Tag Archives: Respect

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

Unaccountability, Patronage and Corruption

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Feb 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ledwith Case

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

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

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

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

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

Students

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

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

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

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

Seeking Integrity

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

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

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

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

Learning basic Christianity

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

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

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

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

Views: 6

After Ferns: Clericalism Must Go!

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Jan 2006

“Bishops placed the interest of the church ahead of children …”
(The Ferns Report, Page 256)

Although everyone knows what Judge Murphy and his colleagues meant by this verdict on two former bishops of Ferns, there is something strange and contradictory – even outrageous – about it also.

First, those children, and their parents, were also full members of the church – so the church itself, as a society of human beings, was grievously harmed by what those bishops did, or failed to do.

Second, the Irish Catholic church, as a community of faith, has never been so grievously hurt – not even by the Cromwellian persecution. If we cannot trust that our bishops – whose banner is ‘the faith’ – will put the basic law of the church before everything else – the law of love – then our faith too will be deeply challenged. Had those bishops deliberately set out to injure ‘the faith’ they could not have been more effective.

So, if it wasn’t ‘the church’, what interest exactly was it that those bishops placed ahead of children?

It cannot have been Catholic teaching, because the church has always taught that the family is the basic social unit. For over four decades now it has also taught that all are equal in dignity. In favouring erring priests before children, those bishops were denying, not upholding, strict Catholic teaching.

What interest was it, then, that they placed ahead of children?

We discover what it was by reflecting that it had to do not with revealing the truth, but with concealing it. What was it that was concealed?

We all know what it was now – because the Ferns report reveals it beyond question.

Catholic ordination – the distinctive badge of Catholic clergy – does not guarantee sinlessness or virtue in those who receive it.

Most importantly, ordination does not guarantee sexual abstinence – true celibacy – to those who receive it. It is clear now, in fact, that some of our clergy have sought ordination precisely because it has allowed them to prey upon children, sexually.

It is clear also that, faced with this reality, bishops have, far more often than not, sought to conceal that truth from the wider church – as though it was diametrically opposed to faith itself.

Yet nowhere does the church officially teach that the sacrament of ordination is a guarantee of virtue, or even celibacy. That odd notion has always been contradicted by experience anyway. Yet, for some strange reason, bishops have nevertheless felt obliged to preserve it – at the expense of children.

The reason is clericalism – the felt obligation, transmitted for centuries in the culture of the church, to uphold the myth of the moral and intellectual superiority of clergy.

Clericalism is the root of the Catholic clerical child abuse scandal – for three reasons.

First, clericalism empowers the abusive priest and disempowers his victims. This is proven by many of the stories told in the Ferns report, reflected in the summation on page 261:

“Frequently it is the respect in which the abuser is held which affords the opportunity of perpetrating the crime….”

The unquestioning respect in which clergy have been held in Ireland rests squarely on clericalism – taught to children by the attitudes and behaviour of their parents and teachers. Put simply, the priest was the man of God, the one closest to God whom the child should trust implicitly to give access to grace, the gift of God.

Clericalism deliberately cultivates an attitude of deference to clergy. Deference – the habit of submission and compliance – gave abusive clergy virtually total power over their child victims.

Second, clericalism gave abusive priests power also over the families of those children. Irish mothers especially have tended to feel honoured that any priest would “take an interest in our Johnny” – even if ‘Johnny’ was asked to stay in the care of the priest overnight. It could not enter parents’ heads that the priest could do any harm – illustrated in the poignant story of a mother who denied to the Ferns inquiry that an abusive priest could have molested her daughter, even though he sometimes occupied the same bed!

Why could it not enter their heads? Because Irish Catholicism has so far not properly distinguished between faith in God and faith in clergy. For far too many Irish Catholics, to doubt the priest was as grave a sin as to doubt God – and our church leaders have found it all too convenient to leave this confusion intact. It is the root of Catholic deference – and deference is – or rather was – the root of much of the social power of the clerical church in Ireland.

Third, it was clericalism also that presented the bishop with the opportunity, and the obligation, to protect the myth of clerical sinlessness. It gave him that opportunity because it always counselled lay people to give the priest – and the bishop – the benefit of any doubt. It gave him the obligation to do so, because the power to which the bishop believed himself to be above all accountable – the papacy – is clericalist also – intent on ruling the church through clergy, and on protecting the myth of clerical sinlessness.

Nothing else can fully explain the virtually universal failure of Catholic bishops throughout the world to deal effectively with clerical child sexual abuse. Or the failure of the Vatican to deal with it also. Or the failure of both to give lay people the structures they have needed for forty years to develop their own role and mission in their own church.

Yet so far, regrettably, no Catholic bishop has identified clericalism as a primary factor in the problem – as the reason for the lack of integrity in our leadership. This is the real measure of the failure of the leaders of our church to grasp the nettle.

It is also the measure of the challenge facing the current papacy on this issue. It is of first importance for the recovery of the church that the myth of clergy be expressly contradicted in church teaching. We need, as a matter of great urgency, an encyclical against clericalism – an encyclical that will emphasise that faith in God does not require faith in clergy also – or deference either.

But there is the problem. The power of the church in the developing world is largely based upon clericalism also. Clericalism flourishes wherever there is a clear educational gap between the priest and the bulk of his congregation. And Rome tends to point to the developing world as evidence of the continuing health of the church – even to the extent of proposing that the priest shortage in the west could be supplied from Africa!

So it seems unlikely that clericalism will be tackled as a problem by the church leadership soon.

But meanwhile in Ireland, as elsewhere, we must develop a church culture that is safe for children. This surely must involve the warning of every child, at an early age, that no adult is to be deferred to when personal boundaries are at stake. To make sure the child is clear on what ‘no adult’ means, we must deliberately and expressly abandon the Irish Catholic habit of automatic deference to clergy.

Can our bishops rise to the challenge of telling us this? Will they be allowed to?

Who can say? Given the extraordinary slowness with which our bishops have learned anything in recent decades, it seems likely that there will be continuing tension between the needs of child protection, and the clericalist bias that has so endangered our children since Vatican II.

Catholic adults – lay and clerical – will need to pray hard to negotiate this minefield without further pain and grief.

However, there is great comfort to be gained in the realisation that although ordination does not guarantee virtue, most of our priests are virtuous anyway.

The reason is that they do obey the basic law of the church – the law of love. And pray hard for that virtue of virtues. That is why they are, mostly, genuinely loved by their people also.

Clericalism will not be needed to hold the Irish church together if we let truth and love, and prayer, and the sacraments, do so instead. If our bishops cannot rise to the challenge of teaching us this, we – priests and people – must rise to the challenge of teaching it to them.

For, whatever else may happen, the death of Catholic clericalism in Ireland is now assured. Our Irish Catholic church will either survive – and flourish – without it, or perish with it.

Views: 3

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.

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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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Christianity and the Environment

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

The scientific and technological revolutions that have transformed the earth over the past three centuries began in western Europe and were spread quickly across the globe by European migration, colonisation, trade and imperialism.  They were accompanied by a secularisation of thought in reaction against a Christian clerical intellectual monopoly, and when the secular mind came to consider in the late twentieth century the origins of the environmental catastrophe then threatening, one available option was to scapegoat the Judeo-Christian tradition for the rapacious aspects of western expansion and power.

Had not Genesis exhorted humans to ‘increase, multiply and subdue the earth’ ?  Had not Christendom exterminated a European paganism more in harmony with nature?  Had not European capitalism been grounded in the Protestant work ethic?  Had not the industrial revolution been funded by the proceeds of Christian imperialist expansion, driven by a Christian missionary as well as a commercial zeal?  Wasn’t the global western empire that provided the global market essential for mass production born initially out of a Christian evangelical sense of global mission?

There is a little truth in some of this, but it would be far more true to say that the wellspring of western spirituality, the Jewish and Christian texts we know as the Bible, were both a forewarning of the crisis now upon us, and the only diagnostic tool the human family possesses that can take us to the root of the problem, and provide a solution.  For the fact is that we humans have always been rapacious and acquisitive, and this has always caused us problems.  It is not merely coincidental, but providential, that the West’s central repository of spiritual insight should so clearly identify the source of that rapacity, and the most likely means of escape from it.

First, the essential theme of Genesis, and of the Bible throughout, is the goodness of Creation.  This stands in opposition to much of the mythology of mankind which suggests that Creation is malevolent.  It is now believed that Genesis was Judaism’s response to the Babylonian myth, the Enuma Elish, whose primary God was worshipped for matricide.  Tiamat, mother of all the Gods, had plotted their destruction for the noise they made, only to be thwarted by Marduk, whose dismemberment of her created the cosmos.  This central theme of a malevolent origin to everything is what lies behind much human violence – including much of the subjugatory rhetoric of western expansion.

For the fact is that Christendom represented not the victory of Christianity in the west, but a fateful compromise between Christianity and violence.  It was the gift of Constantine and other military despots, not of Christ – and Constantine was far closer to Marduk than Yahweh, the Jewish God (as Constantine well illustrated by asphyxiating his wife in a steam-filled room).

Not only does Genesis repetitively insist upon the goodness of creation – it tells us also that the fate of the earth is bound up with the fate of humankind – and that human goodness alone can save it.  As the level of the global ocean rises with the melting of the icecaps we do indeed need, like Noah, to look to the problem of rescuing as much of the biological inheritance as we can, and of developing lifestyles that lean least heavily upon our biosphere.

So Genesis insists that Creation is interested in us, cherishes us and looks to us for the salvation of the earth.  And the rest of the Old Testament insists that Creation will make and remake covenants with us to that end.  The text that most powerfully expresses the creative power of God – the book of Job – suggests that this alone is sufficient to reconcile us with our own sufferings and humiliation, the pain of being.  So overwhelmed is Job by the fertility of the creative process that in the end he falls silent, taken out of himself.

So Creation is, first, good, and, second, patient – unwilling to leave us to our fate.  But, third, it reveals to us the source of our rapacity – our unwillingness to be less than Gods.

In the ancient world, long before capitalism developed the power to overwhelm the earth, military conquest was the quickest route to glory, the sign of Godhood.  Living as he thought upon a planar disc with boundaries – the ends of the earth – Alexander drove eastwards to find them, conquering as he went.  His military successes convinced him of his own divinity.

The positive legacy of the Alexandrian epic has concealed the negative: the identification of heroism with violence.  This has plagued western culture ever since.  Yet the Jewish texts clearly identify the spiritual fault that lies behind it: the desire to be ‘as Gods’, that is to have what Gods have – including power and adulation.  Named as covetousness in the Decalogue, this desire for the possessions of another is based upon the unarticulated perception that we can somehow acquire the being, or dignity, or worth, of another by possessing those things that appear to distinguish that other.  To emphasise that we are not simply talking about ‘greed’ it’s best to call this problem mimetic desire – desire based upon unconscious imitation.

That violence should be a more striking consequence of mimetic desire in the ancient world than environmental destruction is due to the simple fact that modern mass production was both impossible and inconceivable then.

But the Decalogue makes clear that covetousness has to do with envy of our neighbour, and that we can covet any of his possessions.  It is against this backdrop that we need to place the New Testament story of Jesus – the man who would not reign as king.  His very birth was beset with danger, as it threatened Herod with the loss of what gave him his self-esteem, his priority as King.  This repetition of the story of Saul demonstrates the fact that mimetically inspired violence was the key feature of ancient culture – a flaw so repetitive and predictable, yet so unobserved, that it might well have plagued this planet forever.

What broke the spell was the unprecedented resistance to mimetic desire of Jesus himself.  His humble birth did not set the scene for a subsequent rise to fame and glory – the basic plot of many another ancient tale.  It established a pattern of rejection of mimetic behaviour from first to last.  The refusal of the offers of promotion to the summit of either the religious or political pyramids of the ancient world – the temptations in the desert – was followed by a teaching mission that led ultimately to the accusation ‘we know you do not regard the rank of anyone – so tell us is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’  And those teachings refer far more often to the problem of spiritual presumption, which was linked then with social status, than to what later became the fixation of hierarchs: sexual sin.

If we emphasise the humanity of Jesus, we also emphasise the mystery:  from where did he acquire the psychological strength to undertake so suicidal a mission, ending in a lonely and shameful death?   And even more imponderable – from where did his followers, who had deserted him in the end, receive the strength later to advance his cause, at similar cost to themselves?  The answer to both questions is the same:  all were equally free of that need for other-esteem that underlies all mimetic desire.  It was this that ensured that the mission of the early church was directed to ‘the poor in spirit’ of the Roman Empire – those who thought least of themselves because the world too thought so little of them.

And this in turn is why covetousness became the ‘lost sin’ of the post-Constantinian Church.  The promotion of Bishops to wealth and social influence meant that for the next sixteen hundred years the role of successor to the apostles became itself a covetable title.

How then could those bishops generally convey a spirituality centred upon the equal worthiness of all, and God’s solicitude for the least regarded?  Instead, Augustine’s spirituality of dread of sexual weakness won primacy, and how convenient that was for men who need only practice sexual discretion and aristocratic aloofness to remain worthy of social respect.  The table fellowship of Jesus and the original apostles – the most important social sacrament of the early church – passed into history, while episcopacy became part of the patronage of the social elite.

This transition is vital if we are to understand why it was that the Christian churches, and especially the Catholic Church, came so late to the addressing of the problem of the environment.  For centuries churchmen supposed that Christ’s primary purpose was to rescue the human family from ‘concupiscence’, rather than to challenge the human pyramid of esteem that arises out of, and is sustained by, mimetic desire.    This fixation stayed with most of the Christian missionaries who followed on the heels of Columbus and the other merchant adventurers who made the global ocean a European lake in the period 1480-1660.  The baptism of slaves would somehow make up for their exploitation, and the exporting of European covetousness around the globe need not be radically challenged.  Especially since this would challenge the ‘order’ created globally by European power.

Inevitably the theology of the Middle Ages had distanced the God who for Jesus and the Apostles had dwelt within – which meant in turn that the spirituality that had grounded the egalitarianism of the early church was also almost lost.  Abba was scapegoated with the crucifixion by the Anselmian doctrine of atonement, and ‘salvation’ became merely an after-death experience.  To achieve it one merely must not die in sexual sin – while covetousness simply didn’t measure up as a moral problem, and its true meaning was virtually invisible.

This applied equally to the Protestant Reformation, with the result that England and Holland could pioneer the basic institutions of capitalism and plough energy into an industrial revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The ability to mass produce goods held out the prospect of wealth for all.  The rise of secularism in this era also diverted the churches from the need to ponder the acquisitive drive and its origins – which came to be attributed to ‘materialism’ – an ideology – and therefore something to be combated intellectually rather than spiritually.  And of course, because of this misperception, the assault upon ‘materialism’ has been a total failure.

This remains the situation to this day.  Modern advertising discovered mimetic desire before the churches did – associating all consumer products with social success, with celebrity, or with an enviable ‘lifestyle’.  The cloned images of celebrities wearing or using or driving or consuming this or that regale us at every turn, while ecclesiastics housed mostly in palaces maunder on about materialism to nil effect.  Their problem is that were they to divine the real source of mimetic desire – lack of self-esteem – and to remember that Jesus resolved this problem by joining the people of low self-esteem – the poor in spirit – they would be obliged to do likewise.  (It is good to see the beginnings of a realisation of this among a minority of bishops.)

The basic foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that the only secure sense of our own value comes from a spiritual relationship with God.  The history of the Jewish people seems to prove that they learned more about God from hardship, exile and privation than from worldly success – and this suggests that the environmental crisis may grow much deeper before many will begin to address its cause.

Yet the man who invited us to consider the lilies of the field, who assured us that we are loved whatever we own, must eventually be seen as the one who did more than anyone else in human history to question the basic irrationality of considering some people more ‘worth it’ than others, and of amassing wealth to prove it.  We cannot add a cubit to our height, and the sun and rain fall on rich and poor alike.  God’s love is unconditional, and it is from the experience of his love for us as individuals that liberation from mimetic desire will eventually flow.

This is crucial to tackling all of today’s major problems – including the environmental crisis.  Over-consumption is directly related to the dearth of self-respect that media consumption inevitably creates – as it prepares the viewer for the advertisements that intersperse the celebrity coverage, the advertisements that tempt us to believe that personal significance can be purchased.

It is above all the Christian Gospels that offer the best hope of mass discernment of the trap of mimetic desire – before the environmental catastrophe becomes unstoppable.  More clearly than any other texts they address the very fault upon which western ambition is based, and point to our salvation – the triune God who honours simplicity by dwelling within.

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Restoring the Authority of the Church

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

The full twenty-volume Oxford dictionary distinguishes two basic meanings of ‘authority’: first, the power to enforce obedience;  second the power to influence action, opinion or belief.

It is clear that two entirely different forms of power are involved here.  The first is linked clearly with enforcement.  A military commander has this kind of authority, as he can deploy actual force to arrest and sequester a rebellious officer.  So long as any agency can deploy some kind of decisive sanction against anyone, it possesses the ability to enforce its ‘authority’.  This authority may not be loved – may in fact be detested – but its coercive clout gives it a weight it would not otherwise possess.

But there is another entirely different kind of authoritative power – one that emerges out of the freely-given respect of one person for another.  Once that respect has been earned, the one who has earned it enjoys a power of influence that does not rest upon coercive capability.

It is perfectly clear that the Catholic Church in the West presently stands at a point in time when its leadership no longer possesses either kind of authority to the degree that it did even a century ago.  No longer in a position to direct the state anywhere in the northern hemisphere, that leadership cannot deploy coercive power – unless perhaps against its own direct or indirect employees.  And having lost the trust and confidence of most Catholic lay people, that leadership has lost the power of influence also.

It is against this backdrop that we presently conduct a debate on ‘the moral authority of the Church’.   Far too often this debate focuses upon the authority of the hierarchy – as though ‘the Church’ as a whole is still to be identified in some crucial sense with its leadership.  But the fact is that the authority of the church is a matter for the whole church – and it would be a profound mistake to work towards any restoration of hierarchical authority that would provide it once again with any degree of coercive power.

Recovery by the hierarchy of the power of moral influence is another matter – but this rests entirely with the success of the hierarchy in recovering its own integrity.  To the degree that it remains many steps behind the process of media exposure of its own secretive maladministration it currently lacks a visible corporate integrity  – whatever about the personal integrity of its individual members.  It will take some years – at least a decade – for the hierarchy as a body to persuade the wider church that its love of truth, and its love of its own laity, are once more beyond question.  And as this must depend also upon profound changes in Rome it is far from certain to occur even in that timescale.

But even that desirable eventuality would not give the church the authority to which it now needs to aspire.  We live in an era when appeals to the authority of another party are absolutely worthless, and even ludicrous, in any discourse about faith with anyone of a different mindset.  To say “the Pope (or the magisterium) teaches x” will immediately invite the response “But what do you believe, and why?” from anyone who disagrees.  To respond to this with “I believe what the Church teaches, because it tells me I must” is to invite incredulity or scorn.  Such an assertion lacks, in a word, authority – because the free personal, reasoned commitment of the witness is lacking – the persuasive evidence of a personal comprehension of, and free personal commitment to, whatever is being upheld.

This is so not just because our Church leadership currently lacks visible integrity, but because the same process of erosion of faith in institutions is endemic in the secular world also.  Deluged as we are by palpably false commercial information, we are not impressed when politicians employ focus groups to determine their manifestoes, and spin doctors to package presentation.  Because most information comes at us now in an exploitative stream, all truth claims are diverted into a long mental queue that we label ‘only possibly true’ – and may never reach the mental desk at which personal life decisions are made.

It is this above all that those who currently exalt the authority of ‘the magisterium’ need to understand.  Catholicism is currently getting a drubbing in the secular media not simply for being dysfunctional on matters of sexuality, but for brainwashing people – and especially children.  The exaltation of the authority of the magisterium – explained in simplistic terms as the bishops—sets every Catholic child up as conclusive proof that this is true, because it demands of that child intellectual deference to patriarchy as a badge of loyalty – as a virtual definition of what a Catholic actually is.

That this process does not prepare Catholic children for the egalitarian cut-and-thrust of third level education, or for the harsher secular marketplace, is surely plain for all to see.  The virtual collapse of Catholic identity at the age of eighteen shows that a whole new approach is needed in the understanding of authority.  A patriarchal definition simply doesn’t cut it any more – and it never did.

When we hear in the Gospels that Jesus taught with authority, we cannot suppose that this authority rested on reference to what others may have taught him.  It is clear, certainly, that he knew his Hebrew sources – but that is clearly not why people came to listen.  The truth he carried was patently also carrying him – it had been freely embraced and integrated at the deepest personal level.  What he believed was patently what he believed – not simply what he had been taught to believe.  No other explanation is possible of how he could, when his life was at stake, say ‘I am the truth’.

It should be clear to all by now that there is all the difference in the world between a faith that is inherited, and a faith that is freely and deliberately embraced.  In the first case the individual is enveloped in a specific culture which creates a powerful incentive merely to conform.  Conformity rather than integrity becomes the highest virtue taught.  So enveloped, the individual is essentially passive – like the infant upon whom the water of baptism is poured.  In the second case it is the individual who, as an autonomous adult, freely chooses a given faith from a range of alternatives.  In that case it is the chosen church that becomes the passive object towards which the adult believer consciously moves.

It is crucially important for the church as a body to understand that the first kind of faith, which we may call received faith, is a most delicate and fragile plant – very unlikely to withstand an unfavourable climate.  It is only the second kind – chosen faith – that is likely ever to amount to an authoritative faith – one that can confidently engage in adult discourse.  Received faith may eventually mature into chosen faith – but one of the biggest problems in our church is that it tends to behave as though no such transition is necessary for the lay person – or as though received faith is or at some point automatically becomes chosen faith.

Such an assumption is highly dangerous not only because it is fundamentally mistaken but because it underlies what is probably the single most important point of difference between the lay person and the cleric or religious.   For the latter, faith is far more likely to be chosen, and therefore more informed and authoritative.  Most important, that adult commitment is liturgically celebrated in a ceremony of ordination or free commitment to vows. Here we find the essential weakness of Irish Catholicism – the essential reason for the diffidence and passivity – and lack of authority – of the typical Irish Catholic lay person.  For if we laity do not need a chosen faith – if our received faith is considered forever sufficient – we are never actually invited into Christian adulthood, and may forever remain spiritual children.

Indeed, given that this has all been fairly obvious for some decades, there is good reason to believe that the permanent  spiritual childhood of the laity is something that is actually preferred by Catholic paternalism at the summit of the church.  Clericalism rests upon the need of laity for a ‘Yes, Father’ relationship – one in which the priest will remain the autocratic and dominant – and thinking – force.  Far better then, that laity should never move beyond a childish dependency and a school-based understanding.  Nothing else can fully explain the lack of commitment to adult education by the self-described magisterium, and the failure to provide the structures for upward communication and adult participation required for full implementation of Vatican II.

The continued dogged adherence to the bestowal of all three sacraments of initiation before puberty, and to the complete absence of any liturgical expectation or celebration of adult lay commitment, leaves Irish Catholicism especially firmly in Craggy Island territory.  This is precisely why the sudden loss of authority by the Catholic hierarchy has been so devastating.  In a decade it is as though the Irish Catholic Church has actually disappeared from the national landscape – with secularist media commentators going so far as to suggest that it is currently undergoing its ‘last rites’.  Soon enough we will experience in Ireland what has already happened in Italy – a demand that the Church records the free decision of Irish Catholics to repudiate their baptisms – in the same way that it recorded their involuntary baptism after birth.

It seems to me that if we Irish Catholics-by-choice wish to make ourselves, and our children, authoritative as Catholics – fully committed and confident carriers of our saving truths – we need either a postponement of the sacrament of Confirmation, or a new sacramental/liturgical event which might be called Affirmation.  Either way, Confirmation or Affirmation should celebrate the free and deliberate decision of  mature adults to commit entirely to the truths of the faith.  And all teaching prior to this should emphasize the crucial importance of that moment for the person concerned – of the necessity of complete freedom as the only context in which any adult faith commitment can be made.

At present we make the appalling mistake of supposing that of necessity what has been taught and apparently received has also been freely chosen – that committed Catholics will emerge inevitably from a process of catechesis controlled by the catechist.  They cannot, because to say ‘I believe’ implies a complete freedom not to say it – and that context of freedom we never provide.  “We were taken for granted!” This is one young student’s damning verdict on this process – a verdict seemingly repeated by the majority, to judge by the total indifference of the vast majority of baptized students in Irish universities to the ministry of their chaplains.  And it is confirmed by all we have recently learned about the collapse of sacramental observance among those in the age range 18-30.

On the other hand, to hear a young adult say, with full confidence and in complete freedom ‘I believe’, restores in an instant the authority that has been lost by the church – for at that moment the faith has found another free adherent.

So in the end, authority and freedom are inseparable – and the authority of the church is inseparable from the mature freedom of its members.  It is no coincidence that the authority of Catholicism should have reached its nadir in the West under a ‘magisterium’ that is so needlessly afraid of freedom, so determined to preserve at all costs the fiction of a morally inerrant clergy, and the absurd contention that loyalty and deference are the same thing.

To restore the authority of the Church it is now of paramount importance that laity be invited liturgically into chosen adult faith – and organizationally and intellectually into parity of esteem.  The authority of the hierarchy in the wider secular world will rest ultimately on the integrity of its contention that our church, from summit to base, offers enhanced and equal personal dignity to all – and only we Catholic laity will be in a position to vouch for this from personal experience.

At present we truly cannot – because to do so would be to speak against the truth of our own experience.

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The Day the World Changed – 11/09/2001

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality 2001

For most of my lifetime I’ve been teaching history and current affairs, and in that lifetime already there have been days of special significance.

The night in 1962 when JFK told us about Soviet missiles on Cuba; that other awful night in 1963 we learned he had been assassinated; the day of the first serious violence in Northern Ireland in August 1969; the day in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down.

Yet none hit me with so much force as Tuesday 11th September 2001 – the day over 3000 people died in deliberate air crashes in New York and Washington. On my screen as I write there is a shot of Flight 175 about to pass through the enormous glazed wall of the World Trade Centre south building. I keep it there as a memento of an era that is about to pass away, a reminder that we are now in a different time. And that we owe to those dying and about to die at that moment – and to those they left behind – a monument that will do justice to their loss.

That image perfectly expresses the vulnerability of the US, at that moment the world’s only superpower.  Its terrifying nuclear missile shield, its strategic bomber force, its air and army and naval bases throughout the world, its nuclear submarines, its dozen floating airports, its huge external and internal intelligence services the CIA and FBI – all had been powerless to protect its most vulnerable citizens as they began their innocent day.

Superpower?

All of which raises a critical question: Is the concept of the superpower itself a dangerous illusion when only one superpower is left to become a target of a terrorism that it cannot directly engage with superpower arms?superpower Is the vastness of its strategic military strength, and the global nature of that power, now an invitation to the murder of its own citizens from within, and to a global religious war?

The concept of the superpower emerged in the period after 1945. Two powers had contributed most to the defeat of the axis powers – the  USA and the USSR. Only one as yet possessed a nuclear capability, but by 1962 this inequality had disappeared and the world stood poised on the brink of nuclear holocaust. The superpowers were already competing also in space, and it was the US decision to build a defensive satellite shield against nuclear missiles that finally broke the USSR’s capability to compete in the late 1980s. The collapse of the soviet empire from 1989 left one superpower only, with an apparently global dominance.

But global dominance – the aspiration of conquerors from Alexander to Hitler – is a dangerous position to be in. In fighting the Cold War US support for Israel was a potent source of alienation of Islamic peoples who sided with the Palestinians who were being squeezed out. Geared for nuclear warfare, or conventional warfare with forces prepared to engage in pitched battles, the US now faced a new and subtle enemy whose strength was anti-western fanaticism and an ability to improvise.

“They have woken a mighty giant,”  President Bush has now assured us, paraphrasing the Japanese Admiral Yamamoto after Pearl Harbour. But Yamamoto had actually said ‘sleeping giant’ – and this seems far more appropriate as a comment on September 11th. There is a sense in which the entire political and military leadership of the US was indeed asleep on that morning, and was then woken out of a complacency of catastrophic proportions.

As all the ingredients for the disaster were already known to be present, future historians will set their students the task of explaining why the disaster was allowed to happen. Fanatical middle eastern suicide bombers had attacked US targets before, and had recently killed hundreds of Israelis and severely damaged a US warship; hundreds of men from middle eastern lands deeply alienated from the US were known to be in the US; US flying schools did not require security clearance for their pupils; US internal air security was known not to prevent the carrying on board of potentially deadly weapons; the flight decks of these aircraft were known to be accessible to armed passengers.

Nothing more was required to allow the most appalling internal disaster ever to befall the US at the hands of its enemies – and these facts all lay before those charged with the defence of US citizens during the years this plan was meticulously prepared.

To argue that no one could foresee this is specious: these terrorists had foreseen it, probably as early as five years before. Specific US politicians and military and security and intelligence personnel had the task of outguessing the nation’s enemies, of thinking the unthinkable in order to prevent it, during that time. They either failed to do so, or were discouraged from pursuing the issue Scapegoating of individuals is pointless: there was a national failure of leadership at the summit, affecting the previous Democratic presidency of Fulbright scholar Bill Clinton as much as that of the Republican George Bush, and Congress also under both administrations. No-one at the summit wanted to think the unthinkable, although that is precisely what terrorists do.

Now that the US is attempting to build an alliance against terrorism it needs to avoid words and actions that must prevent that alliance ever becoming effectual. Words like ‘Crusade’ – for the Islamic world this has the same overtones as ‘Jihad’ for the west. The Crusades were Christian military expeditions against the Islamic rulers of the Holy Lands in the Middle Ages, called initially – and inexcusably – by the Papacy. An estimated 40 – 70,000 Jews and Arabs perished in the rape of Jerusalem by western ‘Christian’ knights in 1099 CE. The fact that George Bush did not apparently know this, and did not employ an adviser who could tell him, shows clearly the absence of a due respect for Islam at the summit of government at this critical moment.

The alliance must also avoid the indiscriminate use of force anywhere in the world. As I write, US military strikes of some kind against Afghanistan seem a possibility – with consequences that could include the alienation of much of the Islamic world from any anti-terrorist alliance. Since the bin Laden argument is that the US is bent upon global domination, unilateralist action by the US against any Islamic nation can only strengthen the bin Ladens and enhance their reputation.

US after 9-11What is needed above all is for the US to rethink its role and posture in the world. Is it bent upon economic and cultural as well as military dominance, or is it the big brother that guards the freedoms and dignity, and cultural identity of others as determinedly as its own?

At a critical moment in the development of the Irish peace process the London government found it useful to say simply that it had no longer any strategic interest in retaining control of Northern Ireland. This allowed most republicans to stack, if not yet to relinquish, their arms and bring us peace of a kind. Something similar is required from the US to clarify its intentions, especially with regard to the Islamic world and Israel. This could also strengthen its relations with the western powers.

When those who devised the US constitution wondered how to express the essential equality of the states that belonged to it, they decided that the US Senate would each have just two members from each state. This reassured those who argued that states with smaller populations would be always outvoted and ignored. The nearest thing we have to a world congress, the UN, gives greater power to the permanent superpower members of the Security Council. It must surely be obvious that when the list of superpowers is reduced to one, the credibility of the UN as an impartial body must be weakened. The time has come to re-examine its constitution – and here also the US must play a crucial role.

Having climbed to the summit of world power, the US has now to decide how that power is to be used within a framework of mutual international respect. Respect is only possible within a framework of equality. Equality was the original program of those who framed the US Declaration of Independence of 1776, and makes a perfectly respectable program now for a new world order. Is the administration of George Bush up to this – or will the US go on defending a supremacy that must remain a target for all the ‘young guns’ that must emerge to challenge it – with heaven knows what consequences for its own citizens, as well as the rest of the world?

What is power?

As I watched the aftermath of this shocking catastrophe in New York I had as a guest in my home a Dutch naval officer, one of a group of eight Christians visiting Coleraine from the Hague. “What is power?” Rudolph Francis asked at one point.

The question is so appropriate. These hijackers had armed themselves with nothing more than information, basic flying skills and knives. The information allowed them to co-ordinate the seizure of four planes that had left three different airports within fifteen minutes of one another. Knives and piloting skills allowed them to turn three of these into flying bombs of great destructive power, aimed at the political and economic capitals of the world’s only superpower. The factor that stunned the US – their willingness to give their lives for this enterprise – has undoubtedly helped to shape the history of the next century. It is equivalent to the assassination by Serbs of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary in 1914. The consequences of that action included the Great War and the downfall of that empire, with consequences that still reverberate in eastern Europe.

What will be the consequences of September 11th, 2001? One possibility, which must at all costs be avoided, is another ‘clash of civilisations’ between the West and Islam. To avoid it we must all become far more aware of the multitude of different cultures, beliefs and attitudes to be found among the world’s one billion Muslims. Islam is at least as diverse as the Christian world. The fanaticism of the suicide hijackers is fuelled by a perception of the west, led by the US, as a purveyor of a corrupt globalisation, threatening to Islamic faith and culture. The best way for the west to undermine that perception is to rediscover the Gospels, which threaten no-one.

Our own church could begin by acknowledging – in a substantial document – the disastrous error of the Crusades, called initially by Pope Urban II in an address that was not recorded verbatim. One version of it has him asking:

“Can anyone tolerate that we do not even share equally with the Moslems the inhabited Earth?”

As this ‘take’ on the papacy’s attitude to Islam would align it with a possible tide of anti-Islamism today, it is all the more necessary that the church distance itself from this discreditable era of its history. This beautiful Earth is not a western or Christian domain but a dear heritage of all its children. Our Bible – some of which we share with Islam – records that we are one family, from the beginning, and our gospels insist that we are destined to be at peace. Most Islamic scholars share this vision, so the earth need not become a battlefield between any two or more great faiths.

And this vision of a world enjoying a secure diversity is perfectly compatible with the greatest traditions of the USA. To protect its citizens it reconciles in its constitution the principle of the separation of the three different elements of state power, with the other vital principle of national unity against external aggression. It can now lead the world to a permanent peace by placing equal emphasis upon both principles in a genuine new world order. The world’s peoples and faiths can unite as one world against fanatical violence, in defence of the freedom of all to be themselves.

And the idea of a New World Order was, of course first floated by the first President Bush. It is time for us all to begin thinking about what the phrase might mean.

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