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‘The secular is not scary’

The Bishop of Cloyne, William Crean, launched The Church in a Pluralist Society: Social and Political Roles, edited by Cornelius Casey and Fáinche Ryan, in the Loyola Institute, Trinity College Dublin, on Friday 31st January 2020.

The book draws on papers delivered at the 2016 Loyola Conference on ‘The Role of Church in a Pluralist Society: Good Riddance or Good Influence?’ and contributors include: J. Bryan Hehir, Terry Eagleton, Patrick J. Deneen, Hans Joas, William T. Cavanaugh, Massimo Faggioli, Fáinche Ryan, Patrick Riordan, and Cornelius Casey. The book, published by the University of Notre Dame Press, is available from all good bookstores for €35.

Tom Layden SJ, former Irish Jesuit Provincial, introduced Bishop Crean, whom he had sat beside during the Loyola conference in 2016. “What I did not know then was that what brought Bishop Crean to the conference was an interest in the evolution of spirituality within and without the church which he has had since his student days in Rome… and this book now offers us the opportunity to revisit some of the talks we first heard then.”

Tom shared how he had very good memories of the conference before adding a worrying note that he could only remember falling asleep on one occasion during the three days of talks. “You may wonder in which lecture did this happen?”, he remarked. “Actually it occurred away from here after I had gone home on the evening of the counting of the votes after the Brexit Referendum across the water. I started watching the coverage on BBC, and early indications seemed to indicate the possibility of a ‘remain’ vote. Then I fell asleep. When I awoke the indications had moved towards the likelihood of a vote to leave the European Union. I wasn’t sure whether I had awakened or was having a nightmare!”

With that he handed over to Bishop Crean. He introduced him as a graduate of St Patrick’s College Maynooth and the Gregorian University in Rome, who served as a priest of the Kerry Diocese from his priestly ordination in 1976 until he was ordained as the Bishop of Cloyne in January 2013.  “His work as a priest centered on the communication of the Christian faith in an educational setting in various places in the diocese,” Tom noted: “Well rooted in the spiritual heritage of his native Kerry, he has always been interested in the dialogue between faith and modern culture.”

In his launch address, Bishop Crean sees The Role of Church in a Pluralist Society as an important contribution to the discussion on this topic, a discussion which is taking place in an ever-changing Ireland impacted greatly by globalisation.

International migration is a major challenge, immigration being new to Ireland. “The great challenge of migration is the need to shift our perspective from ‘mine’ to ‘ours’,” he says, adding that “to suggest, as Pope Francis does in Laudato Si’, that the world is a ‘common home’ for all of humanity and to care for it and all its people is an integral component of Christian discipleship today.”

This means, according to Bishop Crean, that we need to situate our faith experience in a wider context than our nation-state: “This adjustment of mentality to think beyond the local, personal, even national, to embrace the global is fraught with tension between identity and universality.” He quoted the question asked by Jesuit Joseph Joblin:” …If the Church is still able to contribute to the universalization of values while safeguarding its own identity.”

Bishop Crean refers to a vision of secularism developed in the book by Pat Riordan SJ – Pat’s reassurance that “the secular is not scary!”. The bisbop then summarises tightly the positions of the various contributors to the book. All said, the work is “a huge resource for those grappling with these issues in an Irish context.” Read Bishop Crean’s full address below.

The Role of Church in a Pluralist Society

My friends, Ireland has lost its smiles according to the author Alice Taylor. A dog was the only one who acknowledged her greeting by wagging its tail! Michael Healy-Rae thanks those who are following his online campaign declaring “we’re embracing the digital side of things this year.” On this very night “Brits Out” takes on an utterly new connotation. Times they are a-changing! – they always were and always will. In the midst of this maelstrom we seek, sometimes desperately, to decipher where we are in the now global culture patterns.

My friends, I am pleased and honoured to accept the kind invitation to launch the publication of The Role of Church in a Pluralist Society, edited by Father Cornelius J Casey CSsR and Dr Fáinche Ryan, the papers delivered at a conference held here in 2016 at which I was present. I came in a personal capacity because I was pleased to learn that the issues of Church and State, the diversity of belief and none were being addressed in a considered manner from quite a diversity of perspectives. As a predominantly Catholic country in Europe we share many issues with other similar European countries. Yet, ours is a unique experience for reasons we know. Our experience of social, cultural, economic and spiritual change has been intense in its rapidity thereby exposing us to vulnerability in processing its depth and the implications for fashioning a shared future.

Our experience of immigration is new. Though now a significant percentage of the population (16%) it is manageable. The welcome was the easy part. Integration is a much longer-term project. We have already some indicators of the demands of that work. Migration is an ever-present reality globally. Displacement due to war, violence, climate change and cultural diversity is a reality for many millions of people worldwide.

All the walls in the world will not halt the march of people who are desperate. The great challenge of migration is the need to shift our perspective from ‘mine’ to ‘ours’. To suggest as Pope Francis does in Laudato Si that the world is a ‘common home’ for all of humanity and care for it and all its people is an integral component of Christian discipleship today.

I mention that global reality of the earth as our common home by way of situating our faith experience in a wider context than our nation-State. This adjustment of mentality to think beyond the local, personal even national to embrace the global is fraught with tension between identity and universality.

If I might quote Father Joseph Joblin SJ from his piece ‘Christian Identity in a Globalized and Pluralist World’ (La Civilta Cattolica 1805). “The reconciliation to be made between loyalty to tradition and universalization of values is a challenge to all societies to-day.” He goes on to ask “… If the Church is still able to contribute to the universalization of values while safeguarding its own identity?”

This volume The Role of Church in Pluralist Society is a huge resource for those grappling with these issues in an Irish context. The question of the relationship between Church and State reaches right back to the earliest days of the Church as it sought to work out the nature of its place and authority in the political context of the Roman Empire.

From there a great variety of models of Church / State relations evolved in varying contexts. It is important for us to-day to inform ourselves of that history. It gives context to the huge shift that Vatican II brought to our thinking around religious freedom reflected in the document Dignitatis Humanae.

The human person has a right to religious freedom. The basis of that right is the dignity of the human person. I quote J Bryan Hehir “In the past, the Catholic ‘thesis’ sought a privileged position for the Church. No longer: this change left the Church the challenge of establishing trust in pluralistic societies and being persuasive in its teaching and advocacy.” And so, it is now. The special position of the Catholic Church in the Irish Constitution was removed at its own request.

The lecture by Terry Eagleton has the surprising title of ‘Against Pluralism’. This piece I found provocative for its capacity to question our assumptions around the nature of pluralism. “There is a bogus kind of pluralism that holds that a point of view is to be respected simply because it is a point of view”…. “Nor does pluralism necessarily imply relativism”.

And he can be humorous in his rigor.“Even so, we do inhabit a genuinely pluralistic world in at least this sense – that though almost everyone agrees that roasting people slowly over fires is not the best way to greet them when they arrive at your house for dinner, we cannot agree on why we agree on this, and no doubt ever will”.

Freedom, option, choice are fundamental components of pluralism. The contributions by Patrick J Dineen and Hans Joas are really incisive in exploring the impact of so-called choice and option. Dineen’s piece ‘Hegemonic Liberalism’ is eye-opening in terms of appreciating the overpowering impact of ‘the liberal spirit of the age’ whereby overwhelming economic forces are creating people according to their ends and purpose which in turn is leading to the elimination of identity and cultural diversity.

As to the role of the Church he concludes, “The role of the Church is to forthrightly, confidently and courageously understand that it is an alternative to the Spirit of the age – in this age and all times – and not to be fitted into its prevailing tides. It cannot merely be a corrective or a balm but, perhaps especially in our age wholly other”.

How the Church orders its own affairs is a question that Fáinche Ryan addresses comprehensively in her contribution ‘On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine’. Beginning with its genesis in John H Newman’s work in the 19th century she brings us into the debate in its current incarnation in the form of the question of the focus of authority in the Church.

The Church’s place in a consumer society by William T Cavanagh takes his key from observations made by Tom McGurk at the turn of the millennium. “We have reached a nemesis in our affairs in Ireland where consumerism is in the process of replacing Christianity as the shaping influence on all our lives. We are rapidly approaching a point where the social and moral order is being dictated by market forces alone. As we build shopping centres with the zest that we once built cathedrals and as brand names replace saints’ names, the land of saints and scholars is being recast as the land of customers and consumers”.

This change has progressed and continues unabated despite the financial crash. This ‘compressed modernity’ is the reality confronting the Church – a Church ‘holed below the waterline’ by its failure to confront the darkness within.

Drawing from the work of Charles Taylor he explores the concept of optionality in the course of which he speaks of a ‘Closed Secularism’ that many Irish elite practice. This “closed secularism” is the idea that the Church needs to be excluded from public relevance rather than be one voice among many in the pluralized society” (p 61).

Speaking of secularism, Father Patrick Riordan SJ reassures us in his contribution ‘the secular is not scary!’ He draws on Rousseau and Augustine to surface the issues round the sacred and secular, the source of authority and how it is exercised, freedom and the common good. He introduces us to a more nuanced understanding of secularity. Terminology like ‘secular liberalism’, ‘justificatory secularism’ amongst others are explored.

He concludes, “That there is a vision of the secular and its relation to religion that from the point of view of political philosophy is defensible and robust and that from the point of view of religion and theology can be justified and defended as appropriate for rule of states, in which religious communities and churches can thrive and can contribute richly to a pluralist society. This version of the secular is a potential partner in cooperation and is definitely not scary”.

I did not mention Massimo Faggioli’s contribution ‘The Established Church Dilemma.’ Starting from the new reality of the “technocratic paradigm” that “tends to dominate economic and political life” he wonders where the Church ought to envision its contribution to society today. This is a global issue for the Church given its globalization. Future Church-State relationships will be built on the declaration on religious freedom Dignitatis Humanae.

In Ireland, we face challenges in the ongoing dialogue around the role of the Church in the “market place”. While there are some of the view that it should be consigned to the dustbin of history, the Taoiseach, Mr Leo Varadkar TD, in his address to Pope Frances in Dublin Castle in August 2018 spoke graciously of the contribution of the Church to Irish society. He spoke frankly also of the legacy of the pain caused by the harsh regimes of places of shelter, a legacy for which both Church and State bear responsibility. He also called for a new relationship – a “new covenant” – of shared endeavour for the common good.

Education and health are the significant entities where the Church continues to contribute with great generosity on the part of countless volunteers who give in a spirit of Christian service. There are structural readjustments which are in train and will continue in a spirit of goodwill. While there is a decline in liturgical practice a large proportion of the people still draw from the deep well of our Christian heritage and inspiration.

A more fundamental issue that is surfacing is the growing lack of freedom to practice, express and nurture any faith in our “State” funded institutions. We seem to be embracing in the name of tolerance and diversity an illiberal liberalism whereby for ideological reasons we stifle expressions of identity and culture. The elimination of religious symbolism from some schools and hospitals is hardly progressive even if deemed by some to be politically correct. Given the need and desire for a ‘new covenant’ I suggest that pursuing a hard-line ideological strategy is not a good basis on which to build a shared future.

My friends, I am pleased to launch this volume The Church in a Pluralist Society. I congratulate Dr Fáinche Ryan, Director of the Loyola Institute, here in Trinity and her colleagues. First, for your organisation of an excellent conference on what for the Church and Ireland are critical issues of identity, values and contemporary culture. Secondly, this volume ensures that the work of the conference can be extended. The material within its covers is to be recommended, first to my colleagues in the ministry, men, women, lay, religious. I recommend it to every newly elected member of the Oireachtas. I recommend it especially to journalists, particularly those covering social and political issues.

Many of our recent debates were distinguished by the lack of intellectual rigor and research. This volume will fill that void. So, I recommend it to you.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

Bishop William Crean

Photo from left to right: Bishop of Cloyne, William Crean; Chair of Book Launch, Fr Tom Layden SJ; Dr Fáinche Ryan, co-editor of the book and Director of the Loyola Institute; Deputy Head of Apostolic Nunciature in Ireland, the Very Reverend Monsignor Francisco Javier Díaz Tenza; Contributor to the book Dr Patrick Riordan S.J; and Dr Cornelius Casey, co-editor of the book and Founder Director of the Loyola Institute.