Category Archives: Humility

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: II – Clericalism

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

Jean Vanier1This article was written sixteen years before the revelation in 2020 that Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement, was also an abuser of the trust of some of the able-bodied women who looked to him for spiritual guidance. tells the story of a young woman whose radiant happiness caught the attention of a visitor to the L’Arche community that was her home. The visitor asked Vanier why she was always so joyful. He explained that upon her arrival she had been assured that God loved her for herself. She had believed this immediately, and had never lost that belief. Like most L’Arche residents, she was intellectually disadvantaged but was nevertheless capable of lifting the spirits of everyone she met.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is There an Haute Cuisine Catholicism?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life April 2004

“We are afflicted by a congenital uncertainty as to our own value,” observes Alain deBotton, author of an unfashionably lucid recent work of philosophy entitled Status Anxiety  1Alain deBotton, Status Anxiety, Hamish Hamilton, 2004. This affliction compels us to seek the attention and admiration of others – a quest virtually guaranteed failure since so many are now seeking the same from us.

Having reached much the same conclusion about the deepest human problem in a reflection on the history of Christianity published in 19992Sean O’Conaill, Scattering the Proud, Columba Press, 1999, I was intrigued especially by deBotton’s account of the role of Christianity in ameliorating Status Anxiety down the centuries. This account is not as detailed or complete as one would wish, but his conclusions are provocative and potentially fertile for others who might wish to take up the theme.

To begin with, he brackets Jesus with Socrates as an outstanding example of indifference to the opinion of others, and understands the Gospel concept of ‘worldliness’ as virtually identical to Status Anxiety – quite correctly in my view. He also correctly credits the Churches with insisting upon the equality of all in the sight of God. However, he goes on to insist that Christianity for most of its history did not seriously challenge, even philosophically, the worldly status pyramids outside the sacred spaces of cloister, chapel and cathedral.

He points out that St Augustine’s ‘two cities’ model of history did not allow for the defeat of the worldly, and therefore status-ridden, earthly city by the Church (the City of God) before the day of judgement. Though Christendom could affirm the dignity of the peasant ploughman – for example through the corporatist social model of John of Salisbury – (for whom rulers supplied the mind and peasantry the feet of society) – it has been less effective in ameliorating the impact of meritocratic ideas upon those of low status in a modern society. So much for the penetration of Catholic social teaching, and of Vatican II, into deBotton’s consciousness – but this is significant in its own way.

Meritocracy has, deBotton insists, increased rather than reduced Status Anxiety. In medieval society ‘the poor’ tended to think of their work as useful, of their lot as inevitable, and of their status as both acceptable and none of their own fault. However, the eighteenth century changed all of that. In came the ‘new story’ of Adam Smith – that it was the entrepreneurial spirit that not only produced most wealth, but made wealth potentially limitless. Social Darwinism – the theory that ‘success’ was proof of a genetic and even moral superiority – followed in the nineteenth century. This was countered for a time by ideological socialism, but the recent victory of laissez faire economics and liberal democracy has consolidated the status of a new aristocracy rooted in ceaseless energy, shrewd investment and entrepreneurial cleverness. The seemingly absolute and final ascendancy of a so-called meritocracy implies that the unsuccessful are without any merit – a supremely dispiriting conclusion for them at least.

The most entertaining part of the book is a robust treatment of snobbery, a term that may have originated in the 1820s with the use of ‘s. nob.’ to abbreviate ‘sine nobilitate’, inscribed opposite the names of non-aristocrats in Oxford and Cambridge examination lists. The snob is forever fearful of being considered insignificant through association with the common herd. A Punch cartoon of 1892 (reproduced in deBotton’s book) captures the problem precisely by observing a trio of stately London ladies parading through a park. One of these is looking after another similar trio that has just passed by. She says:

“There go the Spicer Wilcoxes, Mamma. I’m told they’re dying to know us. Hadn’t we better call?”
“Certainly not, Dear!” Mamma replies. “If they’re dying to know us they’re not worth knowing.  The only people worth Our knowing are the people who don’t want to know Us!”

When we recall that the person at the summit of that Victorian status pyramid was a monarch distinguished only by her longevity (and at one stage ironically hailed as ‘Mrs Brown’ by the London mob for her attachment to a Scottish manservant) we have even more reason to laugh at the follies of snobbery.

Snobbery and Status Anxiety are, of course, one and the same. Television situation comedy has exploited a rich vein here in recent years in the UK – in series such as Only Fools and Horses, Yes, Minister and Keeping up Appearances. The belief that advantages such as wealth and education – and country houses and exclusive china – make people somehow ‘better’, more worthy of respect, is, seemingly, a universal and timeless illusion.

That Christian thought and instruction should ceaselessly puncture snobbish pretensions is clear, but the fact is that the mainstream churches have never made a serious direct assault upon snobbery since Constantine. I cannot remember ever hearing a sermon on the subject – although I have been bored to tears all my life by the theme of ‘materialism’. As people acquire expensive property and luxury goods for reasons of status, never for their material composition, that complaint has always missed the mark.

Here in Ireland this failure to indict snobbery from the pulpit and the schoolroom has been especially destructive of the moral persuasiveness of Catholicism in a society aspiring to equality. It has allowed middle class prigs to dominate, and even to characterise, the public face of the church, while the inhabitants of our inner cities now tend to see Catholic bishops as snobbery in purple – simply because they almost always behave as remote grandees rather than accessible and socially relaxed pastors. Bishops generally have been delegating to others the virtue of humility since the fourth century – and this has now become the outstanding scandal in the Church, the root source of its alienation of egalitarian societies.

The part played by Irish Catholic snobbery in the maltreatment of those at the base of the secular period – too often by those at the base of the clerical pyramid – in mid twentieth century Ireland is something that surely needs to be explored in the context of the scandal of child abuse in Ireland. Status pyramids always deprive those at their base of a sense of their own dignity, and brutality is an almost inevitable consequence.

We need to re-evaluate also the devotion by the Irish church of so much educational capital to the children of the middle classes. The assumption that this investment would guarantee the fidelity of the Irish meritocracy to the values and truths of Catholicism was clearly sadly mistaken. There is now not a single national news medium in Ireland that can be said to be sympathetic to and supportive of the church – proof that its efforts on behalf of the middle classes are now interpreted as part of a right wing political agenda rather than as an example of social concern.

And in the context of the growing problem of bullying in our schools, and the self-hatred and self-harming that can follow, the failure of Irish Catholic education to make any explicit connection between social derision and the Gospel account of the crucifixion must be regarded as another disastrous failing.

All of this casts an interesting light upon deBotton’s analysis of the historical failure of the mainstream churches to tackle the spiritual challenge of snobbery in society at large. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that snobbery has become deeply embedded in the church itself.

Just as the secular world is now full of wine, food and all kinds of consumer snobbery, so do we find in the church the liturgy and sacred music snobs who just cannot abide the typical novus ordo mass or folk music hymns. There are even fashions for styles of meditation, for theologians and philosophers – and even ‘spiritualities’ – but little intellectual attention to fashion itself. The awarding of ‘papal knighthoods’ – even to globally notorious pornographers – speaks for itself – as does the English Catholic Herald’s obsession with eulogising supposedly high status converts to Catholicism such as Alec Guinness and Ann Widdecombe. Opus Dei’s recruitment priorities and social attitudes are snobbery incarnate. (It never fails to remind us of its founder’s alleged noblesse.)

Meanwhile we are urged by hierarchs to ‘engage with culture’ – without reflecting upon the very essence of culture itself – its mimetic character. That is what fashion and culture essentially are – the mimesis or imitation of the behaviour of those who have somehow acquired status. No Catholic bishop to my knowledge has yet connected the careerism of bishops – the subject of Cardinal Gantin’s astonishingly frank post-retirement outburst in 1999 – with status seeking in the secular world. This does not bode well for an effective ‘engagement’ by Irish bishops generally with the culture of meritocratic Ireland.

And this means that there is also scant hope at this stage for an effective national response to the challenge of ‘new evangelisation’. True evangelisation elicits an awakening from the mimetic compulsion to seek status and celebrity, an awakening to the good news that one is lovable for oneself and so can be both autonomous and spontaneous. Those who would propose to lead a ‘new evangelism’ in Ireland would need to be sure they have experienced this themselves.

DeBotton reminds us poignantly of one of Tolstoy’s greatest characters – Ivan Ilyich – who discovers on the brink of his own death that the status he has achieved in late 1800s St Petersburg does not mean that he is truly loved by either friends or family. He has sought all his life the regard of others, and so has taught his children to do the same. His supposedly cherished beliefs are the fashionable opinions of others, and nowhere near his heart. His work colleagues’ tepid sympathy cannot disguise their greater interest in who will benefit most from his demise.

Late nineteenth century St Petersburg was no less, and no more, Christian than 1950s Ireland – because (as Cardinal Cahal Daly has acknowledged in the case of Ireland) conformity in pursuit of status had become in both the norm – and conformity is just another word for fashion.

How could Christianity and conformity ever have become confused? It happened, surely, as soon as Constantine’s opportunistic vision was blessed by the Catholic bishops as the real thing, and this Caesarean mass murderer was eulogised in the most excruciating terms by Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, the proto-typical Catholic snob. This set a new priority for evangelism itself: to convert the socially elevated, because this would guarantee the setting of a spectacular conformist fashion among their ‘inferiors’. This fashion was already established in continental Europe before Patrick came to Ireland, and even Patrick could see the advantage of converting political and social elites first of all.

Thus the support of social elites became essential to the power of the Church all over Europe. And it was the social elitism of the Irish Catholic church that placed it in opposition to the equalising, and therefore, in that limited sense, more truly Christian, tide of modern secularism. Clerical elitism is also the root cause of the tide of clerical scandals that we have seen over the past twelve years – scandals that egalitarian secularism could almost gleefully exploit.

Work such as deBotton’s suggest, therefore, an essential preliminary to any attempt at a ‘new evangelism’ in Ireland – a revision of the history of the Church that correctly identifies Christendom as a failed attempt at evangelisation-through-elites – and military elites at that. It failed because it compromised the Gospels which are centrally an assault upon elitism itself, and especially elitist violence. It failed also, probably, because the Christian God could not let it succeed while remaining true to the radical egalitarianism of his Son.

I do not believe that neo-scholastic philosophy has yet produced a book as relevant, fascinating and revealing as this on the problem of status-seeking – one of the key components of the global environmental and social crisis. This too underlines the fact that the best of secular thought has much to teach the church – especially when secular thinkers reflect honestly upon the mysterious failure of secularism to achieve its original 18th century programme. When the apostles asked ‘which of us is the greatest?’ they were revealing what Christianity, and secularism, need to recognize as the basic human flaw – our boundless desire for priority, measured in the deference of others.

  1. Alain deBotton, Status Anxiety, Hamish Hamilton, 2004
  2. Sean O’Conaill, Scattering the Proud, Columba Press, 1999

Continue reading Is There an Haute Cuisine Catholicism?

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The Moral Universe of the Creeds

Sean O’Conaill © The Irish Times January 2004

Canon Hilary Wakeman suggests (Irish Times, ‘Rite and Reason’, Dec 22nd) that we cannot honestly say we believe the Creed in anything other than a poetical sense, and that dishonesty on this is ‘laying the hand of death on the Church’. From the rest of her article it appears that her argument rests upon the fact that the material cosmos of the Christian Creeds has been dismantled by modern science.

What she, and all modern intellectuals, need to grasp is that the universe of the creeds is a moral as well as a material universe. That is to say the vertical spatial dimension represents not merely what is physically supposed to be above and below a flat or disc-shaped Earth, but what is good and what is evil. This is why God and heaven are placed ‘above’ and Hell is placed ‘below’. Heaven is therefore the ‘place’ of glory while Hell is the ‘place’ of disgrace and shame.

The creedal narrative is therefore telling us that the Christian God is on a moral trajectory that is unexpected – towards shame and disgrace, the lot of the ‘losers’ of the ancient world. (The ‘winners’ were people like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar). Incarnation is the beginning of this narrative, crucifixion and resurrection the dramatic centre, and glorification the end. But Jesus’ glorification was the reward for his acceptance of disgrace and defeat. The ‘meaning’ of the story is therefore that ‘glory’ does not await those who seek to move only ‘upward’ (i.e. those who set out egotistically to ‘reach the top’) – as ‘the world’ has always thought. Humility and service – the centre of the Christian ethic – point in the opposite direction.

Empirical science has no power to destroy the moral universe of the Creeds, because it has yet to show how any ethical code can be derived from the truths it can verify. I suspect that most people who say the creeds have no sense of suppressed dishonesty, because they intuitively know that they are not primarily describing a physical cosmos.

Curiously, it is only the one-dimensional empirical mind that has problems with the notion of a moral universe. The millions who read and watch the Tolkien stories – or the Star Wars and Star Trek sagas for that matter – have no such problem. It’s no accident that Canon Wakeman’s chosen empiricist is Richard Dawkins, who epitomises Enlightenment envy of the Christian clergy’s role in the field that he would wish his own priesthood, the scientists, to dominate: education.

Dawkins supposes (and Wakeman seems to agree) that the Catholic dogma of the Assumption of Mary, both body and soul, is ‘irrational’ – because Heaven can’t be a physical place that contains bodies. But precisely the same objection has been raised to the Ascension – the event related in Acts 1, when the apostles saw Jesus ascend bodily to the Father. In fact, Christian theology has never been definitive on the non-materiality of Heaven. It emphasises rather that Heaven is essentially a
relationship of full reconciliation and unity with God. A relationship need not be, but obviously may be, something that occurs in some space somewhere.

How may a moral/spiritual universe (if such a thing exists) interact with our material/physical universe? We simply don’t know. But to begin with the Dawkins position that it simply can’t exist, and therefore cannot interact, is surely in itself hubristic and unscientific – especially in an era when physicists themselves declare the possibility of multiple dimensions that we have no normal access to, and when the consequences of supposing the universe to be morally and spiritually empty lie all around us.

It is not empiricism that will invalidate Christianity in the long run, but the failure of Christians themselves to grasp and realise the purpose of a God who challenges ‘the world’ of our own time – the ‘meritocracy’ that tries to make science itself the slave of commerce and the armaments industry, and looks down from towers of glass on the losers of the meritocratic race. This notion that society must always have a ‘top’ in the meritocratic sense is based upon a human frailty identified in the Decalogue – the desire never to be outdone by our neighbour. Scientists are, alas, as prone to it as the rest of us – as Dawkins’s contempt for all religious believers illustrates.

Why should we not live in a moral universe on Sundays, and try to make its values real in the secular moral vacuum through the week? Until science can finally disprove the value of the concepts of good and evil, and derive virtues such as love and compassion from an equation or a drug, we will need great beliefs that leap beyond science. That is why there will always be Christians entranced with the idea of a God who stoops.

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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.

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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

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