THE RUNNING story about the closure of the Vatican embassy is revealing concerning the undertows of Irish life, thinking and feeling. The intelligence that the embassy was among the cheapest of Ireland’s diplomatic missions finally belies the pretence that this was an economic decision, laying bare an opportunistic act of neurotic bigotry by militant atheists seeking to impose their myopic beliefs on the rest of us.
It has taken three months for the worm to turn. It is remarkable that, over this period, and notwithstanding implacable media hostility towards the Catholic Church, the story did not go away. Labour’s slithery agenda is caught in the headlights, and the Taoiseach will need to move decisively to avoid long-term contamination.
The mechanics of this turnaround are forensically interesting: the slow-burn of public opinion feeding through Fine Gael backbenchers, keeping the issue flickeringly on the agenda through Christmas. But such an exercise takes us only so far towards understanding. For things to unfold as they have, it was necessary for some strange process of combustion to occur in the depths of the Irish psyche, and atypically to burst out into the public realm. This suggests that conventional public wisdom is wildly wrong about the condition of Irish Catholicism, that some secret, latent energy exists and waits to manifest itself in some unexpected way.
Should this be surprising? If you drive around Ireland on Sunday mornings, your progress is impeded at various intervals by the parked cars of the Catholic faithful outside their churches. These are not Martians, but normal Irish citizens who pay taxes, read newspapers, play golf, have sex and eat sushi. Yet the media conversation gives few hints of their continuing existence.
Underlying the inevitable ideological prejudices infecting our media, there’s another dynamic, relating to language and reason, which has disabled the public conversation’s capacity to move between the physical and metaphysical worlds. Increasingly many media organs seem incapable of dealing with the metaphysical at all, other than in the ironic and disdainful manner of a vegetarian waiter in a steak restaurant.
The everyday media languages of economics and politics are utterly incapable of jumping the gap to the great mysteries of human reality. Try this: talk for 15 minutes about the European debt problem, then stop and try immediately to speak about God, the origins of consciousness or the prospect of eternity. Tricky? Conventional culture is nudging us towards the conclusion that this difficulty arises because of an intrinsic implausibility of religious belief.
But the Pope, speaking last September at the Bundestag, suggested a different explanation: we increasingly employ a reduced form of reason for dealing with things pertaining to the life of the man-made bunker that is modern reality. On a Newstalk programme last Sunday I debated the Vatican embassy closure with, among others, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, one of the more bunker-minded of the new crop of Labour Party TDs. In response to my characterisation of the closure as motivated by extremist secular-atheist bigotry, Ó Ríordáin said I sounded “like something from the 1950s”.
The tactic is recognisable as deriving from a particular, present-centred view of reality and “progress”. But his riposte also made visible the difference between thinking based on staring at the bunker’s ceiling and thinking that arises from gazing at the horizon of human possibility.
Christ did not come in the 1950s, but, historically speaking, roughly 1,950 years before. In truth, though, the dates of His birth and death are somewhat irrelevant, because His coming occurred outside time and space. It never “began” to happen and is still happening. In Christian terms, we remain at year zero.
If you try to grasp such a concept in the language of a Labour Party manifesto, atheism may seem a “rational” response. But this is a trick of the bunker. The reduction of reason in our culture has forced a widening gap in the public mind between the store of words adaptable to politics, sociology and economics, and the diminishing cache capable of summoning up our deeper situation.
The problem is not merely that everyday public conversation comprises almost entirely words of the former category, but that, by the insinuation and consolidation of the bunkered view of reality, the other store of words has been rendered unusable, invisible and potentially obsolescent.
This is why ostensibly Catholic politicians seem to feel that, while exercising public authority, they must function in some kind of “neutral”, secular fashion, caving in to radical bigoted agendas because they lack the words to argue. Even if the Vatican embassy was not symbolic of Irish Christian faith, it has become a visible pretext for something much deeper than international diplomacy. The controversy has caused some spark to jump the gap between these two forms of reasoning – manifesting in political discussion as the fear of loss of electoral favour or affection, but also making visible a perspective blocked by the squat, dense bulk of the bunker.