Category Archives: Freedom

The Story of the West: III – The Origins of Freedom

Sean O’Conaill © Reality Dec 2007

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ” (US Declaration of Independence 1776)

Everywhere in the world in the time of Christ, slavery existed – in countries as far apart as Ireland and China. Two thousand years later the right to personal freedom is inscribed in the world’s great documents, and protected by most of the world’s governments.

The scourge of enslavement still exists for far too many, of course – but there is a global consensus that slavery is not only morally wrong but economically indefensible. While the ancient Greeks and Romans considered slavery essential to their success, the educated world now knows that slavery makes people unproductive – that we are most industrious when we are personally free.

Where did the idea of freedom come from? Most languages do not even have a word for the idea. It arose in one civilisation only – western Europe, in the Middle Ages. Catholic Europe, that is.

Here again, those who see Christianity as the root of all evil will deny that the Catholic Church could have had anything to do with the ending of slavery. They will point out that Jesus did not directly condemn it, that St Paul taught slaves to be obedient, that popes owned galley slaves as late as 1796, and that it was not until the 1800s that the papacy came finally to declare slavery immoral.

All of this is true – but the historical record is nevertheless clear: all effective anti-slavery movements were deeply influenced by another idea – an idea that developed in Catholic Europe alone, long before the Protestant Reformation: the idea that everyone is essentially equal in dignity.

That idea could not have come from Plato or Aristotle, the great philosophers of ancient Greece. Both believed that some peoples were superior to others, and that the slavery of many was essential to the prosperity and power of the Greek city state. Plato personally owned slaves. The ‘democracy’ of Athens was not based on the principle of ‘one man one vote’, but on the superiority of ethnic Greeks, all of them free to own slaves, who could not vote. In Plato’s ideal ‘Republic’ this elitism would have been retained.

The seed for the overthrow of slavery is to be found in the New Testament alone. St Paul did indeed teach slaves to be obedient, but he also taught masters to treat slaves well “knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with Him”. In other words, in the eyes of God we are all equal: “In Christ Jesus …there is neither slave nor free”.

It was for this very reason that slaves too were to receive the sacrament of baptism. Sacramental equality inevitably slowly undermined civil inequality. After an exhaustive study of the sources the agnostic secular sociologist Rodney Stark insists:

“Slavery ended in medieval (i.e. Catholic) Europe [only] because the church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then managed to impose a ban on the enslavement of Christians.”

By the third century the church had a pope, Callistus (d. 236) who had himself been a slave. With the fall of the western Roman empire in the fifth century, the pressure to end slavery increased. Priests began to urge the freeing of slaves as an “infinitely commendable act”. By the late 700s Charlemagne opposed slavery. By the 800s slavery was declared by some theologians to be “against divine law”.

Another scandalous era of slavery opened in the West with the voyages of exploration of the 1400s that gave European ships access to black Africa, and the incentive to ship slaves to imperial territories in north and south America. This too the papacy was far too slow to condemn unequivocally, yet even in the 1500s, some popes angrily condemned slavery in the Americas.

By now many Christians held that slavery was positively sinful. Here again we see the possibility for progress in Christian theology – as St Augustine had predicted. And it was this conviction that provided most fuel for the victories of the anti-slavery movement in the 1800s.

Uniquely among the world’s Religions, Christianity had not simply argued that all were equal in the sight of God, but provided most of the political momentum for the eventual overthrow of slavery. While the church is often pilloried for the slow progress of freedom in Europe, few secularist intellectuals have faced the reality that elsewhere in the world there was no progress at all. This was true especially of Islam. It was true even of China – often held up by secularists as a more advanced civilisation because its intelligentsia was irreligious.

And it was from these Christian principles of human dignity and human equality that another key modern principle emerged also: the principle of equal human rights.

Secularist opponents of Christianity will deny this, of course. They will argue that the principle of human rights was the child of the Enlightenment, an anti-Christian movement of the 1600s and 1700s.

But we now know that the US Declaration of Independence of 1776 owed its theory of human rights to the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). And that Locke frankly admitted his own debt to Catholic moral theologians of the Middle Ages who had developed the Christian principle of equal human dignity. If all are equal in dignity, it followed that Christians have binding obligations to all other humans. From these binding obligations, and from no other source, proceeds the principle that all humans are owed – i.e.have a right to – e.g. freedom

A further embarrassment for those who want to see the Enlightenment as the original source of freedom and human rights is the fact that the great Voltaire, high priest of the Enlightenment, invested the considerable profits of his own writings in the 18th century French slave trade, based at Nantes.

It was a vast tragedy for the Catholic church that the Christian origins of freedom became hidden even from the papacy in the period after the Enlightenment. Fearing the rise of democracy and the principle of religious freedom, Catholic bishops and popes, usually the sons of aristocratic Catholic families, mistakenly often condemned these. The belief that “error has no rights” was adhered to by Catholic churchmen well into the lifetime of many of us.

It was also a great tragedy for Catholicism in Ireland that when our church did eventually embrace the principle of religious freedom at Vatican II in 1965, our most powerful churchman was Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin. He too believed that error had no rights, and that it was perfectly legitimate for him and his fellow bishops to seek to control the Irish state directly. His extraordinary determination to control every aspect of Irish life until his resignation in 1971 earned for Irish Catholicism a reputation for clericalism and authoritarianism that virtually guaranteed the victory of secularism in the generation that followed.

Archbishop McQuaid mistakenly obliged every Catholic in his diocese to define Catholic loyalty in terms of unquestioning obedience and intellectual deference to him personally. This clericalist spirit still pervaded Catholic Ireland in the era of the council, and sabotaged its liberating potential here. Forced to choose between the role of ‘lackey to the bishop’ and the supposedly secular principle of freedom, many, many Irish people felt obliged, even in conscience, to choose the latter and to reject Catholic belief.

This is one of the most important reasons for the growth of Irish secularism and anticlericalism in recent decades. It explains why our media constantly exploit church scandals and why it is now so difficult for Irish Catholic churchmen to get a fair public hearing, especially in matters like stem cell research.

Catholic authoritarianism has always played into the hands of those who want to argue that the greater freedom of western culture is an entirely secular achievement, and that religion and freedom must always be opposed. And this in turn has led to a situation in Ireland where secularism is now so powerful that many Catholics feel ashamed to identify themselves as Catholics in public.

The solution is not to seek to restore the ‘Catholic Ireland’ of Archbishop McQuaid but to understand the Catholic roots of western freedom and to take pride, publicly, in that fact. We need to make ourselves entirely at home in neutral secular space and to educate ourselves to the facts of western history – refusing to take for granted secularist propaganda aimed at shaming us and driving Catholicism out of the public square entirely.

In particular we need to point out to secularists that the Catholic roots of western civilisation are far more than a matter of Catholic opinion. They are now confirmed by globally renowned scholars who are not even Christian. One of the most important is Rodney Stark, the ground-breaking American sociologist. I have used his recent book Victory of Reason as my most important source for these articles. Written with great clarity and honesty, it should be read by every educated Catholic.

Another is the German atheist philosopher Jurgen Habermas. Disturbed by various decadent tendencies in western society, and by the growing threat of terrorism since 9/11, he made the following declaration in a 2004 essay A Time of Transition:

“Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilisation. To this day, we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is post-modern chatter.”

Armed with this same knowledge, Irish Catholics of tomorrow will have no need to feel defensive about their faith or ashamed to proclaim it as the source of their own idealism in the secular world.

Claiming our own place in pluralist Irish secular society we must now also be unafraid to ask anti-Catholic secularists if they really know the origins of the values, and especially the freedom, they hold sacred.

Views: 29

Facing ‘the Dictatorship of Relativism’

Sean O’Conaill © Reality July/August 2005

Of all the dangers that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger saw facing the church, relativism was the greatest. Just before his election to the papacy he warned the church’s cardinals, gathered in Rome, about the ‘dictatorship of relativism’. This ‘call to arms’ may well have secured his election.

As Pope Benedict XVI, how will he address that danger? This question has enormous importance for the church.

To understand ‘relativism’ we need to understand that the human family has come through an astonishing expansion of knowledge in the past four centuries – an expansion that is still accelerating.

This has given birth to attitudes that are sceptical of the claims of any religious faith. These attitudes are broadly termed ‘secularism’.

We need to understand also that the movement of human populations has intermingled all the world’s faiths. No large city on earth now has a population that is uniformly of one religious faith.

And this means that any claim by any faith to ‘absolute’ truth – to a truth that must be true for everyone – is potentially explosive.

And this, of course, is what many religions do claim – to have a ‘saving truth’ that is necessary for the salvation of the world. We Christians are so sure that Christ takes us to ‘the Father’ that we believe that, in time, this truth should be shared with, and by, the entire human family.

And we Catholic Christians believe that our church has a ‘fullness’ of Christian truth that obliges us to deny that it has only equal status as truth, with other Christian traditions.

For every convinced religious believer, the truth in which he believes is the only complete or absolute truth – the only truth that is always and everywhere true.

Secular wisdom, on the other hand, insists that to maintain peace in the ‘global village’ no claim to absolute truth can be accepted. Many secularists believe, therefore, that relativism – the belief that all truth claims are only equally valid (and therefore also equally false) – is the only ‘faith’ that can bind a modern society together. This attitude is shared by most of those who govern modern western societies.

And this is what Pope Benedict XVI means by ‘the dictatorship of relativism’.

Serious problem for the church

There is no doubt that relativism poses a very serious problem for the church. On the one hand we must hold to whatever gives us a unique identity as a ‘faith family’ – for otherwise we will lose both our faith and our identity. We will also allow to perish a body of truth that we have been entrusted with by two millennia of Catholic tradition. This is a huge responsibility and trust.

There is no doubt also that many young educated Catholics are being influenced by relativistic attitudes prevalent in universities – and this must somehow be countered.

But on the other hand we have an obligation to maintain peace and friendship in a modern multi-faith society.

We Catholics have somehow to find a way of passing on a vibrant faith without making that faith a force for intolerance, division and even violence.

The issue is complicated by the fact that many people on both sides of it see no hope of any compromise. Some secularists see all religion as necessarily ‘wrong’ and divisive. So they ‘evangelise’ by claiming that only relativism can save the world – by insisting that all religion is ‘bunk’!

And on the other hand there are many religious believers that see secularism as a threat they must oppose. This attitude drives, especially, Islamic fundamentalism.

In Ireland also, many Catholics feel oppressed by the secularisation of our society in just a few decades. Some look back with nostalgia to a time when our church almost owned the public spaces in our cities – through which Catholic processions often passed on certain feast days.

Now Ireland too is becoming a multi-faith society, while trying to maintain a tradition of welcoming strangers. How are we to remain both confidently Catholic and respectful towards those with radically different beliefs – beliefs that may even include a strong desire to convert all of us from our own faith?

The power of love

Oddly enough, the solution to this huge problem may lie in something Benedict XVI himself said, almost casually, in 1996. Faced with a reporter’s question on the apparently greater power of evil in the modern world he said:

“This is the question that I would ask of God: Why does he remain so powerless? Why does he reign only in this curiously weak way, as a crucified man, as one who failed?”

He went on:

“But apparently that is the way he wants to rule; that is the divine form of power. And the non-divine form of power obviously consists in imposing oneself and getting one’s way and coercing.”

This perception – that our God wishes to rule us without imposing himself upon us – suggests a simple solution to the problem of reconciling adherence to absolute truth with social peace: that while we hold our truth firmly we see its essence as a love that cannot impose itself on others – because love cannot coerce.

That is to say while holding ourselves bound by our own truth, we can simply lose the need for others to share that belief now. Indeed, in communicating our belief that God does not coerce, we pass on a key part of our truth – a truth that can be shared, and can bind the whole human family.

Such a truth – that God has asked us to unite the human family in love and freedom – can be shared with all faiths that prioritise love. And all the great religions do so.

If we prioritise love – as God seems to – we can surely tolerate divergence of faith on other matters – without betraying faith to relativism.

False argument

The great argument of relativism – that it alone can bind a multifaith society together in peace – is false in any case. In all the great cities of the world people of strong religious faith are meeting to discover what they have in common.

And in many cases they are finding that the supreme being they worship prioritises an unconditional love – a love of the stranger, whatever his belief. For Christians, that truth is plainly seen in, for example the parable of the good Samaritan – because for Jews of Jesus’ time the Samaritan was not a Jew.

In this way the global family is setting out on the same pilgrimage that John Paul II began with the leaders of many other faiths in Assisi in 1986. On that pilgrimage we can each describe the God we hope to meet at the end. Disagreeing amicably on the journey, we can all bear witness to the falsehood of the claim that only relativism – the belief that there is no great truth – can unite us in peace.

Differences within the Church

This solution could also guide how our church also deals with divergent view within itself – for example on the issue of the ordination of women and married men. Clearly, the unity of the church requires some kind of unity in the regulations it makes for itself. But does it require also the suppression of those views with which the church leadership may disagree at any given time?

Surely the prioritisation of love within the church would counsel also the toleration of the expression of divergent views?

The opposite view – that it can’t – surely implies some weakness in the arguments for the official view. If it is love that binds the church together also, and love forbids coercion, how can love, and truth, be retained by what amounts to coercion within the church?

As Pope John Paul II’s top theological ‘policeman’, Pope Benedict feared that to give liberty to ‘powerful intellectuals’ was to endanger the faith of ‘simple people’. But simple people have a surprisingly strong grasp of what they believe, and usually also have a quite sceptical attitude towards ‘powerful intellectuals’. Deluged by claims to truth that are obviously false they are learning to sift what they hear.

They will even more readily look to the papacy for direction if it too shows confidence that God’s truth will prevail over all contradiction – by the power of love alone.

And that is what the Vatican II document on religious freedom proclaimed also: that truth conveys itself by virtue of its own truth. It does so, surely, by prioritising, not knowledge propositions – but God’s uncoercive love of us all.

Views: 7

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: VIII – Division in the Church

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

“Where in the Gospels does the Lord say: ‘Thou shalt be right?'”
Fr Richard Rohr O.F.M.

When I was going through Catholic secondary school in Dublin in the 1950s I was never taught that there could be serious disagreement within our Church. The notion that there could be different schools of thought in an infallible institution never surfaced.

The often-repeated phrase ‘the church teaches’ implied that it could speak with only one voice – on everything.

The intention behind this ‘single voice’ theory of the church was to reinforce for us young people the church’s authority. Our teachers thought back then that if the church was believed to have just one voice – on everything – we would then know exactly what to believe. The church was a rock – and all the atoms in a rock move together, like well-trained soldiers. There was a fear that if we all started thinking for ourselves the rock would crumble into dust.

However, the effect of this kind of education was to send my mind to sleep. If all of the most important questions had already been answered by theologians and philosophers long dead – and those answers were now as fixed and final as the multiplication tables – then what could I ever hope to discover for myself? I went to university in the early 1960s expecting, with no great enthusiasm, to have the dull certitudes of secondary school reinforced.

Instead I found people of my own age arguing over virtually everything – and my mind woke up.

And then I learned that in a great council of the Catholic church taking place at that very time in Rome, there was deep disagreement between conservative and liberal church leaders and theologians. I became totally fascinated by those disagreements, and tended to take the liberal side.

I have never since lost that fascination, and never stopped thinking about the great questions the council raised. Had I gone on supposing that Catholicism was all about everyone thinking the same about everything, I would certainly have abandoned it long ago – because asking questions is obviously what our minds are for. And finding the answers – or at least some of them – for oneself – is by far the most exciting thing anyone can ever do.

I became a liberal then because I believed in freedom, especially the freedom to think my own thoughts. My main subject was history – and I loved the story of my own era – the story of the triumph of freedom and democracy. I was appalled that Catholic church leaders could ever have sided with the cause of an unequal society, ruled by aristocrats who inherited wealth and power. The God who freed the Jews from the Egyptians must surely be the same God who was at that very moment, through Martin Luther King, teaching African Americans to sing  Let My People Go and We Shall Overcome.

So I was deeply disappointed when Irish church leaders, led by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin, took a negative view of the council and told us that it should not disturb “the tranquillity of our Christian lives”. For me no pope since John XXIII has come close to matching his confidence that the Holy Spirit is busy renewing the church.

Yet now I find myself arguing vigorously with Christian liberals who go too far towards an accommodation with modern secular ideas, belittling the faith of past eras, and especially the faith of the earliest Christians. My questioning, and the deepest experiences of my life, have led me to the conviction that the fundamental statements made in the creeds are essentially true and need to be upheld: Christian identity and freedom depend upon them.

What is it that divides liberals and conservatives in the church?

The best answer I can come up with goes as follows. Conservatives hold to the notion of an unchanging church – a church that has always been the same. Changing anything means tampering with what we have received – and that is to endanger what God has given us.

Liberals insist the church must change if it is to survive. The worldview of the early Christians included beliefs that have been scientifically disproved (for example that the earth was fixed centrally in the universe, and everything else, including the sun, revolved around it). To hold to that worldview is to invite the ridicule of educated people, the liberals insist – so our Christianity must change to include what science teaches.

How Christians react to the word progress can often tell us which camp they belong to. Liberals have no problem with it, often terming themselves progressives. Conservatives, however, often associate progress with the abandonment of what they wish to retain. It is almost the equivalent of apostasy – the rejection of their faith.

Another key phrase to which liberals and conservatives usually react differently is ‘the modern world’. Conservatives want no accommodation with the modern world, because this too smacks of an abandonment of what the church has always been – a critic of the world. Liberals, on the other hand insist that if it is to survive in the modern world the church must adapt itself to that world – otherwise it will not be taken seriously.

I am now convinced that conservatives are quite right to complain about the modern world – and that liberals are perfectly correct to say we must adapt to it. Let me explain.

When Jesus said I have overcome the world I believe he meant that he had resisted the temptation to be a success as success was defined in that world: in military, political and religious terms. He was not to be just another David who would declare a new independent Jewish kingdom, and precipitate another war with Rome. He was a messiah sent to lead us – all of us – to a peaceful world that lies beyond any we can imagine – because our understanding of success is the acclaim of our own era , and our era – led by the media – will acclaim virtually anything.

To adapt our faith to our own era I believe that we must see the potential that contemporary culture presents for raising questions about the meaning of success today – understood especially as the acquisition of wealth and celebrity.

We must also do what true Christians have always done: challenge contemporary culture by identifying the human flaw of mere mindless conformity – and choose to be different.

We are at a moment in time when true freedom – Gospel freedom – is both possible and needed by the world. It is a moment when the minds of many people are open and searching. We must seize that moment.

One example of seizing the moment lies in the language of secularism itself. For example, many educated people today have been influenced by the ideas of a great psychologist called Abraham Maslow. His work on human motivation suggests that beyond the satisfaction of material human needs, and even the need for success, lies the need for self-actualization – the full realization of one’s personal gifts and potential.

There is absolutely no reason why Christians should not define this need in Christian terms. We need above all to become our true selves – the persons that God wants us to be – making full use of the talents he has given us.

In Christian spirituality, human gifts are not simply the possession of the one who has been gifted: they belong to the community also. To fully realize our gifts, and to become truly free, we must understand the freedom that lies in voluntary service.

And conservatives are right to insist that the church can never change: it must be centred on its founder. Yet liberals are also right to insist that the church must learn to speak to the modern world in a language that it understands – because Jesus would have done that too.

He would not have said “forget self-actualisation and seek salvation instead”. He would instead have asked: Can you truly fulfil all of your gifts without seeking first the greatest of all – the gift of love?

By a remarkable coincidence the word salvation is very close in meaning to the word salutary meaning conducive to health. And the word holy is very close to the word whole . We cannot be whole – self-actualised – or healthy , or saved , until we are centred upon the source of all love and all truth: the being we Christians know as God.

And while conservatives are right to insist that there can be no progress in moving away from the truth, liberals are right to say that we can make progress towards understanding and expressing that truth more clearly.

Stupid Christian evangelism – the kind that talks about being saved as though the meaning of that word had not been almost bankrupted by mere repetition – has done enormous damage to Christianity by failing to connect its convictions with the language, and thought, of our time.

How many saved people have we met who have a clear idea of what they mean by the word? They usually remind us of nothing more clearly than those daft young Chinese fanatics who waved the little red book of Mao Zedong during the cultural revolution in the 1960s.

I spent the first ten days of June 2004 in the close company of someone who has a completely different take on Vatican II – Tom Lennon, founder of United Christian Aid. Just a few years younger than I, he reacted strongly against the liturgical changes introduced after the council, and decided it was part of a vast Masonic conspiracy to overthrow the church.

I am quite convinced, on the other hand, that the theory of a global Masonic anti-Christian conspiracy began with elitist Catholic clerics who opposed democratic ideas – especially the idea of human equality – at the time of the French Revolution. To see Vatican II as part of a Masonic plot is, I believe, deeply mistaken, even perverse.

So I sometimes found Tom uncomfortable company. Yet I deeply respect him for something that we liberals too often lack – a commitment to helping people who do not have the luxury of being able to discuss great questions on the Internet or anywhere else – the poor of Eastern Europe. He founded a charity for that purpose, and gave me the priceless gift of an experience of that work.

Because I have spent time with Tom I now know why he did it. He believes that God is a pure spirit of love who wishes to rebuild the world on that principle. That, for me, is a Vatican II principle – so Tom and I can work together on that shared principle. All our disagreements are secondary to it

That, I believe, is why Jesus made loving, not knowing, the highest priority for all of us. He never told us to be right – to spend our lives amassing so much knowledge that we can tell everyone else where they are wrong.

Life is a pilgrimage that will end only when we die. An essential element of that pilgrimage is the road our minds travel, asking and re-asking the great questions. We must never suppose that we have understood everything, and must be constantly open to the questions and answers of others. To suppose that the point we have now reached is our final position – an exalted platform from which we can now criticize the ideas of everyone else – is to declare our pilgrimage at an end prematurely. There is always something more to learn – so intellectual arrogance is always unwise.

It is time we liberals and conservatives learned to continue our disagreements while we travel together as pilgrims, doing our utmost as we travel to lift the burdens that lie so heavily on others – co-operating for that purpose. It is time to put Christian love above everything else – even the need to be right.

Catholic conservatives and liberals will both be right if we obey the great commandment of the Lord – to love one another. We will all be wrong if we don’t.

Views: 32

Consecrating the World?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Restoring the Authority of the Church

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

The full twenty-volume Oxford dictionary distinguishes two basic meanings of ‘authority’: first, the power to enforce obedience;  second the power to influence action, opinion or belief.

It is clear that two entirely different forms of power are involved here.  The first is linked clearly with enforcement.  A military commander has this kind of authority, as he can deploy actual force to arrest and sequester a rebellious officer.  So long as any agency can deploy some kind of decisive sanction against anyone, it possesses the ability to enforce its ‘authority’.  This authority may not be loved – may in fact be detested – but its coercive clout gives it a weight it would not otherwise possess.

But there is another entirely different kind of authoritative power – one that emerges out of the freely-given respect of one person for another.  Once that respect has been earned, the one who has earned it enjoys a power of influence that does not rest upon coercive capability.

It is perfectly clear that the Catholic Church in the West presently stands at a point in time when its leadership no longer possesses either kind of authority to the degree that it did even a century ago.  No longer in a position to direct the state anywhere in the northern hemisphere, that leadership cannot deploy coercive power – unless perhaps against its own direct or indirect employees.  And having lost the trust and confidence of most Catholic lay people, that leadership has lost the power of influence also.

It is against this backdrop that we presently conduct a debate on ‘the moral authority of the Church’.   Far too often this debate focuses upon the authority of the hierarchy – as though ‘the Church’ as a whole is still to be identified in some crucial sense with its leadership.  But the fact is that the authority of the church is a matter for the whole church – and it would be a profound mistake to work towards any restoration of hierarchical authority that would provide it once again with any degree of coercive power.

Recovery by the hierarchy of the power of moral influence is another matter – but this rests entirely with the success of the hierarchy in recovering its own integrity.  To the degree that it remains many steps behind the process of media exposure of its own secretive maladministration it currently lacks a visible corporate integrity  – whatever about the personal integrity of its individual members.  It will take some years – at least a decade – for the hierarchy as a body to persuade the wider church that its love of truth, and its love of its own laity, are once more beyond question.  And as this must depend also upon profound changes in Rome it is far from certain to occur even in that timescale.

But even that desirable eventuality would not give the church the authority to which it now needs to aspire.  We live in an era when appeals to the authority of another party are absolutely worthless, and even ludicrous, in any discourse about faith with anyone of a different mindset.  To say “the Pope (or the magisterium) teaches x” will immediately invite the response “But what do you believe, and why?” from anyone who disagrees.  To respond to this with “I believe what the Church teaches, because it tells me I must” is to invite incredulity or scorn.  Such an assertion lacks, in a word, authority – because the free personal, reasoned commitment of the witness is lacking – the persuasive evidence of a personal comprehension of, and free personal commitment to, whatever is being upheld.

This is so not just because our Church leadership currently lacks visible integrity, but because the same process of erosion of faith in institutions is endemic in the secular world also.  Deluged as we are by palpably false commercial information, we are not impressed when politicians employ focus groups to determine their manifestoes, and spin doctors to package presentation.  Because most information comes at us now in an exploitative stream, all truth claims are diverted into a long mental queue that we label ‘only possibly true’ – and may never reach the mental desk at which personal life decisions are made.

It is this above all that those who currently exalt the authority of ‘the magisterium’ need to understand.  Catholicism is currently getting a drubbing in the secular media not simply for being dysfunctional on matters of sexuality, but for brainwashing people – and especially children.  The exaltation of the authority of the magisterium – explained in simplistic terms as the bishops—sets every Catholic child up as conclusive proof that this is true, because it demands of that child intellectual deference to patriarchy as a badge of loyalty – as a virtual definition of what a Catholic actually is.

That this process does not prepare Catholic children for the egalitarian cut-and-thrust of third level education, or for the harsher secular marketplace, is surely plain for all to see.  The virtual collapse of Catholic identity at the age of eighteen shows that a whole new approach is needed in the understanding of authority.  A patriarchal definition simply doesn’t cut it any more – and it never did.

When we hear in the Gospels that Jesus taught with authority, we cannot suppose that this authority rested on reference to what others may have taught him.  It is clear, certainly, that he knew his Hebrew sources – but that is clearly not why people came to listen.  The truth he carried was patently also carrying him – it had been freely embraced and integrated at the deepest personal level.  What he believed was patently what he believed – not simply what he had been taught to believe.  No other explanation is possible of how he could, when his life was at stake, say ‘I am the truth’.

It should be clear to all by now that there is all the difference in the world between a faith that is inherited, and a faith that is freely and deliberately embraced.  In the first case the individual is enveloped in a specific culture which creates a powerful incentive merely to conform.  Conformity rather than integrity becomes the highest virtue taught.  So enveloped, the individual is essentially passive – like the infant upon whom the water of baptism is poured.  In the second case it is the individual who, as an autonomous adult, freely chooses a given faith from a range of alternatives.  In that case it is the chosen church that becomes the passive object towards which the adult believer consciously moves.

It is crucially important for the church as a body to understand that the first kind of faith, which we may call received faith, is a most delicate and fragile plant – very unlikely to withstand an unfavourable climate.  It is only the second kind – chosen faith – that is likely ever to amount to an authoritative faith – one that can confidently engage in adult discourse.  Received faith may eventually mature into chosen faith – but one of the biggest problems in our church is that it tends to behave as though no such transition is necessary for the lay person – or as though received faith is or at some point automatically becomes chosen faith.

Such an assumption is highly dangerous not only because it is fundamentally mistaken but because it underlies what is probably the single most important point of difference between the lay person and the cleric or religious.   For the latter, faith is far more likely to be chosen, and therefore more informed and authoritative.  Most important, that adult commitment is liturgically celebrated in a ceremony of ordination or free commitment to vows. Here we find the essential weakness of Irish Catholicism – the essential reason for the diffidence and passivity – and lack of authority – of the typical Irish Catholic lay person.  For if we laity do not need a chosen faith – if our received faith is considered forever sufficient – we are never actually invited into Christian adulthood, and may forever remain spiritual children.

Indeed, given that this has all been fairly obvious for some decades, there is good reason to believe that the permanent  spiritual childhood of the laity is something that is actually preferred by Catholic paternalism at the summit of the church.  Clericalism rests upon the need of laity for a ‘Yes, Father’ relationship – one in which the priest will remain the autocratic and dominant – and thinking – force.  Far better then, that laity should never move beyond a childish dependency and a school-based understanding.  Nothing else can fully explain the lack of commitment to adult education by the self-described magisterium, and the failure to provide the structures for upward communication and adult participation required for full implementation of Vatican II.

The continued dogged adherence to the bestowal of all three sacraments of initiation before puberty, and to the complete absence of any liturgical expectation or celebration of adult lay commitment, leaves Irish Catholicism especially firmly in Craggy Island territory.  This is precisely why the sudden loss of authority by the Catholic hierarchy has been so devastating.  In a decade it is as though the Irish Catholic Church has actually disappeared from the national landscape – with secularist media commentators going so far as to suggest that it is currently undergoing its ‘last rites’.  Soon enough we will experience in Ireland what has already happened in Italy – a demand that the Church records the free decision of Irish Catholics to repudiate their baptisms – in the same way that it recorded their involuntary baptism after birth.

It seems to me that if we Irish Catholics-by-choice wish to make ourselves, and our children, authoritative as Catholics – fully committed and confident carriers of our saving truths – we need either a postponement of the sacrament of Confirmation, or a new sacramental/liturgical event which might be called Affirmation.  Either way, Confirmation or Affirmation should celebrate the free and deliberate decision of  mature adults to commit entirely to the truths of the faith.  And all teaching prior to this should emphasize the crucial importance of that moment for the person concerned – of the necessity of complete freedom as the only context in which any adult faith commitment can be made.

At present we make the appalling mistake of supposing that of necessity what has been taught and apparently received has also been freely chosen – that committed Catholics will emerge inevitably from a process of catechesis controlled by the catechist.  They cannot, because to say ‘I believe’ implies a complete freedom not to say it – and that context of freedom we never provide.  “We were taken for granted!” This is one young student’s damning verdict on this process – a verdict seemingly repeated by the majority, to judge by the total indifference of the vast majority of baptized students in Irish universities to the ministry of their chaplains.  And it is confirmed by all we have recently learned about the collapse of sacramental observance among those in the age range 18-30.

On the other hand, to hear a young adult say, with full confidence and in complete freedom ‘I believe’, restores in an instant the authority that has been lost by the church – for at that moment the faith has found another free adherent.

So in the end, authority and freedom are inseparable – and the authority of the church is inseparable from the mature freedom of its members.  It is no coincidence that the authority of Catholicism should have reached its nadir in the West under a ‘magisterium’ that is so needlessly afraid of freedom, so determined to preserve at all costs the fiction of a morally inerrant clergy, and the absurd contention that loyalty and deference are the same thing.

To restore the authority of the Church it is now of paramount importance that laity be invited liturgically into chosen adult faith – and organizationally and intellectually into parity of esteem.  The authority of the hierarchy in the wider secular world will rest ultimately on the integrity of its contention that our church, from summit to base, offers enhanced and equal personal dignity to all – and only we Catholic laity will be in a position to vouch for this from personal experience.

At present we truly cannot – because to do so would be to speak against the truth of our own experience.

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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.

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The Day the World Changed – 11/09/2001

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality 2001

For most of my lifetime I’ve been teaching history and current affairs, and in that lifetime already there have been days of special significance.

The night in 1962 when JFK told us about Soviet missiles on Cuba; that other awful night in 1963 we learned he had been assassinated; the day of the first serious violence in Northern Ireland in August 1969; the day in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down.

Yet none hit me with so much force as Tuesday 11th September 2001 – the day over 3000 people died in deliberate air crashes in New York and Washington. On my screen as I write there is a shot of Flight 175 about to pass through the enormous glazed wall of the World Trade Centre south building. I keep it there as a memento of an era that is about to pass away, a reminder that we are now in a different time. And that we owe to those dying and about to die at that moment – and to those they left behind – a monument that will do justice to their loss.

That image perfectly expresses the vulnerability of the US, at that moment the world’s only superpower.  Its terrifying nuclear missile shield, its strategic bomber force, its air and army and naval bases throughout the world, its nuclear submarines, its dozen floating airports, its huge external and internal intelligence services the CIA and FBI – all had been powerless to protect its most vulnerable citizens as they began their innocent day.

Superpower?

All of which raises a critical question: Is the concept of the superpower itself a dangerous illusion when only one superpower is left to become a target of a terrorism that it cannot directly engage with superpower arms?superpower Is the vastness of its strategic military strength, and the global nature of that power, now an invitation to the murder of its own citizens from within, and to a global religious war?

The concept of the superpower emerged in the period after 1945. Two powers had contributed most to the defeat of the axis powers – the  USA and the USSR. Only one as yet possessed a nuclear capability, but by 1962 this inequality had disappeared and the world stood poised on the brink of nuclear holocaust. The superpowers were already competing also in space, and it was the US decision to build a defensive satellite shield against nuclear missiles that finally broke the USSR’s capability to compete in the late 1980s. The collapse of the soviet empire from 1989 left one superpower only, with an apparently global dominance.

But global dominance – the aspiration of conquerors from Alexander to Hitler – is a dangerous position to be in. In fighting the Cold War US support for Israel was a potent source of alienation of Islamic peoples who sided with the Palestinians who were being squeezed out. Geared for nuclear warfare, or conventional warfare with forces prepared to engage in pitched battles, the US now faced a new and subtle enemy whose strength was anti-western fanaticism and an ability to improvise.

“They have woken a mighty giant,”  President Bush has now assured us, paraphrasing the Japanese Admiral Yamamoto after Pearl Harbour. But Yamamoto had actually said ‘sleeping giant’ – and this seems far more appropriate as a comment on September 11th. There is a sense in which the entire political and military leadership of the US was indeed asleep on that morning, and was then woken out of a complacency of catastrophic proportions.

As all the ingredients for the disaster were already known to be present, future historians will set their students the task of explaining why the disaster was allowed to happen. Fanatical middle eastern suicide bombers had attacked US targets before, and had recently killed hundreds of Israelis and severely damaged a US warship; hundreds of men from middle eastern lands deeply alienated from the US were known to be in the US; US flying schools did not require security clearance for their pupils; US internal air security was known not to prevent the carrying on board of potentially deadly weapons; the flight decks of these aircraft were known to be accessible to armed passengers.

Nothing more was required to allow the most appalling internal disaster ever to befall the US at the hands of its enemies – and these facts all lay before those charged with the defence of US citizens during the years this plan was meticulously prepared.

To argue that no one could foresee this is specious: these terrorists had foreseen it, probably as early as five years before. Specific US politicians and military and security and intelligence personnel had the task of outguessing the nation’s enemies, of thinking the unthinkable in order to prevent it, during that time. They either failed to do so, or were discouraged from pursuing the issue Scapegoating of individuals is pointless: there was a national failure of leadership at the summit, affecting the previous Democratic presidency of Fulbright scholar Bill Clinton as much as that of the Republican George Bush, and Congress also under both administrations. No-one at the summit wanted to think the unthinkable, although that is precisely what terrorists do.

Now that the US is attempting to build an alliance against terrorism it needs to avoid words and actions that must prevent that alliance ever becoming effectual. Words like ‘Crusade’ – for the Islamic world this has the same overtones as ‘Jihad’ for the west. The Crusades were Christian military expeditions against the Islamic rulers of the Holy Lands in the Middle Ages, called initially – and inexcusably – by the Papacy. An estimated 40 – 70,000 Jews and Arabs perished in the rape of Jerusalem by western ‘Christian’ knights in 1099 CE. The fact that George Bush did not apparently know this, and did not employ an adviser who could tell him, shows clearly the absence of a due respect for Islam at the summit of government at this critical moment.

The alliance must also avoid the indiscriminate use of force anywhere in the world. As I write, US military strikes of some kind against Afghanistan seem a possibility – with consequences that could include the alienation of much of the Islamic world from any anti-terrorist alliance. Since the bin Laden argument is that the US is bent upon global domination, unilateralist action by the US against any Islamic nation can only strengthen the bin Ladens and enhance their reputation.

US after 9-11What is needed above all is for the US to rethink its role and posture in the world. Is it bent upon economic and cultural as well as military dominance, or is it the big brother that guards the freedoms and dignity, and cultural identity of others as determinedly as its own?

At a critical moment in the development of the Irish peace process the London government found it useful to say simply that it had no longer any strategic interest in retaining control of Northern Ireland. This allowed most republicans to stack, if not yet to relinquish, their arms and bring us peace of a kind. Something similar is required from the US to clarify its intentions, especially with regard to the Islamic world and Israel. This could also strengthen its relations with the western powers.

When those who devised the US constitution wondered how to express the essential equality of the states that belonged to it, they decided that the US Senate would each have just two members from each state. This reassured those who argued that states with smaller populations would be always outvoted and ignored. The nearest thing we have to a world congress, the UN, gives greater power to the permanent superpower members of the Security Council. It must surely be obvious that when the list of superpowers is reduced to one, the credibility of the UN as an impartial body must be weakened. The time has come to re-examine its constitution – and here also the US must play a crucial role.

Having climbed to the summit of world power, the US has now to decide how that power is to be used within a framework of mutual international respect. Respect is only possible within a framework of equality. Equality was the original program of those who framed the US Declaration of Independence of 1776, and makes a perfectly respectable program now for a new world order. Is the administration of George Bush up to this – or will the US go on defending a supremacy that must remain a target for all the ‘young guns’ that must emerge to challenge it – with heaven knows what consequences for its own citizens, as well as the rest of the world?

What is power?

As I watched the aftermath of this shocking catastrophe in New York I had as a guest in my home a Dutch naval officer, one of a group of eight Christians visiting Coleraine from the Hague. “What is power?” Rudolph Francis asked at one point.

The question is so appropriate. These hijackers had armed themselves with nothing more than information, basic flying skills and knives. The information allowed them to co-ordinate the seizure of four planes that had left three different airports within fifteen minutes of one another. Knives and piloting skills allowed them to turn three of these into flying bombs of great destructive power, aimed at the political and economic capitals of the world’s only superpower. The factor that stunned the US – their willingness to give their lives for this enterprise – has undoubtedly helped to shape the history of the next century. It is equivalent to the assassination by Serbs of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary in 1914. The consequences of that action included the Great War and the downfall of that empire, with consequences that still reverberate in eastern Europe.

What will be the consequences of September 11th, 2001? One possibility, which must at all costs be avoided, is another ‘clash of civilisations’ between the West and Islam. To avoid it we must all become far more aware of the multitude of different cultures, beliefs and attitudes to be found among the world’s one billion Muslims. Islam is at least as diverse as the Christian world. The fanaticism of the suicide hijackers is fuelled by a perception of the west, led by the US, as a purveyor of a corrupt globalisation, threatening to Islamic faith and culture. The best way for the west to undermine that perception is to rediscover the Gospels, which threaten no-one.

Our own church could begin by acknowledging – in a substantial document – the disastrous error of the Crusades, called initially by Pope Urban II in an address that was not recorded verbatim. One version of it has him asking:

“Can anyone tolerate that we do not even share equally with the Moslems the inhabited Earth?”

As this ‘take’ on the papacy’s attitude to Islam would align it with a possible tide of anti-Islamism today, it is all the more necessary that the church distance itself from this discreditable era of its history. This beautiful Earth is not a western or Christian domain but a dear heritage of all its children. Our Bible – some of which we share with Islam – records that we are one family, from the beginning, and our gospels insist that we are destined to be at peace. Most Islamic scholars share this vision, so the earth need not become a battlefield between any two or more great faiths.

And this vision of a world enjoying a secure diversity is perfectly compatible with the greatest traditions of the USA. To protect its citizens it reconciles in its constitution the principle of the separation of the three different elements of state power, with the other vital principle of national unity against external aggression. It can now lead the world to a permanent peace by placing equal emphasis upon both principles in a genuine new world order. The world’s peoples and faiths can unite as one world against fanatical violence, in defence of the freedom of all to be themselves.

And the idea of a New World Order was, of course first floated by the first President Bush. It is time for us all to begin thinking about what the phrase might mean.

Views: 6

World and Church Revisited

Sean O’Conaill  Doctrine and Life 2001

The recent long-distance exchange between the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Des Connell, and Irish President Mary McAleese, revived an old and tortured question – the proper relationship of the Church to ‘the world’. Dr Connell emphasised the sadness and waywardness of the modern world, and the need for holiness in opposition to it, quoting in disapproval the president’s call for ‘a revitalized Church comfortably adapted to the modern world’.

He can be justly criticised for not quoting the rest of the sentence from which this came: ‘yet a profound centre of spiritual gravity’ – but nevertheless there seems to remain a fundamental opposition between these two views of ‘the world’. In one it is spiritually dangerous, to be held at a distance and judged and redeemed – i.e. changed – by the Church; in the other it becomes judge of the Church’s ‘relevance’ or health, in the sense that a church ‘out of touch with’ the world is to be considered itself in need of change.

This question, is, I believe, central to the division between what we might loosely describe as the ‘reformist’ and ‘restorationist’ stances within the Church. As there is a critical need to find some common ground these times I would argue that we can find some here – by teasing apart the different senses in which ‘the world’ may be understood.

We may begin by noting that the Bible uses this term in quite different senses. Most Old Testament references are to those inhabited parts of the earth known to the scripture writers. For example:

(Gen 41:57) And all the countries came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the world.

Here ‘the world’ is simply the totality of locations from which the peoples known to the author may come. In Psalms the ‘world’ is also the totality of the human race, to be judged by God:

(Psalms 96:13) They will sing before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.

In Isaiah we find a note of condemnation: the world is not merely the created world, but the world of men that stands somehow in opposition to God.

(Isaiah 13:11) I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless.

Yet this association of ‘the world’ with human arrogance does not completely obliterate the world that is fruitful and good:

(Isaiah 27:6) In days to come Jacob will take root, Israel will bud and blossom and fill all the world with fruit.

All of these usages – positive, neutral and condemnatory – occur again in the New Testament.

(Matthew 5:14) You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.

(Matthew 13:35) So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”

(Matthew 18:7) “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!”

In John we can find for the first time the usage of ‘world’ in opposition to Jesus – all those who do not recognise him for what he is:

(John 1: 10) He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

Yet this world of non-recognisers will nevertheless also be redeemed:

(John 1:29) The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

Jesus also directly accuses ‘the world’:

(John 7:7) “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil.”

Yet he intends its salvation.

(John 12:47) “As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it.”

After the crucifixion ‘the world’ becomes those who are not the disciples:

(John 15:19) If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.

How are we to make sense of this essentially bipolar attitude towards the world? How can the world be both essentially good, at once a beautiful creation, and at the same time something that opposes the light, from which we must stand apart, whose hatred we must overcome?

An additional problem arises from the specifically modern perception of the world as in a dynamic rather than static condition – in progress – however tortuous – towards Utopia. This perception was at its peak in the 1960s, after nearly two decades of comparative international peace and economic development. The Vatican II document ‘Gaudium et Spes’ (Joy and Hope) caught this perception beautifully, balancing this joy and hope with the ‘grief and anguish’ that is also so much a part of our ‘world’. Three decades later Utopia may well seem further away, certainly in global terms, as possible environmental catastrophe is added to the woes emanating from man’s growing scientific and technical power – with consequences for the entire human family we cannot yet predict. Since the 1960s also – when a repeat of the horrors of Auschwitz seemed unthinkable – we have seen the return of essentially the same scapegoating violence in the Middle East and the Balkans. All of this lends weight to a view of ‘the world’ as fixed in ‘Sin’ – from which the Church should indeed shrink.

Yet the world remains God’s creation, a dear inheritance that becomes even more dear now that it faces environmental degradation at our hands. What exactly is the sin that insidiously threatens our, and its, survival?

Our best way into this, I believe, is to reflect upon the power of ‘the world’ vis-a-vis the individual – a power that has never been stronger in Ireland than at this time. Its unprecedented array of career paths and glittering prizes is unarguably seductive and all-absorbing – as the exodus of so many of our young people from Catholic practice and ‘ethos’ clearly proves. What is the source of this power?

It is, I believe, the same as that which governs mimetic desire or covetousness, the root of the acquisitiveness, miscalled ‘materialism’, I dealt with last month – a search for self-esteem through the esteem of others, especially our coevals. We are, naturally, esteem-seekers, not self-sufficient or independent in our possession of self-esteem. And because we withhold esteem from some, and bestow it upon others, we must always be unequal possessors of self-esteem. A perennial feature of ‘the world’ is therefore the unequal bestowal of esteem – the fact that it is always a pyramid of esteem. It is this feature of our sociability that maintains desire: we are insatiable in this matter of esteem because its complete possession always (or almost always) eludes us.

It follows that ‘the world’ – although always holding the carrot of its esteem in front of us – this thing to be achieved if we buy this or do that – must always deny us its fulfilment. It is the adrenalin of unfulfilled desire that maintains ‘the world’ of desire.

There is, therefore, a dimension in which ‘the world’ is indeed always and forever the same, and dangerous – a desire ‘trap’ that keeps us fluttering in a state of dissatisfaction around the honey pot of fulfilled desire. The world’s tragedy is that it cannot in fact fulfil the desires it creates.

The reason is simple: if all of us are to be at the summit of the pyramid of esteem, who will provide the base? If we are all to be applauded, who is to do the applauding? Maximum esteem implies a world of esteemers, of applauders – so if we all seek it, most must be frustrated – and those few who are not must then be envied, and thus supremely vulnerable to the ambition of those who have been denied what they also seek. Here we find the explanation for the rise and fall of ‘Great Men’. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, archetypally, is driven by the desire for the unprecedented esteem that had been accorded to Alexander – but his very success evokes the murderous envy of those to whom he thus denies the very thing he has acquired. Great Men closer to our own time and place are these days going through a similar experience.

Here we find also the explanation for the vulnerability of celebrities today: no-one is more vulnerable than the Beatle, the one who has climbed the pyramid of (especially female) esteem to its summit. Out from the wings comes the stalker, at once fascinated by, and dangerous to, the object of his (seldom her) fascination.

And so those at the summit of popular esteem and fascination can sometimes go full circle, now desiring that which is possessed by the non-esteemed: privacy. In other words they desire a state of not being an object of fascination, of being unknown.

Yet most of those who are unknown feel for that reason unesteemed, and so simultaneously desire the very thing the celebrity would disown, if that were possible. Desire is never-ending.

Unless we can somehow come fully awake from this fixation and say, truly, that all of us are equally worthy of esteem by virtue of our creation – and live our lives, and relate to others, on that basis. I believe that the Incarnation is, historically, the means by which this is to be achieved.

To the extent that our world proclaims and serves the principle of genuine equality, our church lags behind, remaining itself, by deliberate choice, a medieval pyramid of esteem that must change. To the extent that our world remains actually, and at the same time, a pyramid of esteem that promotes unfulfillable desire, the church must stand apart and proclaim a different value system. These are not irreconcilable positions.

The Church must do, in other words, what Jesus did. Proclaim – in deed as well as in word – a different kingdom in which esteem is as much the birthright of everyone, as is the life they have been given by the giver of everything.

The most extraordinary and mysterious thing about the Gospels is their revelation of a life lived in rejection of the pursuit of worldly esteem, within both the religious and the political worlds – and in proclaiming a different kingdom. It is so outrageously transcendent of all human ‘greatness’ that it will forever critique it. Yet the Church that proclaims this life at the same time retains a culture and structure it borrowed from a world of Emperors and kings, which also awarded esteem with blatant inequality. Why else these days would some Cardinals be elbowing one another for media attention, and careerist bishops be a phenomenon prevalent enough to be deplored by a Cardinal in a position to know?

Which of us is the greatest? This is the game we play daily – as much on the motorway as in the boardroom and the Vatican. It is the original sin, the source of Cain’s intolerance of Abel. Which of us is the least? This is the question asked by Christ, who showed the way. Humility, the essential lived quality of the incarnate God, should also be the essential characteristic of Christian leadership. It is the only source of peace, freedom and mutual esteem in all communities, civil and religious. To the extent that the church superstructure withholds equality of esteem from the least of its members – women especially – it becomes a simulacrum, not a contradiction, of the God-opposing world

Views: 6

Rejecting the poison chalice of church-state unity

Sean O’Conaill ©The Irish Times 2000

There is no question that the papacy of John Paul II will be best remembered for its attitude of penitence about disastrous historical errors of ecclesiastical praxis.

The document Memory and Reconciliation is unprecedented in its acknowledgment of these. It will probably remain as the best evidence of the necessary continuation at the millennium of a process of descent from the hubristic insanities of Christendom.

It comes close to the terminus of an arc of spiritual inflation that began with the persecution of the Donatists at the end of the 4th century, reached its appalling zenith with the sacking of Jerusalem in 1099 and began a rapid and salutary descent in the 17th century with the scientific revolution.

However, that arc remains to be completed, for Memory and Reconciliation – although aiming at the purification of memory – chooses to forget, or ignore, crucial errors of doctrine and praxis which lie ready for repetition were the church again to be offered the poison chalice of church-state unity.  It is clear that Catholicism still contains a chauvinist rump, not at all happy with any kind of apology, and this must at all costs be deprived of the means of disgracing the church again.

Chief among these doctrinal time-bombs is Augustine of Hippo’s appalling exegesis of Luke 14:16-23. This is the parable in which the rich man, whose friends won’t attend a marriage feast, instructs his servants to search the by-ways for strangers, and “compel them to come in”. It is clear from the context that the “compulsion” approved by Jesus here would be no more than that required to overcome the natural hesitation of a tramp invited out of the blue to feast with his social superiors.  Augustine, principally in the letter to Donatus, stretched this to a justification of the use of state coercion to suppress the Donatist movement in north Africa, compelling all to accept his brand of orthodoxy.

In The Letter to Donatus, Augustine addressed the argument for toleration used by a Donatist correspondent. This was to the effect that Jesus’s question “Will you, too, go away?” to the disciples following the eucharistic teaching (John 6:45-47) was an acknowledgment of their full right to do exactly that.

Augustine contrasted Jesus’s humility on his way to the cross with the divinely-ordained and new-found power acquired by the post-resurrection church, from Emperors Constantine and Theodosius. This gift, he argued, was in itself proof that the church did have the authority to compel whom it wished into conformity.

“Compel them to come in” became the fundamental text of Christian intolerance for 1,500 years. It has still not been challenged or repudiated by the teaching church, even though a contrary teaching was adopted by Vatican II (that “the truth may convey itself solely by virtue of its own truth”.)

It is clear also that the genesis of this Vatican II teaching came via the 18th-century Enlightenment, rather than via the church’s own theology. The fact remains that the church has still to provide a scriptural foundation for the principle of religious freedom.

On the other hand, the corruptive effects of the church-state alliance are absolutely clear, and this is the second major omission from the Memory and Reconciliation document. Although it alludes to the church-state link as the context within which mistakes were made, it does so in order to exonerate the church from full responsibility. This simply will not do.  As we witness here in Ireland the cost to the prestige of the church that has flowed from its period of secular power following independence, we must insist upon the perennial truth that power corrupts – specifically the coercive power of the state.

The truth is that Christendom itself replaced Christ’s self-sacrifice with coercion as the major argument for Christian conversion. We are still lumbered with explanations of the crucifixion that misrepresent the Christian deity as so wedded to self-satisfaction as to require the son’s payment of a debt his Father would not cancel.

This is so contradictory and nonsensical as to make the whole idea of atonement, and of a Trinity founded upon love, totally opaque. On the other hand, the cross for many today has become symbolic of divine solidarity with their victimisation, an entirely contrary perspective.

Which interpretation does the church now officially hold?  Behind virtually all of the errors admitted by the church in Memory and Reconciliation – the persecution of heretics, of Jews, the Inquisition, the toleration of slavery, the rape of cultures in the New World – lies the spectre of the church’s alliance with the state, the ultimate source and locus of coercive power.  Until that has been acknowledged fully, the church’s memory will remain partial, and a resumption of Catholic coercion a future option.

Let us purify the church’s memory perfectly, and secure its future credibility by highlighting the basic source of its historical mistakes.  Jesus’s separation of church and state – unique among religious leaders in the ancient world – was betrayed by the church, with terrifying consequences.

Views: 24

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.

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