Now here is something that is really thought-provoking. It's a commentary by Dr Graham English that has been sparked by his reading of a new book by Terry Eagleton titled "Why Marx was Right". Graham English applies a few lessons to the curious situation the Catholic Church finds itself in in Australia — an institution that held out so much hope, still has to some extent, but one where the leaders have figuratively shot themselves in the foot and squandered the hope and potential. Commentaries don't get much better than this one!
Can we learn anything from Karl Marx?
Terry Eagleton is a Marxist. He is also Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the universities of Lancaster in the UK and Notre Dame, Indiana. He was born in 1943, grew up Catholic in England, has Irish ancestors and now lives in Dublin. I do not know the state of his religious practice now but when he was a young man at Cambridge he was a member of the Slant group, a 1960s collection of leftish Catholics who were influenced by the English Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe and his most distinguished forebear in philosophy the Italian Dominican Thomas Aquinas. They were also influenced by Karl Marx and Wittgenstein. Eagleton has written a lot, one of his most recent books On Evil was published by Yale University Press in 2010. It is very good.
Eagleton's latest book, again from Yale University Press is called, Why Marx was right. I have never met Eagleton but he is a friend of friends who were also at Cambridge and I find his books helpful as well as being witty and erudite. So I have been reading Why Marx was right to see why an intelligent man like Eagleton who shares some of my enthusiasms and prejudices still places some faith in Marx.
I tell you all that lest, being anti-Marxist or from the DLP or whatever you stop reading when you see Marx mentioned. Of course Marx might not worry you. You might be the kind of Marxist I am. My position was summed up on a wall during the student unrest in Paris in 1968, 'I am a Marxist: a Groucho Marxist!' But this is the real Marx, Karl of Das Capital etc and I think he has something to say which helps me understand why the contemporary Australian Catholic Church is in such deep trouble.
On page 37 of Why Marx was right Eagleton is discussing Karl Marx's idea about productive forces. He notes that productive forces have a tendency to develop as history unfolds. They do not always progress; they may be stagnant for long periods. But often they do progress and it is the prevailing social conditions that lead to human progress and growth.
Now this is the bit of Eagleton's analysis that caught my eye:
There comes a point, however, when the prevailing social relations, far from promoting the growth of the productive forces, begin to act as an obstacle to them. The two run headlong into contradiction, and the stage is set for political revolution.
Let me explain what I think this has to do with the Australian Church.
The courage of the early Australian Bishops...
From the 1870s until the middle of the 20th century the Australian bishops were intent on building Australian Catholicism, on promoting the growth of the productive forces that would lead to a lively and growing Church. What they had in mind was largely a copy of Irish Catholicism but with significant differences usually the result of local social relationships. For example the Church here was within a British culture which valued the rule of law and democracy, and it had to live with secular universities, a majority of people who were not Catholic, and a Catholic population who if they looked about could see that there were options other than a Catholic way of doing things. In Australia, unlike Ireland the Church was only a player in the life of the country not a force that the government had to bow to. The Church here could not prevail on governments to make laws based on Catholic moral teachings, for example. We allowed divorce and contraception long before Ireland did.
The bishops here built a Church centred on Catholic institutions: hospitals, local parishes and especially schools. They were able to do all this because Catholics were mostly working class and wanted to be upwardly mobile, and because they had a cheap, obedient workforce of nuns, brothers and religious priests. They also had a secular clergy that was fairly independent because it had to struggle against Irish attempts at domination, and which was mostly friendly with the laity. Priests on the whole were not exalted beings or dispensers of magic as they were in some more Catholic dominated countries.
It took about a hundred years from 1870 for the bishops' plans to come to fruition. By the 1960s they had the best educated group of Catholics the Church had ever had here. They also had over-full novitiates and seminaries. In the religious orders of women and men they had the best religiously educated group of Catholics they had ever had. And by the late 1960s and 70s they had the biggest, most hopeful, enthusiastic and energetic religious workforce the Church had known here. In the universities they had chaplains who were thinkers and innovators. They also had a vigorous Catholic Action movement. University trained young lay Catholics were as enthusiastic and as hopeful as the religious orders. And those entering seminaries and novitiates were often the cream of the crop from Catholic schools. The Church had a rich pool of talent to draw on.
Then state and federal governments realised that non-government education was here to stay and critical to the country's advancement and to their own political well being so they started funding it. There was money for Catholic education. It could have been a golden age. And the bishops by choosing education as their way of building an Australian Church deserved a lot of credit.
Then the official Church lost its nerve.
Throwing it all away...
They got what they wanted and did not know what to do next. They were like Dan Slattery's collie dog, Gladys. Dan who lived two doors up from us when I was a child had a collie dog that used chase cars. He commented one day, "I don't know what will happen if one day she catches one. He won't know what to do with it." That is the story of the Australian Catholic Church in the 1970s. The bishops accomplished what they'd set out to do. They got a better educated, thinking, active, upwardly mobile Church, and then they didn't know what to do with it. They had the best educated religious they had ever had and they blew it. Over the next generation they threw it all away.
In the 1960s and '70s Australia and the whole western society changed. The Church here with its educated young and middle aged Catholics should have had something useful to say and do. But those who did think for themselves, as they had been trained to do, and those who spoke up were pushed aside or silenced. And many of them left. Many left the priesthood or religious life. Not a few left the Church. About 1970 the flood of vocations to the seminaries and novitiates just dried up. It happened suddenly and has never been reversed. And unlike the few generations of Catholics before them they did not pass on to their children the enthusiasm or the hope they'd had for Catholicism. They had lost it. There was nothing to hand on. The social relations they had grown up with were gone forever. The education they had gained was put to other uses.
The bishops were caught by the new social relations which most of them had no idea how to handle. They kept using methods that had been productive forces in a working class, under-educated, mono-cultural Church where Catholic identity was tied in closely with people's needs and desires. They kept telling people what to do, not listening to the experience of the people, and using devotion as a way of keeping people in the Church. They thought that a diktat from Rome, or from them, was enough to keep people together. They thought that a canonisation here or a proclamation of a new dogma about Mary there would encourage people to continue as they had always done.
Silencing the critics...
In some circumstances they silenced critics. It had worked before, surely it would work again. But by now those they tried to silence kept writing or talking. When you have nothing to frighten people with your threats are empty. There was a cartoon in Women-Church Journal, a bishop saying to the pope, "The big mistake Hoy Father was teaching women to read." Worse than reading, both women and men had learnt to write and modern media, even before the internet, meant they were heard.
In Australia the new social relations had begun in the 1950s though no one was aware of what was happening. The Labor Party Split and the reactions and actions of bishops and some Catholic laymen set up the social changes in the Church. At the Split bishops were fighting each other openly and Catholics were questioning the good faith of other Catholics and of bishops who disagreed with them. Communism was used as a bogy. I am not saying that Communism in Australia would have been a good idea but lies were told, power was used badly. People who disagreed with some of the bishops were called Communists when they were not. People lost faith in their leaders. The old Catholic unity was beginning to break up. Catholics were forced to think for themselves.
Not helped by Rome...
And the bishops were not helped by Rome. A string of decisions there stymied the bishops here who were willing to try something new. Humanae vitae was a watershed. Catholics accepted the Immaculate Conception because it had nothing to do with their daily lives; they accepted the Assumption for the same reason. Most would have not stirred had Rome declared that Mary is the Mediatrix of all Graces. But here was something they knew a lot about, family life. Many Catholics decided the Pope was wrong. They'd already made their own decision about politics. Now they extended it further and have continued to do so.
Some thought that finding a new -ism to attack or to blame would help. Communism was no longer available so they tried (are still trying!) secularism. But it is harder to define and harder to frighten people with. Some good folk like secular explanations for secular phenomena anyway. As an aside if they really want an -ism to attack they might try narcissism. There is a lot of it about in western society, even in the Church. But that is a topic for another article.
As Marx might have predicted, the attempt to maintain the social relations that had prevailed for the previous one hundred years, far from promoting the growth of the productive forces in the Church, acted as an obstacle to them. The Church went into decline.
Private confession died, suddenly and almost entirely. Catholic family sizes became the same as the national average. Regular Mass attendance spiralled and has not stopped going down yet. Few young people are seen at Mass. Parishes that have large attendances are usually full of the most recent migrants, not the established Catholics. Vocations have all but stopped. Large empty convents, monasteries and novitiates ran as retreat centres for a short time until money and personnel ran out then they were sold and usually disappeared from the landscape altogether. Even churches closed as parishes disappeared or were amalgamated. Those of us who had been to Europe and seen the ruins of monasteries and wondered how it could all have happened began to understand. That is what happens when institutions fail under the pressure of changing social relations. We now live in an era when the people have no faith in the institution.
No rallying point...
For the first time in Australia Catholic identity had no rallying point.
Later we heard about the sexual abuse and the cover ups. In Ireland where the Church had held on longer with the old social relations the sexual abuse scandal was devastating. Here it reassured some who had left that they were right to go but they had gone years ago anyway. It pushed some others who had hung on to move out, especially good Catholics whose children had been abused. Among those who left and those who stayed there were people who had had good experiences of priests, brothers and nuns. The sex abuse, and particularly the cover ups, hurt them but the Church had lost its power to attract them or even repel them well before that. That some current bishops still tried to cover it all up didn't surprise them. But by then most of the bishops were irrelevant to many Catholics' lives even those still going to Mass regularly.
I do not know what will promote the growth of the productive forces that would lead to a lively and growing Church in Australia in the future. I expect some sainted genius will come along. It has happened before. 'I will be with you all days even to the end of the earth' one of the evangelists has Jesus say and I have hope in that. Someone will recognise what the productive forces are. But I am neither saint nor genius and in a long experience of Catholicism I don't know any in Australia at present.
Things I thought would help like the second rite of confession, some courageous bishops, and a lively discussion of religion have been stamped on. New approaches in education have not worked, nor have those who tried to restore the old ways of doing things been successful. Some conservatives give the impression they know what to do but I am not convinced. 'By their fruits you shall know them,' the Lord said and I have not seen much fruit lately.
I spent April walking the Camino with mostly young people. Near Compostella there is a large monument to John Paul II who went there while he was pope. He was convinced that the Camino would be one way of restoring Catholicism in Europe. He also had great hopes for World Youth Days. I like seeing young people meeting each other and being enthusiastic about spiritual things but European Catholicism at least in Spain and France does not seem any more vital than ours despite the many young people who walk the Camino. Lots of churches are empty and closed. In the ones that are open the congregations are old. We will need much more than the Camino and Madrid 2012 to have a lively growing Church.
I am sixty-six so I was seventeen when Vatican II began. I can easily remember the first transistor radio (we called radio 'the wireless' in those days). I remember the Church and Australia as they were. Mine is the last generation to have known both the old Australia and the old Church. They both helped make me who I am and I am grateful for much of it, though I am glad that it is gone. But I am also aware that my generation has to live in an age of transition in which the old ways of achieving progress and growth are gone forever and in which, at least in the Church, we seem to have no idea what to do. I find our leaders at the moment, both the politicians and the ecclesiastics, profoundly disappointing. There are still good people doing their best, but as far as I can see nothing is going to happen in my lifetime that will give us a vigorous life-giving Church.
All I can see to do is to try to live a good life, to encourage others to hold on, and to live in hope. And maybe wait for the revolution!
Graham English submitted to Catholica on 18 June 2011
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2011Dr Graham English