The Un-Enlightenment hasn’t gone away..

Interesting article by John Waters [Really? – Ed] in today’s Irish Times [subs req]. Although, perhaps not ‘interesting’ in the way he intended. [Ah – Ed] It’s a call to arms, of sorts, to supernaturalists in an apparent attempt to change the tone of the coverage of the news that Pope Benedict XVI has announced that Dublin is to host the 50th Eucharistic Congress in 2012 – coverage which has tended to reference the 1932 Congress that a nascent Republic of Ireland also hosted. I’ll excerpt part of the article but, in reality, it’s mostly what John Waters himself refers to as an “ideological distraction”.

The implication, indeed the express prediction, has been that it will be a more subdued affair and attract the attention of far fewer than the million or so who thronged the Phoenix Park and the streets of Dublin on that occasion. But why should this be? Are we less human than our parents, grandparents or great-grandparents?

The Archbishop of Dublin has wondered aloud how many baptised Irish Catholics any longer understand the meaning of the Eucharist. It is a good question, though not in the sense that we should feel chastened because we do not know our cathechism. It is a good question because it asks us if we have the capacity still to reach behind the veils of prejudice, piety and ideological distraction and tune into the most vital element of our humanity. You do not need to be religious, never mind Christian, to feel the need to connect with what is mysterious, eternal, absolute, infinite, unknowable. You need only to be human and open to the idea that this connection is vital to that condition.

John Waters continues

The Eucharist is, exactly as it was 80 or 800 or 2,000 years ago, and will remain in 80 years’ time, the celebration of the mystery-made-flesh, an event that happened once in history but continues as a presence, moment-to-moment, announcing the hope beyond hope that keeps us alive.

Would it not be interesting if we were to approach this 50th Eucharistic Congress with such a concept in mind? What if, rather than anticipating some peripheral and underwhelming gathering of a declining institution – with which most of us have had a brittle relationship – we were to consider it an opportunity to establish a more fundamental engagement with our own humanity?

We live in a time when, captivated by our own cleverness, or out of a clinging to a reduced concept of reason, or enraged at an institution riddled with human weakness, or filled with desire for a freedom that still eludes us, we have ensured that we can no longer access in mainstream culture the nutrients most essential to our survival.

As a result, our bodies move around with a deceptive nonchalance while our spirits struggle for breath. This is not a victory over the Catholic Church, but over ourselves, over our children and their children, denying us all access to the hope that, ultimately, is the essence of our existence.

If we choose to see the event in four years’ time as the huddling of a dishevelled and dwindling group of partisans engaged in arcane rituals that once engaged our more simple ancestors, we will be turning our cynicism and disillusionment upon ourselves.

There are a couple of quick points to make about the article and the elements of arguments it contains. Mostly that those elements have been fleshed out elsewhere, by others.

I’m not going to dwell on the supernatural belief in the “mystery-made-flesh”. It’s his belief and he’s entitled to it. Whether my absence of belief in that particular supernatural tale makes me “less human” I can’t tell from behind my “veils of prejudice”.

The criticism of “mainstream culture” echoes then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s observation of “a growing hesitation in public debate to refer to religion, the churches, issues of faith and belief” – itself an echo of Tony Blair’s eagerness to “do god” after leaving office.

As I’ve mentioned previously, “Here, of course, politicians are less reticent about such things while in office..

Mr Waters has, of course, criticised the media on religious matters before.

Then there is the “hope beyond hope”..

It should come as no surprise that this was the subject of an encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI – “‘SPE SALVI facti sumus’ – in hope we were saved”

This is what I had to say on that encyclical at the time

Benedict points the finger of blame for, among other things, the French Revolution, Marxism and the Russian Revolution at “the foundations of the modern age” which “appear with particular clarity in the thoughts of Francis Bacon [added link]” – and, in particular, Bacon’s ‘New Instrument for Rational Thinking’ – Novum Organum, published in 1620.

And I pointed to Bacon’s clarity of thought.

But perhaps the criticism of Bacon is also down to some of his other thoughts.. and their clarity.

Idols of the cave have their origin in the individual nature of each man’s mind and body; and also his education, way of life and chance events. This category is varied and complex, and we shall enumerate the cases in which there is the greatest danger and which do most to spoil the calrity of the understanding.

Men fall in love with particular pieces of knowledge and thoughts: either because they believe themselves to be their authors and inventors; or because they have put a great deal of labour into them, and have got very used to them. If such men betake themselves to philosophy and universal speculation, they distort and corrupt them to suit their prior fancies.”

The criticism of Bacon, at least for Benedict, is because he marks the point at which humanity started to embrace the “reduced concept of reason” John Waters complains about.

Benedict’s solution is the same one presented by John Waters – and given Waters’ wordy belated birthday tribute to Emperor Constantine Pope Benedict XVI in the Irish Times, previously noted here, that should be no surprise.

And what I said then still stands, and it’s why John Waters article is an ideological distraction –

He’s right, in a way, that Benedict seeks an “integrated concept of reason” – Benedict has appealed to a “greater form of reason” previously. But, as I’ve pointed out before, the re-equating, or re-entwining, of religion and science that Benedict actually seeks is not an Enlightenment, it’s an Un-Enlightenment. Knowledge is power, indeed.

And the Un-Enlightenment isn’t just being promoted within religion..

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  • Garibaldy

    A nascent Republic of Ireland? Not like you to be so imprecise Pete. As for the thing itself, it will only show how far the position of the Church has fallen since 1982 never mind 1932

  • Pete Baker


    I could have added [then the Irish Free State and officially still a Dominion]

    But it would be an historical distraction.

    It may be imprecise to your eye, but it does what I intended it to imply.

  • Alfie

    At least Pete did not inaccurately call it Southern Ireland!

  • Greenflag

    ‘The Eucharist is, exactly as it was 80 or 800 or 2,000 years ago, and will remain in 80 years’ time, the celebration of the mystery-made-flesh, an event that happened once in history but continues as a presence, moment-to-moment, announcing the hope beyond hope that keeps us alive. ‘

    That is John Water’s belief and no doubt Pope Benedict’s but can they prove this ‘event ‘ happened in history and what exactly is this ‘hope beyond hope ‘ other than a belief in a life after death ?

    Aeroplanes built according to scientific principles work . They take off and land .99.9999% of the time . Aeroplanes built to the mythological specifications of the cargo cults of Papua New Guinean tribesmen don’t take off and neither do they land . Modern religions are mythology mixed with moral /ethical precepts .Some are less credible than others but in the fianl analysis you either believe in the voodooistic parts or you don’t. You can even pretend to believe in it for ‘social occassions’ .

    You can’t do that with gravity . You jump from the 21st floor without a parachute and try relying on faith and hope for a safe landing ?

    Waters and others like him look at the secular world and find much ’emptiness’ within it presumably because there has to be more than plasma tv and a consumer fixated lifestyle . On this it is possible to agree with such commentators but we’re not going back to a world which consigned Galileo to prison and almost the heretics stake for telling the truth, and free thinkers or judaisers or rationalists to the persuasive methods of the Spanish Inquisition.

    If Waters and others like him choose to view man /homo sapiens as God’s unique creation either by ‘immediate’ 6,000 year old instant creation , or believe in our humanity emerging after 4 million years of evolution which had ‘humanity’ as it’s god willed final creation , then it’s their choice -but it’s a choice based on faith alone not on scientific evidence .

    I prefer to believe in the facts and the numbers provided by the rational scientific descendants of Galileo , Bacon , Darwin , Newton , Mendel and Copernicus among others .

  • joeCanuck

    For some strange unfathomable reason, each time I hear the word christianity, the word victim immediately jumps to my mind.

  • Brian Walker

    You don’t have to agree with an article to respect it. You can certainly dispute a concept of reason that is contained within religion; but departing from Dawkins etc., in my view reason should be the Kantians’ link with the faithful and not a weapon to belabour them with, in the interests of promoting a civilised society.

    Thankfully since 1932, the Church has, no doubt under much pressure, greatly reduced the claims it makes on all of us, though it could still do with updating its formulae.

    In the piece, I like the good writing for a start. I enjoy its tone of slightly weary toleration for the enrages tinged with wit; its genuine idealism; its affection for humanity in general; and not least, a toleration and humility that was certainly absent in 1932.

    I suspect that today’s man of faith would be denounced as an apostate by John Charles McQuaid, were he still alive.

    The question for me is this: is the RC Church is a sufficient vessel for a great religious commemoration, without the separated sisters and brothers?

    Despite that reservation, I suspect it probably is.

    This is the age of the mass media event. The paradox of a mass event ( pun intended, now that I’ve typed it), is that the act of faith can be essentially private or indeed non-existent behind the clamour of the public act. Transubstantiation is beside the point.

    London will have had the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee. Now it’s Dublin’s turn for a great emotional show.

  • Pete Baker


    “In the piece, I like the good writing for a start. I enjoy its tone of slightly weary toleration for the enrages tinged with wit; its genuine idealism; its affection for humanity in general; and not least, a toleration and humility that was certainly absent in 1932.”

    Whilst this might be true, as I attempted to point out, it’s an ideological distraction.

    The purpose lies elsewhere.

  • percy

    I hope that the people of Ireland will use the opportunity in 2012 to show the middle finger to the pope and the catholic church and re-establish the church of Ireland, as a place for catholics and protestants.

    We’ll live with the paradoxes of trans-substantiation, but yous can take a hike.

    King Henry VIII told em where to go some years previously. Perhaps its Ireland’s hour.

    What’s 500 yrs compared to eternity?

  • Brian Walker

    Hi, nice to talk! Why must it be so often assumed in Irish debate that “purpose lies elsewhere” other than what is openly presented, i.e. that purpose is partly concealed and therefore conspiracy reigns? Why is the good faith of intellectual opponents so often a priori doubted? Is it the legacy of the old oppressive climate that we ( I mean you, I’m in London though I identify with the problem) have still fully to disperse? Put simply, are you saying we will never lift it until the influence of the Church dwindles to about zero or at least to the level of the C of E? It’s a genuine, not a rhetorical question. Or are you accusing Waters et al of trying to mount the C21 counter-reformation that JP2 with all his charisma and furious commitment so notably failed to inspire?

  • Pete Baker

    Hi Brian,

    Nice to talk, indeed!

    I’m not particularly concerned with an “old oppressive climate”, I don’t feel any chill wind against my own thinking because I’m not open to be influenced in that respect.

    And I don’t always assume that the purpose lies elsewhere. I tend to the sceptical rather than cynical.

    The reason why I do point to another purpose in this case is John Waters’ previous articles on the issue and the statements on religion and science by Benedict – which I’ve linked in the original article.

    JP2 wasn’t in any position to mount an Un-Enlightenment campaign, btw. As I’m sure Cardinal Ratzinger was aware.

  • Pete Baker


    Reading back I can accept that John Waters may honestly believe his argument – in line with the “good faith” point you make.

    But I do question the purpose.

  • pauljames


    “This is the age of the mass event”
    As pointed out in one of the links, “The scale of the International Congresses and the design of the crowd, have often been likened to European fascist spectacles of the 1930s, such as the Nuremburg rallies.”

    I for one object that Mr Waters should measure my humanity by whether or not I should chose to attend such an event.

  • Greagoir O Frainclin

    I cringed when I heard that Dublin was to host the Eucharistic Congress in 2012, and I certainly wouldn’t like to see pope Benny set foot here in Ireland. (Folk in NI you’re welcome to him).
    The Catholic Church knows that its popularity is on a fast downward spiral in Ireland and this Congress is it’s attempt to stir up old superstitions and the guilt factor in people again.

    Regarding whatever Walters believes in well it seems to be some sort of pseudo Catholic shite all wrapped up in new age religion. I believe he is suffering from the “spirituality” syndrome that affects most celebs today, as they waffle on about how we are all individually important in the big plan of the universe, etc…

    If Walters is upset by secular peoples wealth and consumerism and he feels that he can’t keep up with the Jones’s perhaps he should turn to buddha to relieve his conscience as what was advocated by Schopenhauer. Advocating the return of catholicism or a belief in some sort of a spiritual supernatural god is not the answer.

  • Greagoir O Frainclin

    I meant to add that I hope people ignore or boycott the thing when the time comes.

  • Greenflag

    pete B, ‘The purpose lies elsewhere.’

    The purpose lies in revenue retention and market branding although by 2012 there will be fewer priests on this island than anytime in the past 1,500 years

    Greagoir O F

    ‘Regarding whatever Walters believes — I believe he is suffering from the “spirituality” syndrome that affects most celebs today, as they waffle on about how we are all individually important in the big plan of the universe, etc…’

    Would that be the 13.5 billion year plan or the 6,000 year one :)?

    ‘I meant to add that I hope people ignore or boycott the thing when the time comes.’

    Given present uncertain times there may yet be a national prayer re-awakening as we go down on bended knee to request Bennie to intercede with yer man above on our behalf and return to us our Celtic Tiger economy which like the prodigal son hath gone missing but hath not returned:)

    Bennie let’s face it does not have the pop star street cred of a John Paul or Bishop Eamon Casey but he’ll not be ignored or boycotted . Shur we would’nt even pull a stunt like that with Queenie herself and her corgis .

    While on the subject of Queenie I read she has correctly stripped the Zimbabwean Fuhrer Mugabe of his honorary knightship and there was I thinking that it was only our own Bob Geldof who was a Sir Bob . Interesting too that Mugabe is only the second international figure to have ‘suffered’ this singular dishonour .

    I was astonished to find out that the first to have earned Queenie’s opprobium was none other than a certain Nikoli Ceaucescu the former Romanian Communist leader famous for his strenous efforts to Romanianise – a million or so Hungarians within his borders by outlawing their language and culture and by endevouring to increase the population of Romania from 30 to 50 million by outlawing abortion,contraception etc etc .

    I can understand why Queenie might have awarded Mugabe an honorary knighthood back in the 80’s but Ceaucescu ? For what ? Must have been for one of those ‘arms deals’ ? Anyone know ?

  • Greagoir O Frainclin

    ha ha, very true Greenflag, and maybe those once animated statues in Ballinspittle will be ‘moved’ once again by the return of the prodigal flock.

    Regarding Ceaucescu’s knighthood I thought ‘one’ has to merit such a title.

  • Greenflag

    The ‘merit’ was earned as I suspected in a potential large arms purchase from BOAC according to this report per Salomon Rushdie which I found on the web -took a bit of stuggle mind you 🙂

    ‘In 1978, allegedly to the Queen’s great irritation, the Labour Government insisted that she allow Nicolae Ceausescu a state visit, and award an honorary knighthood to the megalomanic Romanian dictator. Apparently Jim Callaghan and his foreign secretary of the time, David Owen, thought that all this kowtowing would persuade Ceausescu to order a large number of military aircraft from the then state-owned British Aerospace. Showing the same amazing opportunism and lack of dignity – but in an opposite direction– the Foreign Office revoked Ceausescu’s knighthood on 22 December 1989 just as the dictator was attempting, unsuccessfully, to flee from his rioting subjects.

    It was the Conservative Government of John Major which required the Queen to bestow that honour, in 1994. This was fully 10 years after it had become widely accepted that the Zimbabwean leader had been responsible for the massacre of up to 20,000 civilians in Matabeleland. The Blair Government has from time to time pretended that it will strip Mugabe of his Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath: in March 2003 a member of the Foreign Office told Scotland on Sunday that “it is inconceivable that he will be allowed to remain a knight when his behaviour is so appalling”.

    It is, of course, not inconceivable at all. In December of that year Mr Blair was asked in the House of Commons by a Tory MP whether he would recommend stripping Mugabe of his knighthood. He replied that “we will certainly look at the issue of the honorary knighthood, although I somehow question what the impact of that might be on him”.

    Next up arise Sir Ian Paisley -Order of the Bath etc etc 🙂 Such august company eh ?
    It would appear that Queenie has little choice in these matters i.e in who gets to share in the task of wiping her back dry as she emerges from her ablutions 🙂