The Furrow, October 2010
From Aggiornamento to Recovery
Although I was in Rome in the early 1960s only for a brief visit, I was pretty close to the Second Vatican Council through working for the English edition of Herder Correspondence, published by the German Catholic publisher Herder Verlag. First in Dublin in 1963 as a translater, then from 1964 to 1966 in Freiburg as assistant editor, finally I edited the magazine from Dublin until 1968. Herder had good informants in Rome, was very much taken by the Council, and a supporter of its ‘liberal’ wing.
In 1968 Geoffrey Chapman published a collection of articles from Herder Correspondence which dealt broadly with Irish Catholicism. Edited by me, and entitled The Changing Face of Catholic Ireland, it contained a long article ‘Time of Decision’ which I had written in 1964 and published in the magazine. With many facts and figures, it depicted Irish Catholicism as a church that ‘by the standards of Late Tridentine Catholicism’ was flourishing, while containing a growing current of self-criticism and displaying a tentative opening to the new impulses from the Continent. In a Foreword to the book the leading German theologian Karl Rahner recognised the specialness of the Irish church—matched only perhaps in Spain and Poland – as effectively the church of an entire people in a world where the normal condition of the Church was that of a ‘diaspora’. He counselled the Irish to take from the new Continental impulses, which had arisen in that quite different situation, only what suited that special condition of their church.
I read very little of the Council theology or encyclicals. But I have continued to be a thoughtful member of the People of God and it is as such that I continue this article. Back in Ireland after the Council had ended I paid attention mainly to the changes in Church practice. Aggiornamento had been the Council’s principal slogan word and I took it to indicate loosely ‘renewal’ or ‘freshening up’. Noting the Mass in the vernacular, priests and nuns in secular dress, occasional use of plain bread rather than hosts for Communion, and greater involvement of the laity in active roles, I thought ‘Incarnation’: God’s incarnation in the world is being advanced decisively by using the secular ever more to express the divine. Since I had encountered Dutch still-life painting of the seventeenth century, the Incarnation had become for me a central Christian theme. In those paintings I had seen how Dutch artists, deprived by the Reformation of saints and the Blessed Virgin for their paintings, had managed to transfer the holiness of such figures to bread, milk, fruit, and candlesticks and the interiors of Dutch merchant houses. Trying to further my Incarnation understanding of what the Council was about, I wrote to Cardinal Conway and the other bishops urging a general assembly of the Irish Church based on elected delegates from the parishes. And I persuaded the priests and parishioners in my own half-parish of Carna, Conamara, to set up an elected parish council.
By the 1970s the word consumerism and the reality it indicated were well established. Thinking in this context about changes the Council had brought about, I noticed that the abolition of fasting during Lent, of the fast from midnight before Communion, (a ‘fast’ of one hour had been substituted), and of abstinence from meat on Friday, seemed to signify the Church falling into line with the consumerist ethos. Fasting and abstinence were offences against consumerism. It seemed to me that Catholicism was now perhaps the only religion ever that did not have fasting as one of its regular devotional exercises. These thoughts began a gradual opening of my eyes to an aspect of the Council reforms that I had missed, and which seemed quite contrary to that sanctifying of the secular which had first struck me. It was more like the sacred yielding to, or conforming to, the secular.
Another thing moved me decisively to this view of the matter. Generally speaking, the consumerist-liberal ideology that had reached Europe from America in the 1960s, and that had entered the Dublin mass media via London, was presenting itself as a doctrine of liberation: sexual liberation, liberation of women, youth and homosexuals, liberation of everyone from self-restraint and frugal living. As it gained adherents and practitioners, this liberation movement had led many of the rising generation into a slavery of material and sexual consumption. I could not understand why the Church had not responded by expressly making liberation from that slavery through Jesus Christ into the core of its preaching in the West. Never in my experience did the word ‘liberation’ fall from the lips of priest, monk or bishop. The spoken and written preaching of the Gospel was not adapting to directly challenge, and compete with, the powerful and successful preaching of false liberations. Its displayed attitude towards this was a respectful passivity.
All this sent me back to that slogan word of the Council: aggiornamento. As I said above, I had regarded its general import as an intention to refresh or renew; I had not attended to its literal meaning which is ‘bringing up to date’, with the enormous ambiguity of what that means in real terms. With equal ambiguity the same idea had been occasionally rendered as ‘making modern’: Karl Rahner, in that Foreword to my book, mentioned as taken-for-granted needs, ‘a modern theology and a modern Church’. In an updating operation, the ‘date’ which something is to be ‘brought up to’ is ‘what is at present the case’. Making something modern means bringing it into line with ‘what is at present “modish” or in vogue in the power centres’. If it is a matter—as it was in the 1960s with the Church—of updating or modernising intellectual, moral and regulatory matters, the most relevant part of ‘what is now the case and in vogue’ is the worldview that is at present predominant or advancing, together with the rules system derived from it.
In the 1960s, in the Soviet satellites of eastern Europe, that worldview with attendant rules system was Marxist-Leninism. In the West it was the advancing, equally Godless and utopian worldview of American left liberalism, which with the support of states and business had become in effect consumerist liberalism. Open to all without distinction, it was a faith that offered its believers enlightenment; justification for rejecting many moral rules and social norms of European civilisation; equality of status and treatment; increasing buying power; glamour and sensual indulgence. Later it would be called in retrospect ‘the ideology of the 60s’, meaning mainly an exciting promise of a fresh start for mankind, a kinder way of living, and limitless possibility, that attracted many, especially young people, throughout the West. That was the main element of the up-to-date-ness and modernity in relation to which the Church of the Second Vatican Council would try to update and modernise itself.
Reflecting on this matter over the past thirty years, I have come to three conclusions. The first regards certain practical changes in the universal Church which emanated from Vatican II. I have in mind such changes as the removal of fasting and abstinence: the puritanical redesigning and consequent defamiliarising of many church interiors, including the removal of many statues; the downgrading of ‘mindlessly repetitious’ prayers such as the Rosary and litanies; the widespread cessation of Corpus Christi and May processions; the laicising of priests’ everyday dress; the ending of the regulation that had women cover their heads in church; and so on. In the 1960s Irish Catholic practices supplied a large part of the distinctively Irish culture. So it was unfortunate that such imposed changes, of no obvious benefit to Irish Catholic faith or devotion, occurred in those years, weakening the Irish cultural edifice at a time when consumerist liberalism was beginning its assault on it.
Secondly, during Vatican II and subsequently the Catholic Church in the West has been influenced by the western Myth of Progressive Modernity. (In what follows, when I say ‘the Church’ I am referring to the Church in the West.) That myth relates that, in the inexplicably privileged white West. the progress of years is accompanied by a progress of insight into the nature of man and the right way to order human society and behaviour. In the event of a clash of claims to possession of the newest and therefore truest insight—say, between socialism and the latest version of liberalism—the truest insight is determined by its having effective ascendancy in the West’s power centres. That authenticates it as (the latest) intellectual modernity i.e. as the truest insight into human reality and right order yet reached by the human mind. As such, it is something which by tacit accord of most western intellectuals imperatively demands respect and which it behoves them to conform their minds to. But clearly, the true insight that they thus aspire to is possessed by modernity only within the myth and for believers in the myth. In reality the fact that a certain new vision of human matters is in vogue in the West’s power centres says nothing about its truth, merely suggests that it is useful to the power-holders.
The leading men involved in Vatican II and in the post-conciliar shaping of the Catholic Church belonged to the Catholic variety of western intellectual culture. More particularly they belonged to that segment of Catholic thought that was influenced by the West’s Myth of Progressive Modernity. Accordingly they respected the intellectual modernity of the time—‘the ‘ideology of the 60s’ with consumerist liberalism at its core—as the truest insight into human matters yet reached by the non-Christian human mind. While it repelled them by being Godless and by proposing a morality that deviated radically from the European and Christian one, they respected it in two ways: by not opposing it outright (as the Church had opposed Communism) and by trying to learn from it as much as their Christian vision allowed.
An instance of this ‘respect by not challenging outright’ was the Church’s failure to counter expressly with Christ’s true liberation consumerist liberalism’s claim to be a liberation movement. An aspect of this has been the failure to spell out with facts the falsity of the liberals’ claim of liberation in relation to various groups and categories. For example, women. During the last forty years that have been governed by liberal norms and rules, western women have found that the spaces and times in which they can walk safely alone have greatly diminished, and we have witnessed through the liberation of pornography and commercial advertising, mainly under the management of men, the most widespread presentation of women as sex objects in all of human history. I believe, incidentally, that an important factor contributing to this respectful leaving of the contemporary world to the liberal Correctorate to describe and pronounce upon has been the post-conciliar regulation that the priest’s homily during Mass must be based on the scriptural readings of the day. For most Catholics this preaching about incidents in the lives of Christ and the Apostles, spiritual advice given to early Christian communities, or exhortations by Jewish Prophets to the ancient Israelites, is the only Catholic preaching they hear.
The western Church’s identification of consumerist liberalism in terms of the modernity myth, as the truest insight into human matters yet reached by the non-Christian human mind, caused a blindness with regard to its real nature. It prevented the Church recognising that late-western ideology—as the Church in sub-Saharan Africa recognises Islam, or the Church in South America recognises evangelical Protestantism—as a powerful competing missionary faith; and as one, moreover, that has been particularly intent on capturing successive generations of young Catholics. And not recognising it as this—as what it was and is in the real world as distinct from the modernity myth—it did not respond accordingly.
As to the Church learning from its Godless rival, this occurred in a manner that was partly positive, partly negative. In respect of increasing the active role of women in the Church, it was positive. In respect of what was a central secular doctrine of the 1960s, the Church’s learning from it was of mixed effect. That doctrine taught that people should be kind to others and to themselves. So rather than punishment for wrongdoing, rehabilitation was to be preferred; and self-punishment was a morbid practice. Learning from this the Church took a more humane view of unmarried mothers and homosexuals. It decided that imposed self-punishment by fasting and abstinence was not good and that punishment of sexually misbehaving clergy was not a good thing either. Recently we have been made aware how, much to their later cost, this latter change of mind influenced the Irish and other bishops in their handling of clerical paedophilia: rehabilitation by psychiatric treatment was preferred to punishment. I believe that the same prioritising of ‘kindness’ and rejection of punishment caused the virtual disappearance of hell, as the posthumous punishment for grievous sin, from Catholic preaching.
An instance that I have noted, very particularly in Ireland, of a combined respect for, and active learning from, consumerist liberalism has been in relation to that ideology’s desire to secularise public life; to remove any intrusion into it of religion. Some Irish bishops and Catholic spokespersons have decried this. But the fact is, first, that such secularisation has gone further in the Republic of Ireland than in any other Catholic part of Europe, say, Italy or Bavaria; and, second, that in the absence of any laws enforcing it, its principal agents have been Catholics. The widespread cessation of devotional processions in the streets was merely the first notable instance. Since then, Catholics working in many areas of Irish life have either decided to remove public displays of Catholic or broadly Christian devotion or presence, or to omit these where they would be appropriate. At the very least they have participated in such decisions. And most of this has occurred without any Catholic public protest of any note. In other words, Catholics, by their actions or inaction, have been the main agents of secularisation in the Republic of Ireland.
I am thinking of such as the following occurring over the past forty or fifty years: the removal from the national broadcaster’s television screens of a picture of the Blessed Virgin when the evening Angelus is sounded, and of a Christian prayer last thing at night; the fact that, although RTÉ is obliged by statute to reflect Irish culture, the only serious tv programmes on Christian themes that are readily available to Irish viewers are on British channels, including Ulster Television; the removal of the RTÉ radio Mass on Sunday from the main wavelength to a secondary one; the failure of Irish Catholics to establish a Catholic radio station; the recent removal of a statue of Christ from the roof of the community hospital in Killarney; a big fall-off in towns and cities of the Irish Catholic custom of blessing oneself as one passes a church; the inclusion of many schools bearing the names of saints in amalgamated community schools which honour no saint; the fact that, with summer schools and local festivals long an established part of the Irish summer and autumn, there is not one dedicated to a local saint or with some other Christian theme; the cessation of the annual ceremonial blessing of the Aer Lingus fleet; the absence at Christmas of a Crib, as against the presence of two large shrines of Santa Claus and his reindeer, in the arrivals hall at Dublin airport; the shifting of the feasts of the Ascension and Corpus Christi from their traditional days mid-week (when people were regularly given time off work to attend Mass) to the following Sundays where no one notices them; the rearrangement of public holidays during the year with the result that the Whit Weekend has disappeared, and that the Republic marks with special holidays—apart from Christmas and Easter (which were holidays even in European Communist countries) and St Patrick’s Day ranking as the diplomatically required ‘National Day’—only extra days when the banks are closed; and finally, the silence of the Irish Catholic bishops in the face of two years of economic crisis affecting Government action and many citizens.
I am aware that such things, apart from being gratuitous collaborations with liberal secularism, may reflect an inherited uncertainty of Irish Catholics—unlike, say, Italian, Bavarian or Polish Catholics—about their right to display their existence publicly. It recalls how Irish Catholics, in the period when the Penal Laws were weakening but Emancipation had not yet happened, built their first new urban churches on side-streets or down lanes. But this recent hiding of themselves and their religion from public view has not been done out of caution lest they break some law, but voluntarily. There is a sad analogy with Peter’s denying of Jesus when challenged in the high priest’s court.
If in 1964 I was able to write truthfully in Herder Correspondence that the Irish Church was by the standards of Late Tridentine Catholicism a flourishing church, I could not today write that it is by any standards ‘flourishing’. Not that it is in dire straits, but it is in a severely damaged condition. It has a serious shortage of young adult members and consequently of candidates for the priesthood. Its morale has suffered from the fall-out from the waves of revelations of ignored or covered-up child abuse of two different kinds. The national mass media, influencing the attitudes of people generally, have become regularly critical of the Catholic Church or, in some instances, openly hostile to it.
But, as I said, the Irish Church is not in dire straits. The number of its more or less active members is still probably close to what it was in the 1920s or 30s, and generally speaking they are considerably more affluent and better educated than their predecessors in those years. Advertisements for pilgrimages to Catholic shrines on the Continent suggest that these are still being undertaken by considerable numbers. Throughout Ireland many parishes are being led by devoted and enterprising priests with the greatly increased active support of laypeople. The teaching of the Catholic religion is possible in the great majority of schools, and there are many Catholic schools, both primary and secondary, which provide the opportunity to transmit the Faith effectively to children and teenagers.
What the situation amounts to is that the Church in Ireland, as has previously happened throughout Europe, has ceased to be effectively the Church of an entire nation. Instead, it has become, as in the rest of Europe, a part of a diaspora of Catholic communities of communities existing throughout Europe and throughout the world. But that is how the universal Church has been in all of the world except Europe since the earliest times. Europe, remember, became an exception because in the Roman Empire in the fourth century the Church became the religious body favoured and supported by the state, and the new states of Europe followed that Roman example. Now, since around the middle of the last century, European states have switched their patronage to consumerist liberalism and allowed it to use the national mass media as pulpits. Europe’s new exceptionality is to be the only continent which is largely irreligious. The time may have come when, numerically speaking, the principal presence of the Church in the world will be in some other continent. We do not know. In the meantime the task for us in Ireland is to make our community of Catholic communities a flourishing church within the Catholic diaspora.