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Changing Catholic Culture. Vol 111, No. 443

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In his monumental tome from 2007, A Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor sets himself the task of accounting for the dramatic departure of modernity from the clarity and cohesiveness of a God-governed cosmos. Time was, religion was everywhere – was, as Taylor puts it, ‘interwoven with everything else’. It was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to share in a cosmic and social imaginary that made sense of everything in terms of God’s pervasive presence and providence. But then came the ‘disenchantment’. God ceased to be, for many people, even ‘an eligible possibility’, and where a religious outlook did survive it provided merely one explanation among others. Whatever its merit, it was now purely a private matter; there was no room for it in the public sphere.

There can be no doubt that Ireland lies near the endpoint of the process Taylor describes. Here, as in most developed world countries, transcendental values tend not to feature in the dominant perceptions of human flourishing; the facts and values of the world do not require reference to anything beyond. Hence, the ‘immanent frame’, with all its subjectivities, is sufficient. It follows then that religion has become a private thing, and the public sphere reflects instead what Taylor calls a culture of ‘expressive individualism’. It took only a few decades for this to happen. As historian Crawford Gribben recently put it, Ireland has undergone ‘sudden-onset secularisation’, a bewilderingly swift transformation of its religious, political and social culture. The past, even the relatively recent past, is a strange country.

How is this to be understood or explained? Taylor’s grand-theory description – his charting of the ‘inward turn’ in both religious practice and the exercise of reason, as well as his account of how transcendent humanism appeared increasingly problematic – helps explain the conditions which made the dramatic shift in Ireland’s self-understanding possible. Many Irish people felt ‘cross-pressured’ (to use Taylor’s term) in the face of the conflict between Christian orthodoxy and other systems of meaning. The outside pressures offered by purely immanent perspectives helped to ‘fragilise’ their Christian beliefs and present them with multiple possible ‘third ways’, intermediate stances between belief and unbelief.

But what about the pressures from within? What about the fragilisation ofChristian belief in Ireland caused by another kind of disenchantment – the loss of trust in the Irish Catholic Church as a force for good, the sense of betrayal as the sordid history of clerical sexual abuse, the collaboration of religious congregations in oppressive state institutions, and the mendacious cover-ups by church officials became apparent? A different kind of explanatory model from Taylor’s is needed to make sense of all this. What is required in the first instance is a more micro-level scrutiny of Irish society and culture during the decades of the transformation and a more concrete inspection of how Irish people today have come to understand what happened to them and where it has left them. Derek Scally’s recent book The Best Catholics in the World (Dublin: Sandycove, 2021) is a thoughtful and honest effort to address this need, not indeed as an academic venture but rather as a journalistic bid to puttogether a credible account of a seismic upheaval in Irish society and culture.

For Scally the bid is also personal. The Ireland of his youth was unquestionably – and no doubt unquestioningly – Catholic, but that identity and its legacy seem deeply problematic to him now. He writes from the need to understand how things happened the way they did.

I want to understand how my Catholic past went from rigid reality to vanishing act – now you see it, now you don’t. To do that, though, I need to understand how Catholic Ireland rose to glory and shrivelled up in shame. Until I do that, I cannot have a proper parting. (9)

The answer to the question of how the Church went from glory to shame is complex, of course, and requires looking at Irish life well beyond the walls of Church houses and institutions. Scally covers this well. The prevailing culture, as he depicts it, was indeed one of ‘clerical coercion’, ‘unforgiving rigidity’, and Victorian values that had been ‘retooled’ by the Catholic Church; but it was also one of ‘social snobbery’, where the state – and indeed the population at large – was content to have ‘shame-containment’ facilities for ‘fallen’ and troubled women, where the moral probity of clerics was taken as given, and where, when suspicions arose, ordinary people failed to rise above a culture of deference, conformity, and silence.

The pressing question is how we should, in the present, address this toxic past. Scally looks to Germany, his home now for more than twenty years, for guides to the complex business of coming to terms with the past and ‘with everyone’s role in it’. ‘It took decades,’ he writes for Germans to realize that engaging with their society’s past –supplementing guilt and blame of the actual perpetrators then with a wider narrative of personal responsibility to remember – improves their society’s present. (284)

He cites the judgement of German thinkers such as Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Jürgen Habermas that ‘owning our past and how we remember it is a prerequisite for meaningful engagement with past wrongs, and that critical reflection on a nation’s past is the normative basis for a healthy democracy’. We could say that, mutatis mutandis, the same holds for the Catholic Church, both in Ireland and elsewhere. For the sake of a healthy future, the Church must reflect critically on its past. If it doesn’t succeed in remembering the injustices it has perpetrated or permitted, in owning them and keeping the memory of them alive, bearing ‘ethical witness’ to the victims through reconciliation, restorative justice, and appropriate memorialisation, it cannot expect to be in a position to prevent comparable injustices happening in the future.

This judgement, this insight into the critical significance of historical suffering and injustice, lies at the root of the theological work of another German thinker, Johann Baptist Metz. Metz engaged extensively with Habermas, Ernst Bloch, and other critical theorists associated with the Frankfurt School, and he addressed similar questions to theirs, but in a theological register. His highly influential political theology, which for him constituted a ‘practical fundamental theology’, is an elaborate working out of the theological significance of memory, most especially the memoria passionis, the memory of the suffering of others:

The whole of my theological work is attuned by the specific sensitivity for theodicy, the question of God in the face of the history of suffering of the world, of ‘his’ world. What would later come to be called ‘political theology’ has its roots here: speaking about God within the conversio ad passionem.

At the heart of the issue of historical injustice, for Metz, is what Walter Benjamin called ‘anamnestic solidarity’, a resolute remembrance of those who have suffered in the past – remembering them against the dominant narratives, against what Metz calls ‘the conversation of the victors’. Theology, understood in this way, is always a form of interruption – as of course was the life and death of Jesus Christ. And it is Christ’s suffering that signals the emancipatory and redemptive potential of the memoria passionis. Christ’s redemption cannot be separated from his passion and death. The future is embedded in the past. The eschatological hope of the Church rests firmly, then, in the memory of the suffering of Christ, hence in that of all victims. And so, the memory of Christ is, in a term Metz borrowed from Herbert Marcuse, a ‘dangerous memory’ – – dangerous because it gives pride of place to the narrative of an innocent man suffering torture and death at the hands of those in power, and so keeps alive a commitment to justice and change. It is, he writes, an anticipatory remembering; it holds the anticipation of a specific future for humankind as a future for the suffering, for those without hope, for the oppressed, the disabled, and the useless of this earth. Christian hope for the future, in sum, lies in remembrance of the victims of the past and service to victims in the present. A necessary corollary of this is that Church authority ought not to be exercised as a form of power, but only, as Pope Francis has repeatedly said, as a form of service. Metz cautions against ‘locating’ and ‘enthroning’ the ‘God of the passion of Jesus’ politically, whether by a party, a race, a nation, or indeed a church. This must be opposed and unmasked as idolatry, or mere ideology.

The Catholic Church in Ireland, of course, has been well and truly ‘dethroned’ when it comes to relations with the state. In his epilogue, Scally recognises that the context for his book is the present-day ‘reinvention of Ireland’ after it has flipped from a religious to an increasingly secular society. New terms of engagement have still to be defined, but, Scally writes, ‘if it is to be successful, it needs to be more inclusive and generous to all – to people of faith and non-believers – than it was in the past’. More generous too, as both Scally and Metz would have agreed, to the historical victims of its own abuse of power.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the removal by referendumof the mention of the special position of the Catholic Church in the Irish constitution. In a sense the amendment was largely symbolic, as Ireland never was strictly a confessional state and the surrounding articles in the constitution showed a firm commitment to liberal democratic values. Yet the result did indeed mark a significant shift in Irish attitudes: the Catholic Church, just like any other Church or faith, would henceforth be a beneficiary of the secular values enshrined in the constitution, but its teaching would have no formal bearing on how they were to be interpreted. Most Catholics now would see this decoupling of Church and state as a positive and necessary thing. We find in Metz, as indeed we do in Charles Taylor, a sense that the secularity of the world in recent centuries is not fundamentally opposed to Christianity, that it is in fact originally a Christian event that has arisen, as Metz puts it, ‘not against Christianity but through it’.

There are grounds for hope here. There is a common humanistic discourse that Christians, other people of faith, and those without any faith can enter into on equal terms, and if good discursive habits are developed Christian scan make an invaluable and decisive impact in a culturally polycentric world– not by any means free of discord but protected from the worst injustice and violence by a common regard for human dignity and a respect for positive political and social norms. For this to happen, though, neither the Church nor the state can afford to allow the past to be forgotten. Scally finishes his book with a cautionary tale from Germany. Erich Maria Remarque’s harrowing novel about the First World War, All Quiet on the Western Front, was a searing condemnation of the old conservative elite and the utter indifference of military commanders to the suffering of their soldiers on the front, and as such it was suppressed by the Nazis. ‘A society blinded by the trauma of one war,’ Scally concludes, ‘walked into another’. And in July of this year Pope Francis sounded the same note when he asked forgiveness of the indigenous peoples of Canada for the sorry history of abuse in the residential schools: ‘Without real indignation, without historical memory and without a commitment to learning from past mistakes, problems remain unsolved and keep coming back’.

Metz is just as admonitory, but his summary of what there is to be gained by not turning our backs on the past rings a welcome note of hope: What the memory of suffering brings into political life… is a new moral imagination with regard to others’ suffering, which should bear fruit in an excessive, uncalculated partiality for the weak and the voiceless. But this is the way that the Christian memoria passionis can become a ferment for that new political life for which we are searching, so that we might have a human future.

***

The contributors to this issue of Studies were asked to write in response to Derek Scally’s book, either engaging with it directly or holding it in mind while developing a related theme. Some of the articles take a diagnostic approach, examining the nature of the damage and the root causes behind it, while others look forward to the ways in which the Catholic Church can address its past and build up a healthier culture for the future.

In ‘Home Truths: Irish Neoliberalism’s Eclipse of Irish Catholicism’, Kevin Hargaden takes his cue from Scally’s observation that ‘historic, economic and social circumstances made us subjects of a very particular type of Catholicism in Ireland’. What specifically set Irish Catholicism apart? In Hargaden’s view, the Irish Church took its shape from the anxiety over ‘societal legitimation’ and therefore the ‘pursuit of social and political influence through economic attainment’, which were inseparable from the ‘devotional revolution’ and Church reform of Cardinal Cullen in the midnineteenth century. ‘If the capitalist ambition of the emerging middle class played a central role in explaining the rise of Irish Catholicism’, Hargaden asks, ‘why would it not play a part in its downfall?’ Applying the insights of Australian sociologist Melinda Cooper concerning the unlikely alliance between neoliberalism and neoconservatism, he argues that the sense of‘family values’ that was enshrined in Irish Catholic life was traceable to the ‘moral vision’ of neoliberal technocracy. One way to continue Scally’s work, he suggests, would be to ‘consider the ways in which neoliberalism has stepped into the space that had been occupied by the church’. That thistransition from the moral legitimation of Catholicism to that of neoliberalism occurred so smoothly is due to the fact that ‘Irish Catholicism had already cultivated and cherished these commitments over generations’.

In ‘Surviving the Secular: Faith, Grief, Parody’, Michael Kirwan is ultimately sanguine about what he calls ‘the Church’s survival into a post- Christendom future’. The issue, as he sees it, is that it is not just the Church that is in crisis, but the secular state too. With Charles Taylor he rejects the ‘subtraction model’ of the secularisation thesis: ‘[I]t is simply not the case that stripping away religion reveals a fully coherent and autonomous (ovenready?) secular social order’. Rather, secular society lacks the resources to provide a governing moral vision that establishes binding ideals – the kind of vision that religions can provide, as exponents of postsecularism affirm. So, there is an opportunity here for both religion and the secular order. Kirwan invokes Pope Francis’s image of a ‘polyphonic’ resolution, ‘emphasising harmony and complementarity’. As for the Church specifically, if it can learn once again to ‘parody’, to ‘re-work and re-dedicate what it finds to hand in the surrounding culture’, it may ‘survive and even flourish’.

Whatever shape future relations between Catholicism and the Irish state takes, it is certain that the priest will never again hold the status that he did in decades past. John Littleton writes of his own experience of priestly life, spanning nearly forty years, in ‘The changed Reality of Being a Catholic Priest in Today’s Ireland’. In the early years of his ministry, the priest enjoyed social centrality and an extraordinarily high level of deference; but in more recent years that has all evaporated, and priests have had to learn to be ‘happy in their irrelevance’ – a phrase which Littleton sees as wise and helpful. Still, he insists, priests need to remain convinced that they have an important role in both the Church and in society.

The image of the priest has another significance, however. It lies at the heart of a perception of injustice in the Church which is still in critical need of attention. Gráinne Doherty’s essay, ‘Women’s Prophetic Voice for the Church’, notes a striking disconnect between the lived experience of women and the Church’s language about them. Specifically, Catholic talk about the ontological difference between women and men, or about complementarity, or about ‘feminine genius’, all of which have appeared in the texts of the last three popes, don’t resonate with women of faith in Ireland. Women are spoken about as if they were central to the life of the Church, but they are treated as if they were merely peripheral. Where this shows most starkly is in relation to sacramental ministry, particularly concerning the Eucharist. For many women, Doherty observes, the Eucharist is marked by ambivalence: ‘[O]n the one hand, it proclaims a Gospel of justice and equality, but on the other it is a site of exclusion for women’. She finds grounds for hope in the Irish Church’s recent experience of the synodal process. This has given the Church an opportunity to remember that ‘not only is it called to be prophetic, but it is itself challenged to listen to the prophetic voice of its own marginalised’.

Two members of the Irish synodal pathway steering committee, Bishop Brendan Leahy and Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, express careful optimism here that Pope Francis’s implementation of synodality can succeed in setting the Church on a new footing, one that would leave little room for the abuses of power that have blighted the Church in the past. The point of synodality is to ‘invert the pyramid’, as Francis has frequently said – to undermine the older power structure by implementing the ecclesiological vision of Vatican II. The ‘base’, the People of God, are set above the clergy and holders of ecclesiastical office, whose function it is to listen, to support and to serve. Francis doesn’t see this as one option among others, or as a tactic for the present time. Synodality, he has said, ‘fundamentally expresses “the nature of the Church, its shape, its style and its mission”’. It is a fruit of the renewal of ecclesiology in Vatican II, and so it is a cause for concern for the Pope that it is dismissed or disparaged frequently by traditionalist Catholics – ‘restorers’, as he calls them in the conversation he had with the editors of European Jesuit journals last May, which is published in this issue. ‘[T]he current problem with the Church,’ he remarked, ‘is precisely the nonacceptance of the Council’.

In Part I of his essay, ‘Going Deep, Going Forth, Going Together’ (Part II will be published in the winter Studies), Bishop Leahy sees Pope Francis as building on the work of his post-conciliar predecessors, taking the next step in implementing the ‘renewal movement’ by promoting its central themes of communion, mission, and participation. All of this Francis sees as aspects of a ‘pastoral conversion in the Church’s way of seeing and acting’, instigated by the council and bearing fruit now in the synodal path. The Church in Ireland has had to confront the dark chapters of its own history, Bishop Leahy says, and this has shown clearly both ‘the need to go deeper’ and the importance of change from below.

For Gerry O’Hanlon (‘The Future of the Catholic Church in Ireland: Synodality and the Wounds of Abuse’), Derek Scally’s book is of ‘central relevance’ to reform and renewal of the Irish Church, which is the agenda of the synodal pathway. Scally warns that if the Church fails to reflect deeply on the sexual abuse scandal it runs the risk of ‘repeating, unconsciously and in new forms, the structural flaws of the past’. O’Hanlon concurs. How can the Church tackle the serious issues of the day, he asks, ‘if we do not understand what caused the trauma that was clerical sexual abuse in all its forms?’ He also endorses Scally’s suggestions of practical steps in coming to terms with our past – setting up museums, institutes of remembrance, memorials, and the like, but most of all the implementation of some kind of process like a citizens’ assembly. For O’Hanlon, the synodal pathway performs within the Church much of the function which a citizens’ assembly would perform in the state at large. By opposing the clericalism that has often led to the abuse of power and by inviting all the Church’s faithful to enter into a free and open dialogue, the synodal pathway presents the Church with an opportunity to conduct a proper ‘reckoning’, an appropriate coming to terms with abuse in the Church’s past.

In ‘Christianity for Grown-ups’, Kieran O’Mahony also sees The Best Catholics in the World as essential reading for people involved in faith in Ireland. It requires them to try to understand from their own experience what it was that brought about ‘the cultural collapse of the Irish Catholic Church as a voice in society’. This, in fact, is something which O’Mahony believes the synodal pathway has facilitated effectively. It has brought to the surface a range of views from parishes and dioceses across the country and displayed, he believes, ‘a powerful desire for further adult faith formation’. Key to the atrocities perpetrated in the Church and to its general decline, O’Mahony contends, is the longstanding failure of the Church to provide thorough catechesis – to give people an adult faith when they were no longer children – and to help them develop a deep prayer life and ‘a grown-up frame of reference for what we believe’. Sources of hope for him include the collapse of Cardinal Cullen’s church and ‘the powerful awakening and ownership triggered by the Synodal Pathway’.

Br Emmaus O’Herlihy’s essay to accompany his extraordinary painting of the Samaritan woman at the well, which hangs on the wall of the church in Glenstal Abbey and graces the cover of this issue of Studies, was not requested as a response to Scally’s book. It is included here, however, because it holds a message that is germane to our theme. That is, as Emmaus O’Herlihy puts it, ‘that Christianity is founded not on a set of creedal formulations or a logical system but on the person of Jesus Christ’. What we see in the painting is an encounter, a deep engagement with Christ at the well. Cor ad cor loquitur, as St John Henry Newman’s coat of arms has it – ‘One heart speaks to another’. That it shows a woman leaning in on Christ, not reticent or passive but forward and almost pushy, also conveys a valuable object lesson. It both rejects a stereotype which historically has impeded efforts to combat the exclusion and unequal treatment of women in the Church and it displays the kind of parrhesia – courageous outspokenness – which Pope Francis has encouraged and which is essential to the success of synodality.

Contents

  • ‘Going Deep, Going Forth, Going Together’ Part 1: The Catholic Church in Ireland, Vatican II, and Pope Francis

    Brendan Leahy

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    In a 1975 newspaper interview, Cardinal Conway spoke of the many changes and developments going on in the Church and society both in Ireland and worldwide. He described the situation as humanity going through ‘the birth pangs of a new civilisation’ and he foresaw it would involve a trauma that would last well into the next century.

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  • Christianity for Grown-Ups

    Kieran J O’Mahony

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    Enjoyable is the wrong word to describe Derek Scally’s The Best Catholics in the World (the book is too salty for that), but I did appreciate the constant and genuine effort to understand and to contextualise an evil which infested the Church, accelerating an already gathering decline.

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  • Dynamic of Encounter: The Samaritan Woman at the Well

    Emmaus O’Herlihy

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    This essay was written to accompany a reproduction of the author’s own painting De Profundis, which was given to people who entered the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) programme at St Basil’s Catholic Parish Church, University of St Michael’s College, Toronto, Canada, in 2020. The painting is reproduced on the cover of this issue of Studies.

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  • Home Truths: Irish Neoliberalism’s Eclipse of Irish Catholicism

    Kevin Hargaden

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    At one stage in Derek Scally’s brilliant journalistic account of the collapse of the influence of the Irish Catholic Church, he compares the institution to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Thinking about the Irish Catholic Church as a ‘leaning tower of piety’ is an interesting image, because it is widely understood today that the famous white marble bell tower does not simply have a precipitous tilt because of faulty foundations.

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  • Pope Francis in Conversation with European Editors of Jesuit Journals

    Antonio Spadaro

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    May 19, 2022. ‘Welcome! You see? I am in my new gestatorial chair,’ the pope joked, alluding to his being in a wheelchair owing to knee pain. Francis greeted, one-by-one, the editors of the cultural journals of the Society of Jesus in Europe gathered in the Private Library of the Apostolic Palace.

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  • Surviving the Secular: Faith, Grief, Parody

    Michael Kirwan

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    In The Diary of a Country Priest, George Bernanos offers an unsettling

    image:

    [T]he Church is not only … a kind of sovereign state with laws, officials, armies – a moment, as glorious as you please, in human history. The Church is on the march through time as a regiment marches through strange country, cut off from all its ordinary supplies. The Church lives on successive regimes and societies, as the soldiers would from day to day on the inhabitants.

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  • The Changed Reality of Being a Catholic Priest in Today’s Ireland

    John Littleton

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    I was ordained a Catholic priest on 8 June 1986. That is nearly forty years ago, indeed probably half my lifetime. Over the decades since then, my personal reflections along with my conversations with family members, colleagues and parishioners have persuaded me that the experience of being a priest in Ireland in 2022 differs greatly from that of the 1980s and earlier times.

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  • The Future of the Catholic Church in Ireland: Synodality and the Wounds of Abuse

    Gerry O’Hanlon

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    ‘Where does thinking get us?’ she said. ‘All thinking does is bring you down… If you want to get on in life, there’s things you have to ignore, so you can keep on’ – Eileen in Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

    ‘Commendable efforts have been made to prevent a recurrence and, in many ways, the social conditions which gave rise to those realities have passed away. However, the reckoning with these truths has yet to happen for the Church as a whole, and for Irish society as a whole’ – Dermot McCarthy

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  • Women’s Prophetic Voice for the Church

    Gráinne Doherty

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    I sort of feel I’m still in there – as tentatively as I am – because I believe in the ability of the Church to change. I believe it can change. And I believe that it will change. And I want to be part of that.

    These are the words of Ita, who shared her faith story with me as part of some research I recently conducted in Ireland on the relationship of women with the Catholic Church.

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