Will the Irish Stay Christian?
Posted by shane
by Desmond Fennell,
Doctrine and Life; May, 1962.
There is no reason to suppose that the Irish Catholic people will continue indefinitely to be believing Christians. In Europe during the last one hundred and fifty years the majority of people have abandoned Christian belief and practice; there is no reason why the same should not happen here.
Sweden is often cited as an extreme example of modern paganism. But eighty years ago it was the scene of impassioned public controversies about the nature of Christ’s Redemption and the proper ordering of the Communion service; wide sections of the people believed these matters to be of urgent concern.
WEST EUROPEAN IDOLATRY
Throughout Europe the abandonment of Christianity has gone hand in hand with the advance to the scientific and industrial revolutions and the spreading of wealth and literacy among all sections of the population. The spread of literacy and its offshoots — printed information and book-learning — has been possible only because of the great increase in wealth; so that the new wealth is the central, all-embracing fact.
In Western Europe this complex development has resulted in the largest concentration of rich and literate people which the world has ever seen — there are entire populations of rich and literate people. (I use “rich” in its traditional meaning, i.e. possessing those comforts, amenities, securities and material freedoms which eighty years ago were restricted to very few people, namely, the rich, and which are still, in most parts of the world, restricted to very few people.) Accordingly as Christianity was abandoned, another unheard-of phenomenon was taking shape: popular idolatry without named divinities. Referring to this, Malraux wrote: “There have been agnostics before, but there has never been an agnostic culture” and it is a fact that agnosticism — literally, “not-know-ism” or “ignoranticism” — is the fashionable word for describing it. But since “not to know” about God means, in fact, not to believe in him and since men must honour and venerate some powers or other, the actual situation is one of massive idolatry which has not been formalised on the conscious or cult level. (This is due to a strict taboo on the god-concept.) The most important idols of Western Europe are Mammon, Ashtaroth and the little self or Proud Ego.
The abandonment of Christianity was not caused by the great increase in scientific knowledge and the resultant spread of wealth and literacy through the industrial revolution. Primarily, it was caused by the failure of the Christian leaders to understand the new developments Christianly, to make Christian deductions from them and to convey these in a living manner to the believers. This failure to “know the times” and to lead them was a joint failure of charity and of intellect. On a secondary level, the abandonment of Christianity was caused by the ability of rival leaders of society to make plausible anti-Christian deductions from the new developments and by their success in imposing both their own hegemony and their anti-Christian views on the people. These new leaders were the great and small intelligentsia and the businessmen and they made their deductions about the nature of human reality in the light of idolatrous valuations of scientific methodology, of the new wealth, of the passions which make its increase possible and of the literate and new-rich individual and his sense of power and freedom. Their doctrines formed a new canon of “enlightenment” to which all must aspire who would have power in the community or who wanted to think well of themselves. For, by means of money-power and the press, they had undermined the power of the State and sapped it of its moral authority.
Wherever they hold sway and to the extent that they hold sway the beast aspect of man is encouraged and exalted; men are encouraged in their illusions of themselves as angels. Integral, rational man, knowing himself as man and not as beast or angel, is regarded as a mortal enemy; for he might call this mercenary nonsense by its proper names and make the idols tumble on their votaries. Man is therefore an outlaw in the idolatrous world of ego materialism. He is systematically prevented from gaining knowledge of himself and encouraged to gain knowledge of countless things.
When Christian belief goes there can be no effective restraint on the desires of most people unless it is imposed by the state. But when the State has become (through democracy) the tool of society and this (through wealth and de-Christianisation) has become an irrational money-society, then governments pride themselves on the raising standard of living to the exclusion of moral considerations and there is nothing to prevent individual acquisitiveness becoming a predominant obsession. Ordinary greed leads people to desire comfort, material wealth and ostentation in ever-increasing quantities. According as status comes more and more to be determined by possessions, the desire for status — in reality, for the power that goes with it — provides another motive. People’s desires for wealth and for the status which wealth gives become absolutely boundless. No society — and especially no de-Christianised capitalist society — that has set out to raise its standard of living has declared at a certain stage: “This is enough”.
A government’s right to rule comes, in fact, to stand in direct relation to its ability to keep the level of private earnings constantly increasing; the right to rule is divorced from moral considerations and from inherent justice. Freedom becomes, on the one hand, the freedom of the commercial interests to excite individual cupidity and to reap the profits of irrational human desires and, on the other, freedom of the press and mass media and of the intelligentsia, great and small, who control them, to teach any flattering nonsense and to destroy human reason. The government which lends its protection to this process is flattered for its enlightenment and lauded for its benevolence.
In such circumstances, the extension of cheap or gratuitous educational facilities need not mean that more and more people are led to wisdom and truth. It does not even mean that a growing number of people will avail of the opportunities to increase their book-learning. If the press flourishes by dint of sneering at wisdom, if the commercial machine is considered a public benefit because it skilfully exploits their passions, of society, with all its voices, tells them that money is the way to happiness and power, then the people will not want more than a minimum of book-learning and they will want to earn money. They will rush to start learning it as soon as they leave compulsory school — and the commercial machine will do everything to encourage them. More and more, they will tend to seek book-learning only if they believe that their particular talents will enable them to earn more money-status that way than any other way. But the number of who believe this will always be small and their mercenary learning will have nothing to do with wisdom.
There are weak-minded West European Christians who believe that the iron law of this world does not operate in an atheistic society so long as that society observes hallowed “democratic” forms and is opposed to Communism. This is foolishness. The law of this world is that material power, money-power and Success rule supreme and the massive exploitation of man by man is everyday and normal. It applies wherever Christ isn’t.
Anti-Christian, anti-Communist and anti-human, ego materialism enjoys the prestige and bribe-power of the new wealth, which is still increasing. It has long paid lip-service to the methodology of the new science, which is still advancing, so that there seems to be some mysterious connection between the achievements of this science and the shifting tenets of ego materialism; the apparent connection impresses simple people. The new book-learning too lends enhancement to ego materialism, for no one can deny that the ego materialists praise the books and newspapers that agree with them and in this part of the world most people who write — whether text-books, leading articles or pornography — have come to accept the fashionable idols; so that the new book-learning has come to seem inseparable from ego materialism.
When, therefore, the new wealth and the new book-learning in all its degrees reaches a Christian people on the fringe of modern development, it is not just wealth alone or science alone or mass-literacy alone that challenges their beliefs and their sanity, but a digested and triumphant amalgam of material achievement, material benefits and arrogant doctrines which flatter instinctive passions and instinctive egoism. This amalgam makes a totalitarian claim to the entire heart and mind of man and Christian people will fall for it easily unless their leaders make a superhuman effort of mind and love and persuade the people to follow them.
IMPINGEMENT ON IRISH CATHOLICISM
We Irish are a Christian people on the fringe of modern development and this amalgam has begun to reach us powerfully. Those of us who work in Britain have been experiencing it somewhat longer and more sharply. But the new wealth and all that it implies is now among us in the home country too; it is on the door step of every one of us. By the new wealth I mean that any Dublin typist can holiday in Spain or Italy or that any building worker knows he has the chance of earning £20-25 a week if he crosses the sea to Huddersfield or Coventry. But “all that it implies” I mean, in the first place, what Christ meant when he spoke of the rich man and the camel. But I mean more than that, namely, the idolatrous (and impressive) cults of ego materialism which the new wealth is wrapped up in. For example, all the magazines, glossy and plain, which in the English-speaking world denote fashionableness or intellectuality, are published in London or New York and are permeated with ego materialism. But Irish Christians, as they acquire more money or more book-learning, buy them and try bravely to associate themselves with the thoughts and values expressed in them.
Hitherto, in this century, it was not difficult for the Irish to be Christian believers. Our poverty was not extreme, but it was sufficient to insulate us. Our Catholicism was still buttressed by our nationalism (as it had been for many centuries). Our national culture was so thoroughly destroyed in the course of the fight with England that Catholicism became an outstanding — if not the most outstanding — badge of Irish distinctiveness. There was a certain defiance implicit in Catholic practice and, even in the years after the Treaty, it continued to be a major, though mostly tacit, form of national self-assertion and of our militant cohesion as a people. But just as popular interest in and use of the Irish language declined after Independence, it would not be surprising to find a similar slackening of our attachment to the Catholic religion. Such a slackening shows obviously and speedily where language is concerned; it shows less clearly and more gradually where it is a matter of religion.
Already a certain proportion of the present generation of Irish Catholics — both abroad and at home — have lost the faith; many more suffer serious mental anguish because the disbelief implied by their daily lives and their deepest desires is in constant contradiction with their formal religious practice and their childhood ideals. With encouragement — and very naturally — such people try to free themselves from this anguish by rationalising the infidelity of their lives and desires; in other words, by finding justification for their lives-without-Christ in motives and explanations which flatter — or at least do not offend — their self-respect. In the era of Irish life which we have already entered such motives and explanations are being abundantly provided and they will continue to be provided more forcefully as time goes on. The idolatries of ego materialism are reaching us with all the prestige of the new wealth at a moment when our Christian convictions are weaker than they have ever been.
We are surrounded by de-Christianised capitalist countries, some of which are involved in a war effort. In those which are not directly involved — and to the extent that they are not —the continuous raising of the standard of living has come in fact to be the only purpose of life. No one in Ireland would call this the only purpose in life, but an attempt is being made by powerful forces to make it seem that the main collective task of the Irish people today is of the economic order. Put more bluntly, the press, commercial adverting in all its forms, radio, television and the politicians are telling us to a greater or less degree that to get richer individually and nationally is the main thing.
THE COMMON MARKET
The people who are preaching economic development at us night and day and speaking of the Common Market as if it were some sort of holy undertaking would deny that they regard economic factors as the over-riding ones of life. They would say that they are not preaching money-making and money-getting as permanent and exclusive doctrine, but merely stressing how urgent it is for us to raise our standard of living to the “general European level”. But to be a believer in the “rising standard of living” as the central purpose of human life, it isn’t necessary to have formulated the belief consciously. It is sufficient to live as if it were one’s belief. A man’s obsessions and enthusiasms indicate his true beliefs more clearly than what his lips say. Just take a close look at our Common Marketeers, remembering that the modern cult of Mammon does not name him. The declared aim of the Common Market autocrats is to keep the “general European level” rising and rising. We are being asked to hitch ourselves zealously to this absurd escalator.
It is morally legitimate and rationally justifiable for people to improve their standard of living as long as this activity and effort do not disturb the overall harmony of their lives. In the present Irish circumstances, it is perfectly legitimate that we should strive to improve out material standards and the general economic strength of the community. In pursuit of these legitimate aims, it seems necessary for us to join the Common Market. As things stand, this is a grim prospect, not a joyful one. The Common Market is purely and simply an economic arrangement which may or may not develop into a West-European super-state — we have no sure guarantee that it will do so. But in that strangely hysterical way in which our public men and public organs idolised the United Nations, they are now, in turn, idolising and canonising the Common Market. All that is done towards making the Common Market a success is per se good, it would seem because the Common Market is good. But the “success” of the Common Market will, in fact, be evaluated by businessmen and by the press in terms of the continually-increasing wealth of the Common countries and in terms of nothing else. So that the “Common Market cause” and the cause of “economic development” which is now allied to it and made inseparable from it are being used – unconsciously and germinally for the moment — as channels for the vigorous assertion of an anti-Christian view of life. As time progresses, this homage to Mammon and to the irrational human passions which make big business profitable, will grow in consciousness and confidence and spread from the “leaders of society” to the people at large.
Who are these “leaders of society”? It is worth noticing the present conspiracy of business and the press to make the “man who gives employment” into the hero of the nation. In a certain definite context — a town or countryside decaying for lack of employment — and with all sorts of provisos regarding the “hero’s” personal qualities and motivations, this is quite legitimate. But once the idea gets generally and simply accepted that the “man who gives employment” is a public hero for that reason alone, then, by extension, the gombeen man is a public hero, the rich business is a public hero — the money-masters are public heroes — and Irish society has new “leaders” to replace its traditional ones: the priest, the teacher, the doctor and the politician.
In a word, then, modern wealth represents a massive assault on the individual’s reason and on the Christian’s supernatural life. But it also represents a tremendous opportunity for individual Christians and for Christian society as a whole to free life from the grubby and absorbing material worries — the fight for mere existence — so that personal virtue may flourish more strongly and Christian charity and justice be implemented in social institutions to a greater extent than was hitherto possible. As a matter of fact, however, Christians have not seized this opportunity and have not taken the lead in the exploitation and manipulation of the new wealth. Throughout the world today, the legitimate desire of the people to improve their living standards with the help of modern technology is being used by two anti-Christian doctrines to further the interests of their own idols. Under Communism, the worship of Caesar is being furthered; under capitalism, the worship of Mammon, Ashtaroth and Ego.
Faced with this threat and with this unrealised Christian opportunity, Irish Christians must naturally get leadership from their clergy. They must get it even if, dazed by the new riches, they do not look to their clergy for such leadership. Their clergy owe this service to them both in charity and in strict justice. Seen under one aspect, the Irish clergy are the paid employees of the Irish Christian people. They are paid not only to conduct ceremonies, to dispense sacraments and to offer sacrifice; they are also paid to govern the faithful and to provide them with the ministry of the word — to lead them with charity and vigour in the ways of Christ. If it is the clergy’s duty to dispense this service when the people are subject to the relatively minor moral befuddlements of moderately well-provided life, it is a thousand times more their duty to dispense it when the people are in danger of that total blindness which extreme poverty or immense wealth can lead to if understood wrongly.
Because of the nature of Irish history hitherto — as indeed of all human history hitherto — our clergy are adept at dealing with the moral blindness which springs from extreme poverty. Put crudely, grace and the preaching of heaven’s delights and of hell’s torments were sufficient to keep an ignorant and terribly poor people more or less on the right path. (Even at that, many were lost through the blindness caused by poverty and its accompanying ignorance and passed their lives without ever really meeting Christ.) But the Irish clergy have never hitherto been called upon to provide the ministry of the word in charity to a wealthy and educated people who daily have more and more opportunities of increasing their wealth, more and more inducements to the terrible mental arrogance of the literate but unwise. Christ remains the same, but the methods of preaching him are as variable as human circumstances and human nature. There have never before been human circumstances like the present ones.
The vigorous old methods which were suitable for an ignorant rural proletariat are not suitable for the new situation. Neither will the more moderate methods do which one might describe as “middle-class”, methods suited to the interim stage that comes between ignorant poverty and arrogant wealth — the elusive, never really realised state of “normal Christian man”. Potentially, the people with which the clergy, as spiritual fathers, have now to deal are all Dives, all aristocrats, all “upper class”, by the standards of comparison with which the Church on earth has hitherto become familiar. This means that the clergy and the doctrine of which they are the keepers live in a situation of extreme and palpable challenge, just as they did when they were faced with a people who, through poverty and ignorance, were hardly human beings at all. The new ministry of the word needs all the extreme vigour and extreme charity of that earlier response. The only difference is that while the earlier challenge arose from the fact that material conditions and ignorance induced men to think that they were beasts, material conditions and book-learning are now inducing men to think that they are angels.
Are the Irish clergy awake to the urgency of the present challenge? Do they know that a supreme effort of imagination and of love is called for it they are to do their mere duty? Are they fully aware of the indisputable historical fact that, in the apostasy of Christian Europe, the bishops and priests were always the first to turn traitor? Turning traitor took various forms. Mostly it was through going over to Caesar, through siding with him and accepting his enticements and his values, whether Caesar be understood as meaning the State itself or other forms of worldly power and authority. This form of betrayal was especially marked in the Protestant countries, where the abandonment of Christ for Caesar (as represented by the State) was actually written into the Church’s constitution. In Catholic countries, the Caesar who won the Church to his side, was to a lesser degree Caesar-as-State, but every bit as much Caesar in the guise of worldly power and status, of adherence to the most powerful social class. With this adherence went very often a betrayal of Christ to Mammon; for, in the wealthier societies, money was the usual form of power. Often Mammon took the form not so much of individual greed, but of absorption of the Church with “business” for its own sake.
In all Christian countries — but again, especially in the Protestant ones — Christ was betrayed through adherence to that meretricious Reason whom the enlightened rationalists paid court to with religious fervour (their Reason was, of course, themselves). The Church adopted “sweet reasonable” tones in deference to enlightened society, forgetting that Christ Crucified was foolishness to the Greeks and to the Jews a scandal. To risk unpopularity by maintaining Christian doctrines too “rigidly” was regarded as doing the Church an injury, “excluding it from learned society”, “unnecessarily antagonising the wealthy”, “possibly giving rise to misunderstanding”. But far from gaining the Church the entrée which was desired and the affection which was hoped for, this pusillanimous and spineless behaviour earned the Church rejection and the least respectful form of hatred, namely, contempt.
Above all, the clergy betrayed Christ through mental sloth, through failure to “know the times”. The Church relaxed in its established place in society, surveyed the thousands of spires, the praying congregations, the implanted Christian customs, bethought itself of its rich and powerful friends and of the parable of the grain of mustard-seed. Christian society is established thought the Church — and stopped thinking. It had left only one thing out of account — human history. The times changed but the Church didn’t know this. While the rightful shepherd dozed, the sheep followed a rogue shepherd. When the rightful shepherd woke, he complained loudly at the wrongness of this. But he had, after all, been dozing — of that there could be no doubt.
In Ireland today the danger that the Church will betray Christ to Caesar or to Mammon is not an acute one. A certain concern of the clergy for worldly status and a certain preoccupation of the Church with collecting money must be regarded as normal and I believe that, in its concern for these two things, the Church in Ireland today shows a healthy and not excessive degree of activity. The Church, after all, exists in the world and works as an organized body in the ordinary conditions of the world; if it were operating in a society of angels, then things would be very different. But what is normal and healthy while the organism is healthy can become vicious if the organism beings to lose its health. It is because the Irish Church is nourished by the prayers and faith and sacramental life of almost an entire society that its concern with money and worldly status can be described as legitimate and not as a sell-out to Mammon. But if the teaching Church were to become careless of preaching Christ effectively, thus endangering the continuance of faith and the flow of grace, then what was previously a normal concern for worldly things would become disproportionate and, in fact, a betrayal.
Neither is there much danger of a sell-out to reasonableness in the rationalistic sense. Intellectuals are not a sufficiently powerful body in our society for the church even to be tempted to curry their favour. Besides, many of us still believe in fairies and in a dozen species of Celtic nonsense, so that the pressure to be “rational” in the banal sense of Voltaire or Diderot or of the intellectuals who write in the British Sunday newspapers hardly exists at all. But there is another way of being “reasonable” which is not so much a betrayal of truth as of charity. I mean that “soft” charity which always wants to appear kind and which implicitly rejects the need for loving harshness or stern affection, denying them a legitimate existence. Life without charity is a desert or a jungle; life filled with mushy charity is a swamp.
The most likely ways in which the Irish clergy will betray Christ and abandon the faithful are mental sloth and “soft” charity — mediocrity of mind and of love. The early Irish Church was not subject to these vices, whatever other defects it may have had. The reason for this may lie partly in the close association between the early monastic clergy and the aristocracy and the fact that society was dominated by the aristocratic ideals. We have inherited all the virtues and vices of a peasant society, including a peasant religion. Not alone are intellectuals without power in Ireland — there is a very dangerous contempt for the intellect, which is shamefully evident in clerical circles. If I were to ask the Irish clergy for three qualities necessary to meet the present-day challenge, I should ask for heart, mind and imagination. The heart is there, but will we get the mind and imagination which are necessary to put heart across? Have we a clergy capable of “knowing the times” and acting accordingly? Have we a clergy with the mental acuteness to see that their love of us may of necessity involve them in unpopularity and that, since this unpopularity is necessary, they must not complain about it? Two outstanding virtues of the aristocrat are not to be concerned about popularity and not to complain.
KNOWING THE TIMES
Only love and intellect combined enable a man to “know the times”. Failure to know the times results in a sluggish adherence to outworn schemes of preaching, the stressing of themes which are not urgent, the neglect to stress what is urgent, failure to break with convention to a degree corresponding to the change in the material conditions of life. Perhaps preaching on the streets and in the fairgrounds must be resorted to again; I don’t say it must, but there is no conclusive reason why it should never be done again as it has been done in the past. When society is thoroughly de-Christianised our men of God begin to think of special apostolates in the factories or of preaching in dance-halls. Why not, for a change, before society is de-Christianised? Why does the Church not advertise the word of God in newspapers or on cinema screens? Many city clergy are well aware that the old parish system of pastoral care does not measure up to modern requirements. They are aware of the anonymity and lack of belonging-together of their casual “congregations”, of the lack of contact between clergy and “parishioners”. What are they doing to reform or to change utterly the parish system of organisation?
Failure to know the times results in silence, in the lack of direct public speech of priests to people, in the spread of mumbo-jumbo — or what appears to the people to be mumbo-jumbo. Is it to be accepted for ever and complacently taken for granted that hundreds of thousands of people go Sunday after Sunday into Irish churches and never hear a word spoken to them by their priest? There is no time for a sermon, we’ll be told — there must be so many Masses, the church must be cleared every half-hour, the priests are working hard. Does a father or mother have to hold a “sermon” in order to speak to their children? Every time a priest says Mass on Sunday and fails to say something to his people — even to recount some edifying thought that occurred to him the other day when he read the newspaper or walked past the new telephone exchange they’re building at the corner of High Street or simply to say to the people and mean it: “Courage, friends, the struggle is hard, but the prize is great — and remember that Christ died for us!” — every time this sin of silence is committed, the day is being brought nearer when the churches will be empty and there will be plenty of time for sermons!
PRIEST AND PEOPLE
Not for a minute do I pretend that a sermon in itself matters one whit or is even beneficial. I have sat in Irish churches (not only in Irish ones, I’ll admit) and listened to sermons — oratorical flourishes on the theology of Purgatory in a Donegal mountain parish, dry tabulations of the qualities of the beatified body, uninformed and inaccurate diatribes about Communism and the persecution of the Church in faraway places (always in faraway places — the world must have changed greatly since Christ’s day!) — and I’ve said: “God, close my ears to this, take away this scandal from me! After all, I’ve come to this church because I believe it is Your will!” The ministry of the word most definitely does not consist of sermons as such; always, but especially in a time of crisis, it consists of direct, urgent speech of priest to people. Not that I pretend that there can ever be a time or a country when some sermons will not give scandal to some of the faithful — it is inevitable that the clergy will be a cause of scandal to Christians and a good Christian must accept this — but it is nevertheless to be deplored when scandal does occur and every attempt should be made to avoid scandal. Scandal in the ministry of the word derives more often from mental sloth than from any other cause. Failure to know the times results in harmful or meaningless sermons — every meaningless sermon is a harmful one.
I cannot accept it as normal that while the politicians and the press make pronouncements on every important issue of our corporate life, proclaim the economic go-getter as the current incarnation of ideal patriotism and set me and my fellow-citizens concrete goals and tasks for the next five or seven years, I have no definition from my Church leaders of the current main tasks of the good Christian, no setting of collective Irish Christians goals in the present Irish circumstances. (We know the perennial doctrine — but we need leadership in it!) I shall remember this silence if the leaders of my Church start complaining loudly and petulantly a few years from now about the worldly, one-sided and wicked behaviour of Irish Catholics — or ex-Catholics!
The new wealth is the immediate challenge to Christian faith in Ireland and silence in regard to it or mealy-mouthed approval of it cannot be described as adequate responses on the part of the clergy. (In the “new wealth” I include the spread of education at all levels and the prosperous ideological onslaught of ego materialism.) Hitherto the Church has, on the whole, failed to deal adequately with the spread of riches to everyone. Christ may have said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, but he also said that with grace all things are possible. Either the Church holds that it is possible for a rich people to remain Christian or it does not hold this. If it holds that it is possible but very difficult — as it must if it is faithful to Christ — then its clear duty is to do everything humanly conceivable to achieve this. So far, in no part of the world, has the Church done everything humanly conceivable to carry out this possible but difficult duty which Christ has given it.
Mammon is a stern opponent because he is both totalitarian and in sympathy with a real part of human nature. He lays claim to every human thought, sets norms for all thinking and behaving, whether in factory, office, school or marriage bed; and a part of every man agrees with him instinctively. Pride of intellect is a damnably tough adversary; Ashtaroth has powerful charms. If the clergy really want to hold the faithful for Christ, they have got to get out and fight these idols. The fact that that we live in the twentieth century is not a valid Christian reason why a priest or monk shouldn’t occasionally make a fool of himself for Christ’s sake. There is no valid reason why all of the clergy shouldn’t make Christian fools of themselves if love demands this! The Church has good reason to worry when its ministers never get beaten as Paul did, are never hauled before the courts for causing riots.
Mammon and pride brutalise men — just as poverty and ignorance do. Perhaps the Church, in order to meet the times, needs once again to impose stern penances on those who will have remission of their sins. “Three Hail Marys” or “a decade of the Rosary” make sense as penances for sensitive Christian souls. But in the brutal, dull world of money and of mental arrogance what is materially trifling is despised. Only ardent lovers know the powerful language of finger tips; only theologians know that Christ by offering a single footstep could have saved the world. In actual fact (and no wonder, since God made human psychology) Christ left a scourged and spat-on and pierced and naked body to the imagination of the centuries and for the moving of hearts. That was charity. But do we mean that sort of thing when we talk of charity in Ireland? “Burn your newest dress”. “Go to no cocktail parties for three months”. “Don’t drive for a month”. These may well be the only sort of penances which will hold semi-brutalised Christians loyal to Christ. For the Church has garnered no wisdom if she thinks that “softness” tames hardened hearts or defeats powerful idols. Love, yes, and very evident love — the harshness of some old parish priests was too often just harshness, nothing more. But love, fighting to possess and hold, is a stern thing. Christ has at least as much right as any beautiful woman to make his favours hard to win. One way in which worldly people can cease to believe in sin is by watching Christian priests lean over backwards to be “understanding”.
WHAT WE DO NOT KNOW
In Ireland today educated and “economic” man is developing according to canons and criteria which are not being related effectively to his Christian belief. Lest they might be thought to disapprove the priests go out of their way to tell us that is very good and fine, this economic advance. (They usually ignore the educational advance, ignore the fact that — as one man put it to me recently — “we have many sources of information, we are becoming a well-informed people”.) But we are not paying the priests to tell us something we already know. We are paying them to tell us what we do not know, except in the most limited and material sense — why and how the new wealth is “good and fine”. This is where the thinking of the Church at large has not yet really caught up. I mean, in the evaluation of the Christian possibilities of an affluent society. The Church’s proper role is to enable us to maintain an organic connection in our hearts and lives between “economic advance” and Christian belief. How are we to live the new wealth Christianly?
One tacit answer is given by the lives of monks, nuns and others who deal with the new wealth by saying no to it as individuals. Obviously, this solution must remain a minority one. For most people the guidance must come not from this example of extreme renunciation, but from the instruction, advice and encouragement of their parish clergy and from the manner in which the parish clergy use their own material well-being for the purpose of more Christian living. But when do the priests speak to us of full employment as an aid to better family life and as a factor in removing money considerations from the love-relationship between man and woman? What do we hear of the uses of leisure for the increasing of the contemplative spirit — of the layman’s approach to meditation, of combining some religious purpose with the Sunday outing in the family car, of angling or football as aids to holiness? Perhaps there is much virtue to be learned and grace to be gained in loyal trade union membership; many Christian social purposes to be served by free-time work on public utilities — after all, young Communists can be induced to build schools or clear stones for the love of Communism. When that sternness has been removed from life which material poverty imposes automatically, are we told how sternness can be reintroduced by free choice and for spiritual considerations — how, in fact, the one must replace the other, if man is to remain man, let alone reach his full stature as Christian man? Is economic progress praised as the highway to moral progress, the door-opener to sanctity for the mass of the people? I mention only a few possibilities which occur to me as I write. Far too often, it seems to me, nothing constructive or practical — in a Christian sense — is said or done about the new wealth and economic progress.
A little is being done to direct the new literacy and the new intellectual curiosity into channels which would strengthen Christian faith, but much more could be done. Due to the contempt for intellect, practically no effort is being made on the highest level: to guide and draw on the highly-developed minds and talents of the university students and professional classes. On lower levels of literacy, the teaching power of the secular press, of secular radio and television, is not being matched by any adequate effort of printed or broadcast Christianity. A widely-spread item of clerical cant is that we have a “Christian press” in this country, simply because the press doesn’t play up sex and gives due notice to religion. It is overlooked that the press, as a main vehicle of commercial advertising and as a slave of “news value”, can never be described as “Christian”; the most ordinary journalistic phrases such as “now that times are getting better for all of us” or “Won £5,000 — he’s happy!” are preaching un-Christian doctrines authoritatively. I am not saying that our press is anti-Christian: it is neither more nor less anti-Christian than the world. It is a vehicle for the values of this world and this world exists in Ireland as it does everywhere else. Moreover, it is plain foolish to ignore the fact that more and more of our people, both here, and in Britain, are reading books, magazines and newspapers which are permeated with the openly idolatrous values of ego materialism, watching television and films which take those values for granted.
The “Catholic press” as it exists at present — with the exception of a few organs such as this one that I am writing in — is not an adequate answer to these powerful secularising influences. Instead of exulting proudly in the abundance of their new recruits and pouring the money of Irish Catholics into church-building and the African missions, the Irish clergy might well think of financing a decent periodical press for the intellectual laity and provoking the Irish Catholic intelligence into vigorous, uninhabited and independent thinking. Who will give us intellectual periodicals worthy of us if the Church doesn’t? Our businessmen aren’t interested. The Church loses all if it loses the minds of thinking Irishmen. Most of the existing Catholic press is normally an organ of Catholic cant — of the vulgar quasi-Catholic “party-line” — and this, of course, is not the same thing as creative Christian thinking or as Christ unadulterated.
Catholic cant is a product of mixed origins. Partly, it is derived from the politicians of “Western” countries and from the secular press of the same countries. But the Catholic press manufactures it massively and the clergy and nuns lend assistance. For the clergy, as leaders of the faithful, to fall victims to cant is a pity even in “normal” times; in a period of crisis when “knowing the times” is a prime necessity and a prime duty, it can be a Christian tragedy of the first order. On the most charitable evaluation, it must be described as a sin of mental sloth, a failure of love and of intellect jointly.
Part of the current Catholic cant in Ireland is that the “Western world” from Sweden to Argentina, is somehow “good” and the Communist part of the world is “evil” — or at least that the former is “better” than the latter. “Communism” is seen as the main threat to the Christian Church or, in other words, to Christ among us. Now, if our clergy feel that they must talk to the faithful about Communism, it seems reasonable to request them to do some thinking about it. In practice communism means an arrangement of society which is more or less similar to the pagan Roman Empire. The One True God is denied, the State (Caesar) is deified and made the source of all moral authority. Caesar is the false god whom the Communists adore and we have Christ’s plain command: “Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s….” In other words, “Obey Caesar, but don’t adore him as God”. In no instance does Christ tell us to give anything to Mammon or to Ashtaroth. Surely only sluggish or interested thinking could allow us to overlook this very plain fact. The logic inherent in this differentiation of idols is obvious: Caesar (un-deified) is a legitimate part of the rational order: Mammon and Ashtaroth are intrinsically irrational. Caesar (un-deified) is necessary for the common good: deified Ego is the enemy of the common good. But many of the public statements of the Irish clergy could quite easily be understood as meaning that the faithful should prefer the followers of Mammon, Ashtaroth and Ego to the followers of Caesar. This could have dire consequences for many souls.
If the clergy feel compelled to preach against the distant atheism and practically to ignore (or to laud) the atheism surrounding us, then at least they might be requested, in the name of truth, reason and Christian doctrine, to make very clear what they are preaching against and why. Having told us that the Communist State is wrong to claim the things of God, but right to claim the things of Caesar, they can go on to point out that they are not inveighing against “classlessness” as a social ideal, nor against the social elevation of the masses, nor against state enterprise and public ownership as such (witness our own Catholic country as an exemplar of all of these!). They can make clear that they are not against the measures which the Communist State takes in favour of public decency, for the protection of marriage and the discouragement of divorce and for the suppression of pornography; also, that they are far from opposing the massive efforts of Communist governments to bring education and culture to the people and to protect them from trash and from exploitation by commercial advertising. They can point out that when Christian faith is not present — enabling conscience and God’s grace to restrain men from evil and make them good — then it is right that the State should use its power to enforce rational behaviour and the natural law, wrong for the State to fail in this duty; wrong also for the State to claim absolute ownership of the people. By not giving proper recognition to the Catholic Church and to that part of man which is God’s, the Communist State (it can be shown) does as most states do, but more openly and defiantly.
It will still remain to explain why Communism, which is distant from us, should be singled out for attack, while the atheism nearer home is glossed over or indirectly lauded. I cannot think of any justification other than “holy expediency” (if such there be) for lauding the atheism which is nearer to us, but I can suggestion a justification for glossing over it. It is likely that the Caesarian idolatry, because it is at least consistent and more nearly rational, will triumph over the cults of Mammon and Ashtaroth and confront the church for a long time to come. Lenin might be cited in support of this. In an interview with Osservatore Romano in 1924 he said: “A century from now there will be one form of government, the Soviet form; and one religion, Catholicism”. He will probably be proved more or less right.
WHAT SORT OF FREEDOM
One reason of course, why good priests, who don’t really think, prefer the reign of Mammon and Ashtaroth to that of Caesar, is that in the atheistic societies of the West the organised Church enjoys “freedom” and the clergy are honoured with a great deal of lip-service and enjoy social status. But is the nature of the “freedom” which the Church in the West enjoys ever really reflected on? Surely, in most countries, it is a purely nominal and legalistic freedom, freedom for the body of the Church, but not for its spirit. It is the sort of “freedom” which a farmer might get from the County Council to farm his land, while the Council reserves the right to spray his land daily with plant poison. In a sense, he is freer than another farmer who is allowed to cultivate his land (which is spread with cheap artificial fertiliser at public expense), but on condition that he himself never moves outside his dwelling-house. It is undeniable, however, that the freedom of the first farmer is not of much use to him, while nothing prevents the second farmer from producing good crops, though himself deprived of full freedom of movement. To make the analogy concrete: in Poland, Hungary or the Soviet Union the Church has better chances of making Christ triumph in the people’s hearts than it has in Britain, Sweden or France.
Often in the past the loss of a Christian people to Christ began with a false identification of Christian interests with the interests of a certain social class or a certain political regime. That is why I have stressed the importance of clear Christian thinking about Communism and the rival idolatries. If the temporal Church and the Christian faithful are led up a blind alley, the dire results of this false leadership must justly be blamed on the Catholic clergy. There is not part of the truth of things which they can afford to be careless about, no part where personal inclinations, laziness or lack of adequate information can be accepted as excuses for error. They claim, after all, to be our leaders in the truth. If they cannot be well-informed about certain matters, they should refrain from preaching about them.
If, in fact, Communist society is less inimical to Christian life and salvation than the society of atheistic capitalism — and I suggest that this is the case — then the faithful should be told this plainly. It is their right to know it. Truth which is played about with meretriciously returns some day like a boomerang.
The simple facts that we live in a world of atheistic idolaters and that, for the foreseeable future, Christians will be a tiny minority, are truths which it seems necessary for the clergy to reflect on and for the faithful to have brought home to them. For this realisation will help us to rebel against the present complacent acceptance of full churches as a “satisfactory state of affairs” and will make us pay much more attention to the development of sturdy, adult individualism in Christian devotion. We live in a world where the flock is always liable to be scattered suddenly. It will be the shepherds’ fault if, knowing this, they haven’t made the sheep aware of the realities of their situation and trained them in the arts of survival.
Posted on March 13, 2011, in Catholic Action, Catholic Social Teaching, Communism, Conversion, Doctrine and Life, International Ethics, Irish Church-State Relations, Irish History, Persecution, Second Vatican Council. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.