Good influence or good riddance?

WILLY SLAVIN

Good influence or good riddance?

This was the title of a conference in June which was held in Trinity College, Dublin, on the place, if any, of the Catholic Church in a pluralist society such as Ireland has, rather suddenly, become. A retired parish priest of the Archdiocese of Glasgow reports on its findings.

The week before the conference the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, at the ordination of eight permanent deacons, lamented the absence in the Irish Church of intellectual rigour.  Archbishop Martin was previously the Vatican Secretary for Justice and Peace and a United Nations observer.

The conference was introduced by one of Britain’s leading intellectuals and 2010 Edinburgh University Gifford lecturer Terry Eagleton, now resident in Northern Ireland.  He traces his origins to Galway.  He thought pluralism was a shibboleth invented by ‘The Market’ for those who could afford choices.  It didn’t include those on the margins and wasn’t marked by tolerance. There was no place in it for conviction or religious belief, which were portrayed as dogmatic and divisive.  It is conservative, seeks uniformity and has an ‘itch’ to unify.   As it embeds itself in culture it becomes politically coercive.  We need difference and solidarity, he said, not more uniformity.

The following speaker, Patrick Dineen of the University of Notre Dame, also saw society becoming less diverse, more homogeneous and subject to ‘group think’.   He instanced the loss of local shops to supermarkets. The church can therefore be one of a multiplicity of choices or it can offer an alternative to the deradicalised mass of people. Are we really pilgrims, he asked, or just tourists in the world?

The heavyweight was Cardinal Marx, Archbishop of Munich and one of the Group of Nine advisors to Pope Francis.  He believed the church had been influenced for the better by Enlightenment ideas of freedom.  Church-State confrontations were based on nostalgia. The problem was how to build up the common good in the midst of pluralism.  This could not depend on the market but belonged to the realm of the spirit.  However instead of real freedom, people now want identity and security.  This seems simpler to them.  The church has not lived at the level of the human and the universal.  It needs to change in order to be part of the salvation of civil society.  We have a great tradition despite all the mistakes.  The bishops have not been good guardians of the deposit of faith. No other religion has a church. So our task is not to represent the church but to imitate Jesus.

He was followed by another German, Hans Joas from Berlin. He thought Harvey Cox was wrong about the death of God and the end of religion.  A better guide is Charles Taylor’s The Secular Society.  This is an attempt to sacralise the human person.   The ‘effervescence’ of Vatican II was not enough to reform the church.  According to Taylor, the church is not another society like the state.   It is a network of agape.  It is full of contradictions. It is a repository of art but also a place for asceticism.

Another formidable speaker was the American W T Cavanaugh.  He saw Ireland as an example of ‘compressed modernity’.  But that wasn’t the reason for the collapse of the Church.  In South Korea it was expanding. The Irish, like the Bretons, were escaping from the chains of necessity. They had been ‘converted’ and were now attending the cathedrals of consumerism.  They had lost the sense of the sacramental e.g. Christmas as winterfest.  Choice conceals its real power, which is shareholder profit.  Genuine secularism as distinct from consumer choice allows the Gospel to be proclaimed in the new deserts, like Paul facing idolatry in Athens.  The Eucharist offers an act of consumption that is not to feed ourselves but to let Christ live in us.

Margaret Steinfels of the Fordham Centre in New York and a founding editor of Commonweal saw the Church itself as pluralist, speaking with different voices in different public squares: the physical, in the media and virtually.  Fainche Ryan of the Loyola Institute spoke of Cardinal Newman’s time in Dublin.  The church is both docens and discens (teaching and learning).  Siobhan Garrigan, also of the Institute, spoke on behalf of the forty-somethings who had left the Church.  The current normative humanism had a neo-colonial attitude towards native religion. It was comfortable not to be poor.  Community had collapsed.  Some feel pain at the loss.  It was possible to be a Catholic without all the hang ups about sexual matters.  There were groups supporting change.  Some things can be done.   Reference was made to Grace Davie’s believing without belonging.  

The American journalist Peter Steinfels spoke about the clerical sex abuse scandal in the USA.  He said we had got the truth but not the whole truth.   He cited his own experience as a young Scout leader when he had reported abuse at a camp and nothing had been done about it.  The origins of the recent film Spotlight date back to the 1985 revelations in the National Catholic Reporter.  The past and present are blurred. The abuse peaked in the 1970s.  The bishops are being pursued because they hold the purse strings.  They were not helped by the ‘turn to therapy’ that was advocated at the time.

The final paper was given by Massimo Faggioli, an Italian layman who had to go to America to pursue a career in theology.  For him Vatican II ended the dependence of the Constantinian legacy.  In his opening speech at the Council John XXIII said the church had to be free.  Gaudium et Spes is a Magna Carta – the Church has no earthly ambitions.  Nevertheless Vatican II did not de-establish the Church.  Pope Francis is only able to fly to Lesbos and bring back refugees because of the status of the Vatican.   De facto, as an institution the Catholic Church is the last line of defence of the poor.   Pope Francis does not suffer from nostalgia but he does not hesitate to use technology to promote Jesus in the public square. He believes there are values more important than keeping the rules.  In this way he gives us all a sense of vocation.

There were 40 papers to choose from in the afternoon ranging from the French Revolution to Bernard Lonergan.  The after dinner speaker at the conference reception was Baroness O’Loan, former Northern Ireland ombudsperson.  She surprised some of the delegates by giving a strong pro-life speech.  It was noticeable how many women hold key positions in Trinity and in the Loyola Institute.  All the main speakers were lay.  Given that it was a midweek event it could be presumed some among the 200 participants were religious but the only identifiable ones were among the youngest.  During the conference we were given a free viewing of the Book of Kells and had a glimpse of US Vice President Joe Biden as he received an honorary degree. On the final morning delegates reacted with disbelief to the news that John Bull wanted out of Europe.

The conference could be summed up as naught for your comfort. The Church in Ireland had overreached itself.  Its army of nuns and brothers had once provided the health and welfare needs of the nascent state.  Missionaries had created educational opportunity overseas.  But the clergy at home had got into bed with an establishment that now disowned them.  It was time to get back to Gospel basics.   Catholics could and should identify with the variety of spiritual interests that were now emerging.

Willy Slavin is a member of the editorial advisory group of Open House. 

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In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.


Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.