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Religion and politics in Ireland at the turn of the millennium

30 November, 1999

James Mackey and Enda McDonagh edit this collection of essays to commemorate the 75th birthday of Garret Fitzgerald. The essays are on contemporary issues relating to church and state in Ireland, and the authors include Geraldine Smyth, Patrick Hannon and Dermot Lane.

 304 pp, Columba Press, 2003. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie .


Part one: overview of Church-State relationships in Ireland since the founding of the free state
1. The internal politics and policies of the Roman Catholic Church at the turn of the millennium (James P. Mackey)
2. Church-State relations in independent Ireland (Enda McDonagh)
3. The protestant churches in independent Ireland (Kenneth Milne)
4. In the middle ground and meantime: a call to the churches in the Northern Ireland to find themselves on the edge (Geraldine Smyth)
Part two: specific areas of encounter between politics and religion
5. Interpreting the divorce debate: Church and State in transition (Linda Hogan)
6. Legislation on contraception and abortion (Patrick Hannon)
7. Church-State relations in primary and secondary education (John Coolahan)
8. Catholic influence on the health services 1830-200 (Ruth Barrington)
9. Religion and bio-ethics in Ireland today (Maureen Junker-Kenny)
10. Christian critique of economic policy and practice (Sean Healy and Brigid Reynolds)
11. Human rights have no borders: justice for the stranger at home and abroad (Joan Roddy, Jerome Connolly and Maura Leen)
12. Irish Christians and struggle for a just society (Dermot Lane)
13. Churches, governments, and the media: confronting their own and each other’s responsibilities (John Horgan)
Concluding Commentary (Garret FitzGerald)


The relationship between religion and politics in Ireland has been controversial since before partition. This book seeks to examine that relationship, with special emphasis on that between the Roman Catholic Church and the governments of the Republic.

Part one of Religion and Politics in Ireland consists of four chapters, each containing a general overview, respectively, of the internal politics of the Roman Catholic Church (James P. Mackey), of relationships between the state and the Roman Catholic Church in the Republic of Ireland during the last century (Enda McDonagh), of relationships between other Christian churches and the same state (Kenneth Milne), and, finally, of relationships between the Christian churches and Northern Ireland (Geraldine Smyth OP). In part two, the analysis of the relationship between religion and politics is broken down in order to take closer account of the finer detail that emerges in the more specific areas of interest to both, namely: family law and morality (Linda Hogan and Patrick Hannon), education (John Coolahan); the health services (Ruth Barrington), bio-medical practice or bio-technology (Maureen Junker-Kenny); the search for a just society (Dermot A. Lane), economic policy and practice (Sean Healy and Brigid Reynolds), concern for the foreigners both in our midst and in need in their own countries (Joan Roddy, Jerome Connolly and Maura Leen); the media and the three-way interactions with politics and religion (John Horgan).

From this combination of general overview and closer focus on detail, it is hoped to gain a better view of both wood and trees and a truer assessment of religion and politics in Ireland at the turn of the millennium, warts and all, and perhaps some inklings of how things might improve as the new millennium proceeds. The collection concludes with Garret FitzGerald’s critical overview and assessment of all that has gone before.

CHAPTER 1: The internal politics and policies of the Roman Catholic Church at the turn of the millennium
The manner in which a Christian church, any Christian church, relates to the broader society, to any particular society, will depend as much on its prevalent vision of itself – of its structures, its rituals, its credo, its ethos, its mission and purpose – as on any other set of factors one might imagine. That probably goes without saying. But what probably does not go quite so well without saying is this: that the prevalent vision in question is most evident at any point of time in the current form of the foundation myth of the society in question, and thereafter on current understandings of related elements within that myth, such as government, credo, ethos and ritual.

Two points perhaps in passing:

First, myth is used here, if that is still possible, in a non-pejorative sense, to refer to a story which presents not only the facts of what a founder said and did and the forms in which the founder then embodied the formative vision, but the changed forms in which changed time and circumstance demand that the vision be re-embodied, if it is to remain both efficacious and true to the founder. Second, and consequently, foundation myths change with change of time and place and culture. This change or, rather, series of changes, can be ascertained in the case of any church or nation state or other form of society that preserves some memory of the history of its foundation myth; and it can be accepted on grounds of its very necessity for continuing fidelity to the founder – that is, of course, where there are foundation myths and founders to be seen. In the case of Christianity both have been visible from the beginning.

The fulcrum of the Christian foundation myth, on which all its other features must be balanced, is expressed in one of its earliest forms at the outset of the gospel according to John: ‘And the Word (through which the world is created and which therefore enlightens everyone in that world) became flesh and dwelt amongst us, full of grace and truth … and from his fullness we have all received … For grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.’ (Jn 1: 2, 9, 14, 16, 17) Fast-forward now to the form which that foundation myth has taken late in the twentieth century, and in particular to those parts of it which envisage how the fullness of grace and of truth that came with Jesus of Nazareth is made available to be received by all of us down to the present day; and take the account of this from the Second Vatican Council, for Roman Catholics the most authoritative account available in and for our time.

This twentieth-century Roman Catholic version of the Christian foundation myth, long centuries in the making, focuses upon a priestly caste which is said to be distinct in essence, and not just in degree, from what is more generally known as ‘the priesthood of the people’, that is to say, of the laity, ‘the faithful’. Priesthood properly so called is a cultic, indeed hierarchical priesthood – the bishop rather than the ordinary parish priest enjoys the ‘fullness’ of this priesthood. And its distinctive essence results from the conferring upon its members of a ‘sacred power’, the nature and effects of which are illustrated in the assertion that it enables the men who receive it – women need not apply – to do two things: to ‘bring about the eucharistic sacrifice’ and to rule the ‘priestly people’. A sacred power, then, which when conferred on certain men sets them apart as a distinct clerical caste, whose role it is to rule the rest of the followers of Jesus and to provide these with eucharist. (See Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, nos 10, 18,21,28; the Decree on Bishops, no 15; and the Decree on Priests, nos 2, 3)

Now the eucharist is the principal sacrament instituted by the founder of Christianity. To it the six other sacraments are ordered, in the manner in which the preparatory or partial is ordered to the complete. And as the sacraments, as any Roman Catholic textbook of theology will say, are the primary instruments or channels of the fullness of grace which came with Christ, then it must follow that the eucharist is given us as the ordained or ordinary instrument or channel by which the fullness of grace is made available to human kind. Another way of saying the same thing: the eucharist symbolises, and by symbolising makes present … the eucharist represents and therefore makes present, for a symbol participates in the reality it symbolises … the Christ with whom the fullness of divine grace came, and still comes, to sanctify and save human kind. (Decree on Priests, no 5)

So, then, the sacred power to bring about the eucharist, conferred on some and by these passed on to others, results in the selection of those thereby ordained to make the fullness of divine grace available to human kind. But the same sacred power, in the current Roman Catholic version of the Christian foundation myth, it has already been indicated, enabled this same hierarchical group which is empowered to bring about the eucharist, also to rule the laity. And in this latter respect, if one studies the detail of the myth, the sacred power turns out to be both a power of jurisdiction, that is to say, a power to promulgate and enforce laws, and a power to teach, a magisterium as it is called in Latin. This means, to make a long story short, that the fullness of truth which came with Jesus the Christ, though presented from the outset to all who would hear and heed, is entrusted especially to those ordained by Jesus himself to the fullness of priesthood, that is to say, to the apostles whose successors would be bishops under the leadership of Peter, first Bishop of Rome, and his successors, the popes. These further related elements of the Roman Catholic foundation myth cannot be afforded more space here, though they do make plain why this is a Roman Catholic foundation myth. All that it is necessary to note for present purposes is this: that the same hierarchical group which can make available the fullness of grace in the eucharist, is also the privileged custodian of the fullness of truth, final court of appeal for or against anyone else who would claim to be expressing any part of that truth, and so, when acting as a group under the reigning pope, this hierarchical group is to be considered the privileged repository of the fullness of truth entrusted to it by Jesus, with the ruling authority to teach that truth to the faithful of every age. (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, esp no 10)

Two points perhaps about this grace and this truth, before considering further this particular version of the Christian foundation myth: First, the connection between grace and truth. Briefly, in the textbooks of the time leading up to Vatican II Roman Catholic theology defined grace as a supernatural entity infused by God into the soul in order to enable the recipients to lead good lives in imitation of Christ, and in general to save and sanctify them. The life of grace was correspondingly deemed a supernatural life, that is to say, a life over and above that natural life that we live and experience from cradle to grave. Hence of course we could not know about it as we know our natural lives, through exercise of our natural faculties of experience and knowledge; we need to be told about it. Thence the necessity of having the fullness of truth transmitted together with the fullness of grace.

Second, then, the extent of the claim that is made concerning the proprietorship of the fullness of grace and truth. This contemporary Roman Catholic foundation myth does not claim this church to be the sole proprietor of divine grace and truth. In the Decree on Ecumenism from Vatican II it is allowed that ‘truly Christian endowments from our common heritage … are to be found amongst our separated brethren’ (no 4), and it goes on to enumerate the elements of grace and truth that are to be found in other Christian churches and ‘ecclesial communities’. Indeed almost all of the fullness of grace and truth are said to be found in those Eastern churches closest in structure and theology to the Roman Catholic Church. Further, this foundation myth of course allows that God dispenses grace and revelation outside of Christianity altogether, in other religions and most particularly in Judaism, and even through the natural world and its history.

But the official and prevailing Roman Catholic view of all of this is best summed up in a part or kind of Roman Catholic theology which can best be described as a theology of franchise. God has given to the Roman Catholic Church, and entrusted in particular to its clerical hierarchy, the one and only franchise to the fullness of grace and truth that came in Jesus the Christ. And if there is evidence – and there is – that recognisable elements of this grace and truth were and still are available to peoples before Christianity came or comes to them, the purpose of such distribution of these elements is the dual purpose of helping to bring people to God in the absence of Christianity in their places and times, and to prepare them for the coming of Christianity; a distribution of sample goods, as it were, before the sole franchise has come to your area, in preparation for its extension to your area, a preparatio evangelica. On the other hand, in the case of these Christian churches and ‘ecclesial communities’, other than the Roman Catholic Church, the image is of groups who have broken away from the sole franchise, the one and only authorised holder of the fullness of grace and truth. These groups have taken some of the goods away with them and are still trading in these. All of which is to be welcomed, not only because God is thereby active through all these groups, churches and religions for human healing and eternal blessedness, but because friendly dialogue is thereby facilitated which can bring all back, or in, to the fullness of grace and truth, or as the Decree on Ecumenism puts it, back or in under the rule of ‘the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, (to which) we believe Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who already belong in any way to God’s people’. (no 3; see also the Declaration on the Relations of the Church with non-Christian Religions)

What is to be said about this current version of the Roman Catholic foundation myth, and of current understandings of elements within it such as the theologies of grace and of (the revelation of) truth? Well, that depends largely upon one point in particular: whether or not it considers itself to be the one and only true foundation myth. For if it does, it is already engaged in the propagation of falsehood. For one thing, the foundation myth(s) of the New Testament, which most Christians take to be authoritative, differ quite radically from our current Roman Catholic foundation myth in some of its definitive elements. For example, the church(es) of the New Testament times, let us say the first two or three generations of Jesus’ followers, knew nothing of a priesthood different in essence from some general priesthood of all the faithful and in consequence, in the earliest centuries of Christian history, neither was such a priesthood thought necessary in order to ‘bring about the eucharist’. In fact, the one New Testament document which has a good deal to say about priesthood argues quite strenuously that a cultic priesthood acting as intermediary between the rest of us and God, bringing our gifts and prayers and returning with God’s grace, was abolished by Jesus who gave his life to blaze the trail that showed all of us our direct access to the throne of grace. (1) Jesus did not ordain anyone to priesthood in the proper and essentially distinct sense, nor any group to whom could then be confined the process of making really present in the eucharist the risen Jesus, the life-giving Spirit, as Paul called him (1 Cor 15:45) and with that presence the fullness of grace which the creative Word focused through his flesh in this world. Nor is there any New Testament evidence to suggest in the least adequate degree that Jesus confined to such a priestly caste a proprietory possession of and power over the fullness of truth which was focused in this world through Jesus’ ‘perishable’ humanity (see Paul again, 1 Cor 15:50; Rom 1 :3-4, for the meaning of being ‘flesh’, hence of ‘becoming flesh’). The principal incarnation text in the New Testament, the opening of the fourth gospel, is the very text which proclaims that the life which the creator Word continually pours out to the world, then seen through the image of light, enlightens everyone in all the world and at all times, only the darkness within the world and in human hearts could not comprehend it.

All of this does not mean that the current Roman Catholic foundation myth is a falsehood through and through. But neither does it mean that no false or discordant notes have crept into it over the long course of its composition. Myths are visions of reality fashioned from the very praxis by which we come to know it, and to know its prospects and ours within it, visions which then influence our further and future praxis. The issue of the truth of a myth is therefore neither as simple nor as straightforward as that of so-called assertions of fact. The truth of myth has much more to do with the most adequate perception of and prescription for emergent well-being, for the salving and saving of humanity and its world in the course of their co-creative praxis, than with any simple correlation of image or idea with bare and value-free fact. Furthermore, since myth, like language, is always communal or public and never purely private, its content emerges and can be judged from everything from the structures of the carrying community to that community’s ritual, ethos and, of course, verbal or other artistic formulations of the practical vision by which it lives. Any community’s myth is perceptible from its institutional shape and its characteristic behaviour patterns, both moral and ritual, as much as it is from its verbal and artistic productions. Further still, since we live in a continuously co-created, hence evolving world, the categories of social structures, ritual, mores, philosophy and art change from time to time and from place to place. So the myth will change with these category changes in order to remain true – well, that is to say, if it wishes to remain true – to an original vision-in-praxis.

To make a long story short once again, when expanding in or into societies that had cultic priesthoods, it was wise of Christians to select, educate and ‘ordain’ particular people to preside over the local Christian communities in the celebration of the eucharist, and eventually even to call these priests. But it would then be necessary, in fidelity to the vision seen in the life, death and raising of Jesus, to show that this select and especially trained group was simply serving the whole people in their bringing about eucharist, in the eucharistic offering of their lives in imitation of Christ to their neighbours and thereby to God, in this way healing the alienation, the discord and the divisions between each other and God, brought about by their wrong-doing – in short, inviting the real presence of the life-giving Spirit, the risen Jesus, to the point where they become the body of Christ in the world. The best way to improve a society, if that is what as a follower of Jesus you are bold enough to think you can do, is to adopt the categories in which that society operates, and infuse these with the vision of Jesus from within. This is what Jesus would have wanted his followers to do – as we often say of those who have gone before us but whose presence and influence upon us we want to acknowledge – though he did not himself ordain priests, nor did his followers for some considerable time after his death.

This particular part of a foundation myth, the part which brought a specialised priesthood into it, was then true even when people, in times with far less knowledge of their past, or indeed very much of a sense of history, told it as a story of what Jesus did. But it would only be and remain true to Jesus and to what he did, as long as this special priesthood was understood, not as a cultic priesthood which stood as intermediary between a priestly people and God, but as a function or office that convened the priestly people for their priestly eucharistic function and led them in the exercise of that function. Just as Jesus himself was a priest, not of the essentially distinctive cultic kind that was confined to members of a particular Jewish family to which he did not belong – but of the general priesthood-of-the-laity kind, offering his life to God for others. For this reason also, then, the myth was only true to the point at which it understood Christian priesthood as a priesthood of all the faithful, exercised as explained just now, in all of those gathered together bringing about the eucharist. ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.’ Real presence? Of course, and never more so than when they break to each other the bread, staff and symbol of life, and pour out the wine in willingness to pour out their very lives for others, all the while in memory of Jesus’ own action and words and as a means, the prime means, of having his Spirit mould them into his body in the world.

Later followers were wise also to construe the leadership, the government of an expanding community, along the lines of the government structures of the Roman Empire, the natural aid and space for that expansion. That this is what Jesus would have wanted is expressed this time by cobbling together some words of Jesus on Peter’s leadership of the twelve (a group incidentally that did not have any successors as such, and could scarcely have had after the break with Judaism, which neither Jesus nor his early followers intended or foresaw) with a legend about Peter’s (and Paul’s) death in Rome. And the real rationale for this move is the same as in the previous example of priesthood: in respect of government also one can best improve the human condition, infuse it with the Spirit of Jesus, by imitating its structures, thereby providing a powerful example of how such structures can embody a spirit of service to all, rather than a spirit of the power of lording-it-over, of command and corresponding obedience.

It was also wise of later followers, in the course of these early centuries, to express the fullness of truth that came in Jesus the Christ in terms of the linguistic, imaginative and conceptual currency of the times and places to which Christianity expanded. This early cultural currency was summed up and critically developed by the Platonised Stoicism of the time and the succeeding Neo-Platonism. The former, a Platonised Stoicism which held a dominant position in the empire at the time of the origins of Christianity, described what it also called the Word as the continuous creator of the world, ever working within it, and particularly within and through those sparks from its own fire, the creative minds and consciences of human beings, who were thereby invited to co-create the world with it, co-creating simultaneously under the instress, inspiration and illustrations of the Word working constantly within them and their world the ever developing visions, ideals, principles, guidelines, rules, norms even, necessary for the task; and, yes, acting destructively sometimes instead, causing offence, in the sense of an offensive against other co-creators and especially against the Supreme Co-Creator working for and within all; then having to suffer the damage done to themselves in the process, as well as re-doubling their creativity in order, at whatever additional expense to themselves, to repair the damage done to others to whom they should have continued to break the bread of life and life more abundant, in the first place. (Real redemption from evil and its effects is always a new or re-creation.) By adopting and adapting to what they had to tell about Jesus this dominant, profoundly religious morality of their time, these early Christians gave to succeeding centuries a model of developing morals, known as the natural law model – the very model which was so misleadingly misapplied in the case of contraception by the papal encyclical of 1968, Humanae Vitae.

The latter, the Neo-Platonists, then placed this Creator Word – the one through whom, the opening of John’s gospel proclaims, God created the world – they placed this Word (or Nous, mind) in a trinitarian theology of which one called Soul or Spirit formed the third member. These three hypostaseis of the one Being of God (Greek-speaking Christians borrowed that term also from these non-Christian Neo-Platonic trinitarian theologies, whereas Latin-speaking Christians used of the Three what was potentially a much more misleading term, personae, persons), were revealed and therefore known from the overflow of that creative and infinite Goodness which characterises the One true God. That one Being was thereby known, according to these Neo-Platonists, to be a primordial Source of all (Father) and also and simultaneously a Mind (Word) and Soul (Spirit). By this further adoption and adaptation these early Christians illustrated the similarity of their foundation myths to those of other religions – later Platonists called Plato a divine man who had a human mother but no human father, and commented on his extant dialogues as inspired writings – and incidentally endorsed the view of the opening of John’s gospel, to the effect that the Creator Word enlightens everyone who comes into the world. They illustrated the deep similarity in what ‘pagan’ and Christian theologians believe is to be known about God, and what is to be done about morals in order to have a continuing destiny with God; a destiny which one could then hope, with Socrates and Plato and every other human being, might involve such homoiosis theou in Plato’s own phrase for our human calling, such likeness to God as to entail a future with God and others across even that dissolution of our present bodily form, that death with which a spacetime continuum now necessarily marks our finiteness. (Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount refers to the same human calling in his words: ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’)

In this evolution of the Roman Catholic foundation myth, is there any unavoidable and invasive falsehood to the founder and the faith that formed round his life, death and destiny? No, there is not. But did falsifications creep in nevertheless and have these accumulated in the current version of the myth? Undoubtedly, yes; and it is increasingly obvious that these falsifications are at the root of the self-destructive decline of the Roman Catholic Church, even in such traditionally staunch Roman Catholic populations as that of the Republic of Ireland, and not least in the manner in which the Roman Catholic version of the Christian religion has interacted with civic and political society in that country. It is difficult to set out in the context of a short essay any well-argued account of these intrusive falsifications, their origins, nature, number and unfortunate practical consequences. So let the following be a brief suggestive account, offered for the sake of a more extensive argument, one that has actually been going on since before Vatican II, but in scattered efforts over various areas of modern Roman Catholic theology, so that it all still badly needs to be pulled together and critically considered as a whole, if Roman Catholic theologians are to render to their church the full and thorough service demanded of them by their very vocation.

Observe first the fairly obvious fact that, together with the clear advantages of formulating your faith in general and your foundation myth in particular – its constitutive elements of creed, cult, code and constitutional structures – in the corresponding cultural categories of those with whom you wish to share it, there goes the danger of importing into that faith some elements of these cultures which are simply not adaptable to the faith of the founder. When this danger is not averted, you end up losing sight of some of the very elements in the lived vision of Jesus which would actually improve the lives of those you wish to enrich, and you yourselves become impoverished in precise proportion to your failure to offer such improvement to others. A net loss to you, no gain to them, and the ground gone from under you on which you presumed to preach to others in the first place.

Examples? Look no further than the list of features of the Roman Catholic foundation myth already so briefly set out above. Take priesthood first. The current official form of the Roman Catholic foundation myth persists in interpreting its priesthood in such a way as to suggest the re-instalment of a cultic priesthood, comprised of intermediaries between God’s people and the unconditionally gracious God. By doing so, it goes back on the first entailment of what Christians call the incarnation, namely, that God’s grace is poured in and through the ordinary human being; that neither the fullness of grace itself nor the means of its pouring out is first confined to any particular group of people, male or female. So if in the matter of access to the throne of grace the Roman Catholic Church thinks it has something to say to Judaism, for example, then we find ourselves in the ironic, but potentially salutary position of having to note that it is in Judaism today that we find a people, Jesus’ people, relating to the God Jesus called Father, without any go-between priesthood. This state of affairs may have come about more by historical accident than design – the ancient destruction of their temple with the ensuing redundancy of its priesthood – but only an extreme unbeliever would deny that history at times might coincide with providence and, in this instance, bring his own people back to their original calling as the people of God, as Jesus tried to do. In this instance at least, Judaism today has a lesson for Catholics from Jesus the Jew, rather than the other way round.

Something very similar must be said about the leadership structures necessary for the Christian church(es), as for any other community, and developed by the Christian community in the world at first on the model of government in the Roman Empire. The personnel involved in this leadership soon came to be identical with those who had taken over presidency of the eucharistic ritual. Now this very coincidence of personnel should have copper-fastened the process by which the newly forming government in the church gave an example of self-sacrificing service of their fellows to all who would lead in all human societies, thereby weaning these also away from their tendency to lord it over their fellows and make the latter feel their power. The constitutive spirit of eucharist, the life-giving Spirit that enables each and all to take life and all the supports of life as gift from God and in overflow of thanksgiving (eucharist in Greek) to break and pour one’s life out to enrich the lives of all, that spirit should have acted for this dual leadership to corroborate the words of Jesus who specifically defined their governmental style by insisting that their leadership should take the form of service to all (in the language and culture of Jesus’ time the word used referred to slavery), adding specifically that these governmental leaders should not lord it over the rest, not make the rest feel their power.

Yet here also in this twinned factor of the Roman Catholic version of the foundation myth of the Christian religion (constitutional structure twinned with the structures of the cult), it was the spirit of Roman imperium that slowly influenced and re-informed the Christian structures of leadership modelled upon them. To that extent the flow of influence was reversed, and the real presence of the life-giving Spirit of service in the world, as well as in the sacrificial sacrament, was robbed of its efficacy, if not ousted altogether.

The long process by which the spirit of lording-it-over-others weakened and on occasion even replaced the spirit of loving service cannot be chronicled here. It probably reached its theoretical apogee in medieval times when Boniface VIII formulated the foundations for claims that popes should anoint emperors, and could depose them. But it is seen in practice to this day (still?) in the imagery of members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy adopting the feudal titles of lordship and expecting people to kneel before their sacred persons and kiss their hands, as serfs would in feudal times who depended for their means of livelihood on their lords temporal. It is not that these titles or rituals in themselves do the damage: in themselves, like the robes the hierarchs wear, these need represent no more that a piece of pageantry, part entertainment and part educational survivals of a distant past, much like the pageantry that still surrounds a modem monarchy, signifying continuity across great cultural changes in form and substance. What does damage, once again, is the re-entry, retention and on occasion the increase of the spirit, formally expressed in the theology of franchise, of exclusive power over the means of livelihood, the fullness of grace which this misleading theology holds the rest must normally receive only from the hands of these ‘lords’ or from those less-than-fullness-of-the-priesthood priests who are now said to merely make the bishops present in the ordinary parishes.

Perhaps, however, in lieu of a comprehensive chronicle of how a leadership of willing slaves and of service came to be infected by the quite different model of overlordship and power, a concrete example should suffice of the manner in which the contemporary Roman Catholic leadership has dealt, not now with the channelling of the fullness of grace, but with the presentation of the fullness of truth. Recall, only for the purposes of this example, the charism (that is to say, the grace) of infallibility with which the modern Roman Catholic foundation myth maintains Jesus endowed his church. This is thought to be entailed in Jesus’ promise to be with his followers in their mission to the world, so they could believe they would never betray the fullness of truth he showed to them. It is this infallibility with which Jesus endowed his church that the modern version of the Roman Catholic foundation myth claims is enjoyed in a special manner by its hierarchy, and in an even more special manner by the pope. (Constitution on the Church, esp. no 25)

From this way of putting the matter, one would assume that if the pope were of a mind to pronounce on some particular element in the fullness of truth, one particular item from creed or code, he would be bound to listen to the church, the whole people of God, before attempting to decide the issue for them. For, to repeat, his is a share, a special share perhaps in view of his leadership position, but a share nevertheless in the infallibility with which Jesus endows his followers in the world. Yet in the now infamous case of the morality of the use of contraception in marriage, Paul VI did consult a commission comprised in part of lay people, but he went against their witness to the truth and, worse still, successive popes have since ignored the moral decision in this matter of the use of contraceptives by the vast majority of married Catholics in the world, and have sought instead to impose a false moral precept upon them. It would be difficult to find a starker example of overlording power-play in lieu of the service which Christian leadership should supply, a service in this case of discerning the way the Spirit was moving in the lives of the faithful, to whom, after all, Vatican II had attributed the primacy in the function of infusing with Christian values the ideals and norms for all communal modes of living in the world – and that certainly comprises married life.

It is not easy to offer a satisfactory explanation for the entry of these falsifications into a Christian foundation myth or, rather, into the versions of a religion which successive forms of a foundation myth simply represent. It is even difficult to say whether the falsifications entered first as misconceptions of the grace and truth to which the religion offers an access, or as misconceptions of the communal structures of the religion and their essential, attendant liturgy. Was it that a leadership group amongst Jesus’ followers, at a point at which their whole community was definitively breaking away from the Jewish religion – a point which neither Jesus nor his first followers ever appeared to have foreseen, much less intended – gradually came to feel that the continuity of their position, in face of this and all other religions, depended upon a claim that they had an exclusive franchise on a ‘deposit of faith’ (and of grace) to which neither the other religions nor their own faithful had any independent access? Hence the truth and grace to which they witnessed had to be deemed supernatural also in status as well as provenance? Or was it the other way round: they gradually came to think of the grace and truth to which they were to witness round the world to converts and others alike, as strictly supernatural in status and provenance and therefore the material of an exclusive franchise, itself a source of their privilege and power?

The most assiduous student of Christianity from its origins as a separate religion (that is to say, from the last quarter of the second century after Christ) would probably have to conclude that it was an inextricable mixture of both, with further complicating factors thrown in for good measure. Certainly, by the time the last Roman Catholic textbooks of theology were issued, early in the second half of the twentieth century, the ‘life of grace’ as it came to be called, the life in the souls of Jesus’ followers as a result of God’s gracious gifts, was described as a metaphysical construct, a kind of supernatural parallel to the natural life of the human being – for grace itself in the soul was defined as a ‘new being’, a ‘new life’, complete with new ‘faculties’ or ‘principles of operation’. (2) This seems quite additional to the life which the Word incarnate in Jesus, precisely as creator, gives to all people and indeed to all things, and which is itself the revelation simultaneously of itself and of its giver, the natural life and revelation of God’s continuous creation – ‘and the life was the light of men.’ (In 1:4)

If there is some kind of parallel life as the textbooks suggested, over (‘super’) the natural life and all its supports and healings which the gracious God pours out ever more abundantly through the creative co-operation of all God’s creatures great and small, then one would expect a special group of people especially empowered to make it and its divine giver effectively present; and the eucharist, as the sacrament of this life, as the symbol which effects what it symbolises, would be an exercise of their sacred power and of theirs alone. But if, as a reading of the opening of John’s gospel simply states, the life in question is life as we experience it, poured from the Source to each creature through others, with all its supports and enhancements, and all the redemptive healings which the constant turn to destructiveness by the co-creators requires, then the eucharist which Jesus instituted is the sacrament of creation, of the whole natural world and its constant divine-creaturely creation. It is the symbol (which effects what it symbolises) in the breaking of bread to others, the symbol of the present and active Spirit that receives as gift life in all its dimensions and manifestations, to pour it out to others, and thereby incidentally to reconcile and heal those damaged by the occasional turn to destructiveness, a damage done to giver and recipient alike; select soil on which the sturdy hope that life will continue to be poured out, even through the final destructiveness of death. On this reading of the texts eucharist can be celebrated by any group of people, though the followers of Jesus will celebrate it in memory of him. But no special sacred power will then be necessary in any particular group, and least of all within the fellowship of Jesus’ followers.

As an example of a complicating factor which could have contributed to the gradual falsification of a foundation myth, in itself capable of carrying the fullness or truth about the fullness of grace, take a tract of theology from near the beginning of Christianity, a theology of what came to be called original sin. This particular theology of original sin comes from Augustine in the fifth century of the Christian era. It probably did not exist in this form before him. Though there were other forms of original sin theology, including the one attributed to Pelagius and to his followers and defenders against Augustine. The essence of Augustine’s theology of original sin consists in talk of a transmission to all of us of a sin which our first parents incurred, transmitted by the sole and simple process of our being conceived and thus becoming members of the human race. Now the thing about that theology of inherited sin is that it makes me sinful without any act, aim or even attitude on my part. And since I did, and indeed could do nothing whatever to incur this original sin, there is presumably nothing whatever that I can contribute to ending it. The whole drama takes place in a parallel, ‘supernatural’ realm of reality, in some a-historical sphere that I cannot know unless I am simply told about it – and even then I have no way of understanding it.

This is another example in which the truth factor in the fullness of truth takes on the nature and status of the grace factor in the fullness of grace. For in the natural realm where grace consists in the pouring out to all of life and all the supports of life, and pouring through each to others, and sin, as active opposition to the ever active Source, consists in a creature turning destructive instead of co-creative, always at cost to oneself; forgiveness for the sinner, healing (salving, saving), redemption, reconciliation for the simultaneously damaged perpetrator and victim of the sin consists simply in a continuance on the part of God and a renewal on the part of the creature concerned of the life-enhancing co-creativity in which grace permanently consists. This view of the natural status of sin and redemption can be gleaned from a combination of various items of Jesus’ own teaching: his breaking of the legalistic ties between sin and punishing suffering, particularly where he tells those who come for healing that their sins are already forgiven, for as he puts it in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, God continues to enrich equally the natural lives of all, makes his sun to shine alike on the good and the wicked, and refreshes equally with his rain the just and the unjust. So that the eucharist, the sacrament of creation-grace, is thereby also the sacrament of forgiveness, healing, redemption. There is a theological account of sinfulness transmitted from generation to generation which goes back to Pelagius, to take one ancient example of it, and which in the case of each new generation can be called an original sinfulness, but which does not entail anything of the essence of Augustine’s transmission through the very act of conception. It is Augustine’s account that would seem to involve processes which we find impossible to understand, some of which indeed run counter to our finest moral sense of justice – what kind of God would punish infants for a sin they had no part in committing? – and which require special sacred powers of special sacred persons to distribute mysterious kinds of graces over and beyond the life that God pours out to all creatures ever more abundantly and without limit of time or space.

However the current Roman Catholic version of the Christian foundation myth came about, however falsifications entered parts of it in particular, the question that now needs to be answered is this: how do these falsifications damage this major Christian communion, the other communions that share its Christian denomination and origin in Jesus the Christ, and the whole world to which it claims to witness to the fullness of grace and truth that is and always has been available in all the world? And how can such damage now be reversed? All that can be done in the present restricted context is to list the major damages done as well as the main moves already made or still possible in order to contain and then reverse the damages.

The damage which the Roman Catholic Church has done to itself by uncritical pursuance of falsifications which have crept into its current version of its foundation myth is best illustrated from three examples: two from the area of moral teaching and practice and one from the area of cultic theory and practice.

First, the false teaching on the sinfulness of all ‘artificial’ contraception, initiated by the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968 and persisted in by popes to the present day, did more than any other single event in recent times to cause unnecessary suffering in the lives of the minority of Catholic married couples who felt they had to obey it, and to deter in various degrees from the practice of their Catholic faith very large numbers of Catholics who knew they should not obey it. The degrees of deterrence ranged from those who simply stopped going to confession, to those who simply stopped practising, and to some who stopped believing in this Catholic faith altogether. There is not likely to be any redress in the case of this damage unless and until the Roman Catholic hierarchy admits misleading the faithful in this matter of morals, apologises for the damage already done, and seeks to re-educate itself, not simply on the methods of moral insight, but also on the nature of divine revelation and the relationship between morals, law and authority. And the likelihood of this redress being offered? Unfortunately at present it seems extremely remote. The only other possibility, namely, that both sides, the dictating hierarchy and the rebellious laity, would tacitly agree to forget about the whole sorry incident, but that the former would henceforth hear and heed the latter, seems equally remote with popes like the present one still in power and, if he can succeed in making it so, also in prospect.

Second, there is the sorry tale of the abuse by clergy and religious of the Roman Catholic Church of the most vulnerable, of children and more particularly of orphans and of others in the care of parochial clergy and religious, abuse both physical and psychological and especially sexual, the sheer worldwide range of which is still only now coming to light. The amount of damage done by this behaviour to the lives of individuals, of families and communities is quite appalling, and the damage done to the church itself is commensurate. Indeed the damage done to the church itself is exponentially increased by the manner in which the clerical establishment has handled, and still tries to handle the pullulating revelations of this outrage. First and foremost by the manner in which the responses of these handlers blatantly sought to minimise the perceived damage to the church, at the expense of healing the damage done to the victims; in the main and regularly recurring instances of covering up the most heinous sexual crimes against children of which evidence involving clergy emerged, and often even moving accused clergy away from the scenes of their crimes – to other unsuspecting communities in which it would in fact be easier for them to re-offend. By this type of immoral, if not criminal practice, these leaders were putting the church – no, not the church, for the church is the whole people of God gathered in the following of Christ – they were putting the clerical establishment which is meant to serve the people, before the people’s most crucial and elementary needs and rights, the needs and rights that secure lives at least unblighted by the actions of their fellow human beings. The damage done to the church by this kind of all-too-common response is already incalculable. And yet there is more: there is that whole series of pleas designed to excuse, if not almost to justify that, together with so many other forms of self-serving behaviour – pleas and reasonings distinguished only by their degrees of shabbiness.

Examples? Shameful efforts made to scapegoat homosexuals. Pleas to the effect that church leaders, like most others, did not understand the addictive nature of paedophilia. Now there may have been some point to that plea, although it was bound to sound a little opportunistic on the lips of those who had always claimed to know, through revelation committed to them, more than anyone else about the rules of right and wrong, about sin and recidivism and degrees of gravity, and to know all of this with a certainty that could allow claims to infallibility if they decided to pronounce on such matters with full authority. But one does not need an advanced degree in the psychology of addiction to realise that many, if not most of the horrendous crimes of sexual, as well as physical and psychological abuse committed by clergy and religious have as their victims the vulnerable young, not because of any specialised addiction, but simply because these are the most easily available objects for sexual and sadistic exploitation by those who cannot control such urges. In most cases, then, this humble confession of a particular piece of ignorance amounted to no more than a shabby excuse for not doing what anyone who had reached the age of moral reason would be expected to do when such crimes against the young and vulnerable begin to be evidenced, and for doing what was too often done instead: cover the thing up and move the predator on.

Finally, from the Vatican down to the local diocese, adopting the position that the Canon Law of the church can take precedence over the prescriptions and processes of the law of the state, and in particular over the criminal law which governs the sexual crimes against the vulnerable. It is probably because in some corner of their consciences church spokespersons realise that there is no moral or legal justification for such precedence of Canon Law, that they invoke the pathetic image of bishop-father and priest-son in order to provide some semblance of reason for the precedence of church jurisdiction, although this is inevitably calculated to keep offending clergy as much or as long as possible from facing the full rigours of state law, and is therefore not unreasonably seen as another form of cover-up. So we have a Vatican spokesperson saying ‘the trust of the priest-son in the bishop cannot pass through outside conditioning such as the laws of a state’, an Irish theologian adding, ‘the bishop is intended to be like a father. When a priest is accused of doing something wrong it is understandable that his bishop would feel defensive, just as a parent would, when confronted with the wrongdoings of his or her child’, and an Irish canon lawyer, in order to make this point perfectly clear, saying, ‘as a parent, you are entitled to protect your child or even to conceal him from punishment. A bishop … does not have an obligation to see to it that his erring priest is punished in civil law. He is a kind of father figure towards his priest.’ (The identity of, these spokespersons is withheld in order to protect their reputations, but those who wish to verify the quotations may apply to the author of this piece for the requisite details.)

So things still go from worse to yet worse, with ever greater commensurate damage inflicted on itself, in the case of the church’s responses to this second and much more grotesque moral failure before the modern world. For the attempt to use its own internal law and jurisdiction in order to deflect to any degree whatever the involvement of the law and jurisdiction of the state in order to protect its citizens, is in itself a contravention of morality and in many cases of criminal law also. And the appeal of the parent-child image used to justify such deflection, in addition to failing to justify deflection in any way whatever, simply reinforces that pathetic and pernicious image of a church in which all except the bishops or, worse still, all except the pope (from papa, father) are just children. Even the priests are children now; but perhaps even the priests themselves believe this is their true status – that would explain their general failure to live up to their pastoral responsibilities as adults in both cases of the foregoing moral failures of their church: by and large they did not stand up for their people in the case of the imposition of a false morality of contraception; and although they had more opportunity to know what was happening in their parishes along the lines of the abuses just discussed, they mostly failed in their moral and legal duties in that matter also. However, whether the clergy believe it or choose to believe it or not, the image of a church composed of a hierarchy of adults and the rest, children, is worse if anything than the image of a church composed of pastors and sheep; for the latter can allow for a church made up of adults from both hierarchical clergy and laity (adult sheep!), where the former cannot. In any case, what is interesting to note here is the manner in which that image of bishops and/or pope being father and the rest children coincides precisely with that gradually falsified version of the Roman Catholic foundation myth in which the hierarchical clerical caste, instead of being the slaves of all the people of God, became the absolute ruler-providers of obedient children. It is also interesting to note that this idea of picturing the absolute, imperial-type ruler as father of his children derived from precisely the same source as that from which the church of early times took its forms of government – the Roman emperor was entitled ‘father of his people’. We should probably say in his case that this was a cynical attempt to disguise the absolute power he wielded over them, but can we really say, while eschewing all accusations of cynicism, that our ‘holy father’ image does not equally disguise a kind of absolute power in things sacred rather than secular, to which the only response can be one of the obedience of children? However that question is answered, we have here the clue to the next question: to what falsification of the modern Roman Catholic foundation myth can this further failure of that church be aligned?

Undoubtedly the answer must point to that falsification which consisted in the gradual adoption of the ethos of absolute power of rule and provision which came to accompany the original borrowing by the church from the Roman Empire of the latter’s imperial structures – structures rightly borrowed at the time for the needs of that time – instead of gradually infusing these institutions with the ethos of absolute service which came with Jesus. This, together with the falsification of the franchise theology according to which the hierarchical caste was given sole franchise for Christ’s fullness of truth and grace, as sole authentic custodians of this truth and the means of grace, for its distribution to all others. With this we have once again relations of absolute power and provision on the part of the clerical caste, with childlike obedience and passive receptivity on the part of the rest. Add to this a little-known piece of theology of the sacraments, the ordinary means of grace for the Christian, and the alignment we seek comes more clearly into view. It is known as the ex opere operato theology, and it means, very briefly, that the sacraments confer grace from God solely by means of their valid celebration and without any reference to the clerical celebrant’s state of grace or of sin. Now of course no one is saying that this theology of church government, of truth and grace and of sacrament, causes clergy and religious to indulge in the abuses that have shocked the world (although the sense of the power of the clerical caste which comes with this theology is a widely acknowledged factor in the ability of abusers to have their way with the vulnerable people on whom they prey). Rather is the alignment more accurately described as follows: the most important thing, from the point of view of the church’s very raison d’etre in the world as this theology sees it, is to have as many as possible of these especially appointed or ordained operators of the franchise, so that if some of them exhibit vices or even commit crimes, this is scarcely ever so serious as to be made to jeopardise in any way the church’s main work of dispensing grace which, like the corresponding truth, can be dispensed in its fullness only by this clerical caste. Better to cover up even the crimes of members of this caste, since their worst sins do not affect the dispensation of grace in any case, than have them taint and thus hinder the wholly essential work of the holy church. (An implicit argument which is too easily extended to religious orders that, even if not composed of priests, are still closely associated with the priestly caste in the image of dispensing Christian grace and truth.) This surely is the kind of theology that leads to putting first the preservation of the institutional church, its procedures and its clerical and religious personnel, even when that means failing to report crime to those entrusted with the task of protecting society, and in this and other ways colluding in the continuance of criminal behaviour.

The damage done to the church in this second instance – in addition, that is to say, to the incalculable damage done to the lives of victims, their families and local communities – consists in driving and keeping more and more people away from it, more even than are still driven and kept away by the first instance of the imposition of a false moral teaching. And more particularly driving or keeping more and more people away from entering the priesthood or the religious life, at a time when vocations continue their steep and steady decline. The plight of several Irish dioceses, that at this present moment have no one at all preparing for priesthood, is likely to be not reversed but more widely imitated in the near future. And who would want to be a bishop when, in this country as in many others, the legal officers of the state are but beginning to investigate the negligence, perhaps at times potentially criminal negligence, of church leaders with respect to abuse of the most vulnerable by clergy and religious? In the United States of America in particular, the laity is being mobilised, is taking to itself at last its own responsibility for the church, and insisting on the accountability of the hierarchy to it, where all accountability was always the other way round. So badly damaged is the authority of the hierarchy. But perhaps these damages to the church, understood as clerical hierarchy, secrete the seeds of hope for a church of the future, in which there will be popes, bishops, priests and religious, but the priests will be presidents of eucharists brought about by the whole people and the rest real servants of the people of God rather than their power-invested overlords; and the foundation myth will be cleansed of its later falsifications. Likely? Again, not without an unlikely theological change of heart from the present pope and his minions; unless a laity long kept passive and purely receptive can continue to organise and insist.

The professional theological critique of the ethos of church government and priesthood, of the revelation of truth, of sacrament and grace and sin, in short, the critique of the franchise theology and all of its constituent and auxiliary parts, has been under way for some time now, and needs only to be gathered together and more truly honed and more widely understood. Some few parts of it still need to be tackled: for instance, the extreme ex opere operata view of the efficacy of the sacraments. This is not the place to enter a full discussion of a less extreme account of ex opere operata. Suffice it to say, where eucharist is seen as sacrament of creation, where all participants who share bread and wine, symbolising and thus participating in the reality of God continuously gracing all with life and life more abundant and the supports of life, the sins against this co-creative activity by some or even all of these participating members, those destructive assaults upon their own lives and those of others, will never annul the life-giving agency of God, by which God continues to grace them all and by that very same activity to concomitantly and creatively forgive them, and to inspire them to grace and thus to creatively forgive each other – although the continuance of those destructive assaults on life by participating members of the eucharistic community will always cause some damage to the expected outcomes of eucharistic celebration.

Third, there is the damage done to the Roman Catholic Church by the refusal, particularly persisted in by the present pope, to allow access to leadership of that church to that half of the human race that happens to be female. This policy maintains in existence, and in excellent working order within the church’s sphere of influence, a more ancient and much more widespread immorality of a dehumanising discrimination against women. (3) The defence of this sustained injustice consists in the use of the following falsifying features of the current Roman Catholic version of the Christian foundation myth: the illusion that the myth contains a historical fact, namely, that Jesus ordained a priesthood of the properly cultic kind, confined the government of his followers to this group and their successors, and that he intentionally and for all time excluded women from this priestly hierarchy. This is then cobbled together with an argument so pathetic that its very use must make any hearer suspect the desperation of the case it is meant to promote: priests are ‘other Christs’ in a very proper and particular sense, but Jesus the Christ was a man, ergo! In actual fact, the only people Jesus himself designated ‘other Christs,’ implicitly at least, were the least of his brethren, the hungry, the suffering, the imprisoned and the persecuted: ‘As long as you did it to one of these, you did it to me.’

It is worth noting that this third form of damage to the Roman Catholic Church would not really be undone if in the morning the Vatican were to offer to ordain any Catholic woman who would show that she had a vocation to the priesthood as the Vatican presently understands the role and ethos of the priestly estate. For such a move would simply make women complicit in the falsifications of the myth, expressed in the imperfect theologies, and the practices which have damaged the church in the ways examined in the first and second instances above. It is clear from the previous instances that what is mainly necessary is a root and branch reform of the understanding and exercise of leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, to bring this in line with the real imitation of Christ, by defining the special priesthood as presidency of a eucharist that all those gathered in Jesus’ name bring about. And if this priesthood is also to exercise a leadership role in the formulation and publication of the truth of what is going on in this common access to the fullness of God’s continuously creative grace, to have it act as an organ of discernment of the ways in which the life-giving Spirit is guiding the whole community, rather than a dictatorship convinced of its forever prior and privileged entrustment with the fullness of truth. For if women were simply allowed to be ordained, and no further reform attempted, we might well be left in years to come with a rump of the Roman Catholic Church marching off down one of these sideroads of evolution, led by a woman pope, papal flags defiantly flying and drums still thumping out the same triumphal marching tune, and lasting like this to the end of time, but lasting as fossils last – for fossils, it is well to remember, are amongst the most, if not in fact the most successful forms for survival.

The damage done to other Christian churches and thereby to the whole Christian family in the world is best illustrated for brevity’s sake by the official Roman Catholic attitudes and actions towards the ecumenical movement. It is clear from the document on Ecumenism from Vatican II, as indeed from the re-iteration in the recent document, Dominus Jesus, of the main positions there adopted, that the Roman Catholic Church has never officially recognised any goal of the ecumenical movement other than the return of all the ‘separated brethern’ to Rome. Now, what does the damage here is not the unreal expectation and the unreasonable demand in themselves, as much as the falsifications within the Roman Catholic foundation myth which seem to support them and which serve to show other Christian churches and the whole Christian family outside of Roman Catholicism in such a false and damaging light. These falsifications range from regarding the current Roman Catholic foundation myth as being both the only true foundation myth, and as being composed of historically factual accounts of Jesus’ acts and intentions, to the franchise theology which underpins the myth’s current views of priesthood, government, eucharist, grace, and the allegedly revealed truths about these and other matters already entrusted in full and final form to the aforementioned priestly hierarchy for teaching to the rest of us.

The full specifics of damage done cannot be included here. These range from the portrayal of Christian communities in the world other than the Roman Catholic Church – the Vatican would not even dignify the Protestant ones with the title of churches – as deficient vehicles of the fullness of grace and truth as a result of their breaking from Rome, to the most serious specific of all, namely, the charge that the Protestant churches in particular did not bring about eucharist and hence could not join other Christians in the one sacrament of the fullness of grace and truth-in-practice which Jesus certainly originated, and which is in any case of its very nature the principal point of entry of the life-giving Spirit, the risen Lord, into the world at any time and place. A church which refuses to share the table of the Lord even with other Christian churches is itself by that very fact a deficient vehicle of the fullness of grace and truth, engaged in a perversion of eucharist that prevents the real reconciling and whole-making presence of the risen Lord from effectively taking place.

How can such damage be undone? Partly by acknowledging the fact that other forms of the Christian foundation myth are and have always been acceptable, and particularly in this case forms which require neither the governmental structures and cultic priesthoods of the current Roman Catholic kind, nor accounts of real eucharistic presence couched in conceptual structures of substance and appearance (transubstantiation) long obsolete and indeed unintelligible to all but those trained in the history of ideas. In the case of eucharist in particular, the breaking and pouring and sharing of the bread and wine between Christian communities and to all who will take part in it, is so crucial to the Christian presence in the world that it must not be delayed until theologians of the different churches have agreed about foundation myths and about the account to be given of other related elements such as real presence. In actual fact much inter-church theological agreement on these and other matters is already in existence, though Roman Catholic leaders have been slow to either acknowledge it or to act upon it. Therefore, if this most serious damage is to be undone, the ordinary laity, the priestly people who in fact bring about eucharist, must take the initiative in the case of eucharist, like they did, also of right, in the case of the morality of contraception, and are now beginning to do by demanding episcopal accountability in the case of worldwide abuse by clergy and religious. In Ireland this truly eucharistic initiative can take the form of following their President’s example: simply start going on occasion to the eucharist in the Protestant churches in your area – in the case of most of them the invitation is always already offered – participate with them in bringing about eucharist, and invite them back. In this way, and only in this way, will true Christian ecumenism begin to be, beyond the present stalemate of arid argument about governmental structures, to the immediate benefit, not merely of the Christian family in the world, but of a world itself long disenchanted with everything from the obscure theological bickerings to the often barely disguised suspicions and the harsh mutual judgments that still threaten to destroy that family. In this way also the churches will come close enough to each other and to the life-giving Spirit they are meant to embody, to realise that all have been deficient vehicles of the fullness of grace and truth, though in different ways, and to help each other by sharing bread and wine and experience and insight together to overcome these same deficiencies.

Finally, the damages done to the world at large: These are for the most part extensions of damages done within the family of Christian churches, often exacerbated when church influence extends to conditions within the world at large. Instances both general and specific are only too easy to enumerate. In general, a church that dictates moral rules rather than offer to all the service of the light it believes it has from its founder to guide our feet on the path of virtue, especially if its dictation on occasion misleads people on important moral issues (the encyclical on contraception was addressed not only to Roman Catholics but to all people of good will), and if it attempts to conceal the hugely destructive effects of gross immorality amongst its leadership corps, such a church is bound to alienate both it own members and all people of good will, to that extent depriving the world of the moral guidance and inspiration that did in fact come into the world with Jesus the Christ, if not also indeed becoming a bad kind of moral influence in the world. And more specific instances are only too easy to identify: the false teaching on contraception did even more damage when it induced objections to the recommended use of condoms to help reduce the spread of AIDS; the efforts to have the state adopt an absolute ban on divorce was bound to appear either knavish or foolish when it emerged that, first, what the Roman Catholic leadership called ‘God’s plan for marriage’ (4) was largely borrowed from old Roman law and, second, that the Christian community always has allowed, and in its current Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law, still does allow divorce in certain circumstances. And of course the Roman Catholic church’s treatment of women continues to provide good reason why secular society should see it less as a witness to truth, and more as a reactionary force with respect to the natural development of the moral welfare of human kind. Or, to take an example from damage done within the family of Christian churches: the mutual recriminations that result in mutual alienations of each other from the common table of the Lord, exacerbated perhaps by other separations in the schooling of the young, and by a mutually growing ignorance thereafter, fertile ground for prejudice thus engendered. Is it any wonder that when these coincide with ethnic divisions of various kinds, they should have to take a full share of the blame for the social discord, violence and death which occasionally erupt to shatter a community like that in Northern Ireland?

In sum, the falsifications that have crept into an otherwise acceptable Roman Catholic foundation myth, and which lie behind such general damage done and still being done, consist in the last resort in ignoring a feature of that fulcrum of the Christian foundation myth with which this piece began: the fullness of grace and truth, which followers of Jesus are privileged to see in fully human terms in the life and destiny of the incarnate Word, comes from that creator Word which is also active in all the world at all times, and thence enlightens all. Therefore the Christian community’s service of truth and life to the world must always be chastened by the prospect that, as it at times betrays any part of that fullness of truth and grace, it may have to learn the error of its ways from those outside its family in whose lives and spirits the same Word is ever present and active.

1. For a fuller and more scholarly treatment of these issues see Dunn, James D.G. and Mackey, James P., New Testament theology in dialogue, (London, 1987), esp. chapters 5 and 6.
2. See and example of such textbook treatment of these matters Van Noort, G., Tractatus de Gratia Christi, (Holland, 1955), pp 135ff.
3. It would be amusing, were it not tragic, to see conservative Roman Catholic leaders accuse so many modern theologians of capitulating to modern secularism to the point of allowing the substance of Christianity to be infected by its alien ideals, when it is so blatantly obvious that much of what these people are intent on conserving – in the examples of a cultic priesthood, a power- rather than a service-driven imperial-type government, and a crass example of gender discrimination – is all of it a very fine example indeed of just such capitulation to just such alien, albeit more ancient elements of secular structure and ethos, which are therefore named in this piece as intrusive falsifications in an otherwise sound Christian foundation myth.
4. On where ‘God’s plan for marriage’ really came from, see Walter, D. B., ‘Marriage and Christianity: Reflections on the Persistence of Secular Marriage Law in European Christianity’, Studies in World Christianity III. 1 (1997), pp 22-37.


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