Saturday, November 17, 2012

An Intriguing Report from the Irish Catholic Newspaper

The headline is "Nuncio gets Rapturous Dail Welcome":

"It was one such meeting in Leinster House [the Irish legislature] on Wednesday of last week which turned into an impromptu ovation for Archbishop Brown [the Papal nuncio to Ireland]. He had been in the house meeting some backbench TDs when a division was called meaning that deputies had to quickly go to the chamber to vote. The papal nuncio was shown to the public gallery where he happily took his seat to observe the vote. However, a sharp-eyed member of the Seanad noted that the papal nuncio was there and informed the head usher who immediately swung Dáil protocol into action. The nuncio was immediately escorted to the ‘Distinguished Visitors Gallery’ when he took up a seat next to the Government benches. The Chief Whip Paul Kehoe quickly sent a note to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle [Deputy Chairman] Michael Kitt who promptly made an announcement that Archbishop Brown was present. TDs from all parties and Independents rose to their feet and began a period of sustained applause for the nuncio. When Deputy Kitt suspended the sitting a few minutes later – at almost 9.30 at night – deputies queued up to greet the nuncio."

Why do I find this so very intriguing?

Because I am constantly baffled and in wonder at the world's attitude to the Catholic Church. Those of us who remember the response to Enda Kenny's infamous Church-bashing speech, in which he used such phrases as "the swish of the soutane" and "the gimlet eye of the canon lawyer", might be surprised that Archbishop Brown was received so warmly. The Plain People of Ireland, and especially the political classes, seemed not only to agree with Kenny, but to outdo him in their anti-Rome ardour. And now Irish TD's give a standing ovation to Rome's representative in Ireland.

Now, Archbishop Brown seems like a very personable fellow, and perhaps he has simply impressed the TD's in private meetings and audiences. But by any sane logic, they should be especially hostile to him, since his actions in Ireland seem to have been the opposite of what the media and political classes here are looking for-- for instance, deciding that the seminarians in Maynooth should be more sequestered from the ordinary students.

It is a symptom of something that always confused me about the Catholic Church and its relations to the world, even when I was an agnostic-cum-atheist. For instance, I remember reading an essay written by Jean Paul Sartre about existentialism and choice, in which he referred repeatedly to a hypothetical young man approaching a priest for advice. The tone was not especially sympathetic, but why should a writer like Sartre even mention the Church, except contemptuously? I also remember a book about the ultra-radical French philosopher Michel Foucault, in which his views were regularly contrasted with (amongst others) the views of Christian humanists, which would seem to be so utterly disparate from those of Foucault that they are impossible to put side by side.

Why do intellectuals of all hues feel it is their duty to have a substantial understanding of Catholic theology and history? And why is there such an odd respect for solid Catholic teaching even amongst its worst enemies?

Why are we never surprised to hear that somebody like Socialist Party TD Joe O'Higgins was a seminarian in his youth? Why are we not taken aback that the supposedly awful and anti-intellectual Archbishop John Charles McQuaid was a very sympathetic patron and supporter of Patrick Kavanagh? Why does it not seem utterly bizzare that George Bernard Shaw was an avid reader of the Bible, and had many different copies and translations in his home? Why does it seem perfectly natural that Nietzsche's last book was called Ecce Homo, and preoccupied with the figure of Christ? Why did Orwell, a declared non-believer, go to church in the last years of his life?

My bemusement even goes so far as to wonder why totalitarian and authoritarian regimes are so relatively restrained towards Christianity. Anyone who makes an unbiased study of the relations between the Nazis and the Christian Churches, especially the Catholic Church, must realise that Hitler (despite having some admiration for Catholic liturgy and, for want of a better word, showmanship) despised the Church and was infuriated by its criticism, especially the encylical Mit Brennender Sorge. The Nazis did indeed murder priests and persecute the Church, but not nearly to the extent one might have expected. The same strange situation pertains in communist Russia and contemporary China. Although both persecuted Christians, the full horror of their brutality never seems to have been unleashed. The Chinese authorities do seek to exert control over the Catholic Church in China, and they do arrest priests and bishops without explanation, but the fact that the Church is allowed any breathing space at all in such an environment amazes me.

Only now and again, it seems to me, does the full force of Satan's fury descend upon the Church-- for instance, during the Spanish Civil War or in North Korea in the middle of last century. At other times, I am reminded of John 3:70: "They sought therefore to apprehend him: and no man laid hands on him, because his hour was not yet come."

Why is this? Why do even the most anti-Christian regimes show a strange caution in dealing with the Church? Why does Christianity, and orthodox Catholicism especially, seem to retain a strange respectability in academic and intellectual and cultural circles, no matter how often its highbrow enemies seek to push it beyond the pale? Why do atheists and secularists actively seek debates with Christians, rather than simply dismissing them loftily? How did Tony Blair get away with even being suspected of Catholic leanings, when he was leader of a Labour Party that was hurtling ever further towards the liberal left?

I even notice this odd phenomenon-- what Richard Dawkins rightly calls a "weird respect"-- in my day-to-day interactions. I am always expecting more hostility towards my religious beliefs than I actually encounter. I don't know whether that simply comes from peoples' fundamental decency, or from a sensitivity to the fact that my religious beliefs are so important to me, or simply because they want to avoid an unpleasant argument. By all rational standards, many of my beliefs should be as objectionable to liberal orthodoxies as are those of a white supremacist. In the same way, my belief in miracles and angels and the Second Coming should really place me in the wacky category, for many naturalistically-minded people. Why am I not treated as a bigot or a weirdo, as a matter of fact? Is it simply the fact that my supposed bigotries and barminess are venerable and widely-held?

In fact, to say that I encounter an unexpected tolerance of my beliefs is putting it too mildly. I have noticed that even my most left-wing and rationalistic friends and acquaintances seem to have a strangely respectful and even admiring attitude towards my Catholicism. I don't know how to explain that. Perhaps it is an opportunity for them to demonstrate their broadmindedness, or perhaps there is a part of them that wants the door of the transcendent held open in case they ever decide to walk towards it, or perhaps the strain of being politically correct and right-thinking becomes exhausting and they are pleased to enjoy a vicarious holiday from their mental universe. Who knows?

I think I do know the answer, though. I think the various ideologies and orthodoxies and intellectual fashions that run through the world, though they infatuate it for a moment, can never really satisfy for long. And as soon as they cease to infatuate, they begin to oppress, and then to become unbearable. And, when that happens, the Church is there. It is solid ground, at least. It is breathable air, at least. It is room to stretch your limbs in, at least. When women are exhausted with fleeing from their femininity, the Church is there to bless them in their womanliness. When nationalists are tired of trying to make an idol out of their homeland, the Church is there to offer wider cosmic vistas. When executives are sick of the rat race, the Church is there to whisper: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light". When a rationalist is tired of denying his own free will, and trying to capture reality in the mesh of proof and proposition, the Church is there, holding wide the gate of Mystery.

Perhaps that is why the TD's in the Dail gave Archbishop Charles Brown such a thunderous welcome. Because, when all the hissy fits have been thrown, and all the poses struck, and all the jeers made, even hard-headed politicians are relieved-- deep down-- to know that the Church will still be there.

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