There is still a place for the core values of Christian faith


Sir, – A week after the Yes vote The Irish Times carried a full-page article by Fintan O’Toole stating that the authoritarian, patriarchal version of Catholic Ireland is now dead (“Catholic Ireland is now a religious rust belt of half-empty churches”, Opinion & Analysis, June 2nd). He pointed out that many Catholics must have voted Yes, in solidarity and compassion with women in their time of trouble. Such people, he says, displayed not defiance but indifference to the institutional church’s call to vote No. Another way to interpret this is to presume that they voted according to their consciences. As Pope Francis points out, the task of the church is “to inform consciences, not replace them”. Many other Catholics, of course, were deeply dismayed at the referendum result: a study-group in which I was involved a few days ago asked, “So what’s left now for Catholics?”

The control that the church enjoyed has indeed reached a low ebb – perhaps it has hit bottom, although there may be worse to come. But all is not lost; instead the core values of Christian faith may come to the fore, now that the outer shell has been cracked open. More than a century ago Friedrich von Hugel set out what he judged to be the essential elements of any religion: the institutional, the intellectual and the mystical dimensions. A brief analysis of these may help to disclose what’s left of faith in the Irish Catholic Church as of now.

The institutional dimension includes church buildings, schools, sacraments, Catholic practice, hierarchical authority, good order, everything in its place. The phrase “Rome has spoken: the issue is decided” summed up the strength of the institutional dimension until Vatican II. But now the people of God have come of age; gone are “the simple faithful” who obeyed out of unquestioning conviction or out of fear, or both. The term “flock” has been described as the saddest way to describe a group which has enough conviction to live out their religious beliefs in public. The church has lost its controlling power: but that is good. To have no power is better than to misuse it. In the New Testament those who wish to wield power must become servants of all. The church always needs reform, and it has now upon us, at least in this area of authority as humble service.

In an earthquake the best advice is to stand out in the open. What before gave security becomes a major danger. Being in the open is scary, but it offers freedom to focus on essentials. In this sense the Yes vote has a positive if unintended outcome for the Catholic Church, disastrous though it be for those who will be aborted. They however will be secure in God’s care; none dies outside God’s awareness: they will inherit eternal life.

The intellectual dimension includes the creeds, catechism, theology, Catholic social teaching, encyclicals. More than ever Catholics will now need to know their faith well: a half-hearted commitment by the church to lay adult faith formation will no longer serve. Pope Francis is calling us all to evangelise, but that means our being able “to give a reason for the faith that is in us”, as St Peter wrote long ago (1 Peter 3:15). Not everyone is called to preach but all of us are to be “good news” for those with whom we live, and for the earth which sustains us.

The mystical dimension is the awareness in believers of whatever faith that they encounter a God who is in love with them. All that is worthwhile in their religion flows from this. “Those who live in love live in God.” The Irish church over some centuries has been timid in proclaiming this love relationship. But as Karl Rahner SJ argues, the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not be a Christian at all. Christianity is a cosmic love-affair, with everyone invited. Ours is a relating God, an indiscriminate and inclusive host.

In Christian understanding, the three dimensions sketched out above overflow into love of neighbour: this is the Gospel imperative. The mission of Jesus is ours: those who suffer must experience our solidarity and compassion; our ravaged planet must find us working with everyone of goodwill to restore it to health. Those betrayed by greed and oppression must be given hope – hope of better things in this present world, and hope of eternal life after death. In the vision of Vatican II we are to be artisans of a new humanity: peace-making and forgiveness will be distinctive hallmarks of a renewed Christian people, who must never become self-absorbed but keep looking outward. Pope Francis’s image of the church as field hospital has much to commend it, but with the twist that those staffing the hospital have their own wounds, diseases and inner struggles.

Fintan O’Toole ends his piece as follows: “Institutional Irish Catholicism is in an arid state, but the longer view suggests that its oldest and deepest sources will surface in their own good time”. Catholicism, he argues, will take its rightful place as one rich seam in a many-layered Irish culture. Or as a TCD professor remarked to me, “Catholicism is part of the cocktail of Irish life!”

What’s left, then, after the referendum, is a church shorn of outmoded accretions, whose members are freed to live out the Good News of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. That is more than enough! – Yours, etc,


Dublin 2.