The daily visitor stats to Catholica in recent days have been bumping up around the highest they have ever been since we began publishing. The current conversation triggered by the series of articles in the New Scientist magazine and Grahame English's commentary yesterday can no doubt take some credit for that. In today's commentary Dr English offers some thoughts as to why Catholicism has begun to lose traction in retaining the loyalty of its core constituency in more recent decades.
The uses of religion
I began by saying that religion is about humans seeking meaning. It has many other uses. For example it has been used to unite people and give them an identity, to make people behave themselves, to motivate people to win wars, even to motivate people to win at football. Religion is most able to do these things when it exists either in a monoculture where everyone believes almost the same things and where almost everyone does the same things.
Ironically a bit or a lot of outside oppression or attack usually helps those inside a religion to stick together, to believe and do the same things, and to hand on to each following generation the beliefs and practices of the group. If I were still a religious educator that is the kind of culture I would find it easiest to work in. Well, easiest to get results if you think 'results' means bums on seats. I would be very unhappy, but more successful. If there was almost no contact with outside cultures it would be even easier.
In a monoculture where people need religion to reassure or comfort themselves people accede to a lot of ethical and other demands of the religion even if they do not actually believe them or think about them in any depth. The whole show is important to their well being so they put up with the bits they do not like. Sometimes they put up with things they really hate because it is too hard to resist or change them. This is what happened in Ireland for most of the 20th century. Some people tried to make it happen in Australia too. Catholicism in Australia until the 1960s was a happy hunting ground for ideologues.
When I was a child in the 1950s Catholicism in Australia was almost a monoculture. We nearly all came from the same ethnic background, we nearly all came from the same class, and because there was a bit of oppression from the dominant Protestant group we had little trouble sticking together, little trouble performing religious education, and almost no trouble getting 70% of Catholics to go to Mass every Sunday and behaving themselves. We also put up with a lot; think of violence in the schools, the subordinate role of women, and the impotence of the laity for example.
Then the culture and the cosmology changed. As they say in the spacecraft movies, "Ground control, we have a problem!" People caught on that bad things were happening and they wouldn't put up with it. They didn't need the culture anymore and anyway it was not answering their questions.
But we didn't know
As an explanation for having done bad things, "But we didn't know" is no good. Nor is, "Things were tough but they were tough times". This second claim is one made by some old religion teachers and those who were seminarians and novices before Vatican II explaining how it did them no harm and might even have been for their good.
It's true some tough things were done and they were tough times. But that is a reason why religious education and religious formation were frequently bad for people. It is not an excuse because some people did see what was going on and inconveniently for the rest of us they wrote it down.
Two people I know of saw it in Catholicism in the 1920s. In James Joyce's Ulysses there is a Father Conmee, a self-satisfied Jesuit who wanders along the street with his breviary under his arm, meditating on all the black people who live in Africa unbaptised and so are unable to ever enter heaven. He muses on the wastefulness of God. It doesn't worry him though. It does not threaten his faith. In Ulysses this Jesuit is a silly little man.
At about the same time a Christian Brother in Sydney, a New Zealander of Irish descent was teaching young Brothers at Strathfield how to teach. His name was Michael Benignus Hanrahan [See Christian Brothers Biographies on Wikipedia] and I met him once when I was seven. He was an old man then but still an inspiring teacher. In 1929 he wrote a series of articles in the Australasian Catholic Record on religious education. Among other things Hanrahan wrote in his articles that instead of children being expected to learn off by heart the questions and answers in the catechism they should be encouraged to ask their own questions. The teacher's job would be to help them find out the answers then the children could learn those.
Questions no one is asking
Hanrahan was onto the fact that if you teach people answers to questions they are not asking eventually they will stop listening and walk away. Instead he wanted education that opened people to possibilities instead of socialising them into an ideology.
Ideologues on the other hand are not interested in education. They want to make everyone think what they think. An ideologue wants young people to be an extension of the ideologue's mind. They do not want us to have a mind of our own. The message is, "Do not listen to your own mind. Listen to ME".
Religious education is always in danger of becoming just a way of promoting ideology and inducting the young into it especially if it takes place in a monoculture. If in any culture the education system has been an induction system for ideology there is no mechanism that will help people cope or know what to do next. After all what they have been given has been presented as THE truth.
That is what happened to Catholicism in Australia in the 1960s. The ideology started failing. In a monoculture it was hard to wander away, there seemed nowhere else to go. But we quickly became a pluralist church. When monocultures become pluralisms ideologies collapse because people have options.
And the walls came tumbling down
A few years ago I had an anxiety attack. My mother did the same thing when she was nineteen. She used tell us she'd had a nervous breakdown. A good friend tells me I had a breakthrough. What happened was that all my certainties crashed about me. All the walls I had sedulously built against anxiety over my lifetime fell in one hit. Whoosh! I would not recommend it; it was a miserable experience for a while.
I was brought up to believe in certainties. These certainties included everything I was taught about religion. I was badly taught. People taught me as certain things no human can be certain about. There are a few certainties; most of them are physical things, like 'fresh water freezes at zero degrees centigrade at sea level' or 'five fives are twenty five'.
Almost all of the meanings that are crucial to people's life orientations are uncertain. To be human is to live with uncertainty. To be an adult human being is to bear with the uncertainty and ambiguity of life. To cope with anxiety without the need for certainty is what growing up means. For a short time around Vatican II the Catholic Church gave the impression it could live like this. But then the officials lost their nerve. They did not want an adult church.
The official Church set about imposing or reimposing certainty because it does not want people to grow up. It prefers them to be dependent. People who cannot live with uncertainty themselves cannot bear those who can. They cannot say, "We don't know the answer to that". They have to appear certain otherwise they will fall apart.
I feel sympathy for them but I wish they would keep their neuroticisms to themselves and not inflict them on me. I am neurotic enough without their help.
I feel sad about the present state of the Church. Over the last sixty-seven years it has given me a lot. It gave me the psalms, Romanesque art, the Hebrew and the Christian bibles, the Eucharist and some great music. It gave me stained glass, incense, and indirectly the western tradition in art. It gave me a sense of justice and the conviction that all human life is precious. Last year it gave me the Camino though that experience pushed me further away from the official Church rather than closer to it. The Church pointed me in the way of Thomas Aquinas (though he is not God by any means and he lived a long time ago in a culture and cosmology that is gone, and best gone too) and lots of other thinkers. I like being in the same show as Mozart, Dorothy Day and Angelo Roncalli. I am religious, whether by tradition or genetic disposition I do not know and if I had to be religious Catholic comes in highest on my list with Judaism and Buddhism (Zen anyway) close behind. I have experienced a fair bit of some of the others and I still prefer here.
But I have to live with the sadness. I think it is God's way of helping me grow up.
Graham English submitted to Catholica on 19 Mar 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2012Dr Graham English