What has the Catholic Church Actually Done for Us? – On Asking the Wrong Question

imageI’ve not yet blogged about this week’s Eucharistic Congress, less because of a lack of interest and more because of my overwhelmingly busy schedule outside of cyber space, including attending the first History Festival of Ireland in Rathvilly, Co. Carlow, this past weekend.

There’s been plenty of coverage of the Eucharistic Congress in the national media, including the protests by those who feel that the event should not have been held in Ireland, reflections from people who attended the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, John Waters’ noted Irish Times column on transubstantiation, and so on.

(For those of you not familiar with the Eucharistic Congress, it could be thought of as a sort of Catholic Olympics – an event held every four years to focus the faithful on the importance of the Eucharist for Catholic faith and practise. This year’s theme is ‘Communion with Christ and One Another.’)

I’ve also been heartened by the (albeit limited) ecumenical dimension to the Congress, which received special focus yesterday. Even before the Congress began, we heard about the special ecumenical pilgrimage throughout Dublin, modelled on the Camino, and yesterday Magis Ireland organised its own ecumenical pilgrimage.

In light of the Congress, the History Festival of Ireland included a session titled: ‘This weeks’ Eucharistic Congress is a sell out – but what has the Catholic Church actually done for us?’ with Maurice Walsh , Ruth Dudley Edwards and Kevin Myers.

This session had a rather curious composition given that the main speakers, Ruth Dudley Edwards and Kevin Myers, agree with each other on so many topics. Both are considered to take a ‘revisionist’ approach to Irish history and both described themselves as (Catholic) atheists who are sympathetic to religion.

The chair of the session, Maurice Walsh, likened the session to the ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. And there was something reminiscent to this scene in the session, as both speakers wanted to mention the good work that some people acting on behalf of the Catholic Church had done in Ireland.

But early in the session, Myers admitted that they had made an arrangement for Dudley Edwards to present the more sympathetic view of the church. This broke down quickly because both wanted to articulate where they thought that the Catholic Church in Ireland had gone wrong, and to make a case for why Europe continued to need what might loosely be termed Christian values. (The Eucharistic Congress itself barely got a mention.)

But for me, the most interesting part of the session was the framing of the question: ‘What has the Catholic Church Actually Done for Us?’

While the organisers might have intended it as a playful nod to Monty Python, to me the question can also be read as, in itself, a telling commentary on Irish Catholicism.

By asking what the church has done for us, it seems to assume that the ‘average’ or ‘everyday’ Irish Catholic is passive and submissive. In reproducing that stereotypical image of Irish Catholicism, it transports all responsibility for the ills in the Irish Catholic Church onto the Vatican, an often anonymous hierarchy, or a remote clergy.

It removes responsibility for the church from the vast mass of practising Catholics, and implies that ‘the Church’ is something ‘out there’, rather than something that people are a part of.

I think that Myers was getting at this when he spoke about what he considers as yet unanswered questions about Irish Catholicism: to what extent were the Irish people helpless or complicit in giving the Catholic Church so much power in their state? And therefore how much responsibility should the Irish people bear for helping to create a context in which the abuse of that power by the Church became so accepted and commonplace?

It is of course easy now for people to blame the ‘institutional’ church, without stopping to consider their or their forebears place in constructing that institution. Of course, in generations past ‘everyday’ Irish Catholics may have lacked the educational capital or the power to effect real changes in their church.

But that is no longer the case. And continuing to think that the Catholic Church should do something for us, disempowers the Irish Catholics who continue to care whether or not their church survives and thrives.

So I think that to ask what the Catholic Church has done for us is to ask the wrong question. Or at the very least, keeps Irish Catholics from asking a better question:

What can we do to live out Christ’s example in the world?

Notice that I don’t frame the question this way: ‘what can we do for the church?’ That’s because I think that ‘being’ the church should be less about serving the church, as an institution, and more about serving in the wider world.

(Image sourced on Flickr, by Fergal of Claddagh)

7 thoughts on “What has the Catholic Church Actually Done for Us? – On Asking the Wrong Question”

  1. Gladys, yes much better question. However when you say , “of course, in generations past ‘everyday’ Irish Catholics may have lacked the educational capital or the power to effect real changes in their church”, I wouldn’t be so sure about having the power. Power is still centralised and clerical. Among those of us handing in there, who for whatever reason still care enough, there is a struggle going on to constructively try address that.

  2. Good point. Even today, with the invention of the internet, many Catholics are still too lazy to bother learning about the faith. What can I do for Christ and His Church would be a much better question.

    I thought it was rather interesting to see a Protestant clergy man ‘blessing’ holy water and then sprinkling Catholics with it and then ‘blessing’ them at the end. My, how times have changed!

    I’m the original Martin, btw. =p

  3. It should also be noted that those protests were very anti-Catholic. OK, so abuse happened, we’ve apologised, and we’ve taken concrete steps to prevent future abuse, but enough’s enough. Do they expect us to lie down forever whilst they kick us? Let he who is without sin cast stones first. It’s time those protestors asked God to help them forgive those they perceive as enemies, rather than turn into persecutors themselves. Catholics have a right to enjoy the Congress without all the protests.

  4. I heard earlier today that you had written about the congress so was keen to read what you had written. I agree with Martin that your question is more appropriate. At present in Down and Connor in the Living Church initiative the emphasis is on co-responsibility – sharing responsibility with clergy.

    When I looked at the coverage this morning in the Irish News, I had the sense the Ecumenical Day yesterday was not up to much — one photo of Church of Ireland Archbishop Michael Jackson with holy water and an article on clerical abuse, another one on low attendance and the highlighted section of the third one on the scandals – all very negative. Having looked at the headlines and highlighted section I went to Mass feeling saddened by what I had read.

    Before I got to the sacristy, I was stopped by a parish sister who had been on the bus trip from Clonard yesterday which also included people from Fitzroy Presbyterian – I heard a completely different account of the Ecumenical Day – “it was renewing, reviving, re-energising, the displays were amazing. The talks were superb including the question and answer section with Rev Ruth Patterson. (Presbyterian Minister)

    I had not planned to attend the congress but having listened to Sr Emmanuel and I heard more about it when we met at lunch time, I am now planning to attend. I have a developing sense this congress is setting a new course for the Catholic Church in Ireland

  5. The TV coverage is not bad. The catechesis is shown each day on EWTN along with the Mass. According to some folks present at the event, the experience on the TV vs. being there is incomparable. In any case, I think much good will come of the event once the fruits are digested.

  6. As was to be expected, RTE News/Current Affairs is back ( post Fr. Kevin Reynolds ) to it’s usual unbalanced/unprofessional reportage of the Congress. I find it deeply worrying/offensive that some RTE personnel ( in the shape of Joe Duffy & Eileen Dunne ) have some involvement in the closing Mass. Is this a joke ?. if it’s true, then I may not attend.

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