Sledge hammered or airbrushed – getting rid of ‘beautiful things’­

A few weeks ago, when Michael Longley, the poet, was conferred with the freedom of Belfast city, he commented, ‘Without the beautiful things our society will die’, explaining that the arts ­ especially in troubled times ­ must be kept at the heart of civic life.
When I read Longley’s words, I thought of the Isis militants in Iraq, who took a hammer to civilisation in the museum in Mosul, destroying in a matter of minutes priceless 3,000-year-old artworks. The graphic pictures on television, coming days after thousands of books at Mosul Public Library were destroyed, showed ‘the freedom-fighters’ using sledge-hammers and power drills to smash ancient artworks as they rampaged through the museum. In Longley’s words, getting rid of ‘beautiful things’­ and at a time when they were most needed.
We can’t point the finger, of course. W. B. Yeats wrote about a time in Irish history when
‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity’.
In crisis situations when emotions run high, decisions are made on the run that can pay undue regard to the implications for future generations.
I ask the question: could something of the same be happening now to religion in Irish society, albeit in a more subtle, oblique, almost nonchalant way?
Nothing as dramatic or direct as the actions of the Isis militants but a gradual, insistent airbrushing of religion out of Irish life.
You see it in the small things.
Soccer players from all over the world in the English Premiership casually bless themselves on entering the field of play or drop to their knees in prayer if they happen to score, and you wonder when was the last time a Gaelic footballer or hurler gave any public indication that they even believe in God, not to speak of the embarrassment of blessing themselves on the field of play.
You sense it in a national newspaper, dumbing down its standards to protect its commercial interests, running a feature on recent weddings, when reports on three ceremonies covered in a specific issue, laud the services of a humanist solemniser.
Or a national television service, with clear public service obligations, demonstrating an unapologetic imbalance, even bias not so much in content but in an underlying sneer about adherents of particular religious faiths.
Or ambitious politicians and journalists holding up a wet finger in the breeze and deciding that to gain media credibility they need to surf the emerging populist resentment against Catholicism by savaging the equivalent of a dead sheep.
Or the growing campaign to present Catholic schools as medieval centres of bigotry and mass indoctrination and secular schools as models of civilisation, good taste and modernity.
The creeping consensus in Irish society, often knee-jerk and unexamined, is that religion is at best foolish and at worse a kind of infection that we need to be inoculated against. And that if we could escape from the clutches of religion, a new more benign dawn would reveal a brave, new world of tolerance, respect and equanimity.
It’s nonsense, of course, though it’s virtually impossible in the present climate to argue against it. Religion, and more specifically Catholicism, are presented as oppressive and antediluvian, out of sync with modern life ­ a caricature which in truth Catholics themselves have often conspired to underline in our focus on control rather than on service, on the needs of the institution rather than the message of love Jesus preached.
It’s impossible too to argue for what should be obvious to any fair-minded person, the dividend that religion has delivered in Irish society ­ in the care of the poor, education, health, in social cohesion and so forth.
Even to hint at the fuller, deeper and richer personal life that religion represents and aspires to can reek of special pleading. And to refer to the challenge and comfort of a lived faith in a God of love and compassion is almost to speak a language that so many now either refuse to speak or don’t really understand. For many, Catholicism, its practices and its rituals, are now neatly ware-housed, out of sight and out of mind.
Part of the difficulty is that the Catholic Church (and Catholics) are still shell-shocked by the extraordinary turn-around in our fortunes in the space of a few decades, the social acceptance of values and standards at odds with traditional religion and the failures associated with the clerical child abuse scandals ­ seared, it would seem forever, into public consciousness.
We’ve lost our courage and our confidence and those who oppose us, even with fewer arguments and thinner portfolios, are given a clear, cheer-leading run by the media in the battle for the minds and hearts of Ireland. Peculiarly, we’re reluctant to engage with the arguments, even when there’s little substance to them. And even when levels of religious practice in Ireland are still, by European standards, exceptionally high.
There’s a case to be made that Ireland, despite our relative prosperity and individual achievements, is becoming for many a waste-land of despair: suicide, self-harm, eating disorders, drug abuse, anxiety, unhappiness, a pervasive sadness, a loss of self-worth, breakdown in its many forms and so on. It is as if something of the soul of Ireland is being hollowed out and there’s nothing of substance replacing it ­ apart from wanting more and giving less.
Catholics (and adherents of other faiths) need to find their bearings and voice in the present quicksand of Irish life, to present unapologetically the dividend of religion for individuals, family and society and to argue for the traditions of spirituality that will help to give meaning and purpose to our people.
Some of the ‘beautiful things’ Michael Longley talked about. When we dismiss them, we lose more than we know.

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  1. I have a lot of sympathy for Brendan in this and I share a lot of what he feels. However, we all know that as well as the beautiful aspect of our faith experience there was also that which was less than beautiful. And most people would seem to be taking greater cognisance of the latter,at the moment,as it is still all fairly new to us and totally shocking. Hence the current widespread negativity towards our religion and Church. I would refer again to that very moving piece on the front page of the Sunday Independent a few weeks ago:
    “At 60 and gay, I can dream.”
    Just reading last Sunday’s Inde, in Quotes of the week, there is a quote from Fr. Tony Flannery regarding the ” sense of depression around the whole Catholic theme ……” All absolutely spot on, Tony.
    I am more than a bit surprised that nobody else has responded to Brendan’s article. It is marvellous how he keeps providing us with these excellent and thought provoking pieces.
    Thanks, Brendan.

  2. Willie Herlihy says:

    Hi Brendan;
    I love your articles for their clear thinking and humane arguments.
    I think we must look a what our history has taught us.
    You will  probably say, I am still banging the same old drum.
    I can only look at life as I have lived through it.
    I did not grow up in a democracy,no more than Iran to day, can be called a democracy.
    I grew up in a Catholic Theocracy:
    1 As a young man, I was in digs in an Irish City,the daughter of the owner became pregnant outside of marriage.I witnessed the local priest coming to the door and telling the parents, that their daughter had disgraced the parish and she should leave.
    2 Taoiseach John A Costello the supposed leader of all the country. his obedience to the Catholic Church was total and obdurate. On the death of the first President of Ireland Douglas Hyde a Protestant, in 1949, he attended the funeral at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin,but neither he nor his ministers went into the Cathedral, as Church policy at the time forbade Catholics from entering a Protestant Church.
    3 I come to my own Daughter in this present time,brought up a Catholic and went to Church until she went to College,.She is now married and has a little boy. Prior to being married she  lived with her boy friend, now her husband for a number of years.I recently asked her why she does not go to Mass, her answer was and I quote (Dad you cant be serious,look at the way we were spoken about before we got married,What about the scandals with the religious abusing Children).
    So you see  history does matter,the Church appears to be more concerned with fundamental doctrine RATHER than people.If they continue in this vein, my little grand son of seven months old will never go to Church,

  3. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Is it short-sighted to think that this “airbrushing” of Catholicism out of Irish life is more than a light sprinkling of paint over a culture or are we seeing a larger, long-term vision of Catholics the world over being erased from history based on current fertility numbers. The U.S. ranks 123rd in the world at 2.01 births per woman on average and Ireland is at 125 at 2 births per woman (1.59 in Canada) – remember, the replacement rate is 2.335 and any factor contributing to this could be considered genocidal (economics comes to mind?). Losing courage and confidence in those who oppose the continuance of our culture, heritage and religion is where we Catholics are at right now. How long do we decide to stay here is the question?

  4. I have just one thought to add to Brendan’s excellent article. On countless occasions I have heard bright, intelligent people being interviewed – the latest being this very morning – on the reasons why they have left the church or turned their back on any kind of religion. Many of them say that they don’t believe the human race started with one man and one woman, (Adam and Eve)and they feel they have, in effect, been taught a lie. I always feel sad that these people have never had the chance to be properly educated on the Bible and so, have tried to live their lives based on what they learned at the age of ten? twelve? fourteen? while being quite sophisticated in every other area of their lives. It is very difficult to say where the responsibility lies for this chasm in their education. Perhaps it lies with all of us.

  5. Willie Herlihy says:

    Rosaline @4
    I think at this stage, in the 21st Century,it is well established that man evolved over time.
    It is not the first time, sacred scripture has bee proven wrong,remember poor old Galileo.
    I think the Adam & Eve story, is just that, a story.

  6. Willie@ (5)
    I’m afraid you may have missed the point I was making. The people I was talking about know all about evolution but they think the church is still teaching what it taught back in the mid-1900’s because their religious education has not been updated. And that is the reason why I said that we all may be to blame for this.
    It would be very useful if someone could organize a panel discussion on television on the lines of the “Faith and Reason Institute” in the U.S. Mike Peelo comes to mind as an ideal moderator. I suggest a television discussion because the people who could benefit from it don’t participate in church services and this may be the only way to reach them. We cannot just stand by and bemoan the loss of faith if we–the church–are not prepared to do something about it and begin to think outside the box.

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