Irish Papist

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

Monday, April 30, 2012

From the Blurb of "Prolife?: The Irish Question" by Michael Solomons (1992)

Beginning with intimidation of a pharmacist in the 1930s, the national record is one of persistent, Church-inspired, state interference in the most private areas of personal and family concern, coupled (until quite recently) with a reluctant provision of public health facilities for women...Scandals abound, from statistics of mortality in the late 1930s, through to the 1976 banning of Guide to Family Planning as indecent or obscene, and the rise of Youth Defence, the physical wing of a metaphysical movement. If there is such an entity as "the national psyche", then it's worth asking if obsessive concern to protect the unborn is not, in some unconscious way, a reaction prompted by guilt feelings about recent patriotic slaughter.

I love this kind of "heads I win, tails you lose", join-the-dots logic. You can prove anything using it, or at least you can call on it to buttress any argument. It's the kind of logic that led Christopher Hitchens to argue that Stalin and Mao's massacres were not, as they seem on the face of it, black marks against atheism, but in fact yet another crime to be laid at the feet of religion-- since the Stalinist and Maoist cults of personality were a kind of secular religion, and since Stalin and Lenin were heirs to the power of the Romanovs, who had invoked the divine right.

Or again it is the kind of logic that denounces the Catholic Church as being anti-sex and obsessed by sex at the same time. Or that accuses the Catholicism of preaching docility and resignation when it urges its flock to fix their hopes upon heaven rather than this passing world, but also-- since the charitable works of millions of nuns and priests and lay Catholics are too obvious to simply be ignored-- accuses it of slapping band-aids on capitalist/imperialist/patriarchal society, in order to stave off the Revolution.

I like the idea of a national psyche. But there is so much guff and unverifiable, unfalsifiable nonsense posited about it that-- well, come to think of it, the guff can be quite entertaining, too, in its place. Let's just not take it any more seriously than it deserves. Save it for the pub.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Review of The Rocky Road to Dublin

Film review-- The Rocky Road to Dublin (documentary by Peter Lennon, 1967)

The camera never lies. This truth is borne out by Peter Lennon's storied documentary, The Rocky Road to Dublin, which sets out to be an indictment of late-sixties Ireland, but now seems like a monument to a more innocent and cultured era.

The question Lennon poses at the beginning of the film-- "What do you do with your revolution once you've got it?"-- has now taken on an extra, ironic layer of meaning. Of course, Lennon was referring to the Irish Revolution that began in 1916 and ended in Irish independence in the twenties, or perhaps even in the declaration of an Irish Republic in 1948.

But since The Rocky Road to Dublin was made, there has been a second revolution in Ireland-- a social and cultural revolution-- and it is this revolution that is essentially being urged in every frame of the documentary. So of course the question now applies to that revolution, too. What has it achieved? Is Irish society today an obvious improvement on the Irish society recorded in Lennon's documentary?

Every viewer must answer that question himself, or herself. But for me the answer is an emphatic "no".

Lennon printed the film in black and white, even though it was shot in colour, because he felt it "was more in keeping with the tone of the film", according to Wikipedia. This is consistent with Lennon's whole approach, which is (it must be said) rather manipulative and selective throughout-- although it must also be conceded that he lets his subjects speak for themselves, and these interviews are the most revealing and interesting part of the documentary.

Lennon, who was at the time a journalist for the Guardian (no surprise there), sets out to portray the Irish society of his time as grey, conformist, anti-intellectual, and in thrall to a dictatorial Catholic Church.

The film begins with a heavily-bespectacled boy standing up in a classroom and reciting: "Because of Adam's sin we are born without orig-- we are born without santifying grace, our intellect is darkened, our will is weakened and our passions incline us to evil, and we suffering-- we are subject to suffering and death."

The documentary is setting out its stall straight away. These poor kids being forced to trot out all this nonsense about mythical figures and mumbo-jumbo! But anyone who had a Catholic education in the eighties or nineties will feel a certain envy, I think. My religious education in school, to a great extent, consisted of pop psychology, and of watching "inspiring" feature films in religion class. When I did receive solid catechesis, mostly from an adorable old nun who treated us to Rollo chocolates, I found it fascinating. How is knowledge ever a bad thing? Even for a non-believer, isn't it good to know something about the teaching of the Church, if only for its historical and cultural importance? And it is obvious that catechesis doesn't take away from the rest of education, for all Ruadhri Quinn's claims, since Catholic schools have always tended to outperform non-denominational schools.

The film moves on to its credit sequence, over the titular song, "The Rocky Road to Dublin" by the Dubliners. (The Dubliners, in fact, supply the whole soundtrack.) The camera tracks through scenes of a beach, a country road, two priests on bicycles, and the skyline of Dublin. Everything looks cleaner and prettier than it does now-- no traffic-clogged roads, no fast food joints, no jeans or tracksuits, and next to no litter anywhere.

Peter Lennon narrates: "This is a personal attempt to reconstruct for the camera the plight of an island community which survived more than seven hundred years of English occupation, and then nearly sank under the weight of its own heroes and clergy. More than half a century ago at Easter 1916, the Irish made yet another attempt in a centuries-long history of insurrection to break free of England. A rebellion led by poets and socialists, it was one of the first attemps by a small nation to throw off a colonial power by force. It was also the ambition of these idealists to awaken a lethargic and indifferent Irish population to an ideal of freedom."

This, it has to be said, is the version of Irish history that has been established in the popular mind. But how true is it? It is, of course, true to say that the 1916 Rising was led by "poets and socialists", insofar as the Marxist James Connolly was one of its leading lights, and his Citizen's Army fought alongside the Irish Volunteers. But they were a minority, and it seems fair to say that most of those who fought in 1916-- like Patrick Pearse, his brother Willie, Joseph Plunkett, Con Colbert and Eamonn De Valera-- were committed Catholics. In fact, even James Connolly received the last rites prior to his execution, when such an act could have had no propaganda benefit for him.

It has often been said that the majority of those who fought in 1916 were educated by the Christian Brothers, whose ideals of faith and nation-- "for the glory of God and the honour of Ireland", as their motto ran-- motivated the insurrectionists. In fact, Kevin O'Higgins, who was a member of the first Dáil and a leading figure in the Irish Revolution, famously said: "we were the most conservative-minded revolutionaries who ever put through a successful revolution."

Of course, this itself is a slight distortion, since there were undoubtedly radical elements involved in the struggle for independence, but it seems truer than the history propounded by Peter Lennon in this documentary-- and by Ken Loach in his artistically excellent but historically misleading film, The Wind that Shakes the Barley.

The first interviewee is Sean O'Faolain, the short story writer whose radical journal, The Bell, anticipated the second Irish revolution-- that is, the social revolution. Funnily enough, even he appears in the documentary as a rather quaint, genteel and archaic figure, sitting in a garden smoking a pipe, wearing a grey suit and a sober tie. "The kind of society that actually grew up", he says, "is a society of what I call urbanised peasants-- a society which was without moral courage, which was constantly observing a self-interested silence, never speaking in moments of crisis, and in constant alliance with a completely obscurantist, regressive, repressive and uncultivated Church." (No mincing of words there). "A society of blatant inequalities and in which the whole spirit of '16 has been lost."

O'Faolain, along with other critics of post-revolutionary Ireland, cites republicanism as the ideal of 1916 and the War of Independence. But was it really? Was the political philosophy of republicanism, to those who fought for independence, more important than the actual vision of the Ireland that would emerge-- one that usually concentrated on the Irish language, Irish folklore and traditions, and indeed Christianity? Pearse, the guiding spirit of the Rising, called for an Ireland that was "not free merely, but Gaelic as well; not Gaelic merely, but free as well". Modernists who cite the Proclamation of the Irish Republic usually cite the phrase, "cherishing all the children of the nation equally". But they tend to ignore the fact that the very first phrase of the Proclamation is "in the name of God."

For such a celebrated documentary, I can't help thinking The Rocky Road to Dublin is rather clumsily put together. One sequence features the Royal Dublin Horseshow, for no obvious reason (though Lennon rather implausibly tries to link it to the decline of the British Ascendancy in Ireland). Conor Cruise O'Brien, the intellectual and politician, is interviewed and gives a long account of Ireland's foreign policy-- which seems rather irrelevant to the overall theme of the documentary. Later on, there is a protracted scene of a man "playing the spoons" in an Irish pub. (Where would you see that now?) It's fascinating to watch, but again seems out of place.

There is a short wordless scene in which we see the then-new housing estate of Ballymun, where I grew up and where I am sitting right now, as I type these words. The grey towers and flats that it shows are now mostly pulled down-- one block of flats is actually being slowly demolished at present-- and good riddance to them, I say (with a faint twinge of nostalgia). But the tracts of green space that the camera shows in this documentary is all built over now, and the vandalism and litter that is almost omnipresent in Ballymun is also absent from the footage.

Lennon shoots a long sequence in a pub, which he does his very best to make gloomy and melancholy, with many shots of vacant and pensive faces-- and where couldn't you find such faces? But for all his efforts, I think most pub-goers of today will feel envious of the drinkers in the film, who have communal sing-alongs of Irish ballads rather than big-screen TVs and pop music drowning out conversation.

We move on to a section which shows a hurling match (and which does not neglect to zoom in on two Catholic priests enjoying it from the stands, doubtless in a sinister fashion). Lennon focuses on certain controversial rules of the Gaelic Athletic Association (the governing body of hurling and gaelic football, which are at the moment more spectacularly popular than ever). At the time of the documentary, the organisation had rules against its members playing "foreign" games such as soccer and rugby, and also had a law against members of the British security forces taking part. Both rules have now been removed, the second one in recent years, the first one not long after Lennon's documentary. But of course the rule against foreign games had a very practical motive-- it was a kind of athletic protectionism, to create a space for native games to flourish. And it worked.

The Assistant Secretary of the GAA, who is interviewed but not named, explains: "It is necessary, of course, to understand that this rule is retained democratically; the Association has a democratic system which is even more democratic than the normal parliamentary system. This rule could be changed at any time that a majority of the members of the Association wish to have it changed." We should at least give Lennon credit for including that explanation, which rather weakens the case he is trying to make.

There are some comic aspects to the documentary. The captions are so large, square, declarative and blunt that they remind one of Monty Python's "How to Recognise Different Trees" skit. And during one sequence on industrialisation, a Japanese gentleman in heavily-rimmed glasses (there are lots of heavily-rimmed glasses on display) explains that he is teaching Judo to the workers in the Guinness factory.

Another scene shows a group of Trinity students, gaunt and cigarette-smoking and dressed in polo-necks, overcoats, and shirtsleeves discussing censorship and the failings of the Irish press. Of course they are laying into the Church, the press, and the conservatism of RTE, rather stridently and excitedly. But where will we find such earnest, intellectually serious, publicly-spirited students today? Where are the sort of students we read about in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or even At Swim Two Birds or Anthony Cronin's Dead as Doornails? Do today's university students sit around in pubs arguing about politics and philosophy and emancipation? I've worked in a university library for over ten years now. I find the students to be polite, friendly and entirely endearing. But the conversations that I overhear, and the posters that I see around campus, leave me under no illusions that they are the heirs of Stephen Daedalus and the young Anthony Cronin. Could it be that something in grey, conformist, Catholic Ireland was propitious to that kind of student earnestness?

Lennon does not fail to linger on Ireland's censorship laws, which were indeed a sitting target. A long list of the names of writers banned in Ireland rolls down the screen at one point, to the sound of funeral bells, and though I am not against censorship on principle, it is hard to defend the laws that obtained in the Irish state for so long-- although I have often thought that the Playboy of the Western World riots, censorship of books, and so forth was a sign of a public more culturally alive than otherwise. Who would riot at a play today? Who today would take the power of ideas so seriously as to call for a book to be banned?

Perhaps the most remarkable part of The Rocky Road to Dublin is the extensive footage of Father Michael Cleary, the original "Father Trendy". We see him singing a pop song in a hospital ward, giving a speech at a wedding breakfast, and sharing a cigarette with some grave-diggers. We also hear him eloquently defending the Church's requirement of priestly celibacy, despite his own avowed desire to be married and have a family. "I believe that I get the tremendous power from God-- the power to recreate His body on the altar-- you know, I give him back a gift in return. Now, to someone you love and love deeply and to whom you owe a lot, you don't just give him sixpence-worth or a shilling's worth, you give him something that hurts, something you feel. And if I didn't miss marriage and all that goes with it, it wouldn't be a sacrifice..."

Of course, the irony is that Father Michael did not make such a sacrifice-- after his death, it was revealed that his housekeeper had been his common-law wife for 26 years, and that he had fathered a child by her. This, along with a similar revelation about Bishop Eamon Casey, is often cited (truly or falsely) as one of the catalysts of the Irish Catholic Church's decline in the nineties-- although it seems small beer compared to the horrors of clerical sex abuse that emerged later.

But for all his hypocrisy, Father Cleary seems like a rather amiable character, and nothing he actually says seems objectionable. The scene that shows wedding guests singing Irish patriotic ballads-- all of which they obviously know by heart-- makes me sad that we have lost so much of this folkloric heritage.

But at least Father Cleary and the other "forces of reaction" have the courage to appear on screen. A female voice, which we are informed belongs to a young wife, informs us (over footage of a sea-shore) that priests are always "on the men's side" when it comes to matters of sex and childbirth, and criticizes Church teaching on birth control. I imagine that Lennon could have found many female interviewees who were entirely supportive of Church teaching on sex, and who would have been happy to show their faces. But they do not appear. Just a disembodied voice over footage of the sea.

Perhaps the most poignant and haunting interview in The Rocky Road to Dublin is with Professor Liam O'Brien, a member of the censorship appeal board. Lennon must have seen this guy as a gift from heaven; he is almost a caricature of a hopeless reactionary, with sunken cheeks, wrinkled face, a shock of badly-combed white hair, a sober black suit and tie, and a habit of sucking his teeth for emphasis. He complains of the "horrible noises" of contemporary music and the "strum strum stum" of guitars. He denounces "pop orchestras", complains that the idea of sin has been abolished, and declares that "the Church is preparing for the fight, for the future fight against the future thought of mankind, and I am full of faith that...shall I say...that the gates of Hell shall not prevail."

So Lennon was probably rubbing his hands with glee as he edited this particular footage. But in fact it is actually the bewildered-looking, rather wild-eyed Professor O'Brien who makes the most insightful contribution to the whole documentary.

In the closing moments of the film, after denouncing "pop orchestras" and other aspects of modern culture, he says: "To give it its due, it is a break away from what was, into what is and what will be, and I suppose it will all acquire a character, acquire a tradition, it will acquire a...a mellowness which is not there yet. I think that's what's wrong with it really, that we are at a beginning of a new age, really a wonderful age in the world, but at the beginning of it, and therefore it hasn't any, so to speak, traditional character about it yet. But it's gaining it every moment, every day. And I wish it well, I wish it well. I won't see it. That's about all I can say about it."

The last shot of Professor O'Brien shows him looking rather pensively and sadly into the middle distance, as if he is doubtful of his own generous words. And isn't it clear now that they were, indeed, too generous?

Has popular culture, modern culture, consumer culture, attained the depth and maturity and mellowness that Professor O'Brien hoped for it?

Or has it become more lurid, more shallow, more dumbed-down and illiterate as the decades rolled on? Are the X-Factor and Damien Hirst and Beavis and Butthead the fruits that Sean O'Faolain had in mind when he sought liberation from an obscurantist Church?

Is the Ireland of 2012-- the Ireland in which we are becoming more and more acquainted with drug-addiction, gang warfare, prostitution, sex shops, homelessness, suicide, murder, family breakdown and tidal waves of clinical depression-- really closer to the ideals of the 1916 Rising than was the Ireland of 1967, as recorded in the Rocky Road to Dublin?

Is this the Ireland that Peter Lennon and those earnest Trinity students dreamed of?

Giovanni Trappatoni and Enda Kenny are climbing Croagh Patrick together..

...and when they reach the top, Trappatoni lifts his arms in the air and says, "Oh God, please save this miserable wretch from the punishment that his infamous actions deserve!".

"Take it easy, Trapp", says the Taoiseach. "I think you're being a bit tough on yourself there."

"I wasn't talking about me!" says Trappatoni.

(For the benefit of my non-Irish readers, Enda Kenny is Ireland's Taoiseach or prime minister. Last year he launched a blistering attack on the Vatican in a now-famous speech, and his government has closed Ireland's embassy to the Holy See. He also wants us to sign away our economic independence to the European Union in an upcoming referendum. Giovanni Trappatoni is the manager of the Irish soccer team, who this summer are competing in the European Championship Finals. He's also a pious Catholic. On Friday they joined in a charity climb up Croagh Patrick, a mountain that is one of Ireland's most popular pilgrimages. The opportunity seemed too good to resist...I hope it gives birth to some better jokes than that one!)

Vocations Sunday

There was a very interesting article in The Irish Catholic this week, by Fr. Gerard Dunne OP, Vocations Director for the Dominican Friars. He wrote:

The vocations situation in Ireland has remained somewhat static over the past decade, with one obvious exception to his: the Year of Vocation (2009) which was an initiative of the Irish Church.

There was a small but significant increase to entrants to seminary and religious life during that year. While many will speculate about the reasons for this, there is an acceptance among many working in vocations ministry in Ireland that it was as a result of a concentrated period of prayer that brought about this increase. There is a lesson to be learned here, surely.


There certainly is. It is so easy to see prayer as a last resort rather than a first resort. Or rather, a first, medium and last resort.

I often think that prayer, in today's world, is the most subversive activity there is. An old woman on her knees before a statue of the Blessed Virgin is directly defying all the assumptions, brainwashing, marketing campaigns and ideology of the society around her. That, to me, is a very potent image.

We send signals out to space, in the hope that some extra-terrestrial civlization might be advanced enough to read them. And yet we think it ridiculous that there might be an Intelligence out there so "advanced" that we don't have to bother with space shuttles and transmitters at all, that we can address Him whenever we want. Isn't that a failure in imagination?

Even in the midst of our vocations crisis, there are some ninety men training for the priesthood in Maynooth right now. Considering the challenges facing the Church in Ireland; considering the workload they will face; considering the message we are constantly being drip-fed by the media and advertising industries, that a celibate life is less than human; considering the hostility and suspicion that faces priests after the abuse scandals; considering all this, isn't it something of a miracle that men still step forward for this life, so utterly thankless by the logic of the world?

And of course we should not forget the heroic women who consecrate themselves to religious life, whose work and witness we also desperately need.

Pray for vocations today, and every day!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

I Really Don't Want to Pick on Father Brian D'Arcy..

..since it seems a little like kicking a man when he's down. (Although being lionized and back-slapped by the Irish media and a good chunk of the population might be a strange way to be "down", but even so...)

I have to say I found some aspects of his interview on Marian Finucane's radio show today refreshing. He denied being a "liberal", and he insisted that he had never and would never question a "defined dogma" of the Church. It's true that his view of Church teaching seems far too minimalist to me. (He mentioned as examples of defined dogmas the Assumption of Our Lady and the Immaculate Conception. Of course, there are very few dogmas in that sense of the word, and the authority of the Magisterium extends beyond ex cathedra declarations.) For me, if the Pope declares that the subject is closed-- as he has on clerical celibacy and women's ordination-- then the subject is closed.

But at least Father D'Arcy (and he said it explicitly at one point) accepted the principle that there are perameters beyond which you cannot go and continue to be a Catholic. Not all of those dissenting from Rome would be so clear. One dissident priest I heard on the radio, when challenged by the claim that a lot of Catholic dissent had strayed into the region of Protestantism, essentially replied: "So what?"

Another claim Father D'Arcy made was that he was simply accepting that his parishioners were flawed human beings, in the same way that Christ accepted sinners like the tax collectors and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well. "Of course he said go and sin no more", Father Brian added. "But who can say they're never going to sin no more?" He then described being put outside of a confession box at nine years of age because he refused to promise he wouldn't commit some childish sin again. "I didn't want to make a promise I couldn't keep." His mother, on hearing the story, told him he was right and, since then, he has accepted her word over any theologian's.

But this is one of the great paradoxes of Christianity; that the same Saviour who said "I have not come to call the righteous but sinners", also said, "Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect." And, if this demand seems utterly hopless to us (as of course it must), we also need to remember those infinitely comforting words: "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."

Look at this another way. Racism is today considered one of the worst of evils, and yet it is also considered to be so all-pervasive that we are all, more or less, racists. (Personally, I think the prevalence of racism is greatly exaggerated, but I am simply using this as an example.) Would a professor of Equality Studies, after telling his class that we are all inevitably afflicted with racist assumptions, go on to say: "So, you see, trying not to be racist is futile. It's OK to be a little bit racist"?

Or would a journalist who admits that there is no such thing as complete objectivity, then boldly declare, "So I aim to be only a wee bit biased in my reporting"? Of course not! She would aim at total objectivity, even if she knew she could never reach it, just as the Equality Studies professor would try to completely avoid racism.

I have read very little of Father D'Arcy's writings. But in this interview he seemed like a reasonable and well-intentioned man, and a dedicated priest. Let's all pray that these fissures in the Irish Catholic Church are soon healed, and that all of the priests and faithful of this country submit themselves to the teaching of the Magisterium and the guidance of the Holy Father. We do, after all, have a country to re-evangelise.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Father Brian D'Arcy Clapped in Irons by the Vatican!

Erm, no, not really. Instead, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has demanded he files his newspaper articles to a church censor before publication, when these articles touch upon matters of faith and morals.

One would think that this is eminently reasonable. Father D'Arcy (who has questioned Church teaching on clerical celibacy and homosexuality) has the platform that he does because he is a Catholic priest. If any Catholic priest uses this platform to air opinions contrary to Catholic teaching, it's a bit like a restaurant putting up an Egon Ronay plaque when they are not entitled to it.

Hopefully, Father D'Arcy, who is doubtless a very good man, will now use his talents to support Catholic teaching, rather than question it.

Meanwhile, The Irish Catholic this week reports on a new lay initiative to support the Pope and orthodox Catholic teaching. The Association of Catholic Faithful is sending a letter to the Pope in which they describe themselves as "reaffirming our fidelity to the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, and to the Magisterium and teaching of the Catholic Church."

The article continues: "To add your name to this initiative, or the name of the apostolate or prayer group that you belong to, email your name, address and phone number (for verification purposes) to associationofcatholicfaithful@gmail.com or call 085-1295252".

This is a fine initiative. Unfortunately, in this world, dissent and opposition is given more attention than loyalty and service. We hear all about the wanton vandalism and puerile posturing of the May 1968 riots in Paris and throughout France, but who remembers that the Gaullist counter-demonstration was at least as big and possibly bigger than any of the radical gatherings? And that De Gaulle won a landslide in the election that year, supported by the great peacable and law-abiding majority?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Shock! Horror! The Gaeilgeoirs are Unhappy Again!

The Irish Times reports:

The offices of the President and the Ombudsman are among those public bodies whose language schemes expired more than three years ago, and two-thirds of all public bodies have no scheme, Mr Ó Cuirreáin confirmed in his annual report as An Coimisinéir Teanga, published yesterday in Galway.

The report notes a 5 per cent rise in complaints about problems dealing with State services through the medium of Irish, with 734 new complaints in all.

The Garda Síochána was among the bodies at fault, when an investigation found that eight of nine gardaí assigned to service in Gweedore in the Donegal Gaeltacht weren’t able to carry out their duties through Irish.

I find it very hard to be sympathetic. This is not because I am anti-Irish language. I believe the Irish language is a precious cultural legacy, and the Irish nation is entirely right to cherish it, and to seek its revival. I also believe that it's entirely legitimate for the language to be preserved and promoted through legislation. I would not be in favour of removing compulsory Irish from schools.

But I do dislike the attitude and behaviour of many of the Irish language brigade. They are never going to bring about a revival of the Irish language through pressurising and embarrassing their compatriots, or by simmering in a perpetual state of grievance and sanctimoniousness.

It is true that they have a legal right to services through the Irish language. It is also true that this right rests upon a polite fiction. If it were consistently applied-- if every state employee who deals with the public was actually required to have functional Irish-- then the constitutional status of Irish as our first language would be dropped quicker than you can say "slán abhaile".

Of course gardai in Gaeltacht areas should be proficient in Irish. But somehow I guess that most of those 734 new complaints were motivated by kind of petulant, point-scoring identity politics.

I think one thing that militant Gaeilgeoirs forget is that linguistic competence differs dramatically from person to person. Learning Irish is a much bigger commitment for some people than it is for others. Some of us seem to pick up languages almost without thinking about it. Others, like me-- and my entire primary and secondary schooling was through the medium of Irish-- find it extraordinarily difficult.

The Gaeilgeoirs should concentrate upon reviving the language through example and persuasion, rather than by resorting to the politics of entitlement.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why Didn't C.S. Lewis Become a Catholic?

Review of C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church by Joseph Pearce (Ignatius Press, 2003)

Somebody joked with me recently that, rather than me bothering to tell him my opinion on any particular subject, I should simply give him a page reference from C.S. Lewis. It was a fair comment. I quote C.S. Lewis an awful lot. I quote from him more than I quote from anybody else but my beloved G.K. Chesterton, and perhaps even just as much.

I fell in love with Narnia, the fantasy world of Lewis's books for children, when I was in my teens. Back then I had little interest in his religious opinions, though I vaguely understood Aslan stood for Jesus.

I returned to Lewis in my late twenties, not through fiction this time (I had long since stopped reading Narnia, and a recent attempt to rediscover its magic was less than successful) but through his philosophical and critical writings. A lecturer (Father Brendan Purcell, as a matter of fact, who readers might know from hearing him on radio) recommended that his class should read The Abolition of Man, Lewis's brief and bruising counter-punch to fashionable moral relativism.

Compelling as I found that, it took me while to explore Lewis's thought further. What really won me over was a volume of his selected essays, which included the brilliant piece "High and Low Brows"-- in which Lewis rejects the division of books into "serious" reading and mere entertainment, arguing that it is how we read a book and not what book we read that shows how "seriously" we are reading. Reading that essay was one of those moments we all have, where we feel like shouting, "Yes! That is what I have been thinking all along-- if only I knew it!".

It was not long after this that, through the infinite mercy of God, I was hit by a spiritual crisis that sent me scampering after any volume that I thought might answer my questions. Surprised by Joy, Lewis's account of his own conversion and partial autobiography, was (I believe) quite literally heaven-sent at this time. It has become, after Chesterton's Orthodoxy, my second-favourite book of all time.

In my spiritual quest, Lewis was a great help because he answered my questions plainly. He didn't hide behind purple prose or mysticism. In blunt Anglo-Saxon words, he asked: Is there any reason to believe in the divinity? Did Christ rise from the dead? Are miracles possible? And he did not make these arguments easy for himself, but fairly made the opposing case as powerfully as any antagonist might have done.

So of course I am rather intrigued by the question: Why didn't CS Lewis become a Catholic?

I am not the first person to ask the question. In fact, Pearce is not the first person to write a book about Lewis's attitude to Rome. The question is, in fact a natural one. It does not arise simply from a kind of confessional chauvinism ("how could some one so wise and inspired not become a Catholic?"). There is much in Lewis's writings and story that might have made Catholicism the natural end of his earthly pilgrimage.

He was, first of all, an ardent anti-modernist, both in literary and theological matters. He had little patience for books like Honest to God, a 1963 bestseller by the Anglican bishop John A.T. Robinson, which sought to revise Christian theology to the point where it was unrecognisable as the faith of the Apostle's Creed. Lewis had no time for such muddied waters. He stood by the physical resurrection of our Saviour, the divine inspiration of the Scriptures, sin and salvation, petitionary prayer, the four Last Things, and the whole kit and caboodle of orthodox Christian belief.

He also believed in some things which were rather Romish for an Anglican-- Purgatory (which is in fact denied by the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church), the auricular confession of sins, and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He was also concerned at the influence of modernists in the Church of England, and questioned the advisability of ordaining "priestesses".

Finally, the writings of Chesterton were an important factor in Lewis's initial conversion to Christianity. He shared a great deal of Chesterton's outlook on life and the modern world. In Surprised by Joy, he remembers that, before his conversion, he thought Chesterton "the most sensible man alive, apart from his Christianity". Considering this, it would not have been too surprising for Lewis to follow Chesterton's lead in a second conversion, this time to the Roman Catholic Church.

But it never happened. And in this book, English author Joseph Pearce-- who is himself a convert to Catholicism, chiefly through Chesterton's influence-- asks why.

One possible answer, and one that has been advanced before, is Lewis's Ulster Protestant background. Lewis's great friend J.R.R. Tolkien, who was another important influence of his conversion to Christianity, held this view. Pearce quotes some of Lewis's early writings that give this theory some plausibility, such as this entry in his diary when he was nine years old:

We were obliged to go to St. John's, a church which wanted to be Roman Catholic, but was afraid to say so....in this abominable place of Romish hypocrites and English liars, the people cross themselves, bow to the Lord's Table (which they have the vanity to call an altar), and pray to the Virgin.

It may seem ridiculous to quote Lewis's theological opinions as a nine-year-old. But, as Wordsworth wrote, "the child is father of the man", and any evidence that bears on our question has to be taken into account. Nobody is immune to prejudice, especially prejudice implanted early in life. I don't believe that an intellect as self-questioning as Lewis's would be remain in bondage to such early preconceptions, but it's not unreasonable to suppose that it coloured his thinking to some degree.

Lewis lost his childhood faith fairly early in life, and remained resolutely unbelieving even through the carnage of the World War One trenches-- thus disproving the old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes. It was only in his late twenties, as a result of philosophical reflections rather than for any emotive reason, that he returned to religious belief-- at first, a philosophical belief in an Absolute Spirit that lay behind the material universe, and eventually to full-blown orthodox Christianity. (A long conversation with Tolkien, a fellow academic at Oxford, was the decisive factor in this.)

Ironically, although Lewis did not follow Tolkien into the Catholic Church, many people assumed he had when he announced his conversion to the world, via his allegory of a soul seeking faith in the modern world, Pilgrim's Regress. This features a character called Mother Kirk, a personification of the Church which many took as a symbol of, specifically, the Roman Catholic Church-- especially since the language she uses is Latin.

One reviewer of the book was so certain that Lewis had joined the contemporary torrent of converts to Rome (such as Evelyn Waugh, Ronald Knox, Alfred Noyes of "Highwayman" fame, and Chesterton himself) that he wrote: "Anglicans may wish that he had come their way, but Mr Lewis, who is a Roman Catholic, does not see it so..."

But Mr Lewis had not become a Roman Catholic, and showed no inclination of doing so. In fact, when his friend Dom Bede Griffiths converted to Catholicism, Lewis refused to discuss doctrinal differences with him, and a "certain reserve" entered their friendship, according to Griffiths.

This is part of what I find fascinating about Lewis's Anglicanism. Nobody was more committed to argument and debate than Lewis-- it was, in fact, his bread and butter, or "red beef and strong beer" as he once put it himself. And yet he shied away from the comparison of denominational differences, not just on this occasion, but later on when he set himself up as a defender of "mere Christianity" (his famous umbrella term for the core tenets of the faith, common to different denominations). Was Lewis perhaps aware that his loyalty to Anglicanism was not based upon reason so much as emotion? Or is this a cheap shot in hindsight?

The adult Lewis, Pearce suggests, was not immune to the anti-Romish prejudice that was evident in the boy Lewis's above-quoted diary entry. He gives a detailed account of Lewis's adversarial attitude towards Joseph Campbell, a Catholic poet who visited Tolkien and Lewis at Oxford, and who had described the outrages committed by Spanish Republicans against Catholic nuns and priests during the Spanish Civil War. Lewis's hostility to Campbell's claims, and his pro-Franco stance, was so pronounced that Tolkien wrote "if Catholic priests are slaughtered-- he disbelieves it (and I daresay really thinks they asked for it)..."

Perhaps Lewis's most successful book of Christian apologetics is Mere Christianity, based on BBC lectures he gave during the Second World War. The very title proclaims his reluctance to discuss the differences between Christian denominations.

Pearce relays some relevant anecdotes that seem of rather questionable plausibility-- one being that Lewis had asked a Jesuit for prayers that he might make "the final gesture" and that "the prejudices instilled in me by an Ulster nurse might be overcome". Another story has Lewis arguing his brother Warnie, his lifelong friend and companion, out of conversion to Catholicism.

In the final chapter, Pearce makes an argument that must have occurred to all contemporary readers of Lewis: "As the mire of modernism advanced relentlessly within the Anglican church, C.S. Lewis...would find himself increasingly isolated as a 'protestant' Catholic within the Anglican communion." This process has only accelerated since Lewis's death, and Pearce suggests that Lewis would find it very hard to remain with today's Church of England.

Pearce quotes a survey conducted in 2002 that found "a third of Church of England clergymen do not believe in the Resurrection of Christ and that only half believed in the Virgin Birth. The survey also revealed that priestesses were more likely to be unbelievers than their male counterparts, with only a third of those questioned professing a belief in the Virgin Birth."

Walter Hooper, who, in the last phase of Lewis's life, acted as his secretary, and subsequently edited many of Lewis's posthumously published books, was asked in 1994 if Lewis would have become a Catholic if he lived longer, and answered: "I think so...What do you do when, in fact, the Anglican church becomes apostate-- as it has truly become right now?"

Hooper himself converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism in 1988, so perhaps he is biased, but as an insider of what one might call the "Lewis industry" (he is literary advisor to Lewis's estate), he has an intriguing perspective:

"I can say with absolute confidence that more and more Catholics are buying his books now...We know of course that there are a great many Protestants who read Lewis but I think there is a shift since he died in that he is read a great deal by the evangelical Protestants and less and less by the liberals...I was surprised to see what used to be very Anglo-Catholic magazine from America now saying, 'why did we ever read Lewis, he's far too doctrinal, he's far too Roman Catholic now."


Happily, Hooper adds: "the number of Lewis's books which are read today is far in excess of anything that happened in his lifetime."

It is easy to speak on behalf of a dead man. Perhaps C.S. Lewis would not convert to Catholicism even today. After all, there are still conservatives within the Church of England, like the journalist Peter Hitchens. In Hitchens's poignant book The Abolition of Britain, a whole chapter (wittily entitled "Hell Freezes Over") is dedicated to the modernist takeover within the Church of England. And yet Hitchens remains an Anglican, and is rather impatient at calls for him to jump ship.

I must admit I find myself asking the same question people ask of battered wives. Why do they stay? Why don't they go? What would it take to make them leave?

I think it is only fair to give the last word to the Lewis himself, who wrote in a posthumously-discovered address addressed to a Catholic audience:

To you the real vice of Protestantism is the formless drift which seems unable to retain the Catholic truths, which loses them one by one and ends in a "modernism" which cannot be classified as Christian by any tolerable stretch of the word. To us the terrible thing about Rome is the recklessness (as we hold) with which she has added to the depositum fidei-- the tropical fertility, the proliferation, of credenda. You see in Protestantism the Faith dying out in a desert; we see in Rome the Faith smothered in a jungle.


I tend to think that, if Lewis was alive today, developments in the Church of England would have solved this dilemma for him.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Don't Look at me in that Tone of Voice

"Then there are the usual suspects, lay voices who make a living from defending the institutional church when it is safe to do so, when outrage is settling after the Cloyne report.

It was the same after the Ferns, Ryan and Murphy reports. Their immediate reaction is practised horror. Then, with time, they’re back to their slithering ways, diluting truth, minimising the wreckage, playing it all down."


Who said this? I don't think it will surprise you too much to learn it was Patsy McGarry, the religious affairs correspondent of the Irish Times, who seems to be training for a career as press officer of Atheist Ireland or the Humanist Association of Ireland.

Notice that "the usual suspects" are not named, and that their horror at the reports of child abuse in the Catholic church are described as "practiced". And presumably their "slithering ways" means putting the abuse within the Catholic church into its wider social and historic context. McGarry doesn't have to cite any facts at all. He can simply question motives and he feels his case is made.

This is a tactic used constantly in the attack upon the Church. Whatever its prelates or defenders say or do is assumed to be simply a cover for sinister motives and power-plays. I read one article in a left-wing magazine (Look Left) analysing the Catholic Church as a corporation that was jostling for a new market sector, having lost its existing market.

All this came into my head today as I was reading Ancestral Voices, a 1994 book about religion and nationalism in Ireland by the late Conor Cruise O'Brien.

"The Cruiser" had a reputation as an intellectual, presumably a calm and lucid intelligence that could see beyond the distortions and caricatures of partisan debate. Surely he was a man of facts and logical connections, no matter what else you might have thought about him?

I haven't finished Ancestral Voices but I have rarely encountered such a dossier of unwarranted assumptions, false inferences, and tendentious arguments. O'Brien is so eager to establish a link between violent nationalism and Catholic sectarianism that anything and everything serves to confirm his prejudice. Dots that are miles apart are gleefully joined.

It begins on the very first page-- we are treated to this quotation from the Catechism of Irish History (1876):

Q. Have the Irish preserved the faith preached to them by St. Patrick? A: Yes, the Irish have ever been conspicuous for their devoted attachment to the faith from which not all the horrors of persecution nor the blandishments of proselytism have been able to separate them.

This, says, O'Brien, "assumes that 'the Irish' means Irish Catholics, and nobody else. The assumption has been very strong in the Irish Catholic culture...it also worth noting that this has been the official Catholic doctrine. The Catechism was issued with the highest ecclesiastical approval under Cardinal Cullen".

So there you go. O'Brien's rather strained interpretation of one line in a catechism becomes the official teaching of the Church in Ireland. And that's just the beginning.

I haven't finished the book yet, but I'm already flabbergasted by the sheer multitude of aspersions O'Brien casts. Here are some examples:

"...the most revealing aspect of the whole controversy was the unwilling testimony, in support of Healy's contention, supplied by Parnell's defenders. When cornered on the moral issue, these invariably suggested that being a Protestant, Parnell could not be expected to understand, as a Catholic would, that adultery was wrong. None of them ever said this right out, but everyone knew this was the theme..."

(...)

"Redmond, for his part, never again referred in public to the Church's role in the destruction of Parnell. That a veil should be drawn over all that had been an implicit condition of his election to the leadership of the reunited Party."

(...)

"Moran may have had clerical backing for the foundation of the paper, and both his paper and his Irish Ireland movement had significant, if discreet, support from the Hierarchy."

(...)

"The files of The Leader, from 1900 to 1914, constitute the only explicit exposition of Catholic nationalism that we have. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century, this whole area was generally covered by a fog of dissimulation and pseudo-occumenism. After 1921, in the new Irish State, that decorous fog descends again and has never really lifted since..."

(...)

"The Republic Tradition was dominated, in its formal ideology, and public expressions, by Wolfe Tone's doctrine of the Common Name of Irishman obliterating, in theory, all political differences between Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters. So no proper Republican could give public vent in explicit terms to anti-Protestant feeling. The constitutional nationalists had more pragmatic reasons for an equivalent inhibition. They needed to play down the sectarian tendencies among their supporters in order to convince their English Liberal allies...that modern Catholic nationalism was part of the tolerant Enlightenment."

(...)

"...in that period and in that paper, we have an opportunity to look at Catholic nationalism with the lid off. (Not that all Catholic nationalism is like this, but a great deal of it is, and it is normally screened from public view.) It was an opportunity that had never been presented before, and it "was never to recur."

(...)

"Formally, official nationalism during this period repudiated any such identity [Catholicism with nationalism], as it still does. Catholicism was religion, and nationalism was politics, two quite separate things. A person's religion was his private affair. Irish nationalism belonged to all the Irish....Few Protestants believed the old official version, or believe the present one. And I think many Catholic nationalists, in their hearts, don't believe it either."

(...)

"In the 1790s however, and under the impact of the French Revolution, Irish nationalism asserts itself for the first time, amongst Irish Catholics, as a force distinct from official Catholicism, and partly in conflict with the latter. Yet at a deeper level, the new Revolutionary nationalism appears to have been continuous, emotionally, with the older religious nationalism of the Counter-Reformation."

(...)

"Just as the Penal Laws presumed no such person as an Irish Catholic to exist, so the ideology of the Christian Brothers, fully countenanced by the Hierarchy at this time, presumes no such person as an Irish Protestant to exist (see the passage from Catechism of Irish History quoted at the outset.) And this attitude, in more diluted forms, is widespread today among Irish Catholics."


I haven't even reached page 60 of this tract yet. But there is something depressingly familiar about it all. The Church never seems to be attacked for what it actually says or does. It is nearly always attacked for imagined subtexts, motives and manouvres. Marxists believe that it encourages men to focus on the eternal rather than the worldly in order to protect the established order. Liberals believe that it is opposed to abortion and the ordination of women for misogynistic reasons. They also believe its sexual teaching reflects either a stigmatisation of sex or a hatred of it. The Church opposes homosexual acts because it is homophobic, not because it believes sexuality is ordered to the creation of life and the union of man and woman. And so forth.

But then, I would say all that, wouldn't I? Heaven alone knows what I really mean. I guess I'll have to ask Patsy McGarry.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Tea, the Quintessence of Irishness

If I had to choose a symbol of Ireland, it wouldn't be the harp. It wouldn't be the Irish wolfhound or the round tower or the shamrock. Don't get me wrong. I thoroughly approve of all those symbols, and I wish they were still as commonly seen as they used to be on school copy-books, jam jar labels, and shop signs.

But, to me, the best symbol of all things Irish is a cup of tea. We drink more of the stuff per capita than any nation in the world, and I am prouder of that than of all of our Nobel prizes, Olympic gold medals and famous names in history.

Tea! I doubt that a day has passed since my childhood in which I didn't drink tea. When an Irish person tells me that they don't drink tea, I feel as if they'd told me they don't laugh or read or walk. I can't even imagine my life without this sepia-coloured liquid delight. Torturers could probably break me much quicker by withholding my tea fix than by thumbscrews or waterboarding or sleep deprivation.

Please understand me. I do not mean herbal tea, iced tea, peppermint tea or any of those fancy-schmancy varieties that never came (Irish people will know what I mean here) in a red or a green box, with tokens of black-and-white minstrels you could cut out and collect to win a car. I mean the sort of tea that comes in Lyons and Barry's boxes. I mean dark, sustaining, full-bodied, Irish mammy tea. Breakfast tea.

There was a time when I took sugar in tea. I find it hard to imagine now. Sometimes someone gives me a cup of sugared tea and I do my best to pretend I don't mind. Really it's like salt in your corn flakes, or maybe sleeping on a wet mattress.

They say you should give sugary tea to people in shock. If I'm already in shock, I think sugared tea might drive me all the way into trauma.

This is how tea should be served (although even writing "served" makes me wince, since the formality jars. The Irish have a tea-making ceremony just like the Japanese, but the Irish tea-making ceremony is much more elastic and subtle and probably imperceptible to an outside observer).

It should on no account be watery or weak. I used to like this, too, unimaginably. Weak tea is a statement of spiritual lukewarmness, the natural beverage of the wishy-washy and half-hearted. Tea should not taste like an infusion of leaves into boiled water but rather like a primary element in liquid form. The marriage of ingredients should be so perfect, so unified, that you could imagine the stuff in your cup came from a hot tea-spring surging up from igneous rocks in some fiery country.

Tea is a symbol of the folk life, the folk spirit. If it is not full-bodied, it is nothing at all. It should be as pungent as a proverb, as overwhelming as hospitality, as thick as the strongest of accents. Nothing else is really Irish tea.

A cup of tea should, ideally, be a mug of tea. Dainty china should be kept for doll's tea-parties. Nobody ever took a deep draft from fine bone china, smacked her lips, and declared that "that hit the spot".

No, tea should come in a thick mug that you can comfortably cradle between your open palms. Considerations of age and sex do not enter into this. There is nothing lady-like about taking dainty sips of tea. Nor should children be confined to toy cups if they are ever going to develop (as they must) into serious tea imbibers.

There are some occasions when the young and the old, the male and the female meet on equal terms, and sharing a cup of tea is one of them.

Tea should not be black unless you are performing penance. How can tea perform its office of comfort and reassurance if it is all bite and no balm? The keenness of the beverage must, absolutely must, be softened by the mildness of milk. Not too much milk, of course. Not enough to take away the golden tinge in the bowl. Nor should the tea be stirred so consistently that the swirls and streaks of colour are mixed into one flat monotone.

Tea should be hot enough that steam rises from it. On a cold morning this can be visual poetry.

I love everything about tea. I love its announcement: "Let's have a cup of tea", "Would you like a cup of tea?", "Make a cup of tea there". I love the brisk, deft rinsing of cups and fishing of tea-bags from boxes, the low hum of the boiling water becoming more and more excited until it is a feverish bubbling. That's in an electric kettle, of course. If it's an old-fashioned kettle on a hob, you even get an incomparable, cheerful-solemn whistle-- perhaps the most magical of all sounds perceptible to the human ear.

Then there is the tinkle of water into the cups, the beautiful dark brown before the milk is poured in, the sight of your reflection in that circular mirror-world, dim and faraway and strangely transfigured. There is the ringing of the spoon against the sides of the cup as you vigorously shake the tea-bag. There is the graceful descent of the life-giving milk, and the slow-but-quick transformation of the happy fluid from treacle-coloured to an ambery-sepia.

And then-- ah then!-- the lifting to the lips, the deep and grateful draft, the filtering of warmth and replenishment and comfort and uplift through all the thoroughfares of the body.

Tea is-- at one and the same time-- both special and everyday, hardworking and leisurely, soothing and stimulating, down-to-earth and dreamy. It is a pleasure in itself and radiates a pleasure through the world around it. Even seeing somebody holding a cup of tea gives me a warm feeling inside. A news reporter or a politician or a foreman or anybody at all looks so much more trustworthy and human and salt-of-the-earth when they are grasping a nice thick steaming mug of Ireland's national beverage.

I can't imagine my life without tea. Come to think of it, I feel like a cup now.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Mind Yourself Now

I don't choose to listen to the Marian Finucane show. I am a passive Marian Finucane listener. On Saturday, it's on the radio in my house, and I can't help catching bits and pieces of it as I pass in and out of the kitchen. (My exposure to RTE radio is, thankfully, rarely for longer periods than it takes to boil a kettle.)

Today, Marian interviewed advocates of a new, non-religious spiritual discipline. One contributor was careful to point out that it did not conflict with her Catholicism (nothing too surprising there-- more and more Irish Catholics find Catholicism to be an extraordinarily elastic life philosophy). This latest consciousness-raising fad is "Mindfulness".

One lady with an Asian accent explained how it worked. It was all about joy. If you lose your job, you still have your health. And you still have your family and friends. Then she told a touching anedote about a time when she was in the dumps and, walking out into her garden, suddenly noticed that her trees were in bloom. In that moment, she realised the joy had been there all along. All we have to do, she told Marian, is to access the sources of joy.

Then a male voice, in educated and clinical tones, explained that worrying doesn't actually achieve anything helpful.

I don't want to be too cynical. Depression can be truly horrific, and anything that helps to lift depression (and doesn't actually do more harm than good) is to be welcomed. And we are always in danger of looking past the beauty, awe and marvel that is all around us every moment of the day.

But isn't there something soul-witheringly banal in platitudes like "turn back to the sources of joy"? It seems anti-climactic beyond words. It doesn't do justice to the fathomless yearning and excitement that we all carry about inside us, the faith that we all had since infancy that we were destined for something that would transcend all our wildest dreams-- not anything, not everything, but something.

It seems to me that only the particular fulfils this yearning, or even promises to fulfil it. This craving cares nothing for abstractions like world peace or social justice or harmony with the pulse of the cosmos. It cries out for an object, something concrete.

Romantic love can absorb its titanic pressure, at least for a while. "A real girl in a real place", to quote Philip Larkin, can satisfy it-- the way she folds her hands together, or the suddenness of her smile, can somehow become the focal point of all knowledge, all history, all time and space and possibility.

Patriotism can serve this purpose too-- for a whole generation, sometimes, although the fever seems to subside after that. The image of the white cliffs of Dover, or of green fields, or barefoot children playing on the streets of little towns in Connacht, can fill the caverns of the soul to overlowing, and make any devotion and commitment and sacrifice seem a little thing.

But-- surprise, surprise-- I think nothing answers this deep inner call better than revealed religion. Not just Catholicism or Christianity, though I believe Catholicism is the true religion and the others are mere shadows. For all that, I am aroused the images and stories of other faiths-- the seagulls that saved the crops of the pioneer Mormons from the insects that were devouring them, for instance. I find nothing to despise in these scenes and stories, and I fully understand how they move ordinary men and women to heroics, or at least to lives of total dedication.

There is one thing common to all the great faiths-- and by great, I mean those that survive more than a few generations. They are not banal. Islam is not banal. Mormonism is not banal. Sikhism is not banal. Texts and stories and rituals that are practiced for centuries can't very well be dreary or inspid-- even in false religions (to put it bluntly), the folkloric genius of the collective mind rubs away the trite, the platitudinous and the obvious, leaving only those elements which can truly ignite the imagination and set the soul trembling.

Partisans of a "rational religion" seem to be missing the whole point to me. Those who want to distill the supposed core meaning from out the morass of rituals, myths and revered texts are, almost if not quite, throwing away the orange and eating the skin. Nobody's soul was ever exalted by the thought of Kant's categorical imperative, as it might be by the image of a child asleep in a manger, or a picture of a man hanging from a cross, a mocking inscription above him proclaiming who he truly is.

At the very least, I would rather be told to consider the lilies of the field, how they toil not neither do they spin, than be advised of the cognitive advantages of mindfulness and the ever-present sources of joy. And it seems somehow more uplifting to be told that I cannot make one hair of my head black or white through thinking about it, than to be informed in a fussy voice that worrying has been found to be a counter-productive approach to personal problems.

Friday, April 20, 2012

So you say you want a Revolution....

I'm a subscriber to First Things, an almost-monthly American magazine which contains articles from Catholic, Protestant and Jewish believers on a whole range of subjects (with a focus on religion, of course). (I wonder if there is any pleasure like unto the pleasure of receiving a looked-for magazine in the post? Articles that go on for whole pages, that are about topics that actually interest me, and that I don't have to scroll down a screen to read!)

There is one article in the March edition which is especially interesting, given recent controversies in the Irish Catholic Church. "Presbyterianism's Democratic Captivity" is written by Joseph D. Small, a member of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America.

Small wries: "Perhaps the most harmful transformation, though, has been the PCUSA's adoption of decision -making procedures that mimic American-style liberal democracy rather than expressing the character and quality of ecclesical community."

Small describes general assemblies of the PCUSA that resemble political conventions; matters of deep doctrinal concern are decided in a matter of hours by people who mostly do not know each other, and who need not have any special scholarship:

They are little more than biennial gatherings of strangers. PCUSA general assemblies consist of more than seven hundred "commissioners", half of whom are ministers and half are elders (ordered ministers that most churches would consider laity), and 90 per cent of whom have never before been to a general assembly...The assembly meets for one week, spending two days on preliminary procedural matters, two and a half days on committee meetings...and two and a half days on plenary voting on hundreds of proposals, only a fraction of which commissioners have read, let alone studied. Commissioners vote, adopt legislation, make rules, and then return home with no continuing responsibility for the decisions they have taken.

The results are predictable. Instead of the Catholic approach whereby the definitive ruling of the Magisterium is infallible, the PCUSA gets revision and perpetual schism.

The 2010-2011 vote on the status of gay and lesbian persons in the ministries of the church was the fifth vote on ordination standards in the last fifteen years. The 55-45 percent margin removing the prohibition on ordination amended the church's constitution, but it did not resolve the issue. For many in the minority, the action exacerbated dissatisfaction with the church's perceived theological and moral direction. The result has been the departure of congregations and ministers...

Small himself, being a Presbyterian, does not attribute these ills to ecclesial democracy itself, but rather to the excessive haste and lack of caution with which doctrinal rulings are made. I mean no disrespect at all to his beliefs, but it seems to me as if this doctrinal instability is innate to all democratic churches, by their very nature.

Is this really what our Catholic democrats aspire to? I hope not.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

No Catholic should ever vote for Sinn Féin

They rarely miss an opportunity to take a pop at the Church, and today they voted in favour of the Private Members' Bill to legislate for abortion.

From RTE's website:

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said he was personally not in favour of abortion, but said he was against judging or criminalising women who opted for terminations.

He said he had to set aside his personal convictions and face up to his legislative duties.


In the same way, no doubt, that all the Sinn Féin MP's who refused to take their seats in Westminster "set aside their personal convictions" in favour of "legislative duties". I wonder if Adams leaves his republican and nationalist convictions outside the door of the Dáil? Why take two sets of convictions into the chamber?

The right to life: much easier to overthrow than international capitalism

So TDs from the Socialist Party and the People Before Profit Alliance have introduced a Private Members' Bill to the Dáil, looking for abortion services to be made available here. They want legislation in this case to act upon the "X case" ruling of the Supreme Court in 1992, but one of the authors of the Bill, Socialist Party TD Clare Daly, says that this "is only a first step for abortion to be legalised in all circumstances".

I find it interesting that a member of the People before Profit Alliance is involved. The Socialist Party are not shy about their socially revolutionary opinions, but the election posters of the People Before Profit Alliance convey the image of a bunch of ordinary Joes worried about bread-and-butter issues like jobs and public transport. Nothing subversive to see here! They pose as a movement of the masses against the elites, but the majority in Ireland are clearly opposed to abortion.

Radical left-wing parties will always enjoy more success, and in practice focus more of their energies ("concentrate on the battles we can win"), upon socially liberal measures rather than wealth redistribution or bringing about some new economic model. A sprinkling of socialists in a national parliament are not going to "smash capitalism". Even a far-left government would not be able to "smash capitalism" in their own country, in today's globalized world. But they can certainly help smash the traditions, social bonds, and way of life of their own socities-- not to mention helping to strip the most helpless, disenfranchised and vulnerable section of the community of their most basic right.

Social liberalism and economic liberalism go together. The radical "lifestyle" individualists of the far left are the natural allies of the radical economic individualists of the free market. Why don't they see it?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Left wing? Right wing? Barbecue wings?

Sometimes I think I am going to stop calling myself conservative, since "conservative", "liberal", "left-wing" and "right-wing" don't really seem to have any substantive meaning.

There is a short news item in this week's Catholic Herald (the UK publication) with the headline "Think Tank: Religious are more Left-wing."

The think tank in question is called Demos, and their recent report Faithful Citizens found that "55 per cent of religious believers placed themselves on the Left of politics, compared with 40 per cent who put themselves on the Right." That's fair enough, but this is the bit that got me: "They also found that religious people were more likely to value equality over freedom."

What does that even mean? What sort of freedom? What sort of equality?

Personally, I believe in the freedom that comes from peace and security, social stability, strong communities and families, a respect for eccentricity, and a modicum of wealth and leisure. I don't believe in the "freedom" that means radical individualism, rampant consumerism, transgression as self-expression, and relentless peer pressure.

I believe in equality to the extent that I believe in a spirit of fraternity, a social awareness that a man is more than his job or class or status, a chivalry between men and women and high and low. I don't believe in the egalitarianism that obsesses about symbolic differences, looks under every bush for evidence of discrimination, and aspires towards a bland sameness.

So where does that leave me? And why is the crucial opposition posited as being between freedom and equality, anyway?

If I were to choose a single word to define my own conservatism, it would be "tradition", not "freedom". I doubt any ideal has been as abused in recent generations, by both left and right, as the ideal of freedom.

An interesting and novel point regarding the ordination of women...

...from the article "A Sociologist Against Women's Ordination" by David R. Carlin (which can be found online). David R. Carlin is the author of Can a Catholic Be a Democrat? and The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.

After pointing out that Catholicism has often been labelled as a "feminine" religion, that it tends to prioritize "feminine" virtues such as self-control and compassion, he puts the question:

"If women have more of an aptitude than men for Christian sanctity, doesn't that mean that they are called more than men to the priesthood?" I don't know whether they are more "called" or not, but their aptitude for Christian sanctity is precisely the reason, as I see it, that they should be kept out of the priesthood. For if women were to be ordained, they would soon – within 50 years, I'd guess – become overwhelmingly predominant in the priesthood. Female priests would outnumber male priests by ten or 20 to one, if not more. Catholicism would be perceived, and correctly so, not just as a "feminine" religion but as a female religion. Males would pretty much abandon it.


I don't know why Christ chose twelve male Apostles. I don't know why the Holy Spirit has led the Church to confine the priesthood and episcopacy to men, especially when women can evidently live lives of heroic virtue just as well as any man, and can even be Doctors of the Church like Saint Teresa of Avila.

I do perceive from the Gospels, though, that our Lord showed a marked reluctance to explain his choices, for instance in the epilogue to the Gospel of St. John.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Do you know what Oak Apple Day is?

Neither did I, until this afternoon, but I was fascinated to find out.

Oak Apple Day (29 May) commemorates the restoration of King Charles II in 1660. Of course, it isn't celebrated so much anymore, but it actually used to be a public holiday in England until 1859. A few ceremonies are still held here and there.

The symbolism of the oak apple (which isn't an apple at all, but a "type of plant gall", whatever that is, from the oak tree) refers to the tree the future King hid in while fleeing from the Roundheads after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. (Another thing I learned today was just how romantic and dashing his escape from England really was-- six weeks of narrow escapes, disguise and safe houses. Why has nobody made a movie of it yet?)

If you didn't wear oak leaves or oak apples on that day, you were liable to be pelted with eggs-- and good enough for you, say I.

Why am I even mentioning this? Not only because I am an ardent monarchist, but also because, to me, the fading and disappearance of these traditions is almost unbearably sad. It seems to me a crying shame that Guy Fawkes night (though it might be considered a form of Catholic-bashing, if you want to be politically correct about it) appears to be dying out in England. I remember, when I was a boy, British comics used to print (on double-page spreads) Guy Fawkes masks to cut out and paste onto stiff cardboard, especially for the fifth of November. A mask of the unhappy plotter has become iconic in our own time, of course (amongst the Occupy Wall Street brigade), but it's not quite the same thing.

We in Ireland have our own political commemoration we would do well to revive-- Ivy Day (October 6) a day for honouring Charles Stewart Parnell. I know the name came from the sprigs of ivy that mourners at his mammoth funeral took upon leaving the cemetery, and placed it in their buttonholes. I know that James Joyce wrote a short story called Ivy Day in the Committee Room (I even have a vague memory of reading it). But I don't know much more about it. Still, I would be all in favour of a revival.

What on earth is all this doing in this blog? Well, I have no intention of confining my musings here to the purely religious. I do think Catholics should be, well, catholic.

If I seemed to harsh in my recent review of Beyond Consolation by John Waters, let me say I agree with the spirit of this passage:

Why does religion, which should really embrace the entirety of human possibility, seem content to wallow about in a mess of petty issues relating to perceived ethical dimensions of reality? Why, for example, do we not expect to find in our religious publications articles about (to outline a short list for the sake of example) poetry, motor cars, Mozart, football, beauty, ice-skating, mathematics, Plato, black holes, the molecular structure of water?...Is it not odd that, if religion is supposed to encompass everything, it is so easy to predict what will preoccupy religious-minded people?

I think he is a bit harsh on some religious publications here (the Sacred Heart Messenger, for instance, and to some degree the Irish Catholic) but there is a fundamental fairness to the observation. I am going to try to take it to heart!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Review of Beyond Consolation by John Waters

Beyond Consolation by John Waters
Continuum, 2010

I like John Waters. There is something very endearing about a commentator who is willing to think out loud in public, in newspaper columns and the pages of his books. And I always admire somebody who can openly admit to having been wrong, as Waters did upon his metamorphosis from a rock journalist (with all the anti-religious, anti-traditionalist ideological baggage that usually entails) to a kind of spiritual gadfly who stings Irish culture for its materialist and liberal assumptions.

Besides, he gets away with landing the most abstruse kind of prose onto the unsuspecting shelves of newsagents. Can you imagine another Irish journalist writing the following, in the columns of a widely circulated newspaper?

True love is an infinite quantity corresponding to the love of God that has stretched itself over our nothingness. Conversion, then, allows the true love to enter into this weariness and possess it.

Waters doesn’t just turn on that philosophical strain now and then, for show. He writes like that all the time. And that’s actually why a whole book of his ruminations can be very tough going—as compared to his page-long articles in the Irish Catholic, where his style comes as a welcome tonic.

Beyond Consolation
, which was published in 2010, is a kind of sequel to his fine 2007 volume, Lapsed Agnostic, in which he described his journey towards Catholicism.

Or maybe not Catholicism, but Christianity.

Or maybe not Christianity, but theism.

Or...well, the problem is it’s very difficult to work out what John Waters actually believes. In fact, at one point in Beyond Consolation, he treats us to this confession:

I don’t “believe”. I can’t. If believing is just gritting my teeth and adhering to some proffered concept of what is and might be, I cannot do it. If a “faith” is merely a collection of people, a club, in which everybody affirms everybody else, and together they affirm a set of dogmas that have been agreed long before by others, then count me out.

Full marks for honesty and introspection, but two out of ten for clarity. Waters steps forward onto the soapbox to tell us stuff like this. Presumably he expects that it will help others in their journeys, but how exactly? There is very little to affirm, deny, debate, or get your teeth into in this kind of thing.

The spur to the musings in Beyond Consolation is Nuala O’Faolain’s famous radio interview with Marian Finucane in 2008, in which she described her feelings and thoughts as she faced terminal cancer, a disease that she knew would kill her within weeks. What is interesting to Waters is that O’Faolain received much popular acclaim for her bravery and honesty, but few people seemed willing to discuss the most striking fact about the interview—that this woman, who seemed in many ways emblematic of the social liberation Ireland achieved in recent decades, found nothing to give her comfort and meaning in her last days. And she emphatically rejected the hopes of religion and an afterlife, even seeming to do so with a certain amount of grim resolve.

Waters asks the question; how has our country become so hostile to the idea of God, that we are prepared to embrace despair rather than so much as open up a chink to the transcendental?

Waters touches on many interesting subjects in his ramble through the spiritual (or anti-spiritual) state of the nation: the cult of youth, the extent to which our thoughts are conditioned by our culture, modern man’s enslavement to the machine and subsequent belief that he himself is a machine, the possibility that opinion polls only work because we have been so effectively chicken-cooped into conformity.

He makes great play in this book, and in his newspaper articles, of the fact that reality can’t be reduced to the quantifiable and measurable, as in this quotation from the philosopher Mike Cooley:

“We are at a stage now where we can only accept something as rational and scientific if it displays three predominant characteristics: predictability, repeatability, and mathematical quantifiability. And, by definition, this precludes intuition, subjective knowledge, passive knowledge, dreams, imagination, and purpose.”


Yes. Absolutely. This is a vital insight, one all too often overlooked by our science-bedazzled generation.

But it only takes you far, and Waters seems relucant to say any more, merely reiterating this theme over and over again. He even seems to regard anything more as a kind of fossilization into dogma, a lapse into inauthenticity, as in this passage:

This is the kind of paradox that the Mystery throws at us. Reality is reality. God is just another word, a tool for getting to grip with this. But it is a word that, used in a certain way, can be made to open up things rather than close them down.


And later:

I am waiting for whatever it is that my humanity asks for, and I see no particular reason not to call this Christ.

But why Christ? Why not Krishna or Buddha or the Reverend Moon or the Meher Baba?

Later, he explains his choice this way:

If you have a path, why waste time looking for one? I see no point in fighting the Catholic Church any more than I might think it a good idea to fight the air of kick a tree. Neither do I see the church as a refuge, or a club, or a political party, still less a source of moral guidance. The church is a place I look to in order to maintain a structured engagement with the Mystery and also in my need for a source of reflective experience of the human condition.


The Church seems little better than a pis-aller, then, the spiritual franchise you happened to find closest to you. But this logic couldn’t have applied to the missionaries and martyrs and suffering millions who have handed the faith on to us, who quite deliberately and heroically chose Christ and the Catholic Church over paganism and Protestantism and communism and every other creed that fought for their bodies and souls.

It seems disrespectful to those people, great and obscure, who laboured so heroically in the vineyard, to enjoy the fruit of their labours in such a noncommital way.

It would be unfair to Waters to leave it at that, though. Christ himself does not seem like a mere cipher to him, to tell from this book, but an overwhelming personality. This is one of the most interesting passages in the book:

We cannot look at Him, but still we do not condemn him or castigate Him. None but the most insistent, and often the most demonstrably damaging secularising voices in our cultures do not, as a rule, attack the person of Christ, or suggest that He was not who He claimed to be…Despite everything, the icon that is Christ remains intact in our culture—venerated by some, but quietly respected even by those who deny belief in or adherence to the Christian proposal. This is strange and interesting.


It most certainly is.

Perhaps the thing that bothers me the most about John Waters is the way he wrinkles his nose at institutional Irish Catholicism—actually existing Irish Catholicism, so to speak. He is at great pains, over and over again, to assure the reader that though he is no longer one of Us (meaning the liberal commentariat), he has certainly not become one of Them, either:

I am turned off by a strain in almost all organised religions, and strikingly in the more traditionalist strains of Irish Catholicism, which seem to glory in the vindication of seeing people brought to their knees. I have no sense of being a prodigal son come home to be feasted. I shudder a little when someone congratulates me for returning to the “faith”. I have returned noplace, except closer to an understanding of myself.

Waters misses the point if he abhors the fellowship of Catholic believers as a mere club, a faction. It is neither. It is the mystical body of Christ, composed of living stones. The Church is not a road-sign, but a reality—a thing to be loved in itself.

The gag reflex that Waters describes so well, when it comes to the modern Irish horror of tradition and religion, seems to survive within himself. I even get the impression, reading his books and articles, that he thinks that only somebody lacking in imagination or sensitivity or joie-de-vivre could wholeheartedly embrace a traditional Irish Catholic identity.

But that’s exactly what I do, Mr Waters. I don’t have to shudder or bite my fist or grimace when I pass the portal of an Irish Catholic church. I don’t feel burdened by any exaggerated shame in the history of Irish Catholicism, despite the abuse scandals. What I feel for the history and traditions of Irish Catholicism is, overwhelmingly, gratitude and affection—not to mention a keen (if belated) sense of belonging.

Thank God for John Waters. Amongst the legions of sneering liberals in the ranks of Irish journalism, he is a brave and unique figure. But I hope he comes to realise that being a maverick isn’t always braver, or better, than being a disciple.

Something I Didn't Know And Maybe You Don't Either

The bestselling book in Norway for the year 2011 was-- not a Scandinavian crime thriller, not a sex manual, not a history of the Eurovision Song Contest-- but the Bible! The first Norwegian translation in 30 years, as a matter of fact.

This is how The Guardian reported it (through gritted teeth, no doubt):

The first Norwegian translation of the Bible for 30 years topped the country's book charts almost every week between its publication in October and the end of the year, selling almost 80,000 copies so far and hugely exceeding expectations. Its launch in the autumn saw Harry Potter-style overnight queues, with bookshops selling out on the first day as Norwegians rushed to get their hands on the new edition.

"We only printed 25,000 to start with and thought it would last six to nine months, but it was launched mid-October and by the end of the year it had sold 79,000 copies – it's just incredible," said Stine Smemo Strachan, who worked on the project for the Norwegian Bible Society. "It has only been knocked off the number one spot once, by [literary author] Karl Ove Knausgård … There were people sleeping outside the day before the launch because it was embargoed – it's a bit ironic seeing that the content has been available for quite some time now."


Later in the article he observes that it can't be just Christians buying it, since there aren't enough practicing Christians in Norway to lead to such staggering demand-- much of the appeal had to do with the literary value of the translation, which was aided by prestigious authors who were not religious.

I think myself that it must have been partly a religious hunger that led to those queues, even if the people queueing didn't realise it themselves.

It reminds me of the time, in my agnostic days, that I read Dorothy L. Sayer's translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. I came to it looking for a purely literary experience, but I got a shock-- I learned from Sayer's extensive notes that Dante and his contemporaries were, you know, pretty intellectually sophisticated. And that there was more to medieval philosophy than speculations about whether Jesus sat or stood in the heavens.

It made me suspect that Dante might even have had a deeper and broader and more realistic worldview than me, the "heir of all the ages, in the foremost files of time".

Scandinavia and the Nordic countries are often presented as a model of healthy, happy secular humanism-- so, while one shouldn't read too much into something like this, it is quite encouraging. It reminds me of a haunting line I read in a book called God: A Biography by Jack Miles (which analysed the God of the Bible as a literary character). Even in a society that had turned its back on God, said Miles, "His is the restless breathing we still hear in our sleep".

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Heard on the Marian Finucane Show just now...

..."I've been working in the media for many years. We always hear the Catholic bishops complaining that the Church doesn't get a fair hearing. And then they behave like this!"

Not verbatim, and I don't know the name of the man who said it, but I assure you that's a fair rendering.

How do you argue with that anti-logic?

Along with this, several of the panel (it was a discussion regarding the Vatican disciplining dissident clerics) spoke about their desire for "change" in the Church.

How do you argue with the unthinking worship of "change"-- never "change" from, "change" to, "change" aspiring to a particular ideal which, when reached, will no longer require "change"-- but simply "change" simpliciter?

And when we get the change-- do we then desire change from that?

And change from that?

And change from that?

To what end? By what criteria? Against what ideal? For what motives? By what standard?

There are lots of words bandied about today that make me squirm. One is "comfortable." ("I'm not really comfortable with that phrase".) Another is "progressive". (Progress towards what?) Another is "conversation". (We need a "conversation" in society, in the Church. But surely the conversation has to arrive somewhere eventually?) Another is "exclusion". (All character and specialness would be drained from the world without exclusion of one form or other. A tweeny girls' sleepover party would be rather ruined by the addition of five strapping Hell's Angels.)

But surely the daddy of all blood-boiling, nebulous, mendacious, point-missing, thought-neutralising words-- when it is reduced to a mere fetish-- must be "change"!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Fifth Meeting of the Irish Chesterton Society!

I'm sure readers of this blog won't mind me putting on my hat as organizer of the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland, with this plug cross-posted from its blog:

It's been a long time coming, I know, but I can finally announce the fifth meeting of the Irish Chesterton Society.

It's on Saturday the 28th of April (sorry for the short notice), at two o' clock, in the Central Catholic Library, 74 Merrion Square, Dublin.

This time we have a special treat as the Irish philosopher and writer Mark Dooley (author of Why Be Catholic? and Roger Scruton: The Philosopher on Dover Beach) has kindly agreed to give us a talk (title: the Democratic Faith).

Hope to see you there! Please let me know if you are thinking of coming as that will give me an idea of turnout!

Admission is free. All are welcome. No oath of loyalty to the Pope is required, despite the setting.

In Praise of Boredom

"Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, — for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?

To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike."


Those famous words by Walter Pater have acted as a kind of banner for legions of aesthetes, dilletantes and thrill-seekers since they were first published in 1868. They are plausible enough, at first sight. Isn't it true that we are all under sentence of death? Isn't it true that every moment is precious beyond all calculation, and that each might be our last? Shouldn't we do our best to keep the lens of perception clear, not to cloud it with habit and preconception, to brush away the gauzy film of familiarity from our eyes? Shouldn't we seek out new and fugitive sensations, never content to simply fall into a rut of repetition?

But then, as soon as we have resolved upon this, another image might swim before our eyes; the figure of the jaded old roué and dandy, who looks out at the world through irony-heavy eyes, who sighs with weariness at the staleness and cliché all around him, and for whom life has become nothing but a never-ending, undendurable bore.

There are two ways of responding to our natural tendency to boredom. One is to seek ever new experiences. The other is to persevere in our familiar experiences, seeking to peel away the layers of skin that have formed over our imagination, seeking always to rediscover their primal freshness.

It is not the world that grows dull, but us.

I think of this often when I go to Mass. I love Mass, and I know that I should participate fully, with my heart and mind as well as my voice and body.

But it is almost impossible not to become blasé.

There is nothing more thrilling, more important, in the whole world than the moment when the priest intones: "Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my body, which will be given up for you." This moment is infinitely more wonderful and precious than an eclipse of the sun, seeing the aurora borealis, or the last-minute goal in a World Cup soccer game.

And yet- how often have I found myself planning the rest of my day during those words, or imagining a clever answer I might have made in an argument, or something equally banal!

How owlishly I blink at the consecrated host before me, as the communicants make their way to receive it! I would travel a great distance and wait in a long queue to see the Shroud of Turin. But here is the reality of which that is (or may be) simply an image-- how am I not struck with awe?

How do I find myself thinking of the Lord's Prayer, the prayer Christ himself instructed us to use, as a baby's prayer, a beginner's prayer, and find a more subtle and delicate savour in some mere human composition?

Even outside the realm of the sacred and the sacramental, I think this truth applies.

I went to the film Tron Legacy recently. It wasn't a great film, I didn't even stay till the end, but it was visually enchanting, set (for the most part) in a virtual reality of unearthly, fluorescent light.

At one point, a character who has lived all her life in this otherwordly beauty asks the main character, who is an exile from our own society, if our sky is as beautiful as she imagines it to be.

He replies something like: "More beautiful than you can even imagine."

How can we ever stop looking at the sky? How can we ever stop marvelling at it?

Whenever my bus passes the river Liffey, I insist upon looking up from my book and gazing for a few moments, savouring the way the waves crinkle along its surface, its unique colour, the pleasing way it recedes into a point on the horizon. I enjoy the feeling of passing a threshold, migrating from the Northside to the Southside of the city (or vice versa) in a moment.

Whenever I pass a crossroads, I make myself pay attention to the concrete symbolism of the thing-- a point where, every moment, so many different lives and stories intersect.

We grow weary too easily. We grow weary of our own country and culture, and spend ridiculous amounts of money prospecting other continents for a whiff of exoticism. We grow tired of jokes with a set-up and a punch-line, and congratulate ourselves on preferring observational and surreal humour. We lose our joy in stories, even though the dreamworld of storytelling is a territory of never-ending marvel, and plume ourselves on seeking out vignettes and plotless narratives and character studies instead.

We should remind ourselves more often that our first parents grew tired of Eden, and longed for the one thing they could not have.

I think boredom is good. Boredom is promising. Boredom is the fatigue that comes before the second wind. Boredom is the mist that passes over your eyes before your vision is made more vivid, more heightened.

So when I am bored at Mass, or find myself going through the motions in prayer, I am not discouraged, or even annoyed at myself (as long as I know the boredom is not mere inattention or carelessness). I feel more like an athelete in training who welcomes the strain in his mucles and ligaments, knowing that he is harvesting greater energies for the future-- that he is, in fact, remaking himself.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Whatever Happened to the New Atheists?

William Reville has an article in this week’s Irish Catholic headed “Religion is not Anti-Scientific”. It goes over some very well-trodden ground indeed (has anybody anything original left to say on this subject?), but what struck me was the very first line: “The New Atheists claim that religion is inherently anti-scientific...”

The New Atheists! Remember them? Richard Dawkins, the biologist. Christopher Hitchens, the journalist. Dan Dennett, the philosopher of mind. Sam Harris, a professional atheist with no other obvious claim to fame. AC Grayling, the British philosopher. Philip Pullman, the writer of children's fantasies who drew on Milton and Dante to attack the central doctrine of those authors. PZ Myers, a particularly nasty science blogger who profaned the Eucharist for kicks. And a whole supporting cast of sympathizers, some of whom had been damning and blasting religious belief for decades, but who suddenly seemed to have caught the wind of the zeitgeist; the Amazing Randi, Stephen Fry, Ian McEwan, Ian McEllan, Terry Pratchett, Ricky Gervais, and a whole gaggle of other notables-- not to mention an apparently innumerable swarm of bloggers, protestors, letter-writers and lurkers on various internet sites.

To mangle Byron:

We counted them at break of day--
And when the sun set, where were they?


I shouldn’t be too flippant, as one of their luminaries (Christopher Hitchens) tragically died last year. But even before that the movement seemed to be losing steam, and now it seems downright quaint to hear the name invoked in the first sentence of a newspaper article. I think the New Atheists have joined the Y2K bug , video nasties and Swine Flu in the Museum of Failed Apocalypses.

And that they were an apocalyptic movement is beyond doubt. They may not have heralded a literal end of the world, but they certainly seemed to proclaim the end of one era in human history and the dawning of another (although backward people in poor, ill-educated parts of the world might have been expected to take some time to catch up).

Scientific rationalism was now the gold standard of knowledge, and reason was by definition anti-supernatural. Religion wasn’t just an embarrassment, it was potentially lethal. If someone thought they were in touch with a supernatural entity, after all, what limit could logically apply to their nuttiness? The apple-cheeked old lady at the parish cake sale was a not-so-distant relative of Osama Bin Laden.

Rudeness towards believers was not only permitted, it was positively a duty. There had been too much wishy-washy tolerance. The searing light of rationality would penetrate into all the murky corners of supersition, and soon nobody would get away with proclaiming a belief in the soul, miracles, Providence, or grace. It would not even be allowed as a pious fiction or a figure of speech.

What amazes me in retrospect is how much their clamour intimidated me. I was a religiously-inclined agnostic when I read Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, the anti-Bible of the New Atheists. Even at the time of reading it, before I started really delving into the arguments for and against religious belief, I found its logic unconvincing. (I also had no idea, before reading it, that the scientific case for religion was so strong—even in attempting to rubbish it, Dawkins couldn’t help publicizing it.)

But it wasn’t the logic or the arguments that hit me in the solar plexus. It was the bitterness of the rhetoric, and also its confidence. The message was stark: religion was to be driven beyond the pale. Faith in God was no longer intellectually, culturally or socially respectable.

And for a while, it really seemed like that.

But now, the spell seems to have been broken.

The would-be blockbuster film taken from Philip Pulman's atheistic fantasy, The Golden Compass, flopped at the box office, while Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia-- all fantasy franchises with an unabashed Christian message-- triumphed.

The Pope visited Britain and Germany, to almost universal acclaim. Predicted widespread protests turned out to be a damp squib.

The recent Irish census revealed that nine out of ten Irish-born people consider themselves Catholics. Not many more than five per cent described themselves as non-religious, and the high-profile campaign of Irish atheist groups encouraging respondents specify that they were atheist or agnostic (there was apparently no box for this on the census itself) only resulted in about three thousand such declarations.

All of the candidates in the Presidential election supported the broadcasting of the Angelus bells on RTE. Even the liberal candidates spoke of their spiritual values.

I visited the GPO over Christmas, and was happy to see the Christmas crib still enjoying pride of place, despite grumblings about this from God-bashers.

The closing of the Irish embassy to the Vatican has drawn a backlash from the public way beyond what might have been expected.

Every other day, it seems, there are lively discussions on religion, especially the Catholic faith, on the opinion page of the Irish Times. The topic seems an almost ever-present in the Letters to the Editor section. Is the interpretation of Christ's message, in our day, any less a matter for burning public debate as it was in the time of Newman and the Oxford Movement?

A new RTE radio show on religion, the God Slot, has proved very popular, while the BBC have produced an acclaimed documentary on the lives of Catholics that apparently (I have not seen it) is sympathetic and objective in tone.

Even in the field of British comedy-- apparently a New Atheist bastion if ever there was one, with the likes of Stephen Fry, Ricky Gervais, Simon Pegg, Alan Davies, David Baddiel, and many others making rather a meal out of their unbelief-- there has been a change in the wind. Frank Skinner has recently appeared on stage with the Archbishop of Canterbury, while the situation comedy Rev takes faith seriously and has won prizes and rave reviews, as well as cameo appearances from stars like Ralph Fiennes and Richard E. Grant.

So the mood seems to have changed, and to reveal that the moment of the New Atheists, after all, was only that-- a mood.

What lesson to draw? Simply, I think, that believers should not be too impressed by these ebbs and flows of public opinion. I am reminded of these lines by GK Chesterton, from a poem dedicated to his friend Edmund Bentley, in which he remembers the rationalism and decadence of the Victorian era in which he grew up:

A cloud was on the mind of men
And wailing went the weather,
Yea, a sick cloud upon the soul
When we were boys together.
Science announced nonentity
And art admired decay;
The world was old and ended:
But you and I were gay...
Life was a fly that faded,
And death a drone that stung;
The world was very old indeed
When you and I were young.

(...)

This is a tale of those old fears,
Even of those emptied hells,
And none but you shall understand
The true thing that it tells—
Of what colossal gods of shame
Could cow men and yet crash,
Of what huge devils hid the stars,
Yet fell at a pistol flash.