Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

How Catholic Church is no longer centre stage in Ireland

Springsteen is more popular than Jesus. The Italian-Irish troubadour from New Jersey who still comes on with bags of cred after more than 30 years on the road has sold out two shows at Dublin's RDS arena next month.

But there were swathes of empty space in the same venue last Sunday for the opening ceremony of the Eucharistic Congress. The main stand was little more than half full. There were no queues at the burger joints.

Some of the reasons for the poor turnout are obvious. The credibility of the Church has taken a hammering from the exposure of the extent of its cover-up of the crime spree against children.

The general secularisation of Irish society. The fact that Séan Brady is no match for Peter Aiken when it comes to promoting a gig. The football in Poznan.

Even so. This was no mere Rosary rally but a gathering-in of the Catholic faithful of Ireland to bear witness to the core belief and defining doctrine of the Church, the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. And they didn't pack the pews.

One additional and arguably the most important reason for the no-show of multitudes has to be that it is difficult for people to know for certain how much of the core belief, what elements of the defining doctrine, Catholics are required to accept these days.

Across the world, religion hasn't lost its allure. It can still offer an ersatz sense of significance to empty lives, provide a comforting fantastical explanation of the ills that assail the human condition. That's enough for evangelical fundamentalists. But Roman Catholicism validates itself by reference to the source of its doctrine in Jesus Himself, to the role of the Church as the embodiment of God on earth, of which the miracle of the Eucharist is both symbol and substance. Without the Eucharist, Catholicism is just another tendency of thought.

The miracle of the Eucharist lies in the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus.

Which made it somewhat intriguing that in the Irish Times last Friday the journalist John Waters, a forthright defender of the Church, including its recent and historical role in Ireland, and a speaker at one of the main Congress events, confessed that he would be reluctant to discuss transubstantiation even with a respected friend, "not because I have problems with the doctrine but because such matters are impossible to discuss in the language we use for politics, shopping and sex." He offered no guidance as to the alternative language in which it would be meaningful and useful to discuss such matters.

John was polemicising against the strident atheist Richard Dawkins who a few days earlier had told a Dublin audience that, "If they don't believe in transubstantiation they are not Roman Catholics."

On Monday, the distinguished Augustinian theologian Fr Gabriel Daly entered the fray, supporting John's view and suggesting that Dawkins had shown "an unwise disregard for the meaning and origin of a technical term like 'transubstantiation.'"

"Real Presence", he declared, "is not synonymous with transubstantiation".

He supported this declaration by quoting from the Council of Trent: "By the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation."

To most readers, the words of the council might seem obviously to mean exactly what Fr Daly is here insisting they do not mean.

But ah, Fr Daly moves swiftly on, consider the significance of "fittingly".

This signals, he invites us to believe, that, "Since the church does not impose any philosophical system in the name of faith, we are under no obligation to use the term 'transubstantiation' in discussion of the Eucharist."

"Transubstantiation," then, is merely a technical term.

And so, in one bound, John and Fr Daly imagine themselves free of entanglement in Dawkins' discourse. Except for this: that the term 'transubstantiation' was coined precisely to refer to the transformation of the substance of bread and wine into the substance of the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist. This isn't its technical meaning. It is its only meaning. Make the word optional and you make the Eucharist itself a matter for faithful to take or leave as they will.

Is nothing sacred? Obviously not, if transubstantiation isn't. Which helps explain the empty seats.

I'd have gone to the RDS if I'd been in Dublin last weekend, out of curiosity. But for touching transcendence, for a sense of joy and exhilaration in communion with the spirit of humanity, for easing the ache of living and replenishing the soul, Bruce Springsteen is your only Man.

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