Saturday, December 16, 2017

In Defence of the Hippy Priest...Well, Not Quite

Here is another article from my Catholic Voice column, which appeared fortnightly for about two years in 2014 and 2015.

I'm posting this for two reasons. One is that I've been preoccupied with other things recently, and I want to keep the blog ticking over, so people won't stop coming back to it. The more relevant reason is that I've recently been encountering a lot of very bullish Catholic conservatives-- the sort who seem to delight in shocking other Catholics with their rigorourism, who strive to be as uncompromising as possible, and who are constantly denouncing modernism, liberalism and relativism.

I'm a conservative Catholic myself and I'm acutely aware of the ravages of liberalism, modernism and relativism in the Catholic Church. However, I think we have to guard against overreactions. And I think that, despite all its perversions, there's a core of merit in the philosophy of the "hippy priest". Bear with me...

A Dire Decade

I grew up in the Ireland of the nineteen-eighties. It was a pretty crummy period of Irish history by any standards—unemployment, emigration and the Troubles leap to mind. It didn’t really have much going for it culturally or intellectually, either. Even the triumphs of the Irish international soccer team lay in the future.

But nostalgia is irrepressible. My dawning consciousness of the drama of human life occurred against the backdrop of nineteen-eighties Ireland, and I can’t help getting ‘the warm fuzzies’ when I encounter (or simply remember) some of the images of that time—like the video montage over which RTE television used to play the national anthem every night, before the end of broadcasting.

As for the Irish Catholic Church of nineteen-eighties, it’s pretty easy to see that it was in a very sorry shape, despite high Mass attendance and the continuing influence that it enjoyed over social attitudes (overstated though that influence undoubtedly was, and is). It was the era of the ‘hippy priest’, not to mention the ‘hippy nun’.

Charlie Haughey, Irish Taoiseach of the eighties
Mary Kenny describes it very well in her book Goodbye to Catholic Ireland:

“The Irish bishops’ pastoral, from 1978 onwards, also emphasised justice as the primary virtue, although it is most infrequently invoked in the New Testament. The Trócaire agency, widely supported by the clergy and the hierarchy, was set up to aid the poor in Third World countries, displaying a distinctly Marxist flavour in its crusades. Gone was the time when “Ireland’s spiritual Empire” emphasised the saving of souls and the need to bring Christ to the poor. Now the objective, according to Trócaire’s advertising hoardings, was the defeat of white South Africa’s expansionist designs on Mozambique, and the moral wickedness of trading with Johannesburg at all…

“The letters columns of the newspapers were so full of denunciations from priests and nuns of the wickedness of President Reagan that one Jesuit wrote wondering why no one seemed to suggest saying prayers for the poor, misguided President’s soul…

“And throughout the 1980s there was a growing view among the more influential clergy that prohibitions—notably sexual ones—had been overemphasised in the past and that we should be less exercised by the peccadilloes of the flesh…by 1981 Father Ralph Gallagher was writing in praise of the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

It’s a familiar landscape to anyone over the age of thirty-five, I would guess.

Religious education suffered especially. Though self-quotation is an obnoxious practice, I’m going to indulge in it now. This is something I wrote elsewhere about my own religious education at a Catholic secondary school—in the early nineties rather than the eighties, admittedly:

“The religious instruction we received was poor, apart from our first year, where an old and intensely loveable nun taught us about the mysteries of the rosary, the Fatima apparitions, the story of Maximillian Kolbe, and other solid fare. After that, religion class became, more or less, a succession of inspirational videos (mostly feature films like Shadowlands and Not Without My Daughter) and pop psychology.”

Well, you get the picture, and I don’t think any readers of The Catholic Voice need convincing about any of this, anyway. The Catholic Church in nineteen-eighties Ireland definitely took a lurch towards the over-politicised, the worldly and the trendy. (Of course, it had been steering in this direction for some time already.) Sin was soft-pedalled. The call to repentance tended to be replaced by a message that God loved you just as you were. We were all going direct to Heaven.

Along Came the JPII Generation…

"Here I come to save the day...."
Things have changed. There are fewer Irish seminarians today, but they tend to be more orthodox than their predecessors—more orthodox than some of their professors, even. More recently ordained priests are much less likely to be ‘hippy priests’. Young people who take their Catholic faith seriously know they are swimming against the tide, and have quite consciously chosen the Holy Spirit over the spirit of the age. And the Irish bishops are showing an increasing willingness to speak out on those matters where Catholicism comes into collision with modern culture, rather than sticking with vague, safe denunciations of greed and consumerism. (The very week that I write this, the bishops issued a robust defence of marriage, ahead of the same-sex ‘marriage’ referendum next year.)

All of this is wonderful, and I rejoice in it. I have heard the term “JPII generation” being used quite a lot, along with the similar term “Generation Benedict”. I would definitely consider myself a card-carrying member of both generations, if such a thing were possible. Catholics who grew up, or who discovered their faith, during those two pontificates—if they were paying any attention at all—witnessed two very important things; one was the devastating consequences of the Catholic Church’s attempt to pander to secular society, while the other was the inspirational witness of two great counter-cultural Popes. The ‘JPII generation’ and ‘Generation Benedict’ are unlikely to repeat the mistakes and follies of the recent past— God be praised!

And yet, and yet, and yet….

And yet, as I mull over memories of my childhood and adolescence, and of the Church of that period, I can’t help feeling a sneaking regard for its ‘hippy Catholicism’, in some respects.

Images come to my mind. One particular image—one that made a profound impression on me, one that I’ve never forgotten—is from the day that I collected my Junior Certificate results. We collected them at our school, in the morning, and were let off for the rest of the day. I remember walking home, a little way behind a larger group of my classmates. And I remember a Catholic priest, in his clerical garb, standing on the Ballymun Road and shaking the hand of every school child who passed. I noted particularly that he did not ask any of them about their results. He just said ‘well done’ to every one of them in turn. He was plainly standing there on the street just so he could do that.

To a teenager beleaguered by endless talk of results, and college places, and the points race, the point he was making was loud and clear—“You are not your results, and your worth is not measured by success or failure, or by any exam.”

Was he a ‘hippy priest’? He may not have been, for all I know. But his little act of charity and encouragement seemed to be very typical of Irish Catholicism at that time. It expressed the same message that was dinned into us over and over in religious retreats in school that resembled encounter groups; on TV shows like A Prayer at Bedtime; in newspaper opinion pieces by priests with names like Fr. Eddie or Fr. Des; by posters in chaplain’s offices that showed sun-rays illuminating cornfields; by happy-clappy multilingual chants led by guitar-playing nuns dressed in cardigans and pleated skirts. The message was that God loved us with a love that was deeper than we could ever imagine, and that this love was utterly unconditional.

The problem was not that too much emphasis was placed upon this message. God’s love and God’s mercy can’t be over-emphasised. The problem was that other truths were neglected almost completely—such as the truth that, although God’s love is indeed unconditional, the darkness in man’s heart is such that we can (and do) deliberately shut ourselves off from His love—and that we are in peril of shutting ourselves off from Him for all eternity.

There was a certain naivety to it all, too—a naivety both charming and fatal. The mental world of the ‘hippy priests’ seemed to posit only two choices—there was ‘consumerism’ and ‘the rat race’ on the one hand, and there was Catholicism on the other. There was little or no call for apologetics, for the rational defence of God’s existence. There was no need to assert the truth of Catholicism over and against that of Evangelical Christianity, or Marxism, or Buddhism, or Mormonism, or atheism. Religion was essentially a matter of the heart, and the heart would not lead you astray—sure, didn’t everybody really believe in God and Christ deep down, anyway? As long was we were as gentle as doves, there was really no need to be as wise as serpents.

In all this, the hippy priests (and the hippy nuns, and the hippy religion teachers) were taking for granted Irish Catholicism’s spiritual and intellectual capital, the legacy that previous generations had built up at such tremendous sacrifice. It never seemed to occur to them that one day that capital might run out. But that is exactly what happened—and quicker than anyone could have anticipated.

Feel the Love

And yet, as I say, my purpose here is not to denounce this hippy Catholicism. My purpose is to render due honour.

One particular reparation that I feel I should make concerns my religious education. As mentioned, I have been publicly critical of it, and with good cause. I have complained of the lack of solid catechesis, the preoccupation with pop psychology, the reliance upon inspirational feature films.

I wrote those complaints several years ago. Since that time, I’ve realised how much my religious education at secondary school lingers in my memory, and how much I left out of my previous description.

For one thing, there was the charitable and community activities that it involved. I remember that we visited a local ‘special’ school, and had the students from the ‘special’ school visit us in turn. We played basketball together. I remember, too, we visited a local old folks’ home and spent an hour or so chatting to the people living there. (I remember how awkward and wretched I felt there—I was intensely shy—and I’m sure it did me a power of good.) I remember we spent several weeks before Christmas studying the issue of homelessness, and making a charitable collection for the homeless. Such lessons in practical Christianity can only be a good thing, and I think that this kind of social consciousness was also typical of ‘hippy Catholicism’.

Besides this, the very ‘inspirational feature films’ that I mentioned so disdainfully have, quite often, also lingered in my memory, and have had (I think) an enduring influence. We watched films such as Shadowlands, The Killing Fields, On Golden Pond, Rain Man, and Ironweed. The very fact that we were watching them with a moral purpose, in a serious way, impressed me deeply. Silly as it sounds, some part of me has never left that video screening room. And, once again, this seems to me typical of hippy Catholicism—there was a rage for relevancy. And these screenings did, indeed, impress upon me that contemporary life, pop culture and the ‘adult’ world all had a spiritual aspect to them.

So, if I am not holding up ‘hippy’ Catholicism as a model—and I am most certainly not—what is it that I think we should salvage from it?

This one thing, if nothing else—its fervent affirmation of Christ’s declaration that “the very hairs on your head are all numbered”. For all its failings, hippy Catholicism had a profound commitment to this idea that every human being is precious. Its imagination was gripped by it. And it did convey it very vividly.

I realise that many people think there is no need for such a doctrine today, that we live in an ‘I’m OK—You’re OK” society where self-esteem and self-congratulation are all-too-prevalent—that we need knocking down rather than building up.

I don’t agree. I believe that, though we may not be weighed down with a sense of sin, many of us are crushed by a sense of our own worthlessness, even by sheer self-hatred. I think the prevalence of suicide and self-harm attest to this, as does our mania for self-improvement and self-help books, as does the popularity of that awful word ‘loser’. I think our urge towards self-affirmation and ‘self-esteem’ actually points to this inner emptiness. And I think it is a malady that can only be healed, not by acquiring the body beautiful, or by ‘getting ahead’, or by self-improvement of any kind, but by the knowledge that we are truly created in the image and likeness of God, and that God loves us with a love that knows no bounds. Let us be no less fervent than any ‘hippy priest’ in proclaiming that truth to the world. It is needed now more than ever.


  1. Didn't know you were finding us all too bullish 😢😢

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Why are you so sure you know who I'm talking about? A lot of the people I'm referring to would be on Facebook. I wouldn't call you bullish.