Baby gone with the Bathwater!
One of the classic works produced by Joseph Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI was a book called Introduction to Christianity. Early in this exceptional book, Ratzinger recounts a German folk tale called Lucky Jack. It is the parable of a young man called Hans who finds a large lump of gold. Walking along, he decides it is too heavy to carry and so he exchanges it for a horse. The sequence of exchanges continues: the horse is exchanged for a cow, the cow for a goose until finally the goose is exchanged for a whetstone. The action of parables does not have to make sense – sense gives way to a deeper lesson – so we find Hans tosses the whetstone into a nearby stream. He does so on the grounds that he is not giving up anything of real value and by tossing it away he gains complete freedom. Ratzinger frames this outlook as a form of intoxication and asks how long this intoxication will last – it is akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
In recent weeks I have been digesting an article called Ireland’s Divorce from Catholicism has created a massive Cultural Vacuum by James Bradshaw. It is in a periodical called Position Papers that contains articles and reviews current books. Bradshaw writes on topics including history, culture and literature. In it he documents the radical pace of change in Irish Society in the past decades in what Ratzinger termed a near intoxication and an intense love affair with the contemporary woke culture that has sprung up with great virulence.
His analysis takes us back to the so-called time that the identity of the Irish nation was so intertwined with Catholicism. This was perhaps it is contended less a genuine love of the faith, but more an expression of rebellion against the Protestant reformers and the English system from and post penal times. He looks at the changes that have led to a huge drop according to the recent census of people identifying as Catholic. Symptomatic of much of this was shown in changes these past decades in legislation on issues like divorce, abortion, same-sex marriage along with evolving attitudes on transgender, euthanasia and more. The other big influence on our country has been the sudden influx of people from other cultures, religions and nations, much of this greatly welcomed.
He argues that “no European observer should be surprised about the gravity of the cultural change that has occurred in Ireland in recent decades and yet few have considered the long-term implications for Ireland’s own sense of itself as a sovereign and unique country.” He describes how another commentator describes how “Ireland has become a rapaciously advancing type of liberalism society … worshiping every imaginable newly arrived god”.
The big concern he expresses is what the vacuum will leave in the wake of this sudden change. Self-identity for any individual and nation is so important and vital to give a framework and set of values to address the many ever-evolving challenges of life.
Recent events have shaken us with the impact they have had; wars, climate-change, famines, sad legal trials and unfortunately some very sad happenings close to home here in Clare. From where do we get a sense of hope to lift the horizon beyond these sad events and from where do we get a framework to give values for us to thrive and flourish as people?
Many observes would say that it is not just secularism and regrettable scandals that ruptured trust that have led to the demise of much of what was good in the Church in Ireland. Prof Emeritus of Moral Theology in Maynooth, Vincent Twomey has claimed that the Church in Ireland was never really Catholic as such and Catholicism could certainly not be reduced to Irishness, despite the great contribution of Ireland in this area. There is a sense of regret that Irish Catholicism never really engaged with what was unique to our self-identity, music, song, dance, culture, literature, architecture, craftsmanship etc in a similar manner that this was done in some European countries like France, Spain and Italy. Unfortunately, a genuinely Irish culture never really took root in Irish Catholicism, it would appear.
Will our identity be remoulded, distant from the image of the Island of saints and scholars, the fighting Irish, the hard-working friendly Paddy, quintessentially Irish and build on our innate talent, artistic, cultural and aptitude for innovation? Where to from here? Has the intoxication with the modern culture left us too drunk to be able to stand back and make a mature analysis? What are the options that will anchor us as Irish people to develop a real and worth-while self-identity. Is it too late to do this or are we like Hans having discarded the whetstone or thrown the baby out the with the murky bathwater.
✠ Fintan Monahan – Bishop of Killaloe
Clare Champion Article 17th of November 2023