Tag Archives: sin

The World of the Wannabe

Sean O’Conaill © Spirituality 2001

New verbal coinings sometimes reveal an aspect of contemporary culture that takes us back to the ancient world. ‘Wannabe’ is just such a word – a descriptor for the (usually) young person who ‘wants to be’ someone else. Most young black Americans, the polls tell us, ‘wannabe’ celebrities of some kind – rock musicians, TV or movie or basketball stars. Currently millions of adolescent girls wannabe the pop ‘sensation’ Britney Spears.

‘Wanting to be’ is probably the major problem of the moment. It is a state of alienation from the self – a sense that the ‘being’ one now has is not worth having, and so must be exchanged for another.

What happens if we relate this to the temptation in the garden of Eden, that place of greatest happiness, where Satan promised ‘you shall be as Gods’. Genesis tells us that we fell for this, and notice here the coincidence of the word ‘fell’. The Fall results from ‘wanting to be’ something other than we are, the loss of the sense of being already all we need to be.

We find a superb illustration of this in Robert Bolt’s screenplay for ‘A Man for All Seasons’. Young Richard Rich pesters Thomas More for patronage – the use of personal influence to advance another at court. Chancellor More, disillusioned by the corruption he sees in the court of Henry VIII, insists that this ambition is misconceived.

“Be a great teacher,” he says, offering Rich such a post in a local school.

“And if I was, who would know it?” Rich asks.

“You would know it; your pupils would know it – and so would God. Not a bad public.” More returns.

But Rich has set his sights on the political summit – and eventuallyperjures himself and betrays More – in order to become attorney general for Wales. More goes to the block.

Rich pesters More because he sees himself as being ‘out’ as well as ‘down’. More is a doorway ‘into’ the charmed circle of Henry’s court. If you are ‘in’ you are also ‘up’. So when More does not let him in, Rich tries another door – the unscrupulous Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell’s price is Rich’s perjury.

Here too we find the connection between ‘wanting to be’, personal corruption, and the desire to climb. The ‘higher’ we are, the more people will see us, and the ‘greater’ we become. Herein too lies the extraordinary power of modern electronic media. Alexander the Great’s desire to ‘conquer the world’ can be achieved today by an Andre Agassi, or a Tom Cruise – for each is known globally via the TV and cinema screen.

“Top of the world, Ma”, “We’re going to the Top”, “The Jet Set” – these familiar clichés also connect fulfilment with elevation – as though the world actually had a ‘top’. The building of political empires followed the same logic – to subject a world conceived as planar to a single political edifice at the centre. George Bush is probably as close to fulfilling Alexander’s ambition as anyone will ever get – hopefully.

But what happens to this logic when we reflect that Earth has no ‘top’, that every one of us occupies the same boundless surface, which has no ‘rim’ or ‘edge’ because it meets itself in all directions – and that logically therefore, since there is no ‘up’ we are all equal, and since there is no centre, no-one is ‘out’?

It follows that there is no need to ‘want to be’, for we already ‘are’.

In evolutionary terms, to get the global human population to this insight as quickly as possible, someone sometime had to affirm that no-one ever is ‘out’ or ‘below’. The man who set out to build a kingdom for all the rejected of the world – even before the limitless nature of human space was understood – and without violence or self-admiration – must surely take the prize. As a consequence we find the inclusive symbol of the cross on all continents – however ambiguously it may first have arrived.

However, the vertical structure of the church, the source of all the ambition within it – is now a serious barrier to the growth of this spiritual insight, and a relic of the flat earth consciousness of antiquity. The investment of so much reverence in the person of the Pope – despite the historical evidence that God does not invest all grace there – creates a ‘wannabe’ culture within the church itself – as Cardinal Gantin confirmed when complaining about episcopal careerism just a year or so ago.

What is the implication of organising monster meetings for the central purpose of getting close to the Pope, other than the notion that we thereby come closer to God than we can be in our own backyard or parish church? What is the implication of a papal ‘court’ other than the notion that this man is most worthy, more ‘in’ and higher ‘up’ than we?

Were the Pope on the other hand to insist that no-one needs to ‘want to be’ anyone other than he or she is – for all are equally important – what then? In asking the church to reconsider how his office might be exercised, John Paul II draws us closer to this eventuality also.

Nothing is more certain than the need to challenge the ‘wannabe’ problem head on. Adolescent girls starve themselves because they want to be the super slim model they see on the catwalk. Young men may often deny themselves participation in sport because they don’t possess the idealised physique that TV sports coverage tells them they should have. Self-rejection is a primary factor in suicide, clinical depression, addiction, and criminality. The political corruption we are currently uncovering in Ireland is clearly a result of ‘wanting to be’ the lavish Irish country squire – the centre of attention and power.

And ‘wanting to be’ is also at the root of rampant consumerism and environmental decay. Advertising has discovered that our sense of our own inadequacy can be exploited by associating consumer wares with the people we ‘want to be’.

Which means that ‘sin’ is centrally concerned with self-dislike and the self-advancement that follows. The fixation that sexual desire is the root of all evil is entirely misplaced. The Decalogue connects even adultery with covetousness – the desire to possess what someone else already has. The media deliberately create sexual desire by creating sexual stereotypes – icons of desirability to create dissatisfaction with the partners we already have.

The current Blairite craze for ‘meritocracy’ should be another target of spiritual awareness – for it implies a pyramid of worthiness without ever clarifying that most of the ‘worthy’ have simply purchased their privilege by virtue of an historical advantage that has nothing to do with ‘merit’. The principle that ‘everyone should be able to rise to whatever position their talent and efforts deserve’ implies a level playing field to begin with, an inequality of worthiness, and a perfect arbiter to determine who is worthy – while apparently the possession of vast inherited wealth and a drone lifestyle do not disqualify. The whole notion is palpable nonsense – a thin disguise for mere selfishness, and a source of disillusionment to those who find themselves rejected.

It disguises also the self-regard of the merely clever, and the elevation of a narrow kind of intelligence to power and privilege. Education today increasingly emphasises its capability to ‘change your life’ by making us ‘everything you want to be’. Thus, merely knowing has become more important than understanding, mere information more important than wisdom.

It is no accident either that meritocratic Britain is critically short of nurses and teachers – ‘wanting to be’ is taking over from wanting to serve.

Another wannabe problem results from the prominence given to theological expertise in the church – and especially the notion that the more theology one knows the wiser one necessarily becomes. This prominence creates the theological wannabe. Wisdom has to do with quality of being, not quantity of knowing. Of course we must know what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truth, but this is essentially quite simple: that each of us is infinitely loved by the creator of all being, and can never be alienated from that love. To peddle the notion that we can only arrive at this understanding by subjecting ourselves to a course in theology is essentially to do what the lawyers were accused of doing: using the key of knowledge to prevent others from entering, while not entering themselves. Here, I believe, we find the reason that theology often leads to nothing but arid debate – pride enters in to convince us that our greater knowledge entitles us to greater respect. The internet is often a theological battlefield as protagonists aspire to be ‘right’ when the only source of wisdom is the compulsion to love and let be.

As we mull over the strange failure of Catholic education to develop in Ireland a community at peace with itself, and in love with God, we need to acknowledge that in buying into the secular meritocratic mirage we pulled from underneath ourselves the essential truth: that respect cannot be merited. We owe one another respect because we are all equally flawed, yet equally and infinitely loved by the same God, and cannot add another cubit to our height, whatever we achieve.

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)

Discovery of the soul is discovery of the self – the self that we don’t wannabe, the core of our being that God knows and loves. We need urgently to acknowledge the power of global media to alienate us from the wisdom to be content to be ourselves – and counter it at every turn – by telling every wannabe that he or she already – gloriously – is.

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The Myth of Materialism

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2001

Ecclesiastics are never done complaining about ‘materialism’. A search in the Web archives of the right-wing Catholic news agency CWN – which meticulously reports the statements of the Vatican – turns up thirty-one high-level statements referring to it since 1996. It has become the cliché of choice in describing the errors of the age. Commenting upon the Pope’s Lenten Message this year, Archbishop Josef Cordes spoke of the ‘materialism in which we are immersed’ as the explanation for the loss of the sense of the spiritual dimension to life.

Presumably this cliché rests upon the assumption that since there is a philosophical phenomenon we can justly label ‘materialism’, the acquisitiveness of modern society derives from it, and from nothing else. This assumption doesn’t hold any water – humans have always been acquisitive, as all ancient literature, including the Bible attests. And modern acquisitiveness is essentially no different.

A single evening’s perusal of the products of the mass-market advertising industry reveals that matter per se is the last thing people are interested in. Where are the ads for ‘two tonnes of lead’ or ‘one ton of stainless steel’ or even ‘three ounces of gold’? Nowhere. When people have satisfied their basic material needs for food and shelter, and the basic comforts, they spend their surplus on something else entirely.

What that something else is can also easily be gleaned from mass-market advertising. A certain expensive shampoo will put women among the Jennifer Anistons, making them as ‘worth it’ as she is. If you can afford a Rolex watch – and many can these days on hire purchase – you join Andre Agassi on the lawns of Wimbledon. A powerful motor bike will put Northern Ireland’s young men on the Isle of Man circuit, in pursuit of the status of local hero and world legend the late Joey Dunlop. A powerful computer will give Internet access for your garden furniture business – and dreams of a global commercial empire – or allow you to invent another generic software application and follow Bill Gates to the top of the Fortune 500 rankings. Wealthy Londoners will gladly pay Harrods prices for white goods – for the mere possibility of rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi – or even the owner, for he too is media-beloved. And the public flaunting of mobile phones and off-road vehicles is largely down to yearning to be considered as important as the owners of penthouses and landed estates.

‘Rankings’ are what it’s all about. People measure their worth in terms of where they believe they are in what is now a global pyramid of worth or esteem, maintained lovingly by the media whose bread and butter it is. They keep us fixated on the daft notion that some of us are infinitely more important than most of us – and most people cannot live spiritually with this sense of their own insignificance. This is why we are endlessly acquisitive. We are addicted not to matter, but to its symbolic significance when shaped in a particular way, and then associated with celebrities – because where they are (or where we think they are) is where (we think) anyone of importance should be.

The Bible most clearly reveals that things have always been this way. In the Ancient world, top status went to military heroes like Alexander, and, in the Jewish tradition, David. The young women who swooned then over David’s ‘tens of thousands’ of victims do so now over Willy Wales’s inheritance of good looks, the throne of England and the media’s fascination. Saul’s sense of humiliation at being merely credited with ‘thousands’ is mimicked by the young men who set out to joyride and destroy the powerful cars they will never be able to earn lawfully – with similarly murderous and suicidal results.

To put it another way, ‘the world’ is as it has always been – a source of spiritual fascination and distraction from the ordinariness of our own lives, and the fact that, nevertheless, we are loved by God. It makes us endlessly dissatisfied to be who, and with whom, and where, we are. It even alienates us from the present moment, placing us spiritually in the future, towards which we then frenetically move seven days a week. Even the business courses that the already affluent purchase at exorbitant prices are called ‘In Pursuit of Excellence’ or some such, for we always must be in pursuit of something, in flight from ourselves and from the present. And from the fact that 200 million children – for example – are in severe physical distress around the globe, a distress that could be alleviated by turning just a proportion of the West’s surplus wealth to their extreme need.

All of this is so obvious that it is the inability of the intellectuals at the summit of the church to see it, and note its spiritual significance, that becomes the real mystery. Why are ecclesiastics always maundering on about ‘materialism’ when it comes nowhere near to naming the real source of acquisitiveness, this sense that people have of their own unimportance unless they acquire the symbols of celebrity, the sense of being ‘worth it’?

The answer is cruelly obvious. These ecclesiastics have generally no sense of their own unimportance. Quite the reverse. Although the verbal truth they utter is supposedly centred upon the life of a man whose life’s journey was downward to ultimate humiliation, they are themselves the winners of the race for eminence within their own institution.

The common effect of this upon their own spirituality needs no elaboration from me. In May 1999, Cardinal Gantin, who had for fifteen years been Prefect of the Vatican Office which assists the Pope with the nomination and transfer of bishops, complained trenchantly about the naked careerism of many bishops, which had, he said, “altered” the nature of episcopal service.

They sought promotion to get on to “a good thing”, he claimed, and to meet more influential people who could help their careers. “Even those making these requests – and sometimes they did so jokingly, and other times not, considered that they were expressing a legitimate desire”. “Other times I happened to hear at the end of an episcopal ordination some bishop shouting ‘ad altiora’ [to the highest posts]”. (Catholic Herald, May 21st, 1999)

The symbols of status that bishops pursue, are, of course, in some respects different from those sought by the business executive. There is no real equivalent of the bishop’s mitre or coat of arms in the business world, or of the prestigious diocese – but these had their equivalents in the heraldic devices, coronets and landed estates of the nobility of the ancien regime. The unique symbols of Episcopal importance are thus simply the shadows of those of yesterdays secular hoi polloi – and therefore intensely a reminder of the sheer snobbery of the past.

Until the church at its summit grasps the parallel here with the upwardly-directed yearning of the secular person, it will fail to measure the significance of this in impoverishing the church itself spiritually. Upwardly directed bishops cannot dignify their priests and people – i.e. assure them of the love of a God who really exists – if they believe that they themselves will only be really ‘worth it’ if they become Cardinals, or even Pope – for this too is dire spiritual poverty.

Indeed, if the gospels are studied carefully it could even be that they will not even understand ‘Sin’ either. Those who came to Jesus for forgiveness seem to have been distraught above all about their own lack of worth, their own inability, due to poverty, measured by their inability to afford the services of those who cluttered the path to temple sacrifice and cleansing. He never asked them to name their sins, but simply forgave them, assuring them of his Father’s love. The pyramid of esteem and power within the church is a scandalous betrayal of that life, and its ultimate sacrifice – and is itself a source of the distance that many, many people mistakenly believe lies between themselves and God.

The cult of the papacy, tended assiduously by the Curia (which would itself be just another bureaucracy without it), is thus itself a major source of spiritual poverty in the church, for the papacy is at the summit of the pyramid of esteem that the church became in the fourth century. When we watch now those 1979 videos of the papal visit to Ireland, by far the most embarrassing aspect is the sight of Irish bishops, including Eamonn Casey, preening themselves in the august presence – as though the summit of their lives had been this few days of closeness to a reigning monarch and Time’s Man of the Year. The parallel to those legendary millions in the UK who dream nightly of tea with the Queen is too close to be missed.

The recent visit to Belfast of the Dalai Lama presented an entirely different social role and style for the spiritual leader – one of unselfconscious informality and simplicity. Here was someone who did not need to stand upon his own dignity – respect was elicited by virtue of the respect with which he treated everyone he encountered. In stark contrast, probably the single greatest failure of the present papacy is its failure to attack the cult of celebrity which so disfigures this era, by insisting upon the equal dignity of all in the sight of God – indeed by deliberately repudiating the idea that Popes are more important than anyone else. Could it be that the superior spiritual presence of the Dalai Lama is related to the fact that, like Jesus, but wholly unlike the Pope, he has nowhere to lay his head? I believe so – and see an obvious solution.

The enormous and widening gulf that now separates hierarchy and people in Ireland has much to do with the contrary obsession with status and dignity. And when we remember that lack of self-esteem is a common feature of so many of today’s addictions, neuroses and psychoses, this upward obsession of clericalism becomes more tragic yet, for it is precisely what prevents the church living up to the standards of its founder, for whom a genuine compassion for the poor in spirit, i.e. the unesteemed, was central. By contrast, Irish people these days swap stories of the snobbery of bishops who seem to value lay people in terms of the marques of cars they drive.

Nothing essentially separates the mitre-bound cleric from the penthouse-bound yuppie – each is equally obsessed with symbols of status – with what ‘the world’ thinks of him. Status-seeking is the essence of worldliness – the fact that the ambitious cleric seeks status within an ecclesiastical institution makes no essential difference. It simply explains why Jesus resisted the second of his three temptations – to amaze the temple elite by throwing himself from its summit. Thank goodness we have many priests still who understand this passage more clearly than their bishops.

We are all equally sinful (i.e. ‘worldly’) and equally ‘worth it’ (i.e. the love of God). When all bishops realise this, and begin descending rather than climbing – the Pope too – then only will they get to grips with the ‘spiritual impoverishment’ of our times and show true leadership. Wittering on about ‘materialism’ – from the palaces inherited from the ancien regime – just doesn’t cut it anymore. Like the sin of the Pharisee who condemned the tax collector, it completely misses the mark.

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Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust: The Real Lessons

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish Times 1999

The issue of Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust just won’t go away. Seán O’Conaill believes the central question is about the Papacy itself.

“Hitler’s Pope” is so obvious a book title that sooner or later some opportunistic publisher was bound to use it and, predictably, the debate that has followed the publication of John Cornwell’s book is confused and partisan. Once more Pius XII becomes both villain and victim, depending upon which side you take.

However, the debate has again tended to focus on human judgment rather than the question of principle. Owen Chadwick argues in the Tablet that Cornwell exaggerates the ‘power’ of Pacelli/Pius XII throughout the period of both World Wars. He points out that Nazi brutality was deliberately directed against the dioceses of the more anti-Nazi bishops of Germany.

Others will repeat exactly the same point in the context of the Holocaust. Dutch Catholics suffered far more in the aftermath of a forthright condemnation of Nazism by their own bishops. Richard McBrien, for the prosecution, demurs: a more forthright condemnation from the Vicar of Christ, the head of the world’s largest religious organisation, would have given Berlin pause for thought. Just as John Paul’s dangerous policy of support for the Polish Solidarity movement helped undermine global communism.

Common to both sides of the debate is a belief that Pius XII’s primary responsibility was for the physical safety of his own flock. If he underestimated his “power” and overestimated the likely Nazi reaction to a forthright condemnation of the Holocaust he is to be condemned. If he was “powerless” to halt the Holocaust, and would have provoked a new Holocaust of Catholics by such a condemnation, he must be applauded for better judgment than his detractors.

For both sides, it would appear, the basic question was a matter of political judgment: whether Pius XII’s explicit condemnation of an ongoing genocide, in which many Catholics in Nazi-held Europe were actively involved, would have done more “harm” than “good”. And these concepts are implicitly defined in secular rather than spiritual terms. “Good” is the absence of physical pain and death. “Harm” is its opposite. In 1942 it was Auschwitz, history’s closest analogy to hell itself.

But the Papacy titles itself the Vicarship of Christ, and calls the church the mystical body of Christ. There is in the heart of this terminology a claim that Catholicism embodies the spirit of self-sacrifice that led Jesus to crucifixion rather than worldly survival and triumph. There is also the claim that the Papacy in particular symbolises this ethic. If the Papacy’s and the church’s bottom line is their own physical survival, how then are they to live the moral claim they make? Can a self-sacrificing God be witnessed to by a mystical body that defines good and evil in secular terms, and which chooses survival before self-endangerment?

It may be said: “But the church must survive in order to bring the message of salvation to future generations”. But what message is brought if the historical record shows that the infallible church was, in history’s deepest moment, unable to live that message?

Christianity is rejected in the West today not because it is not a beautiful ideal, but because most do not believe it can be lived. The Papacy itself in 1942-1945, and the debate that currently rages, implicitly underwrite this wisdom.

Of course, we are to some extent saved by those Catholics who, on their own initiative, did indeed embody the spirit of self-sacrifice. Maximilian Kolbe is the archetypal example chosen by the Papacy itself. He offered to take the place of a Jewish father picked for execution.

The pope at Christmas 1942 could have made the same offer.

The Papacy surely cannot simultaneously claim both the moral sovereignty due to Christ and the right to run away from crucifixion. When it does so it leaves the whole church, for which it claims to speak, open to a charge of fundamental hypocrisy.

I deliberately speak of the Papacy rather than of Pius XII because, as Cornwell’s book clearly shows, Pius XII was the ideal servant of an ideology of the Papacy. That ideology insists that a strong church demands the centralisation of authority.

But the record shows that this arch-centralist was, to a significant degree, morally paralysed by the Holocaust as was much of the church he led. This was precisely because he felt responsible for the whole church and because most Catholics were (and still are) trained to wait upon the Pope.

When Pius XII is defended in terms of his own inability to influence the behaviour of European Christians and Catholics in history’s greatest spiritual crisis then papalism itself is admitted to be spiritually sterile.

Papal authority, it is argued, simply cannot exist in such a crisis, the very moment when a spiritual leadership is most required. That is the central truth to be learned from that terrible time.

But those who wish to canonise Pius XII are determined to ignore that truth, even though their own defence of him, and of the institution he served, is founded on an insistence that he was, in that desperate situation, impotent. Where does faith in God come into that?

Thus the gibe of “cafeteria Catholicism”, so often used by papalist Catholics against their opponents, comes truly home to roost. Catholicism in 1942, as represented by the Papacy, chose physical survival before self-endangerment, and in so doing left to isolated individuals the burden of proving that followers of Christ must expect, sometimes, to have to follow him into the tomb.

That is the unacknowledged backdrop to the millennium, this Gethsemane of every pope who, starting with Peter, dodges the crucifixion. It counsels not the canonisation of popes, but humility and penitence, and a decentralisation of initiative. We Catholics will only grow up when we are taught that, in the end, like Kolbe, we may be called upon to stand alone for the truth, because the Papacy (for whatever reason) cannot be expected to do so.

When the Papacy rises to the challenge of teaching us this explicitly, rising above the self-indulgent jingoism of canonising the last pope who proved it, then alone will it become worthy of some of its less grandiose self-entitlements. In the meantime it will merely go on excusing Pius XII by removing from his shoulders the ultimate moral and spiritual obligation that must surely accompany the exclusive title “Vicar of Christ”.

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