The importance of Christian memory

Rite and Reason: Europe's richest cultural achievements are due to the inspiration of Christianity or of revolt against it, …

Rite and Reason: Europe's richest cultural achievements are due to the inspiration of Christianity or of revolt against it, writes Fr Vincent Twomey

In his address to the Pope on the final day of the Irish hierarchy's recent ad limina visit to Rome, the Catholic primate Archbishop Seán Brady spoke of the influence of secularism and of the recent dramatic changes in the social and economic life of Ireland. "This is particularly manifest," he said, "in the loss of Christian memory."

Recently, I took part in a debate at the college historical society in Trinity College Dublin that illustrated this. The topic was the old chestnut "That religion is a block to progress".

Apart from the crass vulgarity of some student speakers, what shocked me most was the apparent ignorance of many speakers about what constituted religion in general and Catholicism and Christianity in particular.


Few seemed to have any Christian memory, no awareness of the cultural force that has shaped our world, even down to their college's name: Trinity.

Cultural amnesia is a dangerous condition for any society.

People lose the critical sense that memory of times past cultivates. Society becomes the plaything of passing fashions, once the criteria of experience have been forgotten.

According to the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski Europe's most distinguishing feature was its capacity for self-questioning. This is the legacy of the Christian faith that has shaped European society.

Christianity is rooted in the dual critical spirit of the Hebrew prophets and the Greek philosophers, whom the church embraced from the beginning as allies in her mission to liberate the world from the "powers and principalities" (Col 2:15) of this world, namely the false absolutes of the state and dominant public opinion.

Much that we take for granted is due to Christian inspiration.

Education, from primary to tertiary, has its origins in the monastic and cathedral schools of the Middle Ages. Hospitals as we know them today are a spin-off from the Crusades.

Health care as a profession was introduced by the religious orders. Science has its origins in the medieval "desire for knowledge and the love of God".

Also easily forgotten is the fact that modern democracy owes its origins to the Christian distinction summed up in the words of Jesus: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."

The distinction between the secular and the sacred, though known to most religions, was radicalised in western Christianity with the result that two competing authorities emerged, emperor and pope, one representing the temporal, the other the eternal.

The important point here is that neither could claim total allegiance. As a result, the primacy of freedom emerged in western Christendom.

Even when it was obscured temporarily by the post-Reformation absolutist states that were confessional in nature, the primacy of liberty emerged again in the Enlightenment, albeit in a secular guise, together with the other two powerful Christian symbols of equality and fraternity.

The primacy of the individual - and so the basic equality of all - is a product of Christianity. Here the influence of St Augustine's philosophy was paramount.

The very notion of "person" is a concept that was formed in the context of the Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries.

Finally, the notion of progress itself is of Christian origin, more precisely in Judaeo-Christianity, which is rooted in the divine promises of a future salvation for all humanity.

Most religions, like Hinduism, seek to preserve the status quo.

Christianity, while upholding the value of tradition, refuses to see it as an absolute and encourages us to look to the future, to creating a better society.

Europe's richest cultural products are either due to the inspiration of Christianity or in revolt against it.

Without a Christian memory, past achievements in literature, music, and art, become inaccessible. James Joyce, for example, can only be understood on the basis of Catholic faith and ritual. Christian memory is passed on primarily through family, school, and church life. If we complain about its loss, then we in the church must first examine our own conscience.

I once brought a group of theology undergraduates to Durrow, Clonmacnoise, Clonfert, and Multyfarnam Abbey. Many had never heard of the places.

If this is what the greenwood is like, what about the deadwood?

D. Vincent Twomey, SVD, is professor emeritus of moral theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth and editor of The Word magazine