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My Favourite Omagh Marxist, Gary MacLennan Reflects on "All Things Catholic"....
Saturday September 06, 2008 10:57 by Ciaron O'Reily - .....introducing Gary MacLennan. ...written back in Brisbane, following a recent trip home to Omagh
....and the crisis in the Church Being Played in Briz Vegas!
Gary and I shared many a police cell in the '70's & '80's and many a backyard barbie in the '90's and
norties. In '77 Gary brought his experiences from the north of Ireland to our movement in sunny redneck facist Queensland that resisted the state suspension of civil liberties (3,000+ arrests '77-81 for merely marching, leafleting picketing, gathering publicly in groups of more than 3 people..Nuts?....you had to be there!)
Last year Gary was sacked from his 32 year position as a QUT academic for
taking a courageous stand against a PhD entiltled "Laughing at the Disabled". Gary wrote an excellent introduction to my book on East Timor "Remembering Forgetting", a review of the doc "Route Irish" http://www.indymedia.ie/article/85706 and is now reviewing Harry Browne's recently published www.counterpunch.org book "Hammered by the Irish" about the Pitstop Ploughshares action at Shannon Airport www.peaceontrial.com . Although not always agreeing with him, I have always thought his sharp Marxist critiques of both the church and broader society have helped me become a better Catholic.
"All Things Catholic"
by Gary MacLennan
I am lined up to do a review of Harry Browne's Hammered by the Irish – the story of the brave Catholic Plowshares activists who took hammers to a USA war plane parked at Shannon Airport. The stationing of the plane at Shannon was of course a clear violation of Irish neutrality. So while I wait for the book to arrive me thought that I would warm up with another round of reflections on things Catholic. All this is partly inspired by my recent trip back home.
Firstly matters mystical: While at home in my native Omagh, I picked up a book by Larry Cummins. It is available on the web at www.pleaseprayforus.com. Cummins is the classic Irish peasant (farmer please!). He is also a mystic who channels directly to the Blessed Virgin. She gives him messages regarding who or what he should pray for. The book is a series of loosely connected anecdotes relating Cummins' encounters with the forces of evil. All extraordinarily interesting if you have as I do a fascination with mystics.
Cummins addressed while I was there a little group of Catholic charismatics. Unfortunately I did not go to meet him. That would have been my very first encounter with a live mystic. What intrigued me however was the very fact of Cummins. The Church I grew up in would have silenced Cummins absolutely and very publicly too. That he was now allowed to speak in the church and gather followers, is something that amazes me. He represents of course a potential challenge to the authority of the Catholic Clergy. After all here is someone who is in direct contact with the mother of God. There was a time when he would have paid with his life for daring to make such a claim. Long before the Highlander the Church of Rome knew there 'can only be one'.
Now the clergy must grit their teeth and allow the Cumminses of the world, and there are of course an increasing number of them, get up and preach the word of their God. A monopoly has been broken. However they do endeavour to keep a close eye on their rivals in the trade. Thus Cummins' book has an introduction by a Father Dwyer. He assures his fellow clergy that
"Personally I want to testify to Larry's deep love and respect for the Church. He has an extraorodinacry understanding of the necessity of the ordained ministry of Bishops and priests for the spiritual well-being of the People of God. His deep respect for the clergy is so self-evident" (Dwyer in Cummins, 2005, p2).
This is if I ever saw it a classic instance of esoteric communication. Leo Strauss would have been proud of it. "Do not fear Cummins" is what Dwyer is telling his compatriots in the clergy. "He is not challenging our authority. Therefore he is harmless and… useful".
So what do I make of all this? Well it speaks to me of a double level crisis. Firstly in the Church – falling attendances, a seemingly endless series of scandals, and a collapse in recruitment to the clergy have all dinted the confidence of the core Church – that is the clergy. In desperation they are forced to allow the peasantry to assert themselves in the way that peasants usually do - through visions, rituals, miracles, pilgrimages etc.
The second level of the crisis is among the peasantry itself. It is of course an absolute no-no in Ireland to describe the farmers as peasants. But peasants they are and peasants they wish for ever to be. However the hammer blows of modernity are like the dialectic, unremitting and remorseless. Modern farming has Ireland by the throat. One has only to breathe in the smell of the slurry that they spread over all the fields to get two crops of grass for the ubiquitous farting cows.
Ireland too is having its long postponed rendezvous with modernity. But this is not the modernity that could have been inspired by the Great Presbyterian Enlightenment of the 18th Centrury. The British drowned that in slaughter. NO Ireland's modernity is government above all by the norms of the neo-liberal free market. It is thoroughly capitalist and thus lacks anything that could be thought of as even vaguely spiritual. The 'terrible beauty' of Yeats' vision has become horrible and the beauty is fast fading.
So that wonderful abstract quality of the Irish; their addiction to ideas and scorn for matters material have been drowned in consumer goods. The Church of Rome which should have acted as a bulwark against the crass materialism that now holds sway was too rotten and corrupt to the core to make a stand.
Thus it is left to the Larry Cummins of this world to attempt to articulate the values of a world that is vanishing ever faster. His in Gramsican terms is the church of the peasants or poor. Their devotion to ritual and their total lack of interest in doctrine have made them easily manipulatable by the clergy. But the crisis within the church is very deep. Across from the house where I live are two buildings. One used to house the Loretto nuns. They have all gone. The other used to house the Irish Christian Brothers. They too have vanished. What has been will not be. There is even talk of the need to import priests from Africa. The Empire strikes back indeed. No wonder the peasant mystic has made a reappearance.
(See < http://www.truepeace.com.au/medjugorje_story.html> for a comparable experience among the Croatian peasantry.)
The second part of these ramblings will deal with the crisis among the Church of the intellectuals. Currently this is centered would you believe on a church here in good old Brisbane. I love it when the dialectic makes the periphery the centre of a significant upheaval.
Part 2 The faith of the intellectuals…
The strength of religions, and of the Catholic Church in particular, has lain, and still lies, in the fact that they feel very strongly the need for the doctrinal unity of the whole mass of the faithful and strive to ensure that the higher intellectual stratum does not get separated from the lower. The Roman church has always been the most vigorous in the struggle to prevent the "official" formation of two religions, one for the "intellectuals" and the other for the "simple souls" … That the Church has to face up to a problem of the "simple" means precisely that there has been a split in the community of the faithful. This split cannot be healed by raising the simple to the level of the intellectuals (the Church does not even envisage such a task, which is both ideologically and economically beyond its present capacities), but only by imposing an iron discipline on the intellectuals so that they do not exceed certain limits of differentiation and so render the split catastrophic and irreparable. (Gramsci)
The world of religion here in Oz has just been galvanized by the dispute between the Church community of St Mary's South Brisbane and the Arch Bishop of Brisbane John Battersby. In brief, the Bishop wrote to the parish priest Ted Kennedy threatening to close down the church if the priest and congregation did not return to a more orthodox version of the faith. This is the second occasion on which the bishop had chastised Kennedy and his errant flock. A similar missive was sent four years ago. Battersby drew special attention in his latest letter to the fact that there was a statue of the Buddha displayed in the church.
So what is going on here? Well the answer lies partly in the nature of the St Mary's community and the faith they are practicing. This is an inner city church that at times fills to overflowing with over 500 worshippers. The parish priest is a classic liberal intellectual who has championed a wide range of good causes – indigenous rights, gay rights, women's rights etc, etc. The liturgy also has evolved to include an active role for women including women preaching. They also sing a range of ultra modern hymns and give out communion to all and sundry.
If I sound slightly scandalized, one must be charitable and bear in mind my status as that of a collapsed Catholic, burning with a bright hatred for the Church of my childhood. A small, and hopefully a decreasing, part of me does not want the church to evolve into something more reasonable. I am tempted to wish it to remain as it was in my childhood. It is almost as if I want it to continue to feed my hatred. In truth it is as if Ratzinger and I wanted the same thing.
But not for nothing am I a student of Roy Bhaskar's philosophy of meta-reality. I have studied the master and I am beginning to learn to let go, shed the past and move on. Bhaskar is fond of quoting the young Marx's
the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality… In order to secure remission of its sins, mankind has only to declare them for what they actually are.
For Bhaskar the heteronomous world of domination and exploitation, that the likes of Ratzinger and Pell when pressed will always defend, is a parasitical growth on the human ground state of love and creativity. One has only to recognize and to realize that fact to move on beyond fear, hatred, exploitation and domination.
It is in that spirit then that I wish to think of Fr Kennedy the pastor at St Mary's. However one must first acknowledge that one critique of him and his flock is that they are classic left liberal – left liberalism being the default setting for dissidence in Australia.
When confronted by left-liberals I am often tempted to think of them in terms of Sartre's great critique of "democrats" and liberals in his Anti-Semite and Jew. There Sartre discusses how liberals mount a weak defense of Jews because they are uncomfortable with anyone forsaking the abstract universalism that the democrats cling too. Sartre also describes how during the war liberals would make a point of raising their hats to those forced to wear the Star of David. Sartre explains how this became a source of resentment for the Jew because he knew he was an object of pity. For the liberal the Jew represented an occasion to issue a manifesto, to make a gesture. In a similar fashion some argue that for the faithful at St Mary's the Aborigine, the Gay and the poor are all occasions.
A more charitable view of the folk at St Mary's , and one that I personally favour, is that Kennedy and the congregation are belong to the church of the intellectuals. Within this scenario Kennedy is actively trying to fashion a faith which will transcend the complexities of modernity. He wants to confront capitalist modernity with norms that have been taken from the Sermon on the Mount – Blessed are the destitute… for they shall see God. In Kennedy's faith Jesus is the outsider, the revolutionary, who opposes Empire and suffers a horrible death because of that. But for Kennedy Christ's sacrifice calls on all of us to make a similar commitment in our search for the Kingdom of God on earth.
The church of the intellectuals is of course the church that the clerical core fears the most. This is the church-within that contains the seeds of an alternative church. What Kennedy and his community are doing whether they realize it or not is struggling to ensure the survival of a church that is dying in front of our very eyes. Only through the ordination of women, the abolition of celibacy and the adaption of a sincere "option for the poor" can the Church hope to survive. But they will consider none of these things.
A suggestive parallel here is the situation in Soviet Russia after Stalin's death. Reform was critically needed, but there was no one to bring in the reforms. The reformers had all been murdered long ago. The CPSU made something of an effort under Kruschev but then gave up the attempt to reform because that would have meant putting themselves out of business. They were the problem and could never be part of the solution.
Similarly at Vatican 2 the Church of Rome made a half hearted effort at reform and then abandoned it totally under John Paul 2. The latter will prove to be the Brezhnev of the Catholic Church. History will show that brilliant showman as he was he nevertheless in his refusal to reform prepared the way for the great disaster towards which the church is inexorably sliding.
So the little drama taking place in South Brisbane speaks to the heart of the crisis within the church. The core church - the clergy- has lost all moral authority. Even worse from their point of view their caste is not renewing itself. Internal church gossip has it that vocations are it seems largely confined to gays. There is a savage irony here. The most homophobic of organizations is almost totally dependent on gays for candidates for the priesthood.
So given the crisis that confronts the clergy it is probably true to say that Battersby does not want this fight with Kennedy and his flock. But in all likelihood he is being pushed by the far right of the church. My best guess would be that an Opus Dei cell is at work. The head of the Australian Catholic Church, Cardinal Pell, is known to be sympathetic to Opus Dei. He overturned a ban on Opus Dei entering the Sydney diocese and during his recent visit here Ratzinger stayed with the Opus Dei community. This was a clear message to the liberals within the Church where Ratzinger stood. Though why they would ever have any illusions or hopes in Ratzinger is beyond me. In any case that section of the church that Ratzinger represents is determined to get rid of its liberal wing and to impose once more discipline on the Church of the intellectuals.
This is of course sheer craziness. Why would one want to shut down one of the few full churches in Brisbane? But those who the gods wish to destroy they first make made, and the clerical heart of the Roman Catholic Church in Australia is approaching the psychotic. Trapped by an irreversible loss of prestige, they have reverted to type. Instead of embracing the church of the intellectuals as their best and last hope, they seem determined to destroy it. As I have confessed, a small part of me wishes them well in that task. But we have to resist the sectarian reflex and unequivocally support the church of the intellectuals against the likes of Battersby and Pell.
This series of posts on the Church will conclude with a response to Harry Browne's Hammered by the Irish.