Category Archives: Topical

Lumen Gentium 37 and Meeting with Bishop Donal McKeown, Fri 26th July 2019

On Friday July 26th afternoon at a most cordial meeting at his office in Bishop’s House, Derry City, I explained to Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry my intention to be present at Maynooth College, Kildare on October 1st 2019 – when Ireland’s Catholic Bishops next meet, in order to:

  • celebrate the blessing of a Christian faith that survives and flourishes despite – and perhaps even because of – the challenges that our Irish Catholic Church now faces, and to …
  • protest the continuing absence from our Catholic life in Ireland of formal regular and frequent opportunities for laity and clergy to communicate freely and honestly, as promised by Lumen Gentium Article 37 in 1964 – despite the obvious need for the frankest dialogue at this time.

On the one hand there is the deep pain of belonging to a church that continues to cause hurt to many…

The right of lay people to be heard

And on the other hand there is for many of us good reason to celebrate the blessing of a faith that can survive even the shocks of recent decades and these shortcomings of the church as it is .

It is clear that our church is both groaning for change just now, and unable  to find a clear path to that promised land.

And so my suggestion of an informal get-together of those interested at Maynooth on October 1st, 2019.

I got this here – but don’t have time to make sure there are not better alternatives. Sean O’C

Bishop McKeown heard me out, and even accepted the gift of the very first ever batch of ‘Lumen Gentium 37’ T-shirts! I had never attempted this before – the designing of a T-shirt. Bishop Donal has one of these now – but will he ever wear it?

Bishop McKeown’s hospitable welcome included the photocopying of a page from the diocesan library recording the priestly career of my uncle Tom O’Doherty, who served in the Derry Diocese from 1944-1996, lastly in Drumquin as PP. Bishop Donal also listened patiently to my summary of my own journey of faith since 1994, when I first became aware of an impending crisis in the church.

Since then further unexpected events – including a potentially terminal cancer in 2003 – have shown the indispensable importance of a faith that transcends all ideologies and philosophies. And of friends whose faith has also been tested and proven.

Bishop McKeown had already received from me by post the following short papers entitled:

The Common Priesthood of the People of God and the Renewal of the Church

Jesus as Model for the Common Priesthood of the People of God

A suggested strategy for the recovery of the Irish and Western Catholic Church

I feel certain that these submissions will be respectfully received by the Irish Bishops Conference when it next meets – and look forward to meeting in the meantime with others who are equally concerned for the future. All who seek to be helpful to the process of necessary change need to feel free to join a conversation already too long delayed.

High Time for Lumen Gentium 37!

Total Inertia – almost certainly due to a divided Irish Bishops Conference – reigned supreme in the Irish Church in early 2019, as a clericalist model headed into oblivion.

Exhausted priests, absent youth, parents totally out of the Catholic educational loop, grandparents confined to Eucharistic Adoration, open dialogue out of the question – as it had been – tragically – for decades.

And then – in April 2019 – ‘To follow Jesus closely‘ – a bishop’s pastoral that might just have passed muster in 1944 – from Down and Connor – apparently designed for a readership that had experienced no disillusionment whatever.

And designed for a readership that could still – apparently – look only to ordained priests for witness to faith in a loving God, and for help in discerning the common priesthood of all the faithful!

As though – to take just one example – Michael McGoldrick had needed a priest to tell him what to do in 1996 when his only son – also called Michael – was murdered by the LVF.

What on earth is the point of telling ten-year-olds at Confirmation that they are now Temples of the Holy Spirit – and treating all lay people thereafter as though a direct prayer to the Holy Spirit – by the same ‘Temples’ – will always be futile – when there is so much evidence to the contrary?

Why were Irish bishops still writing pastoral letters that implied that the Irish People of God were as brainless as fencing posts – and that the Holy Spirit was locked up in the bishop’s basement?

What exactly did they think was going on in the heads of the people who did go to Mass?

And why on earth did they still NOT WANT to know?

Every shock / horror experienced by Irish Catholics since 1992 could arguably have been prevented if – in 1965 – the Irish Bishops of the time had implemented Lumen Gentium Article No. 37 – visible in full elsewhere on this page.

My article in the Irish News of July 4th, 2019 – A Priesthood of All Believers? – was just for starters. As a member of the steering group of the Association of Catholics in the Church I had no difficulty in persuading its other members of the need for action. We set to work to make a case for the immediate honouring of Article 37 of the Vatican II Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium in Ireland right away – and throughout the universal church as soon as possible – copperfastened by the canonical adjustments needed to rid the church forever of the distrust and demeanment of lay people that has given us this potentially terminal crisis.

We presented that case, in person, to the October 1st, 2019 meeting of the Irish Bishops Conference in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.

The reluctance of bishops to implement Lumen Gentium 37 is well understood – a fear of bitter division and even possible schism due to tensions over ‘change’.

But all of us are always on the move in this life. This writer has moved to a centre position grounded on the Apostles Creed – as a story of liberation rather than as a straitjacket – and on the necessity of constant prayer, even as I write and discuss.

Since the Lord of the Gospels is always present whenever we Christians meet, none of us need or should ever seek to overbear, while all now will surely be attentive to the influence of the Holy Spirit when we meet – as regards both truth and unity.

Many times before in the history of the church had disagreements among Christians been reconciled in that way. So who was to say that the power of that Holy Spirit could not overbear those differences now – and make us collaborators yet again – in the face of the greatest crisis our church had seen in over three centuries? We did not know then how soon that crisis was to intensify with the sudden onset of a respiratory pandemic.

The progress of this campaign can be followed on the ACI website.

Sean O’Conaill

A Priesthood of All Believers?

Archbishop Charles Brown , Papal Nuncio to Ireland 2011-17

“We have a lot of priests in Ireland who are in their seventies who are working right now. Some are in their eighties… We’re at the edge of an actuarial cliff here, and we’re going to start into a free fall.”

So said the Pope’s representative in Ireland, Archbishop Charles Brown, in March 2017. Back then it was still possible to believe that Irish bishops could reappraise a clericalised Church system that has scandalised most Irish people – and left many unanswered questions for those who still go to Church.

By the summer of 2019, however, it seems that not even a majority of Irish bishops has absorbed the most important lessons of the scandals that began in Ireland in 1992.

Though Pope Francis is allowing Brazil’s bishops to consider the ordination of mature married men, most Irish bishops still apparently believe that Irish Catholic families must somehow be persuaded to encourage their young people to head for seminaries and convents and celibate lives.

Consider, for example, To Follow Jesus Closely, a pastoral letter published in the Diocese of Down and Connor in April 2019.

It tells us that young people cannot do without the ordained celibate priest to “reassure them that life does make sense, that there is a God who loves them, and that in the end, all will be well”.

Given that this is basic Christian wisdom – and that ordained priests can also suffer from depression, addiction and loss of faith – what does this assert about the Christian competence, gifts and potential of Irish Catholic lay people, parents especially!

In all but one instance the word “priest” is used in this document to denote solely the ordained priest. Only once are we reminded that by baptism all Christians – including all teenagers – also have a priestly calling; but here again, according to the pastoral letter, only the seminary-trained priest can explain this to us.

Otherwise we would never know how to exercise ‘faithfully and fully the common priesthood received in baptism’.

Nowhere in this document is the role of this “common priesthood” – the priesthood of all of the faithful – explained.

This does not surprise me. In more than seven decades of Mass-going I have never heard an Irish diocesan priest express the slightest interest in it.

The word ‘priest’ derives from the Latin ‘pontus’ – a bridge – so a ‘priest’ in the religious sense is one whose calling is to bridge for others the distance between themselves and God.

The priesthood of Jesus was unique in the ancient world. He not only initiated the sacred Christian sacrificial ritual – the Eucharist – he was also himself the sacrificial gift, in his surrender to judgement and crucifixion.

According to the Gospels, Jesus had provoked his own crucifixion by challenging an abusive religious system that privileged the well-to-do and therefore distanced the poorest from God.

It follows that all of us Catholics are called not only to attend Mass but to offer ourselves in that same cause – the closing of the distance between the poorest and God, a distance obviously growing in Ireland.

Members of the St Vincent de Paul and of other Catholic charities are therefore faithfully exercising their priestly calling, as are all who answer the call to social justice and to service of the needy.

And so were those Catholic parents who blew the whistle on the most devastating spiritual abuse ever perpetrated against Irish Catholic children – sexual abuse by professedly celibate Catholic ordained clergy.

In exercising the most elemental duty of a Christian parent – the protection of the child’s right to believe in their own sacred dignity – those parents were protesting against the abuse of that right by ordained men, a possibility they had never been warned about by their bishops.

In many cases those parents then suffered what Jesus suffered – isolation within their own communities. Have the bishops taken time to consider what ‘help’ those parents had ever received from ordained clergy in understanding and exercising their Christian duty – their priesthood – in that way?

Do they remember that Irish bishops first gave priority to the cause of protecting Catholic children from clerical abuse only in 1994 – at precisely the moment that the whole island first learned, from those injured parents – that Irish bishops had until that very moment given a higher priority to the sheltering of abusive priests?

Other obvious questions follow:

  • Why should a religious life deliberately sundered from any parental role continue to have higher status in the Church than the witness of married lives of integrity – especially those of mothers whose self-sacrificing love, as Pope Francis has observed, is indeed often the best witness a child will ever have of the Father’s unconditional love?
  • If the ordained priest is indeed best placed to help lay people to understand their common priesthood, why has Catholic social teaching always been a closed book for most diocesan clergy in Ireland?
  • From Confirmation on, why can young people expect to be bored rigid at Mass, instead of reminded of their own priesthood and challenged to pray to the Holy Spirit for the courage, wisdom and whatever other spiritual gifts are needed to meet together the dangers of their young lives – everything from schoolyard bullying, substance abuse, Internet trolling and climatic collapse to media celebrity culture, institutional corruption, sexual harassment and white supremacist ideology?
  • Why have Irish bishops not yet initiated and published reliable research into the reasons for the widescale abandonment of religious practice here, especially among the young, by the Irish majority that still Identifies as Catholic?
  • Why are there still no regular opportunities to raise such questions openly in Irish Catholic parishes and dioceses, when they could be asked by any alert teenager contemplating a life calling?
  • If seminaries are truly the best places to train men to be ‘in persona Christi’, why was no Catholic bishop anywhere in the world a whistleblower against clerical child abuse before parents and victims had to act?
  • If criminally abusive breaches of priestly celibacy did not bar ordained men from celebration of the Eucharist in Ireland until those breaches were publicly known, why is Christian marriage still a barrier to that ordained Eucharistic role in Ireland?

To Follow Jesus Closely suggests that some Irish bishops believe that Catholic parents and grandparents have no access to reliable news media, no powers of observation or reflection, no memory, no access to the many gifts of the Holy Spirit and – after all that has happened in their own lifetimes – no such questions.

And it might also suggest that Irish teenagers who can qualify for university are naive when it comes to recent Irish history. Are we all thought to be living in a 1944 bubble, preserved by nightly amazement at Bing Crosby as Fr Chuck O’Malley in Going My Way? How can Irish Catholic parents ever forget that it was other parents – never their bishops – who alerted them to the deadly danger of believing that seminaries and ordination would make men incapable of harming children?

It is from whistleblowers against institutional abuse and other men and women of integrity that we Catholic laypeople best learn the meaning of the common Christian priesthood of all of the faithful – people such as Marie Collins, Mary Raftery, Peter McVerry, Gordon Wilson, Michael McGoldrick, Martin Ridge, Catherine Corless, Maurice McCabe, Tom Doyle, Veronica Guerin, Ian Elliott (the founding CEO of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church) and Sr Consilio of Cuan Mhuire.

That understanding, guided by the Holy Spirit, will in time reshape the ordained Catholic ministry and renew the Irish Church, when all Irish bishops have fully accepted what is plainly visible to all.

Sean O’Conaill is a member of Voice of the Faithful and of the Association of Catholics In Ireland.

(This article appeared first in the Irish News on July 4th, 2019)

The Mass: a ‘Holy Sacrifice’?

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

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

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

René Girard 1923-2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Faith Formation and Fear of Shame’: History of an Article

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin defending faith schools in 2017

“Given what we know about the falling away in church attendance of teenagers, ongoing for over a decade – as well as the availability of our school-going teenagers for research that would probe the reasons for this – what research has been sponsored, or is currently projected, by the Irish Bishops’ Conference on this issue?”

This query from me to the ‘Contact’ address of the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference on December 31st, 2016 had not received a response by May 2017.

Concluding that no such research had been undertaken in the 21st century, and that none was projected,  I set out to explore the reasons for this strange reluctance of Ireland’s bishops to research the effectiveness of Ireland’s Catholic schools in forming the faith of Irish Catholic children.

Arguing that it is most likely fear of the results of such research, this article – Faith Formation and Fear of Shame – appeared in the July /August 2017 issue of ‘The Furrow, published at Maynooth.   The Furrow‘s editor has also kindly allowed it to appear on the website of the Association of Catholics in Ireland (ACI).  (Click here to read the complete article on the ACI site.)

The article also appeared in the Irish News (Belfast) on Thursday Sep 7th, 2017.

If you wish to comment on the article, please do that on the ACI site rather than here – as there is an urgent need for a conversation in Ireland about the multi-faceted crisis the Irish Catholic Church is now facing.

I emphasise strongly that I do not fault Catholic schools for the alienation of younger generations from the church, or doubt the commitment of the many teachers who conscientiously prepare children for the sacraments or set out to advance their faith in secondary schools.  I argue instead for a new realism about the typical story of faith development – an acknowledgement that adult faith develops through a sequence of stages, may be severely tested in the teenage years, and is rarely an immediate result of school instruction.

I strongly believe that the problem of alienation from the church at all ages in Ireland  is a consequence of two things:

  • first, decades of non-communication between clergy and people, originating in a clerical inability to dialogue directly with lay people over, especially, family matters;
  • second, a series of clerical sex-related scandals, beginning in 1992 – these too have not yet been fully ‘put behind’ us by frank, open dialogue.

Future historians will wonder why faith formation was one of the critical issues that parish clergy and parents were never convened to discuss together following the second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968).  The campaign by bishops to defend faith schools is still completely ignoring this crucial failure.  Against that reality, to pretend any longer that responsibility for faith formation can effectively be discharged by schools in the absence of an open dialogical culture in the Irish church is to be in critical denial at a time of huge challenge.

It is time to end that culture of denial – while there are still many grandparents ready to speak wisely about faith to younger generations.

(I also help out at the website of the Association of Catholics in Ireland.)

Faith Formation and Fear of Shame

While the absence of teenagers and young people generally from our churches has been growing for more than a decade, there is no evidence that the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference has ever systematically researched the causes of this.  Why is this, when the departing Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, warned in 2017 of an impending ‘cliff edge’ for the Irish church?

In this article, republished here with the permission of the editor of the Maynooth Catholic monthly, The Furrow, Sean O’Conaill offers a possible solution to the puzzle.

~*~

?“Given what we know about the falling away in church attendance of teenagers, ongoing for over a decade – as well as the availability of our school-going teenagers for research that would probe the reasons for this – what research has been sponsored, or is currently projected, by the Irish Bishops’ Conference on this issue?”

This emailed query from me to the ‘Contact’ address of the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference on December 1st, 2016 had not received a response by the time of writing this (May 1st, 2017). That query was the culmination of efforts to trace evidence of consultable research, undertaken by the Irish Catholic educational establishment, into a phenomenon flagged up at the highest level at least as early as 2006. In that year the Irish Times reported that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin had recently told Pope Benedict XVI: “I can go to parishes on a Sunday where I find no person in the congregations between the ages of 16 and 36. None at all.”  1Irish bishops in Rome for talks with Pope‘, Irish Times, Mon, Oct 16, 2006.

I am not alone in my interest in this question. Also in 2006, the Catholic Iona Institute joined with the (Protestant) Evangelical Alliance to conduct a sample poll of young people, aimed at evaluating the state of basic Christian knowledge in this cohort. The results were summarised in an Irish Times report of April 2007, beginning: “Only 5 per cent, or one in 20, of 15 to 24 year-olds could quote the first of the 10 Commandments when interviewed for a new survey in Ireland. Almost one third (32 per cent) could not say where Jesus was born and more than one third (35 per cent) did not know what is celebrated at Easter.” Further down, David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute, was reported as calling for an examination of the reasons why knowledge of the faith was “in such sharp decline”. 2Survey reveals low level of religious knowledge in young, Irish Times, April 9th 2007

New Irish Catechetical directory – ‘Share the Good News’ – 2011

No news emerged subsequently of the fate of this appeal, but in 2011 the launch of Share the Good News – a new Catholic scheme for Catechetics in Ireland – suggested that Ireland’s bishops were not completely indifferent to David Quinn’s challenge. Announcing a pivotal shift in emphasis, this document declared that: “The model for all catechesis is the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults … In fact, for the community of the Church, the catechesis of adults is the chief form of catechesis.3Share the Good News, p.55 (Veritas)
(My italics.)

Envisioning as it does an ideal situation to be realised over a ten-year period, Share the Good News (2011) should six years later be shaping vibrant adult faith formation everywhere in Ireland. I see no sign of this in my north-western sphere, while the lapsing of school-going teens and the dwindling of parish congregations prevails widely. An urgent ‘wake up’ call to all adults is needed, but none so far has had urgency enough.

It follows that our church leadership is so far failing to confront, publicly and head-on, the challenges of faith formation in what is now a post-Christendom society. We are severely handicapped in facing those realities by recent failure to conduct basic research into the typical vicissitudes of Catholic faith in contemporary Ireland, beginning in secondary school. Given our investment in Catholic schooling and the crisis of continuity that now prevails – as well as the ready availability of our teenagers for such research – there is surely a mystery here. Why is it that publicly consultable research on this vital issue has not happened in this century, is not ongoing and is not, apparently, even yet projected?

?Do Irish bishops fear what serious research could reveal?
In the absence of any other explanation I feel compelled to suggest the following. In a now highly sexualised and media-dominated culture, Irish Catholic educationists and other leaders are likely to have been advised by personal networks that puberty soon poses a radical challenge to pre-adolescent Catholic faith and practice in Ireland. They probably also have reason to believe that this challenge typically causes Irish teenagers to lose interest in a clerical church that seems obsessive about the minutiae of sexual relationships, deeply scandal-prone itself in that sphere, and increasingly unable to connect helpfully with their own most vital interests.

Just as an experienced barrister will know to avoid asking a question of a trial witness that could elicit an answer that would sabotage the barrister’s own cause, our Irish Catholic educational establishment is likely to be fearful to conduct research among Irish teenagers and young adults that could elicit public answers that would strengthen the secularist challenge to the very existence of Catholic schools – at the very moment when that challenge is most severe.

We appear to be in a bind therefore. We lack an authoritative body of data that could bring us to a wakeful consensus on the nature of the ongoing challenge to the continuity of Catholic tradition in Ireland – and we seem to fear to compile that data in case this would add another apparent scandal to the series we have recently suffered – the scandal of an ‘own-goal’ revelation that the Irish Catholic school system is not in most cases forming a faith that can withstand even the challenge of adolescence.

If I am right about this, there is a corollary that suggests a root source of this bind. Fearful of a powerful secularising media that now brokers honour and shame in Irish society, our bishops feel unable to be completely frank with their people about the true scale of the crisis of continuity we now face. Already deeply shamed by media, they are held captive to a debilitating extent by fear of even more media shaming.

I am not at all inclined to be dismissive of this concern. Far from seeing fear of shame as a specifically clerical, or even Irish, problem, I now see that problem everywhere in a range of contemporary global crises – and see only one way out for all of us: to realise that fear of shame is the central human challenge globally – not simply to morality but to life on earth.

Currently ongoing are:

Irish clerical fear of shame over:

  • The report from the ongoing Mother and Baby Homes inquiry, due in 2018;
  • A possible referendum on Amendment 8 of the Irish Constitution, forbidding abortion;
  • These possibly overlapping with a World Meeting of Families in Dublin, in August 2018, and a forecast papal visit to that.

North Irish fear of shame over:

  • Possible defeat of the Unionist cause in the upheaval caused by Brexit;
  • Possible defeat of the cause of Irish unity by a failure to take full advantage of the same upheaval;
  • What is seen by some as the continuing British ‘occupation’ of Ireland, felt as shameful by Republican dissidents who threaten the lives of NI security personnel. (In the words of the renowned US prison psychiatrist, James Gilligan, ‘all violence is an attempt to replace shame with self-esteem’.4Quoted by the author Jon Ronson, in a New York Times interview.

Geo-political crisis over:

  • The likely failure of politically expedient but unrealisable promises by the new US administration, made in the presidential election campaign of 2016;
  • That same administration’s likely perceived need for ‘wins’ in another sphere – geo-politics (re North Korea, Russia/Ukraine, Iran, China, the Middle-East);
  • North Korean, Russian, Chinese, Syrian, Iranian fear of shame if their own establishments’ perceived interests lose out in any of these contests.(Fear of shame is always a component of any deeply-felt need to ‘win’, and the driver of any campaign to make any nation ‘great again’. )

Gathering environmental crisis caused by:

  • ‘Consumerism’, caused largely by unnecessary private accumulation of resources and financial credit to avoid the shame of ‘losing out’ to social peers in a multitude of social contexts, from the night club to the corporate boardroom to the yachting marina;
  • Politico-economic theories that rely on maintaining unsustainable consumption by the ‘winners’ of this race for social prestige, i.e. this race to avoid peer-shaming;
  • The tardiness of governments in grappling with this crisis, for fear of reaction from environmentally misguided political forces.

A gathering global crisis in mental health, caused largely by:

  • The shaming power of media of all kinds, including especially the digital social media to which adolescents seeking peer esteem turn in increasing futility – because of the reflexive shaming (‘trolling’) they then experience;
  • The non-allocation by states of the medical resources needed to deal with this crisis, due to dependence of politicians on the electoral support of the more fortunate – who have other consumerist and careerist priorities, as detailed above.

If I am correct in interpreting this gathering global crisis as based centrally on fear of shame, it follows that there is no need for anyone to feel ‘got at’ if that analysis is applied also to themselves. Furthermore, it is far from clear that a global solution to this fear of shame can ever come from a secular politics – or from a secular media – bereft of any faith in a transcendent power. If there is no such power then we are doomed to dependence upon the good opinion of other humans for assurance of our own ‘success’ and ‘self-fulfillment’. If we believe that in the end our own value is dependent upon peer esteem, we are trapped in their good or bad opinion of us (potential or actual) without any possible means of escape other than winning some kind of ascendancy (the ‘zero-sum game’).

Uniquely, Jesus completely overcame the human fear of shame.
Christians especially have no reason to believe this – because the victory of the cross was essentially the complete victory of one person over fear of shame. Jesus called that victory ‘overcoming the world’. The fate of the world now arguably depends upon the spreading of that same conviction – that our value as individuals is not in the end ‘socially mediated’. It has to do with our relationship with a transcendent source of truth, the living Truth that has told us that our value is inviolable – and that the shaming of anyone is always a mistake. Pope Francis’ central message of Mercy is surely making exactly the same point.

My own experience tells me that teenagers lose interest in the church when they can no longer see its relevance. Yet, suffering also from fear of shame, we Irish Catholics are undergoing the experiential re-education that the church needs to become everywhere relevant again. Modern media determine that among everything else that is subject to globalisation, so are absurdist ‘celebrity’ on the one hand and disgrace on the other. This power of media of all kinds both entices and threatens all of us – and a secularism bent upon the control of media and the denial of any transcendent truth will offer inadequate recourse against it.

I therefore believe that until our clerical leaders can see their own likely fear of shame as merely a reflection of a pervasive human crisis, they will not be able passionately to preach the relevance of the Gospel to all generations – including our teenagers. If our faith has survived the traumas of the past two decades, it must have been somewhat purified also. It cannot any longer rest on the expectation that our church leaders will be paragons of virtue or wisdom. It follows that we can forgive them anything – because it is the Gospel for which they stand that nevertheless points to the ‘narrow door’ through which this earthly family may yet, God helping, save the Earth.

On the other hand, if my diagnosis of what prevents our bishops from researching the problems of teenage defection and of faith formation in Ireland is entirely mistaken, they need only explain the true reasons for that circumstance. The frankest dialogue on our central predicament can no longer be postponed – if adult ‘co-responsibility’ is truly on offer.

Notes

  1. Irish bishops in Rome for talks with Pope‘, Irish Times, Mon, Oct 16, 2006.
  2. Survey reveals low level of religious knowledge in young, Irish Times, April 9th 2007
  3. Share the Good News, p.55 (Veritas)
  4. Quoted by the author Jon Ronson, in a New York Times interview.

Was Jesus a whistleblower too?

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

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

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

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

Secularism has never stemmed the human desire for privilege

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

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

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

Catholic hierarchy was also a corruptive force in Ireland

The former Magdalen Laundry, Sean McDermott St., Dublin

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus the abused whistleblower

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

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

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

Media: Cruel arbiter of youthful self-respect

According to Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute, one in four Irish teenage girls aged 16-18 is self-harming, and obesity rates among young people are higher for those socially less advantaged. This news of Nov 3rd 2016 shows that Ireland is following a pattern that is uniform throughout the developed world: a new tyranny is growing, far more insidious than any that preceded the rise of electronic and print media.

Under British imperial occupation Ireland suffered huge psychological damage that has still not been overcome, but at least we had far closer bonds with one another than is happening today. We could join to celebrate what we had retained of our historical memory, and dream together of a future truly free.

But what does true freedom mean today for Irish young people, when stereotypes of physical attractiveness, celebrity and success are mercilessly relayed to them by ‘must have’ devices that wake them in the early morning. And when trolls, fashion police and ransom honey-pots lie in wait on ‘social media’ throughout their waking hours?

This ‘media colonisation’ was impending even before Ireland’s 20th century overthrow of ‘the British yoke’. The very first clinical diagnoses of what are today termed eating disorders occurred in the 1800s, in an era of expanding print mass media. The latter exploited the appetite of young women for every detail of the costume and ‘lifestyle’ of highly placed ‘beauties’ – such as Sisi, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria (1837-1898), wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I.

It was this ‘new woman’ who, along with her good friend the Empress Eugénie of France, wife of Emperor Napoleon III, put an end to the wearing of the crinoline and made slimness de rigeur for fashionable women from then on. According to one account they had in their early friendship retired to a private room to measure their waists – inaugurating what is now the global craze for competitive thinness. Ominously, Sisi insisted upon a rigid low calorie diet and dedicated herself to physically demanding sports – and it wasn’t long before the highly placed female readership of the growing print media was aware of every detail of this new ‘must’ for the ‘new woman’.

The first clinical descriptions of what is now called anorexia were written when Sisi and Eugenie were most influential, in 1860 and 1873.*

The habit of imitating social models began much earlier, of course, but the media  multiplication of images of the model ‘socialite’ meant that body-shape competition intensified – and the least ‘body-confident’ girls among the upper classes were necessarily in most danger. Now every young woman is subject to the same threat.

As for rates of obesity, those too are now known to correlate with social disadvantage and the self-dislike to which the least fortunate give way. ‘Comfort eating’ is far from being a myth for those subject to media, yet incapable of participation in any of the competitions for status that they see.  Self-cutting is obviously closely related, an expression of the deepest self-rejection.

For commercial media, competition of all kinds is the ‘gift that keeps on giving’ – because of a singular human frailty: our tendency to agree that our worth is indeed determined by other humans, by ‘society’. There is a complete uniformity in the damage done to young men who ingest steroids to ‘bulk up’, and young women who swallow dieting doctrine, by virtue of the same conviction: ‘I must not be shamed by my body’.  Media are almost uniformly the conduit of this merciless dogma: beware at all costs of social contempt; seek honour through conformity.

Those who see religious faith as the greatest threat to freedom have not yet noticed that it is now from a thoroughly secularised media, dominated by purely commercial interests, that a far greater danger threatens. Or that, as the greatest theme of all great religion is the equal sacred and inviolable value of every one of us – no matter what ‘society says’ – it is only through those who believe this passionately that true freedom will come.

‘What happened to sin?’ asked the late Sean Fagan. Answer: it became ‘self harm’. (For St Thomas Aquinas ‘God is not offended until we harm ourselves’.)  Irish Catholic clergy, many still despondent over their own recent shaming, need to remember that it is only from their current social altitude that the Gospel can be effectively preached.

Only now, released from its mistaken role at the pinnacle of social respectability,  can the Irish Catholic church – clergy and people together – effectively uphold the full Gospel of the equal and infinite value of every person.  The power of Christendom to teach the whole Gospel was always an illusion, because it was in those centuries of the clergy’s greatest social power that the deepest meaning of the Resurrection was almost lost: that our value, our worth, is God given and is therefore not in the gift – or justly subject to the contempt – of any other power: not ‘society’, not media and not even the Church.

*    See: Eating Disorders and Mimetic Desire, René Girard  [Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 3 (Spring 1996)]

Faith Formation? Take it out of schools altogether!

Sean O’Conaill argues that with the continuity of Catholic faith in Ireland now seriously in question – and with controversy growing over equal access to primary schooling for all – it is time to realise that school-centred Catholic faith formation is itself a barrier to the radical change needed in our understanding of adult faith formation.

Why should we Catholics still suppose that a committed faith will be ‘formed’ by Catholic schooling from the age of four or five when it is staring us in the face that this rarely happens?

The virtually complete failure of that system was well summed up by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin in 2006 when he told Pope Benedict:  “I can go to parishes on a Sunday where I find no person in the congregations between the ages of 16 and 36. None at all.”

As someone who spent a total of forty-eight years in Catholic schools, as student and teacher, and did not come to a deeply committed faith until the age of fifty-one, I am now convinced that abandonment of the delusion that schooling will form faith is an essential key to a revival of effective faith development in Ireland, at all ages.

To begin with, informed faith is not an outcome of instruction but of a combination of experience, questioning and insight – and school is not the most likely context for that required combination to occur.

Baptised in infancy, and raised in Catholic schools, the experience that brought me to a committed faith eventually was the realisation that as a teacher of history and current affairs – in a Catholic school – I could not connect the data of my own teaching expertise with the loss of faith of my own children.

“I don’t believe all this Jesus stuff,” said my youngest, aged fourteen in 1994.  “And most of my class don’t either.”

He was a third-year pupil in the same Catholic school.

Faith cannot develop properly in adults who opt out of responsibility for passing it on!

Until that moment I had never taken any serious responsibility for discussing ‘faith’ with my own children.  I had seen all that as the responsibility of the RE professionals and the clergy – and opted out.    My own focus was the growing secular crisis in Ireland – especially the crisis of violence, of inequality and of the environment – in Northern Ireland and in the wider world more generally.  I didn’t see, then, how the Gospels were in any way connected with that crisis.

I am now convinced that to leave that option open to Irish Catholic parents – of handing over  the role of addressing the questions, doubts and moral formation of our children to school professionals and to clergy – is to hobble the faith development of both adults and children – and to enable clergy generally to dodge the challenge of dialogue with adults.    Our school-centred system of ‘faith formation’ is a major factor in the growing crisis of Catholic faith in Ireland.

The reason is simple.  Even Catholic secondary schools have now been essentially  ‘secularised’ by the very weight of their vocational curriculum – and by the fashionable faith-averse or faith-indifferent formation of most of their teachers at third level.  Even Catholic teachers of History or English or Geography or Economics are taught to see faith development as the responsibility of someone else, while the expertise they have acquired at university has for many decades used a language that makes little or no contact with Christian faith or wisdom.

Even in Irish Catholic primary schools now there is news of eyebrow-raising in staff rooms at the arrival of more committed younger teachers.   Those teachers are struggling vainly, in all schools, against the tide.

And what of parents of teenagers concerned about the growing dangers that face their children in that rapidly changing world?  Too often they find that weekend homilies show no understanding whatsoever of the relevance of the Gospel to that world – so both they and their children stop coming to church.  Our retained reliance on the schools tells them it’s not their problem – or within their competence – to grapple with the faith formation of their children.  Our entire system says to parents  ‘don’t you worry’ when everything else tells them they must.

It was a profound mistake to ‘professionalise’ the faith formation of children and young adults in schools for the following reasons:

  • Even the usual educational ambience of Catholic schools is now secular and secularising – in the sense of finding religious faith irrelevant in most subjects, even the humanities;
  • Teachers in second-level schools are primarily absorbed by the public exam requirements of their own subjects, and usually never meet to assess or discuss the overall impact of the entire school curriculum upon the developing – or more usually dwindling – faith of their students;
  • Teachers of RE can generally have no detailed knowledge of their students as individuals – the knowledge that only their parents can have;
  • Those parents are mostly completely ‘out of the loop’ – deprived of both the responsibility, and of any sense of competence, for developing the faith understanding of their children;
  • Adult faith formation is at present usually poorly resourced, and unconnected with parenting responsibilities. Seen usually as an option for retirees, not as a life-requirement for all, it mostly doesn’t happen at all.
  • The peer-group culture of teenagers is now generally sophisticated in its disdain for the faith formation system we still retain.   Connected with a globalised online world that warns of the dangers of cults and promotes intellectual independence, young people are increasingly scornful of a system they often come to see as ‘brainwashing for children’;
  • Without any responsibility for faith formation, lay Catholic adults have no compelling need to demand regular dialogue with clergy;
  • Clergy too generally opt out of that obligation, because ‘the schools are taking care of it’ – and the half-century gulf in age between the average priest and the average teenager is now seldom addressed by the weekly homily;
  • As they can see that their parents have usually been given no vital role in the faith-continuity of the church, most teenagers are currently being taught by that very fact that Catholicism will have no vital adult role for them either – so why bother?

It would be a radical step to face parents and parishes now with the main responsibility for faith development – but doing that could be a complete game-changer for everyone, because:

  • Christian faith matures usually only at a time of adult life-crisis, often long after a throwing-off of early-stage faith;
  • Parents need to be faced with the reality that unless their own faith is in ongoing development they will not be equipped to speak to their children about that vital issue;
  • Parents are more likely than their children to be asking the mature questions that only a mature faith can answer;
  • It will be the developing faith of their parents – and their recognised role as responsible adults in the church – that will make most impression on children;
  • The imperative need for ongoing dialogue in the church between people and clergy will then become unavoidable by both;
  • There is no other way of challenging the growing secular crisis – deriving mainly from a loss of meaning and the collapse of integrity on the part of the secular establishment;
  • The changing of our major focus to adult faith development will not otherwise happen;
  •  Adult faith development is the most important adventure that anyone can have, and home video screens are ultimately depressive and mind-numbing if they become a substitute for real personal development face-to-face.

It is time for a loud wake-up call to – and from – the leadership of the Irish Church:   our inherited faith formation system is failing and needs to be replaced by a system that allows no one to opt out.