Sean OConaill on the New Evangelisation
“In the Catholic Church it has often seemed that a sin of the flesh was the only sin, and obedience the only virtue.” This observation by Yves Congar still seems to me to sum up the predicament of the Church in contemplating any ‘New Evangelisation’.
To be fair, no one could sensibly argue that our sexuality isn’t often deeply problematic for us humans, or that the church never noticed other serious human frailties. ‘Lust’ is still accompanied by six other ‘deadly’ infractions in the Catholic Catechism’s account of mortal sin.
However, from an admittedly non-scientific survey it does seem to me that the Catholic magisterium still reserves most of its concern for perceived errors in the sexual and procreative area of human behaviour. Legalised abortion, in vitro fertilisation, embryonic stem cell research, divorce, contraception, ‘cohabitation’, ‘hedonism’, gay marriage – these still seem to weigh heaviest in any monthly roundup of episcopal targets. (If anyone has noticed any bishop getting equally worked up over pride, covetousness, anger, gluttony, envy or sloth recently, please let me know.)
And this preponderance of concern for issues that relate in one way or another to sexuality is now, of course, held up to vast ridicule in our culture wars – in the wake of two decades of sexual scandal in the church itself. This all feeds into the perceived silliness and irrelevance of the church, and the virtual disappearance of the Saturday night queue for what used to be called ‘Confession’. Instead, Saturday night seems to be absorbed these days by ‘make me a celebrity’ TV shows.
And meanwhile that same human frailty seems preponderantly active in a wide range of other scandals, from political corruption to episcopal cover-ups to the property bubble to the associated banking scandal and rampant addiction.
That problem I would describe as a preoccupation with what others think, or may think, of us – a tendency to identify our value either positively with those things that tend to make us socially eminent, or negatively with those things that suggest (often mistakenly) social shame. All human competition, and the corruption, violence, addiction, over-consumption that stem from that seem to me to arise out of what might best be called our narcissism or egocentrism – our inability to be entirely content in the absence of constant reassurance that we do after all, individually, have enormous value. Why else would the multinational L’Oréal cling for so long to the advertising slogan ‘you’re worth it’?)
For Ambrose Bierce a bore was: ” a person of low taste – more interested in himself than in me”. Doesn’t that sum it up? Isn’t that where we all tend to be too often? Wasn’t that why most of us laughed at Fr Ted’s fascination with the ‘Priest of the Year’ competition and the Eurovision Song Contest? (And maybe also why some of us were furious when he got trapped and lost in a vast ladies’ lingerie department?)
I am entirely satisfied also that these days in our atomised world where media too often provide a complete illusion of community, deep depression can arise out of the contemplation of our own actual public inconsequence. Where does the vicious anger so often displayed on the Internet come from if not from a conviction that our own infallibility and rectitude has been scornfully questioned in public by someone else – someone probably also in quest of the same compliment they have withheld from us: “you have hit the nail squarely on the head, Sam!”
When I was growing up, Confession was a Saturday night duty for almost everyone. Is it going too far to say that the current ownership of Saturday nights (and even Sunday mornings) has to do with the far more varied diet of ego-reassurance that secular media now provide? And that rampant addiction and accompanying social breakdown may be closely related to the ultimate complete inadequacy of that reassurance? (Glued to the electronic stream we can bathe in wannabe fantasies: all too often those become ashes when we have to switch off the power.)
What would happen if the classic deadly sins of ‘pride’ ‘envy’ and ‘covetousness’ were to be regrouped in our Catholic thinking under a central human frailty called, say, narcissism or self-regard or status anxiety or egocentrism, or just vanity? What if even bishops were to attribute their tendency to want to be archbishops to this tendency? What if they were to investigate the role of institutional narcissism in the mishandling of clerical sexual abuse? And to admit that fault as a prelude to the ‘New Evangelisation’?
The really good news for me in the Gospel and the Eucharist is that we are all indeed, and in every moment, of equal and infinite value – even though the church’s aristocratic leadership culture still blithely denies that principle. I wish I was quite as delighted by the corollary – that everyone else is always just as important as I am. I might indeed queue up to confess this fault fairly frequently if I could be sure that paid-up members of the ACP would be ready to treat that with all due seriousness and scriptural wisdom.
And when thinking about ‘redemption’ shouldn’t we notice that Jesus didn’t ever make a big issue of having won a struggle with sexuality. The temptations in the desert were centrally appeals to his self-importance, and his own claim in the end was to have overcome the world? If worldliness isn’t essentially a flight from shame and a search for celebrity status, what is it?
As for the prospect of a ‘New Evangelisation’, there will certainly be little traction these times for any Catholic leader in complaining about our sexual fallibility alone. Jesus spent far less time talking about that than he did about our boundless self-concern. Doesn’t ‘repentance’ centrally have to do with the realisation that we have always been, and will always be, infinitely loved by God, and that the love of the world (nowadays essentially of the media) is as ephemeral and inconsequential as last week’s newsprint?
Doesn’t our liturgy at its best tell us that? And isn’t that why individual spirituality needs the support of communal religion, and always will?