Meetings in 2019

28th January 2019

The following is a response to  the meeting by the author of “Wanting”

Thanks to OCN for discussion of ‘Wanting’

Sean O’Conaill

So many thanks to OCN for my warm reception in St George’s, Belfast, on Monday January 28th. ‘Wanting’ is far from being the greatest novel ever but the urge that drives it – to overthrow the barriers that prevent frank discussion of the general crisis of Christian ‘orthodoxy’ – is clearly shared by honest people across the Reformation divides.

To explain the pseudonym ‘John Young’, I adopted that in October 2018 for authorship of ‘Wanting’ because in creating the fictional diocese of Ternan I was drawing heavily on my experience of actual circumstances in some Irish Catholic dioceses. Back then it was far from clear that I could reach the dramatic confrontation I foresaw as the climax of the story without pushback on my own doorstep – if I used my own name from the start. Knowing that in the end I must be accountable for what I write, I realised I would have to own up eventually – but I hoped to get enough of a head start with a pseudonym to get to the dialogue in Chapter XIII (by about now) before being ‘nobbled’. I felt huge pressure in even trying this as a serial Web experiment, and that I needed breathing space.

The story suggests that Irish Catholic clericalism subsists still on an absence of accountability – of frank acknowledgement of and engagement with the reality of the imminent demise of what is still mistakenly referred to by media as ‘the Irish Catholic Church’ – i.e. the church’s deeply troubled clerical superstructure. With the average age of serving priests now approaching seventy, its seminaries virtually empty, and its buildings either empty or emptying of young people, only the frankest confrontation of the issues that have led to this situation can possibly reverse this trend. This confrontation never happens because clericalism is still in charge, a culture of denial of the starkly obvious. A very old clock is winding down but no one with any influence in the Irish church dares to call ‘time’ on its clockwork.

Centrally in ‘Wanting’ there is the proposal that fear of social shame is at the heart of clerical resistance to accountability, and that those who have already been through this hell of ‘social disgrace and isolation’ are more likely to see and say this than those who still avoid it.

Peter’s insistence that Jesus must not be socially shamed is identified by Jesus as ‘Satan’ – the power of ‘this world’. The earliest Christians were obviously sure that ‘this world’ – the world dominated by the brokers of political and religious power – had failed to shame Jesus on Calvary, so the shaming circumstances of Roman occupation were ‘relativised’ by those early Christians, as ‘a world that is passing away’.

Then in 312 came the Constantinian ‘deliverance’, mistakenly seen by Augustine as complete divine approval of an alliance between church and state – followed by the emergence of a medieval theology that saw ‘the Father’ as a medieval monarch. This insisted that God’s ‘honour’ required ‘satisfaction’ for sin – in the Crucifixion. It took another millennium for that nonsense to unravel completely, but it is still offered, without serious questioning or defence, in the Catholic Catechism. A quite opposite proposal, that through Jesus a transcendent ‘Word’ could be in solidarity always with those who are socially shamed (rather than socially elevated) is ready to hand, but who will utter it? There is still far too much nostalgia for an era of clerical privilege, instead of a realisation that with privilege comes an inevitable clouding of the Gospel. The imitation of Jesus’s rejection of power and social eminence and his indifference to the judgement of ‘the culture’ (now delivered by ‘media’) is surely the only viable future for Christianity.

Knowing something of the impact of the clerical abuse catastrophe in Donegal (my mother’s county of origin) I chose as my proponents of that possibility a mother and granddaughter of a victim of clerical sexual abuse there. A personal family experience of the sense of social isolation that can come with this complex of events helped me to ‘go there’, prayerfully.

Two thirds of the Psalms assert the solidarity of the God of the Hebrews with the one ‘surrounded by enemies’. In all of the Christendom churches there is now an unknown number of people who know the game is up for centralised ecclesiastical power and patronage – and for ‘satisfaction’ theology and its derivatives. They feel that pull to ‘go to the margins’, in mind and spirit as well as in body. That is the tension of this time. Catholicism’s ‘accountability summit’ in Rome – February 21-24, 2019 – seems likely at this juncture to be yet another disappointment but Catholic clericalism will by that very failure draw even closer to eclipse.

OCN’s invitation to discuss ‘Wanting’ was a very welcome ‘first’ for me – offering obvious possibilities for plot development! Judging by that welcome, the ‘future church’ will be an exciting, varied, cheerful, and warm place.

And if anyone hears of a TV channel looking for a plot for an unhinged ecclesiastical ‘soap’, please let me know!