Tag Archives: Teaching

Can Morality be taught without ‘Myth’?

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish Times  Tuesday November 22 2011

RITE AND REASON: The attempt to identify Christianity with basic biblical literalism and violence is dishonest, writes SEÁN O’CONAILL

HOW DO we humans develop moral values? It is fascinating to see this question being raised by the “new atheism” (Rite and Reason, Michael Nugent, October 18th, 25th, Nov 1st).

Rejecting all religious storytelling (‘myth-making’), Nugent backs the scientific method and assures us that “we can best live together with other sentient beings by empathising with them and seeking to maximise their well-being and minimise their suffering”.

Nugent did not tell us, however, how he would go about teaching empathy. Would this be a matter of compiling empirical data about the impact of, say, abuse upon children, and then presenting these facts – as Powerpoint presentations maybe – to other children and adults? Does he think this kind of exposition would hook them and turn them into moral paragons, or bore them to tears?

Does Mr Nugent empathise at all with the children in Dickens’s Hard Times to whom that other devotee of empirical science, Mr Gradgrind, wished to teach nothing but hard facts? Does he see any virtue in Dickens’s manner of teaching morality – by creating vivid fictional characters and tracing their lives through boldly dramatic plots? Can he think of a better way of persuading an errant capitalist to empathise and ‘think again’ (ie repent) than by sitting him down to read or watch A Christmas Carol ?

These questions are important because, for all of recorded time, human culture has found storytelling to be the most effective method of holding the attention of the widest range of people, and of evoking the strongest empathy and deepest reflection. Has the new atheism come up with something not only radically different but empirically proven to be more effective?

If so, is it not time we heard about it? If not, just how empirically justifiable is the new atheism’s contempt for religious myth as a transgenerational conveyor of moral values?

The meaning of the word “myth” is contested. At the simplest level, a myth is a story to which we attribute overarching importance as a conveyor of “life meaning”. We now live, we are told, in the postmodern era, when no such “grand narrative” is respectable, so the word “myth” has come to mean something close to a “lie”.

Can the new atheism prove that this is an entirely safe place to be, morally? Is there evidence that, deprived of all myth, human beings become more moral, and more empathetic? If no superior myth has emerged purely out of the scientific method after four centuries, is there no reason to fear that science, for all of its power to change our environment, may be morally sterile and indifferent?

Although you cannot depend upon the new atheists to tell you this, the Christian myth has been told in different ways. Augustine’s sex-centred interpretation of the Bible is hugely different from Teilhard de Chardin’s evolutionary account.

Emerging Christianity is busy discussing how to connect Christian salvation with planetary salvation, and finding that task well within its compass. The call to generosity and simplicity of life is meeting a Christian response as varied and relevant today as the medieval monastic movement and the Franciscan renewal of the 13th century.

The new atheism’s attempt to identify Christianity simply with fundamentalist biblical literalism and violence is transparently dishonest.

On the other hand, Nugent’s interest in morality is greatly to be welcomed. It signifies a realisation that the problem of evil is as far from resolution today as it was when some of the 18th century rationalists proposed that universal education would bring a moral Utopia. Why are we so prone to self-harm as a species? Mr Nugent needs to ask himself if his optimism about the moral benefit of demolishing all religious myth might not be just another example of empirically unsubstantiated faith.

Secularism and Hesitant Preaching

Sean O’Conaill  © The Furrow Jul/Aug 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

The Role of the Priest: Sacrifice or Self-sacrifice?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Sep 2007

“The specific leadership task of the priest is to foster not just any kind of community but one which embodies Gospel values at both the local and the global levels.” Donal Dorr, Do We Still Need Priests, Doctrine and Life, April 2007

In full agreement with this, I find myself asking the following supplementary question: What was the definitive priestly act of Jesus? Was it his institution of the Eucharist on the night before his crucifixion, or his passion and death the following day on Calvary?

So inextricably connected are these events that the question may seem naive, but it seems to me to go to the heart of our current need to discern the specific Christian priestly role today. As Donal Dorr pointed out, the generally accepted solution is that the priest celebrates Mass and grants absolution. However, neither of these roles need involve their actors in the endurance of suffering on behalf of others – the very heart of the mystery of the Eucharist itself. That is not to say that Catholic priests do not often lead heroic lives, but that we have not, sadly, been taught to see personal sacrifice as the distinctive and necessary characteristic of Catholic priesthood.

We need to make a key distinction here, to separate in our minds the first Eucharist – a symbolic, ritual event – and the crucifixion, the actual endurance of pain on behalf of others – a decidedly real, non-ritual, event. It was the latter alone that gave meaning to the former. Remembering Jesus’ devastating verdict on those who affected to be religious – that in winning a naive admiration they had received their due reward – we need to be especially mindful that if the church existed solely for ritual and symbolic purposes it would exist in vain. So, the actual bearing of pain on behalf of others is the essential core of Christian priesthood: if that does not happen our priestly ritual would essentially be an empty facade, and not Christian at all.

Especially we need to remember this because the essence of Jesus’ priesthood was his integrity – the fact that, unlike the pagan priest, he was also the real victim of the sacrifice that he had ritually celebrated. So how have we come to elevate the performance of ritual and sacrament – what might be called virtual or symbolic ministry – above what is actually more important: actual ministry, the taking of pain on behalf of others?

In stressing the priest’s obligation to provide Christian leadership, in stressing also that Christian leadership is something quite different from control, and in emphasising the need for prophetic witness, Donal Dorr is taking us towards a reintegration of symbolic and actual ministry. It is useful here to reflect upon the historical origins of their separation. The following paragraphs are taken from a standard history of our church:

“The clergy at first were not sharply differentiated from the laity in their lifestyle: The clergy married, raised families, and earned their livelihood at some trade or profession. But as the practice grew of paying them for their clerical work, they withdrew more and more from secular pursuits, until by the fourth century such withdrawal was deemed obligatory.

“An important factor in this change was the increasing stress laid on the cultic and ritualistic aspects of the ministry. At first the Christian presbyter or elder avoided any resemblance to the pagan or Jewish priests and, in fact, even deliberately refused to he called a priest. He saw his primary function as the ministry of the Word. The ritualistic features of his sacramental ministry were kept in a low key. Even as late as the fifth century, John Chrysostom still stressed preaching as the main task of the Christian minister. But the image of the Christian presbyter gradually took on a sacral character.

“This sacralization of the clergy was brought about by various developments – theological, liturgical, and legal. The Old Testament priesthood, for instance, was seen as the type and model for the New Testament priesthood. The more elaborate liturgy of the post-Constantinian era, with its features borrowed from paganism, enhanced the image of the minister as a sacred personage. The ministry of the Word diminished in importance when infant baptism became the rule rather than the exception, for infants could not be preached to. Imperial legislation established the clergy as an independent corporation with its own rights and immunities.”

[From: T. Bokenkotter, ‘A Concise History of the Catholic Church’, 2004,Pages 53-54]

It is clear from this that the earliest dis-integration of ritual ministry from actual ministry accompanied the growing ‘success’ of the church in the third and fourth centuries, culminating in Christian clergy replacing the pagan religious establishments. The priest who sought to follow and to witness to Christ in an era when this could be deeply dangerous was still likely to become the real victim of the ritual he celebrated. The person who found high position in the post-Constantinian church, on the other hand, had often no similar test of his integrity to pass. In fact, the role now usually guaranteed creature comforts and social status. Nothing else was needed to elevate ritual ministry – the public and theatrical aspect of Christianity – above actual ministry, and to separate the two.

After Constantine, Church leaders quickly became powerful enough to be victimisers themselves – and this deeply disordered situation persisted into the modern era.

Reform movements in the church were often a reaction to this dis-integration of actual and symbolic ministry – as was the Protestant Reformation in its emphasis upon the priesthood of all believers. So was Vatican II in its attempts to involve laity. Now today we are attempting to identify the specifically priestly ministry at the very time we are also attempting to discern what ‘involving the laity’ might mean. These problems are inseparable.

For the fact is that lay people already often are involved in actual self-sacrificial as distinct from ritual priestly ministry. I am not simply referring here to the heroic service that many individuals may give in charitable work or activism on issues of justice. I refer to the many critical service occupations that are poorly paid, such as nursing, counselling, teaching, youth ministry and caring for the disabled and the elderly. I refer also to the mundane fact that marriage, parenting and other family obligations, and even close friendships, often involve personal sacrifice to a marked degree. Why do we still suppose that the ordained priest is the model of Christian priesthood when his role does not necessarily involve self-sacrifice on behalf of others, and may in fact insulate the priest from any such obligation?

The reason is, I believe, that with the Constantinian shift something else was in danger of being lost in our understanding of the Calvary event: that Jesus’s integrity required that he accept the very opposite of the elevated social position of the priest of the ancient world, that he accept the social position of the slave. Here again, reform movements such as those of Saints Benedict and Francis of Assisi sought to re-identify Christian ministry with powerlessness, poverty and humility. However, secular clergy tended on the whole to continue to occupy socially elevated positions from which to critique the faults of the people, and this was especially true of those appointed as shepherds.

“I think we need more involvement of the laity,” insisted one secular priest recently when asked by a colleague what he thought needed to happen to reinvigorate the church in his own troubled Irish diocese. “Nonsense!” was the emphatic reply. For the latter ‘the church’ must remain essentially a clerical entity whose clerical proprietors simply mustn’t relinquish the very thing that Jesus did relinquish to become the archetypal Christian priest: the status that goes with exclusivity. The argument appears to be that if ‘vocations to the priesthood’ are to be encouraged at all, young men must continue to be offered an elevated status as an indispensable incentive

But if the ‘the church’ and priesthood have essentially to do with humility, self-sacrifice and service, it is indeed ‘nonsense’ to talk of ‘lay involvement in the church’ as though it wasn’t already a reality. There is a dire need instead for the actual living priesthood of the laity to be formally acknowledged by the clerical church, and for the wisdom that must obviously accompany that living priesthood to be released into the clerical church through structures that allow us to address one another for the first time as equals and collaborators. We need to think not of ‘involving the laity’ but of involving the clergy in the church of service that many of the laity already embody, and to convene the whole church for the first time in many centuries on that understanding.

So of course we still need priests, because all of us are called to the essence of Christian priesthood: actual service of others. Whether we need any longer an ordained elite to celebrate the Eucharist is an entirely different question, because elitism has always been dangerous to Christian priesthood, properly understood. That we should still be tied to an elitist and ritualistic conceptualisation of priesthood in order to continue to celebrate the sacred ritual of the Eucharist, and to receive the body of Christ, is one of the great ironies of the history of our church.

And as we fail this test of grasping fully what Christian priesthood actually means, our younger generations are walking away from our schools, many never to realise that in rejecting (or suffering exclusion from) membership of an historically limited version of priesthood they have not walked away from the essence of Christian priesthood. Male and female, if they retain their Christian idealism, and their spirit of service, they will bring to the secular world the very priesthood it needs for its restoration.

It is time to tell them this, as a matter of real urgency.

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.

Love before Knowledge: The search for portable truth

Sean O’Conaill  © The Furrow Sep 2005

Serving on a Cursillo weekend I was once struck by the attitude of a priest sampling it for the first time. He was himself, he told us, a trained Catechist, who had years of experience of putting on courses. For various reasons he simply wouldn’t do things this way. He had thawed out by the Sunday, but his haughty negativity was a severe challenge while it lasted.

I need to explain here, perhaps, that the Cursillo experience is essentially one of Christian community. Its central message – that each of us is equally and infinitely loved – is conveyed not so much through a sophisticated verbal theology as through the manner in which the largely lay Cursillo team welcome, show compassion for, and entertain the first-timers, the ‘candidates’ – who are often casualties of our intellectually meritocratic culture. The expert priest’s problem was that his greater intellectual sophistication gave him a vantage point from which he felt obliged to be negative about the unsophisticated doctrinal content of the course.

I remember the incident as an illustration of something that I believe to be seriously blocking the development of the church at present: the apparent belief of so many experts, and of much of the hierarchy, that to move lay people into Christian commitment there is a need for the delivery of a very substantial body of knowledge – knowledge that only they can be trusted to determine, package and deliver. As often as not it tends to be a substantial sampling of the Catechism.

What is called Catholic ‘adult education’ tends as a consequence to be a heavy, texty, affair, couched in a heavily Latinated terminology – and costing so much to deliver that only a few people can afford it. Furthermore, it is, in my experience, difficult to see the positive results in terms of the buzzing parishes we would all like to see. Those who receive this experience may know more – but not what to do next.

Already, of course, I need to guard myself against the conclusion that I am anti-intellectual. Quite the contrary: I have been a teacher for most of my adult life, preparing adolescents for higher education, and so have a considerable stake in raising the intellectual horizons of lay people generally. But to do this we need first of all to develop the confidence of the learner, and the present content-heavy method of Catholic instruction very often has the opposite effect. Too often it mistakenly implies that the more that is known of the detailed minutiae of Catholic doctrine, the closer one necessarily comes to a grasp of the whole : that quantity equals quality.

I am now convinced that what the magisterium should do is what every good teacher always does: decide on what belongs at the summit of what it calls the hierarchy of truths, and teach that as a priority, right from the start.

What is it that lies there? What is it above all we must not only know, but keep present in mind at all times, as an encapsulation of all that the Catechism, and the Gospels contain? Knowledge is a diffuse, potentially limitless thing, which we cannot carry in toto as we go through our day. While we think of one thing, a lot of others ‘slip out the back’ – perhaps something vital. So wouldn’t it be useful to state, in the shortest form possible, the one vital thing we must all never forget? Wouldn’t this small burden of truth be portable at all times, a summary of all that lies below it in the hierarchy of truths?

I have thought about this for some considerable time over the past decade, and propose the following:

The most important thing for a Christian to know
Is that the most important thing for her/him to DO
Is NOT to KNOW
But to LOVE.

To establish this, I feel I need only point out what Jesus said four times in the Gospel of John, and what was repeated nine further times in the new Testament. He never emphasised knowing as such – ‘being right’: the instruction is to love, first and always. Knowledge is important, and especially knowledge of the basic story related in the creeds and the Rosary, but it must never be given a greater importance than the obligation to love, and must always be interpreted in the light of that principle.

If quantitative knowledge is given primacy, love and relationship are very likely to be lost – and mere intellectual ostentation to be in the ascendant. The Crusaders, or at least their leaders, knew the creeds, but their primary obligation of love had been tragically left behind in the tabernacles of Europe. The Inquisition – the source of so much continuing alienation from Christianity – was grounded on the same sad foundation.

Further, the primacy given by Jesus to love is a call, not primarily to endless study, but to relationship – especially, first of all (in the teaching context), the relationship of teacher to student. The light burden Jesus gave us – if we can remember it – will establish from the start between student and teacher the great truth they both share: because they are both equally and infinitely loved, they are bound in love to one another – and therefore bound to respect one another also. Knowing what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths, the student has already completed the most important part of the course.

Further, from that very first moment the student is called into action also. There is no need to complete the course to discover what its most important application should be – the ‘bottom line’. The primacy of the obligation to love can enlighten, and move, from the first moment it is learnt and experienced.

Take the case of a highly qualified catechist tasked with the delivery of one of those substantial courses we too often see. His professional obligation – to ‘complete the course’ – is quite likely to be oppressive from the very start. Furthermore these times, it is likely that course members will have problems with an obscure terminology – and even with some point of doctrine. Suppose an argument develops, and the catechist stands firm to what he believes the Catechism says. Or, more likely, frustration or boredom set in soon after the initial enthusiasm. And course members walk away, never to return.

Two things have happened here. First, the catechist has actually lost sight of what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths. In the pressures of the ‘big course’ the key truth has indeed ‘dropped out the back’. Second, some of his students may now never find it – even though it was deliverable in the very first minutes of the course. Nothing of any great importance has been taught, when something vital could have been.

Furthermore, this approach would address the problem that lies at the heart of the issue of ‘non reception’ – such a vital issue these days. Lay people tend to feel talked down to – and the sheer heaviness of what is proposed is often very intimidating to them. This is a very bad start to the teacher-student relationship – the so obvious inequality between teacher and student. It is a recipe for trouble, tedium, group shrinkage, even total failure, right from the start.

But if both teacher and student share from the start, and never allow to drop out of sight, what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths, there is a continuing basic equality between them. The student has understood the most vital thing a Christian must know, and must not forget, and so has succeeded in establishing his/her competence and intelligence.

I would argue strongly that the failure to lighten and organise Catholic instruction as radically as this lies at the heart of its current problems. We are so worried by the task of ‘passing on the faith’, and so concerned to leave nothing out, that we have often actually dropped that beautiful burden – disguised it, concealed it, lost it – and many children and adults now never receive it. Taking exception to some rebuff or scandal or frustration – or an endless diet of doctrine that seems never to ‘cut to the chase’ – they leave the church and proclaim that it is a tyrannical institution that indoctrinates people.

And so it does if it puts knowledge – especially large quantities of it – before love itself.

I fear that this is precisely what the magisterium has too often unwittingly done. Proclaiming the Catechism as the best answer to all our problems, and failing to privilege love over knowledge, it has privileged quantitative knowledge over love – failing to deliver what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths.

Binding itself also, apparently, to non-accountability and secrecy it has failed to learn that these are the only two parents that scandal needs – severely damaging the bond of love and trust that binds the whole church together. Although scandal after scandal has revealed that the secular implementation of the Christian principle of accountability has given more protection and vindication to injured Catholic children and their families than the hierarchy’s own (still non-accountable) apparatus, it refuses to learn from that experience.

One must ask: if the magisterium has forgotten what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths, and refuses to learn from every lesson it receives on its own apparent inability to love – and on how it might love better – by what argument can it justify its authority to teach? Doesn’t, for example, the Cursillo, which, at its best, prioritises love, compassion and relationship over knowledge, teach better?

I ask this question especially on behalf of those theologians who have been silenced for supposed heterodoxy – and also on behalf of those committed supporters of orthodoxy who often fear that they are considered merely ‘company men’ because they have not been silenced.

The excuse given for this coercion – that ‘the faithful’ would be endangered by the ideas of powerful intellectuals – is entirely misconceived, even, I suspect, bogus. Those without an interest in fine theological distinctions, but with no shortage of spiritual intelligence, very quickly lose interest in those distinctions – so long as the basic truths of the creeds are not in dispute. Knowing the church of their own local community as a loving institution, they are content to know what the worriers apparently do not: that loving is more important than knowing. Those who love and pray do not give primacy to knowledge or ‘big ideas’ – but to love. And if they suspect that any thinker is challenging their faith in that principle, they typically lose interest also in what he, or she, may have to teach.

Furthermore, such people are now, in parts of Northern Ireland, finding that the same small but beautiful burden is carried by many Christians of the reformed traditions. Knowing and sharing the principle of equal respect they meet and discuss what is shared with surprise and joy. Feeling comfortable they even explore differences with curiosity rather than fear, and often with mutual enrichment.

And this raises another question. Why should relationships between Catholics and other Christian traditions be troubled by the supposed problem of merging and reconciling vast theologies, vast bodies of knowledge? If trust and love are given precedence, what the different church’s theologians may disagree about is relatively insignificant in both relational and ‘truth’ terms. That is a matter for experts – but not for those whose primary goal is friendship and cordiality – the essence of their faith.

Why then is priority given to knowledge over love? I suggest that this has to do with a totally mistaken historical conception of what Christianity is all about. It is not about ‘my truth’, but the obligation to love even those whose truth is different.

My truth is, of course, where I stand – and Christians must know where to stand: but if that place does not include the primary obligation of love even of those who stand elsewhere, it lacks something essential to Christianity. It is not the very best place to stand. Early disputes, and the sad history of Christianity’s connection with the state, misled us all into what can be called ‘competitive knowing’: my truth is greater than your truth, and must therefore prevail. Jesus never said so – he simply lived and died for the beautiful truth – that love cannot coerce anyone – and is the primary obligation of a Christian.

That beautiful truth is now increasingly shared by Christians of other denominations. (I heard Steve Chalke, a Baptist minister, proclaim it movingly in Limavady in early January.) It is now highly desirable that the Catholic magisterium should receive it also – before it embarrasses itself, and the wider church, still further.

If knowledge continues to be prioritised over love and accountability, it will be clear that this can only be for reasons of power, not love. It will be revealed beyond question that the magisterium imitates rather than challenges our meritocratic culture, by deploying knowledge to avoid relinquishing status.

And the most beautiful truth, the summit of the hierarchy of truths, the truth any child can carry – that in God’s eyes we all enjoy the same high status – will have been obscured and lost by those who tell us their primary obligation and intention is to teach and to preserve it.