Tag Archives: understanding

Trusting the Gifts of the Spirit among the People of God

Sean O’Conaill  ©  Doctrine and Life  May/June 2012

FOR WHAT exactly is the Holy Spirit supposed to be waiting, to move the Irish Church into vibrant and visible recovery and renewal? This question seems to me to be critical to any response we might make to the predicament that so many find themselves in just now in Ireland. This is related above all to two problems: frustration with the current governing system of the Church, and a still-appalled reflection on a series of Irish government-led reports on child abuse within the Irish Church, beginning in 2006.

Seeking to guide us in our response to those reports the Holy Father issued a pastoral letter in March 2010, and in April 2012 we received the summary report of the apostolic visitation to Ireland that had followed that pastoral.1Summary of the Findings of the Apostolic Visitation in Ireland, March 2012

It is largely my frustration with this summary report that leads me to ask the question posed at the start. In a previous article here I offered the conclusion that Catholic authoritarianism had been a key factor in the moral failure of Catholic officials in Irish state and Church to protest most vehemently against the abuse and endangerment of children.2S. O’Conaill, ‘Authoritarianism and Moral Cowardice’, Doctrine & Life, May-June 2010

Elsewhere I later argued that the Church’s governing system has been thoroughly disgraced not just by the scale of the abuse crisis, but by the fact that the initial revelation of this horror had been a product of secular structures and processes arising historically out of the Protestant Reformation and the European ‘Enlightenment’ of the eighteenth century.3S. O’Conaill, ‘The Disgracing of Catholic Monarchism’, in The Dublin/Murphy Report: A Watershed for Irish Catholicism?, eds. John Littleton and Eamon Maher, Columba Press, Dublin, 2010

I simply cannot get my head fully around the clear fact that my Church was finally moved to protect children not by the watchfulness, love and courage of its own leaders but by policemen, journalists, judges and jury members who often owed no debt of loyalty whatsoever to the Catholic Church. And that this process began in one of the most secularised societies on the planet: the USA.

Why did the church not uncover the problem itself?

The problem now for me is this. The summary report makes no allusion to the failure of the governing system of the Church to reveal to its leaders the scale of the abuse horror, and to act spontaneously long ago as it began to act in Ireland in 1994. Nor does it clearly explain the moral failure of so many Catholic officials, many of them ordained. In its references to the incompatibility of renewal and dissent it also seems me to seek to clamp down on the free expression of honest opinion within the Church in Ireland. So, as I began this article I was not even sure that it could be published.

Praying about all of this has led me somehow back to a reflection on my Confirmation at the age of about ten or eleven in 1953/54, when, as I distinctly remember, I was told the sacrament conferred upon me the dignity of becoming a ‘Temple of the Holy Spirit’. That sense of my own dignity within the Church has never completely left me, mainly because it was further reinforced by the mentoring I received at University College Dublin in the 1960s, by clergy heavily influenced by Vatican II. I caught the excitement of the time. The expectation of reform has heavily influenced my life ever since, especially since 1994, when the abuse crisis first emerged.

Learning from Scripture

It is strange how prayerful meditation on what life was like as a child of ten or eleven can somehow recover for us the hopes, dreams and vulnerability of childhood. Doing this in Lent in 2012 led me frequently into tears, and into recovered memory of matters long suppressed, such as my late mother’s strange illness that was not finally named for me until I was in my fifties. It led me also, by a process too circuitous to need tracing here, to a reflection on my early experiences of the Bible.

One of these in particular stands out: the story of Susanna and the Elders in the Book of Daniel.

Briefly, this story tells us that during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, beautiful Susanna was lusted after by two Jewish judge elders. They conspired to tell her that they would publicly allege that they had seen her in adulterous intimacy with a fourth party if she did not satisfy their lust. When Susanna even so resisted their joint intimidation, they proceeded with their plan publicly to accuse her of adultery. As two witnesses were all that were required by Jewish law to satisfy their assembly, their accusation was accepted as true by that assembly. Susanna was being led away to die when she passionately declared her innocence. Then, according to the text, this happened:

The Lord heard her cry and as she was being led away to die, he roused the Holy Spirit in a young boy called Daniel who began to shout, ‘I am innocent of this woman’s death!’ At this all the people turned to him and asked ‘what do you mean by that?’ Standing in the middle of the crowd he replied , ‘ Are you so stupid, children of Israel, as to condemn a daughter of Israel unheard, and without troubling to find out the truth? Go back to the scene of the trial: these men have given false evidence against her. (Daniel 13: 46-49)

We are told then that the other judge elders of the assembly not only acted on the young Daniel’s advice, but asked him to sit with them and advise them further. He suggested separating the two accusers, and questioning them as to the precise circumstances in which they had seen Susanna committing adultery. When this was done the conspirators gave different accounts, proving Susanna’s innocence. (Everyone has seen much the same thing happen today in TV police procedural dramas.)

Rousing the spirit of youth!

Remembering this in the aftermath of the apostolic visitation summary report, I was prompted to explore in my mind precisely what could have been involved in the Lord ‘rousing’ the Holy Spirit in a young boy, to the extent that he could stand alone in an assembly dominated by elderly judges and shout ‘stop’?

Could it be any of these, the virtues that can arise out of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as listed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord?4Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1845
And could it be also be the fruit of the Great Commandment: to love God above all, and our neighbour as ourselves?

My mind fastens particularly on the words ‘fortitude’, ‘understanding’ and ‘love’. Does the Catholic magisterium, and its method of exercising authority, nourish these virtues? Does it allow for the possibility that prayerful young people especially might ever be gifted with an understanding and an insight that might lead them to ask difficult questions, and with the courage to stand up and ask them, no matter what? Especially all of the questions that arise out of the leadership catastrophe we have suffered?

I have to say that my experience of the magisterium since about 1968 is that it seems to have a fearful attitude to the creation of circumstances within the Church that could encourage young people especially, but lay people in general, to ask difficult questions of itself, and of those in ordained ministry. Many of those difficult questions pertain to the issue of sexuality. It is true that individual bishops have been an exception to this rule, and that some have held open and honest forums in the aftermath of the Irish state abuse reports. But there is still no sign that such assemblies will become embedded in the regular and normal life of the Church.

‘Bishops are accountable to the people’

And that brings me back to what I see as the enormous gaps in the summary report:

First, its failure to address the question of widespread moral cowardice among so many Catholic adults, and especially among those who carried the full weight of the magisterium’s expectation that they would be loyal to it, and would avoid scandalous revelations.

Second, its failure to explain why it was that it is to Irish secular agencies that we owe both the revelation of the abuse horror in Ireland, and the momentum that led to Catholic bishops becoming for the first time ostentatious in the cause of child protection.

Third, its failure to predict that the mooted reorganisation of the Irish Church will include structural reforms that will mandate a principle stated by Monsignor Charles Scicluna earlier this year at a clerical child abuse forum in Rome: ‘Bishops are accountable to the Lord, but also to their people.’’5Monsignor Charles Scicluna, as reported by the National Catholic Reporter on February 8, 2012.

As the apostolic visitation and its summary report also arose out of a secular process of discovery, I am prompted to ask then also how the Holy Spirit might be moving Irish Catholics today to respond to the crisis that now still weighs on us. Could one of those ways be a questioning why the elimination of dissent among Irish Catholic clergy loyal to Vatican II should be a priority of the magisterium at this time – when it has so many questions still to answer about its own failures? And when there is still no promise of structural reform?

Committed to Justice

I also ask, finally, whether the unwillingness of the magisterium to encourage questioning from lay people at every age from Confirmation on might be a key factor in the continuing inertia of the Irish Church, and especially the departure of young people from it. The forgetting that as early as ten our Church has given to all of us the dignity of being Temples of the Holy Spirit is widespread in Ireland, especially among young men. Isn’t it time to remind all of the Irish three million plus who claim to be Catholics that this privilege is still theirs? And to ask them to pray to the Holy Spirit, above all for the gifts of insight, love, wisdom and fortitude? And to provide church structures as worthy of the People of God as those that allowed the Holy Spirit to prompt an honest young man to ask, in open assembly, life-saving questions of his elders long before the time of Christ?

Apropos the latter, according to the Vatican’s own website, ‘Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna is the “promoter of justice” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.’6Vatican website: www.vatican.va : type ‘Monsignor Charles Scicluna’ into the site’s ‘Search’ option
Isn’t justice also a gift of the Holy Spirit? Wasn’t justice precisely what was involved in the case of Daniel and Susanna, and wasn’t it precisely justice that was lacking in so many cases when the parents of victims of clerical abuse came to the administrators of Catholic dioceses and religious congregation? How are we to encourage young Daniels in Ireland, and to ensure that our child protection is not again subverted by clericalism, if our Church structures continue to patronise and exclude all lay people, and especially young people?

I am entirely convinced that the continued holding back on Church structural reform by the magisterium, and in the meantime its encouragement of unjust and covert delating of those who do ask difficult questions, subverts the work of the Holy Spirit and delays the recovery of our Church.

Notes

  1. Summary of the Findings of the Apostolic Visitation in Ireland, March 2012
  2. S. O’Conaill, ‘Authoritarianism and Moral Cowardice’, Doctrine & Life, May-June 2010
  3. S. O’Conaill, ‘The Disgracing of Catholic Monarchism’, in The Dublin/Murphy Report: A Watershed for Irish Catholicism?, eds. John Littleton and Eamon Maher, Columba Press, Dublin, 2010
  4. Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1845
  5. Monsignor Charles Scicluna, as reported by the National Catholic Reporter on February 8, 2012.
  6. Vatican website: www.vatican.va : type ‘Monsignor Charles Scicluna’ into the site’s ‘Search’ option

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Secularism and Hesitant Preaching

Sean O’Conaill  © The Furrow Jul/Aug 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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The 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.

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The Story of the West: VI – Mastering Contagious Desire

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Mar 2007

Why did a second-generation Irish nationalist leader set out to mimic in the late 1900s the lifestyle of nineteenth-century Irish ascendancy landlords, with disastrous and tragic consequences for his own reputation and his family? Why is the baseball cap worn around the world – even in cold weather? Why are people so fascinated by celebrity? Why do the youngest children so quickly learn to recognise corporate logos, and to desire what they decorate?

All of these questions were summed up in just one simple question that was asked in the Chinese spiritual classic, the Tao Te Ching, centuries before Christ:

“Why do we desire what others desire?”

To put it another way, why is desire so often contagious? A full answer to this question would give the human family a chance of overcoming, or at least containing, the crises of over-consumption and violence that now threaten the survival of our planet and our species. It is over-consumption that makes resources scarce, and it will be desire for the same scarce resources (e.g. oil) that is likely to fuel the worst violence of the near future.

No one has explored this question of contagious desire with greater energy or brilliance than the French Catholic academic, René Girard.

Beginning as a literary critic in the 1970s Girard noted that some of the West’s greatest modern writers, from Cervantes and Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Gide were fascinated by our tendency to ‘catch’ desire from one another. He then noticed that the Bible had begun this western fascination (e.g. in the story of Solomon and the child claimed by two women). From there Girard branched out into anthropology and philosophy, developing a theory of religion that is now influencing academics throughout the world.*

Insisting that in the biblical warning not to covet ‘anything our neighbour owns’ there is a naming of this dangerous human tendency, Girard calls it by a more descriptive name – mimetic desire: a tendency to mimic, often unconsciously, the desire of someone else. Noting that a group of children presented with a choice of toys will almost inevitably begin squabbling over the possession of just one of them, Girard also locates our problem of violence in this tendency.

He also argues, however, that our tendency towards mimicry or imitation is also a gift that allows every new generation to ‘pick up’ everything learned by the preceding generation. The tendency of males to imitate older males, and of females to imitate older females, is an essential attribute that allows us to learn how to become self-supporting adults, mastering a huge range of complex tasks and bodies of knowledge.

But the huge danger of our habit of mimicry becomes obvious as soon as we enter the realm of appropriation – taking hold of something as our own. If the appropriated object is scarce or unique, in grasping it we will tend to confront one another – and violence can then follow. And when just one blow is struck to assert ownership of such an object, our gift for mimicry takes on an entirely different character – one that can destroy an entire community. This is the origin, Girard believes, of, for example, the blood feud that can still be found in many cultures.

This insight alone – that in speaking against covetousness the Bible is warning the human family against a pervasive tendency that now threatens our survival – is hugely important for Christianity – as well as for Judaism and Islam, which share the same text. The tendency for so many religious teachers in all three traditions to focus heavily upon sexual morality has helped the enemies of all religious faith to argue that religion is largely irrelevant to the problems of the moment – and even that the biblical injunctions to ‘increase and multiply’ and to dominate the earth are a source of the global environmental crisis.

On the other hand, if ‘covetousness’ identifies the human habit that betrays us into not only over-consumption but violence, the phrase ‘Judeo-Christian morality’ encompasses the only lifestyle that can take us past the problems of the moment – a lifestyle that is virtually forced upon us by our present crisis anyway.

But Girard’s understanding of covetousness does far more than this. It gives us a means of explaining, in terms that secularism can understand, the whole relevance of the orthodox Christian belief system that is summarised in the Nicene and ‘Apostles’ Creeds.

The Creeds, finally formulated by the fourth century, are centred on the story of Jesus, placing it in a cosmic salvational context. Because the ‘vertical’ picture of the universe depicted in the Creeds has been exploded by modern science, there has been a tendency in much recent theology to find those Creeds absurd and embarrassing.

But if Girard is right, the Creeds can be understood in an entirely different way: as relating a story intended to save us from ourselves – from this habit of manic and foolish imitation of lifestyles that now threaten to destroy us.

Almost all the ‘great men’ of history aspired to be ‘great’ – i.e. to acquire ‘renown’ by climbing to positions of dominance or influence, as Alexander did. Their life story begins with this ascent. Almost always, however, this rise is followed by a fall – through what the Greeks called hubris or arrogance.

Ireland has been riveted by just such a story over the past decade – the tragic story of Charles J Haughey. But in historical terms that story is mundane rather than sensational. From Alexander and Julius Caesar through Napoleon I to George W Bush and Tony Blair, the desire for ‘greatness’ has betrayed us humans into violence and excess. This has led in our own time to what The Economist now calls ‘an authority crisis’ – a growth of cynicism and disillusionment in relation to leaders and institutions in the West generally.

The story told in the creeds follows an entirely different arc – an inverted arc. It is, incredibly, a story of worldly failure rather than success – of someone who sought the company of the poor and the excluded rather than of the wealthy and powerful – and was crucified as a consequence. It defies logic that this story should ever have been told at all – especially as a story of eventual triumph.

The stories of good Christians throughout history explain why. Instead of setting out to win the favour of social elites they have done what Jesus did – they have sought out and served the poor. St Francis of Assisi is a typical example: so are Jean Vanier1This article  was written in 2007, thirteen years before the revelation in 2020 that Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement, was also an abuser of the trust of some of the able-bodied women who looked to him for spiritual guidance. and Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Ireland’s Michael McGoldrick in our own time.

The story of the Creed is a story of both humility and triumph – and its message is that God loves and rewards humility.

That is exactly what the West needs to hear – because it has brought the world to a great crisis through its own vanity.

Vanity can be defined as a presumption of entitlement to superiority, priority or admiration. It is the attitude that then leads us into covetousness – a desire to possess whatever is possessed by those who dominate the ‘the world’. In our era it is TV that tells us who these people are, and what they possess – and so our world becomes a pyramid of desire also.

Those who can see those TV pictures, but are shut out of western prosperity – for example, educated young men in the impoverished parts of the Arab world – acquire other problematic attitudes: jealousy and envy – a feeling of resentment against those who possess what they cannot. Nothing else is needed to explain the anger that fuels the ‘War on Terror’.

Vanity, covetousness, jealousy, envy, anger – we still need these terms to explain human behaviour and to place the responsibility for dealing with these problems squarely where it belongs – upon ourselves. After almost three centuries of failure to build a perfect world without reference to sin, the most perceptive secular writers are rediscovering the attributes that are the opposite of sin: humility, frugality, mutual respect, simplicity, co-operation, peace. These are the characteristics of the Kingdom of God – preached most eloquently by the one who best exemplified them: Jesus of Nazareth.

The world is in crisis because the West above all has still to realise the full gift it received in the Christian tradition – a gift the whole world is now ready for. It is for western Christians of all traditions to realise the full scope of this gift, and to become adept at explaining the problems they see around them in terms of a truly holistic Christian morality.

This does not mean that we need to abandon our perception of the dangers of Christianity’s most consistent target: sexual indiscipline and infidelity. It means simply that we need to add to this perception an equally discerning analysis of vanity and covetousness. To be persuasive we will need to begin ourselves to see the dangers of imitating models of ostentatious consumption – and then to imitate in these matters also the one we say we love.

And when we read in Genesis that the temptation to Eve was to envy God himself, we will learn to associate Original Sin with vanity and covetousness rather than with the gift of sexuality.

As the global crisis deepens, so will the suffering of humanity – but so also will our perception of salvation. We will see that it is in one kind of imitation only that real global salvation will lie: not the imitation of the wealthy but the imitation of the one who was uniquely humble – the imitation of Christ.

* For a good introduction to Girard, as well as a good bibliography, read:Discovering Girard, Michael Kirwan; Darton, Longman and Todd 2004; ISBN 0-232-52526-9.

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The Story of the West: IV – The Rise of Capitalism

Sean O’Conaill © Reality Jan 2007

Until fairly recently, as we have seen, historians have favoured a view of history that praises ancient Greece and Rome, and then extols the modern period beginning about 1450. And they have depicted the period in between – from about 476-1450 – as a period when nothing happened. Very often they associate the supposed stagnation of these ‘Middle Ages’ with the ‘dead hand’ of the Catholic church.

Secularist writers often take this approach because they are committed to a view of history that gives little credit to Christianity for anything. Greek ‘reason’ and the rise of secularism explain everything that is good about the modern world, they suppose. As we have seen, this is a blinkered view that ignores much recent historical research. We now know that the Middle Ages, in comparison to ancient times, were enormously progressive, and were in fact the cradle of the very best features of our own era.

And this applies to economic development also. The unprecedented wealth produced by modern methods of economic management derives historically also from the Middle Ages.

To admire the architecture of the ancient world – of Athens or Rome – is usually to forget that these buildings were the result of extraordinary human misery. Slavery in the ancient world was unimaginably brutal. Slaves mostly worked the land, and it was their produce that went to finance and feed and build the cities, where only the landowning elites lived in anything like luxury. Most people lived in nauseating slums that fostered disease. So focused were the wealthy on the consumption of surplus wealth that there was very little reinvestment, which meant that there was very little economic progress either.

Slavery also meant that there was very little technical development in Ancient Greece and Rome. Why spend money developing water power, for example, when Rome’s wars brought slaves who could provide the power needed for milling or paper-making?

So the fall of the Roman empire was not a global disaster, as was once thought. The collapse in the supply of slaves meant that now for the first time there was an incentive to innovate. Out of this incentive arose, for example, the overshot water wheel – powered by water directed onto the top of the wheel to give added impetus. The padded horse collar was another such medieval development, allowing horses to pull far heavier wagons, and, for the first time, ploughs capable of turning the heavier soils of northern Europe.

These technical developments waited only upon secure conditions for the investment of surplus wealth. We now know that this happened first in Medieval monasteries, not in Protestant Europe after the Reformation of the 1500s. Such monasteries were often enormously productive as a result of centuries of land development. Some became giant complexes in which water power was applied to the making of paper, metal working and the milling of grain.

This fact alone is enough to undermine the old belief that it was the ‘Protestant work ethic’ that began the economic miracle of the modern world. R.H. Tawney argued in 1926 that it was hard-working Protestants, whose pleasure-hating moral code condemned luxurious living, who first amassed the capital necessary for continuous reinvestment in economic enterprises. In fact this had begun to happen many centuries earlier in the monasteries of that supposed enemy of all progress – the Catholic church.

Furthermore, it was the steady development of Catholic theology that allowed this economic development. St Augustine began the reconsideration of ancient taboos against the raising of prices to meet demand by arguing that the monetary value of an article could legitimately relate to whatever a customer would be willing to pay. Later, scholastic theologians in the monasteries and universities of Catholic Europe came to argue that the charging of reasonable interest on loans was also morally acceptable. Banking, a vital source of credit for investment, could not have progressed otherwise.

And this development in Christian theology too was directly related to the growing economic power of medieval monasteries.

It was Catholic theology also that first gave real security to what we now call the ‘entrepreneur’ – the would-be capitalist considering investing his wealth in, say, a mining enterprise or the building of a dam to produce water power. The problem with doing that in a society ruled by landowning aristocrats was that the political power, added to the jealousy, of the ruling classes could all too easily lead to the confiscation of any productive enterprise – without compensation to its founder.

This was why China, for example, fell behind medieval Europe in enterprises like mining. A thriving Chinese metallurgical industry was at one point totally destroyed by state and aristocratic interference.

In medieval Europe, on the other hand, scholastic theologians developed a sophisticated theory of property rights, which gave entrepreneurs unprecedented security when it came to investment. Just as Catholic theology undermined slavery, so did it also create a favourable climate for risk-taking economic enterprises.

For all these reasons it is now recognised by leading economic historians that the ‘Protestant work ethic’ had absolutely nothing to do with the origins of western capitalism – the systematic reinvestment of surplus wealth – for the simple reason that capitalism emerged centuries earlier in the most unlikely setting – medieval Catholic Europe.

And it was Catholic centres of medieval trade in Italy – especially Venice and Genoa – that pioneered modern systems of book-keeping and banking that allowed for sophisticated international trading relationships and business practices to develop. The later development of great Protestant trading nations such as England and Holland owed everything to this earlier economic development in southern and Catholic Europe.

The deepest ignorance continues to prevail, however. In a recent letter to the Irish News a proponent of the cause of secularism as the font of all progress again referred to the Middle Ages as the ‘Dark Ages’ – because they were ages of faith. We now know beyond doubt that this misconception is based entirely upon ignorance and prejudice. When all of Western Europe was wholly Catholic it was also progressive in many ways.

And the central key to all this progress was Christian theology, which was itself always in development. Arguing consistently for the dignity of the individual human being, it fostered a progressive mindset. It brought an end to the slavery of the ancient world. It inspired the setting up of great medieval universities and the development of true science.  It led to modern theories of human rights, and it created the conditions for the unprecedented economic progress of modern times.

Now, of course, Christian theology is on the defensive at the very time that western capitalism and science – unshackled from Christianity – threatens our world with nuclear terror, mass addiction and environmental catastrophe. In two final articles in this series I will argue that Christian theology has yet another contribution to make to the history of our world – the understanding and overcoming of all the major dangers that now threaten the human family.

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Clericalism the enemy of Catholicism

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish News 9th Nov 2006

“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)

This was the text that Pope Benedict XIV recommended to the Irish bishops on October 28th – to counter the view that Catholicism is merely “a collection of prohibitions”. Clearly the pope’s central concern – to reverse the tide of an anti-Christian and anti-Catholic secularism in the West generally – is now as relevant to Ireland as to any other western country.

And this is a task for Irish lay people as well. Many of us know through bitter experience the emptiness of the promise of happiness without faith. Many of us have found at the centre of our faith an intense joy: the reality of a God who comes to meet us in times of the deepest challenge, and speaks to us of his unconditional love and respect. Had we not encountered good priests, most of us could not have discovered that life-giving, life-enhancing truth.

It is important to state that conviction at the same time that we face up to that other challenge the pope emphasised, in relation to the scourge of clerical child sexual abuse: “to rebuild confidence and trust where these have been damaged … to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected and, above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes”

We in “Voice of the Faithful” know well the challenge involved here. Because we have spoken out strongly against negative aspects of church culture, people are coming to us in increasing numbers with their own stories of pain suffered at the hands of a more dysfunctional Catholicism in the recent past.

These are stories not just of sexual abuse, but, all too often, of social and physical abuse. People complain of finger-pointing in the classroom at their origins in orphanages, or in urban areas of deep poverty and unemployment – by clerics who had apparently forgotten that their Lord had been born in a stable. Some speak of clerical bullying to the point of constructive dismissal from church-related careers. Some complain too of serious physical abuse that would have put their perpetrators before the courts of today on charges of common assault.

This is the paradox: the church that I and many others have experienced as a church of welcome, of safety, of inspiration and of truth – has been experienced by too many others as a church of put-downs, of intimidation, of abuse, and of shame.

Thinking hard about this, we believe that the time has come for all of us, our bishops included, to do exactly what the pope has asked us to do: identify the source of all of these sufferings, not in Catholicism, but in something else that we now need to abandon forever: Catholic clericalism.

Clericalism is the belief that, despite what St Peter and St Paul both said, God does indeed have favourites: those who have received the gift of ordination.

Most priests understand that along with this gift of ordination comes the most solemn obligation: to think not of themselves and of their own dignity, but of the challenged dignity of so many others. They understand that it is through our Baptism and Confirmation that we receive our most important titles: that of brother or sister of Christ, of Temple of the Holy Spirit, and of son or daughter of the Father. They take to heart the advice that Jesus gives to all who are invited to a feast – to take the lowliest place. They understand, in short, that the Christian call is, above all, a call to humility. In so doing they raise us lay people up to an understanding of our own dignity.

Historically Catholic clericalism is something entirely different. It is a presumption of superiority, a presumption of entitlement to the submission and deference of the non-ordained.

Clericalism is not the gift of ordination – but the gift of the world. The clericalist cleric has joined the church not to serve the poor, but to be socially pre-eminent. Entering the seminary in search of a career he has allowed the spirituality of the Gospels to touch him as fleetingly as water slipping off the back of a duck. Attracted not to the mysterious servant church, he has been attracted all along to the church of power and of status – and expects these as his due.

Clericalism lies at the root of all of the disasters the church in Ireland has suffered in recent years. It explains why so many paedophiles joined the clergy to begin with: to exploit the vulnerability and submissiveness of Catholic children and their families. It explains also why too many bishops covered up this foul pestilence: to protect the supposedly sinless status of clergy.

And it also explains why so many Irish people are flocking these days to the cause of secularism. Because bishops have covered up the abuse it has been left to secular institutions – police, courts, media – to reveal the truth and to bring what closure the victims of this abuse have so far experienced.

But the apostles of secularism need to notice exactly what our bishops need to notice. Power without accountability becomes corrupt because of our human tendency to sin. And accountability – the principle that power must always be ready to explain itself – is a deeply biblical, not a secular, concept. From Genesis to the Gospels, God calls us to account for our behaviour, especially when it is used abusively.

It is therefore not dangerous but deeply healing to call for structures of accountability within our Catholic church also. Without internal accountability on administrative matters (not matters of doctrine), Catholicism will remain forever prone to external accountability – media scandal – because sooner or later unaccountable power is always abused.

We in Voice of the Faithful therefore recommend our programme as a necessary part of the answer to the Pope’s challenge to the Irish church: to heal victims, to vindicate good priests and to enable priests and people to rebind ourselves – ‘through structures established for that purpose’ – to the cause of saving our society from a secularism that wants to cut itself adrift from the spiritual origins of all that is best in our civilisation.

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

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Oct 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progress and the Ancient World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Western dominance: a product of Catholic theology?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Apr 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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