Monday, September 5, 2011

That Seventies (Holy) Show

We are often told that the Catholic Church in Ireland has fallen from a zenith that it enjoyed earlier in the century, and whose culmination was the Papal Visit in 1979. I have been reading some old issues of the Irish Catholic magazine Doctrine and Life from 1970, and it makes me wonder if Irish Catholicism is not more robust and healthy today than it was then. (Please bear in mind that Doctrine and Life was, and is, by no means an obscure publication.)

A few quotations will show you what I mean. The first is from the article The Death of God by Colm O'Grady, which I expected to be a rejoinder to the era's trendy (mainly post-Protestant) theology. On the contrary, it was a paen to the Bishop of Woolwich's book Honest to God. Mr. O'Grady says:

We must grow up and shed the illusions of childhood. We must "come of age" and assume the responsibility that goes with matury. The best form of prayer to God to pass an exam is to get down and work for it. Instead of praying for rain or fine weather we should set about controlling the weather and ensuring our crops and pastimes against all weathers. The best prayer for peace is the creation of a just and equitable society. Or as a passenger in a car or plane the true prayer is for the pilot, for greater control and responsibility on his part. God is not going to intervene, even if the worst comes to the worst, and take over the controls.

Never mind the lapse of logic in the last sentence (why is it any more likely that prayer will influence the animate than the inanimate?). The whole thing must make the casual reader, uninformed in avant-garde theology, wonder why we should even bother with the term "prayer" if by prayer we simply mean our own actions.

I skipped the rest of the article, thinking that perhaps the editor was generous to all shades of opinion and orthodoxy would be resumed further on in the magazine. Next I came across a piece headed "Seminarians Discuss Socialism", which contained intriguing passages like the following:

The seminar held recently in Dublin for seminary students revealed serious disquiet over the present institutions of Church life and how they were inhibiting attempts in liturgy and social work to make the church more effective...Many speakers expressed the opinion that there should be no antagonism between socialism and Christianity; not only were they not incompatible but they should be complementary. They were encouraged to see the seminarians and younger clergy interested in socialism...Sister Benventura's paper on the clerical student in the university sparked off a very interesting discussion on how the clerical student is to cope with outdated laws, rules and institutions his superiors expect him to comply with.

It sometimes seems as though laws, rules and institutions are always "outdated". But the most delicious line of the article is:

Somehow I feel that the seminar has been an important "happening" and has revealed tremendous possibilities for common action in the future.

Yeah, man!

I then turned to an article headed "Education versus Inoculation" by Noel Dermot O'Donoghue ODC, which describes how a "certain old priest who was renowned for his lack of education" took shelter from a shower under the awnings of Green's Bookshop in Dublin, and became absorbed in a book he found on the barrow of second-hand books. The book was An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray.

The incident moves Father O'Donoghue to moralise:

The old man had never been inoculated against Gray's Elegy. He had never "done" it in school. he had never "memorized" stanzas chosen by a teacher or tried to explain "mute inglorious Milton" and "animated bust". Neither had he written an appreciation or made a list of the "beauties" of the poem...Clever boys had "got" the poem; it had "taken", and there was perhaps some measure of real appreciation, just as in vaccination there is some measure of infection. The poem could never strike them again in all its freshness and power, as it struck the man who came on it for the first time in his old age on a rainy afternoon.

Our education system has long since abandoned the pedagogical methods of poetic appreciation that the author laments, and children are now presented with free verse and the lyrics of pop songs and asked to describe how the banal lines make them feel. There is no rote learning of poetry-- at least, this had been abandoned by my own secondary school years. Has there been a liberation of poetic taste? Does the freshness of verse now strike our graduates more powerfully? Or is a twenty-year-old, today, a lot less likely to read and quote poetry than her grandmother? The truth is the old plodding methods of teaching poetry-- most importantly, the actual memorizing of verses-- was a discipline which was irksome for the child, but was rewarded many times over in adulthood.

I can't help mentioning a final irony; if he was around today, the uneducated old priest could not discover any book while taking shelter from a shower under the awning of Greene's bookshop. Because Greene's bookshop, which tended to stock more intellectually demanding titles, closed down several years ago. Decades of progressive education and of TV meant that there just wasn't enough demand for serious reading to keep the shop going.

I've read more recent issues of Doctrine and Life. They seem doctrinally orthodox. Certainly no heresies scream for the page. Today's seminarians and young priests, I understand, are also a lot less likely to "go with the flow" of ideas fashionable in secular society-- perhaps because they are in no doubt that they are swimming against the tide, and have made their minds up to it.

Of course we need more vocations. Of course we should pray for our countrymen and women to return to religious observance. But I'm not sure that the Irish Church of the seventies, for all that the seminaries and churches were overflowing, was really in a better state than it is today.


  1. I agree with you Maolseachlainn. The Church in Ireland after Vatican II (1962-1965) was in deep ferment. You should look at Doctrine and Life from before the Council --- in the 1950s --- and compare it to two decades later. It seems like a totally different religion.

    Louise Fuller's 'Irish Catholicism since 1950: The Undoing of a Culture' is written from a liberal perspective, but it still gives a helpful overview of the changes in the 60s.

  2. Shane, that is part of what surprised me. I have read some Doctrine and Life issues from the thirties and forties and it was remarkably orthodox and fervent. The difference is spectacular.

  3. Maolsheachlann, correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Doctrine and Life only come into existence in 1950? Perhaps you are confusing it with the Irish Rosary (its predecessor)?

    It's very interesting observing the changes in the Church from 1962 onward in the Irish Catholic reviews. This is very obvious in The Furrow. The Irish Ecclesiastical Record --- which held to an old style neoscholasticism --- is very well worth reading.

    BTW, do you find (as I do) that articles in the old Irish Catholic reviews are generally of a far higher intellectual standard than modern equivalents?

  4. I am sure you are not wrong. I don't know why I thought I'd read copies from so far back. Maybe it was another journal.

    I don't know if I agree about the higher intellectual standards. Maybe I am not intellectual enough to notice! I enjoy reading back issues of Studies from recent decades and they seem pretty solid, although in having contributors like Fintan O'Toole they were probably taking broad-mindedness a little too far! One difference I did notice is that the older journals seem far more focused on ecclesiastical history.

  5. I didn't mean to say "I don't know if I agree", rather, I hadn't noticed it. I'm sure you're right.

  6. Some years ago I remember hearing a comment from an American fundamentalist which stood out in my mind because it was so intelligent (which, you'll admit, one doesn't expect from an American fundamentalist!). He said that the American system of separation of Church and State was so successful because whatever damage an established church might do to the state, it was nothing to the damage the church would suffer by BEING the established church. Despite the fact that the Catholic Church in Ireland was never the formally established church, we all know that no church was ever so inseparably established in any state.

    The seminarians referred to in your post were virtually acting as the social arm of the state and it strikes me that their good intentions paved the road to the hell the Church is in now. They didn't mean to do so, of course, but they completely lost sight of what the Church is supposed to be about.

    Christ said, 'The poor you will always have with you'. What did he mean by such a seemingly hopeless remark? Perhaps it was that states, governments, welfare programmes and all the rest of it will only go so far. They may alleviate some of the poverty, but no utopia is possible in this life, and when the bad times come, it is the duty of the church to inject the moral fibre and spiritual backbone necessary to weather the inevitable storms.

    I think the post-Vatican II consensus is crumbling, and the Church - if it is wise - will return to its spiritual roots. Let the determinists and the materialists build the Earthly paradise if they can; let the Church cherish the 'collateral damage' when they can't.

  7. I agree.

    I often wonder about Christ's remark that "the poor you will always have with you". Of course, Jeremy Bentham and the other social reformers of his day would probably be astounded that there is still dire poverty in our day. And perhaps no amount of technical progress will eliminate the stark poverty of hunger and homelessness. But even if it does, I imagine there will always be educational, cultural, social and other forms of poverty.

    In Ireland at the moment, Catholic charities like the St. Vincent de Paul are alleviating much of the pain of the recession. Nobody ever seems to mention that when it comes to debates about the Church, though.

  8. As for "swimming against the tide," Chesterton said it best (as usual): "a dead thing is able to go with the current, but only a living thing is able to go against it."