Sunday, September 20, 2009

Malachi O'Doherty's "Empty Pulpits": Book Review

Why has Ireland secularized so suddenly? Can we learn from Catholicism's institutional erosion how entrenched religions may erode elsewhere? Will the Irish evolve into belongers rather than believers?

O'Doherty fills a short book with deep questions. An astute observer of the corroding of another iconic Irish symbol, republicanism ("The Telling Year: Belfast 1972" & "The Trouble with Guns"), his West Belfast upbringing and (unmentioned here but see his memoir "I Was a Teenaged Catholic") hippie-era stint in India under a Hindu guru's tutelage inform his thoughtful investigation. This account leaves out his own story, but it's covered elsewhere. Here, he surveys liberal forces which, since the 1990s most visibly, undermined a supposedly monolithic theocracy.

Not quite: modernization drew many Irish away from agriculturally centered lives where a priest at Mass enforced not so much dogmatic dictate as support, socializing, and stability. My review will delve into detail, for O'Doherty's thesis to my knowledge challenges the standard Usual Suspects: sex abuses by the clergy, immorality transmitted by Dublin 4 media, and Anglo-American hedonism. He argues that the habit of trusting in a priest for advice on one's relationships, one's prospects, and one's soul had weakened as the Irish began listening to talk shows. Audiences applied pop-psychology to handling their own dilemmas as the post-Vatican II Church ignored the problem of evil, dismissed Purgatory and Hell as likely destinations, and downplayed sin. The clergy conservative and liberal often left a less rather than more relevant Church as the enormous outcry over Humanae Vitae weakened any authority of that celibate clergy over a married congregation. All this occured decades before the sex scandals`and clerical abuse reported at century's end.

The subtitle's off. Irish majorities retreat not from "Religion" but its organized, "white ethnic Christian mainstream" manifestations. Britain ebbed, now Ireland. O'Doherty offers the Irish as exhibit A of how quickly a people can abandon organized religion. Although Islam and evangelical Christians claim many, he wonders if their own domination may wither as quickly as the mainstream Western European churches. Yet, how do we measure rates of retreat from verities? O'Doherty compares prayer to masturbation: we'd be perplexed to verify who does it and who doesn't.

Practically, catching up with Europe, Irish use of the local church seems only for rituals. People ignore it but for baptisms, weddings, and funerals; as regular attendance plummets, those churches will close. Converted to cafés, discos, or libraries, Protestant edifices portend the fate of many parishes as vocations vanish, an aging priesthood dies off, and a remnant of clergy obeying conservative (or else they will not be appointed) bishops recite the formulaic dictates from a frustrated papacy bent on enforcing doctrine rejected by "a la carte" Catholics.

These turn away from the "mesmerisation" that compelled their ancestors to act as if they believed, for fear of ostracization. Claire Keegan's novel's cited: "God is an invention created by one man to keep another at a safe distance from his wife and land." (16) But, who could admit this aloud? The thinker of that line still attends Mass. "He knows the power of his neighbour's opinion and will not have it said that he's ever missed a Sunday."

That man's grandchildren sleep in. Not Mass but mass media speaks for them. Not that many articulate their drift from the Church so clearly, but by the rise in out-of-wedlock births, unmarried couples, and divorce, the restraints that compelled rural Irish to hold family together to stay on the land have disappeared along with that way of life when the priest seemed to govern the ritual way of life as if natural.

Pilgrims still climb Croagh Patrick in ancient ritual. Still, "everyone who goes before you damages the path and makes your own way harder." (53) It's more "spiritual than religious" for most faithful now, O'Doherty avers. The Irish convert what was social pressure to into individual options. They exercise along with a longing for transcendence up a rocky sharded path that nobody makes easier on their ascent for any following them. Seems an stubbornly Irish metaphor, somehow.

Collective emotion, O'Doherty knows as a journalist, can substitute for professed fidelity. The media replace the Church for public trust. But, they peddle ambition and avarice alongside sexual liberation and unconventional lifestyles. O'Doherty recognizes the lure of other spiritual messages for a people who may lack deeper awareness of their own abandonment of Catholic piety. How long can such a society endure? He wonders if-- like the British monarchy-- the Church will survive "on nothing but the occasional derision of the same people if it is to survive at all." (74) That is, the potency of space and time once dominated by a ruler over a people in one kingdom or the Church in its subjugated neighbor island can rouse the masses-- as in Pope John Paul II's visit or the death of Princess Diana-- but most of the time it will linger on as a quaint relic.

But, the monarchy dimmed over centuries; why has the Church collapsed so quickly? He touches on a novel insight: the media moralizes now over what the clergy warned us about once: "diet, smoking, alcohol and safe sex". Thrift = recycling; abstinence = safe driving; care for creatures = animal rights. This book's full of these reflections, even if some chapters halt suddenly a few pages on. While I agree with O'Doherty's perspective, the book underplays coverage of many fascinating topics. They appear too sporadic or fitful in their articulation. Editing may be to blame.

For instance, O'Doherty touches on the difficulty Catholics have in switching to Protestantism, rather than vice-versa. The evangelicals attract new Irish migrants as well as those tired of Methodist or Anglican (C of I) models. For Catholics, their congregations, for lack of a worship alternative, stagnate as the parishioners practice a variety of non-Catholic spiritual pursuits separately. O'Doherty for my money in buying this missed his round. Why not interview the abbot of San Francisco's Zen Center, Paul Haller born on the Falls Road, to exemplify a journey away from tradition into ecumenism? Haller's mentioned but in passing and the Black Mountain Belfast Zen center's not at all: a curious oversight given its potential.

Similarly, O'Doherty suggests objections to the late (Fr.) John O'Donoghue's popular "Anam Cara" book and Mary Kenny's "Goodbye to Catholic Ireland" (see my Amazon US review of her revised edition) but fails to elaborate. He refers to Roger Scruton's intriguing comparison of love with religion to counter the New Atheists but this only piques one's interest beyond the single paragraph summary. A predecessor with interests intersecting with O'Doherty's, Desmond Fennell, might have enriched this study. To elucidate a debate between Christopher Hitchens and "lapsed atheist" commentator John Waters (not the outré US filmmaker for you non-Irish readers), Hitchens' rather facile put-downs earn many pages. Nevertheless, Daniel Dennett's evolutionary psychology in "Breaking the Spell" fits perfectly O'Doherty's own speculations. An expert who could have bolstered the book's thesis, Dennett's only named once.

However, quick nods remain to Stephen Pinker and John Grey. They consider moral evolution as a sign of hope-- or at least a way we cope with mystery-- without belittling why many of us, post-Darwin, cling to an irrational yearning for the divine or the metaphysical. Richard Dawkins in a more nuanced manner publicly than Hitchens denigrates believers even if as "moderns" they dismiss fundamentalist tenets. O'Doherty counters this condescension. The last third of his book takes on the New Atheists. He wonders if today's religion isn't measured by declining church attendance, but a "still almost universal" belief in God. "Is it a sense of there being some indefinable spiritual context to our existence which feels stronger and clearer when you are listening to Beethoven or having an orgasm?" (123) This defines religion as provocatively post-denominational. I'm sure many welcome such analogies.

John Waters' weakness, O'Doherty holds, is that one cannot equate the Church with religion. "If the church was not the embodiment of religious sentiment in Ireland, then the collapse of that church cannot be read as the death of such sentiment." (126) Believers agree with naysayers: the Church was dysfunctional. What will replace that stubbornly inculcated "faith of our fathers"? Fatalism grounded in the seasons and the crops, as with religious propitiation of the powers held once to be, cannot serve a suburbanized seeker. A stable congregation sat in a country pew; their grandchildren live apart from stars and cows yet wander on interior journeys.

Ireland encountered secularization later, but when it came the last part of last century, it accelerated. It left many of our generation with memories of hegemony by priests and nuns over psychically fragile people, many uprooted from rural life by its mechanization. As for O'Doherty, those who managed to blaze their own inner path away from Catholicism post-Vatican II had to fend for themselves amidst an outwardly conforming culture where the family enforced fidelity, at least in a superstitious or superficial devotion. For those younger, raised in cities and housing estates, lacking an upbringing when the Church ruled, a maturer model may supplant habit.

While this aspect again deserved more attention, O'Doherty briefly mulls over Rabbi Julia Neuberger's contrast with a Judaism where defining God and demanding obedience is not the norm. Rather, practicing ritual and service "within a community" defines one's religion. "Belief in God was fluid. It came and went." (199) Family and continuity matter more than episcopal dicta or papal encylicals. Of course, Catholicism's vertically enforced rather than laterally interpreted as with Judaism. But, post-Catholic Ireland may blossom if in a more flexible, less fearful direction. New Atheists assume wrongly how a contemporary "religious" follower cannot deviate from the proclamations set down in scripture or pronounced from a pulpit. The rationalists become as fundamentalist in their set-up of a straw man believer as those they chastise for "Iron Age"-codified stupidities as obesiance.

Finally, glancing at how Polish immigrants to Ireland demonstrate in their tentative assimilation the power or lack of from a nation as "Catholic" as was once Ireland, O'Doherty raises a thoughtful case study for comparison. Nigerian arrivals enliven evangelical sects, but these often divide, sectarianism if along newer divisions. O'Doherty strives for fair-minded judgments that respect all who believe and all who confront faith. For the Irish, unpredictably, prophets now emerge as "singer-songwriters, poets and novelists" who summon us "into our bedrooms and down country lanes," he concludes, rather than preaching encyclicals from emptying sanctuaries. (P.S. See my reviews of O'Doherty's "Telling Year" & "I Was a Teenaged Catholic.": posted as this on British Amazon [no U.S. listing] 9-20-09. Crossposted "Teenaged" and "Empty" reviews to my regular blog, "Blogtrotter.")

1 comment:

modoherty said...

Again, thank you so much for taking the trouble to read and review the book.