To be prophetic is a gift granted to the few: that rare ability, not to “go with the flow” or just blandly accept the status quo, but to look perspicaciously at the present and to offer one’s careful judgement. However contrarian the prophet may appear to his contemporaries, ultimately he is speaking for their long-term good. When he sees something seriously awry in the society, he points this out, and, most importantly, points to a solution. The classic biblical example is Jeremiah in the 6th century BC, when Israel was attacked by the Babylonians. He counselled that it would be better to negotiate or surrender, but the powers that be decided to fight. The result was the complete destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of a large percentage of the population to slavery in Babylon. Jeremiah was in a tiny minority; he could see what lay ahead if things didn’t change and he had the courage to speak out; and he was proven right.
However, a skill needed, even before any prophecy is done, is that of discernment: the calm taking stock of things, of weighing up various factors, trying to figure out what’s what. This skill is not as rare as prophecy – in fact the ability to discern should surely be second nature to all those who have passed through any decent programme of religious formation, not to mention those who are actively engaged in formation – or indeed anyone gifted with an ability to distinguish accurate reporting and sagacious analysis from panic-inducing propaganda. I had assumed that it was an ingrained habit of those who had undergone a religious formation (as I had), to be questioning, enquiring. But since March 2020, every pronouncement on Covid coming from any official body has been accepted and believed without question or quibble. Only 10 to a funeral; only 15 to a wedding. Don’t leave your home. Don’t travel more than 5 kms. Wear a mask. Close your business indefinitely. Close your church. All accepted without question, without demur, instant capitulation. In other words, no discernment; no questioning of the many panic-predictions which have continued now for almost 16 months; no prophecy, and I would say definitely little or no leadership. A truly dark time for the church and the broader society, not only in Ireland, but in many countries.
The church, after all, is not an arm or agency of the government or of civil society, but essentially an alternative society, often living in serene harmony with the wider society but often at severe loggerheads (more of this anon): it exists to offer an alternative and often contrary viewpoint or teaching. Therefore, when panic buttons were being pushed in March 2020, the church leadership, while being admittedly spooked by the apocalyptic images and reporting appearing relentlessly on the mainstream media, ought surely to have exercised the charism of discernment. Hard questions should have been asked of the facts and figures coming forth at the time. But if the leadership was forgivably hesitant back in March 2020 to ask any penetrating questions about the accuracy of the reporting – how figures were being compiled, why almost all deaths were being labelled “Covid-19”, etc., – well that excuse has now worn very thin. It has been almost 16 months, and we’re still being subject to the same weary, dreary diet of panic-mongering, the same relentless harping on about “cases”, etc. I mean, I thought that boredom or ennui would have set in by now among most of the population.
And it is salutary to remember that those voices who have been dictating how we live our lives for the past 16 months have been unelected people. Accountable to absolutely nobody; they are not elected politicians, but simply members of the HSE or some other “advisory body”. Surely this should give us pause. But apparently not, apart from a very few clerical voices on the island of Ireland – and they, believe it or not, were told by their “leaders” to desist and “follow the rules”! And absolutely nothing from the hierarchy, apart from a tame request to the government, some months ago. This is surely the nadir of church leadership in living memory, if not since Patrick brought the faith here. Vapid.
If we in the ecclesiastical line of work have any remaining sense of humility, then we should recognise that the only moves made to discern and address the disastrous situation in which we have been living for some time now, and to respond accordingly, were made by lay people. Two people have taken legal action challenging the very legality of the shutdowns, which have wreaked havoc on so many lives, families and livelihoods, but which (I surmise) have had far less impact on clergy; another has legally challenged the government regarding the closing of churches. Is it not extraordinary? The functionaries remain silent, pliant, obedient to every absurd “rule”; while the laity are the ones making an effort to combat the insanity.
What kind of questions ought to have been asked, if not by the docile church leadership, then by any concerned party? For example: What could justify the massive curtailment of people’s basic freedoms (travel, association, worship)? Could a virus, with a miniscule chance of harming any healthy person under-70, justify the imposition of increasingly draconian rules, laws, advisories?
It is also salutary to remember that the relationship between the church and the state has taken many forms over the centuries – but I can’t recall any time when the church so instantly and supinely bowed to decrees from public officials: not indeed government ministers or the president, but the prognostications of unelected health employees. Yet the churches acquiesced to all of this, obedient to the end: resulting in desecrated churches with barbaric intrusive signage, indicating to adult churchgoers where they may sit and may not, how many feet they should stay apart, etc.
The very first intersection of the Christian story and the state occurred on Good Friday, when Jesus was condemned to death by the word of the duly appointed procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate; he was appointed by the Emperor in Rome, there was no higher authority. Not a very auspicious beginning to the meeting of church and state! Things were only to worsen, when we consider those brave, fearful Christians in Rome continuing their worship in the catacombs. The saga continues over the centuries, including the Penal times in Ireland. Even after the Christian religion became the religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, the stance of the church vis-a-vis the state over the centuries has mostly been one of hesitant cooperation, or at least suspicion, and often outright condemnation: consider, for example, the stance of the Dutch bishops during the late 1930s and 1940s, who roundly condemned any Catholic who supported the Nazis. Or think of that much older confrontation between Ambrose, bishop of Milan and the emperor Theodosius around 390 AD. During the latter’s reign, there had been a massacre in Thessalonica, committed by Roman soldiers, and in response Ambrose refused to admit the Emperor to communion, unless he showed public evidence of remorse – which Theodosius finally did.
To be fair, Church and state have also occasionally enjoyed times of peaceful co-existence, and furthermore, the church (or at least some of her officials) has occasionally shamefully betrayed her mission, by aligning herself with clearly immoral actions or policies. Here is a very timely quote from the Catholic priest, Fr. George Zabelka, who blessed the crew of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima: “Yes, I knew civilians were being destroyed … Yet I never preached a single sermon against killing civilians to men who were doing it. … I was brainwashed! It never entered my mind to publicly protest the consequences of these massive air raids. I was told the raids were necessary; told openly by the military and told implicitly by my Church’s leadership. To the best of my knowledge no American cardinals or bishops were opposing these mass air raids. Silence in such matters, especially by a public body like the American bishops, is a stamp of approval”.
Zabelka’s words sound eerily fitting for our “pandemic” times: not a word of challenge or even question from our ecclesiastical leaders; just silence. No discernment, prophecy or leadership.
Colm Meaney was a missionary priest in the Philippines since 1991. He is back in Ireland for the present