Thursday, February 09, 2017

The Church, red lines and faith that is challenging as well as comforting (Opinion) Protection Minister Leo Varadkar rebuked the Taoiseach at the weekend after Enda Kenny hinted that Fine Gael might be prepared to enter government with Sinn Féin.

“In politics,” Mr Varadkar said, “you have to make compromises to get things done but if you don’t have red lines, then you stand for nothing.”

It got me thinking about whether or not there are – or should be – red lines in the Church, boundaries outside of which Catholics shouldn’t stray. Are there beliefs and practices so contradictory to what it means to be a Catholic that people following these paths are no longer Catholic in any real sense?

Pope Francis criticises what he describes as “vague theism” where people “treat religion as a consumer product”. In this form of religion, “personal satisfaction, ‘relaxation’ and ‘feeling good’” become the key goals, according to the Pontiff.


Addressing the heads of religious orders at the weekend, Francis expanded on the theme in the context of exploring why clerics leave the priesthood. He said the primary factor is a “provisional” culture, which leads to living an “à la carte” life which is “a slave to fashion”.

“It has also produces a powerful practical relativism, according to which everything is judged in terms of a self-realisation which is often extraneous to the values of the Gospel,” the Pope said.

That practical relativism which the Pope criticises manifests itself in many ways. One way is the tendency to set aside core parts of Christ’s teaching that one finds uncomfortable or difficult to live.

Fr Tony Flannery, currently out of ministry at the request of his religious superiors due to his views at odds with Church teaching, was on the radio at the weekend. He was describing the recent Mass he celebrated to mark his 70th birthday, in defiance of his superiors.

“We had a ball,” Fr Flannery said of the liturgy. Speaking of the congregation, he said that “a lot of them are people who don’t go to Mass at all”.

“I said to the people at the beginning ‘look, I know people are here who don’t go to Mass, some people who are here don’t even believe that much’, but, I said, ‘if you can at all, come to Communion’,” Fr Flannery said. According to Fr Flannery, everyone did. Presumably regardless of whether or not they had any faith in the sacrament or not.

Tellingly in the interview, Fr Flannery said that he believed the Church should be “open to people of all views and attitudes” before, wait for it, going on to compare himself to Pope Francis. 

As authoritative papal biographer Austen Ivereigh points out in The Irish Catholic this week, Fr Flannery is clearly not even remotely on the same page as Pope Francis. 

But, sure, why let that get in the way of a good yarn?

There can be little doubt that there is a lot of the ‘vague theism’ that Pope Francis so roundly condemns. It often tends to see faith more as a fuzzy feeling of wellbeing or simply being together with a group of somewhat like-minded people rather than a relationship with Christ.

It’s a deeply impoverished vision of faith that feeds neither mind nor soul. Perhaps, this is the reason why so many young people find nothing life-giving in this diminished presentation of a relationship with Christ. 

Perhaps this is why they come to the conclusion that all Catholicism is about is vague feelings of wellness or being with like-minded people, there’s more fun to be had in the pub or the gym.

Just perhaps, a faith that has content and a context, that is challenging as well as comforting, exhilarating as well as giving rest, might hold more appeal for jaded young people.

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