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The Story of the West : V – Earth Crisis

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Feb 2007

As we have seen, world history has been dominated for almost a thousand years by the rise of the West (the societies rimming the north Atlantic). And, contrary to the propaganda of secularism, the most positive aspects of western culture have owed more to Christianity than to anything else.

The modern belief in science, in the freedom and potential of the individual, in the equal rights of all, in democracy and in economic freedom, arose naturally out of Christian belief in the rationality of the universe, in the dignity and responsibility of the individual, and in the obligations that we all have to one another.

However, the whole world now faces an intense crisis, and this also has to do with the rise of the West.

First, the very intensity of our economic activity, coupled with the rise of science and technology, threatens the planet itself. The lifestyle of the richest 5% of the human population is coveted by the other 95% – but the effort to achieve this will inevitably make the planet uninhabitable.

Second, western arrogance and the frustrations that arise out of economic inequality are the root sources of a growing global violence. The ‘War on Terror’ is just one aspect of this problem.

Third, the West seems morally and spiritually bankrupt – offering only addiction as a means of escape from the meaninglessness of life for millions.

Finally, the loss of a sense of moral purpose and direction is hampering the rise of a more just world order that does not exploit the poorest to maintain the luxurious lifestyle of the richest. Millions starve on southern continents while obesity and addiction threaten northern continents with a public health catastrophe.

So the earth crisis that now faces rising generations is multi-dimensional. It is material, spiritual, moral, economic and environmental – all at the same time.  Ireland is now fully part of this global crisis, having experienced in the past decade the full economic benefits of a globalised economy. We now display all the fruits of economic success – as well as the squalor of mass addiction and the vicious criminal culture that accompanies it

We do not need to look far for the roots of this crisis. It arose directly out of the uncoupling of economic and scientific progress from another Western tradition – the tradition of reflection on our tragic human tendency towards vanity and selfishness.

Western imperialism is the clearest manifestation of the betrayal of all that is best in Christianity by the West itself. The technological and economic lead that western Europe had acquired by the 1400s allowed Spain and Portugal – soon followed by England, Holland and France – to build overseas empires by naked military force.

Although slavery had by this time been abolished within Europe itself, these western nations now disgraced themselves by enslaving black Africans to work plantations in the Americas, and by subjugating the native populations there. It wasn’t until the 1700s that the principle of personal and political liberty began to undermine these colonial empires, as well as slavery, and it wasn’t until the last century that these European empires were finally abandoned.

By that time a new power had risen in the west – the USA. By 1945 it was clearly the dominant western power, and by 1989, with the fall of the Soviet Union, it had no obvious rival. Proclaiming itself the champion of democracy and freedom it also championed a global economic system that favoured itself and its closest allies. Economic imperialism had replaced political imperialism, and this was no secure basis for global security, or freedom. The very success of the USA had created an arrogance that reached its culmination in our own time – in the disastrous presidency of the younger Bush.

By then a huge chasm had opened up between the political and economic leaders of the West and some of the key values of Christianity – especially humility, simplicity and compassion.

To some extent, Christian clergies were responsible for this chasm. They had seen western imperialism as an opportunity to spread Christianity throughout the globe, and mostly could not see the cultural arrogance that lay behind it. Catholic churchmen in the 1700s were also highly suspicious of the ‘levelling’ tendencies of western libertarianism, and were often far too supportive of unjust colonial regimes abroad. Overall, Christian leaders were slow to apply a truly Christian ethic to all political activity. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that a Pope could bring himself to condemn a European imperialism that had often sought to impose the Gospel by naked force in the period after 1450.

But another reason for the growing chasm between Western culture and the deepest Christian ideals was the European Enlightenment. This was an intellectual movement of the 1700s whose leaders were convinced that a perfect society could easily be built on what they called ‘reason’ – the abandonment of religious faith and the total reliance on secular science. Resentful of the power of clergies to control thought they sought to secularise the world.

Too often allied with the aristocracies that had ruled Europe since the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church in particular was outmanoeuvred by the Enlightenment. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the world’s Catholic bishops could fully approve the principle of religious freedom, and it wasn’t until 1989 that a pope could declare that the ideals of 1789 in France – liberty, equality and fraternity – were rooted in Christianity. This delay goes a long way toward explaining the secularisation of France, and of most of the west.

Now, in 2006, secularism seems triumphant. But none of the leaders of the original ‘Enlightenment’ foresaw the world we have now. They thought that ‘reason’ would abolish all the evils that had dogged humanity since the beginning – poverty, violence, injustice, crime, disease.

None predicted that science could produce weapons capable of destroying the planet – and that a rational, democratic government would actually use such a weapon on an inhabited city.

None predicted that an advanced secular idealism – the extreme socialist tradition – would create the most inhuman tyrannies that have ever existed – in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China.

None predicted that mass addiction could ever accompany economic success, or that suicide would be seriously discussed as a solution to the pain of life on a global communication medium – itself a product of the rise of science.

None predicted that economic inequalities and western success could ever produce such a thing as a ‘war on terror’.

And no one in the 1700s predicted that economic growth could actually endanger the global human environment.

So the Earth crisis we find ourselves in is a secular as well as a religious and spiritual crisis.

So apparently complex is this earth crisis that statesmen often seem totally baffled by it. So do intellectuals – who cannot agree either on its nature or its solution. The fragmentation of knowledge that followed the Enlightenment means that there isn’t – apparently – even a common language in which to discuss this crisis.

And this means we also have a crisis of global insight and leadership.

Meanwhile extreme secularists such as Richard Dawkins blame everything on religion, and religious extremists seem to prove them right by advocating violence and by denying the truths revealed by science.

Invisible to many, however, one science that emerged out of the Enlightenment – anthropology – has rediscovered a biblical concept that helps us to understand most of what is wrong with the world. Seeing this key problem of human behaviour clearly in the myriad of examples that surround us daily, this redefinition of a very ancient word is set to transform the way we look at the problems of the world – and to harmonise and reintegrate everything that is best in the western tradition.

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Rethinking Freedom

Sean O’Conaill © Spirituality 2002

This era should be one of unprecedented freedom. A revolutionary period lasting over two centuries has seen the overthrow of a series of political tyrannies, from absolute monarchy to Fascism and totalitarian Communism. Yet the absurd violence of these times, in which addiction can drive individuals to random mugging and murder in the streets of the richest cities, and international terrorism can send a jumbo jet through the office windows high above, was inconceivable when this era began.

Freedom from fear seems even more remote than when FDR made it one of his Four Freedoms in January 1941. Freedom from want should be far behind us also – given the extraordinary productiveness of our economic systems – but this too eludes many millions around the globe, as do freedom of speech and freedom of religion still in many parts of the world.

What is the root of the problem? Why are we still oppressed?

The standard answer is that capitalism is inherently evil – as though evil was a function of economic and political organisation. Logically this analysis proposes a repetition forever of the capitalist/socialist face-off that dominated the period before 1989. Who really wants to go through all that again? There is need for a new analysis – one that does not scapegoat ‘systems’ for human failure, but looks for the root of the human failing that prevents capitalism from developing a truly human face. That failing clearly warped political socialism also, especially when it gained control of a sizeable economy – creating an oligarchy of ideologues even more nasty than the reactionary aristocracy of the ancien regime.

We can gain some insight into this by remembering one of the most obvious anomalies of the Soviet Union in its last years – those secret shops that imported western consumer goods and sold them only to the soviet socialist elite. Western hi-fis, videos and large-screen TVs – and no doubt Irish whiskey – passed through these places into the luxurious dachas of the politburo outside Moscow – and it was eventually the shortfall in such goods (as well as Reagan’s proposed Star Wars anti-missile defence system) that convinced Gorbachev that Marxism-Leninism as he knew it could not match the West either technically or economically. The world’s greatest experiment in socialism failed at that moment.

The soviet demand for such goods can be explained simply as mimetic desire – an irresistible and largely unacknowledged urge to possess what is possessed by others – especially those with whom one is in rivalry. It can be guessed that Khrushchev’s goggle-eyed amazement at US consumer society on his visit to the US in 1959 led directly to these Orwellian purchases, which eventually bankrupted the integrity of his own revolutionary generation.

Rene Girard insists that where we find conflict we should look for similarity, not difference. As a teacher of history I was trained to explain the Cold War as essentially a struggle of contradictory ideologies – free market liberalism versus Marxist totalitarianism. However, there was also simple rivalry for global dominance between two societies that had both risen to the status of superpower in the preceding two centuries, their armies meeting along the Elbe in 1945. Wherever human endeavour brings triumph, an antithetical challenge will sooner or later emerge.

Mimetic desire (that is, desire borrowed by imitation) and rivalry also dominate the current face-off between Islamic radicalism and the west. Osama bin Laden emphasises the differences between his ultra-puritanical version of Islam and western decadence, as the root of his quarrel with America. Why then not simply take pride in this moral superiority and leave the West to perish in its decadence? The fact is that the west possesses something that bin Laden wants – supremacy in technology, especially military technology, and the geopolitical supremacy this also brings. Radical Islam is, through people like Bin Laden, in rivalry for global political, cultural and religious supremacy with the West.

So, wherever there is conflict look not for differences, but for similarities – especially similarity in objectives. President Bush is currently riding on the crest of a wave of patriotic fervour in the US, with many feeling that the original zeal of the American dream is being restored. Yet every TV picture of the flaunted stars and stripes is bound now to call forth equally chauvinistic Islamism when redisplayed by El Jazeera. Outside Latin America the ‘War on Terrorism’ seems to have only Islamic targets – Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen and possibly even Indonesia – and this can only feed into the polarisation bin Laden and his followers seek. It is above all TV that declares who is glorious and who is impoverished today – and TV currently contrasts the ruins of Afghanistan and the lush lawns of Hollywood, stating clearly the disparity that Islamic radicalism seeks to end in blood.

And similarities too explain the current crisis between India and Pakistan. Both states want undisputed possession of Kashmir, but neither government can yield it and survive.

As for Ireland’s conflict, although the surface complexities have deterred people as intelligent as Graham Green from attempting an analysis, it’s clear by now that simple rivalry for dominance of the north-east lies at the back of the contest between green and orange paramilitarism. The latter emerged in mimetic response to the rise of Provisionalism in the early 1970s, until then the focus of the global media. Although Sinn Fein has stressed its leftist credentials, it has not rejected suggestions that it might become the crutch supporting Fianna Fail if the latter again fails to win an overall majority in a general election this year – so mimetic desire for political status is clearly paramount for this supposedly new political broom also. And the standard explanation for the original outbreak of the Troubles in the late 1960s is that a newly educated young Catholic intelligentsia found itself shut out of the usual economic rewards in a discriminatory Unionist society. That is, frustrated desire for wealth and status was again crucial in explaining the onset of violence in 1969.

As for the random violence of the streets, in London in early January of this year a teenager was shot in the head when she objected to the theft of her mobile phone – currently the most saleable and portable of consumer durables. The wealth-producing sector of western society must display the fruits of its labour – infuriating those who still remain outside that sector, especially if they also belong to a racially disadvantaged minority. This same factor was clearly at work in the race riots that traumatised several British cities in the summer of 2001.

What of that other western anomaly – school violence – the focus of so much American angst prior to what they now call 9/11? Significantly, the leading spirit in the worst example of that violence, Eric Harris, confided to video the root of his alienation before shooting twelve of his schoolmates dead in Littleton, Colorado: “Everywhere I went I had to start again at the bottom.” He was referring to the problem posed by his semi-nomadic soldier father – moved about from base to base. US High Schools too are pyramids of esteem – an extraordinary fact in the state supposedly founded upon the principle of human equality.

The root of the violence that oppresses the world can therefore, it seems, be reduced to conflicting mimetic desire. The possessions, status and power we acquire through success, automatically become desirable to those without these. Our media flaunt our Western success globally in the faces of the uneducated and impoverished. Where these have inherited a proud memory of earlier cultural and military achievement – and this is especially true of the Arab world – we can expect a deadly rivalry to flourish.

Rivalry is also the basic dynamic of the power games played by competing political parties in the democratic world, and often causes internal fissures within parties as well – as the relationship between chancellor and prime minister in Britain currently illustrates. Here again the media are misled into looking for differences between rivals, rather than similarities. Very little of ideological importance now divides the parties or personalities that alternate in office in the major democracies.

Yet real equality remains elusive. A large underclass, often educationally disadvantaged, seems permanently shut out of the ‘good life’ shared by the ‘meritocratic’ elites. And it is this underclass that suffers most from addiction, unemployment and urban violence. Meritocracy is, of course the self-promoting ideology of the ‘bright’ people who currently enjoy the western gravy train.

Post modernism tends to argue that all ideologies are designed to empower those who purvey them. Very little separates this insight from the basic Christian premise that, unredeemed, we are a selfish species that makes war upon our own weakest members. Mimetic desire describes our basic weakness precisely, in a manner that makes it rationally inescapable.

The conclusion is inescapable also: western politics can be rejuvenated only by a realisation that true freedom and equality can be achieved only through a recovery of spirituality. The deep well of corruption that alienated voters from British Conservatism in the early nineties is now beginning to taint pristine New Labour – and in Ireland cynicism on the same evil knows no bounds. Although Ireland is now gearing up for another general election, the political polarities of the 1920s that provide the only logic of our two-party system are now entirely meaningless. There is a need for an entirely new kind of politics here and throughout the West.

It will be based upon a value system that will roundly challenge liberal meritocracy by arguing that humans everywhere are inalienably equal in dignity, and can never lose or gain in that respect. We are indeed differentially gifted, but this asymmetry should be seen as similar to that of an orchestra, in which the differing contributions of all are of equal value. Education will be redesigned to develop all intelligences equally – including, above all, spiritual intelligence.

There is this much wisdom in liberalism: that genuine equality is indeed the only route to freedom. However, how come that in the most ‘egalitarian’ societies liberal politicians are themselves tolerant of a social hierarchy almost as layered in terms of social esteem as any that preceded it? How come they accept that some people become more equal than others by hogging media attention as well as power, and then rigging tax and educational systems to perpetuate that inequality? How come they are blind to the dynamics of rivalry, which explains their corruptibility as well as their conflicts? They above all need to become spiritually aware.

For Christians this awareness is best expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. Only a deep appreciation of its wisdom can undermine the whole notion of celebrity that currently fuels the upward journey of millions. Media-borne celebrity is the supreme mirage – the stupid notion that some people are truly deserving of separation onto a higher plane of being. It is also the supreme object of political mimetic desire, as Tony Blair’s air borne posturing so well illustrates.

Which means in turn that the next Pope will need to include this in the re-evaluation of the role of the papacy that John Paul II has called for. As mimetic desire is the root of oppression and injustice, every spiritual leader should be emphasising that no-one ever really becomes more important, more worthy, than anyone else – and behaving accordingly.

This really should be no problem for any Christian. Nothing more characterises Jesus of Nazareth than the refusal of worldly elevation – from his first step down into the Jordan to join the sinners, to his acceptance of the cross. If the west is to deliver freedom to the world it must rediscover Christ as the gentlest but greatest enemy of mimetic desire. Imitating Him in this alone can indeed set the world free at last.

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Towards a New Evangelism II: The Cursillo in Derry

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine & Life 2001

In March 1997 I made my way for the first time to Termonbacca Monastery in Derry. In the process of retirement due to ill health from the teaching career that had dominated my life for thirty years, I was in shock over the loss of the school and career that had grounded me. Although also now a committed Catholic, I was also seriously concerned, as parent and teacher, with the failure of my church to address the exodus of its teenagers from faith, as well and home and school, at eighteen.

That failure was due, I was convinced, to an ill-conceived and desperate clinging to a patriarchal and clerical ‘Christendom’ model of leadership, when Christendom itself was patently dead, and deservedly so – the root source of the secularism that now dominated the west. Misled by centuries of inherited power, that leadership had become essentially verbal rather than exemplary, a matter of preaching a gospel narrowed to little more than sexual prudishness and perpetuation of the clerical system. Not even the shock of the sexual scandals that had begun with the Casey affair in 1992 had awoken the Irish episcopate to a realisation of the fact that Ireland was now part of the western mainstream, in which autonomous individualism had replaced deferential acceptance of inherited clerical authority.

Which meant in turn that the church was unable to critique the emerging crisis of individualism as a race for ‘success’ which most must lose in the long run, bereft of a community which will love them anyway. An Ireland in which Sunday Massgoing was the natural communal gathering of small local communities had been replaced since the sixties by a media-dominated and urbanised rootlessness that found the Mass incomprehensible and boring – but leadership had failed to react adequately. As a result most of the children I taught – including my own – now found patriarchal Catholicism a self-regarding straitjacket they were obliged to respect for the moment, but were instantly throwing off as soon as they became independent adults. What kind of church would still be around when they needed it, I wondered?

I didn’t expect to find any part of the answer in Termonbacca in March 1997. All I knew was that I was in for a three-day experience of Catholicism to be conducted by a team of laymen. Would they be up-to-speed with a Vatican II model of church? It seemed unlikely.

I was, and I remain, astonished by what I found.

The culture shock began about nine o’clock on Thursday when about seventy laymen were gathered in the coffee bar. Most wore casual clothes and small pewter pectoral crosses – these were the team. The rest of us were the ‘candidates’ – the course members. An atmosphere thickly laden with cigarette smoke and Derry banter was eventually pierced by a call to order from the team leader, or ‘Rector’. The ‘Cursillo’, he explained, was a three-day course in Catholicism, originating in Majorca. He then called the team members to introduce themselves. Most did so nervously and quickly, saying when they had done their first weekend, and how much they had enjoyed it – but finishing with ‘I’m here to serve’. Others launched into a more extended appeal to us to stick it out for the three days – and these were heckled good humouredly by the rest. Three things struck me straight away. These men were mostly unsophisticated, but happy in one another’s company – and totally unembarrassed about their faith. I was having difficulty coping with the noise, the heavy Derry accents and the smoke – but I was also touched and moved in a way I hadn’t expected. I started paying attention, wondering who was orchestrating this bonhomie.

That evening finished with a talk on the Prodigal Son by the first priest to appear. It had an unusually frank and personal character – and this prepared us for what was to follow the next morning. We also had our first experience of Cursillo music – it was in the folk idiom with expert guitar accompaniment, but the singing had a fervour I was quite unaccustomed to – especially from men.

We found ourselves on Friday seated at tables in a conference room overlooking the Foyle, listening to jokes told by team members who were clearly expert and intent on having a good time. This set the pattern for the three days. Life is often critical, but seldom serious, in Derry.

Then the talks began – half given by religious – but it was those given by the laymen that riveted me. These began with a sincere exposition of some aspect of the Cursillo ‘method’ (based upon piety, study and action) but then became an account of those experiences that had led the speaker to faith. Confidentiality prevents me recounting any one in particular – but all remain extraordinarily vivid.

Imagine the worst things that might have happened to any individual in Derry these past three decades – Bloody Sunday, or the aftermath of explosions; attempted sectarian assassination, or the blanket protest in the Maze, or the suicide of a family member, or an experience of child abuse: all against a background often darkened by unemployment, addiction, family violence and the breakdown of relationships. A multitude of the darkest valleys the human soul can experience. Into some of these we were given eloquent insight over three days, and into others I have been led on subsequent weekends on team. They were all very different from the valley through which I was then passing – but were all recognisable nevertheless as ultimate trials of the human spirit. And in all of them there had been a bonding with the Jesus of Gethsemane and Golgotha, an experience of the Church as sacrament of reconciliation, healing and ongoing community through what they call the Cursillo family – and now a joyful pursuit of others undergoing the same trials. The Cursillo framework is the means by which this is accomplished – and this explains why it is still thriving after twenty-two years.

The traditional devotionalist Catholicism that goes along with this has misled some of the more theologically ‘with it’ local clergy to dismiss Cursillo as a remnant of a dying Church. As conducted in Derry it is in fact for me the most astonishing vindication of key elements of Vatican II theology, and a promise of a vibrant church of the future – one fully capable of meeting the challenges we now face.

In particular, although there is a strong Marian element, the practical theology of the Derry Cursillistas is fundamentally Trinitarian. Their overwhelming conviction is the unconditional love of Jesus for all, especially those hurt by life. He is a God who allowed himself to be broken in order to find the broken. The Father is perceived not as inexplicable demander of due punishment for all, but as generous giver of the Son, and celebrator of our return to his house. The Spirit is invoked as the one who enables the speakers to tell their stories, who allows us to be honest and loving – and then joyful in our reunion. Salvation is therefore easily explained: it is the dawning of another life in communion with these Three, one that truly now has nothing worse to fear than the possibility of alienation from them.

How that joy is mediated on the Cursillo weekend I cannot precisely describe, as it could diminish the experience somewhat for those who take on the weekend.

One experience I can recount however. Towards the end of the weekend all get the chance to sit together in a family-sized room, as a member of their table team, in the presence of the blessed sacrament, and to pray spontaneously to the really present Lord. The sincerity with which this opportunity is seized, with complete openness, faith and intimacy, is quite unique in my experience. There is a sense of something shared, of deep communion and warmth, that celebrates the sacrament far more powerfully than is ever possible in the parish church.

The spirit of generosity that grounds the weekend, and the humility with which these men speak of their own lives, has often an extraordinary effect upon the demeanour of the candidates. Often closed and suspicious to begin with, most find that at least one of the team has shared their darkest experiences, and come through with the support of God’s grace. This creates trust and openness, and a willingness to experience the sacraments in a context of welcome rather than criticism. The most sophisticated theologian could not convey more powerfully the love of God for the individuality of every person.

The result is described by a Cursillista friend as ‘the losing of the mask’ – the abandonment of pretence to a disdainful invulnerability and independence, of remaining unwounded by life and needless of community. Realising that their deepest wounds and insecurities are understood and accepted, candidates lose that fear of openness that prevents them from being truly themselves. I have never seen men more freely and joyously respond.

One other experience I remember vividly, as it relates directly to my own professional arrogance. At the end of one weekend, at the feedback session, a young candidate of about twenty went freely to the microphone and explained that as a boy he had been dismissed as uneducable. This had profoundly depressed him, making him socially withdrawn and fearful, and unable to feel positively towards himself. On the weekend he had been accepted so fully for himself that he had lost this fear, and learned to respect himself. All of this he said with perfect lucidity, revealing again the power of Christian community to free the individual from self-dislike – and to unlock people from the prisons that supposedly intelligent people can put them in.

From this, and from many other similar experiences, I have learned that the secular pyramid of esteem, founded so rigidly nowadays on educational and career attainment, is spiritually fatuous and unjust – that when we relate to one another in a context where social status has no meaning we can be most truly ourselves, able to converse and relate as the equals we truly are, separated from secular pretensions. I serve on team knowing that I am valued simply for myself – not for the social accidents that have made me a teacher and writer. With many Derry Cursillistas I have formed enduring friendships which have given me too another life.

Which brings me to the conclusion that we intellectuals are often our own worst problem. Too often educational success has separated us from the experience of the darkest valley that the less educated have been through. We have also been taught the enlightenment’s fear of deep emotion, and its bias towards the mind as the sole repository of wisdom and happiness. So we may suppose that somewhere in our refinements and abstractions the ultimate truth resides, and that the unsophisticated faith of the less educated is somehow inferior and passé. We may also suppose that they should see us as their salvation – when in fact we may have far more to learn from them – especially the gifts of spontaneity and humility, laughter and tears.

Thoughtful Derry Cursillistas generally feel a tolerant sympathy for theologians, who in their view complexify what is really very simple – that Christ’s gift of himself renews simple words like love, peace and joy – cleansing them from the cloying sentimentality and cynicism that have made them almost meaningless. He does this by being, at Termonbacca, the presence that redeems the past, allowing people to share these words, in perfect sincerity, on the weekend, with those still in need of this experience. What they have to learn from an updated Church is therefore far, far less than they have to contribute to it – in wisdom as well as joy.

That the Cursillo framework elsewhere can also be a framework for a more chauvinist and fundamentalist form of Catholicism is clear from certain Internet sites. In Derry it is fiercely egalitarian, keeping structure to a minimum and determined to prove that personal freedom is entirely possible in the context of a genuine love of God and neighbour. Uniting evangelism with a deep sense of community, it has replaced for many the extended family that Ireland has only recently lost. It can also be a foundation for the recovery of a spirituality that truly expresses the Irish character. That Christian evangelism must be far more than a matter of mere words, that it must now be expressed in the rebuilding of community, is proven there conclusively.

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The Myth of Materialism

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2001

Ecclesiastics are never done complaining about ‘materialism’. A search in the Web archives of the right-wing Catholic news agency CWN – which meticulously reports the statements of the Vatican – turns up thirty-one high-level statements referring to it since 1996. It has become the cliché of choice in describing the errors of the age. Commenting upon the Pope’s Lenten Message this year, Archbishop Josef Cordes spoke of the ‘materialism in which we are immersed’ as the explanation for the loss of the sense of the spiritual dimension to life.

Presumably this cliché rests upon the assumption that since there is a philosophical phenomenon we can justly label ‘materialism’, the acquisitiveness of modern society derives from it, and from nothing else. This assumption doesn’t hold any water – humans have always been acquisitive, as all ancient literature, including the Bible attests. And modern acquisitiveness is essentially no different.

A single evening’s perusal of the products of the mass-market advertising industry reveals that matter per se is the last thing people are interested in. Where are the ads for ‘two tonnes of lead’ or ‘one ton of stainless steel’ or even ‘three ounces of gold’? Nowhere. When people have satisfied their basic material needs for food and shelter, and the basic comforts, they spend their surplus on something else entirely.

What that something else is can also easily be gleaned from mass-market advertising. A certain expensive shampoo will put women among the Jennifer Anistons, making them as ‘worth it’ as she is. If you can afford a Rolex watch – and many can these days on hire purchase – you join Andre Agassi on the lawns of Wimbledon. A powerful motor bike will put Northern Ireland’s young men on the Isle of Man circuit, in pursuit of the status of local hero and world legend the late Joey Dunlop. A powerful computer will give Internet access for your garden furniture business – and dreams of a global commercial empire – or allow you to invent another generic software application and follow Bill Gates to the top of the Fortune 500 rankings. Wealthy Londoners will gladly pay Harrods prices for white goods – for the mere possibility of rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi – or even the owner, for he too is media-beloved. And the public flaunting of mobile phones and off-road vehicles is largely down to yearning to be considered as important as the owners of penthouses and landed estates.

‘Rankings’ are what it’s all about. People measure their worth in terms of where they believe they are in what is now a global pyramid of worth or esteem, maintained lovingly by the media whose bread and butter it is. They keep us fixated on the daft notion that some of us are infinitely more important than most of us – and most people cannot live spiritually with this sense of their own insignificance. This is why we are endlessly acquisitive. We are addicted not to matter, but to its symbolic significance when shaped in a particular way, and then associated with celebrities – because where they are (or where we think they are) is where (we think) anyone of importance should be.

The Bible most clearly reveals that things have always been this way. In the Ancient world, top status went to military heroes like Alexander, and, in the Jewish tradition, David. The young women who swooned then over David’s ‘tens of thousands’ of victims do so now over Willy Wales’s inheritance of good looks, the throne of England and the media’s fascination. Saul’s sense of humiliation at being merely credited with ‘thousands’ is mimicked by the young men who set out to joyride and destroy the powerful cars they will never be able to earn lawfully – with similarly murderous and suicidal results.

To put it another way, ‘the world’ is as it has always been – a source of spiritual fascination and distraction from the ordinariness of our own lives, and the fact that, nevertheless, we are loved by God. It makes us endlessly dissatisfied to be who, and with whom, and where, we are. It even alienates us from the present moment, placing us spiritually in the future, towards which we then frenetically move seven days a week. Even the business courses that the already affluent purchase at exorbitant prices are called ‘In Pursuit of Excellence’ or some such, for we always must be in pursuit of something, in flight from ourselves and from the present. And from the fact that 200 million children – for example – are in severe physical distress around the globe, a distress that could be alleviated by turning just a proportion of the West’s surplus wealth to their extreme need.

All of this is so obvious that it is the inability of the intellectuals at the summit of the church to see it, and note its spiritual significance, that becomes the real mystery. Why are ecclesiastics always maundering on about ‘materialism’ when it comes nowhere near to naming the real source of acquisitiveness, this sense that people have of their own unimportance unless they acquire the symbols of celebrity, the sense of being ‘worth it’?

The answer is cruelly obvious. These ecclesiastics have generally no sense of their own unimportance. Quite the reverse. Although the verbal truth they utter is supposedly centred upon the life of a man whose life’s journey was downward to ultimate humiliation, they are themselves the winners of the race for eminence within their own institution.

The common effect of this upon their own spirituality needs no elaboration from me. In May 1999, Cardinal Gantin, who had for fifteen years been Prefect of the Vatican Office which assists the Pope with the nomination and transfer of bishops, complained trenchantly about the naked careerism of many bishops, which had, he said, “altered” the nature of episcopal service.

They sought promotion to get on to “a good thing”, he claimed, and to meet more influential people who could help their careers. “Even those making these requests – and sometimes they did so jokingly, and other times not, considered that they were expressing a legitimate desire”. “Other times I happened to hear at the end of an episcopal ordination some bishop shouting ‘ad altiora’ [to the highest posts]”. (Catholic Herald, May 21st, 1999)

The symbols of status that bishops pursue, are, of course, in some respects different from those sought by the business executive. There is no real equivalent of the bishop’s mitre or coat of arms in the business world, or of the prestigious diocese – but these had their equivalents in the heraldic devices, coronets and landed estates of the nobility of the ancien regime. The unique symbols of Episcopal importance are thus simply the shadows of those of yesterdays secular hoi polloi – and therefore intensely a reminder of the sheer snobbery of the past.

Until the church at its summit grasps the parallel here with the upwardly-directed yearning of the secular person, it will fail to measure the significance of this in impoverishing the church itself spiritually. Upwardly directed bishops cannot dignify their priests and people – i.e. assure them of the love of a God who really exists – if they believe that they themselves will only be really ‘worth it’ if they become Cardinals, or even Pope – for this too is dire spiritual poverty.

Indeed, if the gospels are studied carefully it could even be that they will not even understand ‘Sin’ either. Those who came to Jesus for forgiveness seem to have been distraught above all about their own lack of worth, their own inability, due to poverty, measured by their inability to afford the services of those who cluttered the path to temple sacrifice and cleansing. He never asked them to name their sins, but simply forgave them, assuring them of his Father’s love. The pyramid of esteem and power within the church is a scandalous betrayal of that life, and its ultimate sacrifice – and is itself a source of the distance that many, many people mistakenly believe lies between themselves and God.

The cult of the papacy, tended assiduously by the Curia (which would itself be just another bureaucracy without it), is thus itself a major source of spiritual poverty in the church, for the papacy is at the summit of the pyramid of esteem that the church became in the fourth century. When we watch now those 1979 videos of the papal visit to Ireland, by far the most embarrassing aspect is the sight of Irish bishops, including Eamonn Casey, preening themselves in the august presence – as though the summit of their lives had been this few days of closeness to a reigning monarch and Time’s Man of the Year. The parallel to those legendary millions in the UK who dream nightly of tea with the Queen is too close to be missed.

The recent visit to Belfast of the Dalai Lama presented an entirely different social role and style for the spiritual leader – one of unselfconscious informality and simplicity. Here was someone who did not need to stand upon his own dignity – respect was elicited by virtue of the respect with which he treated everyone he encountered. In stark contrast, probably the single greatest failure of the present papacy is its failure to attack the cult of celebrity which so disfigures this era, by insisting upon the equal dignity of all in the sight of God – indeed by deliberately repudiating the idea that Popes are more important than anyone else. Could it be that the superior spiritual presence of the Dalai Lama is related to the fact that, like Jesus, but wholly unlike the Pope, he has nowhere to lay his head? I believe so – and see an obvious solution.

The enormous and widening gulf that now separates hierarchy and people in Ireland has much to do with the contrary obsession with status and dignity. And when we remember that lack of self-esteem is a common feature of so many of today’s addictions, neuroses and psychoses, this upward obsession of clericalism becomes more tragic yet, for it is precisely what prevents the church living up to the standards of its founder, for whom a genuine compassion for the poor in spirit, i.e. the unesteemed, was central. By contrast, Irish people these days swap stories of the snobbery of bishops who seem to value lay people in terms of the marques of cars they drive.

Nothing essentially separates the mitre-bound cleric from the penthouse-bound yuppie – each is equally obsessed with symbols of status – with what ‘the world’ thinks of him. Status-seeking is the essence of worldliness – the fact that the ambitious cleric seeks status within an ecclesiastical institution makes no essential difference. It simply explains why Jesus resisted the second of his three temptations – to amaze the temple elite by throwing himself from its summit. Thank goodness we have many priests still who understand this passage more clearly than their bishops.

We are all equally sinful (i.e. ‘worldly’) and equally ‘worth it’ (i.e. the love of God). When all bishops realise this, and begin descending rather than climbing – the Pope too – then only will they get to grips with the ‘spiritual impoverishment’ of our times and show true leadership. Wittering on about ‘materialism’ – from the palaces inherited from the ancien regime – just doesn’t cut it anymore. Like the sin of the Pharisee who condemned the tax collector, it completely misses the mark.

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