Archive for the ‘religion’ category

Reformed thinking

October 31, 2017

Exactly 500 years ago, on 31 October 1517, Dr Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses (Pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum) to the door of the church in Wittenberg, thereby setting in train the events that led to what is now referred to as the ‘Protestant Reformation’. The accumulation over a short period of time of the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Renaissance, the printing press and widespread debate on issues raised in these processes changed western civilisation fundamentally and permanently.

Luther, like many of the leaders of the Reformation and for that matter many of those who opposed it, was not necessarily an altogether pleasant man. His strongly anti-semitic views gave a toxic prompt to some rabble rousers, with his influence stretching into 20th century fascism. But nevertheless, his actions opened up a new chapter of intellectual engagement and strengthened the position of Europe’s leading universities, as well as their capacity to engage in critical analysis and research – although Luther also opined that universities could be ‘the great gates of hell’.

Theologically, politically and socially, the Reformation was complex, and if it led to intellectual empowerment for some it also prompted narrow-mindedness in others. But the anniversary is worth celebrating, because our freedom of thought and of academic debate was reinforced through the posting of the 95 Theses and what followed. We are, in some respects at ;east, products of the Reformation.


Happy Easter

April 20, 2014

I would like to wish all readers of this blog a very happy Easter. If the religious context of the day does not resonate with you, then I hope that you will enjoy some nice chocolate; and maybe take advantage of the fine weather (if that is what you are experiencing).

The Christmas story

December 25, 2012

Christmas has been an extraordinarily resilient festival, surviving theological and political turmoil over the ages. Of course we all know that Christmas Day falls on December 25th, but then again, the event it commemorates – the birth of Jesus Christ – may have taken place on any day of the year, as there is no reliable record of the date. It was not a festival kept in early Christian times. The key elements of today’s Christmas festivities, such as the socialising and exchange of gifts, did not emerge until much later – some of them not until the 19th century.

By the time of the Reformation some of the reformers had become hostile to Christmas in part because they regarded it as an un-biblical festival, in part because they disliked the catholic resonance of the ‘Christ-Mass’ concept, but largely because of what they regarded as the excesses ‘giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights’. This led to Christmas being banned in England under Oliver Cromwell – alongside all other religious feasts apart from the normal Sunday religious observances. Christmas was also banned under the influence of the Puritans in some parts of the American colonies around the same time.

So maybe Christmas has an unreliable pedigree, and there is still no shortage of people today who will argue that we have got the spirit of Christmas all wrong and that it is nothing more than an orgy of wasteful excess. But as for me, I don’t particularly care whether people celebrate the Christian festival (as I do), or pursue a secular escape from (what at any rate in Europe is) the winter, or try to have a family get-together during a holiday season. I believe that communities need holidays, and should be able to enjoy them.

I wish all readers of this blog a happy, peaceful and refreshing Christmas!


Educational integration: religion and society

September 10, 2012

Fifty years ago this year, just after my family had settled in Ireland, my parents were looking around for a school to which they could send me. In Mullingar, Co Westmeath, there were a few choices, but they all had one thing in common: whichever school I might attend, each one was part of a religious denomination. Most were Roman Catholic, one was Anglican; not a single one was secular or non-denominational, or even interdenominational. I ended up in a boarding school some 30 miles away, in which I was able to thrive. But back in Mullingar, every young person was growing up in a system in which, other than very casually, they were never likely to meet someone who did not share their inherited religious affiliation.

Actually in Mullingar that didn’t matter too much; it was and is a fairly open-minded place, and may even have been the first town in Ireland in which ecumenical partnerships began to emerge. But move up northwards towards Ulster, and this state of affairs mattered very much; indeed it matters still. In a society in which religious affiliations too often define political ones, the absence of informal interaction between people of different religious backgrounds from a very early age onwards has made the task of community reconciliation very difficult indeed. Young Protestants grow up not knowing a single Catholic, and vice versa. And because they often inherit all sorts of silly suspicions of those with other religious beliefs from their parents, these suspicions are protected and nurtured, so that they can ensure that one more generation is launched into society powered by the fuel of hatred and prejudice.

Education more generally should open a young person’s mind to understand the dignity and integrity of people from all backgrounds, and the best way to avoid the ghettoisation of certain groups is to ensure that they learn to live with and share society with people from other backgrounds and outlooks. In Northern Ireland more than almost anywhere else, this is imperative in order to avoid inter-community strife becoming a permanent and poisonous feature. For that reason, the arguments by the Catholic Church in favour of denomination education should be resisted much more emphatically – while of course recognising the right of the Church (and any religious group) from pursuing religious instruction for children outside the school gate.

It is indeed the same elsewhere and in other contexts: should there be Muslim, Jewish, indeed humanist schools? Is it not time to ensure that young people grow up recognising and valuing their friends from other traditions, while also maintaining their right to be recognised for theirs? Is it not time to have properly integrated communities?

Handling dissent

April 13, 2012

In 1985, as the opening up of the Roman Catholic Church in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council was gradually being wound down, the Vatican imposed on the Brazilian priest and liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff, a one-year sentence of ‘obsequious silence’. While I adored the term, and have often been tempted to find worthy subjects for such an order, in reality I was horrified by the idea that curiosity, analysis and open-ended thought could be stifled in this way.

And of course this particular approach to theological dissent has not gone away. In recent days the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (a vaguely Orwellian sounding body) has newly silenced an Irish priest known for his (relatively) liberal views, Father Tony Flannery, and has restricted the freedom to publish of the editor of a religious magazine, Father Gerard Moloney. Fr Flannery has now also been told to get himself to a monastery to reflect on his unorthodox views and (presumably) come up with something more on-message. The views he is expected to lose include support for married and women priests.

It is tempting, at any rate for me, to find this development appalling.  For anyone who is committed to a search for truth and for open-minded analysis, the idea that a group of elderly (and clearly out of touch) men in Rome could order someone – anyone – to stop all this open thinking is simply abhorrent. The consolation may be that the Vatican’s move seems to have unleashed much wider dissent in the Irish RC church.

But nevertheless, let us for a moment look at it from the perspective of the elderly men in the Vatican. For them, the church never changes. Of course in reality it has changed often and will do so again, but the institutional culture is that absolutely no change can happen or even be discussed until it, well, happens. So for them, the issue is simple enough. Fr Flannery is a Roman Catholic priest, and in that capacity he has signed up to a number of key doctrines, and as priest he needs to represent these to the faithful. The church is not a debating club, and while its members may turn ideas around in their minds, the clergy need to be steadfast.

Nor is the Roman Catholic Church alone in having such issues. A few years ago the then Dean of Clonmacnoise in the Church of Ireland, Andrew Furlong, declared he did not believe Jesus was the son of God, and expressed other views incompatible with the creeds to which Anglicanism and other denominations of Christianity subscribe. He was suspended from his ministry and eventually left the priesthood. The point made then was that you could not expect to be paid as a priest if you disagree with the central tenets that you are supposed to represent.

Perhaps the key to all of this is that while Dean Furlong was pretty far removed from almost any principles of Christianity as commonly held, Fr Flannery is looking to have some organisational rules of the church reinterpreted in the light of spiritual reflection, while holding on to the key doctrines and principles.

Dissent is an important support in any search for the truth. Dissent offered from within the fold, from someone committed to the life and health of the institution, is an asset rather than an impediment. A culture of blind obedience, or of ‘obsequious silence’, is far removed from today’s values. If the church is to thrive in the future, it needs to show an understanding of this. In short, Roman Catholicism needs to rediscover the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

Migrating students – or not

July 27, 2011

If you want to have a completely irrational conversation that brings out another person’s prejudices in an almost hysterical way, then try talking about immigration with someone who has conservative inclinations and reads certain newspapers. If you want to push the boundaries a little, suggest to them that immigration is good for the economy and that it benefits society. As you continue the conversation, see them gradually lose their grip on reality.

For years now some politicians and some newspapers have been whipping up public indignation about migration, and as a result public discourse on the topic has become impossible, unless you believe that completely crazy discussions have some value. There are acres of studies on migration, its causes, its effects, its benefits and its risks, but in England in particular public opinion has become so unbalanced that politicians hardly even pretend now to base their decisions on evidence. Even those who one might suspect are in reality quite rational in their views appear to believe they must express thinly disguised xenophobic views in public.

Talk of this kind not only makes xenophobia and racism seem respectable, because those with deep prejudices find excuses apparently rooted in economics or welfare policy, it also pushes countries into decisions that are completely at odds with their own self-interest. Another example of this has been the decision by the Conservative-led coalition government in London to reduce the number of overseas students studying in the the United Kingdom. The Home Secretary’s own officials have estimated that this move will cost Britain some £3.6 billion. However, Ms Theresa May has decided that she does not believe this evidence, presumably thereby implying that she has no intention of changing the policy. In fact Ms May is not an irrational person, but she clearly believes that she must not allow the facts to cloud her policy, because she knows well enough what some of her party’s supporters, and some of her media backers, want.

The British approach to immigration is daft in a general way. But its impact on universities, which badly need the revenues from overseas students as well as the important benefits derived from an education open to multi-cultural influences, is horrendous. As the UK gets a reputation for hostility to foreign students – and this is already happening – it is jettisoning some of the most important values of a civilised education system, as well as some of the economic benefits.

Speaking from Scotland, I hope (as I have said before) that student migration becomes an issue for the Scottish parliament. The Westminster government has shown that it cannot handle it objectively.

The RC Church in Ireland, coming out fighting: a wise strategy?

July 26, 2011

It has not been a good week for the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. The report prepared by a team led by Judge Yvonne Murphy on sexual abuse by priests in the Diocese of Cloyne was published, and it documents an astonishing tale of abuse, cruelty, neglect, cover-up, misrepresentation, failure of cooperation, and non-compliance not just with the law but with basic human decency. Of course the Cloyne report was not setting out some isolated incidents in the South of Ireland; from Judge Murphy’s previous report on the Dublin Archdiocese, from reports on other dioceses and from an ever-longer list of individual cases that began with disclosures in the mid-1990s about Fr Brendan Smyth’s abuse of over 100 victims, we know that there has been a terrible pattern of abuse that seems to have corrupted the church in almost every corner of the land. Of course not every priest was an abuser: most were not. But it is inconceivable that the culture of abuse and cover-up was not something that most would have been aware of, but none spoke up. It is hard to accept the point made by some defenders of the Roman Catholic church – that a small number of perverted men have brought shame on a generally good institution – because if it were a good institution, it would not have harboured this evil in its midst. There were too many abusers, and too many victims, for this to be seen as the successfully hidden wicked deeds of a tiny and unrecognised minority.

I strongly suspect that if this pattern of abuse had been revealed about any other organisation, that organisation would long before this have been wound up, either voluntarily or by order of the state. Though it must be so hard to bear for many good people of faith to see their church being exposed and then pilloried in this way, it is probably also hard for the victims and those shocked by what they have learned to understand why the organisation is allowed to continue, indeed to continue to have a special role in the care of the young.

Without doubt reflecting the public mood, the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Enda Kenny launched a strong attack on the church, and on its Vatican-based leadership in particular, in a speech in Dáil Éireann. This is an extract from his speech:

‘The report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection and elitism that dominates the culture of the Vatican to this day. The rape and torture of children were down-played or managed to uphold the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation. Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St. Benedict’s “ear of the heart”, the Vatican’s reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a Canon lawyer. This calculated, withering position is the polar opposite of the radicalism, humility and compassion on which the Roman Church was founded. Such radicalism, humility and compassion comprise the essence of its foundation and purpose. This behaviour is a case of Roma locuta est: causa finita est, except in this instance nothing could be further from the truth.’

The church, however, has not been entirely willing to accept this criticism. The Vatican, in a diplomatic step that signifies anger with the Irish government, has recalled the Papal Nuncio to Rome for consultations. Furthermore, writing in the Irish Times, the eminent Roman Catholic theologian Fr Vincent Twomey criticised the Taoiseach for his attack on the Vatican and suggested that the primary responsibility lay with the state. These steps and responses suggest that the church has not understood the position it is in. Indeed the only church leader to have consistently shown an appreciation of the awfulness of what was done and the responsibility to address it has been the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin.

It is difficult to know what should be done with, or to, the Roman Catholic Church. But if one were advising the church one would certainly not be suggesting to them that becoming prickly, or attempting to allocate blame elsewhere, is a clever strategy. Its loyal and faithful members have rights to be ministered to; were it not for that, it would not seem obvious to me why it should not be disbanded.

For those of faith – and I include myself in the number – this has been the most terrible of times. More still, for the victims it has been a time not just of torture and abuse, but then of having to live without vindication and without self-respect. That is an unbelievably awful gift to present to Christianity, and it has subverted and perverted the mission of the church and the teachings of its founder. It has all but destroyed whatever is good in the legacy.