Tag Archives: competition

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: V – Snobbery and the Gospels

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

‘Master, we know … that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you …’ (Matt 22:16)

Jesus did not value people for their social status or wealth. It is surely this characteristic above all that draws most of us to him. We cannot read more than a few chapters of any one of the Gospels without realising that here was someone who never looked down his nose at humble people – someone who was always drawn to those ‘the world’ despised.

Not only was Jesus not a snob, he was an anti-snob. He took on the world’s pyramid of esteem – topped as usual by religious and political elites – and revealed its pretentiousness.

To get a complete mental fix on ‘snobbery’ we can think of a phrase that provided the title of a recent book of popular philosophy:  Status Anxiety*. Those who suffer from snobbery are insecure in their self-esteem, so they need the esteem of others, especially of those ‘highly placed’. The more social esteem they have, the higher their supposed status. They are perpetually anxious about this status.

Hyacinth Bucket of the TV comedy series Keeping Up Appearances is a classic snob. Terrified that someone might suppose her to be ‘lower class’ she insists on pronouncing her name ‘Bouquet’.  She collects prestige china, and visits English stately homes in the hope of meeting their aristocratic owners. The actress who plays Hyacinth, Patricia Routledge, catches perfectly a recognizable type of middle aged, well-to-do suburban Englishwoman.

We can’t be certain of the precise origin of the word ‘snob’, but it may have come from the abbreviation ‘s.nob.’ (for sine nobilitate – ‘without nobility’, a ‘commoner’) written in the 1820s opposite the names of Oxford and Cambridge university students who were not well connected.

To put that kind of ‘nobility’ in perspective we need to remember that aristocratic titles were originally granted to those who performed some service for a medieval king – and that the special talent of medieval kings was for murdering peasants en masse in the gentlemanly sport known as warfare. The original aristocrats in France were called ‘the nobility of the sword’ for this reason. These medieval ‘knights’ were very effective mass murderers because they encased themselves in steel armour – an advantage not bestowed upon the unlucky peasantry.

The Roman nobility of Jesus’ time – especially the Caesars – were equally implicated in mass murder. Knowing this perfectly well, Jesus was not in awe of them – or of the Jewish religious elites either. He recognised all elitism for what it was – a pretence at superiority, and a source of violence and injustice.

Alain deBotton, the author of Status Anxiety, notes that Christianity has usually managed to convey to Christians that they are equal in the sight of God. He also points out, however, that the churches were mostly unsuccessful in levelling the social status pyramids outside the walls of churches and monasteries.

The reason for this is fairly simple. By the year 312 the Christian community in the Roman empire had acquired considerable size, wealth and prestige. In that year a contestant for the imperial throne named Constantine decided to win over the Christians to his own political cause. He did what imperial candidates almost always did in this situation. He claimed an encounter with a God.

This vision was different, however, because Constantine claimed he had met not a pagan god such as Apollo, but Jesus Christ. The latter had shown him (he said) a vision of the cross, and, inscribed in the heavens above it in Latin, the words “In this sign, conquer.”

Today we can say with complete certainty that this vision was not genuine. Constantine never read the Gospels, and supposed that the God of the Christians was not unlike Mars, the Roman God of war. This militaristic Christ was completely out of character with the gentle person who waved away the sword of Peter in Gethsemane. He was also out of sync with the pacifism of the many Christian martyrs willing to suffer death rather than serve in the Roman army in the early centuries of the church.

This ‘vision’ was also the decisive event in the heretical identification of the Christian cross with the sword of the crusader and the imperial conqueror. It was, in other words, the historical source of the many centuries of murderous ‘Christian’ scandal for which Pope John Paul II felt obliged to ask pardon before the whole world in the year 2000.

Yet the Christian bishops of 312 swallowed Constantine’s story whole. Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (the ‘father’ of Church history) applauded Constantine (who went on to murder his wife and eldest son – after his ‘conversion’) in the most sickening terms. Eusebius was therefore also the true ‘father’ of Catholic snobbery – a disease that has disfigured the church ever since.

The spectacular conversion of Constantine set a new fashion for conversion of the military elites of first the Roman empire, and then of the barbarian states which followed it. Everywhere over the next five centuries the church fell under the power of rulers who were usually entirely ignorant of the Gospels. Sadly, some Christian thinkers adapted easily to this situation, developing theological ideas which portrayed God himself as an almighty snob who demanded ‘satisfaction’ for sin.

We can call this process the secularisation, or worldly contamination, of the church, because soon enough its bishops were part of this worldly aristocracy. As kings could often appoint bishops, they usually appointed the younger sons of the aristocracy. The popes themselves became political rulers – engaging in warfare, territorial acquisition and political intrigue. This system, called ‘Christendom’, baptised social inequality and so bore absolutely no resemblance to the ‘Kingdom of God’ that Jesus had described, but the illiteracy of most people in the Middle Ages prevented them from realizing this.

All over Europe, and in Ireland too, Christian missionaries placed the highest priority on the ‘conversion’ of the ruling classes. They ignored the fact that in most cases these conversions were merely a matter of snobbish imitation of those who set all trends – the powerful. Inevitably these aristocrats were taught to see their own good fortune as ‘God’s will’, and therefore to see the bad luck of their inferiors as ‘God’s will’ also. To pacify the latter, ‘salvation’ – which was for Jesus a new life that could begin anytime – was misrepresented as beginning only after death. In that way the miseries of the lives of ordinary people in aristocratic societies were justified.

Nevertheless, the story of Jesus – the king born in a stable who shared the lot of the least powerful – somehow kept alive for the poorest in Europe a dream of a better world. In the Middle Ages one reader of the Bible came up with the verses ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’  Inspired by stories from the Bible he (or she) was asking if God really approved of social inequality – and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was insistently raising the same question.

In the 1700s, following a scientific and economic revolution, a new educated lay elite emerged in Europe. Opposed to aristocratic bishops, it was determined to build a new world on the principles of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. Although Pope John Paul II admitted in 1989 that these values were also Gospel values, his predecessors in the period 1789-1900 condemned this revolutionary programme out of hand. The reason was that almost all bishops (popes included) were drawn still from the European nobility.

That is why modern egalitarianism (the movement towards social equality) tends to see Christianity as a force opposed to equality. It is also the main reason for the Catholic hierarchy’s dislike of liberalism and socialism – because these movements have greatly weakened the intellectual influence of the clerical church over the past two centuries.

However, two centuries after the birth of secular liberalism, western secular society today is still almost as unequal as the Church. Why is this?

The answer is that Status Anxiety (which Jesus called simply the power of ‘the world’) compels us to compete with one another. It is, in fact, the explanation for the biblical sin of  covetousness. We seek self-esteem through raising our status by greater wealth or celebrity. This inevitably means that we compete and conflict with one another. This is the everlasting problem of our species – and it now threatens the survival of our planet by involving us in endless competitive consumerism.

No longer based mainly on success in warfare, our status pyramids today are ‘meritocracies’ – ruled by those who have turned knowledge itself into wealth and power. The world’s most moneyed individual, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft – the supplier of the basic software for most of the world’s microcomputers – is a perfect example.

And our ‘poor in spirit’ are those who watch this parade of ‘success’ from the shadows of our urban wastelands. Their handicap is their own lack of talent for worldly competition, for winning these ‘glittering prizes’ of the twenty-first century.

There is only one solution to the problem of Status Anxiety – a solution that many in the secular world are now also pursuing: spirituality – a way of being that frees us from the compulsion to seek the approval of others.

The greatest spiritual teachers in all traditions have somehow made contact with a spiritual dimension that raised them to a new level of being – in which we realise that no-one ever truly has higher status than anyone else. All of them shared one outstanding characteristic: they were so secure in their own self-esteem that they had lost all snobbery. St Francis of Assisi was a typical example.

The greatest of all was Jesus of Nazareth, who died to bring all of us into relationship with this dimension. He knew that its ruler was none other than the heavenly father of the Old Testament prophets – the father he called ‘Abba’ – Dad.

The result of all status-seeking throughout history is a power pyramid that crushes the losers and tempts the winners to self-destruct. The Gospels reveal this truth to us, and invite us into relationship with the Father and the Son – through the Spirit who dwells within the heart and mind of those who truly seek this relationship.

Only in this relationship with the Trinity can we Christians, working alongside all those with a similar vision, build together – slowly – a truly peaceful, just, free and equal world.

Jesus called that ideal and spiritual world ‘the Kingdom of God’.

*Alain deBotton, Status Anxiety, Hamish Hamilton 2004

Views: 40

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: III – A Portable Faith

Sean O’Conaill © Reality, 2004

Terrified and alone, a fifteen-year-old boy once stood on a hillside in Ireland and stared into the immense emptiness of the night sky. His life hung by a thread: the tolerance of strangers who now owned him as a slave and might kill him at any time. Those who loved him were far away, on the other side of the sea. Probably by now they had given him up for dead, and were praying for his soul.

But was he totally alone? His parents had assured him it was never so, for everywhere on earth was the true domain of the Great Ones who could be called to the aid of the afflicted. What was that his mother had said once when he was only half-listening?

“Though you walk in the valley of the shadow of death, no evil need you fear: his rod and his staff will protect you. Just call him then, and you will see!”

With nothing to lose, the boy called out then – not so loud as to alarm the animals he tended, or the humans further off.

“O Lord of heaven and earth, come to my aid! Ward off from me all danger, and bring me home at last!”

Nothing happened, it seemed. The sky was still as empty as it had been. But, strangely, the boy felt less afraid. Deep inside he felt a sense of warmth: much as he had felt once when he had fallen heavily as a child and been lifted and hugged tight by his father.

Encouraged the boy then began to pray as his mother had taught him: Our Father, who art in Heaven …

And as he did so, through wind and rain, his confidence grew that the Great Ones, the Trinity, were holding him close and guarding his life. They were greater than the Gods his captors prayed to, for they were a unity, not a constantly competing and bickering family – like the human family of wild Irish who now owned Patrick and held his life in their rough and callous hands.

~oOo~

This is just one way of telling a tale that Patrick, the Roman Briton, would tell one day in his own way. But what does virtually every Catholic chapel in Ireland do with this story? It makes of this teenager an aging patriarch, over-dressed in mitre and green chasuble – a stiff bishop in full regalia. This is a most ghastly miscalculation that makes it virtually impossible for any teenage boy today to identify fully with Ireland’s patron saint.

And this at a time when Ireland is full of lost boys, all searching for a heroic model. They can find one in Luke Skywalker of the Star Wars fantasies, or in Prince Aragorn – or the ring-bearer Frodo – of the Lord of the Rings – but not in Patrick of Ireland, or even Jesus of Nazareth himself.

Why not?

Because Irish clericalism tends to clericalise all Christian heroes.  Patrick never actually wore a mitre, because mitres didn’t exist for another six hundred years after his death. But those who selected the icons of Catholic Ireland in the nineteenth century were all patriarchal clerics, so Patrick became, fatally for the Church, a patriarchal cleric.

And so the most extraordinary and inspirational fact about Ireland’s early Christian history has almost been lost:  that it was into the heart and mind of an unordained teenager that the Trinity came most powerfully to Ireland first, in the fifth century after Christ.

As someone who taught teenagers in Catholic schools for thirty years, I am now greatly concerned about the drift of young people from faith and practice. It is as though Anthony de Mello is absolutely correct in his assessment of most Catholic child education.  “We inoculate the young with religion – so that they won’t catch it when they become adults!”

Yet, to be sure, there are interesting and vital exceptions.

“What do you think it all means then?” I once asked Christine, a twenty-one year old computer science student.

“God loves ye!” she replied, after no more than a moment’s hesitation.

The manner in which she said this conveyed far more than any three words usually do – especially that there is indeed a loving transcendent spiritual being who is accessible to us, and whose love is both universal and unconditional.

Christine obviously felt confident not only that she was loved by this being, but that everyone else was also. So confident that she could say so to me, a virtual stranger, and to anyone else who might need that truth.

The great tragedy of Irish Catholicism today is that, despite the immense effort we have put into Catholic education, so few adults have Christine’s grasp of the Gospels, or Christine’s confidence that they can communicate it in the simplest of language.

In my final years as a secondary teacher I was increasingly struck by how tongue-tied and embarrassed our senior pupils could get when asked the question I had asked Christine. Although all had been selected at the age of eleven for their intelligence, it was as though they believed they had been asked a question they couldn’t presume to answer, as though the art of summary was inappropriate when applied to anything as weighty as Catholic doctrine.

After all, the Church’s own summary of its teaching, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, runs to almost seven hundred pages. So anxious are our bishops to teach everything, and to avoid error, that nothing less will do. The unintended effect of all this is to intimidate most of us laity, rather than to make us confident that we know what it’s all about. And so we have become a tongue-tied people.

Not simply tongue-tied but paralysed, it seems, for many of us lack the confidence to express the love of God by loving one another. Indeed there are many still who seem to believe that being a Catholic is all about being right . That is, they seem to believe that they own the truth – a truth that gives them a privileged relationship with God. And that everyone else is to be pitied for their ignorance of it.

But the Church teaches that all truth is part of a hierarchy. This means simply that all of the books that have ever been written about the faith are an elaboration, or working out, of higher truths to be found in the Bible and in the Church’s own traditional interpretation of it.

Jesus himself said “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”. He said also that children would understand him better than adults, so it is more than likely that at the summit of the church’s hierarchy of truth there is something very simple and portable.

Something like Christine’s “God loves you!”

Certainly these days we Catholics need a portable faith – something we can carry lightly as a source of happiness and wisdom for ourselves and others. The authoritarianism of the hierarchical church, and the huge range of its published teachings, can be immensely burdensome and intimidating for anyone, and this is a problem that desperately needs to be resolved.

A true story told by Fr Owen O’Sullivan O.F.M. in his book The Silent Schism makes this point better than I ever could. Forced to withdraw from a region on the frontiers of Angola in the 1980s, due to the spread of civil war, he and his missionary colleagues tried to foster lay leadership by photocopying the daily mass readings and leaving these with literate lay leaders who might not see another priest for years.

When the priests returned after an interval of many months they found that a group of four small churches had somehow become twenty.

When they asked how this had happened they were told by the lay leaders that one Sunday the gospel reading had told the story of the disciples sent out by Jesus to spread news of the kingdom, and of how they had brought the simple message “Peace!” to the surrounding villages. Wasn’t this the message that their own region of Africa needed just then, and couldn’t they do the same? So they did, with the result the priests had now found their church had expanded more quickly driven by inexpert lay enthusiasm, than it ever had through expert priestly evangelisation.

This story strongly suggests that what everyone essentially needs to know is that a relationship with Jesus is the source of all lasting peace and happiness and that whatever other questions we may have, he will provide the answers either in the church’s published teachings, or in the personal wisdom of someone he will help us to meet.

One ancient source of such wisdom is the summary of faith that Catholics repeat every Sunday at Mass – the Nicene Creed. The Apostles Creed often said as part of the Rosary is a simpler version. However, because we all learn these as children they are almost boringly familiar to us. Every Catholic today who seriously wishes to develop a personal, portable understanding of the faith must take a totally new look at these prayers to see what they are saying.

Although they were originally drawn up to put an end to disputes about basic truths that convulsed the early Church, and although they describe a physical universe that modern science and space travel has exploded, the Creed tells a simple true story with one overriding idea: compassion. The Great Ones that Patrick prayed to are determined to rescue us from our own misuse of the freedom they give us – especially our tendency to victimise one another in our struggles for recognition and power. The apostles themselves shared this weakness – as they revealed when they asked Jesus:“Which of us is the greatest?”

Jesus asks every one of us a different question: “What would happen to the world if everyone instead wished to be the least?”

He asks us that by living the answer – by showing infinite compassion for all the victims of the human search for wealth and power, and by becoming such a victim himself.

No age has ever been more competitive than our own. And no age has ever had more victims than this one. Meanwhile many of our most advanced scientists and philosophers assure us that life has no meaning – that it is merely the product of billions of years of Darwinian evolution. The wisest of them tell us that we must ourselves construct our own meaning.

But Patrick was wiser still. That lost teenage boy trusted to what his parents had taught him – in essence the truths related in the Nicene Creed – that there is a power above that is interested in us, that can change and inspire us – and give us the courage to meet all of the crises of life. We need simply trust in the Lord, and pray.

That portable faith is the secure foundation of all that we need now, in the deepest Catholic crisis in Irish history.

Views: 36