Tag Archives: Commitment

We need to face up to Five Dysfunctions of the Church

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  March 2013

An admission of radical managerial fallibility on the part of the church’s leaders is the key to a successful New Evangelisation.

If the New Evangelisation is to have any hope of success, we Catholics must surely solve a problem that has been hanging over us since Vatican II. If we are not to continue repelling strangers by our divisions, if we are to convince them that we are indeed the body of Christ, we must learn to work together as an effective team. What is it exactly that prevents the church from operating with real unity of purpose?

Knowing that this problem interests me, a friend alerted me recently to a highly rated fable for business executives who want to build effective management teams: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Patrick Lencioni, 2002). Intrigued, I bought the book. I feel that its central argument deserves attention for the light it throws on the current state of our church.

According to the fable, the five key dysfunctions of a failing team are:

  1. Absence of trust
  2. Fear of conflict
  3. Lack of commitment
  4. Avoidance of accountability
  5. Inattention to results

For Lencioni, ‘trust’ is the confidence that every member of a team needs to have that even when opposed or criticised no personal harm is intended. This in turn will permit necessary conflict – that is, the conflict that may need to occur to resolve differences over how the overarching goals of the team are to be reached. But for this trust to exist, every member needs to put those team goals before personal status and success. Otherwise disagreements will be papered over, disillusioned members will focus on their own individual careers, commitment will be lacking, and individual and team failures will be ignored.

Far from being separate dysfunctions of a team, these five are therefore all interlinked in a circular chain, and the building of trust is essential for the building of an effective team. Lencioni sees the chief obstacle to mutual trust as a strong human tendency to avoid vulnerability – that is, to build defences and habits of avoidance that conceal the personal limitations we all have.

1. Absence of Trust

For me this fear of vulnerability is a diagnostic feature of what we call clericalism in the church. It begins at the summit with the unstated expectation of the magisterium that all wisdom and policy must begin and end with it. Although clearly our managers don’t know how to stem the outflow from the church in developed societies they cannot admit this, and must unceasingly claim to know, in minute detail, what we must all do next. There is no willingness to consider that in our present parlous state an admission that they don’t have all the answers might well be perceived as a welcome sign of humility and spiritual strength.

At present, for example, we are all supposedly waiting for the pope to provide us with a master plan for the New Evangelisation. In Ireland we are promised that a key to this will be a new catechetical directory called Share the Good News. This also emerged out of a summit process in accordance with the key principle of clericalism: we the ordained have all the answers – just you lay people sit there (again) and listen.

Meanwhile, many of us lay people are perfectly capable of seeing that it was a clerical fear of vulnerability that led to the most devastating modern scandal in the church – the preference for secrecy in dealing with clerical abuse of children, sometimes at the awful cost of further harm to other children. This too has deeply undermined the mutual trust our Catholic team needs if it is to welcome strangers.

As to the psychological dangers of that fear of vulnerability, are many Irish priests currently in danger from this, and from the burnout and demoralisation that comes from lack of honest ongoing dialogue? In this deepest of crises, are they in danger from the expectation that clergy will always be above it all – supermen apart who must not ever just be human, fallible, and in need of the most basic emotional support of ‘ordinary’ Catholics? Wouldn’t the first Christians have functioned often as a very vulnerable team whose members admitted to one another that they just didn’t have a clue what to do next? Wouldn’t they have prayed in a heartfelt way about that – together? (Could everyone please entertain for a moment the possibility that this may be exactly what we all need to do next?).

2. Fear of Conflict

It is the fear of conflict surely that prevents clergy, and especially bishops, from meeting with regular assemblies of the people of God for the open and honest raising of issues that concern all of us. All other regular church assemblies involving the unordained are carefully designed to avoid the possibility of frank disagreement and exchange of views. So a host of difficult questions raised by decades of scandal, of rampant social change and of ongoing crisis, remain unasked in regular open forums — and mostly unaddressed.

It is therefore unfortunately predictable that there will be an attempt to launch the New Evangelisation in a context of artificial harmony, in which all are expected to not raise uncomfortable issues. One can foresee the tone of this in recent entirely upbeat assessments of our situation from some of the most senior churchmen in Ireland, in the wake of the 2012 Eucharistic Congress. Unbalanced positivity, in the absence of any close analysis of the most challenging issues, is clearly designed to disarm any challenge or deep questioning. It may well culminate in a superficial tranquillity in place of an honest squaring up to deep crisis. This leadership pose is surely fully persuasive only to the dwindling number of lay people that is still convinced of the boundless and bottomless wisdom of the unchallengeable magisterium.

3. Lack of Commitment

I was present at an Irish diocesan meeting in 2003 where the bishop expressed broad approval of a plan to introduce a model of collaborative ministry in the diocese. The plan had been the product of years of work by a group that he himself had commissioned, called the ‘Ministry and Change’ group. The bishop now undertook to establish a new group, consisting of both clergy and people, to implement the report. He invited members of the now disbanding Ministry and Change team to volunteer for it. Three lay people did so. But that was the end of it; they never heard another word from the bishop about their report on collaborative ministry.

A decade later it’s clear that the problem of ministry and change in that diocese has followed the general pattern and become even more acute. Those lay people who volunteered years of their free time to no purpose will be slow ever to do so again. Lay people all over Ireland share very similar stories of having been misled up the clerical garden path ever since 1965.

There is an overwhelming danger that impending efforts to turn the tide will be frustrated by similar inadequate meetings to launch the New Evangelisation. Any denial then of the need for a culture of radical honesty in the church will inevitably create the opposite of that – a feigning of enthusiasm for a plan into which most have had not the slightest input. Ambiguity – a tendency of different people to speak differently about the prospects for success – accompanied by much covert disaffection, will probably reign once again. The deep commitment, mutual trust and unity of purpose that result from a passionate team engagement in resolving major differences will probably be lacking.

4. Avoidance of Accountability

We Catholics have seen this at the highest level in the church – in the failure of the Vatican to summarily dismiss bishops who have covered up the abuse of children by some clergy. Indeed, some bishops who have done so have been rewarded with key responsibilities in the church’s central administration. As I write, a US bishop convicted in a civil court for this offence of failure to report abusive behaviour to the civil authorities is still in charge of his diocese. If bishops cannot be held accountable by one another for such grossly disloyal behaviour, why should any Catholic impose accountability upon herself for obedience to Gospel values? News of highly visible unaccountability inevitably travels everywhere in the church, setting low standards and demoralising all of us. This problem too will help to frustrate the New Evangelisation.

It would seem that there are only ever two possible reasons for the dismissal of a bishop: personal sexual immorality or a mildly questioning attitude towards some aspect of the magisterial church’s positions on, for example, mandatory clerical celibacy or female ordination. It’s clear that, in the minds of our leaders, endangering the sanity and the lives of children do not compare with these failings in the scale of dangers to the church. This is a malignant wound in the body of Christ that continues to foster disbelief and distrust at every level.

5. Inattention to Results

What exactly is the overarching and immediate goal of the magisterium in promoting a New Evangelisation? Is it to reverse the outflow of members from the church in developed societies, or to tolerate (and maybe even encourage) an even lower membership in the interest of strict conformity to magisterial teaching on contentious issues? What model of church is envisaged? Will genuine dialogue be part of that? How will success in advancing the New Evangelisation be measured? Will we, for example, be prioritising the retention of those aged 15-35, and setting out to measure this on an annual basis?

As to the power of egotism to undermine team trust, harmony and collaboration, I have never in my life heard an adequate homily on the plague of self-absorption that so obviously threatens community at every level in modern society. This is in spite of the fact that Catholic social teaching idealises communal solidarity and spells out the need for individualism to be overturned by an ethic of service.

Informed lay Catholics are also well aware of the disillusionment often expressed by clergy themselves about egotism and careerism in the church. In 1999, following his retirement as prefect of the congregation for bishops, the late Cardinal Bernardin Gantin publicly lambasted bishops who ‘put career before God.’ He lamented his inability to stem a trend of bishops in ‘less important dioceses’ applying to people like himself for a transfer after just a few years. Despite several papal warnings about the danger that the church’s hierarchical system (which turns popes into global celebrities and bishops into local ones) could foster egotism and lack of dedication to service and the welfare of the church, the emphasis is still upon the need to safeguard the hierarchical principle at all costs, as though God himself could find not the slightest problem with it.  Isn’t there a huge beam in the hierarchical eye here, a beam that prevents the church from even noticing the cult of celebrity as a key dysfunction of modern society?

Turning Things Around

The greatest strength of this five-fold diagnosis of why teams fail is that it also offers a surprisingly simple strategy for addressing the problem. The key is for team leaders to understand the paradoxical strength that lies in admitting vulnerability, (e.g. “I too have made serious mistakes of leadership and may do so again! I need some advice here”). This can unlock everyone’s capacity for honesty and humility and create an entirely new binding dynamic. There is probably no other way.

Could Jesus have attracted so many of the vulnerable had he not always modelled vulnerability himself? Could anyone be more vulnerable than the babe in the manger, the wandering healer who had ‘nowhere to lay his head,’ the resolute leader who disturbed the peace of Jerusalem with a whip made only of cord, or the man who wept and then disarmed Peter at Gethsemane? Isn’t the crucifix above all else an icon of human vulnerability?

Didn’t St Paul insist that his only strength lay in his weakness? Wasn’t it the martyrs of the amphitheatres who converted brutal Rome? Would so many have been drawn to St Francis of Assisi had he not been so gentle, so careless of his own safety and comfort? Aren’t we also drawn now to the plight of so many of our priests, suffering humiliation so often from the secular world, and now also too often from tensions with the magisterium?

If vulnerability can foster a strange kind of strength and unity, doesn’t a posture of invulnerability from the magisterium (“only we have all the answers”) actually help to explain the distrust in and decline of the church at present? And how can there be real communion now, to resolve our crisis, if the leadership of the church cannot model Jesus’ courageous humility? Is a genuine togetherness possible without that? Could a change of course, an admission of radical managerial fallibility on the part of the church’s leaders, be the only key that can now unlock the secret of a church-wide New Evangelisation in the West?

The Spirit of Vatican II

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  September 2012

What exactly was ‘the spirit of Vatican II’? Ignorant voices are sometimes raised these times to misrepresent it merely as the spirit of 1960s secular liberalism. This trend has led to an even more dangerous and unjust one: to blame ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ and those who speak of it for ‘all that has gone wrong’ since.

This Catholic did his Leaving Cert in 1960, and was at UCD when news of the council broke. I remember vividly what the spirit of Vatican II meant to me. In essence it was the spirit of confidence, love and hope that led Pope John XXIII to call the council in the first place. It was also the spirit led him to support the movement among so many bishops to abandon a quite contrary spirit – the spirit of fear, chauvinism and triumphalism, of anathemas and overbearing paternalism, that had tended to dominate the governance of the church in the nineteenth century. It was also the spirit that led Pope John XXIII to visit a Roman prison and speak off the cuff about the equal compassion of God for all of us.

It was never a spirit of heady conformity to 1960s hedonism. I never associated ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ with the so-called ‘sexual revolution’, or with the naivety of ‘all you need is love’. It was a spirit that called me instead to discipleship, and therefore to discipline also. It was a call to maturity, to responsibility, to holiness (i.e. to prayer, goodness and kindness), to joy, and to learning. And it was a call to every baptised Catholic.

I felt confident in the world Catholic magisterium of that time, despite the obvious fact that so many Irish bishops harked back to the fearful and controlling paternalism of the pre-conciliar period. As a young teacher after the council I felt sure that the spirit of the council would soon prevail in Ireland also, especially through dialogical and collegial church structures that would arise inevitably out of Lumen Gentium Article 37.

And so I am certain that ‘all that has gone wrong since’ is a result of the failure of the Catholic magisterium to maintain the spirit of Vatican II – that spirit of hope and confidence and equal dignity in the church. Above all it was the result of a betrayal by the magisterium of not just the spirit but the letter of Lumen Gentium.

One illustration will suffice. According to Lumen Gentium 37 (1965) Catholic lay people would be “empowered to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church” …. “through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose”.

Let’s suppose that had actually happened in Ireland, say in the 1970s. If there had existed in Ireland truly representative and open diocesan and parish forums from the early 1970s, would the parents of Irish clerical abuse victims of the late 70s and 80s and 90s have had to rely from then on only on the integrity of secretive Catholic bishops and their underlings to protect other Catholic children? Could, for example, Brendan Smyth have continued to run rampant through Ireland until 1993 – if Irish Catholic lay people had learned much earlier the confidence to question their bishops openly on administrative matters, ‘through structures established for that purpose’?

Now in 2012, the CDF’s “promoter of justice” Mgr Charles Scicluna tells us that in this matter of child protection ‘Bishops are accountable to the Lord, but also to their people.’ None of us would have needed telling of this if the magisterium had held on to the spirit of Vatican II, and implemented its letter also.

Yet the summary report of the Vatican visitators to Ireland makes no mention of Irish bishops being accountable to their people! The magisterium’s clock is still stuck in 1965, still stuck in Curial fear of any Catholic assembly it cannot control and manipulate. What an ocean of tears has been shed in consequence!

And the letter of Lumen Gentium remains unhonoured to this day. Whatever spirit has determined that, it isn’t the spirit of Vatican II. It isn’t the Holy Spirit either.

Secularism and Hesitant Preaching

Sean O’Conaill  © The Furrow Jul/Aug 2008

“So why don’t we focus on this huge issue for a while, devise policies to deal with it and leave aside tangential issues for the moment?”

This was Vincent Brown in the Irish Times in April 20081Appalling incidence of sexual abuse virtually ignored’, Vincent Browne, Irish Times 23-04-08.  To his great credit his ‘huge issue’ was the awful problem of all forms of sexual violence, as quantified by the SAVI report of 20022The SAVI Report – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, Sponsored by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Published by Liffey Press, 2002.  If its figures are correct, about 1.2 million Irish people are victims – and, as Brown keeps reminding us,  we can’t really suppose that the scale of the problem has diminished significantly since 2002.

But it was the word ‘policies’ that caught my attention, because it seemed totally inadequate to describe what’s needed to get a grip of not just this but a whole series of related problems in Irish life.  A policy is something debated (often endlessly) by pundits and politicians, then promoted to win support,  and then (if adopted) resourced out of taxation.  Given the many claims on the latter in a ‘flat’ economy, given the low-tax climate that a healthy economy supposedly demands, and given the cost of, for example, intensive counselling and psychotherapy, no foreseeable state-sponsored policy on sexual abuse seems remotely capable of addressing the scale of what confronts us in Ireland, even if we isolate just this one problem.

And given the common connection between sexual abuse and the abuse of alcohol and other substances, it’s equally clear that any effective policy on the former would need to address the latter.  And given the connection between substance abuse and the low personal morale often caused by economic insecurity and relationship issues, can we really propose to solve any one such ‘huge issue’ in isolation?

Moreover, what about the moral momentum required to completely change an abusive lifestyle?  How can a policy devised at the state level reach the deepest core of an individual who is experiencing so radical and subterranean a challenge?  Effective state policies can indeed change our external environment for the better, but what about inner, deep-seated dysfunction that so often occurs within the privacy of the home?

In an earlier era in Ireland there would have been a very different kind of response to a crisis of the scale described in the SAVI report – and it would have originated with the church (understanding that term in the widest sense).  The nineteenth century temperance movement is a good example.  It is another reflection of the depth of our current social crisis that we have now apparently no alternative to secular policy to change our society radically for the better  – and that the churches seem incapable of providing that alternative.  (Especially if we focus these days on sexual abuse.)

But in fact political secularism – the atomisation,  rationalisation and politicisation of every problem – is very much part of the fix we are in – because it tends to disempower the ordinary individual in his own space.  Teaching us to delegate everything upwards to politicians and professional experts, it has virtually no power to engage individual citizens in a deep, voluntary commitment to behave honourably, and to join with others spontaneously in doing good, in their own space.  The recent debate on what to do about alcohol abuse and other forms of addiction in Irish life proves this conclusively, because we have not moved one step forward on that issue either.

What is required, then, to mobilise the moral idealism of a society, and especially of its youth?

The problem with the moral programme of the church as we have commonly understood it is twofold.  First, we have not fully grasped the compelling human and community reasons for the most important behavioural boundaries prescribed by our Christian tradition (e.g. the taboo against serious intoxication).  As a result we tend to resent God for making rules that don’t make sense.  We tend to suppose these rules exist for God’s sake rather than for ours – mainly because we mistakenly suppose that God shares our own basic tendency to be self-absorbed.

Secondly, because of this, we have not understood the connection between these boundaries and the church’s basic positive law – the law of love.

To resolve these problems we need to do two things.  The first is to wake up to what our daily news bulletins are telling us:  that all dysfunctional behaviour is abusive of others and of ourselves, and to recognise (i.e. to know anew) all of the most important moral boundaries in those terms.  St Thomas Aquinas’ profoundest observation – that God is not offended until we hurt ourselves – applies to all sin, including sexual sin.  Our society is radically self-harming, and  we urgently need to reconfigure our understanding of sin in those terms .

The second vital connection is to understand why people self-harm.  Congenitally unsure of our own value, we become seriously dysfunctional if our society tells us we don’t have any.  And that is the message we receive daily when the media remind us that we are not important enough to be the source of the images we see.  The teenage girl who cuts herself or starves herself in anger at her inability to fit the ideal media-prescribed body shape unwittingly explains all self-harm.  Secular society (‘the world’) rewards the seeking of attention over the giving of it – and that is precisely why social respect, and self-respect – are so scarce.

And that in turn is why the Christian ‘prime directive’ is to love God first of all – the only reliable source of self-respect – allowing us then to love both ourselves and our neighbours, unconditionally, and to build a mutually respectful community.

It takes only a moment’s reflection to realise that Jesus’ love for the poor was in fact a deep respect for them, as they are.  In teaching us the reverse of that – that respect can only be acquired by upward mobility, by changing ourselves in some way to win the approval of others – secularism both deceives and condemns us to endless frustration and self-harm.

It also disempowers us in our own space by telling us to wait for experts, delegated politicians and their civil servants to come up with a policy that will change everything that ails us.  This is the shell game of secular democracy:  ‘give us power so that we can solve all your problems, and meanwhile wait inertly for us to do so’.  We could wait forever.

To tell someone the reverse of that: that they already have the power, and the obligation, to love themselves and others, now and always, in their own space – and by so doing to change that space radically for themselves and others – is true empowerment of the individual.  And that is essentially what the Gospel is telling us.

Our inability to value ourselves as we are – to love ourselves – lies at the root of every one of the huge problems that secular politics patently cannot solve:

  • Addiction: (This is usually rooted in fear of failure, or in self-hatred or shame, and is best addressed by e.g. the twelve-step programme which restores a realistic and robust sense of self-worth.)
  • Environmental collapse: (The global pursuit of an unsustainable lifestyle is also driven by media-induced shame at not having what the wealthiest have.)
  • Depression: (The challenges of life in an individualistic culture can lead to a critical loss of hope and self-belief– because individualism also leads to a loss of supportive and affirming family and community relationships);
  • Inequality and injustice: (All desire to be superior arises out of a fear of being considered inferior.)
  • Violence: (This is also mostly rooted in competition for dominance out of a fear of inferiority.  Even the violence that arises out of addiction usually has its origins in shame and fear of failure, because that is where most addiction begins.)
  • Abuse: (Self-absorption and lack of empathy also originate in lack of self-love – often due to a serious deficit in early nurturing.  The person who deeply respects himself is most unlikely to disrespect others.  The person who has been deeply loved as a child is most unlikely ever to abuse children.)

There is therefore absolutely no reason for the hesitancy that has overtaken the preaching of the Gospel in Ireland in recent decades, for the common feeling that faith is socially irrelevant, or for the assumption that the future lies with secularism.  There is instead a dire need to seize the initiative by arguing that religious faith, accompanied by reason, can supply the only binding and compelling power available to us to deal directly with the problems of our own local environment as our crisis grows.

We are hindered in doing this presently only by our own inability to connect the Gospels with the problems of our own time and to realise the danger of a force every bit as dangerous as undisciplined sexuality.  This is vanity – the seeking of admiration.  It arises out of our natural inability to value ourselves as we are, and it lies at the root of the widest variety of evils, from rampant careerism (even in the church) to workplace bullying, and consumerism.   It also destroys community and family by leading us into individualism, social climbing and dysfunction.

It is the inability to make these connections that leads to the present chasm between church and society in Ireland.  Clericalism, including lay clericalism, deepens this chasm by fixating on the behaviour that the priest regulates in church, and by disregarding what is equally important – the individual lay person’s role in, and understanding of, the secular world.   We have almost lost the connection between a healthy spirituality and a healthy community, and Catholic education and parish life too often fail to restore that connection when we most need it – when we are adults.

Sadly, although love is not lacking in the church, and many Sunday homilists do indeed convey the importance of love, few ever explore the pervasive pursuit of celebrity in modern culture, or the reasons for it.  I have yet to hear a good homily on the problem of vanity, as revealed in, for example, the debates among the apostles on which of them was the greatest, and in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  No one ever notices the particular problem of the second son (he supposes he will never have the status his father enjoys while he stays at home).  And invariably the reluctance of the rich young man to follow Jesus is supposed to be all about loss of money and security, never about loss of the social status that wealth always provides.

Almost certainly this strange inability to ‘get’ such a constant theme in the Gospels  has to do with the fact that the church is still emerging from a long period of clerical social pre-eminence.  But, now that this period is at an end in the West, why is institutional Catholicism still very much a status pyramid, despite the insistence of Lumen Gentium and Canon Law that we are all equal in dignity?  Do our seminaries fail to ask this question (and to point out that the Gospel answers it) because they too are status pyramids of a kind?

It is time we all understood what was going on in the Gospel when the apostles competed for status – and almost came to blows.  And noticed also that spiritual health always involves a deep consciousness of one’s own dignity and a loss of fear of what others may think. Only when we have understood the vital community role of spiritual health, and of spiritual insight into what is wrong with us – and then commissioned our laity to rebuild their own local communities by loving one another – can we revive our church, and our society.

Notes

  1. ‘Appalling incidence of sexual abuse virtually ignored’, Vincent Browne, Irish Times 23-04-08
  2. The SAVI Report – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, Sponsored by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Published by Liffey Press, 2002.

Catholic Schools: why they are not maintaining the faith

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish News  21st June 2007

 “This will spell the end of Catholicism as a taught programme for good.”

That was one published reaction to recent news of pending inter-faith schools in Northern Ireland. A senior priest in Tyrone has publicly challenged Down and Connor Auxiliary Bishop Donal McKeown for supporting the idea.

But for Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas, nothing is ever taught until something has been deeply learned. This is the principle known to Catholic thought as reception. By contrast, according to a recent poll organised from Dublin, only one in twenty young people on the island can identify the first of the Ten Commandments, and most cannot even name the Blessed Trinity. A clear majority of those young people are products of Catholic schools.

The virtually total absence of young people in the age range 15-35 from Sunday Mass in most of the country tells the same story. So does the experience of Catholic chaplains in our universities – to whom only a small minority of nominally Catholic students ever introduce themselves. What was assiduously presented in Catholic schools over the past several decades was in most cases not received – certainly not at a depth that could retain key doctrine or maintain a lifetime’s interest or commitment from then on.

It is high time that all involved in Catholic education face up to this, and ask a fundamental question. Why should we ever have supposed that Catholic formation could effectively be confined to the years of childhood – the years before childhood faith is tested by further education, secularist challenge, adult trials and adult questions? Why should we ever have thought that greenhousing our children could educate and perpetuate our church?

The answer was provided in 2002 by Cardinal Cahal Daly at a conference in Maynooth. Commenting on the phenomenon of over 90% Mass observance in Ireland until recent decades he observed that beneath “the pleasing surface” of those times there had been “dangers of conformism and routine” and even “sometimes hypocrisy, with people, for reasons of expediency, professing in public views which they rejected in private discussion or contradicted in private behaviour”.

No one is more ready to conform than a child. Catholic religious education as presently managed depends almost entirely upon the compliance of children. This explains not only why Catholic children conform to the Catholic faith norms of their schools, but why they then so quickly conform to the secular faith norms of their society when they leave school.

People of strong faith are never mere conformists: they have been encouraged to ask their own deepest questions, and to find their own faith, in freedom – and this is an adult affair. There is no scriptural evidence that Jesus spent any time instructing children. The virtually complete indifference to adult Catholic faith formation in Ireland (usually a small minority option for the well heeled) has been a tragic miscalculation. That miscalculation occurred because clericalism mistakenly supposed that to educate the child was to educate the adult as well.

It was the mass conformism of Irish Catholicism in the 1960s that misled the Irish Catholic hierarchy into supposing that the reforms of Vatican II weren’t needed in Ireland. These invited lay people to leave the passivity of childhood faith and to adopt an adult role, based upon a theology of church as ‘the people of God’. An era of dialogue and learning at all levels was supposed to ensue.

It never truly did in Ireland. Clericalism – the tendency of too many clergy to prefer the passive compliance of their people – continued to dominate. Clericalism is uncomfortable with dialogue, because dialogue presumes that people will relate as adults. Valuing conformity and docility above all other virtues, clericalism prefers lay people to remain children forever.

So, the huge efforts of well educated teachers to instruct Catholic children in the theology of Vatican II were unsupported by an adult programme that would have allowed the parents of those children to understand and reinforce that theology. A huge gulf developed between the generations. Passive parents, expected to ‘pay, pray and obey’ could not inspire their children with enthusiasm for the same passive role. It is the anticipation of responsibility that primarily motivates learning, and clericalism leaves lay people – parents included – without any real responsibility.

So children whose teachers told them that at Confirmation they became ‘Temples of the Holy Spirit’ soon found that, strangely, they would never have an adult speaking role in their own church. Clericalism insists that ordination trumps all the other sacraments, leaving nothing for lay people to discover or to say.

How then could those children ever rise to the challenge posed by Vatican II to the laity – to ‘consecrate the world to God’? Their parents had never been invited to discuss as adults what that might mean – and their bishops showed no sign of inviting their own generations to do so. So what were we ever educating our children for? The answer was shown in the failure even to develop parish or diocesan pastoral councils in most cases: for perpetual Catholic childhood. No wonder so many former Catholics in Ireland say: “I have outgrown all of that!” 

A radical crisis of continuity now obliges Irish Catholics to completely rethink and reorganise our faith formation system. It is time to refocus that upon adult needs and adult questions, to discover as adults how to be church together – priests and people – and to make parents once more the chief religious educators of their children – while there is still time.

A reflexive resistance to any change – in defence of the failed totem of the segregated Catholic school system – is not the answer. To go on supposing that to instruct the child is also to educate the adult would be to deny a mountain of evidence to the contrary, and to guarantee the disappearance of our Irish Catholic tradition.

Towards a New Evangelism IV: ‘Search’

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2001

Of all the problems facing the church, that of passing on ‘the faith’ to a younger generation seems most intractable, yet most crucial. It is at this point that we come right up against the possibility of an unprecedented discontinuity in Irish life. If young people have now decided almost unanimously against the traditional Catholic vocations to celibate ministries, does this indicate a rejection of Catholicism and Christianity per se?

My experience of Cursillo in Derry led me to an offshoot, a ‘cut down’ version of the Cursillo provided for young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, called ‘Search’. Essentially the same features apply: the presentation, over a weekend, of a lifestyle centred on prayer, study and action; the ‘team’ drawn mostly from the peer group, supported by a few unobtrusive older adults; talks involving personal witness as well as exposition, given mostly by young people themselves. Could this formula possibly succeed among a generation now so much younger than the clerical mean in Ireland?

Again I was astonished by what I found: a complete lack of cynicism and derision; a poise and quiet confidence among the young team that I had never encountered previously in this generation; a willingness to be entirely open about the detours from the moral life that young people are now so endangered by; above all a maturity that proved that Christianity is far from being mere sentimentality and wishful thinking.

I was reminded also that nowadays young people are far from insulated from the horrors that can punctuate life in Northern Ireland – including even sectarian murder. Faith that in the darkest valleys the Lord will be found was as much present in the Search experience as in the Cursillo at Termonbacca.

One feature of Search that does not occur on the Cursillo is the dramatisation of issues such as peer pressure in relation to addictive substances or early sex. These are taken very seriously, an echo of the morality plays of the middle ages – and have enormous potential for development as Irish life becomes more sophisticated.

I was above all impressed by the demeanour of these young people before the Blessed Sacrament. Instead of a stiff formalism imposed by adults and undermined by childish giggles, or embarrassed make-believe, I found a relaxed celebration of a sacred presence, all the more sacred because the Lord was clearly understood above all as patient lover and friend of every individual present. Some sang impromptu to guitar accompaniment, while others knelt praying, or read their bibles. There was no orchestration of this, no monitoring adult presence – and no-one was disturbed by my presence either. People came and went quietly, as inclination took them.

This sense of being individually accepted and loved carried over to the relationships between all those present. The entire social and educational spectrum was covered, but the Lord’s inclusiveness was marvellously realised.

There was also a wonderful rapport between the youthful majority on the team, and their mature guides. The latter rely not upon close control but upon trust, built up for weeks before the weekend in planning and prayer sessions. Search was every bit as ‘horizontal’ as Cursillo. Indeed the gratitude of these young people for the trusting care of their elders was openly expressed in the prayers before the Blessed Sacrament that preceded the adult talks.

Speaking individually to some of the Search team later, I found myself talking to adults proud of their faith. This pride came mainly from a sense of doing important work – of proving the relevance of faith to peers often desperately in need of it. Significantly, all insisted that in the Search ministry (for this is what it is) they had received something their Catholic schooling had failed to provide: a context in which they could witness to their own faith, and receive the support of peers, free of the suspicion that they were merely ‘faking it’ for the approval of adult authority.

The essential element was the deep conviction that the spiritual life accords self-respect, as well as a capacity to be of service to those who can lose all direction in total immersion in current youth culture.

“What does ‘Salvation’ mean to you?” I asked Christine, a twenty-one year old computer student.

“That God loves you,” she said, without hesitation. That knowledge, simply expressed, had been gained almost solely through the Search experience – first as a candidate experiencing a weekend provided by others, and then several times afterwards as a member of the team. Christine is in every respect completely relaxed and natural, articulate and intelligent without any sense of superiority.

Christine is also ecumenically engaged, quite at home with Church of Ireland Christians on their annual Summer youth ‘bash’. This too is as true of Search as of Cursillo: pride in being Catholic does not preclude respect for other Christian traditions. Indeed there is often an honest admiration for the sturdy faith that Ulster Protestantism upholds in a generally cynical world.

As with Cursillo, those who gain most from Search make an ongoing commitment to attend regular meetings for prayer and preparation, becoming effectively part of an evangelising community. This last, is, I am convinced the essential secret of any ‘New Evangelism’ today. An evangelism that does no more than verbally assert the existence of a loving God is worse than useless, as it merely replicates the promise of a thousand commercial ventures to ‘change your life’ without changing the communal context in which it is lived.

Conclusions

Listening to ecclesiastics enthusing about the power of modern media to ‘spread the word’ I wonder how long this mirage will deflect the hierarchical church from the reality of the death of Christendom. That was an era when spectacular ‘conversions’ flowed from the success of the Church in commanding the political and intellectual heights. All of us remember when this was true of Ireland also, when much ‘faith’ was mere conformity by the upwardly aspiring.

Now in Ireland the only powerful church is Cynicism, spilling like acid from a thousand journalistic pens and broadcasts. In the general collapse of respect for all institutions, and their most prominent members, the Irish Catholic church is undergoing its most serious challenge since the Reformation. Indeed, the present challenge to Irish Catholicism is in some respects even more serious than that, for the Reformation was weakened in Ireland by the fact that its missionaries were generally considered lackeys of an alien oppressor, and Irish Catholicism was consequently strengthened by its utility as a badge of cultural and political identity.

With political independence the Catholic hierarchy here assumed the position of the Catholic hierarchy of the European ancien régime – elitist, hostile to modernity, (especially the principle of intellectual freedom), and condescending to the social base. Convinced that control of the intellectual heights and of the educational system would mean security for ever, it failed to take the opportunity to build an open egalitarian church provided by Vatican II – and is now reaping the proper reward of such a policy: the almost total collapse of hierarchical authority.

Yet in many ways those Catholics who still joyously serve are proving that a collapse of hierarchical authority is not a collapse of the authority of the Gospels. Wherever compassion reigns, God reigns also. It is only in the context of genuine compassion – not just mere publicity – that a New Evangelism can flourish. Young people who know this, and act upon it, are tomorrow’s church, and to restore our hope, and our authority, we must simply affirm and follow them – allowing them to teach their peers.

In all the examples I have seen of effective evangelism in Ireland today, it is lay people who play the key role – the peers of those who need convincing of the reality of Christian love. They convince not by virtue of their verbal eloquence or theological sophistication, but by their integrity – the fact that they embody genuine faith and the compassion they attribute to God. They also belong to the most morally challenged society in Ireland.

Northern Ireland is commonly considered the worst advertisement for Christianity in the whole of the west. Yet in the personal crises and traumas that it provides, there is a wealth of experience of the reality of grace. Out of these darkest valleys have come people – old and young – who walk more securely and wisely in their faith than I would have thought possible. This too surely is Good News – a promise that for the Irish church as a whole there will indeed be a resurrection, if we can all learn from the experience of humiliation.

Towards a New Evangelism III: United Christian Aid

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine & Life 2001

In July 1996, at the height of the Drumcree tension, a couple in their fifties were enjoying a holiday in a caravan in Warrenpoint. Michael and Bridie McGoldrick turned on the morning news, to hear that another Catholic taxi driver had been shot dead, this time in Craigavon. Their world stood still, for their only son, also Michael, was driving a taxi at that very time, in that very locality. Within an hour they knew the worst: Michael had been shot by the LVF.

Michael, the parent, says that the two went almost mad with grief. He beat the ground outside their caravan, saying to God “Hanging on the cross was nothing to this!’ They thought of suicide – and even lined up a variety of medicinal drugs for the purpose. But then they remembered that Michael had a wife and daughter, and that there was another child on the way. They turned to prayer instead.

On the day of the funeral, as Michael touched his son for the last time – saying he would see him again in heaven – some power changed him. He was then not only able to help carry his son’s coffin in and out of the chapel, but to bear the full weight of the blow that had fallen. He went to the cameras and microphones of the assembled media and forgave the murderers of his son. Facing the danger of retaliation, at a time of extreme tension in that very locality, he appealed for restraint: “Bury your pride with my boy!”

Michael is the least histrionic of men. I know this now, for I have known him closely for about three years. His description of the extraordinary emotional transitions of those days sounds like something out of Willam James’s ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’. Yet it is the settled nature of his life now that impresses me most.

Richard Rohr observes that western Christianity is currently at a fundamental crisis: it will either move from theory to practice, or perish. We need to understand that inertia – but also we need to know that it is altogether possible to move beyond it, and what can happen when we do. Michael and his close friend Tom Lennon are the most astonishing example I know.

Tom is a Mayoman who almost died of peritonitis in his youth, and never fully recovered. He developed a deep commitment to prayer, believing that God wanted something from him, something beyond the raising of a family and the making of a living.

The plight of Eastern Europe in the 90s moved him to start a charity – United Christian Aid. It would gather from both communities in Ireland whatever anyone would give him. He had a dual purpose – to heal divisions in Northern Ireland by focusing our minds on the far worse material plight of the people suffering in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Empire, and to take aid from Ireland out there. He opened a map of eastern Europe for the first time, and headed for the Ukraine.

He quickly learned of all the pitfalls of such an enterprise – of the corruption of frontier officials who always had to have a piece of the action, of the difficulty of finding reliable helpers and administrators in a society where an ethic of ‘me first’ had taken hold on so many. Of the physical dangers of bad roads and bad food and dangerous nights in unlit streets, among people whose language he couldn’t even speak. Yet he persevered, learning from all of this.

And then one night, when he had explained his purpose to a small audience in Lurgan, a middle-aged man came forward and told him ‘I couldn’t do what you do!’ ‘Of course you could!’ said Tom, and began explaining how. He was talking to Michael McGoldrick. The two struck up a strong friendship, and now jointly run UCA.

Tom was by now focusing his efforts on Romania. He and Michael went out there in 1997 and decided upon an even narrower focus: just one town in eastern Romania – they eventually settled for Cernavoda. His first visit turned Michael into a dynamo. There is nowhere in Northern Ireland he is not now willing to drive the royal blue UCA transit van, no-one he will not talk to.

He came to Coleraine for the first time in 1998 – where I heard him tell his story. I was by now myself committed, and Cursillo had taught me a little humility. I was also fascinated by Eastern Europe. Our house became a depot for the bags of clothing and other goods people now wanted to give him, and we struck up a firm friendship.

He and Bridie would sit at our table and Michael would say “We’re just ….. normal!”. The pause was for emphasis. There is no trace of ‘look at us’ in these two. They are simply in love with the people of Cernavoda, whom it is normal, as well as necessary, to help.

They speak often of a Roma woman called Mrs Nikolai, who, when they met her, was trying to raise a family of six in one half of a stable. No-one occupied the other half – because it didn’t exist – two walls were missing. She had once delivered one of her children in a hospital where the staff, including a doctor, conspired to steal it from her, telling her it had died. She suspected the lie, and refused to leave without it. She had her way.

To understand this you need to know that Romania is a deeply layered society, in which the Roma (daftly named ‘gypsies’ by us westerners) are at the bottom of the heap. ‘Thieves’ and ‘murderers’ to many in the settled community, they occupy the social position of our travellers – always available as scapegoats for whatever anyone might need to blame someone else for. A quick search on the Web will tell you anything more you need to know.

Mrs Nikolai, who is an Orthodox Christian, now has her own house, gifted by UCA. They simply gave her the money to buy it – to the astonishment of educated Romanian Catholics. They were certain she would simply drink herself to death in a society where alcohol occupies the place it did in Ireland in the early years of this century – a social anaesthetic for people who have no other way of fulfilling their dreams.

She didn’t, for her dream was simply any kind of house with four walls – and now she has enough capital to run a small clothing retailing business – buying the clothes not from UCA but from Romanian sources. “You changed my world forever,” she tells Michael.

Cernavoda is on the lower Danube navigation system. Meaning ‘Dark Water’, it was fairly prosperous when a navigation canal, complete with massive locks, was being built through it in the Ceausescu era. Now its only dubious claim to fame is a nuclear power plant, built by Canadians. It has a population of about 30,000, mostly Orthodox, most of whom would have to drive right by the reactor if some emergency forced them to flee. What would happen if the Nuclear plant was the cause of the emergency? Tough. A bridge is to be built to provide an alternative escape route – but there is no sign of it being finished at a time when the Romanian economy is contracting.

Which means, of course, that prayer seems to be an entirely reasonable option in Cernavoda, where there is little employment, virtually no social welfare or health service, and where the winter temperature can fall to 15 below. On the (often wooden or mud) walls Christians put simple hanging tapestries of gospel scenes – the Good Shepherd is a favourite.

For many of them, Tom and Michael are good shepherds, renewing a faith that came westward to us almost sixteen centuries ago. Michael once told the mother of a family of eight to pray hard. “Why should I?” She asked. “God has never done anything for me!”

“Why do you think we are here?” asked Michael, watching as she pondered and understood this. Virtually her only reliable income was the Romanian equivalent of £20 sterling monthly – family sponsorship from UCA.

This is the point of this story. The words and truths of the gospel are beautiful – but wealthy westerners – and most of us are millionaires by Romanian standards – need to show those words have meaning when they think of evangelising the rest of the world. What would we sacrifice in order to convince anyone of their truth? Is there anything we would not give to do so? If so, how convinced are we?

So this spiritual commerce is overwhelmingly to the benefit of us westerners also when we make this journey eastwards. Our money buys almost three times as much in Romania as in Ireland – which means that very little of it can make an astonishing difference to the wellbeing, material and spiritual, of a Romanian family. The families in Northern Ireland who now sponsor Cernavodan families are kept abreast of all developments by UCA’s Romanian helpers, and by Michael and Tom’s bi-monthly visits. East and west are linked to the great benefit of both.

UCA will never rival the major charities – but that is not the point. It shows that Christianity moves people as nothing else can – in their hearts and souls first – and then in their bodies. As Michael says, the real mystery is why so many in Ireland remain unmoved by their faith.

The probability is that our own social layering, combined with the rising economic tide of the second half of the century, has made us add, time after time, new luxuries to our store of necessities. We must have what our status entitles us to. It takes an almighty shock to make us realise that Christianity is fundamentally a challenge to the whole hidden ideology of status that drives our economic advance.

To put it at its simplest, every single human life and person is infinitely precious and to be loved. If we deny this by denying that people come before wealth, we deny the faith we verbally profess, and make it bankrupt.

Intellectuals often make much show of compassion for the pain of the poor when they reject Christian belief – but intellectuals too are victims of the pride that dominates us. They ignore the fact that it is usually those who have suffered most whose faith is strongest. This is true especially of these two men, whose faith and love do so much to restore the dignity of an Irish Catholicism that is completely worthy of Columba and Columbanus. They too speak eloquently, far away from Ireland, of the power of the Trinity to change the heart, and then the world – and there are many like them in Ireland today.

Theological sophistication in the articulation of faith comes nowhere near what a ‘new evangelisation’ requires today – because the essential task is to close the chasm between the word and the deed – to demonstrate an unconditional compassion which will in the end restore good cheer, and an equal dignity, to all the peoples of the world, as UCA is doing. When this is done in the Lord’s name, the essence of Christian theology is being conveyed – more effectively than by the greatest academic theologian.

There is something else to be said. Christianity’s long dalliance with the state has had a devastating effect upon the manner in which we interpret the fatherhood of God. In the middle ages, to explain the crucifixion, theologians came to associate it with a need to restore dignity to the Father, whom sin dishonours – just as medieval kings were thought to be dishonoured by the disloyalty of their subjects. Inevitably this came in time to separate son from father in the mind of many Christians, for it seemed to imply that although the son could be infinitely forgiving, the father could not. This complicated Christian theology, and out of this complication arose many Christian divisions, and Christian fundamentalism.

What if the father is as forgiving, and as gentle as the son? What if the crucifixion is instead to be explained as the father’s ultimate gift – of his son, despite the humiliation involved in his death, a humiliation experienced by the father also, and accepted out of love for all of us – a love as great as the son’s?

Then those six words “Bury your pride with my boy!” would be his words also – words given as a gift to all on this island, in recompense for all our pain, and all our lost sons – the most perfect summary of the gospels in the English language.

Michael still hopes to meet someday the father of the murdered founder of the LVF, Billy Wright – to shake his hand in recognition of a common sorrow, and a common faith in resurrection.

Disempowerment in the Church

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 1998

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

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

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

Jesus disempowered himself

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

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

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

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

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

Reclaiming Secularism

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

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

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

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

Rethinking authority and obedience in the Church

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

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

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

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

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

The nature of authority today

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

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

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

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

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

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

The significance of the Internet

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

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

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

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

Authority and the individual

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

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

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

The challenge in Ireland

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