Hope for the future requires remembrance of the past

September 20, 2022 in Dermot Roantree

DERMOT ROANTREE ([Adapted from Studies, Autumn 2022, Editorial] :: In his monumental tome from 2007, A Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor sets himself the task of accounting for the dramatic departure of modernity from the clarity and cohesiveness of a God-governed cosmos. Time was, religion was everywhere – was, as Taylor puts it, ‘interwoven with everything else’. It was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to share in a cosmic and social imaginary that made sense of everything in terms of God’s pervasive presence and providence. But then came the ‘disenchantment’. God ceased to be, for many people, even ‘an eligible possibility’, and where a religious outlook did survive it provided merely one explanation among others. Whatever its merit, it was now purely a private matter; there was no room for it in the public sphere.

There can be no doubt that Ireland lies near the endpoint of the process Taylor describes. Here, as in most developed world countries, transcendental values tend not to feature in the dominant perceptions of human flourishing; the facts and values of the world do not require reference to anything beyond it. Hence, the ‘immanent frame’, with all its subjectivities, is sufficient. It follows then that religion has become a private thing, and the public sphere reflects instead what Taylor calls a culture of ‘expressive individualism’. It took only a few decades for this to happen. As historian Crawford Gribben recently put it, Ireland has undergone ‘sudden-onset secularisation’, a bewilderingly swift transformation of its religious, political and social culture. The past, even the relatively recent past, is a strange country.

How is this to be understood or explained? Taylor’s grand-theory description – his charting of the ‘inward turn’ in both religious practice and the exercise of reason, as well as his account of how transcendent humanism appeared increasingly problematic – helps explain the conditions which made the dramatic shift in Ireland’s self-understanding possible. Many Irish people felt ‘cross-pressured’ (to use Taylor’s term) in the face of the conflict between Christian orthodoxy and other systems of meaning. The outside pressures offered by purely immanent perspectives helped to ‘fragilise’ their Christian beliefs and present them with multiple possible ‘third ways’, intermediate stances between belief and unbelief.

But what about the pressures from within? What about the fragilisation of Christian belief in Ireland caused by another kind of disenchantment – the loss of trust in the Irish Catholic Church as a force for good, the sense of betrayal as the sordid history of clerical sexual abuse, the collaboration of religious congregations in oppressive state institutions, and the mendacious cover-ups by church officials became apparent? A different kind of explanatory model from Taylor’s is needed to make sense of all this. What is required in the first instance is a more micro-level scrutiny of Irish society and culture during the decades of the transformation and a more concrete inspection of how Irish people today have come to understand what happened to them and where it has left them. Derek Scally’s recent book The Best Catholics in the World (Dublin: Sandycove, 2021) is a thoughtful and honest effort to address this need, not indeed as an academic venture but rather as a journalistic bid to put together a credible account of a seismic upheaval in Irish society and culture.

For Scally the bid is also personal. The Ireland of his youth was unquestionably – and no doubt unquestioningly – Catholic, but that identity and its legacy seem deeply problematic to him now. He writes from the need to understand how things happened the way they did.

I want to understand how my Catholic past went from rigid reality to vanishing act – now you see it, now you don’t. To do that, though, I need to understand how Catholic Ireland rose to glory and shrivelled up in shame. Until I do that, I cannot have a proper parting. (9)

The answer to the question of how the Church went from glory to shame is complex, of course, and requires looking at Irish life well beyond the walls of Church houses and institutions. Scally covers this well. The prevailing culture, as he depicts it, was indeed one of ‘clerical coercion’, ‘unforgiving rigidity’, and Victorian values that had been ‘retooled’ by the Catholic Church; but it was also one of ‘social snobbery’, where the state – and indeed the population at large – was content to have ‘shame-containment’ facilities for ‘fallen’ and troubled women, where the moral probity of clerics was taken as given, and where, when suspicions arose, ordinary people failed to rise above a culture of deference, conformity, and silence.

The pressing question is how we should, in the present, address this toxic past. Scally looks to Germany, his home now for more than twenty years, for guides to the complex business of coming to terms with the past and ‘with everyone’s role in it’. ‘It took decades,’ he writes

for Germans to realize that engaging with their society’s past – supplementing guilt and blame of the actual perpetrators then with a wider narrative of personal responsibility to remember – improves their society’s present. (284)

He cites the judgement of German thinkers such as Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Jürgen Habermas that ‘owning our past and how we remember it is a prerequisite for meaningful engagement with past wrongs, and that critical reflection on a nation’s past is the normative basis for a healthy democracy’. We could say that, mutatis mutandis, the same holds for the Catholic Church, both in Ireland and elsewhere. For the sake of a healthy future, the Church must reflect critically on its past. If it doesn’t succeed in remembering the injustices it has perpetrated or permitted, in owning them and keeping the memory of them alive, bearing ‘ethical witness’ to the victims through reconciliation, restorative justice, and appropriate memorialisation, it cannot expect to be in a position to prevent comparable injustices happening in the future.

This judgement, this insight into the critical significance of historical suffering and injustice, lies at the root of the theological work of another German thinker, Johann Baptist Metz. Metz engaged extensively with Habermas, Ernest Bloch, and other critical theorists associated with the Frankfurt School, and he addressed similar questions to theirs, but in a theological register. His highly influential political theology, which for him constituted a ‘practical fundamental theology’, is an elaborate working out of the theological significance of memory, most especially the memoria passionis, the memory of the suffering of others:

The whole of my theological work is attuned by the specific sensitivity for theodicy, the question of God in the face of the history of suffering of the world, of ‘his’ world. What would later come to be called ‘political theology’ has its roots here: speaking about God within the conversio ad passionem.

At the heart of the issue of historical injustice, for Metz, is what Walter Benjamin called ‘anamnestic solidarity’, a resolute remembrance of those who have suffered in the past – remembering them against the dominant narratives, against what Metz calls ‘the conversation of the victors’. Theology, understood in this way, is always a form of interruption – as of course was the life and death of Jesus Christ. And it is Christ’s suffering that signals the emancipatory and redemptive potential of the memoria passionis. Christ’s redemption cannot be separated from his passion and death. The future is embedded in the past. The eschatological hope of the Church rests firmly, then, in the memory of the suffering of Christ, hence in that of all victims. And so, the memory of Christ is, in a term Metz borrowed from Herbert Marcuse, a ‘dangerous memory’ – dangerous because it gives pride of place to the narrative of an innocent man suffering torture and death at the hands of those in power, and so keeps alive a commitment to justice and change. It is, he writes,

an anticipatory remembering; it holds the anticipation of a specific future for humankind as a future for the suffering, for those without hope, for the oppressed, the disabled, and the useless of this earth.

Christian hope for the future, in sum, lies in remembrance of the victims of the past and service to victims in the present. A necessary corollary of this is that Church authority ought not to be exercised as a form of power, but only, as Pope Francis has repeatedly said, as a form of service. Metz cautions against ‘locating’ and ‘enthroning’ the ‘God of the passion of Jesus’ politically, whether by a party, a race, a nation, or indeed a church. This must be opposed and unmasked as idolatry, or mere ideology.

The Catholic Church in Ireland, of course, has been well and truly ‘dethroned’ when it comes to relations with the state. In his epilogue, Scally recognises that the context for his book is the present-day ‘reinvention of Ireland’ after it has flipped from a religious to an increasingly secular society. New terms of engagement have still to be defined, but, Scally writes, ‘if it is to be successful, it needs to be more inclusive and generous to all – to people of faith and non-believers – than it was in the past’. More generous too, as both Scally and Metz would have agreed, to the historical victims of its own abuse of power.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the removal by referendum of the mention of the special position of the Catholic Church in the Irish constitution. In a sense the amendment was largely symbolic, as Ireland never was strictly a confessional state and the surrounding articles in the constitution showed a firm commitment to liberal democratic values. Yet the result did indeed mark a significant shift in Irish attitudes: the Catholic Church, just like any other Church or faith, would henceforth be a beneficiary of the secular values enshrined in the constitution, but its teaching would have no formal bearing on how they were to be interpreted. Most Catholics now would see this decoupling of Church and state as a positive and necessary thing. We find in Metz, as indeed we do in Charles Taylor, a sense that the secularity of the world in recent centuries is not fundamentally opposed to Christianity, that it is in fact originally a Christian event that has arisen, as Metz puts it, ‘not against Christianity but through it’.

There are grounds for hope here. There is a common humanistic discourse that Christians, other people of faith, and those without any faith can enter into on equal terms, and if good discursive habits are developed Christians can make an invaluable and decisive impact in a culturally polycentric world – not by any means free of discord but protected from the worst injustice and violence by a common regard for human dignity and a respect for positive political and social norms. For this to happen, though, neither the Church nor the state can afford to allow the past to be forgotten. Scally finishes his book with a cautionary tale from Germany. Erich Maria Remarque’s harrowing novel about the First World War, All Quiet on the Western Front, was a searing condemnation of the old conservative elite and the utter indifference of military commanders to the suffering of their soldiers on the front, and as such it was suppressed by the Nazis. ‘A society blinded by the trauma of one war,’ Scally concludes, ‘walked into another’. And in July of this year Pope Francis sounded the same note when he asked forgiveness of the indigenous peoples of Canada for the sorry history of abuse in the residential schools: ‘Without real indignation, without historical memory and without a commitment to learning from past mistakes, problems remain unsolved and keep coming back’.

Metz is just as admonitory, but his summary of what there is to be gained by not turning our backs on the past rings a welcome note of hope:

What the memory of suffering brings into political life… is a new moral imagination with regard to others’ suffering, which should bear fruit in an excessive, uncalculated partiality for the weak and the voiceless. But this is the way that the Christian memoria passionis can become a ferment for that new political life for which we are searching, so that we might have a human future.