Tag Archives: Hope

The Spirit of Vatican II

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  September 2012

What exactly was ‘the spirit of Vatican II’? Ignorant voices are sometimes raised these times to misrepresent it merely as the spirit of 1960s secular liberalism. This trend has led to an even more dangerous and unjust one: to blame ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ and those who speak of it for ‘all that has gone wrong’ since.

This Catholic did his Leaving Cert in 1960, and was at UCD when news of the council broke. I remember vividly what the spirit of Vatican II meant to me. In essence it was the spirit of confidence, love and hope that led Pope John XXIII to call the council in the first place. It was also the spirit led him to support the movement among so many bishops to abandon a quite contrary spirit – the spirit of fear, chauvinism and triumphalism, of anathemas and overbearing paternalism, that had tended to dominate the governance of the church in the nineteenth century. It was also the spirit that led Pope John XXIII to visit a Roman prison and speak off the cuff about the equal compassion of God for all of us.

It was never a spirit of heady conformity to 1960s hedonism. I never associated ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ with the so-called ‘sexual revolution’, or with the naivety of ‘all you need is love’. It was a spirit that called me instead to discipleship, and therefore to discipline also. It was a call to maturity, to responsibility, to holiness (i.e. to prayer, goodness and kindness), to joy, and to learning. And it was a call to every baptised Catholic.

I felt confident in the world Catholic magisterium of that time, despite the obvious fact that so many Irish bishops harked back to the fearful and controlling paternalism of the pre-conciliar period. As a young teacher after the council I felt sure that the spirit of the council would soon prevail in Ireland also, especially through dialogical and collegial church structures that would arise inevitably out of Lumen Gentium Article 37.

And so I am certain that ‘all that has gone wrong since’ is a result of the failure of the Catholic magisterium to maintain the spirit of Vatican II – that spirit of hope and confidence and equal dignity in the church. Above all it was the result of a betrayal by the magisterium of not just the spirit but the letter of Lumen Gentium.

One illustration will suffice. According to Lumen Gentium 37 (1965) Catholic lay people would be “empowered to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church” …. “through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose”.

Let’s suppose that had actually happened in Ireland, say in the 1970s. If there had existed in Ireland truly representative and open diocesan and parish forums from the early 1970s, would the parents of Irish clerical abuse victims of the late 70s and 80s and 90s have had to rely from then on only on the integrity of secretive Catholic bishops and their underlings to protect other Catholic children? Could, for example, Brendan Smyth have continued to run rampant through Ireland until 1993 – if Irish Catholic lay people had learned much earlier the confidence to question their bishops openly on administrative matters, ‘through structures established for that purpose’?

Now in 2012, the CDF’s “promoter of justice” Mgr Charles Scicluna tells us that in this matter of child protection ‘Bishops are accountable to the Lord, but also to their people.’ None of us would have needed telling of this if the magisterium had held on to the spirit of Vatican II, and implemented its letter also.

Yet the summary report of the Vatican visitators to Ireland makes no mention of Irish bishops being accountable to their people! The magisterium’s clock is still stuck in 1965, still stuck in Curial fear of any Catholic assembly it cannot control and manipulate. What an ocean of tears has been shed in consequence!

And the letter of Lumen Gentium remains unhonoured to this day. Whatever spirit has determined that, it isn’t the spirit of Vatican II. It isn’t the Holy Spirit either.

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Goodbye and Good Riddance to Irish Catholic Serfdom

Sean O’Conaill Doctrine and Life  October 2009

“And the darkness could not overwhelm the light.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why the Show mustn’t go on

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Sep 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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Secularism and Hesitant Preaching

Sean O’Conaill  © The Furrow Jul/Aug 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Views: 8

The Story of the West: I – The Idea of Progress

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Oct 2006

We all live today in a climate of crisis. For us Catholics there is a particular crisis in our own church in Ireland, in Europe and North America (‘the West’) – raising deep questions about its future in this part of the world.

And our internal Irish and western Catholic crisis is being exploited by those who believe that all religion is a barrier to progress. Only irreligious secularism, they believe – a total focus on the here-and-now and a rejection of any idea of God – has any future.

But secularism now has its own deep crisis. The original secularists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century never foresaw problems like global warming or global terrorism or mass addiction or the use of automatic weapons by teenagers in schools.

Thoughtful secularists are aware of this crisis of secularism. Perceiving a decline in community values throughout the west they now ask where such values come from, and how they are to be communicated to younger generations. Paradoxically, they often find that Church schools seem to be most effective in this regard. This leads some to look for dialogue and a fruitful relationship with the churches.

This series of articles will argue that a fruitful dialogue can indeed take place between Christianity and secularism. There are key attitudes we share – and one of these is a belief (despite the present crisis) in the possibility of human progress. Because we often understand the term very differently we need urgently to discuss what we mean by ‘progress’ – but to do this fruitfully we need to understand where that idea comes from in the first place.

The story of the West – the societies fringing the North Atlantic – is a story of unprecedented progress – an economic, scientific and technical progress that has precipitated the great global environmental and human crisis of our own time. If we are to deal together with that crisis we need to reach a common understanding of where that idea of progress comes from, and what it must mean for all of us today.

Progress and the Ancient World

We all tend to simplify the past – to bend it into a simple narrative or story that we can carry about in our heads as easily as possible.

Jesus Christ and Christianity are central to that story for us Catholics. Our map of the past will often tend to emphasise the violence and brutality of the ancient world, the goodness of Christ, and the relative peacefulness of Christian Europe before the extraordinary violence of modern times. We will tend to locate the origins of our present world crisis in the decline of Christian faith in recent centuries. Our hope for the future will be very much bound up with our hope for a revival of that faith.

The secularist map of the past will be very different. It will tend to emphasise the importance of reason and science in history. It will tend to credit the ancient Greeks with laying the foundation for a victory of reason and science over faith. It will blame Christianity for the Inquisition and other intolerances of the Middle Ages, and even for the aggressiveness of the Bush administration in Iraq. It will credit the secular ‘Enlightenment’ of the 18th century with restoring the importance of reason and with advancing the scientific and technological revolutions of our own time. It will place all of its hope for the future in reason and science also.

When John Paul II clashed in his last years with those drawing up a constitution for European Union, he held in his head the Christian map of the history of the West. Those who refused to include any mention of God or Christianity in that constitution had in their heads this second secularist map. These two clashing views of the past couldn’t agree.

But there is nevertheless a core shared idea in both maps, both ‘stories’ of the past – the idea of progress itself. Westerners all tend to believe, or want to believe, that history is going somewhere, not simply repeating itself endlessly.

What Christians need to be aware of is that the more positive aspects of the story of the west do indeed have to do with a victory of reason (however incomplete).

What secularists need to be aware of is that the idea of progress itself did not come from the ancient Greeks, or from any ancient civilisation, but from the people of Jesus – the Jews – and from Jesus himself.

Not even the most advanced of the ancient Greek thinkers, such as Plato and Aristotle, believed in progress. They held that even though there might be temporary improvement in the technology or prosperity of a society over short periods, everything happened in cycles. Decay would inevitably follow any temporary improvement, and nothing dramatically new or different could ever happen. History was essentially cyclical, not progressive. No ancient Greek predicted the modern world or the scientific and technical revolutions that produced it.

The intelligentsia of Ancient China were more secular than religious, but believed essentially the same thing – that the wisdom of the ancients would never be improved upon. So China never developed a belief in progress, or in a progressive science, until awoken by the West in modern times.

Abraham had an entirely different vision of the future – of his descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven, and of God being with this people throughout their history. Moses and Jesus shared that vision – and it permeates the whole of the Bible.

The idea that history is essentially linear – moving towards a destination – and not cyclical (endlessly repeating itself) – comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition. So does the essentially hopeful element in that worldview – that there can be a ‘New Creation‘. St Paul centred his belief in a ‘New Creation’ upon the redeeming life of Christ.

Christians need to know this because all beliefs we share with secularists are a starting-point for discussion. Our idea of progress must always, of course, be centred on the primacy of our relationship with Christ. We must continue to question a notion of progress that is entirely material and external – focused upon technology and science.

And we should notice something else: many entirely secular people today are now focused upon something that isn’t completely material either: self-improvement. As the crisis of secularism grows, self-improvement literature has almost taken over from Christian literature in our secular bookstores. Books such as The Power of Positive ThinkingThe Road Less Travelled and The Power of Now are often avidly read by the most secularised modern people. The best of this literature can be a pathway away from materialism and into a worldview that Christians can agree with – especially the realisation that wisdom is more important than knowledge.

True, St Augustine would probably say that much of today’s secular self-improvement literature is ‘Pelagian’ – that is, that it exaggerates our power to improve ourselves without God’s grace, which we cannot control or acquire simply by willing it. Christians will never forget their need for relationship with God, from whom all grace flows. We can also take the opportunity to point out that the problem of addiction in modern culture tends to support this point of view.

Addiction is now as pervasive a part of our modern crisis as technology. And the most universally attested method of self-help for every kind of addiction is the ‘Twelve Step’ process. And the first of the twelve steps, the step that every addict is advised to repeat every day – is an acknowledgement of his own inability to control his addiction. The second flows from it: the decision to commit himself to the care and support of a ‘higher power’.

The most strident secularists – apparently committed to driving Christian faith back into the catacombs – seem not to have noticed this. The Twelve Step process, originated by two US Baptists in the 1930s, is the most powerful evidence in the western world today of our deep-seated need to be in relationship with a power outside ourselves – a power that wishes us well, that seeks to enlighten us, and that does not desert us even when we flee from it.

For, co-operating with that power, there is indeed such a thing as progress, and technological progress is part of it. But personal progress must always take priority, and personal progress can only take place in relationship.

And the amassing of material wealth – the origin of today’s environmental and human crisis – is merely another form of addiction. Many honest secularists are recognising this as well.

So, the key to the future lies indeed in clinging to a belief in progress, despite all current difficulties. And the concerns of Christians are now beginning to converge with the concerns of thoughtful secularists – especially the concern to pass on a viable shared sense of values to rising generations.

Progress is therefore indeed a Christian idea – but Christians must not be triumphalist about this, or about anything else. The irony is that in unconsciously adopting Christian ideas, secular culture has often employed them more effectively than the churches themselves. This series of articles will examine this cross-fertilisation of ideas, and outline a possible future based upon the translation of the Christian ideas of redemption and salvation into terminology that secularists will be able to make sense of, without distorting their meaning.

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Western dominance: a product of Catholic theology?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Apr 2006

How did ‘The West’ – shorthand for the societies fringing the North Atlantic – arrive at global cultural, political and economic dominance in the modern era? Challenged to answer this question in as few words as possible, the average historically literate product of a western university might well produce something like the following:

“Modernity is essentially based upon a preference for reason before religious faith, and the journey towards the dominance of reason began in ancient Greece. Laying the foundations of modern science and of personal and political freedom, this Greek achievement was buried for over a thousand years by the rise of Catholic Christendom in the first Christian millennium. Although these ‘Dark Ages’ were not as dark as was once thought, they were nevertheless a period of relative inertia, characterised by religious faith and political tyranny.

“The recovery of the wisdom of the ancient Greeks in the 1400s led to a cultural Renaissance in western Europe, a period of global exploration by European powers, a Scientific Revolution and a renewed interest in democracy. The Protestant Reformation in the West assisted the victory of science and democracy by weakening the obscurantist power of the Catholic church and enabling the rise of capitalism through the ‘Protestant work ethic’. The Enlightenment of the 1700s prioritised reason above faith and led to the emergence of modern secular democracies, in which capitalism, science, technology and individual freedom finally triumphed.”

The questions raised by such a narrative have so far been eclipsed by its simplicity and rhetorical convenience. Weren’t even the most enlightened of the ancient Greeks defenders of slavery and owners of slaves? How did western modernity recover the ancient Greek legacy if it had been so thoroughly buried by Catholic obscurantism in the ‘Dark Ages’? And weren’t the Catholic republics of Genoa and Venice pioneers of capitalism long before the Reformation? Such questions have been asked but have not yet weakened the essential thread of the narrative: Reason, science and freedom – the foundation of all progress – began in ancient Greece, were obscured by Catholic orthodoxy, and could only re-emerge when the Catholic monopoly was overthrown. (The story of Galileo was, of course, the ‘proof text’ of this narrative.)

Rodney Stark’s robust assault upon that essential narrative is all the more intriguing because it comes not from a Catholic apologist but from an agnostic sociologist. In Victory of Reason* he insists that, on the contrary, freedom, reason, science and capitalism – and even the very idea of progress – owed most to the very phenomenon that secular orthodoxy tends to regard as the darkest historical force: the theology of the early Church fathers and the scholastics.

To begin with, he insists, the greatest of the ancient Greeks didn’t even believe in progress. Although Aristotle thought he was living in a ‘Golden Age’, he, and all ancient Greeks, saw history as essentially cyclical, with periods of decay inevitably following every period of advance. He believed, for example, that the technical achievements of his own era would not be bettered in any future era.

And for this very reason, coupled with their lack of belief in a rational unitary deity who had created a rational cosmos, the ancient Greeks did not originate the linkage essential for true science – between theory and research. Aristotle, the ‘great empiricist’, contradicted Alcmaeon’s theory that goats breathed through their ears but does not record any experimental troubling of any goat to prove his point. He believed also that stones of different weights would fall at speeds proportionate to their weights but never tested this by experiment either – for example by dropping stones of two different weights but the same volume from the same high cliff to see if the heavier would indeed reach the ground below before the lighter. It simply never occurred to him to devise repeatable experiments or systematic observations, so he, the most scientific of the ancient Greeks, was never a true scientist.

Rodney Stark contrasts this Greek intellectual pessimism with the attitudes of some of the early Christian fathers, most notably Augustine. From the beginning Christians, like Jews, believed that history was not cyclical but moving forward inexorably in linear fashion towards a future end point. And the fact that Jesus never left a single definitive text like the Quran meant that theologians were free to attempt to discern answers to all the questions he did not resolve, using reason (i.e. logic) as their method.

Of all the great religions, Stark insists, Christianity was alone in believing that reason ruled all things, since they had been created by a reasonable God. “Heaven forbid,” declared Augustine, “that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals. Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls.” Furthermore Augustine believed that such a search would be fruitful, declaring that although ‘certain matters pertaining to the doctrine of salvation’ could not yet be understood, ‘one day we shall be able to do so’.

If reason could discover more about God, it followed that the natural world, created by the same God, should also be rational, full of secrets waiting to be discovered by reason. Far from rejecting theology, the great scientists of the early modern era, such as Newton, saw science as the handmaiden of theology. It was this that led Alfred North Whitehead to declare in 1925 that “The greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement [was] the inexpugnable belief that there is a secret, a secret that can be unveiled. … It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God.”

Even Bertrand Russell was mystified by the failure of the Chinese to develop science, since the intelligentsia of ancient China had rejected popular religion and theism. The reason, Stark insists, was that for that very reason they never developed a rational theology either. Mystical works like the Tao stressed not a caring creator God of reason but an ineffable essence wrapped in mystery, lacking all personality, desire and intention. The Chinese view of history was also therefore non-progressive. How could there be an attempt to discover what could not exist, since the ancients had known all that was to be known?

And if Greek thought would lead of its own accord to science, why didn’t that happen within Islamic culture, which had also inherited the Greek legacy? The reason again was the lack of systematic theological inquiry within Islam, the conviction that all that needed to be known had already been revealed in the Quran.

It was, uniquely, Christian theology also that led to the western understanding of individual freedom. Whereas Greek tragedy held individuals (Oedipus, for example) to be the necessary victims of circumstances outside their control, Shakespeare’s Hamlet chooses his own fate. Stark traces this shift to the Christian emphasis upon individual responsibility by Jesus himself, an emphasis that continued throughout the Middle Ages.

This also marked a shift in the dignity to be accorded to every individual, without exception. There is simply no equivalent in classical thought to Paul’s insistence that for God there are no distinctions between ‘male and female, slave and free’. On the contrary Plato believed, with Hitler, that there was indeed such a thing as a ‘slavish people’, and both he and Aristotle kept slaves.

This theological emphasis upon the moral equality of individuals, without distinction of gender, class or race, meant that there was always an ambiguity and tension in the continuation of slavery in the late Roman imperial and then the medieval period under baptised Christian rulers. Contrary to some authorities, serfs were not slaves as they were free to marry and their children could not be taken from them, and it was in Christian Europe alone that the institution of slavery gradually became odious. Stark declares emphatically: “Slavery ended in medieval Europe [only] because the church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then managed to impose a ban on the enslavement of Christians (and of Jews).”

The later enslavement of non-Europeans by Christian Europe was, of course, especially odious, but here again the main early impetus for an end to the practice globally came from Christianity alone. Islam could not be in the vanguard of liberty for the simple reason that Muhammad, totally unlike Jesus of Nazareth, was also a slave owner. (And Voltaire, high priest of the Enlightenment, invested the unprecedented profits from his writings in the French slave trade based at Nantes.)

Turning to economic and technological advance, Stark summarises a lot of recent research to explode the myth of the Middle Ages as a period of even relative stagnation. First, it was during this period after the fall of Rome that Europe advanced ahead of the rest of the world in the use of water power. By the thirteenth century paper was being manufactured using overshot water wheels – something that had happened nowhere else until then. Similar innovation occurred in wind power, the shoeing and harnessing of horses, fish-farming, crop rotation, shipbuilding, and, more lamentably, the use of gunpowder in warfare.

In Education the medieval church universities were an advance on anything existing in the ancient world because, far from simply recycling ancient lore, they gained fame by innovation. Moreover they educated far more students, who were taught not simply to study ancient sources but to critique and improve on them. Without them there could not have been a Copernicus, who drew on medieval authorities also for his heliocentric theory. Kepler’s discernment of the elliptical orbits of the planets rested upon centuries of planetary observation. Newton’s reference to the ‘giants’ upon whose shoulders he had stood should no longer be thought to exclude the products of medieval Catholic universities. It was in the late Christian Middle Ages that the systematic linkage of theory and research, the foundation for true science, first occurred.

Turning then to capitalism Stark explodes the notion that Europe had to wait for the ‘Protestant ethic’ to produce the essential characteristic of capitalism – the systematic reinvestment of profits to produce further income. It was Augustine who first taught that the price of an article could legitimately relate to the desire of a potential buyer, and that therefore wickedness was not inherent in commerce. Later theologians further undermined, and eventually overthrew, the ban on usury – the lending of money at interest. It was large medieval monastic institutions that became the first stable capitalist institutions in history – reinvesting in, for example, overshot water power for a variety of enterprises. Subsequently, the Mediterranean Catholic republics of Venice and Genoa developed a more advanced capitalism than had existed anywhere in the world until then.

Essential to this historical process was the Christian concept of moral equality – the true source of the notion of inalienable human rights. It was this, not classical philosophy, that first drew limits to the legitimate power of governments. Whereas China had developed a thriving iron industry at one point in its history, this was undermined by a government and ruling class that had the power to strangle it. Medieval capitalist institutions in Europe usually escaped such a fate because Christian theology protected them – and for no other reason.

‘The Rights of Man’, that cornerstone of modern secular ideology, did not therefore spring new born from John Locke and the Enlightenment, or from ancient Greece, but from a long tradition of Christian theological emphasis upon the moral equality of all humans, beginning with the the Sermon on the Mount.

On a negative note, although Stark takes pains to insist that he uses the word ‘capitalism’ to describe an economic rather than a political and social system, his entirely positive ‘take’ on capitalism, without reference to current issues of global injustice and the environmental crisis, is a little disconcerting. His facile dismissal of liberation theology underestimates its continuing positive impact in societies where a corrupt capitalism is still wreaking havoc.

However, there are so many other good things in this reasonably priced book that it can heartily be recommended to all who have either a basic historical education, or an interest in acquiring one. Every teacher of history in a Catholic institution should acquire a copy. It is an important milestone in the overthrow of that mistaken ‘grand narrative’ of western history that underpins the rhetoric of a rampant and often daftly anti-Catholic secularism.

Indeed ‘The Victory of Reason’ suggests an entirely new historical apologetics founded not upon defending Christendom, or a Christendom model of church, but upon discerning the thread of progressive and optimistic faith in reason that links the best of modernity with the early and medieval church. Voltaire’s 18th century historical schema was a self-regarding story of ancient classical enlightenment obscured by blind Biblical and Catholic faith, but then recovered by his own heroic movement – the modern Enlightenment. It was based upon an entirely ignorant perception of the Middle Ages, but has cast a fog of intellectual odium over the Judeo-Christian tradition for more than two-and-a-half centuries. That fog is, thankfully, beginning to lift – allowing us to see clearly, and to counter, the absurd hubris of an anti-Catholic secularism that is still too often wrapped in the darkest Voltairean self-delusion.

So in due time will, doubtless, the pall that now hovers over the history of the Catholic church in modern Ireland. Catholicism has been, for over fifteen centuries, the essential source of the cultural vitality and distinct identity of most Irish people. Now that we know that Catholic theology is the most important source of all that is best in modernity, we can surely be joyfully modern and Catholic as well. The great tradition of Catholic theologians and philosophers who had more faith in reason than most contemporary philosophers is a far more secure and hopeful foundation than that self-declared and morbid cul-de-sac, postmodernism.

*The Victory of Reason, by Rodney Stark, Random House, New York, 2005.

Views: 5

After Ferns: the Rise of Christian Secularism?

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Mar 2006

The Ferns report forces those Catholics who read it to pinch themselves hard at least twice.

The first pinch is for the startling revelation that, in the words of the report itself “bishops put the interests of the church ahead of children”. As I pointed out in an earlier article this is not strictly true – because those children were a vital part of the church. However, if we rewrite this sentence to read “bishops put the clerical governing system of the church before children” this verdict becomes unquestionable – and even more damning.

The second pinch is for the revelation that it is now to the secular state, and secular society, we must look to realise key Catholic values, such as the safety of children, the inviolability of the family, the primacy of truth and the dignity of the unordained.

This second pinch needs to be a really hard one – to make sure we stay awake and absorb all of the consequences. One of these consequences is surely that we must seriously consider the possibility that for lay Catholics – deprived of all direct influence over their church’s clerical governing system – the way forward is to exploit the opportunities provided by secular society for the realisation of our gifts and social vision as lay Catholic Christians.

I don’t know the religious affiliation of Judge Murphy and the other members of the Ferns inquiry team. What I do know is that by acting with diligence and integrity they have done more to vindicate some key Christian and Catholic values than most of our bishops. In particular, acting under an entirely secular remit, they have made our church a safer place for our own Catholic children than it was when our bishops had total and unquestioned control of it.

This raises a most serious question over the conventional wisdom that secularism and Catholicism are incompatible. Two things now seem clear instead. First, our church as currently organised makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for Catholic bishops to behave with complete integrity – and therefore to model Christ. Second, Catholic lay people have more freedom to act creatively as Christians in their role as citizens of a secular republic than they do as members of their own church.

This second revelation will take time to sink in. When it does it will make us realise that we are now in an entirely new era in the history of the Irish church. Before Ferns (BF) we were taught to see secularism as a threat to faith. After Ferns (AF) we must see less of a threat than an opportunity in the secular world – to exercise leadership in making our society a safer and happier and more hopeful place for all children, and to rescue the reputation of our church.

That is not to say that the old war between secularist intellectuals and church leaders will come to an end overnight. The secularist tendency to see religion as a threat to freedom will continue, and so will the conservative Catholic clerical tendency to see secularism as a threat to faith. But those secularists who accept that the secular state does not automatically deliver a caring and decent society, and needs to find its values wherever it can, and those Catholics who believe in the timeless validity of Christian values, can engage in a new and fruitful dialogue.

However, this possibility didn’t begin in 2005. The conflict between secularism and faith has been based from the beginning upon some fundamental misconceptions – especially the failure to see that some of secularism’s enduring key values were from the beginning derived from Europe’s Christian heritage.

Throughout the world only three centuries ago the state’s role was still confined to keeping order internally and keeping external threats at bay, by naked force. It wasn’t until the 1700s that a new generation of European thinkers conceived the possibility of building a perfect society by uniting the power of the state with the power of the rational human mind, empowered by Newtonian science. These intellectuals, called in France the philosophes, were the founders of modern secularism, because they saw Christian clerical thought as both elitist and defeatist.

That is, they saw in the doctrines of original sin and Christian salvation after death a pessimistic acceptance of an unjust world order which placed a landowning social elite in permanent control of the world. A legally privileged landed aristocracy dominated the conservative political systems of Europe, while the younger brothers of that aristocracy ran the established churches of Europe. This was the ‘Old Order’ – the Ancien Régime – which needed overthrowing by a rational secular revolution.

This was the beginning of the clash between secularism and religion that still continues today. However, as John Paul II himself remarked in 1980, the key values of the very first secular revolution in France – liberty, equality and fraternity – were essentially Christian values.

They were not seen as such in 1789 because the leaders of the established churches of that era were themselves aristocrats who saw their world as the best that was possible, given the sinfulness of our species. Also, secular thinkers who found themselves opposed by Christian clergy, saw Christianity as focused upon the next world rather than upon improving this one. The very first intellectuals to use the term ‘secularism’ were Englishmen who saw the Anglican church as the conservative ally of the Tory politicians who opposed social progress.

The ultimate fall from power of the old landowning classes, and the decline in the political power of the churches, has made that original quarrel obsolete. Once the churches became focused upon issues like poverty and the education of the underclass they effectively became part of the effort to equalise the benefits of modern life – part of the original secularist revolution.

The quarrel continued largely because clergies resented the loss of their role as the dominant thinkers of their societies, and because the secular revolution moved on to espouse new causes like sexual liberation, which have become increasingly problematic. But classical liberals more concerned about economic injustice than the sexual revolution, and Christian intellectuals focused upon social justice rather than maintaining clerical control, have a huge amount in common nowadays.

The Ferns report in Ireland should be a moment of epiphany for Ireland’s Catholic leaders – because it represents a moral victory for the secular principle of achieving accountability by dividing up the powers by which society is governed . It was a free media who began this process by focusing a national spotlight upon victims of clerical child sex abuse. It was an aroused public opinion that then forced an elected government to set up the Ferns inquiry team. And that team was composed of members of Ireland’s secular intelligentsia, including the judiciary. The beneficiaries of this process are the abused children of Catholic families – the disempowered members of the church that failed to deliver justice to them through its own governing system. And that failure clearly had to do with the lack of structures of downward accountability in the church itself.

But even if Ireland’s Catholic bishops learn nothing from these events, the attitudes of Irish lay Catholics will be profoundly affected. They have seen that basic Christian values are not a monopoly of their clergy, and can be better implemented by secular means.

Meanwhile across the Irish sea the leaders of Britain’s ‘New Labour’ secular establishment try to set in motion what they call the ‘respect agenda’ – an end to ‘yobbism’ and ‘neighbours from hell’, to rampant school and workplace bullying, to teenagers spitting in the faces of pensioners, to racial and religious insults. Secularism, it seems, is now casting around for ways of reviving basic community values and respect for the weak – to save us from the appalling consequences of a complete breakdown in civil society.

We may well be closer to the same situation in Ireland than we would wish, and ‘equality of respect’ is too close to ‘equality of dignity’ for us Catholics to miss. The time has come to be fully Catholic in the secular world, without seeking to restore the unquestionable power of clergy.

It is time for Christian secularism – because secularism needs to return to its original aspiration towards a truly just and peaceful world, and because Christianity remains the greatest source of inspiration, wisdom and consolation for all who aim at that goal.

Views: 8

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: I – Crisis

Sean O’Conaill © Copyright Reality 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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Reprieve!

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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