Tag Archives: Crisis

When will Ireland hear the whistle?

Today we learn from the Tablet that Pope Francis has again explained to a bishop facing a manpower crisis  “that he could not take everything in hand personally from Rome … that  local bishops, who are best acquainted with the needs of our faithful, should be corajudos, that is ‘courageous’ in Spanish, and make concrete suggestions”.   And that “regional and national bishops’ conferences should seek and find consensus on reform and … should then bring up … suggestions for reform in Rome”.

The Pope was speaking to Bishop Erwin Kräutler, Bishop of Xingu in the Brazilian rainforest.

And the topic of conversation?    “The issue of the ordination of “proven” married men – viri probati.” 

Click here for the full Tablet article.

This is not the first clear signal from Rome to the Irish Bishops’ Conference to start thinking for itself.  Surely also there is a need for a European bishops’ conference – to seek consensus on solutions to their own critical manpower crisis.

That crisis deepens another – the crisis of morale.  And the morale of the Irish church generally is very seriously challenged by the apparent reluctance of Irish bishops to hear and respond to the clear call to their own spirit of courage and initiative.  And not just on this particular issue.

So when will our bishops begin to show that they are not deliberately deaf?

 

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Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: I – Crisis

Sean O’Conaill © Copyright Reality 2004

“Let’s face it – the Catholic Church is on its way out wherever economic progress and universal education take hold. It is a relic of the distant past when uneducated people needed to believe in a superior being up in the sky and priests to do their thinking for them. It has no place in the twenty-first century. In Ireland, where the power of clergy has finally been broken, it will soon be a distant memory.”

This seems to be the shared opinion of most of Ireland’s media pundits these days. Resentful of the power of clergy to dominate the educational system, and even to control politicians as late as the 1980s, Ireland’s mostly anticlerical intellectuals were delighted to see Irish Catholic bishops score a series of devastating own goals in the 1990s. This process continued into the third millennium. In September 2003 Fintan O’Toole declared in the Irish Times that the struggle he and other liberal and leftist intellectuals had waged since the 1960s against the influence of the Irish Catholic hierarchy was virtually over, with victory going to his side of the argument.

Now lay Catholics themselves can list a hatful of critical problems that together seem destined to sideline their church, making it even less influential here than the Church of England next door. Here are ten that seem to me to be of special importance.

First, a series of media scandals has undermined the moral authority of Catholic bishops, the supreme teachers in the Church. The policy of concealment of the sexual abuse of Irish Catholic children by some priests, coupled with the frequent absence of Christian love in the treatment of victims and their families – has shocked the Catholic laity far more deeply than the abuse itself. In the absence of any other explanation by the bishops, laity are forced to conclude that the first priority of Catholic leadership was, in too many cases, to preserve the public image and prestige of clergy generally, rather than to protect the innocence of children and to obey the great command of the Gospels – the law of love. This has shattered the bond of trust that led laity to respect Catholic teaching on, for example, the importance of the family, the dignity of every human being, and sexual matters generally. It’s not clear what the bishop’s crosier symbolises anymore, if it doesn’t mean that children will always come first.

Second, the ability of the Catholic clergy to attract young men into their ranks, already weakening in the early 1990s, has collapsed altogether in the wake of these scandals. This now affects all the religious orders, as well as the diocesan clergy. Moreover, the rapid economic growth of the 1990s has made the career of a celibate priest increasingly less attractive especially when priests themselves complain about poor leadership and too little room for initiative. As clergy have – at least in the experience of everyone now alive – always run the church, how can it survive if there aren’t any?

Third, older clergy often seem ill equipped to explain how Catholic belief is relevant to the needs and questions of lay people today. The Creeds were written over fifteen hundred years ago. What do they mean in a world of mobile phones and universal education? What do they have to do with the problems of raising teenagers whose minds are tuned in to Hollywood, science fiction and the music industry? How do they help in grappling with problems such as addiction, depression and suicide? A generally aging clergy seem more and more out of touch with the minds of rising generations. Too often they don’t either like or understand youth culture, and can’t seem to get through. Too often they complain about the modern world and seem to want to live in the past. That’s often why so many teenagers can’t stick weekly Mass anymore: they find it boring and meaningless.

Fourth, despite the hierarchy’s verbal emphasis on human dignity, lay people are not equally respected in their own church. They are talked at, not listened to. The wisdom and concerns of women especially get no hearing. Parents have not been invited to discuss with clergy the growing problem of influencing young people who are now targeted by culture-changing and alien commercial influences. Most bishops avoid occasions where they will be questioned by lay people, or obliged to listen to them. This makes it impossible for parents to defend Catholic teaching effectively. It seems to prove also that secular culture – where the intelligence of lay people is equally respected – is superior, even in Christian terms.

Fifth, clergy generally are either unhealthily hung up on sex, or unwilling or unable to talk about it. The sexual scandals, and the problems that many priests obviously have with celibacy, have seriously undermined the credibility of the official policy on, for example, birth control – which very few lay people can understand. When teenagers are taught that cohabitation offends God as much as genocide they fall about laughing. This makes many of them wonder about abortion too, and whether their Church is really committed to fighting Aids. The Church has lost its persuasiveness on sexual issues at the very time when clear, balanced sensible teaching is really needed.

Sixth, this clerical hang-up on sex has tended to create a false popular impression that Catholicism has more to do with sexual repression than liberation of the spirit and enlightenment of the mind. This is partly why the growing secular interest in spirituality has led many to suppose that the Bible is a less useful source than oriental mysticism. Furthermore, lay people often get the impression that they are considered spiritually second rate by clerics because they are not celibate. A recent beatification reinforced this impression by emphasizing that the beatified couple had slept separately for decades before death. Such events make Catholicism more the butt of crude TV humour than an object of curiosity and respect. More seriously, they erode the dignity and morale of Catholic parents who have every reason to believe that spirituality and a full sexual relationship are as complementary and compatible now as they were in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

Seventh, the secular world allows lay people to look together freely for solutions to the great problems of today – depression and addiction, for example. It has even empowered young people whom the church has harmed and then tried to forget about. It gives them the freedom to organise and to support one another. The clerical church, on the other hand, seems afraid of freedom, of letting lay people organize freely. Laity anxious to be active in their church far too often find that, if they try to take some initiative, someone will soon tell them the priest or the bishop won’t like it. (To be fair, it is too often another lay person who tells them that.)

Eighth, even where effective priests get lay people working together in parishes discussing the Bible, say, that priest can be changed by the bishop without asking anyone, and his replacement may well decide he doesn’t want that group to continue. It folds up straight away. This makes lay people despair. Parishes need some kind of permanent structure that will give lay people an enduring role and provide continuity in parish life – but there’s no sign of this yet.

Ninth, despite generations of Catholic control of education, Catholic thought has now virtually no prestige in secular Ireland. Worse still, most of those in whom the Church invested its greatest educational efforts – the children of the middle classes – have shown virtually no commitment as adults to social justice. They now support a political culture that privileges themselves at the expense of the poorest underclass in western Europe. Although often nominally Catholic still, most take little part in church life, and are content to complain from the sidelines. Irish Catholic education requires a complete reappraisal on these grounds alone.

Another argument for this is that a Catholic formation that ended for most adults in their teens is inadequate to carry them through life, especially in a rapidly changing culture. Now, as adults, with much more experience of life, they have new questions, and a need to update their ideas. However, Catholic adult education is in very short supply and even where it exists it too often works on the old one-way pattern, with people being handed the Catechism, for example, and told to learn that. Parents can’t be expected simply to parrot answers when young people will ask: “What do [you] really believe?” We need far better adult education, focused upon real problems and involving completely free discussion. There’s no sign of that happening either.

Reconsideration of the Irish church’s entire educational effort is especially important in light of the specific mission given to the laity by Vatican II: to consecrate the world to God . If laity are to understand this mission and begin to carry it out together, they need to be called together to discern and discuss its many implications, and their own role. Many educated and once-committed lay people have lost hope that this will ever happen. Many have also abandoned the church as a consequence.

Tenth, the church generally seems deeply divided between ‘liberals’ who want more change, and ‘conservatives’ who think that change has already gone too far. These differences are so wide it’s sometimes difficult to see how the church can hold together.

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No doubt, some of you will disagree with this list of problems, or the way they are described – and others may see other problems I have missed. If so, why not pitch in with your point of view?

I will be approaching these problems not as an expert theologian but as a layman with a lay perspective. What I have to say will be both challenging and in need of challenge, because none of us has a monopoly of wisdom. We inherit a great tradition, but have difficulty in discerning what it is asking of us in a rapidly changing world. The mind and insight and enthusiasm of the whole people of God need somehow to be engaged if we are to rise to the enormous problems that now face us all.

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Reprieve!

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality 2003

My two-month course of chemotherapy intended to stop the spread of cancer in the lymph system ended in mid August 2003. Another CT Scan followed in early September. It found that the cancerous nodes in the lymph had indeed been reduced, and that an operation to remove a cancerous bladder could go ahead.

This was the first indication that I could indeed be cured of cancer, that I was no longer in the ‘departure lounge’, and that I could hope for a resumption of normal life. Naturally I was relieved – but the experience of the nearness of death had changed me. I found that I wanted above all to remember that experience in all of its detail, not to escape from it.

The reason was that as a writer I had discovered the validity of what my church had always taught: the reality of a mysterious presence just beyond the range of our normal perception, available to us in time of greatest peril, especially when we come to evaluate our own lives. Trusting to that reality I had given myself to it completely, and then experienced also its power to heal our bodily ills as well as our closest relationships. I wanted above all to maintain contact with that reality.

The operation that followed involved major surgery. In a four-hour procedure, the cancerous bladder was removed. Then a 40 cm section of the smaller intestine was excised and formed into a new reservoir, connected to the kidneys and urethra. This has become the standard procedure to deal with bladder failure in the US and continental Europe, but it is comparatively new in Ireland.

I awoke to find myself seriously weakened and surrounded by infusion drips, with several tubes draining the new reservoir to allow it to seal itself before becoming fully employed. I felt as though I had suddenly become many times heavier, as it took an immense effort to accomplish even the slightest movement of an arm or a leg.

This was my time of greatest dependence, as I could not move, wash or even drink without help. When the human bowel is handled by a surgeon, it shuts down completely, refusing even to receive the contents of the stomach. In my case this meant that the saline infusion gathered in my stomach, creating an intense pressure. There was only one way of relieving this – by passing a tube through my nose into my oesophagus, and from there into my stomach. My very worst hours now followed, as I had to try to sleep with this tube in place, attached to my nose and impeding even my ability to swallow.

It would be great to be able to report that even in this crisis my faith and serenity were unaffected – but the truth was otherwise. I suffered, and there was no way round this. I could, and did, pray – but I was overwhelmed by the bodily pain and discomfort that enveloped me, and I experienced, at times, a profound despair.

I am now convinced that anaesthesia does not allow the human body to escape the effects of the deep trauma involved in the excision of a major organ. I felt as a child feels in the aftermath of a heavy blow: traumatised and expecting further similar blows – and unable to dwell on anything else.

Pain of this kind has a deep spiritual impact – persuading us that somehow we have merited the blow that has fallen, and leading to a profound loss of confidence in ourselves. Even now I am battling against this tendency.

In the middle of all this I was told that an exhaustive biopsy undertaken during the operation had confirmed that the lymph system was now entirely clear of cancer. I was indeed now ‘cured’, and had everything to look forward to. Only gradually did this sink in, as my strength came back, and with it my independence.

Almost four weeks after the operation I am home now, recuperating. My new bladder is fully operational, only slightly less efficient than my old one at its best. I don’t receive the same signals, of course – and need to remain aware of time passing, and of the need to relieve the new reservoir before it relieves itself!

One thing above all I have learned from all of this – how dependent we are upon the normal functioning of our own bodies – something we take entirely for granted – as well as the fragility of that body. An amazingly complex organic machine, it is the medium through which we experience and learn to function within our physical environment. When it becomes dysfunctional – as it always does eventually – we are faced with total separation from that environment, and with the question of what happens next. There is no evading this question.

I am above all profoundly grateful that my church has given me a framework within which I can face that reality, connecting my bodily environment with one that transcends it – one that will receive my essence with love when the moment of final separation comes. In that truth I will try to live out the rest of my earthly life, knowing that in the end God will find it sufficient that I commend my spirit to him, in love and trust.

In the meantime I must never forget what happened when, believing myself close to death, I trusted to what I had been taught – to the real presence of the Lord, especially in the valley of the shadow of death. If I can pass on that assurance to just one other person in the same awful circumstances I will perhaps feel that I have earned my reprieve.

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April Epiphanies

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life  June 2002

April 2002 was another riveting month in the gathering crisis of our Church. At Maynooth and Rome high level conferences occurred whose subject matter was the problem of clerical child abuse. In the statements that emerged from both there were abject apologies and firm assurances that leaders who had been remiss in the past would do better in future.

Unmentioned in these was a far greater scandal that future church historians must record. It was not the pain of sexual abuse itself that had prompted these conferences – for this had occurred long before – but media exposure of subsequent administrative abuse by bishops – abuse which had caused additional, unnecessary and even graver suffering.

Church historians must therefore record also that in April 2002 the leaderships of the Irish and American churches – and even the Papacy itself – lost their moral authority. For if it is to the secular media we must look to make our leaders even partially accountable, what does this say about their own unforced sense of moral obligation to their own flock? What does it say also about the church system under which these leaders have received and exercise their responsibilities, and to which they still resist any change?

The point needs to be made with absolute clarity. In April 2002 the whole population of this planet saw the highest leaders of the Catholic Church respond not to the accumulated wrongs of Catholic lambs – but to secular media exposure of these.

All of the facts the media revealed were already known to at least some of the highest administrators in the Irish and US churches: it was public presentation of those facts – sometimes by the victims themselves – that precipitated public expressions of remorse and atonement from those bishops, and galvanised the papacy. Their public remorse, scandalously, did not precede their public exposure. It followed it, and was therefore wholly unconvincing. Further, that exposure was achieved not by some internal Catholic checking mechanism, but by the BBC and the Boston Globe, entirely secular agencies.

Until those facts are recorded and addressed by the church at the highest level it follows inexorably that we Catholics must expect to continue to see our church’s accumulated dirty linen washed periodically in the full glare of the global media. Eight years ago, following another BBC documentary on Brendan Smyth, another Irish churchman resigned, the Abbot of Kilnacrott, Kevin Smyth. In that case too it was the secular world that had belatedly taught basic Christianity to leaders of the Irish church – but that fact and its significance went unrecorded by the Irish hierarchy. If it passes unobserved this time we Catholics can expect to see, by about 2010, the next great Irish Catholic embarrassment.

No improved set of rules and guidelines on any specific issue can affect this, because the basic flaw of the system that pertained in 1994 is still there today, and still has not been even mentioned by the leadership – that to the bishop alone all responsibility for following any guidelines on any matter are still entrusted. Every bishop remains his own sole guardian, so a flawed bishop still has the very same power to be unjust – and the only recourse of the lay person for protection and vindication in that event will be to secular agencies still. The Church as a community can still guarantee the wronged lay person no protection or vindication by his own church: we must look still to the secular world for these.

It follows from this in turn that the sense of our church as a moral community has been dealt a damaging blow by the current church leadership. For if secular structures are a better guarantee of justice from one’s own church – and its leadership shows no sign of noticing this – how is it possible to argue that God walks with them, guiding and advising them?

Another deeply counter-evangelical conclusion has been drawn from April’s events by many supposedly unsophisticated Catholics: that the status and dignity of the lay person in the eyes of the Catholic hierarchy generally is inferior to the status the lay person enjoys as a member of his secular community. And there is very good reason for this conclusion.

Why otherwise would Marie Collins have had to wait for a media furore in April 2002 to win for her the apology she was clearly due years earlier, and certainly no later than 2001, when she had presented the very same facts? Why otherwise would Colm O’Gorman and the other young men whose story precipitated the BBC program of March 2002 have had to wait until then for the resignation of the Bishop of Ferns, and for the Maynooth conference that followed? Why else would the rest of the Irish Catholic laity still lack an opportunity to put, as members of the same church community, their own questions about this and other vital matters to their own bishops?

To put it bluntly, why must an Irish Catholic, in almost all dioceses in Ireland, become a media person to put a public question to a Catholic bishop?

The answer seems to be that many of our bishops see us as persons of equal dignity only after the media have established that status for us. Until then we are simply ‘the simple faithful’ whose obligation is silent loyalty – mere faces in the applauding crowd.

Convinced as I am that my church does indeed stand for the equal dignity of all – and that it must say so not just verbally, but in the way it administers itself, I say, again, that the aristocratic structures and style of the hierarchy, which allow no internal check against hierarchical malfeasance and arrogance, must change. Pope, cardinals and bishops must stop and ask themselves why it is that the secularism many of them detest offers a better prospect of justice, and dignity, to a Catholic lay person than the structures of the church itself.

It would be entirely naïve to suppose that this has anything to do with a higher secular morality. It results from the simple fact that power in the secular world is distributed, not concentrated. Although secular Ireland is, in fact, very corrupt (as we were also reminded in April by a report from the British Rowntree Foundation), there are mechanisms for discovering this, and media independent of government flourish by this discovery. As we also saw in April, a politician who trespasses on the independence of a judge can be called to account, publicly, by the judge in question, with final consequences for his career.

But no such separation, and no such freedom of information, is possible in a church whose hierarchical culture still owes most to the European ancien regime, very little to the Gospels, and nothing at all to the past three centuries of administrative and political science. Even after the Vatican conference of April it was clear that the Pope considers renewed holiness to be the only solution to clerical malfeasance. But if divine grace did not prevent the most appalling injustice being done by priests and bishops in the past, and if the small justice eventually done is owed to the separation of powers in the secular world, hasn’t God now clearly spoken? Mustn’t there be a separation of powers (which does not mean a separation of doctrine also) – and freedom of information – in the Catholic Church?

How this might be arranged without imperilling the unity of the church is a matter for serious thought and prayer by the whole church. At the very least it demands the existence in every diocese of an independent body, with lay membership elected by and therefore answerable only to, the laity. This body’s remit should include the posing of questions for the bishop from any member of the laity, and, where appropriate, the publication of those answers to the whole diocese. It should include also oversight of clerical appointments and financial administration. Its membership should include also people of expertise in matters such as education, law and psychology, co-opted by the elected membership, in an advisory role for the whole diocese.

To argue that any such arrangement would damage the church is to close one’s eyes completely to the appalling damage already done by the concentration of power and responsibility in the hands of one person. The church’s present system of governance is a global scandal that makes the very idea of an apostolic succession seem ridiculous. True, we do not yet know what the findings of the state inquiry into the events in Ferns will be. However, there is already more than enough evidence from events throughout the world to convince any balanced observer that the day of the aristocratic bishop, monarch of what little he now surveys, must pass into history.

Catholic self-respect, justice, communication, participation and renewal, now demand that responsibility in the church be shared by, and discussed by, the whole church – including those entrusted by Lumen Gentium with the consecration of the secular world to God – the laity. Otherwise the proposal that our church can play any part in re-evangelising Ireland and the West will continue to receive, and to deserve, a hollow laugh – not just from the secular world, but from all Catholics also.

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Rethinking Freedom

Sean O’Conaill © Spirituality 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Understanding the Downward Journey

Sean O’Conaill © Spirituality 2001

The essence of the downward journey is freedom from the illusion that it is the world that gives us both our identity and our worth.

We have almost as much difficulty understanding that biblical term ‘the world’ as we do the nature of God. This shouldn’t be – because our world also is the enemy of the soul. It demands that we compete for its approval. It rewards a tiny minority with its fickle adulation – which often destroys them – and consigns the rest of us to the role of ‘loser’ or ‘wannabe’. It is, in other words, a vast pyramid of esteem, a composite of all the smaller pyramids we pass through in life – family, school, neighbourhood, firm, city, state – and (often if not always) church.

So long as we play the game all these pyramids demand – postponing self-acceptance until we have been accepted or recognised by them – so long will we be Sisyphus, rolling the stone of self-dislike interminably uphill, until our strength gives out. That is a moment of terrible danger – but also a fleeting window of opportunity. It is dangerous because it tempts us to respond with despair, anger and sometimes murderous aggression or suicide. It is also an opportunity because we may then tumble to the essential stupidity of ordering human community, and valuing ourselves, in this way. We may then recognise this tendency as the root of all evil – and understand the cross as an expression of divine solidarity with our humiliation. Unfortunately, the churches’ historical participation in the pyramid system, and the stupid theology that results (e.g. God as medieval king angrily demanding Jesus’s pain in reparation for his lost ‘honour’) may deprive us of this insight.

Even the spirituality market implies a pyramid, at the summit of which must be those who have read deeply the writings of all the accredited spiritual masters from Buddha to Theresa of Lisieux. And so one may buy all of these books and begin the rolling of the stone – perhaps missing the fact that the unique characteristic of the journey of both was not towards the acquisition of knowledge – a matter of addition, and of the head – but towards acceptance of their own vulnerability – a matter of subtraction, and of the heart.

But what is the point of becoming spiritual if you cannot make it work for you? I hear this question – and its ambiguity. ‘Working for you’ could mean doing for you what it did for Buddha or Therese (i.e. make sense) – or it could mean making you well known as a wise and spiritual person. The trouble is that the spirituality market will exploit particularly the second meaning – because your purchases will burgeon with your desire to move always upward, in deep dissatisfaction with where you are, in order to become a spirituality expert. Notice again the world’s magnetic force – you are setting out to be spiritual in order to be ‘up there’ – the antithesis of the spiritual. The last thing you may consider is the possibility of moving in the opposite direction – of seeking to know less by knowing only the most important thing.

That most important thing in the Judeo-Christian tradition – that pearl of great price – is that you are already as loved and as worthy of esteem as you will ever be – already infinitely loved and respected. The condition of not knowing this, and fleeing from it towards the approval of the world, is sin. The tears that follow its discovery are called repentance – in which you weep also for the sin of ever having thought of yourself as unloved – for not having loved yourself as you are.

It follows from this that all of us are equally, and infinitely, loved – and that the pyramids we build are the product of an illusion. That illusion is the notion that the overall sum of our worth is what others think of us – when they are equally insecure. Gripped by this illusion we are slaves to it – and escape is virtually impossible

For Jesus the single most important truth was that he was loved by the creator of all things, the Father. From this great truth – and the relationship it gave him with the Father – came the revelatory journey which unlocked ‘things hidden since the beginning of the world’. Essentially what was hidden, and what remains hidden from most, is that the world preserves its power over us not just by insisting that we compete for its approval, but by victimising those at its base. From their plight we must flee – upwards, driven by fear. Ambition – desire to be at the top, adored and invulnerable, draws us in the same direction. Fear and hubris rule the world, imprisoning the spirit of generosity which desperately seeks escape.

These days throughout the west we are amazed by the sudden fall of ‘great men’ who not so long ago ‘bestrode the world’. Their gifts were also their temptation. Their ability to climb the political pyramid made them susceptible to flattery and sycophantic attention of all kinds – and they succumbed to sexual or monetary temptation on a scale that shamed them when revealed. Great wisdom can be gained by pondering the meaning of these events – for they merely reiterate the lives of ancient heroes, archetypally David.

If Jesus was not divine he was then even more mysterious – for neither fear nor hubris determined his actions from first to last (although he experienced – i.e. was ‘tempted’ by both). To the degree that we study him as a mere human he becomes unlike any other man. To the degree that we insist that he was God, he reveals God to be unlike our expectation. For us, both Gods and heroes must triumph and remain invulnerable. Yet Jesus accepted humiliation and defeat, and revealed God as both humble and vulnerable. Psychologically he is impossible to explain – unless we accept the reality of what he insisted upon. That reality was the Father, a spiritual being with whom he could communicate at will, who gave him the specific task of revealing and upending the spirits of fear and hubris which build the pyramids of esteem that govern the world.

Yet Jesus also tells us that those who follow him become his brothers and sisters, to whom he has revealed all that the Father had told him, and with whom he and the Father will live in the same intimacy. How do we find our way to this point of meeting?

Ancient heroes had to do something violently heroic to win the recognition of the world. Think of Theseus who must destroy the monsters who fall in his way as he journeys to Athens to be recognised by his father, King Aegeus. The gospel of John tells us that Jesus was recognised by Abba at the very beginning of his own journey – for doing nothing more than stepping down into the waters of the Jordan, in fellowship with repentant sinners who also sought the baptism of John. This episode is immediately followed by Jesus’ sojourn in the desert, and his rejection of the temptations to ascend the worldly pyramids of state and temple. His mission becomes the granting of forgiveness and esteem freely to those at the base of these pyramids, (usually far from Jerusalem), to whom he gives most of the rest of his life. For this effrontery he is hated ‘by the world’, and murdered by it, in the time-honoured manner.

The downward journey today could well begin with nothing more dramatic than the granting of respect and esteem – that is, of love – to someone we know who has less of these things than we ourselves, and who may have suffered a recent humiliation. If this is difficult, the difficulty lies in our greater respect for the world, the only source of our embarrassment, than for God – so prayer is strongly indicated. And this prayer should be part of our private life – for ostentatious prayer is a prayer addressed to the world rather than to God.

It must be clearly understood that this practice of according respect to those whom the world considers our inferiors must not be condescension – for they are in fact our equals. Its purpose is to discover the kind of relationship that Jesus formed very quickly with people he has just met – a relationship of fundamental equality and mutual trust. He did not presume that his relationship with Abba entitled him to greater esteem – but sought to draw others into the same relationship.

Another aspect of this journey is the discovery that the person next to us at any given moment is often the person to whom we should be speaking at that moment, for the sake of both. This is still a feature of the lives of people who live in remote places – every meeting is seen as an unmissable opportunity for conversation. Yet in our great cities people will often spend hours daily physically close to others with whom they exchange not a word. The convention in the tube in London is to avoid eye contact – so people examine one another surreptitiously, or read, or compute. Fear and hubris rule equally here also – for cities are above all else pyramids of esteem – and the person next to you might be an addict or drug rapist – or snub you as an inferior. Yet what might you be missing as your eyes slide about, looking vainly for an advertisement worth reading?

In particular you might exchange views on the reasons for the exhaustion that inevitably follows the endless busyness of modern city life. The man with the computer was told a decade a go that it would make his life less hectic – but the opposite seems to be the truth. He doesn’t have time simply to ‘shoot the breeze’ – he must switch on in transit and finish that report. The reason probably is that he believes that all his colleagues – his rivals for promotion – have this equipment too, and will steal a march. So it always will be – for it is in the nature of the world to disconnect us from where and when we are, to live in a tomorrow that never comes.

Yet what happens to the exhausted mind is eventually despair – and how will that help the firm? Tireless worship of yet another convoy of ocean-crossing buzzwords must eventually end in burnout – so who benefits? What if we all got together and said no to freneticism, technobabble and jargonising simultaneously? I reckon that nine out of ten eye-sliding city straphangers would find that question meaningful.

In Ireland it is usually in the craik in the pub that we get closest to this kind of common insight – and maybe this is the source of some alcohol addiction also – for the association of alcohol with genuine companionship and relaxation may create the false conclusion that one is impossible without the other. In those hours when today’s humiliations have been related, and their authors properly reviled, we ease down. Our friends are those who do not threaten us, and who can share in our meagre triumphs. Yet tomorrow beckons, inexorable as closing time – and battle is soon joined once more.

The tireless busyness of great cities, audible even through double or treble glazing, sets a rhythm to which we unconsciously dance. That seems to be true of any large community. And the car now allows that rhythm to radiate out into the countryside, far louder now than the hum of bees that used to be a byword for business. The discovery of the process of evolution should impress us with the slowness of God’s time – but instead it seems to have ratcheted even tighter our determination to live in tomorrow rather than today. It becomes daily more difficult to find stillness, to discover the rhythm of God’s tune, and dance to that instead.

That is why there has always been a connection between deep spiritual work, and isolation. We tend to associate the desert into which Jesus went merely with asceticism – but we should note that he went there from the Jordan, directly after the Father’s revelation of himself and recognition of his son. So we can assume that Jesus was simply seeking a stillness and peace within which he could discover the meaning of this extraordinary relationship. The hermitical and monastic traditions – which preserved the church through centuries of corruption of its superstructure – follow the same search for the one who speaks in stillness.

It is also always a search for the self – of who one is – the integrated ‘me’ shorn of pretence, falseness, that personality I put on like a shirt in order to please the world. The knowledge that it is the ‘me’ that I hide from the world that God alone fully knows – this is important knowledge that we have forgotten how to teach in our schools.

It can be rediscovered still in Ireland today – especially in the west. I did not discover that my own desert had been the wilds of Lough Corrib until I found that it was there as a teenager I had found a happiness so mysterious that when I found myself much later in the darkest valley of my own crisis, gratitude came pouring out to whoever had created it – just, it seemed, for me. In Galway again recently, determined to escape the hum of the city, I came upon a dirt road that seemed to follow inland a beautiful small river tumbling towards the sea. My wife and I followed it on foot, and within ten minutes the movement of the breeze and the rush of falling water had enveloped us completely, shutting out the rush of traffic, easing the almost imperceptible tension it builds within us. That was the Sabbath experience we must all seek – the rest from labour that only God’s music can provide.

These then are the elements of the downward journey: a realisation of the Father’s primordial and unchangeable esteem for us as brother or sister of the Lord; a determination to live in this knowledge, giving the same respect to everyone we meet; a seeking of the slower rhythm of God’s time in whatever form of wilderness we can find. Also a willingness to listen for a call that may ask of us a particular service in challenging the world, or serving its casualties. Then we will inevitably find that whatever tortuous route we have followed in life to this point will have a particular meaning for others on a similar path. No life is ever ruined once we again find fellowship with the God who so wisely – like the Father of the prodigal son – gave us our primordial freedom, and will now give meaning and redemption to our utmost waywardness.

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Secularism and an Adult Church

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 1997

“Ireland is becoming a secular country.” With these words Bishop Thomas Flynn responded in April 1997 to questions from the Irish Times about a reported 70% support in Ireland for those causes espoused by the liberal Catholic petitionary movement originating in Austria in 1995 (advocating female ordination and an end to mandatory priestly celibacy etc.).

What struck me at the time was that Bishop Flynn’s comment coincided with a determined effort by the Catholic hierarchy to prevent their influence over education in Ireland being eroded by proposed (but subsequently abandoned) legislation by the Rainbow Coalition. If Ireland is becoming a secular country, I asked myself, is this in spite of, or because of, Catholic determination of the ‘ethos’ of most schools in Ireland? As a teacher of history for thirty years in Catholic schools in Northern Ireland I was fairly well placed to ask such a question, but it is in fact extraordinarily complex.

What is secularism?

First, secularism is a slippery concept. Are we talking simply about the undogmatic tendency of humans to give priority, most of the time, to the immediate concerns of this life – for food, shelter, career, financial security, entertainment. Or are we referring to an ideological commitment by those in control of policy to exclude all religious concerns and values? Or do we mean specifically anti-clericalism – the desire to wrest intellectual authority from the clergy? As the first is a constant throughout history, even Irish history, I presume that Bishop Flynn is talking about the second or third – perhaps both. Modern secularism originated in the eighteenth century enlightenment’s determination to wrest control of ideas and public policy from the clergies, so a dogmatic and exclusive ‘this world only’ outlook, and anti-clericalism, are historically closely related.

In assessing the impact of this kind of secularism upon schools in Ireland, and, through them, upon the church, we must remember that in all schools on both sides of the border there is a secular curriculum, legally enforced, which occupies more than 85% of the time of all pupils. It is against this curriculum that young people are tested at the end of their school careers in probably the most demanding ‘rite of passage’ they will face in their lives. How influential, in this context, can a spiritual ethos actually be, no matter how well used the 10-15% of time remaining?

Less influential now than heretofore, apparently – education has been secularised in this sense for generations, but only now do we discern the dominance of secularism as an exclusive cast of mind, threatening to disinherit the Church in Ireland. It seems that, ‘catholic ethos’ notwithstanding, the spiritual cast of mind so sedulously developed in up to fourteen years of education is soon consigned by most school leavers to the attic, along with the files of leaving cert and A level notes. Religious practice often ceases at the same time. This is a phenomenon that deserves serious attention and study far beyond the scope of this article, but some observations based upon my own experience as both pupil and teacher over the period 1953-1996 may be useful.

First, it is an educational truism that an answer which precedes a question will bypass the pupil. It is far easier to pose an historical problem in the classroom and arouse an interest in all possible answers, or to structure a chemistry experiment, than to create in the same situation the complex of life circumstances which lead to deep religious questions, and deep receptivity to Christian answers. If Jesus is to be a model for our educational praxis it’s worth pointing out that far from advocating the systematic ‘inculcation of ethos’ in children, He held them up, uneducated, as an example towards which the adult should aspire. And the adults chosen were usually those who turned up, often in anguish, with their own needs and questions. The original church was founded upon adult suffering and uncertainty, not childhood habituation, and grew in this mode for centuries.

Paradox

This observation explains an anomaly in my own life. My doubts about the faith started at the precise moment I was first told insistently (about the age of ten) that the Catholic Church was the One True Church. I had encountered no reason to doubt it before this, so now I wondered why so much of a song and dance was being made. Hey (lightbulb flickers) maybe ….! Yet after a subsequent half-lifetime of intellectual swithering between a purely secular and a Christian outlook I became deeply and totally committed, at about the age of fifty, to the latter. This happened as the consequence of a deep personal crisis, and was deeply influenced also by an experience of the liturgy and culture of the school in which I had taught for a quarter of a century. But paradoxically many of the most intelligent children I taught, including my own, felt ‘suffocated’ by that same experience. There are several reasons for this paradox.

The first is that, evaluating my own life, I was asking those deep ultimate questions to which Christianity is the most beautiful possible answer, whereas most young people have no occasion to do so – at least until late adolescence. Another is the fact that as a teacher I was not subject to the mandatory RE curriculum in the same manner as my own children, captives rather than determiners of the system. To put it simply, I had the power of initiative, whereas catholic education is based upon the presumption that children are from baptism committed catholics. And they are treated accordingly at every stage of their school career. From early in secondary school our children are given total freedom to choose a secular career (from a more and more dazzling array). To choose a religious faith – the most sacred right defended by Vatican II – they are given no significant moment of freedom whatsoever: Faith is poured on aboriginally at baptism and assumed to be growing constantly thereafter, like appetite or a birthmark. We take our children’s faith for granted – although it is a matter of grace, and therefore not in our gift.

No sacramental rite of passage to adulthood

The result is the most fundamental flaw in the church’s present structure: despite our total freedom to determine the age at which the sacraments are administered, for the lay ‘cradle’ Catholic no sacrament marks and celebrates the free decision – which can be taken only by an adult – to commit oneself totally to Christ. The Eucharist is first administered before the child can understand the extraordinary gift of Christ’s sacrifice of His own body in an appalling personal and completely human crisis; Confirmation before the child can possibly understand the need and opportunity for the descent of the Spirit following the Ascension and Christ’s joyous reunion with the Father. For the Catholic baptised at infancy there is no sacramental rite of passage from habitual religious adolescence into Christian adulthood. Experientially awesome sacraments – received by the apostles before and after a supreme trauma – are administered as though their efficacy was similar to that of the whooping cough vaccine – totally independent of the psychological readiness of the recipient. The life role designed for the layperson involves no power of initiative either, so passivity is all that is required throughout life.

This familiar but awful truth helps to explain what is currently happening to the church in Ireland: few lay Catholics voluntarily make the transition to an adult commitment and vocation. When the social conventions which once supported school habituation in adult life are removed, we mostly breath a sigh of relief and play truant. Further, we subsequently see the clergy as opposed to our own free maturation, as advocates of this unequal system which pre-empts and presumes what should and could be both freely offered and freely chosen. Catholic education, as currently conceived, is thus itself a major part of the reason for the early flight by many young adults into secularism and anti-clericalism in Ireland, although it does ‘work’ for a gentle, mostly female, minority. For the typical independent-minded eighteen-year-old, Catholicism represents not freedom, but captivity.

Our typical deeply pathological lay-cleric relationship also begins here: clerical paternalism and pre-emption offer only two easy options for the layperson – a childish deference and passivity, or anti-clericalism. An easy adult-to-adult relationship, founded upon the fundamental equality of responsibility and fellowship offered by Christ, is the exception rather than the norm. This is why clerical scandals are regarded as an almost opportune and therapeutic vindication of the anticlerical option.

So what?

One further consequence of modern secularism is pervasive: scepticism about the fundamental truth of all truth claims. Cartesian doubt is a remote cause. The expansion of the media and advertising, and clerical and secular scandals, are more potent. So is the application of discipline to the evaluation of sources – as a teacher of History this has been the single most important development in my lifetime. All of this produces the ‘so what?’ syndrome – a caustic disrespect and suspicion of all claims to authority.

The popular actress Maggie Hoosit says ‘Drift’ washes whitest? So what? She’s paid handsomely to do so. The lesson derived from this truism is to look for self-interest in all attempts to control our behaviour. Applied to the church as presently ordered this method of authority-testing is devastating. The Pope/bishop/priest says we must go to Mass? So what? He’s worried about losing your family’s weekly pound in the envelope!

The consequence of this cynical sophistication in the evaluation of clerical claims to life-changing authority – achieved by most by the age of about sixteen – are obvious. The Tridentine concentration of initiative and authority in the hands of a professional clerical elite – supported financially by a relatively inexpert and psychologically and spiritually immature laity – has become a colossal inspirational liability for the church of the twenty-first century. Clerical scandals simply reinforce this weakness.

Secularism in deep crisis

Yet this is far from being the end of the story. Its impact upon the church should not obscure the fact that secularism, as an ideology, is also in deep trouble, and this provides a moment of extraordinary opportunity for the church. The systematic secular ideologies which emerged following the enlightenment (liberalism, democratic socialism, Marxism, Fascism chiefly) have all failed to deliver a spiritually, socially and intellectually respectable alternative to practical Christianity. In the aftermath of the Cold War, many western societies, Ireland included, have discovered some of their most eminent secular leaders to have been essentially corrupt.

So there is a growing awareness of the importance of community, but little understanding of the relationship between community and overarching religious beliefs. So, exclusive secularism produces a growing casualty list, a dysfunctional society, and thus a new receptivity to religious claims. This exposes millions to quackery and cultism – everything from astrology to ‘New Age’ vapourware to ‘aromatherapy’ to Scientology to the X files and Yogic trampolining – but it prepares them also to listen to the truth, and trains them to recognise it when they experience it. It can also cast a new light upon the Christian cosmology inherited from centuries ago and delivered so hopefully at school.

The enlightenment, the fount of secularism, was in turn inspired by the belief that science – wonderfully boosted by the recent Newtonian synthesis – would answer all questions and solve all problems. More than two centuries later, after a period of unprecedented scientific and technological advance, we can now evaluate that prediction. In fact, runaway technology threatens to create a global wilderness of greed and deprivation. And science at its leading edges has exposed mysteries as deep and awesome as those which baffled and inspired the ancients. The imagination of children, alienated from the mess we are making of this world, reaches into deep space and distant futures. Ancient legends set in a terrestrial landscape, find a new vogue and audience when set in cinematic planetary systems way out far beyond the reach of present and foreseeable technologies. The holocaust and the nuclear winter and substance addiction have had their own horrific impact. Mystery, chaos and terror have come back into the world, although the enlightenment predicted the opposite.

This is very similar to the spiritual landscape into which Christ came.

Why did Christ undergo humiliation?

Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Church’s central agency for monitoring theologians, is my favourite clerical bête noir. His role, awesome knowledge and super-cool confidence create an impression of Olympian omniscience and remoteness. So he recently rose greatly in my estimation when he admitted that he didn’t quite understand why Christ had to fail – had to be humiliated and crucified.1In Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium – published interview with Peter Seewald, (1997)

My layman’s ‘take’ on this, for what it’s worth, is that God is overwhelmed by compassion for the ordinary human being, the ‘loser’, for whom failure, humiliation and a lonely death are the norm. The ordinary human solution to the anticipation of this fate is to seek wealth and power – but this is in fact the basic cause of the complaint, the despoliation and enslavement of other losers, the eternal sin which will dog mankind eternally through time, and maybe destroy the whole of creation through the limitless potential of human intelligence. So God wants us to see another solution: the living of one’s life, and, if need be, the dying, for others. This will break the pattern – inspire a new creation.

That’s easy for God to advocate, we will complain, so He makes it difficult for himself also – He sends His only and most precious son to live this life and meet this death as a fully human archetype. The option he does not take (authoritarians take note) is to compel – because human freedom is part of human dignity and therefore inviolable. Secular power is a temptation for the Son as for us – but He remains faithful to His father’s vision. Rejecting the option of secular empowerment (which would enslave us) He is publicly humiliated and physically destroyed by it. This ‘death to oneself’ is morally superior to the ethic that supports the empire that killed him, and to all others of the same type. While the memory of this death and its reward, remain alive there is hope in the world, for from this seed a human and cosmic transformation can evolve. All the Christian churches carry this memory. Ours daily celebrates this loser’s death and invites us to physically link with the real body that suffered it.

Freedom?

Modern secularism is all about personal freedom. That is the glory and the tragedy of western society at the end of the second millennium. Intellectual freedom has indeed transformed the world. Freedom from material want is often achieved, but then misused – with catastrophic consequences for both the individual and society. Never before has there been the possibility of worldly success for so many people – but those who achieve it mostly haven’t a clue what to do with it. In scaling the pinnacle of modern ‘success’ – by possessing wealth – we discover that there is no beautiful vista on the other side. Today’s power symbol (the Pentium PC or Porsche) becomes tomorrow’s waste disposal problem. At the moment of triumph aspired to by teenagers the world over, the pop idol implodes into addiction, or shuts himself away in a compound to escape stalkers, thieves or the media. Our wealth is achieved at enormous environmental and personal cost. When we surf the Internet we learn that 200 million children around the world rot in sweatshops or brothels or on rubbish tips – but there appears to be no solution. We were never more knowledgeable or technologically powerful – why then are we so morally impotent?

It is questions of this kind that bring us back to reality and spirituality. Christ’s response to the worldliness of his own time was not to criticise the secular agenda of the Roman empire but to show solidarity with the weak and the miserable – at the level of the individual. There is not in the whole of the new testament a shred of evidence that Christ foresaw a role for the secular state in building His kingdom. That development had to wait for over three centuries, for the adoption of Christianity as the faith of the Roman Empire (a very mixed blessing, as time was to prove). Christ’s appeal was not to institutions or their leaders (their primary morality is always self-preservation) but to individuals on society’s margins. This is important, because it is at the level of the individual that western society is currently breaking down. Christ’s appeal to the individual – to perceive that it is only in giving that we receive, that only in service to others do we find true freedom – was never more relevant in a world devastated by selfishness and licence.

Yes, the power of secularism in Ireland today is in the ascendant. But it is forcing us all to realise and accept that priests too are only human, that we are all equally flawed, and that the church is not a given which will always be here no matter what. Many of us laity are now trying for the first time to identify what it is about our Catholic inheritance that must be salvaged. And realising that there is here after all a light with power enough to pierce through all possible futures – if we too cherish and carry it.

So I am not depressed by the rise of secularism in Ireland. The Roman Empire was the matrix of secular suffering and darkness into which Christ came. Its enormous power crushed him bodily as carelessly as one would a fly, but the relevance of his teaching, and the impact of his Resurrection upon his followers, conquered all fear and gradually overcame that empire, which now is but ruins and a memory. Its brutality was overthrown by Christ’s solidarity with its casualties, and his power to give them a certainty of their own worth that no worldly power or ideology could destroy. Today’s secular world produces even more of such casualties. They are today’s and tomorrow’s harvest – to which we are all invited.

To those who are convinced that the ‘old church’ is dying I would simply say this. The old and the new never occupy totally separate eras. They will always overlap. Alongside the old there is a new emerging church, because the Spirit is there whenever we reach out, not waiting for a change of Pope. A Catholic education joyfully forgotten at eighteen may be remembered, in its essentials, at a moment of supreme adult crisis. The central office of the priest, celebration of the Mass, saves lives eternally. But the priest now needs us, the laity, to share the church’s non-sacramental burdens in fellowship – everything from administration to evangelisation. It is this spirit of fellowship, rather than the Summa Theologia or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that is most needed just now – although they too have their place. Christ’s burden for us is far lighter and more portable – simply the news that with that extraordinary death a light came into the world that will never go out. And it shines, believe me, equally on us all.

So keep an eye out for this emerging church, if you have not already discovered it. Its harbingers may not be wearing any recognisable uniform. One of them may confront you soon in your bedroom mirror. The closer you are to despair, the more likely it is that this will happen – if you express that feeling in heartfelt prayer, even in tears. I have the very best of reasons to be certain of this.

Notes

  1. In Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium – published interview with Peter Seewald, (1997)

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