What do we need? Catholic Intellectuals or Cheer Leaders
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the Irish Times tells us, bemoans the lack of Catholic intellectuals in Ireland. The Church, he feels, needs ‘competent lay men and women well educated in their faith’.
The Catholic Church in Ireland, Martin commented, is ‘very lacking’ in people of intellect who can address the pressing issues of the day. ‘If the place of the Church in the current social and political discussion in Ireland risks becoming increasingly marginal, this is not just due to some sort of external exclusion; it is also because the Church in Ireland is very lacking in keen intellects and prolific pens addressing the pressing subjects of the day’, he said.
I’d have to say ‘Amen’ to that.
It’s more than a source of frustration to hear Catholic education being praised to the skies and then to consider the question: Is there one Catholic intellectual in Ireland, the recipient of a huge personal and institutional investment in Catholic education, who’s able and willing to engage with faith questions in the market-place? I can’t think of one, I have to confess.
Yes, there are a lot of scribblers around writing stuff that, if we’re lucky, ends up in the recycling bin at the end of the week. But much if not most of it is agenda-led. It’s not the kind of engagement with ideas that Martin is talking about. You know before you read the usual suspects what they’re going to say.
Part of the problem is that there’s little if any acceptance in the leadership of our Church for the free flow of ideas, still less for those who might robustly challenge a given wisdom. To date the record would suggest that only those who unambiguously and uncritically defend the status quo are entitled to be heard – and only those who dismiss the critical voices are regarded as being inside the fold.
Real intellectuals, even Catholic intellectuals if such there are closeted away somewhere, tend not to see the Catholic Church as an institution encouraging the free flow of ideas and the kind of open debate that respects, to paraphrase Matthew Arnold, ‘a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the Catholic world’.
Part of the reason why the ‘lay’ Catholic intellectual is an endangered species in Irish life is that ‘clerical’ intellectuals are often the subject of undue pressure to bend their views to suit the prevailing wisdom.
The case of the five Irish priests, officially ‘silenced’ by the Vatican, speaks volumes about the present reluctance to set out any kind of religious stall in the market-place of ideas. That some of them were just effectively helping to explain in ordinary words the insights of theologians and biblical scholars and were ‘silenced’ because of it is an embarrassment beyond words. And, as we know, they ended up as the equivalent of sacrificial lambs hunted down by the Catholic ‘stasi’, the equivalent of the East German secret police, who wouldn’t know their theological arm from their elbow.
The difficult truth is that there is little institutional support for intellectual debate in the Catholic Church – as distinct from cheer-leaders. For example, there is little or no respect for theologians in the upper reaches of the Irish Church, by which I mean theologians of the calibre of Enda McDonagh, Gabriel Daly, Sean Fagan, Vincent McNamara and others rather than those others of whom great things were expected but who now seem often to use every opportunity to ingratiate themselves with church authorities, with an eye to promotion. (Not that Pope Francis is impressed with them!)
Archbishop Martin mentions Cardinal Henry Newman, whom Pope Benedict XVI admired, and in particular, he recalls Benedict’s comment at Newman’s beatification in 2010: ‘The service to which Blessed John Henry was called involved applying his keen intellect and his prolific pen to many of the most pressing subjects of the day’.
But Newman is a case in point. What’s remembered (or at least quoted, of Newman now) is his enchantment with Catholicism and his critical engagement with it has almost been air-brushed from the official record. What Benedict remembers is the public protagonist who intellectually argued his way into Catholicism but Newman holding the Catholic Church up to the light has virtually disappeared from the Catholic record. Worse still the Newman spirit of intellectual enquiry has been stilled by making him a saint, which is really a way of placing him out of reach on a pious shelf at the back of the room and domesticating his influence. Saintliness can be a great limitation on real, as distinct from pious, influence.
Archbishop Martin, in his recent message, has many important things to say about the place of the Church in the current social and political discussion in Ireland, not least the risk of it becoming increasingly marginal. I share too his frustration with ‘negative political commentary’, with a ‘neo-clerical Church, focussed just on priests’ and with religious media which are often ‘reduced to mere blogs of clerical gossip’.
The problem is that if bishops or priests or intelligent ‘lay’ Catholics are not prepared to reflectively engage in the public market-place then that space is left open to obsessive Catholic extremists who seek to psychologically bludgeon anyone who doesn’t agree with them – and do untold damage to the Catholic faith in Ireland – and to religious media who often seem more anxious to protect their pockets than to engage with the realities of faith in the world.
Diarmuid Martin has pointed us in the right direction.
Brendan, as usual,to quote the southern white segregationist George Wallace ‘you put the hay down where the goats can get at it’.
The problem is, with the exception of Diarmuid Martin, we lack leaders of intellectual ability,the reason for this, is simple,they were all selected according to Pope John Paul 11”s template.
This template required men with strong Marian devotion, who would do Rome’s bidding and allow the Pope to do their thinking for them.
Currently, we have five Irish Priests silenced by the Vatican,to quote Brendan, ‘they ended up as the equivalent of sacrificial lambs hunted down by the Catholic ‘stasi’, the equivalent of the East German secret police, who wouldn’t know their theological arm from their elbow’.
The ‘stasi’, have agents, in the form of the self appointed guardians of orthodoxy, in every parish.
These agents have a ready ear in Rome, as is obvious, by the silencing of the above mentioned Priests.
It looks to me as if they, not the Pope are calling the shots.
Along with a need for ‘Catholic intellects’ is an even greater need for ‘thinking Catholics’. Indeed part of the problem in the Church has been our letting intellects, particularly of the clerical variety, do the thinking for us. That’s not to say they don’t have an important role to play and service to offer, for which we are truly grateful, but fear of straying beyond the realm of orthodoxy keeps us from exercising a healthy, God-given sense of wonder and curiosity. As a result our souls are deadened and our deepest questions remain unexplored.
As Brendan points out, questioning is discouraged and looked upon as problematic and he is right when he says that “there is little institutional support for intellectual debate in the Catholic Church – as distinct from cheer-leaders”. Thomas Reese of the NCR was also right when he said “Whether by design or by accident, the John Paul papacy broke the alliance between bishops and theologians which had proved so successful against the Roman Curia at Vatican II.” That paralysing gap of distrust is still there but hopefully narrowing under Pope Francis.
The online Catholic intellect Bishop Robert Barron calls for a ‘new apologetics’. I’m not so sure that is what is needed as unfortunately apologetics can amount to no more than the defence of a given orthodoxy rather than a being part of a process of mutual learning and discovery. Bishop Barron has however helpfully identified four things that he feels alienate people from church and are obstacles to faith, namely (1) a caricatured image of God, (2) a misunderstanding of the nature and use of the Bible, (3) an assumed dichotomy between religion and science, and (4) seeing religion as a primary source of violence in the world. Plenty to talk about there both within and beyond the religious community.
But is it proving possible for us to talk about these things in our parishes? There are meetings, but rarely in my experience do the topics get beyond the churchy certainties of sacrament and liturgy (of vested interest to clergy) and rarely do they extend beyond presentations on what we are supposed to think rather than what we actually think.
I am fortunate enough in my own town to be able to meet with a group of Christians from various denominations who are open to free discussion and conversation on topics of life and faith. Our current topics are as broad as God, the Bible, Jesus, Humanity, Afterlife, and Church. There is some input usually in the form of a YouTube or other video, but we trust ourselves and the Holy Spirit enough to open our hearts and minds to each other without a crushing need be right about everything or to avoid mistakes. What is important is that we know our thinking is evolving and always will be. These are most enjoyable occasions and satisfy my ongoing search for purpose and meaning in life. I may have long ago given up hope of having this experience within the confines of my Catholic parish, but maybe its better that way as it pushes me out into the wider world only to find God there, alive and active and doing God’s best stuff.
“Is there one Catholic intellectual in Ireland, the recipient of a huge personal and institutional investment in Catholic education, who’s able and willing to engage with faith questions in the market-place? I can’t think of one, I have to confess.”
That last sentence doesn’t surprise me as Brendan apparently completely missed the exchange between Joe O’Leary and myself back in 2014 on this very website – on the critical theological issue of Atonement. (“Atonement: why do Irish clergy avoid this issue?” http://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie/2014/02/atonement-why-do-irish-clergy-avoid-this-issue/ )
Joe was the sole cleric to respond to this question on this site. When I asked why this was, Joe came back finally with:
“Sean, the problem is the phobia of so many clergy about studying theology or preparing their sermons in a serious way. Also there does not seem to be a forum where they could chat with the faithful about theological worries, some of which are genuine causes of anxiety.”
To this day neither of these assertions has been challenged on this site, and Joe’s summation remains as the last contribution to that discussion. Both are grounds for the most serious concern. Especially the concern of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.
As the absence of a regular forum for serious discussion between clergy and laity – even in Ireland’s largest diocese – is obviously a structural issue, and as Archbishop Martin has many times told us that structural reform is not a priority for him, he surely needs to consider his own responsibility for the continuing shortage of lay Catholic intellectuals in Ireland. He belongs to a magisterium whose continuing teaching model in Ireland can only be described as ‘proclamation without dialogue’. No better model has ever been devised for deadening the mind. Those few Irish clerics who have attempted to open up dialogue in Ireland have fallen victim to the delators encouraged by the CDF – and by all of those Irish bishops who have sat idly by while that happened.
As Pope Francis has recently reminded us, Catholic truth is ‘not a closed system’ but ‘a living person’. The continuing absence of a dialogical culture in our Irish church is therefore a denial of a key component of all Christian communion – and an insult to the Eucharist. We adult lay people have still nowhere to take our sincere questions, for mature, open discussion. That does not mean there are no Irish Catholic lay intellectuals – it just means that God alone knows who they are.
By failing to provide a forum for adult lay questions in every diocese Dr Martin and his fellow bishops are perpetuating the falsehood that Catholic truth is indeed a closed system, that the Catechism is all we need, and that there is just no room for Catholic lay intellectuality in the church.
The ACP does at least provide this website, but, as Joe O’Leary has warned us, clerical (CDF-induced?) ‘phobia’ has hamstrung that as well.
Brendan, that is such an excellent piece –one of your very best– and your analysis is absolutely spot on. What those of us who still care about our Church have to put up with is very often and very definitely “an embarrassment beyond words”. I have not yet read what Willie and MM and Sean have to say in their comments but I am sure , like myself, they agree completely with you. I do wonder, however, are Peter and Con also impressed with your analysis as they are also intelligent men who usually seem to play down a different wing from most of the rest of us. They absolutely baffle me at times!!
Dirmuid Martin in his recent sermon on the admission of several Deacons to the Dublin Diocese from which his remarks on the lack of catholic intelectuals is drawn, pointedly covers the problem of clericalism,and the consequential relegation of lay involvement in church affairs by virtue of an abscence of “collars and stripes” as alluded to by Pope Francis and quoted by the archbishop.Hopefully Diarmuid Martin’s views are shared by his colleague bishops and they put in place meaningful structures for the exchange of views between all the baptised ,it would certainly offer an example of the Irish Churches bonafides in encouraging engagement by thinking catholics,considering Diarmuid Martin’s upset over their absence from public discourse.
Newman has been replaced by a monstrous wax figure, a fetish for Catholics who want to live in the past, and has become unusable in theological debate. The budding Vatican II-style insights in some of his writings, highlighted by Vatican II theologians such as Nicholas Lash, are now drowned out by the endless recycling of his polemic screeds that can be used for jaded sectarian purposes.
“The case of the five Irish priests, officially ‘silenced’ by the Vatican, speaks volumes about the present reluctance to set out any kind of religious stall in the market-place of ideas.”
Could anything be more obvious? And the five priests in question are very moderate and mainstream thinkers and communicators, victims of the culture-war paranoia sustained by the worst elements in the Catholic world.
“That some of them were just effectively helping to explain in ordinary words the insights of theologians and biblical scholars and were ‘silenced’ because of it is an embarrassment beyond words. And, as we know, they ended up as the equivalent of sacrificial lambs hunted down by the Catholic ‘stasi’, the equivalent of the East German secret police, who wouldn’t know their theological arm from their elbow.”
Spot on, Brendan. There is no theological respectablility in their treatment. They are the victim of bureaucrats, the same sort of people who blindly imposed the new “translation” of the liturgy.
“there is little or no respect for theologians in the upper reaches of the Irish Church, by which I mean theologians of the calibre of Enda McDonagh, Gabriel Daly, Sean Fagan, Vincent McNamara and others”
You could add that there seems to be little interest in the ecumenical and interreligious encounters which are one of the most inspiring loci of theological insight today.
I’m sure the problem lies in “competent lay men and women well educated in their faith” and “only those who unambiguously and uncritically defend the status quo are entitled to be heard”.
The issue with education is for all the theology one reads and retains, the true education is in the hands on experience of moving through a status quo institution (like education) and the acquired loyalty it imposes on its learners.
If you are against the status quo then you certainly don’t look towards institutions to educate you. You put yourself in a position to learn like a prophet would by living on the fringes of society. I believe I’ve read this on the ACP site.
Do you think there is perhaps more to learn from a man/woman who has been homeless, has gone without and survived than from someone who was given an opportunity at an advanced education? Jesus Christ may have us think this.
The problems we face are real-world but we ask that people immerse themselves in the written experiences of others to gain an insight on how to rise up out of despair. That’s not a real world solution.
“Catholic intellectual” just might have become the oxymoron of our time. Where are those intellects who see it fit to seek the katabasis?
Our minds bottleneck at our daily responsibilities in making sure we are competent citizens. Being a competent citizen does not allow for thoughts like “eliminate the 1% at all cost” or “overthrow the ruling elite” or simple truths that are apparent to a christian mindset that hasn’t been subjected to the loyalty-inducing advanced learning centre of your choice.
I don’t think it is necessarily what you are looking for that is the problem, it is where you are looking.
Some years ago I was going into Veritas shop in Dublin central when I was handed a leaflet by some ladies, probably in their seventies. It was about the failings of religious education in schools. I remarked to them that they were giving this to the wrong person, they should be giving it to the archbishop. They replied that they had asked to meet bishop Martin, but he refused to meet them. In the years since then I have not heard that bishop Martin has set up any forum for dialogue with lay people.