Tag Archives: evil

Of Good and Evil: A Personal View

Sean O’Conaill  Reality  2010

This series sets out to explain how I came to understand the problem of human fallibility in terms of our chronic uncertainty about our own value.

  1. Dealing with the Darkness – How and why, as a teacher of history and current affairs, I came to a conclusion about the central human problem in 1994 – our tendency to climb.
  2. The Human Problem – Why we tend to come unstuck – our chronic inability to value ourselves as we are.
  3. Vanity and Humility – Wanting to be ‘the greatest’ – a major source of conflict. And the one who taught us to try to be the least.
  4. Contagious Desire – How and why we ‘catch’ desires from others, and why we need to be aware of this problem.
  5. Abba – How Jesus reveals God’s compassion for our deepest failing.

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Goodbye and Good Riddance to Irish Catholic Serfdom

Sean O’Conaill Doctrine and Life  October 2009

“And the darkness could not overwhelm the light.”

I now bless the hours I once spent memorising the prologue to the Gospel of John.  To sleep soundly these days, and to rise willingly, I need to remind myself constantly that many past generations of Christians have felt deeply oppressed by the crowding evils of their own times,  and faced the day armed only with scriptural grounds for hope.

All other grounds have surely has been taken from us now.  The tranquillity of Catholic Ireland, which Archbishop McQuaid insisted must not be disturbed on his return from the second Vatican Council in 1965, has been shattered forever by the Ryan report.  I was exactly one third of my present age in that year, 1965, and already convinced that the archbishop’s response to Vatican II was deeply mistaken.  But I had truly no idea of the scale of the living nightmare that so many children were living through in Ireland at that moment, under the care of the church.  It was a nightmare that our church had also surely the social doctrine, the moral obligation and the power to end at least as early as the 1960s, but did not.

Why not?  That must surely be one of the questions we must face.

Another question, equally challenging, is why it took a process external to the church’s own processes, to bring the scale of this disaster to light.  “Who will guard the guards themselves?” asked the poet Juvenal long ago.   ‘Catholic Ireland’ most surely ran on the premise that Ireland’s Catholic guardians needed no prompting from anyone to know their Christian duty of moral leadership, and to perform it fearlessly.  That confidence is now starkly revealed as hubris, the pride that comes before a fall.  And what a fall there has been.

What are we to do now, beyond praying?  That’s another question.   How many of us are left that still want to call ourselves Catholic anyway?  There’s another.

Convinced only that those who are left need to begin a quiet conversation about all of these questions, I offer for the purposes of self-orientation the following brief account of the historical sequence that led to the cataclysm we have all just experienced.  Like all such accounts it must be subject to challenge and revision, if others are so minded.

First, the role of the United States was surely crucial in this denouement.  It was there in the 1980s that the phenomenon of clerical child sex abuse was first made subject to discussion by the popular media.  That public revelation shattered the taboo that had always cast this phenomenon into the shadows.  It also gave a name to experiences that had been unnamed and hidden in Ireland.  Unprecedented criminal  prosecutions began (significantly first in Northern Ireland) which led to the first great scandal of 1994, involving the sexual predator Brendan Smyth of the Norbertine order.  It was but a few small steps then to the chain of events that led to the Ryan Report of May 2009.

And by the time news of the Ryan Report hit, for example, Australia, the fact that Catholic clergy and religious could sexually abuse children was already old news there as well – because the revelations of the 1980s in the US had led to mirroring revelations of the same phenomenon in many (probably most) other nations to which Catholicism had spread.

We now know that this phenomenon was recognised as a problem by the clerical church at least as early as 309 (the Council of Elvira).  So why did the chain of events that led to its public recognition begin only in the 1980s, in the United States?  Why had the taboo on even recognising the problem in public discourse been first broken there?

The answer lies surely in the unique society that had developed in the US as a consequence of the Reformation of the 1500s and the Enlightenment of the 1700s.  The Reformation had created in the North American colonies a religiously plural society at ease with its own plurality, and had therefore necessitated also a separation of church and state in the minds of those who gave the US a constitution in the 1780s.  Those circumstances had combined with the Enlightenment to produce in turn a separation of state powers, a free press, a deep belief in the value of freedom, and a conviction that every phenomenon, even the darkest, must be subject to scientific study and open discussion.  Only in such a climate of freedom, curiosity and confidence, could something as ugly as sexual abuse be forced into the light of day.

We Irish Catholics might now do no more than reluctantly acknowledge the world that the Enlightenment and the Reformation have created – a world that forces us to face matters we might prefer had remained hidden.  We might merely lament the passing of tranquil Catholic Ireland – that distant land of dreams, hidden pain and monstrous illusions – and ask no more of God than to comfort us in our twilight years, and to protect us from all other possible future shocks.

Or we might realise that it was never really healthy, or truly Christian, to live in an illusionary world –  and rejoice at our liberation.

Liberation above all from the falsehood that someone ‘above us’ always knows better than we do, and that if we are ever troubled in conscience about something in our society, we should sit still and be quiet and let someone else deal with it – someone who must surely know better than we do.

Cardinal Conway once suggested that Catholic clerical paternalism might be a problem in Ireland.  Tragically he did not pursue that thought and explain fully what he meant.  We have now surely been delivered from that comfortable scourge – for who will not question now the culture of mute mass acceptance of the always superior wisdom of Ireland’s Catholic guardians?  Having adjured us never to worry, and left us fearful to do anything church-related on our own initiative, they have left us now with no possible grounds for believing we should continue in that mode of being.

Was it actually sinful to believe that Catholic loyalty required above all our passivity and silence, our conviction that only in this way could the foundations of our church and our society be secured?  Something like that attitude surely paralysed the agencies of a free Irish state when children’s safety and happiness were at stake in the residential institutions.  “So Catholic they forgot to be Christian!” that’s one commentator’s summation.  We must now surely identify what it was in our Irish Catholic culture that prevented us from being truly Christian – and repudiate it as not truly Catholic either.

That despicable thing was, I believe, the obsequious residue of medieval serfdom – the habit of obligatory self-subjection to another human being, by virtue of his supposed rank.    For centuries under conquest and colonisation, survival was so dependent upon this habit of deference to those who wielded power in Ireland that it became almost instinctual – communicated to children by body-language alone.  Searching for influence and status under the late 18th century ascendancy it was logical, if not truly Christian, for an unrecognised Catholic hierarchy to expect the same deference from their laity.  And to rejoice in the foundation of Maynooth in 1795 as a bastion of resistance to egalitarian modernity.  The social leverage thus gained was tenaciously guarded throughout the following two centuries, and even buttressed by theological paranoia.  “Never question or criticise a priest!”  That was the essence of my teacher grandmother’s admonitions to my mother’s generation in Donegal in the first decade of freedom  – so how many would question Dr McQuaid’s advice to us all to remain tranquil in 1965?  Tranquil and docile we mostly remained, and disastrously in the dark.

Catholic clerical paternalism, and the moral serfdom it demanded, subtly deprived us Irish Catholics of ownership of our own consciences.  Conscience, we were constantly reminded, must always be fully informed before it acts.  That was the role of the bishop – to fully inform our consciences.  In this way Catholic loyalty, even Catholic conscience, became identified with self-subjection to clerical authority and the clerical point-of-view .  Matters of doctrine and matters of practical social obligation became fused together in our minds, insisting that any dissent, or even any questioning,  was necessarily disobedient and disloyal.   The almost total absence of regular opportunities for adult discussion and discernment within the church sent the same message.  With our consciences held in trust by men determined to maintain a cloak of secrecy over everything that might discredit clergy, we became morally paralysed and deliberately not-knowing as a people – and complicit in the degradation of disadvantaged children.  Moral serfdom became the highest duty of the Irish Catholic laity – and mute deference to clergy as solemn a duty as Easter confession.

And the ecclesiastical hierarchical system that was defended as God-given must as surely have powerless and degraded humans at its base as it had unduly exalted humans at its summit.

To his credit, Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor has publicly acknowledged that all the causes of the catastrophe revealed by the Ryan report need to be exhaustively and openly studied.    Although the Irish Bishops’ Conference has not yet explicitly supported that position, we can take comfort that such an investigation and discussion will take place anyway.  Irish Catholic paternalism, and Irish Catholic serfdom, have so thoroughly disgraced themselves that they can surely no longer prevail.

Now we must all surely  set ourselves to the task of discovering if there can be an Irish Catholicism that is purged of both, and truly worthy of the Lord of light, compassion, equal dignity, truth and freedom.   Thankfully there are many exemplars of true Christian service in our Irish Catholic tradition also,  for voluntary loving service and childish servitude are two entirely different things.  If we can all now pray sincerely for the wisdom to discern the difference, and cast off the historical fear of speaking our minds, Irish Catholicism can regenerate.

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Why the Show mustn’t go on

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Sep 2008

I still vividly remember my first experience of live Shakespeare.  Sometime in the late 1950s Anew McMaster took note of the reappearance of Macbeth on the Irish Leaving Cert English Syllabus – and produced the Scottish play in the old Olympia theatre in Dublin, with himself in the title role.

Never can that renowned actor have been more challenged by a defiant refusal to suspend disbelief than on the day I attended.  Hungry for every histrionic slip, hundreds of us teenage Shakespeare detesters had been crammed by school decree into an already dingy theatre.  McMaster gave us early encouragement by pausing to remove wads of very heavy red beard that were impeding his vocal freedom.  Our joy became complete when, at a later stage, a youthful bearer of bad tidings rushed on a little too enthusiastically, slipped in coming to a necessary halt, and crashed to the floor in a perfect pratfall at the feet of the king.

Our sincere applause resounded far longer than the same baleful king thought warranted.  We wanted an encore, and were deeply disappointed when we didn’t get it.  Macbeth’s final ordeal at Birnam Wood was almost matched in its horror by our indifference to this honest actor’s unstinted efforts to re-create it. We thought, with all the savagery of adolescence, that he thoroughly deserved both his quietus and our cheers of relief when the whole performance was finally over.

I recall this theatrical debacle just now because I have a strong sense that I am observing another :  the collapse of the theatre of Catholic clericalism in Ireland.  Here we have another show that becomes far more embarrassing the longer it goes on.

I hope I am not being cruel here also.  I know humble men aplenty struggling to maintain the integrity of the church, and giving splendid Christian service in so doing.  But they too have a need for the truth to be spoken.  A way of being Church that has always had far too much too much to do with maintaining an illusion has been exposed as unsustainable, and needs to be given a decent and explicit burial.   So long as we were never fully conscious of its illusionary nature we could not strictly be accused of hypocrisy.  Made conscious of it recently, we are all now open to that charge.

I finally reached this conclusion when watching the recent documentary film ‘The Holy Show’.  This detailed the private life of the late Fr Michael Cleary.  While maintaining a public persona of exemplary rectitude, this nationally celebrated priest seduced a very vulnerable young woman who had come to him for spiritual support.  He then ‘married’ her in an entirely secret ceremony, and conceived a son by her whom he could never publicly acknowledge.

Meanwhile, with monumental irony, he had become a troubleshooter in great demand by the hierarchy to defend on national media the church’s sexual code – exemplified by the encyclical Humanae Vitae.  He climaxed this career by welcoming Pope John Paul II to a televised  outdoor spectacle in Galway in 1979.  (The fact that another of that day’s personalities, Bishop Eamon Casey, was exposed in 1992 for also having secretly fathered a son will always be remembered in connection with that day.)

The Holy Show  clearly identified Cleary’s central weakness:  his very celebrity was the greatest obstacle to his owning up to his own fallibility – and his wife and child suffered the worst of the consequences of that failure.  The more celebrated he became the more reputation he had to lose.  His greatest sin was therefore his vanity – his inability to lose public admiration by admitting his sexual indiscretion.

Inevitably I will be accused of generalising from these particular instances to indict clergy generally – but that is not in fact my drift.  Knowing clerics who live lives of exemplary humility I point only to the danger of the illusion of clericalism, which rests upon a myth.  This is the myth that ordination somehow magically confers virtue upon those who receive it.  That many, many Irish Catholics had bought heavily into that myth was proven by the shock of the truth, a shock that still reverberates and has still not been fully absorbed.

The very architecture of Catholicism, focused upon a liturgical space designed for priestly ritual, facilitates myth and illusion in relation to clergy.  Andrew Madden recounts in his autobiography ‘Altar Boy’ the impression made on his young mind by the appearance of the priest in the sanctuary of a Dublin church:  “The people stood up because the priest was so holy and important…”. This explained Andrew’s own early desire to be a priest – the very desire that made him vulnerable to his priest abuser in a Dublin parish.  “Neighbours, friends and others got to see me with the priest up close.  I felt good.”

Historians interested in explaining extraordinary Mass attendance in Ireland as late as the 1970s, and our full seminaries then, should reflect upon the fact that most of Ireland was relatively starved of public spectacle before the coming of national TV in 1961.  The parish church filled this gap for many people, providing the stage for the man who was usually the most important local celebrity – the priest.

And what most differentiated the lifestyle of the priest was the fact that he was celibate.  And that he had an officially recognized role in identifying, decrying (and relieving the eternal consequences of) sexual sin.  Every adolescent learned that this was the sin most offensive to God, and the sin that the priest had somehow, apparently, overcome.  No one told us that the public role of the priest could be a temptation to another sin entirely:  the actor’s sin, the sin of vanity, the coveting of public admiration.  Needless to say, we were therefore unaware of its dangers for us also.

TV provided a far vaster national stage, and the story of Ireland since about 1961 is largely the story of how that electronic stage has replaced liturgical space as the dominant Irish theatre. It has also become the dominant temptation to our vanity.  That in turn explains how Eamon Casey and Michael Cleary became national celebrities.  From 1961 – entirely innocent of the dangers of the first of the deadly sins – the Irish church was sleepwalking towards the PR disasters that have traumatized it since 1992.

What happened to Andrew Madden well illustrates another of those PR disasters – the revelation not just of clerical child abuse but of the typical cover up of that abuse by bishops and other clergy.  (The most serious charge levelled against Michael Cleary is the allegation by Mary Raftery that he turned a blind eye to the brutal abuse by a fellow curate in Ballyfermot, Tony Walsh, of young boys.)

The papal visit to the US in April 2008 has made important progress in recognizing the seriousness of the evil of clerical sex abuse but has failed completely to grapple with the reason for the cover up:  the perceived need of bishops and other clergy to maintain the clerical myth – the myth of clerical immunity to sexual sin.  With this clericalist myth, vanity has become virtually institutionalized in our church – the reason it still cannot be named as the root cause of every scandal that has befallen us since 1992.

For scandal is not just the revelation of human sinfulness.  Sin itself is mundane. The archetypal religious scandal is the story of David, the divinely anointed Jewish national hero who covertly murdered Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, the woman he had seduced – to prevent it becoming known that he, David, had impregnated her.  Scandal has always to do with a fall from grace by those in high places, and clericalism is essentially an unwarranted claim of entitlement to grace and social prestige.  Until that has been fully recognized and acknowledged by those who lead the church, we will not be able to learn from what has happened to us.   We will also remain troubled by periodic clerical scandal, especially if the mandatory celibacy rule for all priests is retained.

These days the Irish church is deeply divided between those who have lost the illusions of clericalism and those who believe that Catholic loyalty requires them to restore those illusions as rapidly as possible.  The latter make that mistake because our leadership has not yet clearly differentiated Catholicism and clericalism.  We will remain stuck in the ditch, spinning our wheels, until that changes.

In an earlier article here I pointed out that the ritual of the first Eucharist derived its solemnity and liturgical meaning only from the fact that it was followed by an actual self-sacrifice1.  We must never forget that all ritual is, to use a contemporary idiom, virtual reality – just like theatre.  The integrity of the ceremony rests upon the integrity of those who celebrate it – priests and people.  Clearly, ordination in itself cannot guarantee that integrity.  This too needs now to be fully acknowledged – as does the fact that the public role of the cleric can entangle him deeply in the sin of vanity, the greatest threat to all integrity.   On the credit side, the self-effacing and dutiful priest, and those married couples who fulfil all the obligations of a sexual partnership, restore the credibility of the church.

So, instead of lamenting the loss of an illusion we need to rejoice at it, and to notice that the vanity that led to it lies also at the root of the greatest evils that threaten everyone’s future.  Vanity arises out of an inability to value ourselves without validation from others.  That is why we seek attributed value through public admiration, and pursue the latter through exhibitionism, the cult of celebrity and ostentatious consumerism.  This latter source of the environmental crisis is also the root of competition and conflict – and lack of a secure self-esteem lies also at the root of addiction.

‘Hard’ secularism – the kind that thinks that suppressing all religion will create a perfect society – doesn’t understand any of this.  This is why it can’t explain the failure of untrammeled secularism (e.g, in the Soviet Union) to put an end to personality cults and to produce a perfect society.  Meeting the challenge of secularism requires us to recognize fully the deadliest of the sins as it tempts ourselves in our own time.  If we don’t do that now we will be guilty of something else – of choosing to learn nothing from the hardest and most helpful lessons we ourselves have recently received.

Notes:

  1. The Role of the Priest: Sacrifice or Self-Sacrifice?Doctrine and Life, Sep 2007

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Secularism and Hesitant Preaching

Sean O’Conaill  © The Furrow Jul/Aug 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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The Story of the West: III – The Origins of Freedom

Sean O’Conaill © Reality Dec 2007

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ” (US Declaration of Independence 1776)

Everywhere in the world in the time of Christ, slavery existed – in countries as far apart as Ireland and China. Two thousand years later the right to personal freedom is inscribed in the world’s great documents, and protected by most of the world’s governments.

The scourge of enslavement still exists for far too many, of course – but there is a global consensus that slavery is not only morally wrong but economically indefensible. While the ancient Greeks and Romans considered slavery essential to their success, the educated world now knows that slavery makes people unproductive – that we are most industrious when we are personally free.

Where did the idea of freedom come from? Most languages do not even have a word for the idea. It arose in one civilisation only – western Europe, in the Middle Ages. Catholic Europe, that is.

Here again, those who see Christianity as the root of all evil will deny that the Catholic Church could have had anything to do with the ending of slavery. They will point out that Jesus did not directly condemn it, that St Paul taught slaves to be obedient, that popes owned galley slaves as late as 1796, and that it was not until the 1800s that the papacy came finally to declare slavery immoral.

All of this is true – but the historical record is nevertheless clear: all effective anti-slavery movements were deeply influenced by another idea – an idea that developed in Catholic Europe alone, long before the Protestant Reformation: the idea that everyone is essentially equal in dignity.

That idea could not have come from Plato or Aristotle, the great philosophers of ancient Greece. Both believed that some peoples were superior to others, and that the slavery of many was essential to the prosperity and power of the Greek city state. Plato personally owned slaves. The ‘democracy’ of Athens was not based on the principle of ‘one man one vote’, but on the superiority of ethnic Greeks, all of them free to own slaves, who could not vote. In Plato’s ideal ‘Republic’ this elitism would have been retained.

The seed for the overthrow of slavery is to be found in the New Testament alone. St Paul did indeed teach slaves to be obedient, but he also taught masters to treat slaves well “knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with Him”. In other words, in the eyes of God we are all equal: “In Christ Jesus …there is neither slave nor free”.

It was for this very reason that slaves too were to receive the sacrament of baptism. Sacramental equality inevitably slowly undermined civil inequality. After an exhaustive study of the sources the agnostic secular sociologist Rodney Stark insists:

“Slavery ended in medieval (i.e. Catholic) Europe [only] because the church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then managed to impose a ban on the enslavement of Christians.”

By the third century the church had a pope, Callistus (d. 236) who had himself been a slave. With the fall of the western Roman empire in the fifth century, the pressure to end slavery increased. Priests began to urge the freeing of slaves as an “infinitely commendable act”. By the late 700s Charlemagne opposed slavery. By the 800s slavery was declared by some theologians to be “against divine law”.

Another scandalous era of slavery opened in the West with the voyages of exploration of the 1400s that gave European ships access to black Africa, and the incentive to ship slaves to imperial territories in north and south America. This too the papacy was far too slow to condemn unequivocally, yet even in the 1500s, some popes angrily condemned slavery in the Americas.

By now many Christians held that slavery was positively sinful. Here again we see the possibility for progress in Christian theology – as St Augustine had predicted. And it was this conviction that provided most fuel for the victories of the anti-slavery movement in the 1800s.

Uniquely among the world’s Religions, Christianity had not simply argued that all were equal in the sight of God, but provided most of the political momentum for the eventual overthrow of slavery. While the church is often pilloried for the slow progress of freedom in Europe, few secularist intellectuals have faced the reality that elsewhere in the world there was no progress at all. This was true especially of Islam. It was true even of China – often held up by secularists as a more advanced civilisation because its intelligentsia was irreligious.

And it was from these Christian principles of human dignity and human equality that another key modern principle emerged also: the principle of equal human rights.

Secularist opponents of Christianity will deny this, of course. They will argue that the principle of human rights was the child of the Enlightenment, an anti-Christian movement of the 1600s and 1700s.

But we now know that the US Declaration of Independence of 1776 owed its theory of human rights to the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). And that Locke frankly admitted his own debt to Catholic moral theologians of the Middle Ages who had developed the Christian principle of equal human dignity. If all are equal in dignity, it followed that Christians have binding obligations to all other humans. From these binding obligations, and from no other source, proceeds the principle that all humans are owed – i.e.have a right to – e.g. freedom

A further embarrassment for those who want to see the Enlightenment as the original source of freedom and human rights is the fact that the great Voltaire, high priest of the Enlightenment, invested the considerable profits of his own writings in the 18th century French slave trade, based at Nantes.

It was a vast tragedy for the Catholic church that the Christian origins of freedom became hidden even from the papacy in the period after the Enlightenment. Fearing the rise of democracy and the principle of religious freedom, Catholic bishops and popes, usually the sons of aristocratic Catholic families, mistakenly often condemned these. The belief that “error has no rights” was adhered to by Catholic churchmen well into the lifetime of many of us.

It was also a great tragedy for Catholicism in Ireland that when our church did eventually embrace the principle of religious freedom at Vatican II in 1965, our most powerful churchman was Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin. He too believed that error had no rights, and that it was perfectly legitimate for him and his fellow bishops to seek to control the Irish state directly. His extraordinary determination to control every aspect of Irish life until his resignation in 1971 earned for Irish Catholicism a reputation for clericalism and authoritarianism that virtually guaranteed the victory of secularism in the generation that followed.

Archbishop McQuaid mistakenly obliged every Catholic in his diocese to define Catholic loyalty in terms of unquestioning obedience and intellectual deference to him personally. This clericalist spirit still pervaded Catholic Ireland in the era of the council, and sabotaged its liberating potential here. Forced to choose between the role of ‘lackey to the bishop’ and the supposedly secular principle of freedom, many, many Irish people felt obliged, even in conscience, to choose the latter and to reject Catholic belief.

This is one of the most important reasons for the growth of Irish secularism and anticlericalism in recent decades. It explains why our media constantly exploit church scandals and why it is now so difficult for Irish Catholic churchmen to get a fair public hearing, especially in matters like stem cell research.

Catholic authoritarianism has always played into the hands of those who want to argue that the greater freedom of western culture is an entirely secular achievement, and that religion and freedom must always be opposed. And this in turn has led to a situation in Ireland where secularism is now so powerful that many Catholics feel ashamed to identify themselves as Catholics in public.

The solution is not to seek to restore the ‘Catholic Ireland’ of Archbishop McQuaid but to understand the Catholic roots of western freedom and to take pride, publicly, in that fact. We need to make ourselves entirely at home in neutral secular space and to educate ourselves to the facts of western history – refusing to take for granted secularist propaganda aimed at shaming us and driving Catholicism out of the public square entirely.

In particular we need to point out to secularists that the Catholic roots of western civilisation are far more than a matter of Catholic opinion. They are now confirmed by globally renowned scholars who are not even Christian. One of the most important is Rodney Stark, the ground-breaking American sociologist. I have used his recent book Victory of Reason as my most important source for these articles. Written with great clarity and honesty, it should be read by every educated Catholic.

Another is the German atheist philosopher Jurgen Habermas. Disturbed by various decadent tendencies in western society, and by the growing threat of terrorism since 9/11, he made the following declaration in a 2004 essay A Time of Transition:

“Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilisation. To this day, we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is post-modern chatter.”

Armed with this same knowledge, Irish Catholics of tomorrow will have no need to feel defensive about their faith or ashamed to proclaim it as the source of their own idealism in the secular world.

Claiming our own place in pluralist Irish secular society we must now also be unafraid to ask anti-Catholic secularists if they really know the origins of the values, and especially the freedom, they hold sacred.

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Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust: The Real Lessons

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish Times 1999

The issue of Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust just won’t go away. Seán O’Conaill believes the central question is about the Papacy itself.

“Hitler’s Pope” is so obvious a book title that sooner or later some opportunistic publisher was bound to use it and, predictably, the debate that has followed the publication of John Cornwell’s book is confused and partisan. Once more Pius XII becomes both villain and victim, depending upon which side you take.

However, the debate has again tended to focus on human judgment rather than the question of principle. Owen Chadwick argues in the Tablet that Cornwell exaggerates the ‘power’ of Pacelli/Pius XII throughout the period of both World Wars. He points out that Nazi brutality was deliberately directed against the dioceses of the more anti-Nazi bishops of Germany.

Others will repeat exactly the same point in the context of the Holocaust. Dutch Catholics suffered far more in the aftermath of a forthright condemnation of Nazism by their own bishops. Richard McBrien, for the prosecution, demurs: a more forthright condemnation from the Vicar of Christ, the head of the world’s largest religious organisation, would have given Berlin pause for thought. Just as John Paul’s dangerous policy of support for the Polish Solidarity movement helped undermine global communism.

Common to both sides of the debate is a belief that Pius XII’s primary responsibility was for the physical safety of his own flock. If he underestimated his “power” and overestimated the likely Nazi reaction to a forthright condemnation of the Holocaust he is to be condemned. If he was “powerless” to halt the Holocaust, and would have provoked a new Holocaust of Catholics by such a condemnation, he must be applauded for better judgment than his detractors.

For both sides, it would appear, the basic question was a matter of political judgment: whether Pius XII’s explicit condemnation of an ongoing genocide, in which many Catholics in Nazi-held Europe were actively involved, would have done more “harm” than “good”. And these concepts are implicitly defined in secular rather than spiritual terms. “Good” is the absence of physical pain and death. “Harm” is its opposite. In 1942 it was Auschwitz, history’s closest analogy to hell itself.

But the Papacy titles itself the Vicarship of Christ, and calls the church the mystical body of Christ. There is in the heart of this terminology a claim that Catholicism embodies the spirit of self-sacrifice that led Jesus to crucifixion rather than worldly survival and triumph. There is also the claim that the Papacy in particular symbolises this ethic. If the Papacy’s and the church’s bottom line is their own physical survival, how then are they to live the moral claim they make? Can a self-sacrificing God be witnessed to by a mystical body that defines good and evil in secular terms, and which chooses survival before self-endangerment?

It may be said: “But the church must survive in order to bring the message of salvation to future generations”. But what message is brought if the historical record shows that the infallible church was, in history’s deepest moment, unable to live that message?

Christianity is rejected in the West today not because it is not a beautiful ideal, but because most do not believe it can be lived. The Papacy itself in 1942-1945, and the debate that currently rages, implicitly underwrite this wisdom.

Of course, we are to some extent saved by those Catholics who, on their own initiative, did indeed embody the spirit of self-sacrifice. Maximilian Kolbe is the archetypal example chosen by the Papacy itself. He offered to take the place of a Jewish father picked for execution.

The pope at Christmas 1942 could have made the same offer.

The Papacy surely cannot simultaneously claim both the moral sovereignty due to Christ and the right to run away from crucifixion. When it does so it leaves the whole church, for which it claims to speak, open to a charge of fundamental hypocrisy.

I deliberately speak of the Papacy rather than of Pius XII because, as Cornwell’s book clearly shows, Pius XII was the ideal servant of an ideology of the Papacy. That ideology insists that a strong church demands the centralisation of authority.

But the record shows that this arch-centralist was, to a significant degree, morally paralysed by the Holocaust as was much of the church he led. This was precisely because he felt responsible for the whole church and because most Catholics were (and still are) trained to wait upon the Pope.

When Pius XII is defended in terms of his own inability to influence the behaviour of European Christians and Catholics in history’s greatest spiritual crisis then papalism itself is admitted to be spiritually sterile.

Papal authority, it is argued, simply cannot exist in such a crisis, the very moment when a spiritual leadership is most required. That is the central truth to be learned from that terrible time.

But those who wish to canonise Pius XII are determined to ignore that truth, even though their own defence of him, and of the institution he served, is founded on an insistence that he was, in that desperate situation, impotent. Where does faith in God come into that?

Thus the gibe of “cafeteria Catholicism”, so often used by papalist Catholics against their opponents, comes truly home to roost. Catholicism in 1942, as represented by the Papacy, chose physical survival before self-endangerment, and in so doing left to isolated individuals the burden of proving that followers of Christ must expect, sometimes, to have to follow him into the tomb.

That is the unacknowledged backdrop to the millennium, this Gethsemane of every pope who, starting with Peter, dodges the crucifixion. It counsels not the canonisation of popes, but humility and penitence, and a decentralisation of initiative. We Catholics will only grow up when we are taught that, in the end, like Kolbe, we may be called upon to stand alone for the truth, because the Papacy (for whatever reason) cannot be expected to do so.

When the Papacy rises to the challenge of teaching us this explicitly, rising above the self-indulgent jingoism of canonising the last pope who proved it, then alone will it become worthy of some of its less grandiose self-entitlements. In the meantime it will merely go on excusing Pius XII by removing from his shoulders the ultimate moral and spiritual obligation that must surely accompany the exclusive title “Vicar of Christ”.

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