Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What Should We Do With the Liberal Catholic?

Apologies for the lack of posting recently—not that I think the internet desperately needs my outpourings, but because even the worst Catholic blog, if fairly regularly updated, must serve as a counterweight to the mighty tidal wave of liberal-left-secularist-progressive blogs, tweets, Facebook pages and goodness knows what else on the Irish internet. The logic is a bit like turning up at a public meeting to lend your lungpower to the right side. It doesn’t really matter what you say as long as you say it loud enough to be heard, and maybe even drown out the other side a little.

Incidentally, and on a biographical note, I have a visitor coming from America soon, a Catholic lady from Richmond, Virginia. Richmond is a small city, and Catholics are in a minority there, but it boasts at least two big churches that are packed out at every Mass. One of them, St. Benedict’s, is sure to delight the hearts of the traditionally-minded; long Mass, lots of Latin, deacons, altar servers in vestments—some of the female worshippers even wear headscarves. And, incredibly, it’s a young parish, with tons of young families and twenty-somethings to be seen.

I’m wondering what she will make of Ireland’s religious life; the strong contrast between the Catholic legacy everywhere to be seen (churches, shrines, streets named after saints, the Angelus bells broadcast on state radio and TV) and the tepid practice (before all the Sunday Masses were amalgamated into one, my local church had as little as nineteen worshippers at the earliest Mass).

But that’s not what I wanted to consider in this post. I wanted to wonder aloud—how should we treat liberal/progressive/left/dissident/cafeteria Catholics?

I have an admission to make. When I’m listening to the radio, or watching TV, or reading a newspaper, or even surfing that ole internet, and I find myself attending to someone giving their opinion about the Catholic church (as everybody does sooner or later), there are certain key words and phrases that make me stop listening. One is “clericalist mindset”. Another is “authoritarian”. Then there are “homophobia”, “reclaim the Church”, and “backward-looking”.

As soon as those catchphrases are used, I’m pretty sure I know what the person is going to say, and I know where the train of thought is going. Into heresy; into the dereliction of dogma and onto the broad, easy path that so many fossilized and perishing human creeds have trod already; into indifferentism and irrelevance.

Nor is this true only of challenges to dogma. I used to read the column of Nuala O’Loan in the Irish Catholic before I heard her, on radio, making the case for women priests. Since then, I skip over her column. Doesn’t she know that Pope Benedict has explained the Church’s stance on female ordination is irrevocable?

But is this right? Should I really stop listening to someone just because they have sounded my liberal alarm on one issue? Might they not have something interesting to say, aside from their errors?

I think there is a danger of the enthusiastically orthodox—like me—mistaking orthodoxy for holiness. The game of “spot the heresy” can become a little too gleeful, a little too self-congratulatory—even a little too pharisaical, perhaps. It is probably the case that the majority of Ireland’s practicing Catholics knowingly go against Church teaching in some way, and I am absolutely sure that thousands upon thousands of them—if not most of them, if not all of them—are closer to the Kingdom of Heaven than I am.

One thing I am always struck by, when reading the writings of Pope Benedict XVI, is the irenicism and calmness of the supposed “Panzerkardinal”. He does not denounce atheists or agnostics or secularists, and has even (I hope I do not misrepresent him) suggested that the dynamic between faith and doubt is part of the human condition; he draws from Protestant theologians and Protestant Biblical scholars; he quotes spiritual writers from other religions, such as Gandhi. Even his recent comments on condom use by homosexuals, utterly distorted as it was by the secular media, show how “edgy” he is willing to be.

I think there is truth in what Chesterton said; when you know where the line is, you can go as close to it as you like. Perhaps the truly orthodox are the least impatient with heresy, the least prone to a “siege mentality”. In any case, liberal Catholics are a presence in Irish life that cannot be ignored; unfortunately, even amongst the clergy. Name-calling and polemics are not going to get us anywhere. I think we have to be nice to the progressives, if we are ever going to win them back to orthodoxy.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

In Case Anyone is Interested...

Why I'm Catholic

There are some fine conversion stories on this site, from many interesting and estimable people, although the latest is by an Irish guy with a dodgy beard and an unpronounceable name. You can just skip that one.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Anyone for Postmodernism and New Age Spirituality?

In a (very fine) article in this week's Irish Catholic, Father Pat Collins writes: "I have found that a growing number of people don't even believe in Heaven or Hell. As faith has weakened in these and other ways, many Catholics have adopted New Age and occult beliefs and practices".

I don't doubt Father Collins's pastoral experience, and I note he mentions "many Catholics" specifically, rather than "many people" in general. But the passing reference reminded me how frequently, in articles by Catholics, "New Age spiritualities" and "neopaganism" are mentioned as rivals to Christian faith. They are often reeled out in a list of contemporary rivals to the Faith, one which also tends to mention postmodernism and pluralism.

I often wonder if we are fooling ourselves about these things. Of course, we all know that there are neopagans and Wiccans out there, just as there are postmodernists and people who believe that all religions are different stained glass windows through which the same divine sunlight shines.

But I think these elements are, to be blunt, insignificant-- both in quality and quantity. How many pagans do you know? How many people do you know who would even use the term "postmodern", except ironically? How many dabblers in different world religions? Very few, I imagine.

Now, how many people do you know who-- either vocally or implicitly-- treat all religious belief, all spiritual assumptions, as so much baloney?

I may be wrong, of course, and perhaps I'm simply reading my own preoccupations into the world around me. But I really do doubt the importance of these supposed opponents. I am a Chesterton fanatic, and of course I think there is truth in the aphorism so often attributed to Chesterton (though it doesn't appear to actually occur in his works), "When people stop believing in god, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything". Rightly understood, I think that is bang on the money. But typically-- in our age at least-- the false idols they flee to are not spiritual or religious in nature, at least not ostensibly. They nearly always claim to be the purest rationalism; to be stoutly scientific, as did psychoanalysis and Marxism and libertarianism. In other words, the believers would themselves be unlikely to use the term "believe". In their own minds, they have jettisoned faith for evidence and cool, calm evaluation.

I think of the words of C.S. Lewis:

When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, 'Would that she were.' For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man.

I believe Christians like the idea of New Age Spirituality, because it's an easier target, and it seems more congenial. We like the idea of postmodernism, because it's so obviously nonsensical, so quickly "desconstructed"-- even something of a straw man. These antagonists, I think, are a little like the nobodies that would be so often thrown into the ring with Hulk Hogan and other WWF stars.

When it comes to the struggle for souls, I fear the real rivals to the Faith are much more formidable and much more hostile. At the moment, bestriding the Western world like a collosus, is philosophical materialism, which tends to be attended by libertarianism and scientism. Its assumptions are utterly different to those of the Catholic religion; there is little for the Catholic to grab hold of, so to speak. If the materialist believes in human equality, we can ask him where he gets his belief from. But many materialist and scientistically-minded people do not believe in human equality, or believe in it simply as a legal fiction. If they believe the cosmos is intelligible, we can ask them why that should be so, but this seems like an obscure point of metaphysical wrangling to most people. If they believe in morality, this is also an Achilles heel. But many philosophical materialists don't believe in morality, at least not in any meaningful way. They might think it's nice to be nice, they might even be willing to die for the things they care about, but they would deny that moral principles are anything but a human construct.

To be sure, most philosophical materialists wouldn't use that term for themselves. They are simply the increasing number of people who don't believe (they claim) in anything; who believe in "science", or "rationality", or "the modern world".

Of course, looming on the horizon like a stormcloud are the ever-strengthening forces of Islam, which I fear will use the weapons of demographics and fanaticism rather than ideas. (I am rather surprised that Islam has not begun to win Western converts in any great numbers; surely it is only a matter of time, given Europe's current state of spiritual limbo?) Beyond that, I sometimes fancy that the Mormons will be the great twenty-first century rival of the Catholic Church. But I admit that is speculation.

If only we really did have pagans and postmodernists to worry about!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What Else Should We Expect?

Despite setting this blog up to add my tuppenceworth-- or less than tuppenceworth, perhaps-- to the defence of the Catholic Church in Ireland, I have somehow felt disinclined to comment on some of the most recent controveries regarding the State's and the media's attack on the Faith. They are familiar to anyone in Ireland who even reads the newspaper headlines, but for the sake of those reading from abroad, or those who might be coming to this post when the hullaballoo has died down, I might mention...

The Irish government's closing of the Irish embassy in the Vatican (supposedly for economic reasons, but coming a few months after the Taoiseach's diatribe against the Vatican's supposed "interference" in the affairs of State, an accusation shown to be entirely baseless);

The disgraceful accusation made in an RTÉ television documentary that an Irish missionary priest had raped a girl in Kenya and fathered her child, only disproven by the priest taking a paternity test, and the station's half-hearted apology and apparent reluctance to take disiplinary action;

And the eagerness of Ruairi Quinn, Minister of Education, to diminish the Church's effective role in Catholic education, despite polite noises to the contrary.

Somehow, I'm not surprised or even outraged by any of these developments. In fact, quite the opposite is true. I'm surprised that the assault on the Church in Ireland isn't even more intense than it is. I'm surprised that the Angelus is still broadcast on RTÉ, and that all the candidates in the recent Presidential election said they were in favour of this. I'm surprised Catholic schools are allowed to exist in this country at all. I'm surprised, not that Enda Kenny stands up in the Dáil and launches into a tirade against the Vatican, but that he prefaces it by insisting that he himself is a practicing Catholic. I'm surprised that the Irish media even pretends to be fair to Catholicism.

When we have a situation where only a handful of Irish journalists are professing Catholics; where all the parties in the Dáil support the gay marriage lite of civil partnership, and only a very few senators and backbenchers call for a conscience cause to protect religious believers who cannot recognize such partnerships; where even Archbishop Diarmuid Mairtin bemoans the lack of intellectuals and artists who espouse the Catholic faith (and intellectuals and artists are usually adept at going against the mainstream); where Mass attendance in many working class parishes is down to single figures, what else do we expect?

Our Lord told us that he who is not for him is against him, and he who does not gather with him, scatters. History has told us the same thing. Christianity, when rejected, is usually rejected with fire-breathing fanaticism. I very much fear we are now living in the hiatus before the hurricane.

The Fenian John O'Leary, a mentor to WB Yeats, refused to complain about his treatment in an English prison. When it was pointed out to him that such denunciation was good propaganda for the nationalist cause, he said that there were some things a man should not do even to save his country. All he would say was, "I was in the hands of my enemies."

I am not suggesting Catholics in Ireland should adopt John O' Leary's attitude. I am simply saying that I see a certain resemblance. The enemies of the Church in Ireland are, of course, our compatriots and our brothers and sisters; and insofar as they are our enemies, we are instructed to love them and pray for them.

But perhaps we should stop expecting any quarter from them. There is no point appealing to freedom of religion; the militant secularist doesn't believe religion should have any special freedoms. There is no point appealing to Ireland's Catholic heritage; the bullish liberal sees nothing in it but a cause for shame-- and besides, he doesn't have any time for ethnic nostalgia and badges of tribalism. There's no point even asking for objectivity, since the progressive thinks objectivity is a sham-- read a few posts on Indymedia if you doubt me.

We cannot expect fairness, or tolerance, or broadmindedness, and it is foolish even to seek them. I have come to believe more and more that there is only one front on which the Faith can be defended, when the culture has become so hostile-- and that is the front of truth. All we are left with is the insistence that the Creed is true, now that the the hollow promises of pluralism have been shown up. There is no point in Catholics seeking to convince the Irish people that religion deserves a "place at the table". We must seek to convince them that, in rejecting Christ, they are losing everything. And such a bold claim, even if it is rejected, is guaranteed to garner more respect than a mere plea for secular Ireland to be nice to us.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Why Don't They Just Kill Themselves?

Fairly interesting article by Desmond Fennell in the Irish Times today, on suicide. (I won't provide a link since this blog seems to mangle all the links I put in; besides, I like the idea of a blog without any links. It seems rather swish.) His argument is a rather familiar one-- that is, that the meteoric rise in the suicide rate in recent decades (a fourfold increase since 1971, though it has dropped a little since the eighties) can be laid at the blame of social anomie, the alienation that occurs when engrained social values are discarded and there is a limbo at the heart of society.

Fennell writes: From the 1960s, American consumerist-liberal values and rules were introduced in the US, and through allies, to its west European satellites. There the inherited European rules system held sway, either by reason of its sponsorship by the Christian churches or by social convention. The message was that everyone had the right and ability to become rich and to consume at will. Everyone could also become enlightened and modern by accepting a series of new values and new rules of behaviour, thought and language which were at variance with the European heritage in key spheres.

Of course, suicide is one of those things (like education) that almost everybody has a theory about. A liberal could easily say that suicide stemmed from religious guilt, or suffocating sex roles, or authoritarian power structures, or whatever you're having yourself. If it was pointed out that the suicide rate skyrocketed after Ireland became less religious, conservative, authoritarian, and so on, all the liberal has to do is argue that people stayed alive, back then, out of a sense of duty, or because there was a religious "taboo" against self-murder.

What is interesting to me is how, almost overwhelmingly, there seems to be a consensus that killing yourself is a bad thing, even in our liberal media and commentariat. Why should this be? Isn't it simply the residue of religion? Even proponents of euthansia (an increasingly large and vocal platoon) usually frame their arguments in terms of debilitating illness or old age.

But really, in a liberal society, why should there be any stigma on suicide? Where do we get this a priori view that life is a good thing? Why do we peddle these platitudes that every human life has value, when we no longer believe that every soul is created by God and was ransomed at an infinite price by his Only Son? Surely we should be neutral towards suicide; it is after all an entirely rational choice, from the liberal-atheist perspective. Existence only has the value we assign it. Indeed, given the increasingly bullish market fundamentalism that seems to be speaking its name in louder and louder tones, how long before some ardent disciple of Ayn Rand declares that economically unproductive people would be doing the world a favour by topping themselves?

Of course, I think that is all diabolical nonsense, my own view of suicide being that of Chesterton, as expressed in such fiery terms in Orthodoxy:

Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world. His act is worse (symbolically considered) than any rape or dynamite outrage. For it destroys all buildings: it insults all women. The thief is satisfied with diamonds; but the suicide is not: that is his crime. He cannot be bribed, even by the blazing stones of the Celestial City. The thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them. But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it. He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake. There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer. When a man hangs himself on a tree, the leaves might fall off in anger and the birds fly away in fury: for each has received a personal affront. Of course there may be pathetic emotional excuses for the act. There often are for rape, and there almost always are for dynamite. But if it comes to clear ideas and the intelligent meaning of things, then there is much more rational and philosophic truth in the burial at the cross-roads and the stake driven through the body, than in Mr. Archer's suicidal automatic machines. There is a meaning in burying the suicide apart. The man's crime is different from other crimes--for it makes even crimes impossible.

But then, I am a right-wing religious nutjob, a fundie wacko, a worshipper of the sky-god, a devotee of the flying spaghetti monster, and all the other charming epithets that are flung at believers by calm and sober rationalists. Of course I would have an illogical taboo against self-termination. But why do the secular media keep talking as though the public should concern themselves about other peoples' private existential choices? And how long before they stop, and start making snarky comments about suicide awareness campaigns?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Commies and Catholics

"In socialism [Dostoevsky] saw the offspring of Catholicism, an offspring in which the movement away from Christ had taken the form of an open and explicit rejection of Christianity. The novelist awarded high marks to Prince Bimsarck as being the only European stateseman who had understood the real nature of Catholicism and the monster begotten by it-- socialism.

An important point was that Dostoevsky saw the Catholic Church as trying to impose its beliefs on mankind, to reduce its members of its own kind of ant-heap. This policy was inherited by socialism, the offspring of Catholicism."


Fr. Frederick Copleston, Russian Philosophy

Dostoyevsky was neither the first nor the last thinker to see communism as the heir of Catholicism. The Russian writer Yevgheniy Zamyatin, writer of We (one of the first dystopian novels) described communism as "a new brand of Catholicism". Orwell made the comparison a couple of times to my knowledge, once in the famous essay Inside the Whale:

There had been a sort of false dawn a few years earlier when numbers of young intellectuals, including several quite gifted writers (Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Hollis, and others), had fled into the Catholic Church. It is significant that these people went almost invariably to the Roman Church and not, for instance, to the C. of E., the Greek Church, or the Protestants sects. They went, that is, to the Church with a world-wide organization, the one with a rigid discipline, the one with power and prestige behind it. Perhaps it is even worth noticing that the only latter-day convert of really first-rate gifts, Eliot, has embraced not Romanism but Anglo-Catholicism, the ecclesiastical equivalent of Trotskyism. But I do not think one need look farther than this for the reason why the young writers of the thirties flocked into or towards the Communist Party. If was simply something to believe in. Here was a Church, an army, an orthodoxy, a discipline.

In Notes on Nationalism (where Orwell is using the term "nationalism" to mean any orthodoxy that extinguishes a man's reasoning powers or fair-mindedness) he makes this swipe at Chesterton:

Ten or twenty years ago, the form of nationalism most closely corresponding to Communism today was political Catholicism. Its most outstanding exponent -- though he was perhaps an extreme case rather than a typical one -- was G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton was a writer of considerable talent who was able to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda. During the last twenty years or so of his life, his entire output was in reality an endless repetition of the same thing, under its laboured cleverness as simple and boring as "Great is Diana of the Ephesians." Every book that he wrote, every scrap of dialogue, had to demonstrate beyond the possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the pagan.

(Fans of Chesterton, like me, will feel this to be absurd. You don't have to read much Chesterton to realise that there was no internal struggle on his part to conform to Catholic doctrine. His heart rose up to it gratefully-- he seemed in love with every aspect of Catholicism, theological, aesthetic, historical, social, or otherwise. The only exception I can think of is his admission in The Resurrection of Rome that he found some of the Vatican cathedrals too baroque. For that matter, my own taste in churches runs more to Protestant understatement-- but that doesn't mean I am suffering from cognitive dissonance.)

The parallels between Catholicism and communism are obvious. Both require that their adherents be in the world, but not of it-- the Catholic because he looks towards eternity, the communist because he looks toward the revolution. Both require discipline-- a discipline that can be an attraction to ardent spirits. Before the USSR fell, both had a definitive authority-- the Kremlin for communists (apart from Trotyskists and other "schismatics", of course), the Vatican for Catholics.

They are both overarching theories of life, which supply a man with a comprehensive explanation of all phenomena-- though I think the Church leaves more to the prudential intellect, while communism tends to explain away rather than explain-- its dialectic materialism performing acrobatics to prove how apparent altruism is actually self-interest (much like Darwinism does), or to prove how material considerations are behind all human behaviour, even where it seems to be based on ethnic or religious motives, or to explain why the condition of the working classes grew not more desperate but better in the twentieth century.

The biggest similarity, I think, is that both have an impressive intellectual rigour-- although, of course, being a Catholic I think the rigour of Communism is a phony rigour, but at least it possesses a certain internal consistency (as long as you don't look too closely). Orwell may have sneered, but surely there is much to be said for intellectual discipline; when Peter has spoken, the issue has decided; and Marxism had its dogma, too. After all, only dogmatic systems can really let us think. Where there is no dogma, the intellect pirouettes ceaselessly, never reaching any conclusions.

Is there not something self-congratulatory and lily-livered about the much-vaunted integrity of an Orwell? "Smelly little orthodoxies" may seem uninspiring to some, but personally I can't help admiring someone who gets their butt off the fence, somebody who dares to be wrong. Only a megalomaniac can possibly believe he can solve the riddles of history and life with his unaided intellect; experience should show him it's not possible; and what seems more intuitive than the expectation that the truth, when we encounter it, should be at least to some degree "a hard saying?". Chesterton said he didn't want a Church that was right where he was right, but one that was right where he wrong. It seems entirely logical that a true intellectual creed would require humility and (at some point) a leap of faith.

I admire some things about communists. Don't get me wrong; I think the communist societies that have actually existed have been unutterably evil, even Satanic. But Satan lures us in with half-truths, not with pure lies. There were some virtues in the USSR, for all its undoubted evil. For instance, communism put a high premium upon the intellectual life and seems to have genuinely done its best to bring culture to the masses. I read one dissident playwright admitting that he was sometimes nostalgic for the days of communism, since at least the Soviets cared about art-- even if they showed they cared by censoring it. Liberal-consumerist society destroys the intellectual life, not with persecution (there is something to be said for Nietzsche's claim that real freedom is found four steps from tyranny), but with apathy.

There are still communists in our midst, and we should pray for them fervently. They are generally people dissatisfied with the contradictions and muddle-headedness of post-modern liberalim-- they are seeking to get to the bottom of things. Let us be gentle with them. At least, the words of Christ to the Church at Laodicea could never apply to them: "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold, nor hot. I would thou wert cold, or hot. But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold, not hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth."

Monday, November 7, 2011

Nice Nihilism

A recent letter writer to the Irish Times, Alex Stavely from Donabate, wrote on October 6th of this year:

A chara, – Michael Nugent claims atheists agree “values such as love and goodness are part of our experience as human beings”. One may be an atheist and be filled with goodness and love or one may be an atheist like Stalin or Pol Pot and struggle on such matters.

Atheism is only a position on an existential question, namely the existence of God(s). Humanism may make further claims. Atheism does not. It is grossly inaccurate to infer it is anything to do with any other life stance, be that positive or negative. – Is mise,

This is a claim we encounter increasingly; that atheism is a value-free theory of reality, and nothing more. Of course some atheists will go further, and concede that many of the implications of atheism are indeed cataclysmic. My favourite Catholic philsopher, Edward Feser, has been engaging on his blog recently with the theories of fellow philosopher Alex Rosenborg, whose book "The Atheist's Guide to Reality" is blurbed thus on Amazon:

We can't avoid the persistent questions about the meaning of life-and the nature of reality. Philosopher Alex Rosenberg maintains that science is the only thing that can really answer them...He shows how physics makes Darwinian natural selection the only way life can emerge, and how that deprives nature of purpose, and human action of meaning, while it exposes conscious illusions such as free will and the self...The result is nice nihilism....

What I want to draw attention to here is how atheism, considered as a social and cultural phenomenon, has increasingly withdrawn to this stockade of a single negative. Think of all the schools of thought that have taken the denial of the divine as the foundation for some elaborate philosophy, whether wildly optimistic or determinedly, self-admiringly bleak. Gone indeed are the heady days of Victorian social and technological progressivism, of Russian nihilism (philosophers like Chernyshevsky who rejected altruism and believed that all mankind were egoists, but enlighened egoism would lead to the good of all), of Marxism in its various guises, of anarchism, of Freudianism, of racialism, of counter-cultural liberalism with its communes and pot-smoking and heightened consciousness. No longer does it really seem true that (as GK Chesterton never said but should have) "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything." Today we increasingly seem to have people who do indeed believe in nothing, and make unbelief the master-passion of their lives.

The communist project, the dreams of scientific utopias, the nostrums of liberalism have failed so wildly that atheism no longer dares appeal to them. All the idols have failed, there is no longer anything to replace religious belief; but the spirit of nihilism has bitten Western man so deeply that he would rather embrace this single negative-- with all its attendant metaphysical, epistemological, social and historical absurdities-- and live his life by it, than accept the alternative.

On the one hand, it makes it more difficult to argue against atheists and philosophical materialists when they fold their arms, smirk, and refuse to make any positive claims, to affirm anything whatsoever. But on the other hand, I think it is rather an encouraging sign for believers; a siege mentality can only be maintained for so long.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Hydra-Headedness of Anti-Catholicism

So the government has closed our embassy to the Holy See, but refused to admit that it was a political decision, or a gesture of hostility. This goes with the general "hit and run" spirit in which the modern Irish Kulturkampf has been conducted. Enda Kenny stands up in the Dáil and criticizes the Church for interfering in the State's affairs; and, after these outspoken words, suddenly becomes bashful and decides that the accusation refers to no particular incident.

The push against the Church in this country is blurry, all-surrounding, mist-like. Critics switch from one accusation to another with bewildering speed. The Church is irrelevant and shouldn't exist. The Church is a crony of capitalism. The Church is a bunch of irrelevant old hippies that don't understand hard-headed science/economics/Realpolitik. The Church is hypocritical for preaching charity (despite being the biggest charitable organisation in the world) and not selling off the artistic treasures of the Vatican and giving the money to Oxfam. The Church isn't hypocritical enough, insisting on preserving the deposit of faith even when it clashes with the last market surveys.

A very intelligent and fair-minded person, of a liberal persusaion, recently asked me what I was reading. I answered that I was reading a book about Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust. She said, "Didn't the Vatican hide a load of Nazis after World War II?". I answered, "Some Catholics helped Nazis escape. The Church also saved thousands of Jews in World War II." She said, "Really? I didn't know that. Cool."

The exchange seemed all too typical of the vague, opportunistic, insubstantial hostility that has closed in around the Irish Catholic Church in our time.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Weigel on the Liturgy

Though his cheering for free market capitalism and somewhat hawkish US foreign policy becomes tiresome, George Weigel's column is always worth reading. (It is a syndicated column and easily found through a search engine.) This week he returns to a subject he has raised before; the sloppy attitude to the liturgy that many Catholics have slipped into. (Mark Dooley has recently written an entire book-- albeit a slim one-- one pretty much the same subject, with the rather misleading title Why Be a Catholic?)

He suggest that the introduction of the New Missal is a great opportunity to break bad habits, and I think it's a very good point.

Weigel complains about Masses that begin with a greeting, that do not allow for moments of reflective silence, and especially the abuse of the sign of peace:

Fully aware that I shall be accused by some of crankiness bordering on misanthropy, let me repeat a point made in this space before: the exchange of peace is not meant to be the occasion for a chat with the neighbors, but for the greetings of those closest to us in church with a simple, evangelical salutation: “the peace of the Lord be with you;” “peace be with you;” “the peace of Christ.”

It is easy to pass into pedantry and crankishness on this subject. The Mass is no less Heaven on Earth just because it includes a hymn that we consider too folkish or banal. But sometimes I am rather taken aback by the behaviour of worshippers at my own church, and funnily enough it is the elderly who are often the most blasé. There is one group of older men who regularly discuss the week's betting in the pews behind me. I am sure they are much better men than I am, and I have to admit that I can't help smiling at the incongruity. But I do wonder how much holy terror the Church can really have beaten into their generation (as we are constantly told was the case) if they behave so profanely in the house of God.

Younger people, insofar as they are there at all, tend to be more fervent, and the Africans who attend my own church are the most reverential of all. They sing the hymns with gusto, radiate joyfulness, and kneel for long periods both before and after the Mass. Perhaps not all African Catholics are like that, but is certainly a feature of the ones I have encountered.

One thing that always bothers me is the taking of the second collection immediately after Communion. Surely no time should be more important and exalted, or should be more prayerful, than the minutes after we have received the Eucharist; to go scrabbling in your pockets immediately after seems incongruous and unseemly. But perhaps I am being pharasaical. Still, I wish it could take place at some other time.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Eve of All Hallows, and How We Never Seem to Go Too Far From Jesus

Happy All Saints' Day!

I love Halloween, but I think it was only very recently that I realised it had anything to do with the Christian feast that immediately follows it (or, indeed, that I even knew anything about the Christian feast that immediately follows it). But that doesn't seem surprising to me now. It seems a regular pattern that the secular world, once it has been touched by Christianity, can never get too far away from it.

Last night I watched a documentary on horror films, presented by the League of Gentlemen writer and actor Mark Gatiss, who is a big horror fan. It was lovingly put together and presented with great affection (and, thankfully, not too much levity, even though Gatiss is a comedian).

What struck me is how horror circles around the Christian tradition, never flying too far away from it, always seeming to return to it compulsively. Many of the films featured in Gatiss's selection (and he stressed it was an unashameldy personal one) had explicity Christian themes; Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen. Others merely used Christian elements; for instance, Gatiss refers to an "almost blasphemous" image of Frankenstein's monster tied to a post and surrounded by a lynch mob. In a scene from a Hammer Dracula film, Peter Cushing fashions a makeshift crucifix in order to confront Dracula. In The Wicker Man, we see Edward Woodward (playing a fervently Christian police sergeant) being martyred by Scottish pagans (what a combination!).

When discussing The Exorcist, Gatiss presents from a Catholic church, and in the section on The Omen there is some discussion of the Book of Revelation.

Earlier in the day, as part of my Halloween activities (I am keen on secular holidays, too) I watched the John Carpenter film Carrie and the Hammer horror Plague of the Zombies. Religious imagery abounds in Carrie, since Carrie's mother is a religious nut who thinks sex is evil and calls breasts "dirty pillows". Even in Plague of the Zombies, which features the usual unflappable Victorian scientist, the local vicar is part of the zombie-busting team.

It seems quite ironic to me that horror, at which many pious people may have looked askance over the generations, preserves an undercurrent of Christianity that is rapidly being repressed in more mainstream entertainments. Supernatural dread, it seems to me, is the flipside of religious awe-- and both return in our culture's dreams, and nightmares, when we try to push them beyond the pale.

"It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God", says St. Paul. I think our modern world is-- to use the old-fashioned expression-- rather more God-fearing than we sometimes allow it to be.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Why I Am Conservative. And Not Conservative.

Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided?

Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians


Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?"

Gospel of Matthew


Is there any point in being a "conservative Catholic"? Do we "divide Christ" if we proclaim loyalty to a faction within the Church? If "conservative" means "orthodox", shouldn't an "orthodox Catholic" be a tautology? And if conservativism is something added to Catholicism, for instance a zeal for national traditions, is it extra-Christian and to be abhorred as a distraction?

How do we remember historical examples of hyphenated Christianities (so to speak)? The likes of muscular Christianity, and Christian socialism, and liberation theology? In retrospect, the companion term always seems like the more important of the two, and the Christianity like mere window-dressing.

And yet, I so often find (rightly or wrongly) that "Catholic" doesn't exhaustively describe my own worldview. There are things I am passionate about that (as far as I know) can't be rooted in the teaching of the Church; the defence of sentimentality and nostalgia and romanticism, for instance; a preference for rhymed poetry, and for films and books with a life-affirming message; politeness; chivalry; eccentricity; local colour; local accents and slang; a tenderness for monarchism.

But what are we to do with this term, "conservative"? Does it mean anything at all? As far as I can see, it has a bewildering range of meanings.

There are the people who call themselves conservative to indicate that they have been "mugged by reality"-- these are usually ex-liberals and ex-radicals. Once they had a rosy view of human nature, believing that society would blossom if only authority was relaxed and repression lifted. Now they know better, and place great weight upon the profit motive and tough policing and stern discipline in schools. They might well be strident atheists and scornful of all romantic ideas of patriotism and romantic love and childhood innocence.

There are the nationalists, who put the prestige of the home country above everything. For the sake of the fatherland, they may identify with a national religion, as seems to be happening in Russia today, when Orthodoxy has become a badge of revived Russian pride. But even moral codes often take a back seat to the defence or glorification of the flag, as with the defenders of torture in America.

There are the libertarian, anti-government conservatives. This type of conservative might well own a string of sex-shops and porn magazines, while smoking marijuana at all-night parties.

There is the "cultural standards" conservative, like the American critic Harold Bloom or his namesake Allen Bloom, writer of The Closing of the American Mind. They lament the decline of artistic and intellectual standards in Western society. They read Nietzsche, despise TV, probably hang around churches a lot without thinking religious considerations should impinge on their sex lives. They stopped being liberal when all the political correctness and multiculturalism began to seep into it.

In opposition to these anti-populists, there are the conservative populists who might be American talk show hosts or fans of Jeremy Clarkson. They consider themselves the voice of the people, dismiss poetry as boring, mock feminism, are passionate about their cars and their right to drive them as much as they like, are probably scathing about sex and violence on TV before the watershed ("I don't want my kids seeing this stuff!") but boast about watching it themselves.

There are the Tolkien-reading conservatives, who want to live in Middle-Earth and turn back the wheel of industrialism, go back to the land, restore monarchy, join a guild, and drink mead. (I am particularly sympathetic to these, in case I sound too facetious.)

There are the DH Lawrence conservatives, who want to turn back the wheel of industrialism, dance around the maypole, commune with nature, strip away the veneer of civilization, and liberate their bedroom urges to the fullest.

There are the "status quo" conservatives, like the Russian generals who made one last effort to save the Soviet Union in 1991.

There are the "steady as she goes" conservatives like Thomas Hobbes, who think social order is the most desirable of things, anarchy is always in danger of breaking out, and "whatever is, is right"-- better the devil you know.

And there are probably any number of others. But perhaps I have made my point.

And, despite all this, I call myself a conservative Catholic. Perhaps "traditionalist-romantic-sentimentalist-nostalgist-patriotic-idealistic-communitarian-agrarian-localist-monarchist Catholic" would be better.

But it takes longer to say.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Catholicism on Campus-- Not Exactly Vibrant...

I attended a talk organized by UCD's Newman Society yesterday evening. Billed as a talk on faith and science, it turned out to be a potted history of University College Dublin and its antecedent institutions, with some reference to Newman and the opposition to science-teaching by the Irish hierarcy of his time. Aside from the two academics who delivered the talk, there were three other attendees; the chap who organized it, a young lady, and myself. I was the only Irish person there.

I can't really criticize too much, since I haven't attended any of the talks given by the Newman Society, UCD's Catholic society, in my ten years of working in UCD's library. But from what I can see, the Christian student movement here is not exactly flourishing. It's a long way from C.S. Lewis's Socratic Society at Oxford, which regularly held debates featuring the best and brightest of unbelieving and believing minds. (Having said that, a debate on whether religion is a good or bad thing was held in UCD last night, organized by the Literary and Historical Society.)

I have occasionally attended Mass in the church at UCD, always on Holy Days of Obligation (the regular Mass is not at a time I can make). The congregation is usually of an encouraging size. Of course, people go to Mass for all sorts of reasons, not always out of religious conviction or commitment-- I suspect for many rural students it is a link to their way of life at home.

It is also worth noticing that, in a recent survey for the University Observer, three-quarters of UCD students polled were pro-choice on abortion. A few years ago about seventy per cent, in a survey by the same newspaper, affirmed a belief in God.

None of us need to be told that statistics and numbers mean little. The Pope has wisely re-echoed Jesus's words on the mustard seed in recent times, reminding us that the fidelity of the faithful is more important than their numerical weight. But if a Catholic revival is going to come about in this country, it is natural to look to the universities as its springboard.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

T.S. Eliot on Capitalism and Christianity

I have just finished reading a slim book comprised of two lectures by T.S. Eliot, given just before the outbreak of the Second World War, entitled The Idea of a Christian Society.

C.S. Lewis was critical of Eliot's brand of Christianity, once writing in a letter to a friend: "What I am attacking is a set of people who seem to me to be trying to make of Christianity itself one more highbrow, Chelsea, bourgeois-baiting fad. T.S. Eliot is the single man who sums up the thing I am fighting against." (Later on, his view of Eliot grew warmer and they became rather friendly.)

It's easy to be suspicious of highbrow converts, to assume that they are simply seeking another intellectual hobby-horse or striking a pose. But what I've read of Eliot's writings on religion convince me his faith was very sincere and serious.

These two lectures contemplate what a modern society built upon Christian principles would look like. Eliot admits this seems a remote possibility; he even says, "In an industrialised society like that of England, I am surrpised that the people retains as much of Christianity as it does." In the years since the Second World War, the Christian colouring of European society has faded even more, so that the topic of these lectures may no longer seem of much relevance.

However, it is interesting to see how much of Eliot's criticism was reserved for plutocracy and the profit motive. Whoever styles himself as a Christian or a conservative, today, finds himself bracketed with the apostles of free enterprise and big business, under the banner of the "right wing". I have even argued with Catholics who considered the Church's teaching on the universal destination of goods, and the impossibility of relying on "market forces" to bring about social justice, as somehow being compatible with rampant commercialism.

It is worth quoting Eliot's closing words, in which he admits to a sense of "personal contrition, of humility, repentance and amendment" when he realised that English society had no positive philosophy of its own to match against fascism and communism:

We could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us. Was our society, which had always been so sure of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premisses, assembled around anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?


I think the same criticism could apply to "Ireland PLC".

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Godless Pulpit

Can you imagine someone who detested sport being given column inches in a sports supplement? Can you imagine someone who detested television and never watched it being appointed a television columnist? If a man declared he had no sense of humour, would you be keen on reading his musings upon comedy?

For the third time in a month or so, the Irish Times has opened its "Rite and Reason" column (which presumably is a religious column) to the chairman of Atheist Ireland, Michael Nugent. His latest piece appears today, and though I should at least acknowledge that it is written courteously and respectfully, he has nothing original or thought-provoking to say. It is yet another variation on the theory that faith is dangerous because it is irrational.

I don't really object to the Irish Times asking an atheist to contribute an article to the religious section. It is a valid outsider's perspective, perhaps even a gust of fresh air into a room grown stuffy with unexamined assumptions. But three in a matter of weeks?

Perhaps the editor would reply that Rite and Reason is not a column on religion per se-- that it is a space for reflection on ultimate questions, for "spirituality", for examining the deepest themes in human existence. And that would be all bosh. Because we all know that, once we come to that whole perspective on existence-- the perspective that comes from imaginatively stepping back and wondering what right anything has to exist, what value existence has in itself, what ultimate meaning we can attach to our life-- we are in the realm of religion, and atheism has nothing at all to say.

Those ultimate questions are questions that must be answered by faith, or not answered at all. Talk about the dignity of the human person, or about the transcendental, is pure poppycock from a non-religous perspective.

I fail to see what interesting contribution an atheist has to make upon religious matters, any more than someone who hated music might have anything interesting to say about music. We know what the atheist thinks, and we know why. Even if we consider it an untenable position, we can sympathise with it. The world seems to whizz along of its own accord. We have no television footage of angels or demons. Bad things happen. The atheist position is understandable. It is clear. But there is one thing that it's not. It's not deep. Once you have said that the universe has no meaning or purpose or guiding intelligence behind it, you really have nothing more to say on the subject of religion.

Personally, I would rather the secular media had no religious content at all, rather than asking religious voices to share a pulpit with the tiresome heckling of the godless.

Monday, October 24, 2011

All The Young Dudes

I have been re-reading a book I bought earlier this year, The Post-Christian Mind by Harry Blamires, published in 2001. Blamires is an Anglican and a former pupil of CS Lewis. He tries to write in the same cool, analytical style, but he lacks the Lewisian ability to get to the root of things.

As one of the Amazon reviews pointed out, his ideal of Christianity seems to be the Anglicanism of his youth-- a fault he shares with Peter Hitchens, another critic of modern liberalism and secularism.

Nevertheless, there are some admirable points made. In one chapter, "The old and the new", he questions whether "appealing to the youth" by (for instance) substituting rock music for traditional hymns is really the way to revive Christian worship in Britain:

Study photographs in the press of rows and rows of young people rapturously acclaiming the latest idol of the pop world. In that environment exultant youth abounds. But what about their elders? Where are they? The audience is all but devoid of them. Do we want to see this repeated in our churches? Do we want a brand of Christian worship from which mature men and women drop off in their thosuands as they grow into sober adulthood? It would seem that many of our clergy do. They appear not to have experienced what so many families know all about-- the way the adolescent who keeps a feverish eye on the pop charts and chases after the latest appropriate CDs and cassettes can develop into the classical music enthusiast when taste matures and childish things are put away.

As Pope Benedict said in a recent speech in Germany, "It is not strategy that saves us and saves Christianity, but faith".

I am always pleased to see young people who are passionate about their religious faith. I wasn't, at their age. There are many admirable virtues associated with youth-- generosity, exuberance, idealism (of a particular sort), optimism (again of a particular sort)-- but I tend to believe the deeper virtues come with age. Just as infants love bright colours and sweet tastes, only coming to prefer more subtle sensations as they mature, so young people's view of life can err towards the obvious. It is the obvious mistake to assume that religion is simply make-believe and a kind of conspiracy of self-delusion; Thomas Aquinas (or so I have read) begins his proofs of God's existence by asking, "Is there a God? It would seem not." It is the obvious mistake to assume that the individual knows what is best for him and the restraints of tradition and community are shackles; only in later life do we realize they are liberating. It is the obvious mistake to assume that maturity is becoming less child-like (as teenagers do), and not becoming more child-like (as middle-aged people do when they learn not to roll their eyes at the prospect of building snowmen or bonfires). Youth is the first thought; but first thoughts are rarely best.

Of course we should preach the Gospel to youth. But we should never pander to youth.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Meatless Fridays back in Britain

You may have heard that the Bishops' Conference in Britain and Wales has brought back the obligation of Catholics abstaining from eating meat on Friday; or, as they more accurately put it, "to remind all Catholics in England and Wales of the obligation of Friday Penance...[and to]...re-establish the practice that this should be fulfilled by abstaining from meat." Because, of course, the requirement of Friday penance was never actually revoked.

Along with many more traditionally-minded Catholics, I would very much be in favour of re-introducing meatless Fridays for Catholics in Ireland. I have observed it myself, with occasional exceptions, for the last year and more.

Nothing seems to provoke the ridicule of the secular world more than this practice. I seem to remember an episode of Father Ted where Father Dougal wonders aloud what happened to all the people who ate meat on Fridays, now that the requirement has been revoked. Do they get out of hell? There seems to be some vague idea that Catholics view meat as something intrinsically sinful, or fish as something intrinsically virtuous, or that Catholic priests are akin to tribal witchdoctors who attempt to sway their gods with various arbtirary chants or dances or rites.

Of course, the practice is in fact a lot more human than supernatural. It is entirely human to make some small sacrifice or gesture in order to demonstrate loyalty or solidarity. A few weeks ago I saw a young man at a bus-stop wearing a scarlet A badge, which is an atheist symbol modelled on the scarlet letter worn by the adulteress in the Nathanial Hawthorne novel. If even atheists, who usually affirm a loyalty to scientific rationalism (although...should science really need us to believe in it or be loyal to it?), have recourse to such symbols, what is so strange about it?

We wear t-shirts proclaiming our favourite bands and movies. We display bumper stickers or even registration plates announcing our belief in some cause or another. We even make a statement when we name our pets or our houses. If our faith is the most important fact about us, as it should be, than it should seep into these symbolic acts of everyday life.

But it goes deeper than that. It is a part of human nature that small commitments often encourage greater commitments. This phenomenon is used by new religious movements (I am not so politically incorrect as to call them cults) and by charities (sometimes rather cult-ish themselves). They will offer a free badge or sticker or flower to passers-by, and then later on, hit those displaying it with a request for donations. On the logic of "in for a penny, in for a pound", more people will comply if they have accepted the freebie.

Making a little gesture every Friday, no matter what else is going on in our lives, is a constant reminder of the most important commitment we have.

Christ warned us against ritualism, but was himself scrupulous in observing the requirements of the Law. The Jews of Jesus's time were ensnared in legalism, and Christianity and Catholicism may often have veered in the same direction. I think that today we err in quite the opposite direction. The shadow of Luther still hangs over us, and even informs the religious sensibilities of Catholics; we tend to believe that religion is a matter of "inwardness", of states of mind and emotion, and we forget that it belongs just as much to the public world of behaviour and interaction; that it belongs to the everyday as much as visits to cathedrals when on holiday.

William Oddie, writing in the Catholic Herald, put it very well:

The point, of course, is not simply that we abstain from meat on Friday (if we do) as a personal devotion: it is that we once did it, and soon will once more, out of obedience to the authority of the Church: it was once, and, deo gratias, will be again, a constant reminder that once we have taken the initial choice of committing ourselves to being Catholics in the first place, we are under obedience; and that it is that obedience that holds us together as a people.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Right-Wing Anglican Columnist? Seriously?

I'm a big fan of Peter Hitchens (not a Catholic but a staunch defender of Christianity; his Abolition of Britain and Rage Against God are amongst my favourite books.) He blogs on the Mail Online website. There is a list of his fellow Daily Mail bloggers to the right of his articles, and I was surprised to see one of bloggers had the title "Reverend".

Surprised-- I would have expected that any Anglican clergyman would be blogging for the Guardian, not the Daily Mail-- I clicked on the link. (Apologies for not reproducing it here; I'm having trouble with hypertext, for some reason.)

I found myself reading strident passages like this:

If the BBC is truly serious about its intentions to make cuts and save money, then it could make a small start by scrapping that fatuous three minutes’ slot on The Today Programme known as Thought for the Day. It’s a breach of the Trades Descriptions Act, for a start; because there is rarely any thought in it. What we have instead is a parade of cliché-struck clergy coming on to make anodyne amateur statements about secular, mostly political, affairs of which they have not the remotest understanding beyond what they have just been told by The Guardian’s leader column.


He also attacks anti-capitalist demonstrators, people who text on the street (he boasts about knocking the offending device from one texter's hand), and social welfare.

I'm not sure I don't prefer the bicycle-clips-and-CND-badge type of vicar. Christians are constantly being pegged as shrill, intolerant, reactionary Colonel Blimps by their enemies. Of course there is a danger in becoming apologetic and sheepish about the Faith, and trying to cram its doctrines into the strait-jacket of political correctness.

But the other danger-- the danger of playing to the stereotype and attacking everything the liberal left values, such as social welfare, or even good manners when it intersects with political correctness-- is just as much to be avoided. I know, because I fell into that pit myself for a while.

Christianity can't be contained in the squabbles between left and right, and it isn't a weapon in a culture war. And besides, the world is a better place for programmes like Thought for the Day (though I've never heard it) and the much-missed (by me) A Prayer at Bedtime on RTÉ. Our world has so little gentleness these days, that even a little inspidness is not to be despised.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dana's tyres slashed?

Even after reading some of the vitriol on the internet directed towards those of Dana's religious and political persuasion, it's hard to believe that the animosity could really reach such murderous levels as to slash her campaign car's tyres and almost make it crash, as per today's news reports.

From the moment she threw her hat into the ring Dana had my vote. But I'm actually thinking of giving Michael D. Higgins a second preference-- only because I would rather a poet, even a free verse poet, as our President, rather than a businessman. The Presidency should be occupied by someone of some cultural and intellectual standing, and modern Ireland has become far too infatuated with the marketplace. Why should we admire people whose primary occupation is to push goods and services on people who don't need them? I think the Irish need to regain some of the snobbery (or perhaps wariness is a better word?) with which we viewed commerce, in previous decades.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"Father Ramboola Conundrum..."

I have been thinking recently about Father Ted, the Channel 4 comedy starring Dermot Morgan and Ardal O'Hanlon, from back in the nineties. When it was first broadcast it provoked a fair amount of controversy. Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan, the writers, denied they had any animus against the Catholic Church, but as I remember Dermot Morgan was rather more gleeful about the opportunity to pelt the institution.

I loved Father Ted when it came out, and I like it still, though it's some time since I watched it. The third series was a let-down, plunging too far into zaniness, but the whole programme, though not really a satire, was fiendishly perceptive of the quirks within Irish life, and even the Church. At one point, I remember, Father Ted asks Father Dougal how he actually became a priest, and whether it was a result of collecting a certain amount of crisp packets. In another scene, Father Dougal tells a TV journalist "I don't even believe in organized religion". Unfortunately, it's quite easy to imagine a certain kind of Irish priest boasting that he doesn't believe in organized religion.

But then again, the show could also make fun of anti-clericalism. There was the episode featuring the radical feminist pop singer, more than a little reminiscent of Sinead O'Connor, putting forth some bizarre theory about the Church closing the "potato factories" during the Irish famine and turning them into prisons for children. The TV presenter Henry Sellers, during a bout of drunkenness, cries "Priests! Ruined my life!", and since this is being played for laughs I imagine the show is here satirising Irish people who automatically blame the Church for everything, especially when drunk.

Even though some priests were shown as baboon-like, degenerate or even psychopathic, the whole thing was too surreal to really seem like a concerted attack. And is it my imagination or did the show seem to become more affectionate as it went on? After all, there is something very peaceful about the parish house on Craggy Island, even with the tacky Jesus rug hanging over the couch. The whole set-up has an air of the idyllic about it, with all the islanders knowing each other, the local cinema manager giving priests half-price concessions, and an underlying air of leisureliness.

I remember in one episode, Father Ted quotes the famous closing passage of James Joyce's short story The Dead, while holding vigil over (what he thinks is) a dead Father Jack. This also rang true to life to me. It is quite easy to imagine an Irish priest quoting classic literature in such a situation. It seems to me that Father Ted actually painted a picture of a more cultured, leisured and innocent society, and to that extent it was somewhat pro-Catholic, even despite itself.

Monday, October 17, 2011

God on the Irish Times letters page

I regularly read the Irish Times letters page (online). There are often exchanges about religion, and it must be said that Catholics and other believers have been good at weighing in to them and making powerful arguments.

Today there is a response from a Dr. Hugh J Masterson of Colorado to a recent article by Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland—the article claiming that humankind invented gods to plug the gaps of their scientific ignorance. The whole letter can be found here. It concludes:

Regarding the invention of religion, the first sentiment of the human person is a desire for something “greater”, not fear, which comes from the possibility of losing the object of desire. Therefore humans, before being inventors of religion, are fundamentally religious beings, as history attests.


This seems to me a crucial point. You may argue that belief in God is deluded, but to treat it as some kind of hypothesis amongst other hypotheses, which can simply be extracted from the human psyche and leave the rest of its furnishings intact and standing, seems unwarranted. Is it any coincidence that, historically, we tend to characterise cultures first and foremost by their religion? We think of Osiris and Horus when we think of Ancient Egypt, or the Olympians when we think of ancient Greece, or Hinduism when we think of India, or Calvinism when we think of the Dutch Golden Age. The Cathecism of the Catholic Church seems justified in calling man “homo religiosus.”

The puzzle is how some people seem to be genuinely uninterested in religion, or even in religious speculation. Of course, I don’t mean the card-carrying atheists and anti-theists, since their preoccupation shows obvious signs of repression. I mean those who seem neither hostile nor friendly. Whether a whole society can maintain such indiference in the long-term is an interesting question—the future development of our post-Christian Europe should provide the answer.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Why I Am Setting Up This Blog

A few months ago I closed my previous blog, Practicing to be Catholic, explaining in my final post that I worried about our society's increasing addiction to technology. I worried about the things we lose (or at least, weaken) when computers, televisions, MP3 players and mobile phones are everywhere; silence, patience, the meaningfulness of time and space, the erosion of interpersonal interactions like story-telling, ballad-singing and the swapping of comics.

I still feel those anxieties. And I'm still determined to die without ever having read an e-book.

But I think there is a role for blogs. And, when it comes to Catholic life in Ireland, perhaps even a need for them.

The Church and the faith is under unprecedented media and popular attack-- all over the Western world, but especially in Ireland. (The American Catholic commentator and biographer of John Paul II, George Weigel, recently described Ireland as the "epicentre of European anti-Catholicism".) Scrutiny and questioning of institutions is healthy, but the kind of relentless hostility the Church faces-- from journalists, politicians, teachers, university professors, comedians, rock musicians, and barstool philosophers-- comes close to villification.

Nor is the assault confined to the secular world. Self-described Catholics-- all too often, even priests-- attack the dogmas and truths that the Holy Spirit has revealed to its pilgrim Church over two thousand years of discernment, persecution and prayer. There is a widespread consensus amongst the chattering classes that the oldest institution in the world-- and one which has survived through fidelity to its mission and message-- must undergo radical change.

There are too few voices raised in loyalty to the teaching of the Church's Magisterium; so few, I feel justified in launching yet another blog into cyberspace. (Also, I can't believe nobody has named a blog Irish Papist yet.) In fact, the immediate stimulus was an RTE programme I heard mere hours ago, in which Charlie Bird interviewed various (carefully selected) Catholic commentators who all agreed that institutional change (oh deliciously vague word, change!) was imperative. The usual attacks upon the Vatican and the "clerical mindset" ensued.

The media, politics and the advertising industry are all dedicated to flattering their audience. The problem with voter apathy never lies with the voters, but with politicans. Advertisers tell us we "deserve" pampering with skin lotions or weekend breaks or visits to a beauty parlour. Even in everyday life, this mentality holds sway. If you admit that you are terrible at mathematics or history, your listener invariably assures you that "you must have had a bad teacher in school".

Similarly, if there is a problem with the Chuch, the blame must lie with the institutions-- not with the sinners, you and I, who perpetually fail to live up to our Christian vocations.

The humility of GK Chesterton-- who famously responded to a newspaper's request to write on the question "What's wrong with the world?" with the two words, "I am"-- seems conspiciously absent in our own society.

The idea in this blog is to provide a rapid and rolling response to the many attacks on the Church in Ireland. Will I have the time and patience to stick to that plan? To quote St. Paul, "I do not know; God knows". But I'm going to give it a go. I hope you join me for the ride, and don't hestitate to chip in!