Interacting between tradition and freedom

Second Reading
Interacting between tradition and freedom

Fr Kevin Hegarty

After the untimely death of the great Dermot Earley, John Waters is possibly the most famous living Roscommon man. Whatever about that, he has been a provocative commentator on Irish society since the 1980s. His first book, “Jiving at the Crossroads”, ranks with John Healy’s classic, “Death of an Irish Town”, in its evocation of people and place at a certain time in our history.
Waters has just published a new volume entitled “Beyond Consolation–How We Became Too Clever For God And Our Own Good”.
The first two words of the title are taken from an interview that Nuala Ó Faoláin gave to Marian Finucane in April 2008 where she disclosed that she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and would soon be dead.
Nothing in life gave her lasting pleasure anymore. She did not believe in an afterlife. God, to her, was a meaningless construct. She was “beyond consolation”.
In the book Waters argues that Nuala’s despair is a consequence of cultural change in Ireland since the 1960s.
The Catholic Church dominated post-Famine Ireland. It managed to create a collective consciousness that became central to Irish identity.
In the Church the vast majority of the people celebrated the rituals that shaped their lives, were given an ethical and spiritual system to live by and found a spiritual language that gave them meaning as they confronted the terrors of life and the reality of death.
In the main it was an authoritarian church that focussed excessively on the control of sexuality.
Waters makes the apposite observation that the greatest abuse it perpetrated was “the promulgamation of the idea that religion comes from the outside, that it is primarily an imposed system of control designed to police the instinctive desires of human beings.”
As Irish society opened up to new influences from the 1960s onwards, many began to question the extent of the church’s control.
Waters contends that in extreme reaction to this obsessively puritanical Catholicism, there has developed here an ideology that disdains religion and celebrates consumerism. At the root of the ideology is the assumption that all there is to life is the here and now.
By picking ruthlessly at the fabric of our religious traditions we have throttled something vital in our humanity.
His andysis is echoed, albeit in a more measured way by the sociologist, Tom Inglis, in his recent book, “Global Ireland”.
The drive in modern society towards increasing production and the consumption of material goods invades not just work and private life but one’s very sense of self.
Sometimes Inglis feels “life a lemming rushing to the end of life, unable to stop. I fear in this respect that I am no different from many other Irish people who, in turn, are no different from the rest of the West. I have become part of the malaise of modernity. I would love to find an ethical and spiritual cure but I have no idea where to begin looking.”
I agree with Waters when he argues that the ideal conditions for holistic human development is a respectful interaction between tradition and freedom. That was the kind of interaction which distinguished the Second Vatican Council.
Unfortunately the Vatican has resiled from these reforms in the last three decades.
The retreat to the incense-filled theological ghettoes has brought an end to a mutually-productive dialogue with the modern, secular world.
I wonder does he give too much weight to Nuala Ó Faoláin’s last interview as an epiphany revealing the abyss under the surface of the new ideology? From my ministry it seems to me the even believers, given a terminal diagnosis, experience despair. God can appear as distant and cruel, the prayers and rituals of religion seem threadbare and cliched.
This is a thought-provoking book. I am disturbed, however, by its seemingly blanket condemnation of Irish society since the 1960s. There have been many positive developments in, for example, education, the arts, science and social and sexual inclusion. Looked at from the Christian perspective on human development, these are worthwhile things.
The book is also marred by flippant dismissals of secular thinking and some awesome generalisations. There is too much preaching.
For me the book is at it strongest when it moves from the polemical to the personal. Threaded through the text is a moving account by Waters of his own spiritual journey back to the church. There is always authority in authentic human experience. The is also several lyrical reflections of the events and places where he has discerned whispers of the divine. I sense that some day he will write a really great book focussing more exclusively on that journey.