrifice’?

Josefa de Ayala, The Sacrificial Lamb (c. 1670-1684)

Must Catholics believe that God is violent? Taught that the Mass is a ‘Holy Sacrifice’ must we therefore believe that ‘the Father’ required a violent sacrifice to still his anger, and that this is the central message of the Eucharist?

Never having heard an Irish Catholic cleric squarely address such questions, and therefore inferring more than a little uncertainty, I (and others in Ireland) have followed with fascination the key ideas of the late American-French anthropologist René Girard and his collaborators. (These can be traced from the website of the Girardian Colloquium on Violence and Religion.)

René Girard 1923-2015

Girard argues that the historical origins of all religion lie in an attempt to minimise social violence by focussing it upon a single victim. He argues also that the Judeo-Christian scriptures point to a unique critique of this religious violence – and especially of the ancient practice of blood sacrifice. His work has therefore been exploited by some theologians to deny that the death of Jesus, or the Mass, can safely be understood as a sacrifice.

However, Girard himself famously changed his mind on this very issue. Influenced especially by the Austrian theologian, Raymund Schwager, Girard concluded in his mature work that the meaning of ‘sacrifice’ is itself undergoing a shift in the course of the Judeo-Christian texts. The ‘precious gift to God’ aspect of sacrifice had always accompanied the ‘killing’ aspect (for example in Abraham’s intention to sacrifice Isaac). This story shows how this ‘gift’ aspect gradually becomes predominant – in the end supplanting, in Jesus self-giving, the element of priestly killing. In offering himself, Jesus united the always previously separate roles of priest and victim – defining a sacrifice that resists all projection of the consequences of sin onto someone else. This leaves open an interpretation of ‘Christian’ sacrifice as directly oppositional to violence, and as ‘self-emptying’ or ‘self-giving’ – utterly uncompromised by any suffering inflicted upon a third party.

In the latest issue of the Girardian journal Contagion, Anthony R. Lusvardi S.J. argues that theologians who use Girardian anthropology to reject any concept of the Mass as ‘Holy Sacrifice’ are therefore mistaken. Lusvardi tracks this scholarly debate with detailed footnotes and makes the case for regarding the Mass as a divinely inspired act of worship that makes present “that central moment in human history when seemingly endless cycles of violence and falsity are brought to a halt by the limitless self-offering of God” (‘Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”: Mimetic Theory and Eucharistic Theology’, Contagion Vol. 24, 2017 ).

For me this article strengthens a conclusion that it is unnecessary to oppose an understanding of the Mass as ‘holy sacrifice’ on the one hand, to its character as celebratory ‘communal meal’ on the other. If Christian sacrifice is self-giving, the ‘communal meal’ implication also follows logically from that understanding. In this understanding to ‘sacrifice’ is ‘to give completely of oneself’ – a meaning wholly compatible with contemporary understandings of ‘goodness’ and ‘heroism’.  It is the ‘Offering’, the self-giving ritual in which we all can join, that makes possible the communal meal, and no violence is implied by the Christians who practise this sacrifice – even if blood is nevertheless shed by others who misunderstand. The ‘bloodiness’ of Jesus crucifixion was solely due to the human sin that impelled his persecutors, in defiance of God – not to divine need, wish or intent. For Girard, the Calvary event starkly revealed the archetypal practice of scapegoating or ‘lynching’ – the unjust blaming of any individual for any social crisis to save the community. The Cross therefore lies at the root of the principle of ‘human rights’ – in opposition to all scapegoating.

Far from requiring our assent to his ‘divine violence’, the Father can therefore be understood as true to Jesus’ teaching that ‘the Father and I are one’ – in the rejection of violence, as in all other matters. The Mass is a ‘holy sacrifice’ because non-violent self-giving is central to the divine nature – and to heroic human potential also, when aided by grace. It is to that self-offering that all of us are called.

Clerical reticence on ‘divine violence’ and ‘sacrifice’ surely began with the fourth century acquiescence by Christian bishops in Constantine’s assertion that his violent acquisition of imperial power had been sanctioned and assisted by the Christian God. That acquiescence lies also at the foundations of Christendom – the long and often horrifically scandalous imbroglio of church and state that lasted into the twentieth century. Girard’s insights, and those of theologians who continue to be stimulated by Girardian theory, allow for a re-evaluation of all that, without in any way compromising the Creeds. Pacific self-offering was never utterly absent under Christendom, proving the subliminal counteraction of the Cross to all violence.

The secular Enlightenment was partially motivated by a revulsion at the semi-religious wars that followed the Reformations of the 1500s, but is still lacking a convincing explanation of human violence. On the other hand, Girard’s insight into the origins of our own aggressive desire in the desire of someone else – vindicating the thrice-repeated biblical ban on ‘coveting’ – is as copiously illustrated in the daily news as it is in the TV epic Game of Thrones.

Meanwhile Christian fundamentalism continues to scapegoat the Father for the crucifixion, and to cloud our thinking on Christian sacrifice. This can be regarded as a time-limited hangover of Christendom. Anthony Lusvardi’s article well illustrates how Girardian anthropology, and the theology it inspires, give us a far better pair of glasses.

(Anthony Lusvardi’s article is available for download from the website of the Association of Catholics in Ireland, by clicking the title below.)
Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”

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Was Jesus a whistleblower too?

On Jan 24th, 2017 the Irish Government established a commission of inquiry into the origin of false allegations of sexual abuse against the Garda whistleblower, Maurice McCabe. This is the latest in a long series of deeply depressing scandals involving all of the institutions once respected in Ireland, including the Catholic Church. Sean O’Conaill asks why integrity seems to be so rare, and how we are to find it.

Nothing in Ireland has been as dispiriting in recent decades as non-stop revelations of misuse of power and even of serious corruption in high places. All major institutions of church and civil society have been implicated. Not even the major beneficiary of these scandals, the media, have been exempt.

We have long known that all power tends to be abused, but Irish revelations of abuses of power have become almost epidemic in the lifetime of everyone born before 1990 – so much so that we can come to wonder, like Diogenes, whether an honest individual can any longer be found in high places. That whistleblowers – those who shout ‘stop’ to abuses of power – still do surface is a bright light in the darkness, but Garda Maurice McCabe’s experience of malicious ‘blowback’, of the most damaging of false allegations and even possibly of high-level ‘fitting up’, is truly frightening. Everyone who might still be called upon to be a whistleblower in Ireland knows now what could happen to themselves in the very worst case.

The standard secular solution to this problem of abuse of power is to divide and limit power by making it always subject to accountability. Strictly applied this means that everyone exercising power must be ready to account for their actions to someone else, and ready to resign or be sacked if found wanting. Yet here again there is huge depression in Ireland over apparent mass immunity from the accountability principle. The guiltiest individuals will take great pains to hide their tracks, while tribunals of inquiry are always costly and tend to grant immunity to witnesses in exchange for testimony. This then leads to a dispiriting popular verdict on all of Ireland’s educated elites: ‘those people always look out for one another’. In reviewing the Garda McCabe case, and an earlier Garda precedent, the ‘Kerry Babies’ case of 1984, the historian Diarmaid Ferriter concluded recently that the McCabe commission may unveil the truth of what happened – but (he finished) ‘don’t expect justice‘. There is a real danger of the total victory of cynicism in Irish society – even a loss of faith in human nature itself.

Secularism has never stemmed the human desire for privilege

No Irish secularising intellectual has yet pointed out that this near-despair directly challenges the basic optimism of the secular Enlightenment – the belief that human nature, freed by science-based ‘reason’ from religious faith, can build Utopia. Mass rational education alone, it was argued by some in the 1700s, would give everyone an honest livelihood, put an end to all crime and social hierarchy – and create a society at perfect peace. That same faith in reason, to the exclusion of any faith in God, still undergirds the Irish secularising establishment today. I haven’t yet seen any persuasive rationalist explanation of the complete failure of that optimistic 18th century prophecy.

What the secular Enlightenment ‘got wrong’, it seems to me, was to suppose that, freed from ‘faith’ by ‘reason’, everyone – with just enough education – would become heroically virtuous. Those secularising evangelists did not see how dependent we are on others to shape even our desires for wealth and status.  They hugely overestimated the capacity of any of us to stand freely apart from the human context in which we find ourselves. That we are always hugely dependent upon peer groups for self-esteem and self-fulfillment – and even for a sense of personal security and safety – was overlooked. That mass education would produce not equality but a sense of entitlement to privilege among the most successful, was not foreseen.

If we abandon all faith that there can be any higher power than this ‘society’, we may then, as individuals, be totally bereft of support in the face of ‘peer pressure’ – the pressure simply to conform to the norms of the group we aspire to belong to. Secular egalitarianism has never found a cure for the human desire for social superiority, but still cannot acknowledge this failure.

Catholic hierarchy was also a corruptive force in Ireland

The former Magdalen Laundry, Sean McDermott St., Dublin

Far from advocating here a restoration of the power of ‘the church’ as it was before 1992, I would argue instead that the Catholic clerical establishment in Ireland was also oblivious of its own power to corrupt individuals – especially by exaggerating the individual Catholic’s obligation to defer to higher clerical authority in matters of moral judgement, as a matter of faith. Why else would no cleric – and no strong lay voice – have cried ‘shame’ when defenceless young women were imprisoned and shamed by the Magdalen system? Why else would whistleblowers have been so scarce among the religious orders that ran the institutions for helpless children indicted in the Ryan report of 2005? Why else would Bishop Jim Moriarty have been the sole bishop to confess serious personal failure in the handling of clerical abuse in the Dublin archdiocese, following the Murphy report of 2009? And why else would Dublin Gardai in some instances have failed to investigate credible allegations of criminal clerical abuse, at the request of a bishop?

The ‘prevailing culture’ that Bishop Moriarty agreed he had failed to challenge in Dublin was precisely analogous to the culture of toleration by the Gardai of the abuses that Maurice McCabe reported, while the harm caused to countless children by clerical failure was far greater than the harm caused by Garda inconsistency in the awarding of motoring penalty points. We must never forget that the Irish clerical establishment left it to outraged Catholic families to blow the whistle on the fact of – and the deadly dangers of – clerical sexual abuse of children.

This blindness, to the harm caused to the church – the people of God – by the equation of faith with unquestioning obedience to clerical authority, continues to this day. And this in turn is surely the reason that the full contemporary significance of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is neither seen nor preached by our clergy, in the context of the growing crisis of hope in Irish civic society. Never can it be seen or said (at least in my experience) that in Gethsemane Jesus was resisting precisely that fear of ‘the world’ – the threat of ‘blowback’ from our always hierarchical human power systems – that confronts every genuine whistleblower today.

Instead it is (or at least it was until recently) far more typical of clergy to contrast ‘the world’ with ‘the church’, to characterise ‘the world’ as at best ‘dangerous’ and at worst ‘profane’ while ‘the church’ – always to be equated with clergy – was to be seen always as ‘holy’ and unquestionable. ‘Worldliness’ got translated, mistakenly, as merely getting ‘caught up’ in the pleasures and distractions of the ‘material world’, while Jesus and his clergy could necessarily have their minds only on ‘heavenly things’. In accepting crucifixion Jesus was merely atoning for human historical sin at his Father’s request, not setting an inspiring example of courage and integrity for all of us to try to emulate.

Nothing could be better calculated to make the story of the crucifixion totally incomprehensible to the modern mind – and to make the Catholic sacramental system irrelevant to the crisis of hope that afflicts Ireland today.

Jesus the abused whistleblower

That religious system that Jesus opposed was also abusive of power. It excluded the poorest from a sense of God’s compassion, by imposing money barriers to divine mercy. It shut the Temple door on all of the ‘unclean’, including lepers and menstruating women. What if we were to see Jesus in Gethsemane as an exemplary whistleblower – awaiting the most excruciating humiliation for his rejection of that oppressive religious system? What if we were to see him as standing in solidarity with all who were and still are excluded and oppressed – including the church’s own victims? What if we were to see him at the side of Garda Maurice McCabe – and at the side of the falsely accused priest as well as the clerical abuse survivor – when their trials are at their worst?

In the world you will have tribulation, but be courageous. I have overcome the world.’ (John 16: 33). What if we could believe that here Jesus is speaking precisely to this time in Ireland today – and speaking also for the power of belief in a transcendent reality to give us the integrity we so desperately need, the grace to withstand the world – i.e. ‘the prevailing culture’ of our own peer group’s abuses, whatever those may be – in church or business, bank or civil service, TV studio or political party, policing unit or even Olympic sport?

And what if Jesus’ strength – the grace of integrity – is also the grace on offer in the Eucharist – for those who can believe these things? Those given charge of the Eucharist have surely a special obligation to discover its relationship to the supreme moral problem of our time – the problem of maintaining integrity in the face of corrupt power. That it could have no such relationship is unthinkable.  It is far more likely that integrity and holiness are one and the same.

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Laudato Si’, Technocracy and Technobuzz

As the root source of the threat to the human ecosystem Pope Francis has targeted the ‘technocratic paradigm’ – the mindset that sees in technology alone the solution to all problems. What explains this obsession with technology, both among its creators and its consumers?

It is in articles 101-136 of Laudato Si’ that we find Pope Francis’ analysis of the root of the current threat to the earth environment. First comes the ‘technocratic paradigm’ – the growing tendency to see in technology the sole and sufficient route to the future. This fosters ‘modern anthropocentrism’ – the human tendency to think of ourselves as masters of creation rather than dependent upon it. ‘Practical relativism’ follows: our tendency to solve problems in isolation, without respect to the wider and long-term impact of the ‘fixes’ we apply.

There can be no serious questioning of the weight of this diagnosis. Who can be unaware of the impact of technology – in all of its varieties – upon the physical context of our lives, from the morning alarm to the workplace computer and then, perhaps the evening TV or ‘home cinema’ experience. Technology’s impact upon our inner space is also unavoidable, and possibly even more profound. To judge by the coverage given by the media, we avidly look for news of tech fixes to every human ailment from paralysis to Alzheimer’s disease to blindness – and follow the progress of domestic robots in house cleaning and lawn control. Will there soon be powered ‘exoskeletons’ to boost our physical strength for heavy lifting? Will today’s armed drones be the precursors of fully automated warfare? Are powerful long-lasting batteries just around the corner, to make affordable electric cars the norm everywhere? And what is going on just now in nuclear fusion research, to realise the dream of limitless cheap and clean energy?

You’re a phone addict,’ my daughter-in-law told me in July 2015 – and she has a point. Information technology feeds this commentator’s hunger for news on everything from the Eurozone crisis to the war in Syria and Iraq, not to mention push-back among some Catholics to Laudato Si’. When away from base, in almost every idle moment, if there is a possibility of a wifi connection, I tend to reach for my phone’s browser to see ‘what gives’.

Yet my own experience leads me to look in particular for signs that the information deluge can also lead to wisdom – a realisation that there will never be an app that can do for us what wild places or prayer can do, or to deal with a sudden bereavement, or sudden redundancy, or even the news of our own impending mortality. The buzz that new technology brings is always temporary, a vain flight from the fragility and tragedy of life.

The constant truth is that, unless we do suffer some kind of grounding experience, we typically want to escape from the reality of our own limitedness and vulnerability. Disbelieving in our own value as temporary beings whose bodies will eventually be powerless to prevent their own interment or cremation, we seek to escape this reality through fantasies of invulnerability and permanence. That’s why teenage boys can spend so much time on digital games of ‘warcraft’ and why Hollywood can make billions from superhero movies. The movie title Ironman says it all: we (men especially) are typically ashamed to be mere flesh and blood – the stuff of inevitable decay.

It follows necessarily that we seek some kind of ‘add on’. The young jihadist’s Kalashnikov, the young westerner’s Smartphone and the technocrat’s executive jet are hugely different in terms of function and effect, but they all serve essentially the same private purpose: to reassure us of the value we are constantly seeking to enhance, the value we cannot believe we already possess in our naked selves.

It is this that makes us endlessly subject to the fetishisation of ‘add ons’ – accessories that give us temporary fixes to our need for reassurance. The next person’s lack of interest in what we already possess will convince us we ‘need’ whatever it is that currently fascinates him or her. Knowing this, Apple Corps and l’Oreal can always be sure that the next ‘iteration’ of their latest ‘must haves’ will be in demand

Kenneth Graham’s character, Toad, in The Wind in the Willows is a timeless archetype of this very human affliction. We meet him in a state of complete delight in his new horse-drawn caravan. This is to be his mobile home forever – or so he tells his friends Ratty and Mole. Completely convinced, these three set off to the sound of clopping hooves and the tinkling kitchen utensils that decorate the interior.

Out of the blue they are passed by a fast motor car – whose driver shows his contempt for the caravan and its occupants by failing to slow down as he passes. To their astonishment Mole and Ratty find that this single mechanical epiphany is sufficient to destroy Toad’s interest in the caravan, and to create a new and dangerous fixation. The rest of the story is an account of their failure to save Toad from the consequences.

Published in 1908, The Wind in the Willows pinpoints the human weakness that lies at the root of all technology ‘buzzes’. Steve Jobs’ success in disrupting the mobile phone market with the iPhone became the ‘iconic’ objective of all today’s entrepreneurial wannabes – and our neighbour who flashes its latest iteration will seal the doom of its predecessor. This single failing is sufficient to explain both technocracy and the endless demand for its products.

This is the root spiritual problem of human desire. First, our self-satisfaction is always unstable. Second, the merest suggestion that we will be better off with the latest ‘iconic’ accessory can trigger self-dissatisfaction and the supposition that we ‘really’ need it. A yearning for possession can then seize hold.

Notice that ‘consumerism’ is almost as inadequate a term for this problem as ‘materialism’. (Thankfully the latter does not appear even once in Laudato Si’.) All words ending in ‘ism’ imply an intellectual bias – but whose ‘consumption’ is caused by such a bias? Who sets out to be a ‘consumerist’? Mr Toad wanted to believe that his caravan was the be-all and end-all of his desire. He had no initial intent to swap it for a fast car. So it is with whatever we are currently fascinated by. It is in a combination of the instability of our self-esteem with an experience of something (apparently) better that our every next technology fetish will originate. The term ‘consumerism’ serves the dual purpose of apparently naming a problem that’s out there – and of exonerating ourselves from complicity. Until we all acknowledge our own susceptibility to the sabotaging of our present content by an endlessly innovative market – and by the acquaintance in thrall to the next ‘must-have’ – we won’t really catch hold of the problem.

For the church to recover its grip on this we merely need to see that Eve had exactly the same problem, and that we are warned about it by the ninth and tenth commandments. The ‘technocratic paradigm’ can be overcome only by a prayerful resistance to the call to endless covetousness – mimetic desire – and a passionate insistence that what we truly need is the reassurance born of relationship with the true source of our being. That is what possessed Jesus of Nazareth, and his passion was the desire to lead all of us to the same truth.

“You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbour’s.   (Ex 20:17)

Sean O’Conaill July 2015

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When will Ireland hear the whistle?

Today we learn from the Tablet that Pope Francis has again explained to a bishop facing a manpower crisis  “that he could not take everything in hand personally from Rome … that  local bishops, who are best acquainted with the needs of our faithful, should be corajudos, that is ‘courageous’ in Spanish, and make concrete suggestions”.   And that “regional and national bishops’ conferences should seek and find consensus on reform and … should then bring up … suggestions for reform in Rome”.

The Pope was speaking to Bishop Erwin Kräutler, Bishop of Xingu in the Brazilian rainforest.

And the topic of conversation?    “The issue of the ordination of “proven” married men – viri probati.” 

Click here for the full Tablet article.

This is not the first clear signal from Rome to the Irish Bishops’ Conference to start thinking for itself.  Surely also there is a need for a European bishops’ conference – to seek consensus on solutions to their own critical manpower crisis.

That crisis deepens another – the crisis of morale.  And the morale of the Irish church generally is very seriously challenged by the apparent reluctance of Irish bishops to hear and respond to the clear call to their own spirit of courage and initiative.  And not just on this particular issue.

So when will our bishops begin to show that they are not deliberately deaf?

 

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Was I uncharitable, scathing, lacking in compassion?

In the week beginning May 12th I was charged by Joseph O’Leary in the Irish Times with making a scathing commentary on the relationship of Fr Michael Cleary and Phyllis Hamilton – on the website of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) – and with showing scant sympathy or compassion for those involved in that relationship.

I append below a link to that whole discussion, and ask anyone (who has the time) to feed back to me their own conclusions.

I was responding on the ACP site to a thread that asked if Catholicism is now seen as more-or-less irrelevant in Ireland. I offered the opinion that, if this view is to be countered, we Catholics all need to find a deeper integrity and to avoid ‘bad religious theatre’.

As an example of the latter I referred to ‘the Michael Cleary phenomenon’.  I meant by this the obvious contradiction between Fr Michael Cleary’s high media profile as a proponent of official church teaching on sexuality, and  his private life.  (It is surely obvious now that had Ireland known in 1979 what it came to know about Fr Cleary in 1993, he would not have featured on global media in 1979 as part of Ireland’s official welcome in Galway for Pope John Paul II.)

The issue for me was not Fr Cleary’s character, still less that of his partner, Phyllis Hamilton. It was the impossibility of reconciling his public message and posture with his private life – an issue not of private individual morality but of institutional credibility.

In the discussion that followed on that ACP thread, the question arose of the beginnings of Fr Cleary’s relationship with Phyllis Hamilton (aged 17 when they met), and with it the question of the behavioural guidelines to be followed by clergy in such situations today.  As this is an ongoing matter of real concern, and as Joseph O’Leary seemed to me to underestimate the problematic nature of a sexual relationship developing out of such an encounter (especially with one so obviously vulnerable as the 17-year-old Phyllis Hamilton), serious alarm bells rang for me.  The absence of a far more guarded clerical view on that issue on this ACP discussion raised for me the question:  what’s the ACP’s position on that issue anyway?

My alarm deepened when that request was simply blanked by the ACP leadership – even when it was made directly to the ACP’s Contact email address.  Would an acknowledgement, at least, not have been warranted?

For the record, I think it very possible that Fr Michael Cleary was also a ‘vulnerable adult’ in 1968 when, aged 34, he met Phyllis Hamilton, and that he probably also deserves compassion for the misfortune that befell.  (Phyllis was then emerging from psychiatric care following childhood abuse.)

However, it is for that very reason – that a double vulnerability is likely to exist in such situations – that explicit guidelines are needed for clergy in such encounters – and are in fact under development in Northern Ireland at this time.

Unfortunately the remit of the church’s safeguarding body, the NBSCCC, does not permit it to develop such guidelines for clergy throughout Ireland.  But that would not prevent the ACP from producing and publishing its own guidelines for its reported 1,000 plus members.  (It could very easily do that in consultation with, for example, Ian Elliott – now freed from his commitment to the NBSCCC.)

However, I must leave it to others to tell me if I need to revise my view of this whole exchange.  The entire discussion involving Michael Cleary on the ACP website can be found at the following link:

Is Catholicism now deemed to be old-fashioned, irrational, and unacceptable? Brendan Hoban asks in his weekly Western People column.

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Why are we waiting?

colourJust how many trumpet blasts do our Irish Catholic Bishops need?

First , last March we got a new pope who admitted straightaway that he too is a sinner  – i.e. fallible.  Numb silence followed that in Ireland, as though deep shock had overtaken his Irish episcopal hearers.

Then we had a call from Rome for something unheard of since 1965 – feedback from the people of God on family issues.  Most Irish bishops again reacted with apparent shock – and then scrambled to make a token response.  None asked to be personally advised by his own flock in a diocesan conference, in preparation for Vatican synods on the family this year and next.  A parlous fear of assembly still ruled the Irish church.

Then in November 2013 Francis issued his exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, including this:

“I dream of a ‘missionary option’,  that is a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything so that the Church’s customs, way of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can suitably be channelled for evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. “  (Evangelii Gaudium § 27)

If this wasn’t an invitation to Irish church leaders to do their own dreaming about reawakening and renewal, what on earth are they waiting for?

Yet so far, even by Easter 2014, there was no similar exhortation from any Irish bishop.

So, why are we waiting still, and what are we waiting for?

It couldn’t be for this 77 year old Argentinian’s age to catch up with him, could it?

So, as our bishops still seem to be heading away from Jerusalem on the road to Emmaus, let us pray for the Lord to take them in hand, walk with them – and make their hearts burn strongly enough to blow away the mountain of ash that keeps them so torpid.  And send them racing back to us with something more like excitement than disillusionment – as well as eagerness for that elementary particle whose absence erodes their authority day after day:  dialogue with the people of God.

It’s surely time for a new Pentecost in the Irish Church, and time is running out for the current generation of Irish bishops to prove that they can lead it.

Sean O’Conaill 03/05/2014

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