Tag Archives: Honour

The Church isn’t the only institution in the dock

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Jan 2012

At this time in the history of the island, word spread of a new power in the land. Its representatives had fascinating information to impart. These personalities had new ways of looking at the world, a capacity to set people talking and to widen everyone’s horizons. They channeled information from far overseas, greatly expanding the data that people had access to. People found them reliable, and came to trust this new power. Those who had previously most influenced the thinking of the people gradually lost that influence. The new institution came to change how everyone behaved, and to determine what they talked about.

As time passed the prestige of this new power grew enormously on the island, until its name was known by everyone, and millions listened. It came to determine who was to be honoured and who to be shamed, and even to influence the government of the island.

Then, unexpectedly, people learned that this new institution had abused its extraordinary power, and had acted with complete injustice. Suddenly the spotlight that the institution had focused on others was now focused on itself. The people sensed an important turning point, and were angry that the trust they had placed in this institution had been betrayed.

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If you have guessed by now that the institution described above is RTE, and the modern Irish media generally, you are quite correct. But notice something else. This plotline accurately fits the history of another very different institution – the Irish Catholic Church.

Of course the history of the latter is to be measured in centuries rather than decades, but otherwise there are striking similarities in the history of the Irish media, and the history of the Catholic church in Ireland.

The most striking similarity is the power that both acquired to utterly change the way of life of an entire people. Both brought new information from the outside world, and new personalities, and both addressed fundamental questions that we all ask: just how valuable and important am I in the scheme of things, and how should I live to be worthy of respect? They therefore both sidelined the previous mentors of the Irish people and acquired an unparalleled power to influence Irish behaviour.

This gave them both in the end the same power to honour some people and to shame others – to make saints or celebrities or winners of some and villains or sinners or losers of others. There is no greater power than the power to broker honour and shame – and this power is supremely dangerous. We now know for certain that sooner or later those who exercise too much of this power will overreach and act unjustly. We have now seen that happen both to Irish Catholic clergy and to Irish media executives – in the same short time span. This gives us an unparalleled opportunity to learn, and to draw conclusions.

Those who draw the conclusion ‘the Catholic Church is evil and should be destroyed’ are as mistaken as those who shout ‘the media are all evil and bigoted’. A more correct conclusion is that power is deeply problematic for us humans, and must never be absolute. An even more important conclusion is that every one of us has a part to play in limiting the power that is given to any institution.

The saving grace of the media is that it embraces a wide range of different outlets, and includes journalists of real integrity and courage. Had it not been for good journalists in the Irish secular media we would know little of serious abuses of power by, for example, negligent bishops and too many of those who ran Catholic institutions for the poorest children in Ireland in the last century.

The main saving grace of the Catholic Church is that it provides us with a founding figure who saw it as his primary mission to assure the sinners and losers of this world that they were, in reality, lovable and loved. When the power brokers of honour and shame of his own time turned on him he identified precisely the core problem of human society:

“You look to one another for approval!”

Looking to one another for approval, rather than to something far more reliable, we humans are extremely vulnerable to being influenced by others, and to vanity, the tendency to seek public admiration. We do this because we are supremely unsure of our own value – unless we do what all the great mystics have done. This is to seek and then to rely upon, an unfailing source of self-esteem that has nothing to do with what other humans think of us. Following Jesus of Nazareth, many of the greatest Christian mystics were also members of the Catholic Church.

The abuse of power on the other hand has almost always something to do with seeking, or trying to hold on to, the approval of others. Catholic bishops would not have concealed clerical abuse if they had not been concerned about the clerical church losing the approval of those who finance the institution. Media executives would not allow false accusations to be made by their reporters if they were not concerned about winning the approval of their paying customers, especially those with an appetite for scandal.

What feeds the worst of the media is this human appetite for scandal – bad news about other people, and especially about those who have enjoyed more esteem. To reduce the power of the gutter media, those who patronise it really need to think hard about why they do so. If they really need to hear bad news about others, what does that say about their own self-esteem?

We also need to notice the full significance of the mistake made by RTE in relation to Fr Kevin Reynolds – falsely accused by Prime Time Investigates of fathering a child through rape of a young African girl. For the first time in two decades the full glare of the Irish media spotlight turned now on the media itself, and this time the scandal has to do with the media’s abuse of power. No one should miss the significance of that. This horrible error marks a critical turning point in the history of Irish scandal.

For the most powerful brokers of honour and shame in Irish society are no longer now the leaders of the Catholic Church, but the most powerful executives in the Irish media. They have an almost absolute power to make, and destroy, the reputation of anyone they focus on. If there is a better media concerned above all about justice, shouldn’t it now turn its attention to this imbalance of power, and deal with abusive reporting as fiercely as it has dealt with clerics and religious who have abused power? Shouldn’t our best newspapers now have media correspondents as well as religious affairs correspondents?

Knowing as I do some of the best Irish journalists I know that they would fully agree with this point, and were as disturbed by the RTE mistake as any Catholic. We may yet see an Irish media that is as self-critical as it is critical of other institutions.

As for those journalists who can’t take this point, and who want to go on seeing the Irish Catholic Church as the root of all evil in Ireland, their bias will now stand out in stark relief. No sensible person can now argue that the media too don’t illustrate the truth that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Catholics can take pride that it was a Catholic historian, Lord Acton, who first formulated that conclusion in 1887, and that their church has produced outstanding servants of justice. Assured by our founder that God’s love for all of us is unfailing, we don’t need the uniform approval of the media, and we don’t need to get angry when the media are unfair. That unfairness will not go unnoticed by all concerned about the truth – and sooner or later a balance will be restored.

Nor should Catholics resent their church’s loss of power in Ireland. We are now far less vulnerable to scandal – and the light of those many Catholics who have always served the Irish people well will now shine far more brightly.

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Secularism and Hesitant Preaching

Sean O’Conaill  © The Furrow Jul/Aug 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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The Spiritual Dimension of Mental Illness

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life, Nov 2001

When we read the gospel accounts of what are clearly encounters between Jesus and what we now term ‘mental illness’, we experience again the full force of the Enlightenment’s rejection of the supernatural. Demonic possession is now the domain of Stephen King and the X Files – and ‘scientific’ psychiatry, relying heavily on physiological explanations for mental disturbance, has commandeered the care of the damaged soul. This is just one area of intellectual expertise and social care that the churches have lost to secularization – apparently beyond recall.

Yet if we are to take seriously a recent Irish book on the subject, the current pharmaceutical bias of much psychiatry is itself a confidence trick, in danger of compounding the growing problem of mental illness, especially of what is called clinical depression. Dr Terry Lynch in Beyond Prozac1Beyond Prozac: Healing Mental Suffering Without Drugs by Dr Terry Lynch alleges not only that currently fashionable drugs are likely to create a new dependency, but that their use is justified by bad science, that it merely suppresses symptoms, and that it commonly delays recovery by failing to elucidate the experiential factors which often lie at the root of the problem, and to provide the caring and sympathetic relationship that is needed to address them.

Pointing out that insulin deficiency can be demonstrated to be the cause of diabetes by a blood test which proves the deficiency, followed by the replacement of the missing substance, Dr Lynch points out that although psychiatrists commonly claim a biological imbalance or a genetic deficiency to lie at the root of depression, they make no blood or any other kind of biochemical test, for example for the level of serotonin. Yet so powerful has the mystique of the profession become that journalists will happily tout serotonin as the ‘happiness’ substance in the brain – and marvel at drugs such as Prozac as the magic solution to its absence.

In fact, although some prominent Irish psychiatrists will debunk what they choose to call the ‘endless talk’ approach to mental illness, they are also forced to admit that they do not know exactly what physiological processes underlie it, or how exactly their pharmaceutical solutions actually ‘work’.

The diagnosis of ‘clinical depression’ is especially interesting. It appears that one can trigger this diagnosis by being especially sad. A sense of hopelessness; of being unable to cope; of continual lassitude; of loss of ambition or interest in a hobby; of meaninglessness; of social fear or inadequacy; of low self esteem: a given number of these symptoms will transfer us from the realm of the mentally fit into that of the mentally ill – and this given number can vary geographically.

The truth about western culture seems to be this. If we become so emotionally distraught as to be unable to ‘function normally’, we are mentally ill, and need, in many cases, pharmaceutical support.

It follows from this that normality, and mental health, is now apparently defined by many psychiatrists in anaesthetic terms: we do not feel negative emotions to a degree that will impair our ‘function’. We are, in other words, unassailable by emotional pain. In the context of a world subject to all sorts of pressure, stress, decay and danger, and in which individuals more and more commonly experience severe trauma, this, when we think about it, is altogether ludicrous.

The presumption that psychic buoyancy and autonomy is the norm, that normal people do not ‘break down’ and become persistently distraught, is of course, of great benefit to at least one current economic ideology. In the Thatcher era a popular one-liner ran as follows: “A Bore is someone who, when you ask him how he is, he tells you!”

This goes close to the heart of one of our deepest social problems: beyond a certain low threshold we do not wish to be burdened with one another’s problems. When we ask “How are you?” there is usually an iron rule that the answer will not disturb our own momentum – that any declaration of unwellness will stop short of a claim upon our time, will end with an insistence that our friend, or even sibling, is ‘really ok’. There is, in other words, a rigid ethic of self-sufficiency – especially among males. The purpose of our education is to make us personally autonomous, and we are now educated to believe that we are less than whole if we lose this autonomy thereafter.

This is in itself a complete explanation for the fact that ‘breakdown’ brings us to psychiatry, for it is a radical loss of autonomy. The psychiatrist is the professional expert on those who have ‘cracked up’ – for no-one else is either competent enough, or confident enough, to cope.

Yet an hour’s reflection will show us that emotional autonomy is a myth. Even the ‘successful’ person is dependent upon others to deliver a verdict of success, and one cannot lift a newspaper without tumbling over the rampant attention-seeking that the wannabe-successful wallow in. We are relational, not autonomous beings, which means that our emotional health must be closely related to the quality of our relationships, past and present.

Furthermore, we are role-playing beings, often desperately trying to fulfil the expectations of an employer or a colleague or a relative. We are often, in other words ‘trying to be’ the person we suppose we ought to be – and often we have not in fact chosen this role. It has been chosen for us by a parent or other person influential at a formative stage in our development, or forced upon us by economic necessity. What if it is incompatible with our deepest needs, with who we actually are?

And loss, or lack, of self-esteem, is as potent a factor in mental illness as in addiction – and self-esteem also cannot be autonomously created. We depend heavily for our self esteem upon the esteem of others – and this is precisely why we feel compelled to give the ‘OK’ answer when things are far from ‘OK’. We are afraid we will lose that esteem if we are ‘broken’.

Terry Lynch’s book gives many examples of patients who, following an investigation of the background to ‘breakdown’, reveal a personal history that more than amply explains why they could not possibly be ‘OK’ – why they need to be distraught, to throw themselves upon the resources of another human being, to be reassured, to be – in a word – loved – for themselves.

But love is not a pharmaceutical substance. It is a spiritual thing, because it is a going beyond what can be expected. The person who loves is no longer self-absorbed but lost in sincerely honouring another. If love becomes a scarce resource in any culture, we are headed for large scale breakdown – and a psychiatry which substitutes drugs for love cannot make good the shortfall.

Let us apply this analysis to the stories of mental illness in the gospels – beginning by reminding ourselves that in those times people were more certain of the existence of God, and that they commonly deduced the level of God’s approval from their worldly circumstances. It followed that the more extreme the circumstances, the less self-regard people would commonly have – the more ‘poor in spirit’ they would become. The poorest in spirit would suffer a total loss of self-esteem, followed in extreme cases by breakdown. It followed also that breakdown was likely to be interpreted as a matter of passing out of the care of God, into the realm of the demonic.

Dr Lynch points out that a person who has always felt himself insignificant, and suffers pain from this, is naturally likely to suffer delusions of grandeur – yet if these in turn lead to social rejection and isolation, self-regard will naturally reach an even lower level. At the lowest level of the moral cosmos of the gospel world was Sheol, the place of the dead, where demons reigned. Delusions of demonic possession could therefore naturally follow the complete ostracisation of an individual.

But for all its horrors, the ‘demonic possession’ paradigm has one beneficial characteristic that the biological/genetic theory signally lacks: it does not identify the malady with the sufferer; the whole person is reclaimable by ‘casting out’ the demon. On the other hand, we are stuck with our biochemical or genetic problem – if that is what we’ve ‘got’.

At this point we need only remember that the essential characteristic of Jesus’ ministry – the one that got him into terminal trouble – was its radical inclusiveness. Prostitutes, lepers – the ‘unclean’ generally – were to be restored, not just to health, but to their relatives and friends. No-one was more ‘unclean’ than the demonically possessed : so Jesus’ extraordinary power to communicate the esteem of God for those who thought themselves totally outside it must have hit the self-hating with extraordinary force. When we remember that great social fear lay behind the avoidance of such people, even Jesus’ close approach would arrest their attention – and so the text confirms.

Great love is clearly present in the accounts that Dr Lynch provides of successful ‘friendship’ approaches to the treatment of people who have presented with various symptoms of mental and emotional distress. It requires great faith in the essential goodness of every individual, and in the power of sympathetic investigation of past experience, to get to the root of the problem. This in turn often requires great patience – and here we find the essential reasons for the failure of the psychiatric paradigm. Psychiatrists too are scarce ‘human resources’, highly expensive to train and maintain. Everything must recommend a rapid throughput of patients. The last thing they can possibly have is the time to befriend their clients individually, to become familiar with the detailed contexts of their lives.

When we confront the continuing stigma that attaches to mental illness we must even more seriously question a biochemical/genetic theory which provides no hope of separating the sufferer from the source of their illness, which, must, in fact, reinforce their sense of being ‘different’, and thus of isolation, stigma and despair. An hour’s serious reflection should be sufficient to condemn any search for a ‘happiness’ gene or biochemical substance: human emotional well-being is both fragile and essentially relational – and a society which increasingly deprives us of time for one another must also be one in which psychological breakdown will also increase. Emotional pain, like any other kind of pain, is a compelling warning to rest, and to address the cause

And when we remember that the pharmaceutical industry is part of the globalisation process, and that ‘happiness’ pills are vastly profitable, we need look no further for an explanation of the dominance of the physiological paradigm of mental well-being. The research which appears to support pharmaceutical solutions is largely funded by that industry and therefore seriously biased in favour of the conclusions it wishes to find. To escape this conclusion it need only fund experimentally in equal measure the methods which favour compassionate friendship, psychotherapy and counseling. If this funding should be found wanting the churches should try to supply the deficiency, in faith and love. It is surely time to begin reversing the downward trend towards ‘happiness’ pills for all.

“Beyond Prozac: Healing Mental Suffering Without Drugs” by Dr Terry Lynch

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