Brendan Hoban: The strange place that is America…

America often seems like a strange place

Western People 5.10.2021

America is a strange place. Strange that it should be so strange as our two countries have so much in common: same language (mostly); same religion (mostly); so many historic and ongoing intersections; the huge Irish diaspora in America; and the constant intertwining of our respective peoples and cultures.

At least it seems strange to me. Having said that, I’ve only been in America a few times, and then for fleeting visits. But I just don’t get America – in so many ways.

Take the recent Ryder Cup – one of the world’s greatest sporting events – where the best golfers in Europe and the United States went head-to-head in match-play competitions last week, as they do every second year.

Europe has dominated the competition in recent years winning seven of the last nine contests, with the US last winning the much-coveted trophy back in 2016.  This year with the US on home soil, the pressure was on for a home victory.

So, when the formalities were kicked off with the US players introduced on the first tee, the raucous response from the home fans was to be expected – especially as the crowd was estimated at 90% American. Then when the European players were introduced, instead of a polite low-key welcome –what might be expected probably anywhere in the world – the European players were booed.

It could be argued that truths can get lost in translation, that the weaves and wafts of different cultures, not least in expressions of welcome and respect, can seem odd from time to time. Fair enough, but this welcome, American-style, seemed intent on sending a chill through the European players. Not very sporting, it might be said, but then a three-day tournament between multi-millionaires is not really about sport – Rory McIlroy’s unforeseen tears notwithstanding – it’s about money or at least business.

Anyway, like a lot of things about America I just don’t get the booing. And, as readers of this column will recognize, I just don’t get Trump.

The word is that ‘the Donald’, as he is called for some reason, is planning a come-back when Joe Biden’s term as president draws to a close. In the last election, Trump received 74.2 million votes. That’s a lot of Americans who, to give them their due, respect the democratic mandate when every four years they choose who’s going to be president. And 74 million-plus of them actually voted for Trump.

I’ve said it before when I predicted that Trump with his record and his values was unelectable. It seemed inconceivable that he would ever get near the White House apart maybe from safely looking at it from a distance. Everything about him seemed to neutralise the possibility that anyone, apart from a small retinue of those almost permanently out-to-lunch, would cast their vote in his favour. But 74.2 million? Surely, Jesus must have wept.

America, as we say, is America. They do things differently there.

Like American Catholics, for instance. At present a version of the American Civil War is being played out in the Catholic Church in America. There is a huge gulf there between Catholics who support the reform programme that Pope Francis is sponsoring – in effect, what the Second Vatican Council decided back in 1962-5 – and Catholics who are intent on subverting it. And not just ‘lay’ Catholics but priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals.

On his recent visit to Slovakia, Francis was asked about his health, after his recent colon surgery.  ‘I’m still alive’, he said, ‘even though some people wanted me to die’. There were, he went on to explain, ‘meetings between prelates’ who were ‘preparing for a conclave’ (a papal election). Francis was also asked how he dealt with people who looked at him with suspicion. In his response he mentioned ‘a large Catholic television channel’ – apparently it was EWTN he had in mind – that ‘continually speaks ill of the pope’.

This criticism of Francis is not confined to EWTN or to America or but it’s clear that much of it has its sources in the conservative American Catholic Church, in publications like the National Catholic Register and Catholic News Agency along with more than 500 radio affiliates who continue to present the present pope as the source of all the Catholic Church’s problems.

Another question that few seem to want to address is how much money is finding its way into conservative Catholic media in Ireland to support the American effort to undermine Francis. But that’s for another day.

It’s quite extraordinary that individuals like Archbishop Vigano, Cardinal Raymond Burke and Steve Bannon, once an inspiration for Donald Trump are being interviewed by EWTN and given a platform to undermine Francis while on the board of that television station are Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles and president of the U.S. bishops’ conference and Charles Chaput, formerly archbishop of Philadelphia.

In Irish terms, this would be the equivalent of Cardinal Seán Brady and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin conspiring to undermine Pope Francis through a conservative Catholic newspaper or radio station.

It posits the question as to what has happened to the Catholic Church in America if those who continually reminded critics of Pope Benedict about the importance of respecting and obeying ‘the Vicar of Christ on earth’ are now singing from a very different hymn-sheet in their unapologetic efforts to undermine Pope Benedict’s successor?

Yes, America seems a strange place but I think we’re beginning to understand it a bit better.







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  1. Ger Hopkins says:

    Brendan Hoban: The strange place that is America…

    Another great read from Brendan. Worth buying the Western People for on his own.

    It’s a strange article in that you can view all the main points in it in exactly the opposite way.

    If you look at just about any definitive statement Francis has made regarding doctrine it is the liberal wing of the Church that it turns out do not support the ‘programme’ that Francis is endorsing.

    On the occasions when Francis makes it clear where he stands on Church teaching it is the well funded Irish state media and the sympathetic clergy they give a voice to who conspire to undermine Francis.

    What indeed has happened to the Catholic Church in Ireland if those who continually remind critics of Pope Francis about the importance of respecting and obeying ‘the Vicar of Christ on earth’ when it comes to his putative reform agenda are simultaneously singing from a very different hymn-sheet in their unapologetic efforts to undermine the things he has actually pronounced on?

  2. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Brendan Hoban: The strange place that is America …

    #1 “church teaching” on what, Ger???

    There are two serious problems with using this term without specifying what is being referred to:

    1 The principle of the hierarchy of truth, which reminds us that e.g. the truths proclaimed by the Creed belong to a far higher order of truth than e.g. canonical regulation of ordination;

    2. The principle that no teaching has in fact happened until someone has learned something and accepted it as true.

    For reasons that are still unexplained we lack the Irish research data that would help us understand why, increasingly, younger Irish generations tell us by their behaviour that they are not receiving Creedal statements as true (i.e. that for them no important teaching has happened) – despite years of Catholic schooling.

    It is therefore entirely possible that one key reason for this is the frequent absence of any distinction when ‘church teaching’ is referred to, as though all statements and regulations made by the episcopal magisterium have the same importance, and are to be taken in all at once. If Irish teenagers typically cannot name the Trinity (as was reported by an Iona Institute study in 2007) does that not suggest that our teaching model has failed to observe and convey the principle of the hierarchy of truth?

    It is clear that no one ever absorbs and accepts the whole of what the church sets out to teach in one learning event – the reason for Pope Francis’s adoption of the metaphor of the accompanied journey. Essentially synodality is a new teaching and learning model, in recognition that textual doctrinal statements and canonical tables of regulations do not in themselves necessarily teach anyone anything whatever.

    Could all who reach here for the phrase ‘church teaching’ specify always, at least, what ‘teaching’ they are referring to, and remember also that church regulations on many matters, such as ordination, have been subject to change in the past, and belong to a far lower order of importance? We are all on this journey, learning as we go – and to question a current church regulation is not to reject the authority of a pope or to be disloyal.

    To reject outright the very principle of journeying, to speak of ‘teaching’ as achieved simply by the making of a doctrinal or regulatory statement, and to express hatred for whatever Pope Francis says, as a settled bias, belongs to an utterly different order of disagreement.

  3. Ger Hopkins says:

    Brendan Hoban: The strange place that is America…

    Thank you Sean. An ambiguity in my language exposing a lack of clarity in my thinking. What obvious colloquial phrase would you use yourself to identify that subset of Church teaching dealing with ordination of women, gay marriage, Communion for the remarried and the like. In contrast to the truths of the Creed – contentious enough in their day although that day has long passed.

    The inability of Irish teenagers to name the persons of the Trinity is one of a number of things taken by you to demonstrate the failure of schools to be the institution that should pass on the faith. Others would take it to demonstrate the failure of the program that the schools teach. Unfortunately the only thing that sticks with me from sitting through religion class is the post hippie pablum of ‘the difference between being alone and being lonely’.

    Speaking of Irish teenagers: some of us claim that they are leaving the Church because of those teachings mentioned above for which I curently lack a name while others claim they are leaving because the culture makes it difficult to remain and the aforementioned teachings are just an excuse, an afterthought. I was having this conversation recently and asked the person if they had considered joining a liberal protestant church instead. They could still embrace Christainity while some shade of the reformed spectrum was bound to be a match for their preferred set of progressive values. What answer do you think I got? What answer would any young people you know give, Sean? I’d be happy to be surprised on this one.

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    Brendan Hoban: The strange place that is America…

    I hope the young people did not answer in a tribal or sectarian way that of course they would not dream of becoming Protestants.

    Like Brendan, I cannot really understand how America can succumb to the horrible cult of Trumpism. But when I am in that country I notice how hard it is to turn off Fox News on TV. It is an addictive programme and spews lies and conspiracy theories non-stop. And it has been flooding the minds of Americans for the last 25 years.

  5. Sean O’Conaill says:

    Brendan Hoban: The strange place that is America…

    #3 The Creeds were “contentious enough in their day although that day has long passed”.

    Huh, Ger? ‘You cannot be serious!’ (John McEnroe)

    Liberal Protestantism regards recitation of the Creeds as ‘finger crossing’ time – and even maybe as stating a belief in ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ (Lewis Carroll – ‘Through the Looking Glass.’)

    Have you ever tried reading one of the key texts of liberal Protestantism, such as ‘Why Christianity Must Change or Die’ by former Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, John Shelby Spong? If not, you need seriously to brush up on liberal Protestantism before asking any Catholics anywhere why they don’t join that trend.

    Tony Flannery asks what is the point of the Creeds in his latest book, suggesting that they are a product of the Constantinian church – and Joseph O’Leary and I disagreed strongly with that position quite recently here. Did you miss that too, Ger?

    So if you define ‘conservative Catholic’ as merely holding to your own positions on the three disciplinary matters you mention you need to think again about that also. The Creeds lie at the very centre of the current crisis of Christianity, mainly because they were misused so often under Christendom as instruments of coercion and control. For the Christians of the first three centuries their core tenets were instead a vital summary of beliefs, to remind themselves of who they were and why they should regard the disdain and periodic persecution of the Roman empire as ‘passing away’.

    Judging by the (non) enthusiasm shown by Irish Catholic clergy for discussion of these central texts, there is a core evangelical and faith formation problem here – to do with exactly what does lie at the summit of the hierarchy of truth and the message of salvation.

    The key commandment of Christianity is ‘love one another as I have loved you’ NOT ‘make sure your neighbour is as holy as you are’. Nothing could be more conservative than regarding the former – and the great commandments of love of God and neighbour and oneself – as the most important commandments of all – or more liberal than thinking of the Creeds as a non-issue.

    So maybe, to avoid even more confusion, we need to stop using these binary labels in the misleading senses used by the simplistic media? Labelling one another is too obviously a guarantee of misunderstanding.

  6. Ger Hopkins says:

    Brendan Hoban: The strange place that is America…

    Joe @4 Naturally, I would have been as surprised as you if the person I was talking to had answered my question in the sectarian way you described.
    In fact they rejected the protestant option on the grounds that they had no time for organised religion.
    My perception – and I know my perception doesn’t carry much weight on this site! – but my perception nonetheless was that they were looking to avoid the difficulties imposed by a very anti-religious culture. The initial reason given for rejecting the Catholic Church was its teaching, in this case, on LGB matters but when the protestant option was brought up a new excuse was found. Neither of us had Sean’s learned understanding of liberal protestantism.

    Sean @5. I’d still like a useful collective phrase for describing the more popular contentious issues of gay marriage, communion for divorcees, women’s role etc. if you have one.
    When I spoke of the truths of the Creed being contentious in their day I was thinking of the questions raised by Araianism and Homoousios vs. Homoiousios, filioque etc. that were the main reasons for calling the Councils that (in stages) produced the Creed(s). To the extent that we still recite the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed at Mass these questions are probably considered settled by most of us today (although I know I’m going to regret typing that).

    Joe and yourself (if I’m thinking of the right discussion) were debating the meaning of salvation and Christ’s sacrifice. Which debate dominated Church life a good while after those Councils.

    And *of course* there is no hard dividing line between these things nor should there be a hard dividing line between the Creed and any of the rest of our beliefs.

  7. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Brendan Hoban: The strange place that is America…

    Ger @ 6, for that useful collective phrase you seek for the “more popular contentious issues”, why not “Communion”?

  8. SeanO’Conaill says:

    Brendan Hoban: The strange place that is America…

    #6 “I’d still like a useful collective phrase for describing the more popular contentious issues of gay marriage, communion for divorcees, women’s role etc. if you have one.”

    Path-blockers, Ger, how would that do? They are getting in your way, obviously. They also divide us more generally – and therefore prevent us getting quickly to a consensus on the paramountcy of the continuity of the faith tradition. If that won’t work for you, over to you – the collection is yours, not mine.

    As the purpose of mission must surely be to convey to the currently alienated or indifferent – and to the young especially – the overwhelming blessing promised in John 14:23*, any resistance to walking with anyone in that cause is surely a ‘blocker’. Were any or all of your issues to prevent us reassuring, teaching and safeguarding the young I am certain we will have to answer for that on the day of judgement.

    First always for those estranged from God’s unconditional love was the experience of that very thing, mediated by his followers. As Jesus led by walking with anyone – and especially with those then harmed by rules of exclusion, any prioritisation of rules of exclusion today (legalism) is also a preference for path-blocking.

    How can ‘mission’ be excommunional, exclusionary?

    *John 14:23: Jesus replied: Anyone who loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make a home in him.

  9. Ger Hopkins says:

    Brendan Hoban: The strange place that is America…

    A lot to think about there #8 as usual, Sean.

    I’ve a question that is tangentially related to what you are saying.

    Right now, based on what we know and the experience of the protestant churches, do you believe that changing the Church’s teaching on these contentious issues – women’s role, Communion for the remarried, gay marriage – would result in an increase in numbers, especially of young people.

    People can have a whole host of other reasons for changing those teachings but do you believe that changing them would, for example, produce a significant increase in the number of young people attending Mass?

  10. Sean O’Conaill says:

    Brendan Hoban: The strange place that is America…

    #9 Would ending those excluding rules and attitudes re the issues that Ger lists put an end to the church’s crisis and reverse its decline?

    Not in itself– but that is not a sufficient reason for maintaining the status quo on those issues.

    Take the case of a very ancient family restaurant with an ageing and dwindling customer base. Some elder members of the family think that the strict rules of behaviour and deportment that the place has imposed for years are essential to maintain the tone of the place, a tone that does at least attract some loyal paying customers.

    After all, they say, those loyal customers have grown up always going there – even if their children and grandchildren tend to think the menu ‘sucks’ and so are all happily developing diabetes in RocketFood instead.

    Other elder members of this restauranting family are now into believing that those exclusive rules of behaviour and deportment are the equivalent of ‘no hurlers, joggers or Karaoke fans here’ – and so must be dropped entirely to rescue the business.

    At which point the teenage members of this restauranting family might ask: “Yeah to all that, but will the menu still suck?

    Again may I point out that our Irish Bishops Conference did tell us in 2017 that there was quantitative and qualitative research ongoing then into Irish youth attitudes towards the church – in preparation for the 2018 Youth Synod in Rome. That included an online questionnaire. Does anyone know what the ICBC concluded as a consequence, or if the Irish research data was ever even processed? If not, why not?

    Apologies, Ger, if the very mention of Karaoke is too much. By ‘menu’ I am not referring to the Eucharist but to the whole in-church typically unprepared experience, including the too-often disconnected homily. All who come to listen must be made welcome, but only a passionate faith that connects the Gospel and the Mass to the external secular crisis that all young people now face can rescue the church.

    All analogies limp in the end. Does this one help?

  11. Joe O'Leary says:

    Brendan Hoban: The strange place that is America…

    I am not a fiat iustitia pereat mundus person and I believe progress and development on the Contested Issues must happen with great pastoral adroitness and respect for church order (but also with open discussion and attentive communal listening to the testimony of individuals).

    A church that eschews those qualities is bound to fail.

    The obsession with numbers and filling pews has been a poor substitute for them and has left us where we now are.

    Yet for 50 years we fed on flattering sociological reports just as Catholic Africa and Poland do today and just as eager-beaver young traditionalists do.

    Remember ‘the Pope’s Armada’? It seems to have lost its shine, leaving a lesson about how poor an investment restorationism is.

  12. Ger Hopkins says:

    Brendan Hoban: The strange place that is America…

    Sean and Joe thanks for both of those #10 #11. It’s very helpful.

    You both talk about a need for change in the Church itself, quite apart from changes in Church teaching. You seem agreed that changes in teaching on their own wouldn’t bring back most lapsed Catholics.

    (We should nonetheless recognise that a growing number of young Irish Catholics are finding something in the old fashioned Church Rites – to torture Sean’s analogy, they have discovered the delights of prawn cocktails, baked alaska and sherry trifle. But let’s leave them aside for the moment.)

    I’ve a question and I’m not asking it to advance an argument – it’s a genuine request for information if you have it.

    Given the huge scope for experimentation available to the many protestant churches is there a protestant church that has succeeded, in your estimation, in both embracing progressive teachings and ordering itself in a way that it has energised its congregation and is attracting new young members. It isn’t about numbers of course, as Joe has pointed out, but numbers would be a good second order indicator of their success on a deeper level.

    There is no point calling for improvements in the ‘church experience’ unless those improvements are of a kind that are realisable in the here and now. The goal needs to be achievable. And if such improvements can be achieved in the present culture I would imagine that some protestant experiment is already showing the way. If it is possible. In the present culture.

    I would love to hear about any church or group that has managed to connect their religious services with the secular crisis that young people – and the rest of us – are struggling with. If a liberal church has managed to do it that would be even more of an eye opener.

  13. Joe O'Leary says:

    Brendan Hoban: The strange place that is America…

    Here in Tokyo there is a priest who has founded ‘gospel families’ of all sorts, not necessarily Christian, who meet regularly and grow together. It’s a practical response to urban anomie and social isolation. Some priests in Ireland also build communities in a similar way, unfortunately with little support from bishops.

    The Anglican church of St Albans, here, mostly expats, keeps up a steady liturgical and social action. The Canon is a Bantry woman, formerly RC.

    Sunday assemblies of various Asian and Latin American communities seem vibrant, with real community, though Contested Issues do not figure on their agendas.

    Mainstream Japanese churches are rather staid, not terribly attractive to the young I imagine.

    There’s an lgbt group who have celebration in different parishes, though I haven’t heard from them since Covid struck.

    It should not be terribly problematic to form a Christian community, centred on Scripture. The management of a huge church such as we had in Ireland is a different matter. Transmission of the faith to entire generations of Irish children through combined efforts of parents, school, and parish, was something that ran smoothly until recently. If it now falters, the way to compensate would be through cultivating smaller gospel communities, and attempting to revitalize parishes one by one.

    As to America’s insanities, ‘the best lack all conviction and the worst–Steven Bannon and Fox News–are full of passionate intensity,’ and prepared to strike again. They know they can win by keeping up their ruthless behaviour, kicking the impotent Democrats out of their way. Jan 6th was only a prelude.

  14. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Brendan Hoban: The strange place that is America…

    Power and status are simply different aspects of ‘prominence’ in any human community, Ger. As all churches offer some degree of prominence to leaders they also therefore tempt ‘ambition’ – which is not what Jesus meant by ‘service’. It is ‘looking to others for glory’ (John 5:44) – Jesus’s pinpoint description of a human weakness that seems to be part of ‘the human condition’. Unchecked, that weakness can and does corrupt also – to become a source of scandal in all churches.

    The search for a perfectly pure ‘church’ is therefore doomed to failure. The pattern of the spiritual journey that culminates in mature and regretful realisation of one’s own youthful desire for recognition and ‘glory’ is very well documented by Richard Rohr OFM – and now echoed by e.g. Brian McLaren and others from evangelical Protestantism – in a movement that self-identifies as ‘the emerging church’ or ’emerging Christianity’.

    The tendency for ‘splinter’ churches to begin with huge idealism and ‘purity’, but then over time to decay into facsimiles of what they splintered from, is very well described by Richard Rohr in story form here:

    It follows that ’emerging church’ is more ‘shared insight into the spiritual journey’ than a single ‘corporate’ entity, for obvious reasons. Richard’s insight that Christian love is ‘non-dualistic’ – i.e that of its nature it does not seek to ‘judge’ others or to make distinctions – helps us to understand why St Paul valued love over knowledge, which is ‘dualistic’ and ‘accumulative‘ and therefore a temptation to ambition.

    Brian McLaren’s books are a riveting account of his own journey from Protestant evangelicalism (which tends to be ‘fundamentalist’) to an appreciation of the Catholic contemplative and mystical tradition, very well accounted for in turn by Richard Rohr. This is a different kind of ‘ecumenism’ – less to do with finding a common church structure than a shared understanding and ‘way of being’ as Christians.

    Philip McParland has a helpful intro to ‘Emerging Christianity’ here:

  15. Ger Hopkins says:

    Brendan Hoban: The strange place that is America…

    Thank you both, Joe #13 and Sean #14.

    Superficially you seem to be giving different answers but on closer examination your basic message is the same. As I read it anyway.

    Joe describes a number of examples big and small, mostly small, of attempts to make religious observance relevant that have met with some degree of success. (I will look in to these, Joe, thanks.)
    Sean on first glance is saying that looking for such ‘perfectly pure’ examples is futile.

    But Sean then goes on to recognise the possibility of success for smaller scale efforts – groups with ‘shared insight into the spiritual journey’, ‘the Emmaus model of companionship’.
    And, echoing that, most of Joe’s examples of success are on a small scale – gospel families, ethnic churches in Japan, the historic example of Irish ‘parents, school, and parish’.

    Is it telling us something that these small communities – small platoons if you like – are the only scale at which it is felt Christians can find success.
    Is it saying something about the external forces in society? Those that create the culture. The ones that exist and hold power on a larger scale; Government, old media, NGOs.
    We have so many examples where small scale, cellular organisation is the response to oppressive regimes; the early Church, our own experience in Penal times, underground movements in authoritarian countries.

    Bringing home the fact, once again, that all of the problems the Church faces are not internal ones.

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