Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Colorless and uninspiring interior spirit

The Catholic Primate of Ireland Archbishop Sean Brady got the country's dander up recently for a talk he gave about this newly prosperous and increasingly secular nation. "The land of saints and scholars has become the land of stocks and shares," he said. "Tragically, it has also become a land of increasing stress and substance abuse. All of this has occurred as the external practice of faith has declined."

I have been living in Ireland on and off for 40 years. I knew the old Ireland, ruled with an iron hand by the Church, and I know the new Ireland, which has quite suddenly become one of the most prosperous nations on the planet. Contrary to what the Archbishop says, I see much less "stress" today, if by "stress" you include the various forms of guilt, begrudgery, mental anxiety and depression. As for substance abuse! Well, maybe some affluent folks are snorting coke, and maybe some kids are smoking pot, but the old days are gone when half the clients in the local pub staggered home blind drunk.

By and large, I see a people who are happier, healthier, wealthier, and more secure. The arts flourish. Scientific research is first rate. When I first visited Dublin many years ago it was a gray, dreary, littered city, with beggars on every corner. Today it is one of the most colorful and lively cities of Europe, and the Irish people are justly proud.

A report made in 1962 -- and long suppressed by the Church -- about the state of a major industrial school run by the Christian Brothers has just been made public. "The very structure of the school is in dilapidated condition, colorless and uninspiring, and reflects the interior spirit," wrote the author, the school's chaplain, who then went on to catalogue brutal arbitrary punishments, material deprivations, and sexual anomalies. As the clerical abuse scandals of the 90s made clear, such conditions were not uncommon in the Ireland where God's earthly agents held sway.

This is not to disparage the countless good-hearted Irish men and women of faith and religious vocation who dedicated their lives to health care, education and service to the poor. Archbishop Brady is himself, by all reports, a good and kindly man. But I dare say few people in Ireland today would chose to return to "the land of saints and scholars." They will remember particularly John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin, who from 1940 to 1962 ruled Catholic Ireland with an inflexible theology befitting an ayatollah. Scientific humanism, secular democracy and feminism were the archevils of the modern world, according to McQuaid. Jews and Protestants were lackeys of the devil. The only source of truth was Holy Mother Church, and woe betide any Irish Catholic, lay or religious, who got out of line; the hammer of orthodoxy came down with swift and brutal force.

The most dispiriting message in Archbishop Brady's talk was this: "People are seeking to control their future rather than entrust their future to God's promise and plan." It was, of course, the Church, as represented by the Archbishop's predecessors, who interpreted "God's promise and plan," and made a right fine mess of it.

Yes, in the new Ireland people are seeking to shape their futures. They have embraced the secular humanistic message that we are not the helpless playthings of the gods, that we can create a better world for ourselves and our children. Archbishop Brady is right, of course, when he points out that a consumerist culture can lead to lives of empty self-obsession. The Church can play a valuable role inculcating a joyous, colorful spirit of creativity and selflessness among the faithful. It will make itself increasingly irrelevant by preaching helpless resignation to "God's plan."