Monday, October 22, 2007

Sean the Baptist?

In conversation with an Irish friend the other night, the archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland Cardinal-designate Sean Brady was described as kind, warm, and rather nondescript.

A former rector of Rome's Irish College, Brady, 68 -- whose middle name actually is Baptist -- was serving as a parish priest in his native Co. Cavan when he was named as coadjutor to Cardinal Cahal Daly in 1995. Since succeeding to the chair that, according to legend, was first occupied by St Patrick around 445, he's taken an active role in the peace process in the North, and his low-key style was said to have earned the good notice of the Pope, whose inclusion of Brady on the list of his 23 new cardinals provided one of the Red Dawn's major surprises.

The Irish Times' John Waters, however, sees even more in the appointment -- a new message and new hope for Irish Catholicism (one rooted, interestingly enough, in the approach of Benedict XVI).

His noteworthy reflection is reproduced below... and, even for those of us across the Pond or the Irish Sea, is well worth a read.
Hearing only pious clichés

On the announcement that he is to become a cardinal, one of the first things Archbishop Seán Brady said was that there was a necessity to put an end to the idea that Catholicism is "a collection of prohibitions". I had a sense of hearing something new followed by something I had heard many times before, writes John Waters.

"We must be bold in speaking of the joy that comes from following Christ," he elaborated. While correcting any negative views of Catholicism, we must emphasise the "life-giving and life-enhancing message of the Gospel".

How are the latter words likely to have been apprehended by the culture to which they were addressed? For my own part, having taken some recent interest in the subject, I had the faintest glimmer of understanding. What the archbishop said seemed neither as obvious nor ridiculous as, at different stages of my life, it might have.

I felt he had in mind the fact that, once in history, God, in response to human pleading, came to live with His children and that, on a spring morning about 1,975 years ago, an event occurred which made despair impossible other than through ignorance or wilful blindness. I sensed that the archbishop was reminding me that the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ have ensured that there is no need to be afraid, now or in the future, because, arising from the events of that first Easter, death can have no dominion.

Something like that. But I can't be sure I have it exactly right. And I know that this is only the beginning, that there is much more, radiating outwards from this event, embracing everything.

This, then, was as sensational a statement as might be published on the front page of this newspaper. The trouble is that it didn't read like big news and excited no comment or reaction. This was the fault of neither the archbishop nor the reporter, but arose as a consequence of how our culture comprehends and retains concepts of religiosity and faith.

If we were ever able to hear religious messages for what they are (and I doubt it), that time is long behind us. Now, we hear only a pious regurgitation of what always sounds like cliches. The meaning shorts out on the circuit board of collective understanding, with its crisscrossing wires of prejudice, hostility, assumed knowledge, ideology and rote learning. It's all either too obvious or too ridiculous.

Even with the best will in the world, we tend to miss the point. We think: "Oh, there's that new cardinal saying something we've heard a million times before, something about Jesus being the top brand." The best that can be achieved is individualised communication, which occurs despite the collective culture.

Dr Brady is correct in identifying as a serious problem an impression of Irish Catholicism as predominantly concerned with prohibition. Actually, I would say that this is the chief cause of the cultural sclerosis sketched above. I have suggested before that the Irish Catholic Church needs to decommission for a generation all words with their roots in concepts of morality. It is not, God knows, that Irish society does not need to hear about morality, but that such statements tend to convey an obsession with human sexuality and therefore short-circuit on particular concepts of freedom, ubiquitous nowadays.

At the back of all the prescriptions and proscriptions is, undoubtedly, a profound understanding of human nature, which is, moreover, rooted in sense and reason, but the hypnotic repetition of rules has most certainly given rise to the impression that religion is nothing but a series of thou-shalt-nots.

In truth, morality, the love of truth above everything, is no more about rules than music is about dots and lines, but is within us waiting to be cherished like a tune.

Much has been made recently about the need for the church to make gestures of atonement for the series of abuses that occurred under cover of its moral authority. But these outrages, too, were symptoms of the deeper malaise. It was not merely that the church ceased to be able to persuade people concerning the essential meaning of Christianity, but that many of its own personnel had lost sight of that meaning.

Atonement, therefore, must go much deeper. For what needs to be acknowledged is that, in the way it conducted itself in Irish life, the church has been guilty of mistakes and wrongs extending far beyond the horrors of sex abuse, cover-up or hypocrisy.

It needs to admit that Irish Catholicism fell into a form of idolatry that placed moralism at the centre of its message, making it all but impossible for the Christian story to be understood.

It is not enough for the bishops to resign as a moral police force; they must go back to the beginning, explaining everything in an entirely new language, conscious of the danger that everything may again be misheard and taking whatever steps are necessary to avoid this.

Listen, they must say, not because we are bishops, but because we know things that will blow your mind.
On a rather curious side note of the "six degrees" kind, Waters has a child from an out-of-wedlock relationship with the singer Sinead O'Connor, who infamously ripped up a photo of John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in 1992 as waves of clergy sex abuse revelations in her native country damaged the standing of the vaunted Irish church.

In the years following the rip-up -- which effectively killed her mainstream career in the States -- the controversial chrome-domed artist claimed ordination to the priesthood by way of a schismatic group, at one point vowing to leave the music industry to become a catechist.

That plan having foundered, O'Connor now tours as a reggae performer.