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15 August 2023

Obedience, disobedience and the demands of the Catholic Church

I find the blind faith of religion unthinkable. Then I remember my servility in love.

By Megan Nolan

When the musician Sinéad O’Connor died on 26 July, many people felt the loss personally. People with mental illnesses, people who had lost loved ones to suicide, people who suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church, artists, punks, outcasts, weirdos who were dismissed and mocked like her. I noticed, though, a particular kind of mourning from Irish women. There is a specificity to the wildness and disobedience of Irish women – the sorrow and rage mixed up in it. We know about the bravery required to burst through the accumulated weight of Ireland’s repression and contempt for women. It’s a bravery that we find profound and rousing to witness – whether in O’Connor or the civil rights activist Bernadette Devlin, or an incendiary writer like Nell McCafferty – because we know how extreme the pressure to be quiet and good is.

In the wake of her passing I’ve been thinking a lot about obedience and disobedience. I think it can be easy to forget, through familiarity, exactly how extreme the demands of the Catholic Church are, not to mention the degree to which they were mandatorily implemented in Irish society. For someone like me, who mostly came into consciousness as the bonds of Catholicism and state were being slowly undone rather than actively enforced, it can be a little surreal to remember. The idea of a church having the power to not only demand that citizens adhere to its ethos, but to physically imprison and force them to work, is brutal to a degree I can’t fully square with the Ireland of my upbringing. I know it happened, and its proximity endures in living victims, but I struggle to fully accept it emotionally.

I find people who devote themselves to religion – who pledge their every action, belief and thought to something outside of themselves – fascinating. At first, the idea seems laughable, unthinkable. Then I remember I tried to do some version of this myself with love. I offered the heavy burden of myself, in its entirety, to largely disinterested parties. In those times, a partner bossing me around, telling me how much to eat, exercise, drink and work felt almost holy. Every instruction was a little balm on the wound of being alive.

I read this week a story from 2020 about a married Catholic priest named Father Joshua Whitfield: one of a small number of married men who has received special dispensation from the Pope to be ordained. Whitfield was an Episcopalian minister with four children who converted to Catholicism when he became disenchanted by aspects of his Church, notably what he perceived as its liberalising. So while the existence of these outliers might be encouraging to those in favour of liberalising the Catholic Church and eroding mandatory celibacy for priests, the married priests themselves are often not in favour of this. As another married priest, Father Paul Sullins, put it: “We are these very conservative men who have left the Episcopal church and now meet all these left-wing Catholics who are celebrating our presence.”

[See also: The witchcraft generation]

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What struck me about the story, aside from my usual interest in what exemptions popes decide to make (I dearly hope there’s a mischievous Pope one day who arbitrarily sanctions deranged activities for kicks) was Whitfield’s seemingly contradictory stance. He supports a rule that should, by all rights, mean his position shouldn’t exist. But he simultaneously admits that, were the Church to change its stance to allow all priests to marry, he would then support it. It doesn’t matter what the Church’s stance is – he will share it.

This goes without saying: it is inherent to priesthood. But when made explicit, it still shocks me that anyone is capable of such literal blind faith. There is a peaceful allure in this – akin to the relief of asking “why?” and being told it doesn’t matter. I am reminded of a meme: a screenshot of a text conversation reading “what’s going on with the economy” and the response “Dont worry kitten [sic]”. What could be more relaxing?

One rejects obedience, if one does, out of a suspicion that whatever authority you have been listening to is not, in fact, the sole authority. That not only can you judge and decide all actions for yourself – but that you may, in fact, have a moral imperative to do so. This was usefully clarified for me when I was editing a book, and had two passionate and divergent comments from two different editors, unbeknown to either. My natural tendency to simply assume whoever is above me is correct was impossible, and I had to ask myself what I thought. The undoing of trust in authority does involve a degree of self-centredness, even solipsism, as you try to become the supreme authority on yourself. I hate to admit this, as the Church relishes warning us that an irreligious society is one that will lead to moral collapse. This isn’t true, but it is true that the loss of a unifying principle is painful and disorienting. And it is also true that there is what Father Whitfield refers to as “the irritating beauty” of the Catholic Church, which is to do with the contradiction in all faith, to believe things you can’t see, to experience one thing and believe another. I do see that beauty and miss it.

Maybe there is some other principle we can pledge ourselves to, a difficult lifelong relationship to grapple with. Maybe that principle is different for different people. I once would have said the dedication to art was the guiding faith of my life, but lately I feel that – in my case – art is more a method of accessing other people than something abstract to be perfected alone. People are the truly grand passion.

I was reading an essay this week about motherhood dismantling the idea of individuality – a concept I struggle with enormously. I am terrified of my aloneness, and yet I struggle, hard, to be completely self-sufficient. Motherhood is repellent to me for just this reason. I can’t imagine voluntarily handing over so much responsibility for my emotions and ability to live to another person in that way. Your child is born and then you will never quite feel safe or comfortable again if you don’t know for sure that they are happy. When I was broke, part of what was so difficult was that being broke involves constantly expressing your need, bothering others. But I know deep down that there’s no such thing as a self-sufficient person. I feel alone, but I know I am not ultimately alone. Maybe this is one moral law I can continue to blindly believe in, against the odds: the porousness of people, that we are all involved with one another, whether it feels true or not.

[See also: Could I become a Christian in a year?]

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This article appears in the 16 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War on the Future