Tag Archives: greed

The crisis in secular society offers an opportunity for the church

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Nov 2011

The recovery of the Catholic church in Ireland will occur just as soon as its leaders realise that they need to share responsibility with lay people for evangelising secular culture.

The summer months of 2011 saw an intensification of the crisis of the Catholic Church in Ireland.  The Cloyne report showed how the powers exercised by Catholic bishops could be used to frustrate even the church’s own child protection guidelines as late as 2008.  Once again, despite the warning provided by previous scandals,  an Irish bishop had totally mishandled this issue – to the detriment of victims of abuse, and to the disgrace of his church.  With other dioceses now undergoing investigation, we wonder how Irish Catholic bishops can ever regain the trust and confidence of their people.

Soon after, something entirely different happened in a neighbouring society.  London, Birmingham and other major British cities were convulsed by terrifying riots that saw wide scale looting and destruction.  In the aftermath over 1,300 rioters were brought before emergency courts – and media commentators agonised over this unexpected event.  Many spoke of the alienation of too many young men from modern society, but none saw any easy solution.   The most honest pundits confessed to total bewilderment.

How would the Irish Catholic church react if similar events were to take place in Irish cities?  There is no precedent for the emergency that would then present itself, and no precedent for the calling together of the Irish faithful to respond to such a secular crisis.  And that encapsulates the problem of the Irish Catholic church today.  With no reason to believe that what happened in Britain could not happen here, our Irish church occupies itself entirely with internal diversionary matters – for example, ‘World Youth Day’ and the Eucharistic Congress scheduled for 2012.

It is a state of affairs that cannot continue.  Sometime soon Ireland will reach a tipping point – a severe and immediate crisis that will precipitate a realisation on the part of church leadership that the division of the church into clerical insiders and non-clerical outsiders simply cannot and must not be maintained.   We are sleepwalking at present on the edge of a cliff, maintaining a model of church that prevents us from doing something basic to the health of every social entity –  communicating with one another over a host of vital issues.

We obviously need to communicate, for example, about the desperation of so many young people, and about the vulnerability of the family – and the role of adult males in mentoring and providing role models for young men.  We need to acknowledge also that the fragile forces that prevent the collapse of any society into chaos are in need of support from every concerned citizen.  We need to talk about the relevance of Catholic social teaching to the vast disillusionment that has overtaken Irish society in recent years.  We need to discuss how we are to counter the dangerous negativity that threatens to overwhelm Irish life, and to replace it with a soundly-based optimism. In a climate of deep cynicism created by so many failures of leadership, we need to restore confidence in the possibility of unselfish public service.

We need to develop together also a deeper understanding of the perils of consumerism and the relevance of the Gospels.  It simply will not do to go on moralising about ‘materialism’ from the pulpit when it is absolutely clear that we humans are entirely uninterested in ‘matter’ for its own sake.  What drives consumerism is the search for social status, the status that is supposedly conferred by possession of advanced technology and expensively ‘styled’ possessions of all kinds.  Churchmen need to become aware that the search for status is a problem they also have – it is actually the root cause of their aloofness, their preference for the company of their peers and their distance from their people.

This ‘Status Anxiety’ is also the trigger for ‘contagious greed’ – the infectious manias that drove, for example, the Irish property bubble, and even, partially, the craze for ‘designer drugs’.  At a more benign level ‘contagious greed’ even maintains the higher consumer spending that economists tell us we need to revitalise the global economy.  We really need an opportunity to discuss all of this – because unbridled contagious greed is also obviously the trigger for looting.

How many Irish priests and bishops are able to connect in their homilies these obvious phenomena of Status Anxiety and infectious greed with Jesus warnings against seeking status and against coveting a neighbour’s possessions?

Is it too dangerous to ‘go there’, perhaps?   Is Status Anxiety also the root problem of the Irish church, the source of clerical aloofness – the basic reason that Catholic clergy – and especially Catholic bishops – are afraid to make open discussion the weekly diet of a church in deep crisis?  Was it also the underlying reason for the cover-up of clerical child abuse? Are clergy basically fearful of losing their status in the church if they lose control?  Is clerical Status Anxiety the root cause of the widespread weakness of preaching at Mass these times?

Preaching would be far stronger also if clergy could confidently assert that it is possible to overcome status anxiet’.  That is in essence what Jesus did – and what Francis of Assisi and every other great saint of the church did.  They lost the fear of descending to the base of society because they were already secure in the love of God.  When secular commentators ponder the nature of ‘strength of character’ we all need to be ready to point out, confidently, the source of the greatest strength. Spirituality is not just for monks – it is the soundest basis of moral character and of civic responsibility.

If the seeking of status is the root source of the growing secular crisis, how is the church to say so if it cannot criticise and dismantle its own status pyramid?  How many humiliations must the church experience before it chooses the path of humility willingly?

It will choose that path soon enough in any case – there will be no alternative.  With austerity set to intensify in Ireland in the months ahead the scene is set for a tipping point that will get us all talking at last – and using the Gospel as a source of salvation.

That cannot happen soon enough, but why do we need to wait?  The relevance of the Gospel to every major problem threatening us is clear enough.  It is only our absurd church structures that prevent us from sharing our understanding of that, and from bringing far better news to a secular society desperately in need of hope.

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Ireland’s Moral Ground Zero

Sean O’Conaill © The Irish Times Jan 2003

A new year has always been considered a good time for a new beginning.  Never did Ireland have a greater need of one, for there has never been a darker time.

True, in former centuries there have been periods of far greater violence and horror – but always then there was a residual trust in ourselves, a sense that our pain had to do with an alien presence which, once removed, would bring an endless idyll of peace and justice.

These times in Ireland we have totally lost that illusion.  Leadership in the major political party, and in the major church – in a free Ireland – has been fully revealed as fundamentally self-interested, insensitive and inept.  From the high point of national emancipation in 1922 Ireland descended to what must surely be its moral ground zero in 2002.

In May a general election was timed to allow the party in government to present a largely fictitious forecast of the economic climate that would prevail by the end of the year – bankrupting further the esteem in which politicians in Ireland are now held.

In October, Ireland’s only ecclesiastical prince declared on TV that he had failed to show basic Christian pastoral love for the victims of clerical child abuse in his own diocese because he had ‘so much to do’.   More recently it has become clear that we cannot trust him to remember that he told one victim that the rules he had agreed with great fanfare for the handling of child abuse cases in 1996 were mere guidelines, inferior to Canon Law.

Such behaviour corrodes the respect that is owed to the holders of high office – and diminishes the office itself.  We now know that the arrogance of power is not something to which we Irish are somehow genetically or spiritually immune.  We also know that the great gifts supposedly won in 1922 for the Irish people – of freedom and equal dignity for every citizen – are as much in danger from home grown careerists as they ever were from the agents of another state.

Irish politicians who ape the self-interest (and sometimes the cupidity) of the old ascendancy, and Irish churchmen who suppose that the Gospel can be properly exemplified by ‘princes’ in ‘palaces’, are teaching us these times a lesson we must learn quickly if we are not to suffer more of the same.   We are now witnessing the internal moral collapse of the ancien regimes that the rest of Europe went through in the decades before 1789 – a process delayed by our British problem.  Irish nationalism’s fundamental naivity was in supposing that Irishmen themselves could never be as corrupt or arrogant as the old ascendancy.  Irish Catholicism’s fundamental naivity was in supposing that an empowered Irish clergy would forever disprove the Catholic adage that power itself tends to corrupt.

So, despite all evidence, we are actually far better off than we were a decade ago – because we are no longer naive.  We simply need to face the truth – that we Irish are as prone to the old creeping disease of aristocracy (‘Me First’) in state and church as every other society – and move on from there.

We are re-learning, in other words, that the price of freedom – and equality – is indeed eternal vigilance – even over ourselves.

And we would be most unwise to suppose that because churchmen too have erred, their basic texts must also be tainted.  In July last year  in the USA the Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan attempted a diagnosis of the disease that had undone some of the largest concerns in his own country, beginning with ENRON.  That disease was, he said, ‘infectious greed’ – the tendency for people in a time of economic expansion to grab whatever opportunities present themselves.  ‘Infectious greed’ is clearly none other than the biblical sin of covetousness – the desire to keep pace with our neighbour’s good fortune.

The ongoing technological revolutions provide an endless stream of covetable goods, so we are all tempted, and we fail.  Politicians covet place and position – and the money to achieve both – and they fail.

Ecclesiastics can covet something also – eminence within the clerical elite, so the title ‘Your Eminence’ is an eminently covetable one.  So, along with ‘prince’ and every other worldly title, it should be abandoned in the cause of that ceaseless reform that another Cardinal, Newman, advocated for his church.  So called ‘cafeteria Catholicism’ was patented by the first Catholic bishop to accept the worldly privilege of social elevation.  When Catholic churchmen have all learned to share the same level ground with everyone else – as at least one Irish bishop thankfully has – they will quickly find the time they need to care for those their church has wronged – and even in time recover the integrity and moral authority of their office.

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Rehabilitating Satan

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 2001

Since the 18th century Enlightenment, western modernity has ridiculed the notion of an intelligent power of evil separable from us yet bent upon our destruction, and has optimistically trusted in the power of reason to deliver Utopia. Post modernism has lost confidence in reason and banished all optimism, but remains closed to any spiritual dimension. Both God and Satan remain banished from the media discourse of most of those who seriously debate human affairs – including the question of where the world may be going. Even Christian theologians, although defensive of God, seem often slightly embarrassed by the question of Satan – as though he were a kind of demented and distant relation with obscure and unmentionable, and maybe even absurd, criminal tendencies who is best forgotten.

The fact that Hollywood has enthusiastically adopted this embarrassing relative doesn’t help matters. As lascivious progenitor of a human Antichrist bent upon world domination he becomes merely ridiculous – even more so than Dracula, Dr No or Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Yet the pervasiveness of evil in our time – never more horrifically demonstrated than on September 11th, 2001 – defies our expertise, and whatever optimism we can still muster. The West’s technological sophistication – quite capable of ending global deprivation – was turned against it with terrifying effect. America, ‘land of the free’, was attacked as though it was a global tyranny to be fought by the most merciless of means.

‘Diabolical’ we may say – at a loss for words of sufficient force – even while knowing that it is the demonisation of America by militant Islam that explains that day. That is, when we humans decide that any physical entity is ‘the root of all evil’, we will justify any means to destroy it – and that attempt becomes itself an archetype of evil. Nazism justified the Shoa in precisely the same way – ‘international Jewry’ had supposedly conspired against and humiliated Germany during and after World War 1, so its destruction was a holy duty. Yet this systematic attempt to destroy an entire people became itself the archetypal example of ‘diabolical’ evil in modern times.

Accusation is the essence of the demonisation process – the loading of blame onto a specific human target. If we identify the specifically demonic act as one of accusation we can make use of the insights of René Girard (succinctly presented in a recent post-retirement work *) both to interpret what is happening, and to predict what lies down the road. Girard the anthropologist needs to do no more than minutely describe a repetitive process of mimetic rivalry, accusation, violence and concealment to justify his theories. Christian faith can go beyond this to accuse the spirit of evil, Satan, which lies behind this process, tempting us to accuse one another.

The USA’s finger was within hours of the US catastrophe pointed at Osama bin Laden, catapulting him to world notoriety and, apparently, global Islamic fame. Within a month western high explosive – often with ‘NYPD’ painted on the casing – was ‘rearranging the rubble’ in Afghanistan, and causing much ‘collateral damage’. Soon Osama bin Laden was in turn accusing the USA of being the source of all that is wrong in the Islamic world, and urging Jihad.

What I propose here is simply that mutual demonisation is an inevitable consequence of the banishment of Satan, understood as ‘the accuser’ – the spirit of accusation – from human discourse. That is, if we fail to see the resort to mutual accusation as the imitative demonic process common to protagonists on the brink of conflict, and to stand apart from it, we, almost consciously, join the dance of death. Our common enemy is this spirit of accusation, busy on both sides. Unrecognised it operates freely through us – raising our arm to point in accusation, and to hurry us to arms. And once we use them we will, knowingly now, validate one another’s accusations. Thus Satan the accuser becomes also Satan the destroyer.

“How can Satan drive out Satan?” Jesus asked. Unless the accused is totally alone and powerless, the result of accusation is invariably counter-accusation. We have seen this law survive thirty years of conflict in Northern Ireland, perfectly intact. It is the veritable source of human historical inertia, the repetitive resort to violence. It would be catastrophic if this same dynamic were now to polarise the West and Islam.

Of course accusation to be plausible will usually seek, and find, justification for itself. Bin Laden’s direct part in the September 11th atrocity may be hard to prove conclusively in court, but it fits perfectly his openly espoused programme of killing Americans wherever they can be found, and he explicitly approved and exulted in the attack afterwards. Moreover his wealth and energy will inevitably place him somewhere in the paths of some of the perpetrators, and in the weave of events, leading to the disaster.

But the purpose of accusation is more than to apportion blame. It also deflects attention from the accuser – often in a crisis likely to reflect badly upon that accuser. Bin Laden did precisely the same in forecasting US atrocities in Afghanistan as a means of winning support in Pakistan, and of deflecting attention from the appalling scale and manner of death in Washington and New York.

To date I have not heard any US politician ask why the appalling weaknesses in US internal air security, spotted by the plotters probably as early as 1996, were not eliminated by those charged with this responsibility by the Washington administrations of both Bill Clinton and George Bush. Could the reason be that both of the great American political parties have been catastrophically remiss – for purely wealth-driven reasons? And when the plight of the Palestinians is raised as a cause of Islamic fundamentalist wrath, the hawkish response is to allege that some kind of moral equivalence is being argued. To placate American opinion – severely shocked by this unprecedented blow to its heart – the military hardware they finance through taxation must be put in motion eastwards, even if this does cause further havoc among the desperately poor of Afghanistan. As I write, Americans wait for some kind of dénouement there in the arrest of Bin Laden – so the deflective power of accusation is still doing its job.

The best of all lessons on the proper Christian approach to accusation is the story of the woman accused of adultery in the Temple, in Jesus’ presence. He did not address the accusation, but the accusers. Accusation deflects attention and focuses anger elsewhere by implying a moral imbalance between accuser and accused. Not only is the accused guilty, the accuser is also innocent. The scapegoating violence that normally followed such a charge was intended to envelop Jesus also – either in complicity or opposition. His direct appeal to the self-knowledge of the accusers – and to their knowledge of one another – prevented the throwing of the initial and always fatal stone.

To allude to Satan then in this context is to point to the power of the spirit of accusation in unifying one community against another. Evils exist both in a seriously sick western culture that threatens an unmodernised Islam, and in an Islamic fundamentalism that naively scapegoats America – and these must both be addressed.

When addressing the problems of the west – especially an unbounded and glorified consumerism that unbalances the world and threatens its environment – we may be temped to resort to the accusatory word ‘greed’, especially in relation to America. Yet the Bible does not make this accusation. Again it places the blame for all our weaknesses upon a spiritual entity that tempts us, without being an essential part of us. ‘You shall be as Gods!’ – this is the original temptation: to forsake the obscurity and dependence of the creature for the glory and power of the creator. To say ‘yes’ to this temptation is to admit the spirit of material dissatisfaction and ambition – the very core of Western economic dynamism and military power.

When the artist known as Madonna can assert that she will continue her career until she is ‘better known than God’, she unwittingly validates completely this biblical diagnosis of what is wrong with all of us. Our self-regard depends more and more upon the degree to which we suppose we are regarded by others – and this is the root source of our acquisitiveness. Possessions are the social symbols of success, of ‘worth’, and money the means by which these symbols are to be acquired. Celebrity is the final seal: ‘I am known by millions, therefore I exist’.

The Enlightenment was therefore entirely wrong in supposing that the concepts of sin and Satan are an indictment of humankind. Instead they are a means by which the perennial evils we visit upon one another are explained in terms that deny us the right to accuse one another, and also offer us the means of a full reconciliation, in mutual respect.

Thus when President Bush tells an American audience ‘we are the greatest nation on earth’ we need not say ‘There you are – American arrogance and imperialism!’  We can say instead that in a moment when American self-respect has been seriously damaged the temptation to hyperbole has proved irresistible. And when bin Laden identifies America as the root of all evil we can ask ‘What role, then, does Satan, the tempter, play in your theology?’

And when right and left fall into separate bitter camps over the relative evil of ‘terrorist’ and state violence we can point out that the debate needs to move on – to identify the spirit of self-exculpation and accusation in both camps as the root of the problem. Islamic societies seem to be as easily deflected from the horrors of September 11th as Americans are from the sufferings of Palestinians and other Muslims due to Western failure.

There is no doubt that otherwise we must all seek a violent righteousness – a position of moral unassailability from which we can indict everyone else. We will continue forever demonising one another until we can recognise that the temptation to do so – a temptation that is resistible – affects us all, afflicts us all, but is nevertheless separable from our better selves. And this tempter has the same name in both the Bible and the Quran.

  * I See Satan Fall like Lightning : René Girard (Orbis Books, New York, 2001)

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