Tag Archives: Fear

Can Pope Francis restore faith in the Irish Church?

Sean O’Conaill  April 2014

One year on from his election Pope Francis has already changed the image of the papacy, and modelled an entirely different style of leadership from that of his two predecessors.  Reflecting the amiability and simplicity of his namesake, St Francis of Assisi, he may even be setting out to respond to the same challenge that the Italian friar heard from Jesus:  to ‘rebuild my church’.

However,  Pope Francis is now in his late seventies – and many younger bishops appointed by his predecessors may well be wondering if this new wind from Rome will last long enough to oblige them to amend their own way of going.

So far no Irish bishop has become quite so accessible, so open, so eager to meet people and hear their stories and grievances.   Where Francis could meet with an atheist editor in Italy – and allow their exchange to be published – no Irish bishop will formally and openly meet with the leaders of the reformist Irish Association of Catholic Priests (ACP).  Where Francis could call a synod on the family, no Irish bishop yet shows any sign of responding to the call Francis makes to all bishops in Evangelii Gaudium 31 – ‘to encourage and develop the means of participation proposed in the Code of Canon Law’.

For example, not even Archbishop Martin of Dublin has projected the holding of a diocesan synod – something his predecessor had done in his final years in office.

And no Irish bishop has shown any sign of taking up another suggestion offered by Evangelii Gaudium – the pope’s advice to every bishop to be willing at times to be led by his own people.

FOA – fear of assembly – still grips Ireland’s bench of bishops in a vice – that fear of ‘stirring up a hornets’ nest’ by, for example, arranging regular open diocesan forums to respond to the missionary challenge issued from the heart of the church.

There can be no missionary revival led by men gripped more by fear than the confidence shown by the pope.  Where is the Irish bishop who will call all of his people to read and discuss Evangelii Gaudium and to feed back to him their vision of the future church, in a truly ‘developed’ diocesan synod?

And where is the Irish bishop who will commit himself to regular interface with a diocesan pastoral council – to respond, for example,  to questions such as those that arise out of Ian Elliott’s concerns for the integrity, independence and strength of the NBSCCC?

If co-responsibility is the challenge of the moment, no Irish bishop has yet risen to that challenge – or responded to the Pope’s clearly given invitation to all national bishops’ conferences to freely consider the particular needs of their own societies, and to be proactive in finding solutions – even at the cost of making mistakes.

Here’s Pope Francis again: “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”  (Evangelii Gaudium 27)

What are Irish bishops dreaming of these times?  Why can’t they tell us?  And listen to our dreams too?  Which of them will show the same confidence in the Irish people of God, and in the power of the Holy Spirit to lead us?

And when will they ever change the closeted style of their quarterly meetings in Maynooth – those funereal huddles to prepare statements so guarded that they merely add to the mountain of verbal ash that buries the embers of the Irish faith.

They speak now of St Columbanus and his impending 1400th anniversary.  They need to pray for his courage in venturing into another unknown land awaiting the Gospel – and step out, unguarded, onto the island of Ireland.

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We need to face up to Five Dysfunctions of the Church

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  March 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Absence of Trust

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

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

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

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

2. Fear of Conflict

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

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

3. Lack of Commitment

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

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

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

4. Avoidance of Accountability

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

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

5. Inattention to Results

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

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

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

Turning Things Around

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

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

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

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

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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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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.

Views: 8

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.

Views: 27

Unaccountability, Patronage and Corruption

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Feb 2006

As a teacher of history I had often to explain to pre-university students how different the world was when it was governed by an unquestionable hereditary nobility who monopolised wealth, power and privilege. If I was still teaching I would probably now point to our own Catholic Church as the last remaining vestige of that system.

However, Catholic teachers in Catholic schools are unhappily still only too fearful of the consequences of doing any such thing.

Those students found it very difficult to get a real grip of a world in which the fortunes of individuals were far less dependent upon their abilities than upon the vagaries of patronage. Accountable to no one, in a world where public examinations didn’t exist, people of power had absolute discretion in employing and promoting their own favourites – and the obsequiousness required of an applicant was often corrupting and bitterly resented. Not even the towering genius of a Mozart gave immunity. His loss of the favour of one patron – the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg – led to him being kicked down a flight of stairs by this worthy’s servant.

Sometimes good movies help explain the situation – and none is more helpful than A Man for All Seasons. The opening sequences show Lord Chancellor Thomas More, disillusioned by the corruption at the court of Henry VIII, dealing with the overtures of a young graduate, Richard Rich, who wants to find his way to that court, as a member of More’s retinue. Suspecting that Rich will be all too easily corruptible, More suggests that he become a teacher instead. But Rich’s eyes are fixed too firmly upon a court appointment. When More turns him down, Rich turns to another rising star at court, Thomas Cromwell.

Cromwell prevails upon Rich to give false testimony against More on the matter of the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. More goes to the block while Rich becomes Attorney General of Wales.

While the actual history of this matter is probably not so clear cut, the real connection between unaccountability, patronage and corruption is made crystal clear in that film. How many Catholic churchmen are aware that their own unaccountability, allied to their own power of patronage, is a deeply corrupting circumstance in their own Church?

Take the simple fact that a bishop has virtually absolute discretion in the matter of clerical appointments, and very considerable leverage in the matter of appointments in most Catholic schools. Can this encourage independence of mind and intellectual and moral integrity in present circumstances in the Catholic educational system? My own experience and recent observation strongly indicate the contrary.

The Ledwith Case

Take, for example, what is now known as the Ledwith affair. The Ferns Report concluded that the bishop trustees of Maynooth had been seriously mistaken in their reaction to the reporting by Maynooth Dean Gerard McGinnity in 1984 of inappropriate behaviour by Monsignor Ledwith in relation to young seminarians. While Fr McGinnity had been sacked for his effrontery, Ledwith had been promoted to the presidency of the college – but had later been compelled to resign.

The McCullough Report into that affair had also discovered that Ledwith was believed to have ‘too much interest in a few’ of the Maynooth seminarians. It also declared that the investigation undertaken by some of the bishop trustees of Maynooth into McGinnity’s report had been inadequate. Ledwith’s rapid rise, and the trustees’ brusque treatment of McGinnity, suggest also that whereas Ledwith was a firm favourite of those bishops in 1984, McGinnity most definitely was not.

Favouritism and patronage are close cousins. The power of an academic in a university to help or hinder a student is notoriously prone to corruptive exploitation. So, visibly, is the power of a bishop trustee of Maynooth to help or hinder a member of the Maynooth staff by promotion or the contrary. That bishop trustees are not accountable to the Church community they serve is now a circumstance deeply troubling to that Church community. The People of God should not need to be beholden to secular institutions to regulate the leaders they themselves finance. Many are already asking why their Church contributions should be less effective in making their bishops accountable than their state taxes and their television licence fees.

Is a trustee who has bankrupted the trust required by his office still, de facto, a trustee?

The unaccountability of bishops means, of course, that they can safely dodge that question. But the tendency of so many of those charged with educating the Church, to dodge the Church’s questions – now well established after more than a decade – is in itself an abdication of leadership, a challenge to faith, and a corrupting circumstance for those below them in the chain of command. If a bishop cannot face direct questions from his people, how can he persuasively ask a subordinate to do so? And how, in the wake of the Ledwith affair, and in the absence, so far, of any significant reparation to Fr McGinnity, can he argue that integrity is a virtue favoured by the Catholic educational system overall – especially at its pinnacle?

Students

Since retiring from teaching in Catholic schools in 1996 I have maintained contact with colleagues. Without exception they confirm my own strong suspicion: for a teacher to express serious criticism of Irish Catholic Church leadership is still considered, by most teachers, to be probably fatal to any prospect of promotion. Rightly or wrongly, Catholic teachers believe that it is fatal to get ‘on the wrong side of the bishops’ – and ambitious career teachers will edit their verbal utterances accordingly.

That fear is in itself an obvious source of corruption. But the corrupting influence does not stop there. Faced with the reality that school authorities in Northern Ireland write references for them as part of the university entrance system, many Catholic students in my time tended to be utterly conformist in every respect until the end of final school term; and then to express their indifference to (and some times resentment of) their Church by abandoning all contact with it at that point – forever. This can be confirmed simply by interrogating Catholic university chaplains on the numbers of Catholic students who make any kind of contact with them, and by scanning Church congregations for young people in the age-range eighteen to thirty-five.

As the power of patronage, especially when accompanied by lack of accountability, is so clearly a corrupting influence on our Church, the case for making accountable those who dispense patronage is now overwhelming. The problem is, of course, that, being unaccountable, these dispensers of patronage do not need to agree.

Indeed, if we study Boston, the signs are that Church leaders are still determined to prove that those who speak out with integrity will not prosper. Priests who did so against Cardinal Archbishop Bernard Law of Boston in 2002, forcing his resignation, have found themselves penalised in the transfer process by his successor. And supporters of Fr Gerard McGinnity who protested on his behalf at Armagh cathedral in late 2005 have been approached by senior clergy with the intention of doing further damage to his reputation. No sign of reparation, or remorse, there. But then the promotion of Cardinal Law to a prominent role in Rome by the late pope – even more prominent since the death of John Paul II – sends the very same message.

Seeking Integrity

The struggle for integrity is probably an endless one, especially for the Christian. How sad that most of the appointed leaders of our Church, in Ireland and elsewhere, have still not visibly committed themselves to it, or been able to read the signs of the times.

For example, how many Irish bishops have recognised generously the public service provided by the media in opening our eyes to the series of scandals that have overwhelmed the Irish Catholic Church since 1994? How many are moved to contrast the freedom of the secular press and other media with the Byzantine secrecy with which the clerical Catholic Church conducts its business? From the UTV documentary on Brendan Smyth in November 1994, to the BBC documentary Suing the Pope in 2002, all forward progress in the Church’s handling of the issue of clerical child sex abuse has been driven by secular media revelation. Nevertheless, there are still senior Irish bishops who blame the secular media for all of the bad news they publish – as though most of that bad news had not in fact been created by the clerical Church’s own deceitful denial of justice to those it has wronged, and denial of transparency to the wider Church.

Why does information travel faster in secular culture than in the culture of the Church? Why are secular journalists free to inform us lay Catholics of our Church’s internal shortcomings, while clergy feel obliged to tell us nothing and to toe the party line? Here again the reason is the corrupting effects of an unaccountable patronage system. To put the situation in the bluntest terms, the best journalists are paid to educate their readers, while Catholic clergy are rewarded only for being loyal to bishops whose notion of education is mostly closer to that of mushroom farmers: we lay people are to be kept totally in the dark because the unaccountable patronage system (which they mistakenly call ‘the Church’) has to be protected at all costs.

The tendency for this system to surround a bishop with servant sycophants who simply cannot give their superior a ‘reality check’ is now notorious in Ireland. It favours the deep-seated culture of denial that prevents the hierarchy from getting a real grip of the situation. It also causes deep fissures in the fraternal relations of clergy.

Learning basic Christianity

Secular culture is therefore now teaching basic Christianity to a ‘slow learner’ hierarchy – and that is the most profound reason for the rapid secularisation of this island. Twenty years ago most people in Ireland supposed religion to be the source of all morality. Our hierarchy have now persuaded many of us that religion is just as likely to be the enemy of morality – when it denies us the truth, and often justice as well.

It is not as though the Ferns Report is completely unchallengeable either. The Report comes badly unstuck when it says (p. 256) ‘bishops put the interests of the church ahead of children’. Those children were also – all – equal members of the Church, and the Church as a spiritual community has been deeply injured by the action of those bishops, so this is strictly nonsense. However, we cannot expect an Irish bishop to say so. The reason is that what was actually put before children was the closed clerical system that is so clearly misgoverning the Church – which every bishop is nevertheless oath-bound to protect as though it was the Church.

It needs to be said clearly: a secular culture in which power is dispersed has been shown to be more likely to permit the reign of truth and the growth to adulthood of the Catholic laity – and to prevent abuses of power that the current Church system did nothing to prevent. It is therefore superior, in terms of Christian morality and education, to a medieval system in which the power and status of an unaccountable oligarchy has been prioritised as though it was the will of God – even after that system has been clearly shown, to the whole world, to be dangerous to the bodies and souls of children.

To put an end to a corrupt and corrupting system, unaccountable control of Church patronage must therefore be ended as rapidly as possible by those who actually fund it – the Catholic laity. Until full accountability has been institutionalised in our Church, we fund the present system at peril to the very survival of the truths and values that are our foundation. At present we are actually participants in corruption, because we give free rein to those who control the patronage system of the Church, who remain unaccountable, who wield that patronage still to maintain their ‘authority’, and who have (mostly) learned too few of the most important lessons of the past eleven years.

Views: 6

‘Ubi caritas …’

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2003

In 1975, at the age of five, my only daughter, Cliona, told me to stop smoking:  she had just heard on TV that every cigarette shortened my life by a few minutes.

I stopped straight away, touched by the directness of the child’s heart and mind. Certainly that decision gave me good physical health for most of the ensuing period.

Cliona was named after an Irish goddess of the waves. Drawn to the Gospel story early on, she found herself as an adolescent repelled from a church that seemed to her sin-obsessed and authoritarian. Leaving for London in her early twenties she fitted perfectly into the New Age mould of that time – environmentally aware and drawn to oriental mysticism. The Catholic worldview of her childhood simply slipped away and she became a free spirit, travelling widely and becoming a writer.

Now in June 2003 when Cliona heard of my cancer she had the same child’s directness: she travelled to Coleraine with her partner, Ajay, a disciple of the mystic Osho. She also proposed that she and Ajay give me a Buddhist therapy called Tibetan pulsing – directed at the seat of the cancer in my bladder.

I had initial misgivings – to do with the fact that I had handed my condition over to the Great Physician, the Lord Jesus Christ. But then I remembered again the Taizé hymn I had heard in hospital: “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.” (Wherever there is caring and love, God is also.) Had I not accepted the ministry of everyone in the hospital, irrespective of their faith, so why not that of my own daughter?

So I received three sessions of Tibetan pulsing – involving relaxation to rhythmic music, gentle massage, and meditation upon the role of the body part being affected. I learnt that the bladder was a delicate reservoir for the waters that I needed to preserve life – not a mere receptacle for waste. This eastern spiritual perception of the human body is so different from the western one, in which we have too readily learned to think of the body as a machine, with the doctor in the role of mechanic. It blended easily with my Christian perception of the body as sacrament of love.

At the beginning Ajay invited me to call into the therapy whatever spiritual presence I wished – so, of course, I called upon Jesus to heal whatever was awry. Ajay said that he detected that this was a particularly powerful prayer.

At the end of the last session Ajay asked if anything unusual had happened. I said, truthfully, yes – as I had seen an image of the cross, and superimposed upon it, an image of a fern leaf uncoiling as it does in spring. I had taken this to mean that the cross was the tree of life, and that my healing process had begun.

Now that my chemotherapy regime has just ended, with another CT scan scheduled for next week, I feel certain that there has been a great healing over those three months.

But, far more precious to me has been the healing of my relationship with my daughter. I believe I had resented her throwing away apparently everything she had received from her home and school, in which both of her parents had taught. Now I found her very sharp and intuitive about the pressures in my own life that had led to my illness. Especially the habit of being glued to the electronic media to collect data on the deteriorating world around me. She was also an invaluable guide to the organic diet I now moved on to, with great benefit.

She was also a mature and wise person, capable of communicating the necessity of spirituality to her own generation.

Best of all, I can see so much of myself in her – intellectual independence, a desire to communicate insights, a preference for wisdom before knowledge.

From this latest experience I have learned also not to be afraid to let my God mix freely with those of other faiths, confident of his ability to make his presence known in imagery that will communicate across all barriers.

Now Ajay will never again associate the cross merely with suffering, and will be open to contact with other Christian influences in his own country. The gentle pacifism of Buddhism, and the robust pacifism of Jesus, cannot be antithetical to one another. The truth is that Christian violence – too often sanctioned by Popes – has always been a betrayal of the Gospels, and it is time to recall the Church to the full pacific intent of the Gospels. The Dalai Lama and Ghandi call us in the same direction – and it is time we followed.

So, using the formula Ubi Caritas, no Catholic need be afraid of being unable to discern how to behave in the context of the many different faiths we encounter today. And we should not be afraid to let our children experience these faiths and cultures, and to ask their own questions. The truth need fear nothing from the truth. All of us are pilgrims whose paths cross for a purpose – to enrich everyone with the gifts of wisdom that are then exchanged.

Already the departure lounge had given me insight into the wondrous transaction that takes place between carers and patients. Now it had healed a relationship of great importance to me. In both cases, I had been learning something new – something I could write about – giving myself an added impetus to survive.

Next Monday I receive another CT scan, and a fortnight later the consultant will report the findings to me. Already I am confident that the cancer has receded generally, as I have practically no bladder discomfort, and the bladder has recovered its full capacity. Will I still need an operation to remove the bladder then?

I must wait and see – praying as I do so – for prayer has already proven to me its power to heal.

Views: 9

Defining Clericalism

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Oct 2002

Betty is a widow in her eighties, living alone in a rural parish in the north of Ireland.  Contacting me after reading some of my work she tells me of her bewilderment with a succession of local clergy who have passed through her life since Vatican II.  One anecdote stands out.

Sometime about 1975 her young local curate came to call, with a visiting curate friend of the same age.  Her own priest drew the visitor’s attention to a picture of the Sacred Heart sitting in an alcove in her living room wall.

“Very nice,” said the visiting priest, turning to Betty “but if I were you I would take that picture out and put in a clock!”

What kind of mindset, I ask myself, would consider that a spiritually defensible sally – somehow reconcilable with basic courtesy and this man’s own pastoral responsibility?  What did it say about his attitude to women per se, especially older women?  What did it reveal about the reasons for the suspicion many lay Catholics had, and have, towards the changes that followed – and didn’t follow – Vatican II?

There is certainly behind it a presumption of the priest’s role as one of expert adviser in all matters of religion, as well as a presumption of Betty’s incompetence in such matters.  The relationship it was intended to establish was one of knowledgeable teacher to backward pupil – despite the difference in ages.  Humour, doubtless, was intended also.  This man was, perhaps, on the crest of his own conception of the new wave that had emerged out of Vatican II – and saw this particular devotion as one of the old wineskins that could not carry the new wine that he now carried.  Whatever that was, Betty has, understandably, no recollection.

For Betty remembers this sally for what it was – a gratuitous insult delivered by a priest in her own home.  Knowing as I do what the Sacred Heart on the wall symbolised for Catholic families of her generation and place – the gracious presence in the humblest home of God’s personal love  – I was totally at a loss to express what I felt.  Especially about the misrepresentation of what Vatican II had to offer people like Betty in terms of self-respect and spiritual affirmation.   The story will always remain for me a classic example of how the disease of clericalism could seek to exploit even all that was good and liberating in Vatican II, and, by emphasising the unassailable superiority of the priest’s own role, keep the Irish Church in a state of spiritual and intellectual paralysis.

I tell this story because another of my articles provoked an irate anonymous letter from another priest, who explained that my writing was an expression of nothing more than an irrational ‘spasm of anger’ working its way through the Church at this time.  Clericalism, ‘whatever that may be’, was not the problem.

Convinced that clericalism is the essence of all of the problems that now face us, I have wondered since exactly how I would define it.  Tentatively, and for wider consideration, I suggest this:  The abuse of priestly expertise and authority to maintain clerical dominance of the people of God, by maintaining the dependence and inertia of laity.

Betty also helps me map at least one of the typical stratagems used in this cause.  Called by all the hierarchy at one of the many peaks of violence in NI  to devise a public service for peace in the town, a good proportion of her parish assembled to hear the parish priest expatiate on this.  It soon became clear that he didn’t want such a service, for his address consisted mainly of the same simple sentence repeated at least thrice for emphasis:  “We pray in for peace, we don’t pray out.”

The crassness of the example helps to reveal the rhetorical stratagem:  the assertion of a logical antithesis where none exists – in this case between private and public prayer.  We can call this the use of false antithesis to undermine a project one dislikes.  Who will dare to question such an antithesis if a parish priest – with years of seminary training behind him – feels ready to place all of his authority behind it?

Betty, unwisely, dared.  “Why can’t we do both?”

The response was uncompromising and angry: “Mrs Doherty, you are naïve.”

The assembled laity didn’t agree, and said so.  They elected a committee that included Betty to devise such a public service, respectfully appointing the parish priest to convene this committee.  He never did so.  On one occasion, spotting Betty waiting to ask him why, he retraced his steps and left the parish church by another route.   No peace service was held in the parish on that occasion.

I do not need to emphasise the demoralising – the antispiritual – effects of behaviour such as this.  Intended to raise up, spiritual authority was used to do precisely the reverse – to deny the competence of laity even in so simple and innocuous a matter, and to blast the earliest shoots of lay initiative and maturity on the vine.

“Naïve” was an especially destructive term – aimed, Betty thought, at her own lack of the kind of education that had allowed the priest to arrive at the false antithesis he had so confidently stated.  So some years later when her diocese organised a course in Catholic adult education she eagerly signed up, attending weekly lectures over two years.

Then she took stock, wondering what use she might make of her new knowledge.  Anxious not to venture into controversial areas where she might conflict with the views of a new parish priest, she drew up a written summary of the more interesting things she had learned – including the archaic autonomy of individual bishops – and added some supplementary questions of her own.  She passed this on to the parish priest, asking for his confirmation or rebuttal of its contents.

He never either returned it or discussed it with her, eventually simply apologising, without explanation, for his inability to do so.  His attitude was one that told her that she was really a bit of an eccentric for bothering her head about such matters.

This story perfectly illustrates the bind that laity are in at present.  Anxious not to be disrespectful towards clergy, they find that their deference is pocketed as the priest’s traditional due – without reciprocal respect.  Yet if they challenge this, they instinctively feel sure that this challenge will be interpreted as disrespectful.  This is the root source of the deep anger that many laity now feel and express to one another – the fact that they are faced with a stark choice between their traditional infantile role of deference to clergy, and complete alienation from the church.  And this in turn reveals another element of clericalism – its tendency to regard the priest as the personification of the church, and the layperson as necessarily deficient and dependent – essentially a second class Catholic, and certainly not worth listening to.

These three stories outline the reasons for Betty’s present bewilderment.  What is her role in the Church?  How is she to confidently express her own faith, in her own environment?  What is the point of lay personal education if clergy cannot acknowledge it?

While incidents such as these occurred close at hand, Betty was meanwhile collecting press cuttings that mapped the national and international controversies of Catholicism, beginning about 1968 with Humanae Vitae.  She was sure that God was calling her to develop her own comprehension of her own role as a Catholic lay woman in her own parish, but bewildered by the failure of her local church and clergy to offer any scope for discovering this.  She wondered, and still wonders, why this was.

I would ask the hierarchical and clerical church the very same question.  As part of the high stone wall they have erected against any change, they sometimes poignantly depict the simplicity of traditional untutored Irish faith, and the danger of disturbing it.  Betty, in her eighties, is far more deeply disturbed by something else:  about being patronised and insulted by clergy whose whole concept of their own role was one that simply did not allow for the ‘radical equality’ the Church says it is in business to uphold.

Having had an often very different experience of clergy I can only empathise with her, and ask again for the revolution in secular clerical attitudes towards laity the whole church needs in Ireland if our churches are not to decay into discos and bingo halls.

At the core of such a revolution is basic integrity.  If the purpose of the Church is to raise the entire human race to an understanding of its spiritual dignity, why is this dignity not available now to lay people who have been Catholic all their lives, and who wish to gather together to discuss – with clergy – the radical problems facing their church?  Especially the prospect of radical discontinuity of the faith in the lifetime of their own children?

If there is a genuine fear of theological heterodoxy or even schism emerging from any such process, where is the faith of the clergy?  Those lay people I know who are most anxious to be active as Catholics have no driving interest in theological controversy.  They simply want the freedom to express their own grasp of the creed – that it declares that no-one is outside the love and compassion of God.  They greatly respect those priests who greatly respect them, but find the rest insufferable, whatever theological flag they travel under.

Another lay acquaintance from an urban setting describes a parish situation in which two priests are in constant rivalry with one another, but totally unaware of this as a spiritual failing.  Rivalry, arrogance and ambition are clearly as great a temptation for a priest as for anyone else – but this seems not to have been part of the training of secular clergy in Ireland.  Instead the bottom line seems to be: keep control – as though that was ever part of the Gospels.

Which means that many committed Irish Catholics cannot now confidently affirm the integrity of their own leaders.  Reconciled to a process of decay that must eventually deprive those leaders of the clerical power they still cling to, they wonder how long this will take.

Betty Doherty (not her real name, of course) has paid a high price for Father’s amour propre – her own diminishment and disillusionment.  I am sure there are many such in Ireland – many women especially.  They deserve documentation, as they too are the poor in spirit whose humiliation is the price of the egotism of the world.

Clericalism in the end is simply priestly worldliness – the priest’s use of his office and expertise to flatter and empower himself.  Our church will never be free of it – or healthy and renascent – until it is faced, acknowledged, and repudiated by clergy themselves as a distortion and diminishment of their ministry.

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Towards a New Evangelism II: The Cursillo in Derry

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine & Life 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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