There is a hostility to Christianity in some parts of the Irish media. If that sounds churlish, remember that when a programme on RTE wants an input from Christian voices, they turn to the Iona Institute, which is a right-wing culture-lobbying charity. If letting those lads speak on my behalf isn’t a display of animus, then I don’t know what is. It is as ridiculous as inquiring about Christianity in America and consulting the talkshow host Bill O’Reilly.
So when RTE makes a big fancy programme about the Catholic church, all the religious people in Ireland, every single one of them, sits excitedly on the edge of their sofas to finally see their views represented.
I did watch some religious television yesterday. After the stress of an exam, I ate my dinner while watching Rowan Williams talk about the cathedral at Canterbury. It was interesting only in this way – it proved that even phenomenally articulate people can be boring on the telly. For all his well honed thoughts, my attention was as wayward as his eminent eyebrows.
This morning I loaded up the big fancy RTE programme about the Catholic church that I had no interest in last night. I heard my classmates appeared so I felt obliged to watch.
For those not in the know, Hector is a DJ on one of the state radio stations. He is a likeable fellow who is disliked by many people for some inexplicable reason. He has these Louis Theroux-light documentaries where he goes on different quests and in last night’s episode, his was not so much a quest as a pilgrimage. Except it had no set goal so it was definitely not a pilgrimage. This is the kind of definition that the show painfully lacked.
For my readers from outside Ireland, listen to how strange an opening line there was:
There was a time in Ireland when there was a picture of the Pope, JFK and the Sacred Heart in every kitchen up and down the country…
Perhaps, foreign friends, you think of Ireland as a formerly Catholic country. But it is a bizarre note of fantasy to imagine that even in 1932 when the capital city was brought to a halt because of a public mass, every single family was Catholic. Of course, Hector doesn’t mean that. He is using hyperbole for effect. I am familiar with that tactic. I am the best fecking user of hyperbole that the world has ever seen. But Hector obviously imagines that the church means one thing and he imagines all of us think that as well.
How ever did Irish Protestants get the impression they could fuck off and no one would mind, I wonder?
Hector’s documentary is an example of three contradictions at the heart of our shared understanding of what faith/religion/Christianity means :
1. The church means the Roman Catholic Church but the Catholic Church is not understood with Catholic ecclesiology but almost as just another denomination (what David McWilliams would call the Protestantisation of Irish Catholicism).
2. The church is the people of God but when you want to have a discussion about the church the last thing you do is talk with or observe the actual people.
3. Priests have their (fierce awful lonely altogether sure it’s hard now for ye) vocations foisted on them somehow
Hector, more than half way through his journey declares that he has learned “The church is a theocracy, not a democracy…” Yes indeed. One of his commentators, a priest from a neighbouring diocese to the one I live in says “Why are priests not allowed to get married in 2012?” I know it’s bad form for a Prod to be telling Catholics how to be Catholic but seriously, lads, priests can get married in 2012. There are priests married and conducting their ministry out of Orthodox and Anglican parishes all over this island. And those streams of Christianity didn’t arrive at the decision to have married clergy based on the year. Their reasoning is theological and Biblical. The pragmatic-logic of a “user” (to use one of Hector’s clumsier phrases) centred approach to Christianity is more commonly seen in parodies of American evangelicalism. The absence of a sense of what it means to be Catholic is striking.
This was most clearly captured in a scene he shot at the Eucharistic congress. The irony was jarring as he spoke to the camera with a packed Croke Park behind him celebrating mass, as he claimed that ‘religion’ was “something you can’t put your finger on.” BECOME WHAT YOU RECEIVE are the 20-foot tall words on the stage above the altar, citing Augustine of Hippo’s 4th Century EUCHARISTIC slogan. The claim of Catholicism (and all Catholic Christianities) is that religion is very much something you can quite literally put your finger on.
So in this show Hector wants to find out about Catholicism but he doesn’t go talk to people like my dad who goes to mass whenever he can but finds it hard to believe Paul is inspired and wrestles with what it is he believes and what it is that he just had beaten into him as a child. Instead he talks exclusively to priests. The “people of God” can’t be found because the priests that he talks to don’t even believe it. They themselves talk about “them” (meaning the congregation) and “us” (the priests). The clericalism in the Irish Catholic church is a massive problem, but it is striking that none of the commentators seem to have really wrestled with it. Hector thinks the church is an institution, he says so repeatedly.
The two parts of the show I enjoyed the most were the shots at the start of Clew Bay (among the loveliest places on planet Earth) and the shots at the end of my college in Maynooth (among the loveliest places on, well, the west side of Dublin!). Hector went to interview some of my classmates. Aidan McCann, who is a seminarian from Armagh spoke with his typical ease and eloquence about the “beautiful responsibility” he felt in his calling. But Hector’s tone throughout was to ignore utterly what Aidan said. In the next scene he is chatting with some more classmates and my Monaghan namesake Kevin Malcolmson was obviously struggling to deal with the irrelevance of Hector’s proposal to remedy flagging vocations. Hector wants an ad in the newspaper about how priests get a “company car” and Sky Sports and their meals provided for them. It is a cringeworthy scene. Kevin is a grown man who has forsaken all the other ways he could choose to live to dedicate himself to prayer and the care of people. He doesn’t do the work he does because of remuneration but because he knows God is active in this world. I don’t want to speak for him, but while watching I desperately wanted to give Hector a slap and say, “You have three fascinating men who have made a subversive and counter-cultural decision. Listen to them!”
Instead the idea that priesthood is just social work with less swear words is the prevailing idea that the show communicates. Sure it’s fierce hard for them.
It is. And I think they should be able to marry. And I think they should be joined by women. But that conversation is deep and theological; it isn’t a failure of common sense as if the thought had never occurred to these men before the lad off the radio came along with some “fresh thinking”.
By the way, every priest who appeared on the show had a little subtitle with their names but the seminarians remained functionally anonymous. Clericalism my friends, is a tricky little beast to tame.
I actually think that Hector Goes… Holy, by having little to no contact with the sociological and devotional reality of the Catholic church on the ground is useful because it is so unsurprisingly cack-handed. The Irish media can’t investigate the church and it is because of incompetence. An analogy which might illuminate what I’m saying is that Hector Goes… Holy is as insightful about religion in Ireland as Kevin Goes… Soccer Mad would be if the whole hour was spent with me travelling around the country talking with groundskeepers and asking them about the difficulties of saving their grass from frost. It is an almost intentional ignorance of the topic at hand.
Twitter was the site of a little moanfest during the programme (while I was watching a Sherlock repeat) about the “preachy shite” on the state broadcaster. But the fundamental thing I take away from the programme is the utter absence of preaching. This is not because the show was full of light and gracious contributions but because it had simply no content at all. Throughout the whole show, it was assumed that everyone involved in making it and everyone at home watching it knew what the church was and what it was about.
I grew up in a home like the one Hector cited in some ways. My parents marital bed sat for decades under a portrait of John Paul II. There is still a Sacred Heart of Jesus in my parent’s kitchen. I was an altar boy who went to Mass every Sunday. And I was a convinced and well reasoned atheist.
I encountered people who opened my eyes to the fact that generalisations like “sure, we all know what’s in the Bible” and “what Jesus was really about was…” were ignorances covered up by prejudices passed off as enlightenments. There wasn’t one aspect of the Apostle’s Creed that I understood, even though I knew the whole thing off by heart. No doubt I rejected it as all too much dogma from the past. It was never made present to me.
If I could wave a wand and change the discourse in Ireland around Christianity, I wouldn’t want to silence the mean columnists with their opinions in the newspapers or get rid of the technically sectarian keeping of the Angelus on the state broadcaster. What I would want to change is the belief that we can talk about Christianity without the same sort of fragile humility that we would take in making a documentary about Islam or Buddhism. I’d like to take every journalist and talkshow host and documentary filmmaker aside and convince them that they don’t have an innate understanding of the news about Jesus Christ simply because there is a harp on their passport.
Your Correspondent, Is distracting himself from study