My most recent posting criticized conservative Catholic efforts to restrict the meaning of sacred rites and objects to church sacraments and sacramentals. In this posting I argue that this and other aspects of the Catholic right’s agenda face an ironic consequence. They are causing much the opposite of what they intend. Or so I believe.
Here is the gist of what follows: The agenda of the Catholic Right is to restore more traditional or “orthodox” forms of Catholic belief and practice, and to achieve this goal above all by restoring clerical and hierarchical forms of authority. I suggest that this agenda is ironic since it will actually result in quite the opposite – in a decentering of clerical authority and a realization of the central role of laity as envisioned by Vatican II. Yet (the crucial point of this writing) we all, whether of the Right or of the Left, will only achieve this happy result if we develop an ironic sensibility in the practice of our faith.
My writing remains complicated and lengthy. So feel free to skip or skip around. I hope that you may find important ideas and that some may respond on the website.
1. Several introductory notes:
I use terms like “conservative” and “liberal” or “right” and “left” as a shorthand. The realities both of people and of programs are far more complex.
Secondly, irony is a very complex topic. Yet my mentor Lynch says that irony is immensely important for faith, especially for Christian faith. I will just below give a brief introduction to what I mean by irony and, in an appendix, will explain Lynch’s idea that we all need to nurture an appropriately ironic sensibility.
2. Ironic reversals
I use the terms “irony” and “ironic” first to indicate a dramatic (real-world, actually-experienced) reversal of what is intended or expected. And then, secondly, to refer to stories (dramas) and sayings (jokes or proverbs) about such reversals of meaning. And finally, to refer a kind of sensibility (or way of seeing and responding).
Ironic reversals are called “tragic” when something begun with great expectations ends in failure. Shakespeare’s drama Macbeth and, in the real world, the “Great War” (WW I) to end all wars are both tragically ironic.
Comic irony is about a reversal which brings a truly happy or good result. Think Cervantes’ Don Quichote or the unexpected recent elevation of Francis, a poor man, to the Papacy. Or more generally the claim that the poor are blessed. Or, most significantly, belief that a donkey-riding and then derided and finally crucified “criminal” is really the Christ-Messiah. The Cross is then, for Christians, an ironic symbol of victory.
3. The Catholic Right’s Agenda
I want to suggest that the US Catholic Right’s agenda will in the long term be an example of comic irony. Short-term it may cause a tragic schism among Catholics. Indeed, it has already led to led to much de facto schism, and to many sad, at times even tragic, results – from good people losing jobs to so many leaving the church, and to so much deep distrust within the church. Yet long term, I believe it will result in the opposite of what it intends.
Let me be clear that I am not here writing about the abuse crisis, even though it continues to be a terribly ironic “event” in which the mighty are (slowly, with great suffering all around) being cast from their thrones – some literally cast down (defrocked, even imprisoned), others undergoing (one hopes) a transformative stripping from magnificence to service (after the example of Francis whom “they” ironically continue to castigate and blame). And an event in which the lowly victims, children and adults, are exalted by the vindication of their claims and the slow healing of their injuries.
For the broad agenda of the Catholic Right – led by many “John Paul II Bishops” and supported both by politically conservative money and by Catholics still disturbed by changes since Vatican II — is to restore clerical/hierarchical authority and thereby to reassert doctrinal orthodoxy and traditional morality.
It’s very important to immediately note that everything I say about the Catholic Right’s agenda is equally true for much of the Catholic Left. If attempts to restore things may lead to ironic results, so may attempts to reform things. Thus, we all need to look first to the log in our own eye lest we fixate on the splinter in others’. (Another of the gospel’s startlingly ironic proverbs.)
4. What’s so ironic about the conservative agenda?
As I see it, there are two great ironies in the Right’s agenda. First that, as already noted, it will eventually result in the opposite of what it intends. Second, that it will have this ironic consequence precisely because so many of the folks involved are so unironic about their agenda. (This latter irony is, again, equally true of so many on the Left.)
5. The Irony of Unintended consequences
It’s my belief that the long-term consequence of the reassertion of clerical power will be a comic (healthy, healing) development of a more lay-centered Catholic church. Yes, something like that intended by Pope Francis and opposed by the Catholic Right. It is the reversal proclaimed by Vatican II and gradually working it way throughout the church.
What would that comic consequence look like? I think we have long been seeing important developments in lay authority and ministry – from growing forms of lay ministry to a more fundamental appropriation of freedom (of conscience) as a crucial element of respect for authority.
We saw this recently in the huge outpouring of support in this country for Catholic Sisters when they were put under investigation by male/clerical authorities. Our Sisters are clearly not part of the hierarchical chain of command. Yet that outpouring was clear recognition of their very real authority in the history and current reality of the church, especially through long service in schools and hospitals, and increasingly as political voices and spiritual guides.
Such lay authority, as a second example, is also evident in the actual operation of so many parishes, even those still with resident pastors. The laity manage things as directors of liturgy, of religious education, and even at times (when Father isn’t home) of liturgies and preaching.
And who these days, as a third example, are those more sought out as spiritual teachers and guides, as writers and retreat leaders? It’s my sense that such leaders are increasingly women, many Sisters and single or married laywomen. Most of whom have advanced training in fields like theology or spiritual direction, often (my judgment) far better than that received these days in some seminaries.
More examples of such ironic consequences abound. As I suggested in my previous blog on sacraments: many now experience the sacred in nature and not in church. I do not celebrate this shift, rather I criticized it as an “either-or” approach to sacramentality. Yet I do hope that in the long run a renewal of the church’s sacramental understandings will lead to a richer “both-and” understanding of our experiences of the holy. That would be a truly comic result for the church.
Of even greater significance is the development of a broader understanding of “the apostolate of the laity” urged by Vatican II. Thus far it’s mainly meant the important but “second class” lay ministries in church service noted above. Yet the fuller meaning of the lay apostolate is the ministry or witness of lay women and men in and for the secular world – in the professions (medicine, law, and education, for instance) and in corporations and commerce as well as in politics and culture. Such development would really be an ironic de-centering of the meaning of “church” – from church buildings and rituals (both still crucially necessary) to the People of God working for the realization of Kingdom in the messy and secular realities of our world.
I’m rambling, but hopefully the first point about the irony of the Right’s agenda is somewhat clear. And I’m sure the reader may add many other examples.
6. The Irony of an Absolutized Agenda
As I said above, the second major irony of Right’s agenda is that it will have this ironic consequence precisely because the folks involved are themselves so unironic.
Let me put this simply. And again, what I say about the Right applies equally to the Left.
If you have an absolute or ideological agenda – if you pursue your agenda with a bulldozer or with the constant charge of your brigades, with fixed and unwavering determination – you will inevitably fail and will likely produce the opposite of what you intend. For reality is always more complex than our fixed agendas. Reality will finally not submit to ideologies. A far more flexible approach to achieving goals is needed, as any good politician or planner knows — a flexibility that can respond to unintended consequences and incorporate other viewpoints.
It’s because of his fixed and fantastic inflexibility that Don Quichote is the greatest figure of comic irony in Western literature. He tilts at windmills and inevitably fails because reality will not submit to his fantasies. Yet Cervantes’ story is even more deeply comic and ironic since it is through the Don’s failures, and the commonplace sanity of his servant Sancho, that in the end the Don gradually becomes more realistically and humbly human. The “great knight” comes off his high horse and the servant rises to real esteem.
It is, then, especially ironic that recent retellings of the story of the “Man of Lamancha” are so much Romantic nonsense. Unlike Cervantes’ healing irony, these retellings urge us, with soul-stirring rhythm and song, to persist in the tragic American habit of dreaming impossible dreams.
Lets hope our Bishops might learn from the Don. Let’s hope that all of our zealotry, on Right or Left, in church or society, might be tutored by a comic irony which laughs at itself and thereby humanizes its absolutized agendas.
Appendix: What Does William Lynch Contribute to Our Understanding of Irony?
And the answer is: he urges all of us to develop an appropriately ironic sensibility in the living of our faith – both in our religious faith and in our commitment to causes.
In his final book, Images of Faith (1973), Lynch argued that Christian faith should be deeply ironic. He grounds this recommendation in what he does not hesitate to call “the Irony of Christ.” Said another way, faith is not just a loving and hopeful way of seeing and experiencing the world, it also sees and experiences the world ironically. This probably sounds like nonsense for those of us habituated to associate irony with sarcasm, ridicule, contempt, and even hatred. Yet we Christians claim to follow Jesus of Nazareth, whose life and reality is deeply ironic. For again, he embodies as a limited human being the fullness of God. And he is Messiah (or Christ or Lord and Savior) precisely by being poor, by walking with the regular folk, even the outcasts and sinners, and finally by suffering and dying.
Lynch’s book makes difficult reading and demand much rereading. Yet it is very rewarding. Here I tease out but one thread from that richly-woven text.
We need to nurture an ironic sensibility (a habitual framework for seeing and responding) if we are to live a life of faith, or any realistic life of hope and love. And that is true not only for Christians and other religious believers, but for all of us in maintaining bonds of faith or trust in our families and communities, and in our political and social lives.
But not just any ironic sensibility. For today the prevailing ironies learned from jokes and stories, from our news and talk shows, and from TV and cinema dramas, are largely contemptuous. They involve forms of irony which express contempt for some person or group – for the bad guys, the political or religious idiots, for certain types of macho men and silly women, and so on.
It’s important to stress that we are all better ironists than we think. Often the term “irony” simply refers to folk wisdom we’ve learned since childhood. And the nurturing of a sensibility tutored by such ironies is a deeply comic or humanizing goal. But too often we’ve learned to embody our culture’s prevailing and contemptuous ironies. For they are usually very enjoyable. Indeed most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, find it quite satisfying to regularly nurture our hatreds and resentments.
Lynch, on the contrary, urges us to develop those ironic habits of thinking and feeling which enable us to do two important things. First and foremost, to laugh at ourselves. To be sure, we must stick with our convictions and causes, but we must do so with a sustaining sense of humor and flexibility. And second, we must learn to understand our opponents in an equally comic (and not contemptuous) way – to see them as fallible persons quite often held captive, like the Don (and like us), by inflexible fantasies.
Faith isn’t only about doctrines or laws, but far more about habits and sensibilities, ways of seeing and feeling and acting. That being the case, Lynch urges us to reflect on our own ironic habits and to discern between those filled with contempt and those filled with real humanity. And then to nurture the forms of sensibility which embodies comic irony, the irony of faith.