Category Archives: Equality of Dignity

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.

The Church needs structural reform

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  March 2011

It’s clear that our church cannot renew itself unless radical structural change takes place.

“Renewal and reform of the Church …. will only come from within the Church, that is from within a community of men and women who listen to the word of God, who come together to pray, who celebrate the Eucharist and are called to share in the very life of Christ himself … Renewal of the Church is not about … structural reform.”

These were the words of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin on November 20th, 2010. Fervently in agreement with the first sentence, I was stunned by the last. I simply could not understand why the archbishop seemed to believe at that time that our church could renew itself without radical structural reform.

To begin with, he himself has had to grapple with the consequences of church structures that give conflicting and irreconcilable responsibilities to bishops. The reputation of his four predecessors will forever be tarnished by the events related in the Murphy report. This clearly showed that until 1994 Dublin’s archbishops were unable to reconcile their obligation to care for the church’s most vulnerable members – children – with their other obligation to safeguard the clerical institution from scandal.

Hundreds of children suffered horrifically as a consequence, and this then became the greatest scandal of all. And this scandal was revealed not by church structures but by secular structures. The latter are far from perfect, but they are in one respect superior to the governing structures of the church: they allow for transparency and a separation of powers and responsibilities. This prevents the secrecy and concentration of power that gave us the abuse crisis – the organisational culture that the church still clings to.

The archbishop could of course argue in response that the independent National Board for the Safeguarding of Children in the Catholic Church (NBSCCC) will prevent the events of 1975-2004 ever recurring. But the NBSCCC itself believes that further church reform is necessary. In its second annual report of April 30th, 2010, its chairman, John Morgan declared that a period of reflection is needed that should (in his words) “extend to trying to understand and examine what Church structures brought about the situation that has unfolded before us and how such structures must be changed”.

Almost certainly the NBSCCC is concerned about the culture of clericalism fostered by current church structures – a culture that conditions clergy to be in control and also conditions Catholic lay people to defer to that arrangement. This will remain a threat to the principle upon which all child safeguarding in the church must rest – the principle of the paramount interests of children. The hundreds of child protection personnel currently being trained by the NBSCCCC cannot do their job effectively until that principle is embedded in the church’s own organisational blueprint – canon law. And until lay people participate as of right in the governance of the church.

Furthermore, the widespread confidence that the NBSC has managed to create in its own integrity and independence could still easily be lost. If church structures are not changed to make them far more transparent, clericalism could dictate that the bishops who appoint the executive board of the NBSCCC would appoint compliant lay people who would be prepared to ditch the paramountcy principle for the sake of ‘harmony’ – taking us back to the era of the cover-up.

A key weakness in the church’s governing structures is the total absence of a canonical mechanism for removing a dysfunctional bishop. Of the four Irish bishops who have resigned in the wake of the abuse crisis, none was removed by an internal church process. Bishops Comiskey, Magee and Murray resigned in the wake of the public revelation of their failures, and the outcry that followed. Bishop Moriarty resigned because in his own view he had failed to challenge the culture of cover-up that had failed the children of Dublin. In all cases it is clear that had it not been for factors external to the church’s governing system those bishops would still be in place.

Dublin is currently fortunate to have Dr Martin in charge. But what would happen to the reforms he has introduced in Dublin if he were replaced by someone far less committed to them? Without changes to canon law, and to diocesan church structures, everything he has achieved would be entirely reversible.

To be fair to Dr Martin, he was entirely right to stress that renewal of the church will also depend upon a renewal of faith, sourced in the Gospels. But does he really appreciate how the faith of the Irish Catholic people has been challenged by church structures that have let them down so badly? There is a very real danger that seeking now to retain their faith in the current awful crisis, many more Irish people will conclude that their native church is irreformable, and that they must detach themselves completely from it. Many have already done so.

Others, however, refuse to give up on the idea of structural reform of their own church. Evidence of this came following the December meeting of the Irish Bishops’ Conference. A press release on December 14th revealed that over 2,500 respondents to a consultation on the papal pastoral letter of March 2010 had focused on the following core themes: ‘Spiritual Renewal; Structural Renewal; Role of Women and on the Church of Community and Communion’.

Further information on these responses soon came from the bishops’ ‘Council for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development’. In a report that is available on the website for the Irish Bishops’ Conference it was revealed that:

“There was widespread disappointment among respondents that in the Pope’s Letter child sex abuse is not seen as a symptom of shortcomings in structure and function in the Church. In addition, there is no critique of the role of the Vatican. There is little or no acknowledgement of the exclusion of lay people from roles where they can make significant contribution.”

For most of those who took part in this consultation it must have been heartening to find that they were not alone in calling for structural change. Disappointingly, the Irish bishops’ conference has so far failed to comment at length in reply. Bishop Seamus Freeman in his own letter of response merely referred everyone to the papal document ‘Verbum Domini’ of 2008. As this is a complex exhortation by Pope Benedict to read and reflect on the scriptures it is difficult to see how it is especially helpful in illuminating the question of structural change.

At the most basic level an organisation’s structure convenes its members to meet regularly, to enable them to interact to their mutual benefit and to come to a common understanding. Even to do what Dr Martin and the Pope advocate, to come together to pray and to listen to the word of God, we need to ‘structure’ this into the habitual life of the church.

Instead, our habitual way of ‘interacting’ – the Sunday Mass – has undergone no substantial change in this awful crisis that would allow us to interact at the deepest possible level. It observes the traditional rigid apartheid between priests and people, and requires the latter to open our mouths only for scripted responses and the occasional hymn. No wonder our young people are wondering why we go on mindlessly like this – meeting weekly without communicating. There is a deep dysfunction in the Irish church at present – the kind of dysfunction that prevents a troubled family from meeting in one place to come to a new understanding of how its members are to love one another again.

The newly formed Irish Association of Catholic Priests seems to be well aware of this. Welcoming Bishop Freeman’s publication of the results of the 2010 consultation in the Irish Times, it too called for structural reform and declared that the time might be right for the calling of a national assembly or synod of the Irish church.

At Christmas it seemed that Archbishop Martin had also been paying close attention. Whereas in November he had insisted that renewal was ‘not about structural reform’, on December 24th he said in his Christmas homily “Renewal in the Church is not
simply about structures and organization, no matter how important these can be.” Just a small shift, certainly, but a potentially very significant one.

The absence of structures that will require clergy and people to interact respectfully, thoughtfully and regularly will prove fatal if it continues. Since Vatican II we have never had an opportunity to come to a fruitful understanding of our complementary roles. It is this above all that has given us a ‘two-tier’ church in Ireland, and attitudes that devolve all church responsibility onto clergy in the first instance. Embedded in our church structures at the deepest level – actually institutionalised in them – is the heresy of clericalism.

It is important to say this because Dr Martin has many times identified clericalism as a major obstacle to renewal. It cannot be confronted or eradicated without structural reform.

In the end, of course, events may prove Dr Martin correct in one sense. Oppressed by the multiple crises of the moment more and more Irish people may indeed come together spontaneously to reflect upon the Gospels and to pray. That was exactly what happened in the 16th century when to many people the church of popes and bishops had become corrupt. This led to the fragmentation of north-European Christianity and to the multitude of varieties of Christian witness that we see today. It is now far from certain that the Catholic church in Ireland will avoid a similar fate.

If it is to do so, structural reform must be on its near horizon. We need to be convened as regularly for renewal as we are for Mass. It is an insult to the Mass, and to God, to go on as we are going. If the Irish Bishops’ Conference is at last to show real leadership it must face this issue squarely in 2011.

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

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: II – Clericalism

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

Jean Vanier tells the story of a young woman whose radiant happiness caught the attention of a visitor to the L’Arche community that was her home. The visitor asked Vanier why she was always so joyful. He explained that upon her arrival she had been assured that God loved her for herself. She had believed this immediately, and had never lost that belief. Like most L’Arche residents, she was intellectually disadvantaged but was nevertheless capable of lifting the spirits of everyone she met.

I suspect that most Irish Catholics who have weathered the shocks of the past decade will have done so for similar reasons. Their church gave them from the start a sense of their own dignity as beloved children of God and it is into this sheltering reality they retreat when the disasters of life threaten to overwhelm them. That shelter is maintained above all by those who have given themselves completely to its service – especially our priests.

Because the circumstances call for constructive criticism, I need to affirm here first of all my own unrepayable debt to the Irish Catholic priesthood. They did far more than provide me with a basic education. At key moments of my life individual priests have helped me to rise to severe challenges to faith and self-belief, and helped me grow way beyond my expectations. A few instances of clerical severity and pomposity have been far outnumbered by instances of care and encouragement.

Above all, these men bore witness to the presence of God in the world this world that now increasingly finds God an inconvenience. Strikingly, many intelligent people who have tried hard to live without God are now looking for spirituality as though this can exist entirely without any religious faith. My own spirituality is grounded firmly upon the truths I was taught by priests: that there is indeed a personal God, a spiritual being with whom I can communicate through prayer and sacrament. I would not have believed this if I had not experienced the freely-given support and compassion of priests in my own deepest crises.

However, these same priests have conveyed to me an understanding of the equality of dignity conveyed by baptism, as well as the responsibility this imparts. This understanding, and this sense of personal responsibility, has been increasingly challenged over the past three decades by a church system that privileges clergy above laity, and leaves the latter with no clearly defined or dignified role as laity. That system sees lay people principally as needy clients of an expert professional elite, rather than as recipients of the same gifts of the Holy Spirit including, often, wisdom. Because the business of the priest is salvation (i.e. spiritual healing and enlightenment) the system tends to impose upon him an impossible demand – to appear to be never in need of healing or enlightenment himself.

It is this unequal expert-client relationship that lies at the root of the major problems we now face in Ireland – simply because it demands too much of clergy, and (more important) far too little of laity. It is essentially this problem of clericalism – the myth of the priest as a super-Catholic and super-Christian – that has exposed the church to the public humiliations of the period since 1992.

To begin with, there would not have been any major scandals in the Irish Church over the period 1992-2003 if clergy had not been expected to be (because the system represented them as) superior icons of Christ – especially in the area of sexual morality. It was this that made Bishop Casey’s exposure such a sensation in 1992 that he could not face the media consequences.

It was also the status of the priest as an unquestionable authority that gave a small minority of predatory priests unbounded access to children. Trained never to question the priest, parents simply could not allow themselves any reservations about handing over teenage children to impromptu clerical care – even overnight. And children who suffered the consequences could not then, for the very same reason, find any way of communicating what had happened. (“Me mother would have murdered me if I had said that about the priest!”)

In his autobiography Altar Boy, Andrew Madden, a victim of clerical abuse, writes of his early experience of church:

“The people stood up because the priest was so holy and important!”

That was why Andrew, even while he was being abused, was glad to be an altar boy:

“Neighbours, friends and others got to see me with the priest up close. I felt good.”

Clearly, for Andrew, priests were in every respect superior to lay people. He could not separate in his mind the importance of the priest’s role from the human person who filled that role. His abuser exploited this naivety mercilessly.

Furthermore, we now know that bishops could not have erred in secretly protecting and shuffling errant priests had they not felt compelled to avoid scandal at almost any cost. Occasional priestly moral failure is, we also now know, both an historical reality and a future inevitability. It is especially scandalous only because of the myth (and theological error) of clerical infallibility and triumph over sin. It will be scandalous in future only if that myth (and error) continues to be upheld.

It is time that our bishops emphasised that ordination does not make priests sinless or asexual – or intellectually infallible. Ireland would be a far healthier place today if this had been emphasised long before 1992, when it began to become obvious. Many pastoral letters have been written on far less important matters.

There are other reasons this myth needs to be abandoned forever at this time. Especially this: it is the fundamental reason for the alienation of so many Irish males from the church.

To put it as simply as possible, we males can’t stand being talked down to weekly by other males who often seem to claim not only an exclusive expertise in interpreting the gospels for our own times, but unlimited licence to use them against us. Now that the area of sexuality has become unsafe, we notice that some priests have moved on to other fields of complaint, for example materialism. As the excess consumption of material goods is driven above all by the desire for social status, the typical parish priest’s consciousness of his own social status – expressed eloquently in modes of accommodation and transport – tends to deprive his message of moral impact. We have all heard the lesson of the mote and the beam too often to be unable to apply it ourselves. Unconvinced and alienated by this kind of unthinking moralism, we males tend to opt out, leaving religion to the priest and the wife.

On the other hand, most lay people respond immediately to priestly humility, and recognise it for what it is – a sign of a deeper spirituality. Far from weakening the bond between clergy and laity, such an attitude is in itself the most important homily a priest can deliver at this time.

I began my teaching career in a school whose oldest teacher, an elderly nun, had a most unusual way of dealing with an unresponsive French class. She would read a short passage of French, pause uncertainly, and then knit her brows and mutter to herself:  “I wonder what that means!”  She did this so convincingly that she immediately deprived the class of any sense of inferiority, creating an atmosphere in which someone would venture a suggestion. It mightn’t be correct, but the barriers to collaboration – the basis of all successful teaching and learning – would then be down, and the class could proceed.

It is for this reason that the myth of the all-knowing and sinless priest is a fundamental barrier to the development of the church, and especially to the development of lay competence and responsibility within it. People learn and develop most quickly for vocational reasons – to empower themselves to fill a responsible and clearly understood role. A church that trains its priests to be in control in all essential matters of faith is effectively training its laity to be dependent, incompetent, intellectually lazy and childish because only that passive and needy role will fully satisfy the priest’s expectation that he both can, and must, be dominant.

And so we get the exasperating myth of the priest as church superman – theologian, manager, accountant, philosopher, historian, catechist, liturgist, celebrant, confessor, ecclesiologist, evangelist, entertainer, canon lawyer, moral paragon, facilitator – and unfailing pulpit authority on everything under the sun, from Aromatherapy to Zoroaster.

The title ‘Father’ is hallowed by centuries of use, but to many lay people it now seems to define their own unchangeable status in the church – as children who must never dare to grow up – especially in understanding and expressing their faith. So we waver between deference and resentment – unable to distinguish deference from genuine respect. We will express our exasperation over this freely to one another – but hesitate to express a critical opinion directly to a priest.

As a teacher of history for thirty years I am firmly convinced that this problem arises out of an inability at the summit of the church to escape from an idealistic vision of the relationship between priest and people that developed after the Council of Trent (1545-63). In that vision an educated and disciplined clerical elite would train laity above all in obedience. The clerical-lay pyramid would mimic the social pyramid, dominated by an educated and aristocratic landowning elite. Bishops would be spiritual grandees, priests would share in their social and spiritual eminence, and lay people would defer to them as such – all the more necessary because of their lack of education.

It is out of this vision of church that clericalism emerges. A priest acquaintance once expressed it to me as follows: “We priests are the last of the landed gentry!” He meant that many priests had never accommodated themselves fully to the principle of social equality, and lived sheltered lives at the expense of underlings. The anticlericalism of many, many Irish lay people today arises out of this perception that many clergy – including some bishops – still expect the kind of deference that landed gentry expected from the peasant masses in the eighteenth century.

But Ireland’s progress in less than two centuries from the abject horrors of the Famine to the heady rewards of the Celtic Tiger has made this vision of church a critical liability in confronting secularism – the belief that religion is essentially a barrier to human development. Our media commentators have mostly fallen in line with this worldview although often educated in Catholic schools. They have done so because – fatally – they perceived that secularism gave them more dignity and intellectual respect than their own church, and because clergy could preserve the myth of their own superiority only through aloofness and secrecy. Nothing more was required to set the stage for the media disasters we have seen.

But secularism doesn’t understand that the competition it encourages leaves many people even more exposed to danger and exclusion. It doesn’t understand either that social inequality arises out of the competitive impulse itself – our unfailing desire to be greater than one another, despite all our talk about equality. It is this desire that is the chief target of the Gospels, and the source of all victimisation. It is also the source of the appalling lack of respect that Irish media people increasingly show for one another, and of the violence that threatens us all.

As Pope John Paul II himself said in 1980, the secular ideals of 1789 – liberty, equality and fraternity – are basically and originally Christian ideals. We Catholics will move our country towards them only by rediscovering together the spiritual wisdom and humility of the Gospels, priests and laypeople together. Without that, as voting figures and youth cynicism increasingly show, Irish democracy itself will fail.

And especially we need to learn what that young woman learned in L’Arche: that the consciousness of being loved by God can transform all of us from seekers of status to beacons of welcome and inspiration. Almost all we lay people need is the lay faith of Jean Vanier – the faith that led him to provide shelter for the ones that a Godless science would prefer us to abandon even before birth.

Deeply torn by the undeserved humiliation of most of our priests, we lay people await only a signal to grow into a new role – as collaborators in a wide variety of ministries. Some of these will care for all the victims of a shallow secularism, from the depressed to the aimlessly addicted. Collaborating easily with people of other faiths in building a society based upon mutual respect, we lay people will be Catholics, and proud of it – but not subordinates – because Jesus called us into brotherhood and sisterhood, not servility, resentment and passivity.

Most of our priests are now more than ready for this relationship too.

Defining Clericalism

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Oct 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Craggy Island Revisited

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2000

The Father Ted TV show hit Catholic Ireland at a psychologically interesting moment. Bishop Eamonn Casey’s flight from Ireland in 1992 had begun a spate of clerical sex revelations deeply damaging to a clerical church whose foundations had been built largely upon lay sexual guilt, and had thus been thought secure for all eternity.

But if our faith depended upon the sexual irreproachability of a clerical elite, what was it exactly that we had believed in? A God who disempowers himself, or a clerical apparatus that had been doing the very opposite for over two centuries?

This question still hangs in the air here, as good people struggle to separate in their minds an ecclesiastical system that has let them down from a God who promises never to do so. At first furious at a comedy show that poked fun at the upholders of sacred truth, many staunch Catholics then began to grin ruefully in recognition at some of the most awful pathologies of ‘Catholic Ireland’ – especially the priest’s housekeeper whose hairnet is as permanent as her wheedling ‘ah go on’ insistence upon the cup of tea. (The latter becomes a kind of lukewarm and very extreme unction that will heal all ills, available at all hours – even to the crack of doom.)

It seems that only laughter can save us now – a laughter that will put us all on the same level again. Clerics, too, are people, in the end – worthy of the same respect as any child of God. Many have found the grace to join in the joke. Some may even be able to weep a bit also – in relief at the fact that they do not need to climb back onto the social and spiritual pedestal the poverty and illiteracy of Ireland had put them on in penal times, as the only educated leadership we had.

Sadly, however, our conference of bishops cannot see much to laugh at. Instead they are looking – to the secular world – for cement with which to repair the pedestal. Our largest newspaper conglomerate is being threatened with legal action by four bishops, each representing one of the four provinces of Ireland, for overstepping the limits of fair comment. The article at issue was one that complimented Gay Byrne, recently retired doyen of our top TV talk show, for revealing to the Irish people that bishops, being human, can err in fairly scandalous ways, sometimes in spheres of morality over which they have for generations inveighed with great self-righteousness.

This was common knowledge. And for a variety of other reasons the last thing the hierarchical Catholic Church in Ireland should be setting out to preserve in the present situation is its own dignity.

That hierarchy goes on interminably about ‘dignity’ – as though the latter was a vast resource that can enrich everyone. In fact dignity relates to the balance of human relationships, and is thus always a scarce resource. There is never more than enough to go round equally. Those who have a lot of it, such as media magnates and bishops, beggar those who have none – and Ireland still has a lot of the latter. Lay Catholics in Ireland are tumbling to this in droves – and wondering why the Irish church still has absolutely no apparatus for redressing internally the inequality of dignity and power that has forced the victims of clerical abuse also to seek redress from the secular state.

The reason this puzzles many people is that in many other areas our bishops denounce secularism per se – although clerical child abuse – and the manner in which it has been handled by the episcopacy – is now the most powerful secularising force on the island. It completely destroys the argument for a clerical monopoly of church administration – because this is clearly seen as the root cause of the victims’ frequent alienation from the church into which they have been baptised.

Arising out of this there is a growing perception of another void – the absence of permanent formal means of upward communication and representation through which lay people can be listened to. Although canon law allows for the establishment of synods at diocesan and national level, there is absolutely no movement from the church leadership towards setting these up. The last time the Irish national Conference of Priests debated the possibility of an Irish church assembly, in September 1998, they judged that the laity were not then ready, and might not be ready for another twenty years.

If this is true it raises fundamental questions about Catholic education in Ireland. The products of our Catholic schools can become brain surgeons, airline pilots, computer software and hardware designers, academics, EC commissioners, UN commissioners, and even heads of state – but remain – it is claimed – incompetent to participate in the development of their church – even though the hierarchy proclaims the ‘Catholic ethos’ of these schools. Is this incompetence the deliberate intention of up to fourteen years of Catholic education in Ireland, including thousands of hours of RE?

The truth is that Irish people learn very quickly when they need to. They will never have the slightest incentive to think deeply about the problem of living their faith as long as they are treated as intellectually disabled children whose highest aptitude is that of flag wavers in a cast of thousands for papal visits.

Another cause for deep concern is that despite a series of cataclysmic public relations disasters that have shaken Irish Catholicism to its roots over the past eight years, there has been absolutely no serious attempt to measure the effects of this upon the morale of Catholics generally by the church’s leaders. What information we have we owe – once more – to the secular media, or Andrew Greeley. Wondering at first when effective leadership might eventually emerge at the summit we now ask ‘What leadership?’ A way of being church, constructed over 150 years by upwardly mobile ecclesiastics contemptuous of democracy, is now plainly dead – but there hasn’t even been a wake.

That’s why we are laughing more freely at Fr Ted these days – because it provides the banana skin that every small boy wants to throw under the feet of the self-important. So long as our bishops can’t join in the joke, so long will they remain unable to understand what is happening on this island.

It is, I believe, precisely the process that Jesus Christ came to accomplish – the equalisation of human dignity. At some stage this process must destroy the religious pyramid of esteem that every religious elite in history has built. That pyramid preserves itself – as did the Temple pyramid in Jesus’ time – by declaring itself the only source of wisdom and salvation. But laughter is another kind of grace, and in Ireland today it is as free as Jordan water.

‘The faith’ is dying, the pessimists say – as though faith was a kind of abstract bundle of Greekified and Latinated truths that only bishop-theologians fully understand. In fact gospel faith was simply trust – in a man who did not believe that religious leadership could only be accomplished from a position of eminence and power. Far from setting out to build a pyramid through which he could dominate, Jesus made himself deliberately approachable and vulnerable, and it is that truth that draws those without dignity to him. An ecclesiastical leadership that sets out to do the opposite cannot image, and can only confuse, that truth. The hierarchical church has lost the trust of many good people in Ireland – and its inability to understand and deal with this is testing the patience of even the staunchest.

The very staunchest used to be the womenfolk of Ireland – those mothers who raised their sons to be priests and insisted upon family observance and nightly Rosary. We know enough history now to be sure that not one of those sexually active but prayerful women ever even became ‘Blessed’, let alone ‘Saint’ – and that the reason for this is that the scales for such promotion are tipped heavily in favour of people who are male, celibate, prudish and ordained. The Papal declaration that the ban on female ordination has the status of an infallible teaching – perpetuating forever the humiliation of those who once raised Ireland’s priests – must be reckoned the most astonishing example of foot-shooting in the history of Irish Catholicism.

This female disillusionment with a male chauvinist Catholic leadership is part of the demoralisation that challenges many women religious. It guarantees the disappearance of their communities forever, at a time when the country in which they grew up is disappearing before their eyes – in a tide of covetousness, crime and addiction. In these circumstances the bullying pursuit by the CDF of dissenting women religious seems gratuitously vindictive, and the final straw. Had the Curia deliberately set out to destroy the tradition of religious and priestly vocation in Ireland it could not have been more effective.

And that is why our Catholic schools are failing also as nurseries of faith. Dedicated teachers present an irreproachable image of a compassionate God who descends to eye-level, while simultaneously having to defend an ecclesiastical system that turns its shepherds into remote and elevated princes of the Church. Those shepherds (with a few outstanding exceptions), prove – without words – that the God of the text books must stay there, because his human life of openness, simplicity and personal approachability cannot be lived by themselves.

True, the hierarchy does try to engage with the rampant covetousness of Ireland’s entrepreneurial revolution, calling for a juster society and basic humanity in dealing with the flood of refugees from Eastern Europe. However, the bishops need to realise, and urgently, that you cannot challenge the hubris of secularism while clinging on to the vestiges of the power and status inherited from the cosy patronage of yesterday’s secular regimes. Today’s secular regime is dismissive of what the bishops say, because it knows that the days when the bishops had clout with the people are over. The bishops need to discover urgently why this is – by engaging for the very first time in direct, serious consultation with those on whose behalf they presume to speak Their continuing failure to do this, when those people are their only source of revenue and recruitment, and are now voting with their feet in massive numbers, is a greater mystery than Arthur C Clarke has yet stumbled over in the jungles of Central America.

Everyone I talk to gives me the same analysis: top-down manipulation of Irish society by Irish Catholic bishops, for whatever cause, has had its day. Every twelve-year-old in Ireland knows today what most of our bishops apparently do not – that leadership by verbal exhortation and condemnation can easily be replaced by a recorded message.

Eight decades after toppling its Big House political system, Catholic Ireland still has an entrenched Big House ecclesiastical system – and the sheer absurdity, mindlessness and immorality of this becomes starker with every scandal that hits the news. The old triumphalist claim ‘the church is not a democracy’ seems to more and more people the very root of the problem, a clericalist excuse for a clerical closed shop that hurts people and then turns to the secular world to repair the damage. Contempt for administrative democracy in the church (unchangeable dogma is not the issue) is contempt for the creator of the Irish Catholic people, to whom the Trinity have given wisdom and grace in abundance.

It was compassion and humility that led Jesus to the cross – not an outraged sense of his own challenged dignity. As the Irish hierarchical church decays into a national facsimile of Craggy Island, and our churches fall into disuse, this penny too must eventually drop at its summit. Until then Father Ted’s exposure of the lunacy of the recent past will have to do us for grace instead.

Disempowerment in the Church

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 1998

The dramatic speed of the Catholic clergy’s loss of power and influence in Ireland in the past decade is at once a great upheaval and a great opportunity. Disorientation causes anxiety, but makes us also open to the possibilities of new directions. There are aspects of ‘Catholic Ireland’ that we would be foolish to try to resuscitate (chiefly clerical supremacy), and aspects of western secularism we would be unwise to adopt (the shopping mall as Holy of Holies). We are at once passionately aware both of the valuable aspects of our culture that are in danger of dying, and of the meretricious nature of much of what threatens to replace it. We are at a moment of supreme crisis and opportunity.

Inevitably there will be those who will wish to row Ireland back to clericalism – the ideology supporting clerical power – as though it were synonymous with Christianity. For these, Christ is essentially a cleric in love with clerical power, so the solution must lie in the restoration of a pyramid of clerical influence.

I would chart a different direction, based upon an understanding of Christ as layman
– subversive of pyramids in general, and therefore entirely in tune with the one of the great ideals of the modern age – the equalisation of human dignity. Christianity, I believe, is about the virtue of disempowerment rather than empowerment – understanding ‘power’ as domination, control of others.

Jesus disempowered himself

It is unnecessary to reproduce here the scriptural passages that illustrate Jesus’ self-disempowerment: his rejection of the temptation to worldly power by Satan (Matthew 4: 8-10) ; his refusal to be made king following the miracle of the loaves and fishes (John 6: 14,15); his rejection of the path of messiahship as understood by Peter (Matt 16: 21-23); his declaration that the apostles must not ‘lord it over one another’ as the gentiles do (Luke 22: 24-27); his self-abasement in the washing of the feet (John 13: 3-8); and finally his submission at Gethsemane and crucifixion on calvary. Jesus rejected the option of worldly power, deliberately making himself vulnerable to the power brokers of his time. This is not just part of the story – it is the story.

Traditionally – that is to say clerically – this is all explained in terms of the necessity for the crucifixion as a means of buying back or redeeming humankind after the fall. Yet this simply moves the question somewhere else. Why did the Father charge such a high price? Could it be to idealise a life lived without ambition to self-advancement, in a world where this ambition creates injustice and destroys community? This, after all, is the problem of every age – particularly our own. Clericalism has always advocated that we follow Christ – except in this central dimension of disempowerment. The reason for this exception is simple – clericalism is about empowerment, not disempowerment, and therefore cannot ‘image’ the latter.

It seems to me that we would all do well to ponder John 13: 3 – in which God’s power is associated not with the glorification of Jesus, but with his washing of the feet of the apostles, in the role of the domestic servant or slave. God’s power is here defined not as supremacy, but as service. Here and now in Ireland we are at a moment when the meaning of this can strike home with great effect. If divine power is in fact to be expressed in terms of service, then the Church in Ireland still holds divine power, not by virtue of clericalism, but through the unconditional service it still gives in many spheres, through both religious and lay people.

Something else we must notice: it is to the suffering, vulnerable Jesus that we humans are drawn in times of trauma, not to the image of Christ as King. It is the image of the cross that binds the church together, not the clerical pyramid that the church became in the fourth century. In fact that pyramid has always been a source of scandal and division, as Balthasar acknowledged in his work ‘The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church’. Worldly power can corrupt, and has corrupted, the church – but the church of service survives.

Understood in this way Christianity can resolve the great conundrum of our time: how to harness the creative power of individualism to the needs of community. If we invert in our minds the normal social pyramid of respect, placing the powerless at the summit of it, we redefine ‘success’ as service and low consumption. Blessed are the poor in spirit – those who consume least and do not think highly of themselves. Suddenly the Sermon on the Mount becomes a formula for saving the world, including the environment, from human selfishness.

Reclaiming Secularism

In this analysis Christianity is not the inevitable victim of secularism, but its eventual fate. The Judeo-Christian perception of the individual as supremely precious to God (as in the parable of the lost sheep) is brought to full fruition in Jesus, the immensely gifted individual who chose to die in service, rather than live in ambition. Liberalism is inadequate, because it takes us only as far as self-indulgence (the prodigal son). Christianity takes us further – into love of the Father which expresses itself as obedient service. This, and this alone, is true freedom.

Understood this way, rampant secularism does not demand the restoration of its social antithesis, clericalism, but its reclamation as lay service and generosity. In fact, as we know, there are many secularists in Ireland who already show this spirit while wanting nothing to do with clerical Catholicism – in St Augustine’s words they ‘belong to God but not to the church’.

In this analysis also, clericalism becomes a hindrance to the development of the church – because it associates Christ with a struggle for power rather than with self-denial and service. What the world needs is not clericalism but a secularism that goes beyond self-indulgence.

It follows that the nature of Christian authority also needs to be redrawn for the global church.

Rethinking authority and obedience in the Church

The decade of disempowerment of the Irish Catholic church coincides with a story of declining influence for the papacy in the west generally. Seeking to stabilise the Tridentine pyramid by a succession of edicts on contentious matters such as priestly celibacy and female ordination, the latter end of the papacy of John Paul II has attempted to place such matters within the scope of papal infallibility, and to silence dissent by making it an object of canonical sanction. It has also attempted to restrain those influences tending towards the expansion of the role of the laity in the church into areas once the monopoly of the priest.

As for matters that have transfixed ordinary catholics in countries as far apart as the USA, Ireland and Austria – the clerical sex scandals – the Vatican has presented an appearance of total indifference.

This stoical defensiveness may be seen as the culmination of a long-term historical trend of reaction against the weakening of the papacy throughout the past five centuries of modern history. Before the Reformation the Popes were the rulers of sizeable territories in Italy, could still wield very considerable influence over western European states and were virtually sovereign in defining truths of all kinds. Now the Papacy clings to a miniscule territorial residue in the city of Rome, has completely lost its control of most branches of knowledge, and has difficulty in enthusing even its bishops for the minute control it now seeks to exercise over discourse within the church. It has experienced gradually the kind of disempowerment which has come so quickly and recently in Ireland.

However, that disempowerment is a loss of the kind of power that Christ deliberately renounced and never used – the power to compel, to silence and to subordinate. That power had been denied the church during its years of most dramatic growth in a Roman empire that often persecuted it. It was acquired as a gift not of God but of a declining secular empire, and it transformed what had been intended as a vehicle for the promotion of the kingdom of God into an ally of dynastic power, aristocratic hierarchy and educative monopoly. The contradictory society advocated by Christ became just another power pyramid mimicking the social hierarchy of the world. The papacy spoke, of course, of the uniqueneness of the kingdom of God, but contradicted that kingdom in its own culture. (The Vatican’s recent search for a replacement for the murdered commanding officer of the Swiss guard reminded us that candidates are still specifically sought for their connections with aristocratic families!)

Vatican II was, of course, supposed to put an end to this kind of disintegrity. The church’s present condition results from a conflict between the libertarian culture proposed by Vatican II and the authoritarian culture of the Vatican itself, fighting the last rounds in a centuries-old battle for survival as apex of an authority pyramid. The papacy’s present problem is that it confuses authority with control. Intent upon safeguarding what it defines as orthodox belief, it silences theologians for dissent and attempts to place certain issues – notably female ordination – beyond discussion and debate.

The nature of authority today

Implicit in these actions is a perception by the magisterium that the authority of the church rests upon the purity and internal consistency of its teachings. In fact, authority today rests upon something entirely different – the perceived integrity of the truth claimant – the degree to which the claim is validated in the behaviour of the person or institution making that claim.

A recent example was the hilarious contradiction between the ‘back to basics’ claimed moral ethos of the last Tory government in GB and the tide of ‘sleaze’ – sexual and venal licence – that overtook the party itself in its last years. The correctness of the party’s verbal morality was not questioned. The party lost authority – the power to influence its hearers – solely by virtue of the fact that it had no perceived integrity. It lost the subsequent general election in 1997 to a party which had already embraced the ethos of the Tories but was perceived as less hypocritical, cynical and arrogant. Its authority rested, and rests still, not upon what it says, but upon the degree to which it is perceived to be faithful to what it says.

There are two reasons why this should concern the Vatican. First, Christ’s claim is threefold: he is not simply the truth, but the way and the life as well. His call to us is not just to believe what he believes, but to follow him. Were we to follow the magisterium, and do nothing else, we would simply become sources of complacent wisdom occupying grandiose real estate in the capitals of major cities – fountains of knowledge essential for salvation, but entirely unable to live the life that Jesus lived, to image the truth as he did. The Vatican images clericalism, not disempowerment and service, and is therefore culturally counter-evangelical.

Second, the information and media revolutions now ongoing create a raging torrent of information, of claims to truth relating to all intellectual disciplines and moralities. There is a global free market in wisdoms, and these too have become interchangeable and disposable. The scientific approach to truth – the building of conceptual models to explain phenomena, to be forgotten when a better model comes along – now influences the process by which we arrive at philosophies of life. Thus, Catholicism as truth system and culture is evaluated and compared, and even ‘tried on’, with everything else available. The authority of the Popes to silence theologians is entirely irrelevant when measured against the failure of the authoritarians to image what their truth advocates – a life of poverty, simplicity, self-sacrifice. Catholicism is not working today, not because the church is divided on matters of belief but because it has failed to discover and propagate a lifestyle which resolves the conundrums of Christian practice in the world. The truth is that we in the west do not clearly know how to be practical Christians today, and the presence or absence of a catechism, the silence or noise of a liberation theologian, is irrelevant to this problem.

It needs to be said forcefully also that clericalism is actually delaying the finding of a solution. It can survive only by fostering the infantilism and passivity of the laity.

One important source of this passivity is the clerical complexification of the faith, its transmutation into a vast textual mystery requiring years of study to master. The Spirit is entrapped in all of this, rather than released. The layman is thus made aware of his own incompetence, as a means of maintaining the clerical pyramid. There is an overwhelming need for prioritisation and elucidation of fundamental truths, so that the essential simplicity of the Christian challenge can be recovered, and the spirit catch fire. The rate at which pentecostalism is overhauling the Catholic church in Latin America, in terms of religious practice, should be a warning and an inspiration. Catholicism must become portable – a spirit informed by key truths, rather than an inert body of knowledge so vast that it intimidates and baffles all but the supreme owners of the mystery.

The significance of the Internet

In this context – the problem of turning theory into practice – the Vatican’s approach to the Internet is hilarious. Exhilarated by the power of the medium to broadcast information cheaply it has created a sumptuous website complete with renaissance buttons to all the news and instruction in the Holy See’s present stall. It revels in the number of ‘hits’ recorded. It simply doesn’t understand that the Internet’s most significant effect is to transform information consumers into information producers, all convinced they have a corner on the truth, all equipped to seek the rest of it, and to propagate their own truth. So the total of information available grows exponentially. The effect of this is a further diminishment of the power of any single voice, and the devaluation of all individual truth claims. With the commercialisation of the Web goes another sad fact: most of what we see is designed to exploit us in one way or another. In this company the Vatican site – associated as it is with a body of men intent upon selling us their minutely ordered brand of truth, but unable to prove in their lives the value of their product – is scarcely more impressive than an anti-dandruff shampoo advertisement.

In fact the Internet marks the end of the influence of all authoritarian pyramids. Because it allows networking at all levels, and multi-directional communication, it permits individuals their own intellectual odyssey in their own time. In this context the notion that any topic might be ‘off limits’ is merely quaint and archaic – effectively an incitement to debate it all the more. And this is exactly what has happened with the topics so identified on all the Catholic mailing lists and newsgroups on the ‘net. The silencing of dissident voices is completely pointless. The CDF’s declaration of excommunication of the Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya actually boosted the sales and intellectual currency of his books. Now reconciled with the church, he can reflect that the CDF’s only achievement was to make him something of a celebrity.

If the centre of the clerical church is genuinely to address the problem of evangelisation today it must reconcile itself to this global free-market in information, and stop pontificating. It must become streetwise without sacrificing the love at the heart of our faith – (become as wise as foxes and gentle as doves). Above all, it must realise that we live in a society in which nothing travels ‘down’ the network unless even more is allowed to travel ‘up’. St Peter’s square is no longer a microcosm of the world. There is no mass audience out there any more, mouths agape to hear the truth from on high. What we have now are millions of individual pilgrims, each reading from an improvised map and determined upon an individual journey. The survival of
Catholicism depends no longer (if it ever did) upon unanimity, but upon the validity of its own claims to truth and inspiration – the fact that this truth is the ultimate destination of all journeys, the omega that embraces everything.

So, today, the individual is ‘converted’ not by mass media or by institutions, but by collision with other individuals of like mind. It follows that the centralisation of authority in a single individual or agency actually deprives society of truth by denying those individuals their autonomy. In relation to spiritual authority the Papacy is where the Kremlin was in relation to economic authority in the mid 1980s – more an obstacle than an inspiration. This is the challenge and the opportunity for those concerned about the church’s authority – to close the gap between Pope and person in the same way Jesus did. Not by looking for the highest pinnacle from which to exhort and pontificate, but by dealing with individuals as individuals on the same eye level. This demands the deliberate abolition of the hierarchy of respect implicit in the present church, the centralisation of authority and initiative which paralyses and demeans both the laity and the God in whom we believe. Jesus was a layman in the most important sense. Far from setting out to empower an elite he accepted the baptism of John, for whom salvation was as free and achievable as Jordan water. In today’s world the church and its wisdom will either be laicised or it will perish.

Authority and the individual

For the individual human being the authority of Christ derives from the deliberate vulnerability of Jesus, not his remote kingship. His truth did not empower him – instead it caused his death and proved his unexampled integrity. This is elementary. It is through Christ’s death, as well as his word, that we are saved. Christianity can only be a heroic commitment to service out of love, and Jesus can only be loved for his submission to powerlessness and crucifixion. He inspires by virtue not of a sovereign kingship based upon military sanctions, but by virtue of his refusal to exercise that kind of power.

It is from this inspiration alone that obedience emerges in the church, not from simple submission to authority. Christ did not upbraid or fire or silence his fickle apostles after the resurrection. Of Peter he simply asked ‘Do you love me’? If this love is not present in the relationship between Christians at all levels in the church we are again like the gentiles who ‘lord it over one another’. This love cannot be inspired by an authority which seeks to monopolise initiative and lacks complete integrity – that togetherness of word and deed that closes the chasm between the two.

Christianity is an invitation to moral heroism, addressed to the individual. It cannot function properly as an educational, social or political imposition. That invitation cannot be clearly heard in a church whose authority system seeks to impose and maintain itself by unilateral edict from on high. That it is heard at all in these circumstances is evidence of the power of God in opposition to the declining influence of structures made impotent and irrelevant by His democratisation of knowledge.

The challenge in Ireland

Thus, in Ireland and globally, the church is faced with both the crises and the opportunities of clerical disempowerment. Led by clerics, it is still too inclined to bemoan the anticlericalism of modernity. Deprived of worldly power it has an opportunity to test the charismatic effect of offering service, rather than domination – through its laity. Nowhere is that opportunity more obviously on offer than in Ireland today. We are now fully involved in the Church’s western struggle to go beyond clericalism. We will either break new ground here, or wait for it to be broken elsewhere.

Why Ireland is Godless: Secularism as Divine Retribution

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish Times 1998

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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