Breda O’Brien: Catholics must step up the fight against our hollow culture
This has been a terrible year for Catholics, but it has also offered a guide to the future
The World Meeting of Families at the RDS in August. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
For many Catholics who take their faith seriously, it has been a truly terrible year. They discovered that a majority of their countrymen and women – including many of their fellow Catholics – were perfectly happy to vote for abortion. In addition, the much-anticipated visit of a beloved pope was completely overshadowed by the Cardinal McCarrick scandal.
Catholics were already horrified by two decades of scandals involving abuse of children by clergy. The idea that someone like McCarrick, who allegedly openly preyed on seminarians and who abused much younger boys too, could become one of the most powerful churchmen in the United States is devastating. Worse, no one is being held accountable.
But even when the truth hurts like being doused with scalding water, it is preferable to delusion. The old idea that there was a silent majority out there still upholding key Christian values has been effectively demolished. For many, Catholicism is as shallow as sentimental attachment to certain rites of passage and seasonal celebrations.
For others, it is an object of virulent hatred, the source of every evil and the enemy of all progress.
For those who fall into neither of the previous categories but instead, in their own halting, stumbling ways try to live by the message of Christ, there is now no option but to accept reality. Christians who take their faith seriously are a minority in Ireland and will become an even smaller minority in the near future.
A bleak reality? Yes, but also curiously liberating. Catholics in the pews will no longer accept a lack of real accountability and consequences for those who have cynically exploited their position in the church in order to abuse others. They want an authentic Christianity.
They also want a church that is not accommodationist and anxious to please the dominant culture. That facilitated an Ireland that is so eager to be perceived as modern that it will dump any cherished belief as fast as any insecure teenager desperate for popularity.
Authentic Christian belief is profoundly out of step with the zeitgeist and if Christianity is going to survive at all, it will have to become more out of step, not less.
Our culture is in love with the idea that Patrick Deneen, author of Why Liberalism Failed, calls the self-creating self. There are no prescribed roles or values – we must discover them all for ourselves.
This generation has the awful burden of feeling that they must make some kind of self-created masterpiece of their lives and that to fail to do so is catastrophic. Unsurprisingly, the younger generation also seems to be uniquely vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
The Church is realising that accommodationism is simply a quicker route to obliteration
Christianity says exactly the opposite. You do not create yourself. You are not an atomised individual engaging in contracts with other atomised individuals that last as long as they are mutually beneficial. You are created by God and your unique destiny is not something you have to invent. Instead, real happiness involves a great deal of forgetting about yourself and focusing on others.
In a bleak year, there is some comfort in the emergence of a new generation of Christian young people – a tiny minority, but a curiously unafraid minority. Many of them were galvanised by the abortion referendum and almost by accident, stumbled across Catholicism. Others come from committed Catholic families.
They have no interest in blending in with the culture. They see its hollowness and they want a challenge. They meet in small groups to do things as diverse as organising fundraisers for children with serious illnesses to taking part in soup runs, but also to pray.
The same dynamic can be seen among those with families. People are realising that if they do not consciously and effortfully instil values in their children, the dominant culture will do it for them.
Nothing to lose
The institutional Church is also realising that accommodationism is simply a quicker route to obliteration. Before the referendum there were questions about whether a strong intervention by the church hierarchy would hinder or help. Now, that worry has been removed, if only because there is nothing left to lose.
The hierarchy has instituted a new Council for Life. The membership will be drawn from young adults, members of the pro-life movements and people with medical and legal expertise. At least two bishops will be members.
It has always been nonsense that the church cares for people only up to birth.
Anyone who believes that should ponder for a second what would happen to thousands of families, many of them lone parents, if St Vincent de Paul stopped operating. It is the largest voluntary social justice organisation in Ireland with more than 11,000 volunteers, who begin every meeting with a prayer.
But now the church also has a dedicated Council For Life whose mandate is to drive home the message that it is not enough to care after someone is born if our culture mandates someone already alive not being born at all.
Perhaps belatedly, the hierarchy has realised, like the parents of young families, that faith and values are not passively absorbed but must be articulated, promoted and lived in visible ways.