In a thought-provoking booklet, Desmond Fennell responds to Vincent Twomeys book on Irish Catholicism.
Reflecting the situation
Clarifying the situation
Towards a grasp of the present situation
The change of rules
Christians and the change of rules
Fundamentalist liberalism in Ireland
The mass media
Democracy and pluralism
Modernity and the Irish Church
The language environment
The paedophilia scandals
The foods the Irish need
Born in Belfast in 1929, Desmond Fennell attended school in Dublin, where he learned Latin and Greek and in the Leaving Certificate Examination won first place in French and German. With a Scholarship in Classical Languages he entered University College, Dublin, and there and in Trinity College studied history, economics and languages. He researched his MA thesis in Modern History at Bonn University. In 1991 the National University of Ireland awarded him its highest degree in the humanities, D. Litt., for his published work. He has lived and worked in Spain, Germany, Sweden, the USA and Italy - adding three more languages to his repertoire - and has travelled in Asia. Living in Conamara 1968-79, he was active in the Ã¢â‚¬ËœGaeltacht revolutionÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ which changed the nature of the Irish language movement. His journalism 1969-75, rethinking the nationalist approach to the Northern problem, laid the intellectual basis for the peace process of the 1990s. From 1976 to 1982 he taught History and Politics at University College, Galway, and from 1982 to 1993, English Writing at the Dublin Institute of Technology. His books and journalism have dealt with Irish and international culture and politics, and with history, travel, religion and literature. From 1997 to 2007 Fennell lived in Anguillara on Lake Bracciano, near Rome. In the latter year he returned to Ireland.
In The End of Irish Catholicism? Vincent Twomey outlines a renewal of the Catholic Church in Ireland based on faith, theology, liturgy, celebration and administrative restructuring. In this booklet Desmond Fennell adds, as another necessary ingredient, canny knowledge of how things are today in the secular world, and the reflection of such knowledge in the Churchs activity. Culd the language of Catholic preaching, by being more alert to the world around it, become more clearly relevant , seem more in touch?
Because the Irish, unlike most European nations, lack a civil ethic, independent of religious morality, the effective anti-catholic propaganda of recent decades has produced a state of social alienation and instability. The Catholic Church has a central role to play in restoring sense where life seems senseless, relieving stressed and desperate souls, and raising sad hearts to joy.
- Irish Catholic
Vincent Twomeys The End of Irish Catholicism? has examined the present crisis of the Catholic Church in Ireland and sketched a programme of renewal. I enthusiastically endorse this programme, centred on faith, theology, liturgy, celebration in all its forms, and administrative restructuring. I missed sufficient emphasis on intellectual mastery and awareness of the secular situation and the use of this to make the preaching of the Gospel more effective. I want to argue for equal emphasis on this aspect of the Churchs activity.
Broadly understood, the preaching of the Gospel can be engaged in by all Christians and take a great variety of forms. In these pages, while I have all those forms in the back of my mind, I am thinking mainly of the delivery of the Gospel by means of words and other symbols. This embraces speaking from the altar, doing a radio interview, teaching a religion class, taking part in a talk-show, writing books, newspaper articles or pastoral letters, running web-sites or radio or television stations, and publishing books, videos, cds, magazines or newspapers.
In whatever form, and even when done in love of God and ones neighbour, preaching the Gospel is not in itself a virtuous activity, but an attempt to be that. It is an effort to realise a good, namely, effective communication of the Gospel. And as with all efforts at realising goodness, it depends for its success on knowledge of the environmental reality in which it occurs. Traditionally, we have called the possession and employment of such knowledge prudence.
In English the meaning of this word which names the first of the cardinal virtues -the one without which no other virtue can be exercised -has decayed. We rediscover its true meaning only in its dictionary definitions and their etymologies; for example, discretion and its derivation from Latin words for sifting and discernment; or even better, circumspection and its transparent meaning of noting the environment, taking everything into account. The German for prudence, Klugheit, comes nearer to retaining the original vigour of the word. It derives from the adjective klug, which my German dictionary renders as, among other things, astute, alert, sagacious, cunning, shrewd, clear-sighted, discerning, wise.
It is with Klugheit in mind that the German philosopher Josef Pieper writes:
The pre-eminence of prudence means that realisation of the good [say, communication of the Gospel] presupposes knowledge of reality. He alone can do good who knows what things are like and what their situation is. The pre-eminence of prudence means that so-called good intention and so-called meaning well by no means suffice. Realisation of the good presupposes that our actions are appropriate to the real situation, that is, to the concrete realities which form the environment of a concrete human action; and that we therefore take this concrete reality seriously, with clear-eyed objectivity.
Savvy seems an adequate rendering of the virtue that Pieper is talking about. It expresses more or less what Christ had in mind when he commanded his disciples to be wise as serpents in whatever they would do or say. He was telling them not to be clueless, but to be very much clued in.
Reflecting the situation
In all effective evangelisation, whether carried out by ordinary Christians or by professional evangelisers, savvy, meaning alert knowledge of how things are and the use of this in action, plays a basic role. It enables the evangeliser, who must use words and other symbols, to choose such as reflect the secular situation, general and particular, that is shared by him with the recipients of his message. This reflection by him of the lived-in situation, shared and more or less known by his recipients, furthers acceptance of the Gospel in either of two ways. When the recipients are well-disposed, it evokes trust in the evangeliser, and consequently openness to his messages Gospel core. When the recipients are ill-disposed, it evokes respect for the evangeliser, and a consequent weakening of the preconceived intention to reject what he is saying and to urge others to do so.
Clarifying the situation
Beyond this basic role which savvy plays in all effective evangelisation, there is a further role it can play if, rather than being merely instinctive and approximate, it is intellectually profound and exact. When the savvy of the evangelisers has this quality, their cannily chosen language not only reflects the secular situation; it also clarifies it , and does so to a much greater degree than the politically conditioned explanatory discourse that the situation exudes. Their profound and exact savvy performs this function even when, because of limited time or the limited cognitive interest of an audience, they revealonly, so to speak, the foreground of what they know. Always, from the profound and precise background of their knowledge, flows an informed understanding of the immediate and particular. And this, regardless of time available or of audience, enables them to supply coherence to the disjointed perceptions of most people, of whatever educational background, regarding the way things are.
As occurs with the mere reflection of the shared situation in the evangelisers discourse, so, too, with this clarification of it: it furthers acceptance of the Gospel in either of two ways. When the recipients are well-disposed, it evokes gratitude towards the evangeliser as for a gift received, and consequently a greater trustful openness to his messages Gospel core. When the recipients are ill-disposed, it disconcerts them by its perceptible but unwelcome truth, reduces their public standing (if they have such) as definers of the situation, and consequently lessens their ability to offer confident opposition to the Churchs teaching and to build support for this. (Even a superficial perusal of the Gospels shows that this is a very Christ-like manner of dealing with opponents of the Good News.)
Towards a grasp of the present situation
The drift of my argument must by now be apparent. I believe that, in recovering from its present crisis, the Irish Catholic Church collectively , but in particular its professional evangelisers, and most particularly its top leadership , need to have and use profound and exact knowledge of the contemporary secular situation and of the Churchs place in it.(1) The relevant situation embraces the Western world from San Francisco and Vancouver to Stockholm, Warsaw and Palermo. It obtains, in a particular, Irish form, throughout our island. For my part, greatly daring, and as an appetiser to what an intellectually profound and exact awareness might be, I continue with a meditation on the situation I have just delimited.
(1) I am writing about the necessary use of such knowledge for the effective preaching of the Gospel in Ireland. But in view of the fact that the Irish Church is a large corporate entity engaged in many activities, such knowledge is obviously also essential for its successful management, including its determination of strategies and its allocation of resources.
by Desmond Fennell