Sunday, June 19, 2016

Catholicism Without Apologies 4: Christmas, Freedom of Speech, Catholic Schools, Eucharistic Adoration

In my second article, I was still writing my 'View from the Pew' column in the diary format I would soon discard in favour of long articles on a single subject. At this time I was also more of a 'culture warrior' than I am now. The perils of being a culture warrior seem clearer to me now-- the danger of Catholics being seen as 'the angry brigade', the very real risk of becoming hooked on righteous indignation and dependent on the stimulus of an outside enemy, the ever-present temptation to get sucked into passing squabbles and lose sight of the big picture. However, some battles still need to be fought.

I don't at all apologise that I am posting a Christmas article in June. I have loved reading collections of newspaper columns all my life, and the 'untimely topicality' was part of the appeal. I like reading articles that were written during the Olympics, a general election campaign, the death of a historical figure etc. and which carried the flavour of that time-- the sense of immediacy. This, to be sure, is a very particular taste!

Catholicism Without Apologies 4: Christmas, Freedom of Speech, Catholic Schools, Eucharistic Adoration

Is there any sight more beautiful than a Christmas tree?

It’s become a venerable Christmas tradition to complain about the commercialisation of the season, and the appearance of Christmas decorations in shops by late October. The worst part of this is that everybody is tired of the whole thing by Christmas Eve, and the idea of a Christmas season lasting to the feast of the Epiphany becomes a foreign concept. It has become common for “Merry Christmas” to be replaced by “Happy New Year” as early as St. Stephen’s Day. (I insist upon replying with “Merry Christmas” when this happens.)

But, although the familiar complaints are perfectly justified, I can’t bring myself to disapprove of the early appearance of Christmas trees. A Christmas tree, even if it is not an explicitly Christian symbol, is a blessed antidote to so many of the worst tendencies in our modern society. It is jolly. It is innocent. It is sentimental. It is unabashedly traditional. In other words, it is cheerfully subversive.

The Christmas tree may not be a Christian symbol, but the atmosphere of hope and innocence and wonder that hangs around it has everything to do with Christianity.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that: “There is nothing really wrong with the whole modern world except that it does not fit in with Christmas”. But for a few weeks of the year, the modern world—for all its efforts to bury the meaning of the season under a mountain of merchandise—can’t keep itself from honouring the Christ child, even if it does so reluctantly and indirectly. After so many decades (even centuries) of secularisation, it has found nothing better worth celebrating.

I think that is cause to be glad, and it is part of the reason I don’t join in the annual panic about the “War on Christmas”.

The offending Legion of Mary poster

Belief or ‘Harassment’?

If the “War on Christmas” is not worth getting upset about, the same is not true of the global war on Christians. In many parts of the world, this war is being fought with bombs, bullets and incarceration. In Ireland, such things do not happen. But it sometimes seems as though we are hearing the overture of a future persecution here.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago famously said that: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” Of course, the reality of free will means that we can never know the future for sure, but there are undoubtedly very worrying portents to be seen.

Earlier this month, the Legion of Mary branch in NUI Galway (which had been applying for status as a university society and had been granted ‘temporary membership’ status) had that status suspended because of a poster which they displayed on campus. The poster promoted the Courage Community group, which (as the text explained) “ministers to persons with same-sex attraction and their loved ones. By developing an interior life of chastity, which is the universal call of all Christians, one can move beyond the confines of a homosexual label to a more complete identity in Christ.” At the bottom of the poster was printed the slogan: “I’m a child of God, don’t call me gay.”

There were over seventy formal complaints to the NUIG authorities as a result of this poster, resulting in the disciplinary action. The Irish Times reported this statement from the university: “NUIG has a pluralist ethos and will not condone the production and dissemination of any material by students which discriminates against other students. Discrimination or implied or direct harassment, on the basis of sexual orientation and/or religion, is contrary to Irish and European law.”

The NUIG branch of the Legion apologised for any offence caused, while the national headquarters in Dublin said it had no knowledge of the affair. The communications officer of the Galway diocese, Fr Sean McHugh, while admitting that “the poster is about the call to live a chaste live, which is part of Christian teaching”, also said that the ‘don’t call me gay’ slogan was “offensive”.

We Have Cause to Be Uneasy

Now, I think it was imprudent of the Legion of Mary branch to display this poster in the first place. But it deeply disturbs me that there was no public outcry against this act of censorship by the NUIG authorities. Although the words ‘I’m a child of God, don’t call me gay’ were a bad choice and do seem provocative, it is obvious from the context that they were not supposed to imply that gay people are not children of God. Rather, they expressed the idea that the “homosexual label” is “confining”.

Voltaire never said this, but he should have.

It is quite plain that nobody was being threatened by this poster, that it simply expressed the traditional Christian understanding of human sexuality, one that is shared by hundreds of thousands of people in this country, and by hundreds of millions around the world. That this is construed as “harassment” in the Ireland of 2013 should make us all very worried. And this happened on a university campus, where intellectual freedom should be a cherished value.

It seems extremely likely that, if there is a new persecution of the Church in the Western world the charge of discrimination against homosexuals will be the battering ram of choice. And this will be all the easier if freedom of expression, and in particular the freedom to articulate the Christian ideal of sexuality, is not defended more ardently than it was in this case.

Happy Christmas!

A Heart-Warming Festive Scene

The box set of the first four seasons of Love/Hate is one of the most heavily promoted items for sale this Christmas. I have only seen a few scenes from this drama—it cured me of wanting to see any more—but I understand that it is well scripted and acted. Presumably everybody knows that the show is a no-holds-barred depiction of Ireland’s criminal underworld.

The cover image of the box set is particularly eyebrow raising, and (I think) significant. It shows a shaven-headed man screaming— whether in horror, or in fury, or in agony, or perhaps all at once, I can’t tell. But what does it say about modern Ireland that this is the image we have greeting us through the tinsel and holly in shop windows, and that this box set is at number three in the Irish DVD charts at the time of writing? We’ve gone from De Valera’s ‘laughter of happy maidens’ to a screaming skinhead. Is that progress?

Will They Ever Learn?

The never-ending campaign against religious schools flared up again this month, prompted by an article in The Irish Times in which Kitty Holland lamented that the Church of Ireland and Catholic schools in her area refused a place to her child, informing her that priority was given (in cases of over subscription) to children of Christian parents.  She wrote: “What is also clear however is that denominational or faith schools’ enrolment criteria impact in a gross and disproportionate way on children such as my son by excluding them simply because they have not been baptised.” Later on, that overworked word “discrimination” makes its inevitable appearance.

Kitty Holland, critic of freedom of association

Is liberal society not entirely muddle-headed in revering “diversity” but also setting its face against “discrimination”? The first seems logically impossible without the second, in some form or other.  There are obviously many forms of discrimination that are wicked. But how can any tradition, including a “faith tradition”, survive and prosper if it is debarred from keeping its own forms of association, celebration, symbolism, and so forth—even if that means, inevitably, that some people and lifestyles are excluded from it? Are not the flattening, homogenizing forces of liberalism and militant secularism the real enemy of all meaningful diversity?

Many correspondents to The Irish Times pointed out the most glaring fault in Kitty Holland’s argument—that she had concentrated her criticism almost entirely upon faith schools, despite the fact that non-denominational schools in her area had also refused her child a place. (Of course, religious parents are also taxpayers, and deserve to have the education they desire for their children funded from their own taxes. And non-believing parents are fully entitled to set up their own schools, if they so wish.)

Brave New World?

The part of Kitty Holland’s article that really jumped out at me was the closing line: “Schools are places for numbers and letters, not for icons.” I know this is not the sense in which she meant it, but it made me think of those names that you often come across in Brave New World-type science fiction stories, stories that evoke an utterly dehumanised future. In these, characters often have names like XT44LQ or ZZ93Z, to emphasise how all history, tradition and personality has been squeezed out of existence.

Orwell's 1984, imagined on screen
And is it really such an unfair way to read her words, after all? Shouldn’t school be about a lot more than ‘numbers and letters’? Isn’t it better for children to be instructed in some definite tradition, rather than being subjected to a mere drilling in useful knowledge, garnished with a few moral platitudes in ‘civics’ class?

A child who attends a denominational school may reject the religion taught there, either during their time at school or in later life. But even then, I think, the experience has profound benefits not available to students at a non-denominational school. The child’s imagination, sense of wonder, sense of the sublime, and spiritual awareness will be stimulated by those aspects of school life that are only really to be found in such a setting— by which I mean prayers, hymns, tales of the saints, Bible stories, commandments (as opposed to “values”), holy days, a coherent view of the universe and of our place in it, and—yes—icons.  They won’t get anything to replace all that in civics class.

Advent vs. Shopping Days

My two favourite churches in the world are the Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary churches in Ballymun, which belong to the same parish, and which are the plainest churches imaginable. Nevertheless, they were the churches of my childhood, and I love them.

Last Tuesday, I made my way from the other side of Dublin to join in evening Eucharistic adoration in the Virgin Mary, part of the parish’s Advent preparations. It was nearly over by the time I finally took my place in one of the pews.

Sitting there in the prayerful silence, and gazing at the monstrance upon the altar, I couldn’t help thinking about the preparations for Christmas going on outside the church walls, as compared with the preparations taking place inside them. Outside, there was the frenzy of shopping, travel arrangements, and office parties. Inside, nothing at all seemed to be happening. 

And yet, I knew the real “action” was all happening inside—what Pope Francis recently called “the deep breath of prayer”. This is how the Church lives and grows through the ages, even if it as undramatic as the soft breathing of a sleeping baby.

All the revelry and decorations and Christmas trees only continue to make any sense, to have any relish in them for anybody, because people continue to follow the path of the shepherds and the Magi, to honour the Christ child in all earnestness. The Christmas tree is jolly only because the monstrance is solemn.

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