I've dedicated much of this blog in recent months to criticising the Catholic Church in the light of the position of women and the sex abuse scandal, and I make no apologies for that. Yet there is sometimes a risk that legitimate criticisms obscure the vast canvas of goodness and hope against which they are daubed, and sometimes it's necessary to step back and celebrate the wider picture.
Twice this weekend I've been reminded of how vital and positive the Catholic faith is, and of how it reaches across all human boundaries to create a vast living organism made up of billions of people, living and dead, which spans eras, continents and cultures in its universality. These seem like appropriate reflections for the Feast of Pentecost.
First, I listened to a podcast of Desert Island Discs, broadcast on 26th March, which featured the writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce, whose film credits include Hilary and Jackie, Welcome to Sarajevo and 24 Hour Party People. DID is one of my favourite radio programmes (the other is In Our Time), and Cottrell-Boyce was one of the most joyful interviewees I've heard. He referred repeatedly (without any pious pretentiousness) to the centrality of Catholicism in his life, offering vivid reminiscences of a working class childhood in Liverpool where the church was the hub of the community, and of his own experience of family life as a husband and father of seven children, all of whom - remarkably - share their parents' commitment to their Catholic faith. It was a life-giving programme which made no mention of the Church's failings, but rather served as a reminder that the Catholic Church has been a great force for good in postwar Britain, in its provision of education and its capacity to hold together communities and families at times of social disintegration and growing economic disenfranchisement. I believe it still has that capacity, and it would be a great loss to our society if we allowed the failings of the Church to obscure its enduring strengths. Cottrell-Boyce's chosen record was Allegri's Miserere, his book was Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle, and his luxury was a ferris wheel!
The other experience which made me stop and think was reading an article by John Waters in Friday's Irish Times, reflecting on the pervasive antagonism towards the Catholic Church in the Irish media (which is of course also true of the British media). He refers to a speech by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin which encompassed a wide range of questions and insights about the Catholic faith in modern Ireland, but which the media reported very selectively only in the context of its relatively few references to the sex abuse scandal. You can follow the link to read the full article, but here are the paragraphs which most struck me, because they apply to any society in which a secularist ideology has triumphed over perennial questions of human existence which necessarily shade towards theological reflection:
[C]itizens now have no public forum – in the day-to-day public conversation that largely creates the culture in which they live – in which to encounter explorations of the fundamental questions relating to their humanity in its fullest dimensions. Each of us is, for example, mortal, and we must deal with this condition as perhaps the most defining aspect of our human condition. We are frail, fragile beings, mystified as to the origins of our consciousnesses and inner realities.While I think the vitality of Catholicism is well-served by informed and trenchant criticism when necessary, I admit that reading that article made me ask myself if sometimes I too quickly allow the secular media to shape my perceptions of the Church. Catholics in today's world need to face both ways, not by being Janus-faced but by appreciating that our identities and values cannot but be shaped by secular and theological perspectives, and that the two must be held in creative tension. It's so easy to lose our balance, and tilt into defensive religiosity on the one hand or hostile critique on the other. Keeping one's balance is easier said than done, but perhaps this posting shows me picking myself up and dusting off my knees, preparing for the next fall (as a daughter of Eve must do)!
Ireland is a human community more than an economy political society or democracy. The vast majority of those who inhabit the civil realm also continue to perceive their essential humanity through the prism offered by Catholicism. We are all citizens, yes, but most of us are also embraced by that religious category, “the Catholic faithful”, and even those who are not betray the same human characteristics as those who are. Whether any particular individual elects to “believe” or not is beside the point: we are all subject to – and, perhaps more importantly, are collectively defined by – several ineluctable facts: we are creatures, we are dependent and we are mortal. No matter how effectively media-generated culture succeeds in shutting out the questions arising from these ineluctable human characteristics, they continue to assert themselves in our silent, solitary moments, in our dreams and nightmares, in moments of apprehension or ill-health. In a Christian society, only Christ answers these questions.
The first and most fundamental issue at stake in the crisis that besets the church, therefore, is not the “faith” of Irish citizens, but the capacity of the public conversation to accommodate discussion of the total humanity of Irish people. The threat is not to our Catholicism but to our humanity.