21st Century ‘Status Anxiety’ is Gospel ‘Worldliness’

Mar 25, 2019 | 2 comments

‘Commencement’ – i.e. ‘Graduation Day’ – at Harvard

Status Anxiety and the Scam Economy: that’s the title of an opinion article in the New York Times, mid-March 2019. Triggered by the revelation of high-profile cheating in the admissions process to elite US universities such as Harvard and Yale, the article lists a series of such obsessive efforts to acquire or retain status in a ‘highly stratified society’ in just the last two decades.

Central to all of these is an obsessive anxiety over how one is perceived, in line with a principle attributed to Ivanka Trump: “Perception is more important than reality. If someone perceives something to be true, it is more important than if it is in fact true.”

Long gone in Ireland are the days when ostentatious fasting or prayer – or climbing Croagh Patrick in bare feet – could have earned social prestige, but that does not mean that the malady that underlies all ‘showing off’ has gone away.  To the extent that we believe that some kind of favourable social feedback is necessary to establish our own importance and dignity we remain forever trapped in status anxiety.

Spectacular glamour at the racetrack or the award ceremony and ‘hugging of the altar rails’ belong to different Irish eras but to exactly the same need for social reinforcement of our ‘right to be here’.

This is far from being a problem of only the socially elevated and frivolous. Severe consequences can follow for those who conclude that the social verdict upon themselves must necessarily be negative. In early March 2019 BBC NI reported that on average 28 cases of self-harm present themselves daily at NI hospital casualty departments.  Practices such as self-cutting are too often closely connected to the power of media to convince us that if our own image is not reflected back to us, or if we are ‘trolled’, we must not deserve to exist.

Given that so many Irish young people are known to complain that ‘the Mass is not relevant to our lives’ it is now a matter of serious frustration to me that I have never yet heard a homilist point out that the Christian Creed is essentially a refutation of the authority of all fashionable judgement. It insists that a man who was socially disgraced and obliterated had not only been raised to life by God but made the final arbiter of all ‘success’. The Gospels underline the message: the first shall be last and the one who was rejected would become the cornerstone of God’s kingdom.

This delay in ‘take up’ of the relevance of the Creed is due, of course, to the fact that in living memory Catholic clergy occupied the highest social status in Ireland. While the letters page of ‘The Irish Catholic’ are still full of indignant resentment of the capture of Irish print and digital media by ‘forces hostile to the church’, how much current clerical despondency is due to the same misperception: that while the church is socially reviled it cannot have any future.

That this is a profound mistake is plain from the recent historical record.  Irish Catholic clergy were never closer to disaster than when they themselves were Ireland’s brokers of honour and shame.  Irish anti-clericalism flourishes on a vivid folk memory of the parish priest who had the power to eject an unfortunate woman from her family home and even from the parish, and we will be reminded of all that soon again in the continuing story of the ‘Tuam babies’.

It is time to recover the full import of Jesus final warning:

‘Listen; the time will come — indeed it has come already — when you are going to be scattered, each going his own way and leaving me alone. And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. I have told you all this so that you may find peace in me. In the world you will have hardship, but be courageous: I have conquered the world.’ (John 16: 32,33)

Consumerism: also driven by ‘Status Anxiety’

All inequality and injustice, all ‘consumerism’, all motivation towards social ascent for oneself and all social contempt for others arise from the mistake of believing in the authority of the society that envelops us to judge ourselves and others.  To overcome this problem there is no alternative to the seeking of relationship with a higher authority, one that is timeless and transcendent, one that has ‘no favourites’.

And that is why the development of a habit of continuous prayer is crucial to our own health and the recovery of the church.  We need also a revised understanding of the history of the church. Clerical social elevation – and especially capture of political power – was the root source of Irish societal revulsion toward Christianity.  And the roots of the church’s earlier evangelical spread lay in its earliest indifference towards social contempt.

It is time to understand why Jesus would tell us we are blessed when we are abused.  To be socially reviled is to have no option but to search for another deeper source of self-acceptance.  When we look, seriously, where Jesus looked we find the treasure hidden in the field – and can never again take fashionable judgement – the supposed wisdom of current public opinion – seriously.

Far from being the end for Irish Catholicism, the secularist seizure of media power in Ireland – the power to award both honour and shame – needs to be seen as a liberation of the Irish Church. It marks a necessary separation of the church from ‘the world’, a separation necessary to the understanding of Jesus’s mission. We cannot find the Father so long as we ‘look to one another for glory’ – and he was never closer to us than he is just now, when we are often truly ‘poor in spirit’.


  1. Kevin Walters

    A fine article Sean

    1 of 2: It could be said that image reigns supreme on the worldly plain, as it creates “the power to award both honour and shame and needs to be seen as a liberation of the Irish Church. It marks a necessary separation of the church from ‘The world’ Yes! And this separation needs to be embraced in humility, the precursor to understanding Jesus’s mission, as a humble heart is the one and only state from where the ongoing transforming action of The holy Spirit can take place.

    The present problems within the church to day relate to Clericalism which until recently was sustained by an Image of Holiness/goodness. This image has now been shattered, so how can the leadership embrace this shattered image in humility and embrace the transforming action of The holy Spirit.

    When information was given to the laity in 1998, in regards to the Divine Mercy Image/message, given to the then Blessed Sister M Faustina Kowalska I wrote this from the heart and it bears witness to the Truth.

    “Mother church, I am angry it is true I have many bones to pick with you
    I read about a Nun, the mirror of her heart shone in the dark
    She held the lord in the most perfect way, tender heart, water, and gentle ray
    Paint me in such away, that they will know what I want to say, taste the water feel the gentle ray
    The result was stark like a tree without bark
    She might as well have painted in the dark
    An earthly hand said this will never do, paint it anew
    She drew and drew but in her heart she knew that for the hand of authority, it would never do
    We will have another do it anew we don’t want them to laugh at you
    We will make it in our image perfect in every way
    Your reflection is failure, take it away
    I knew a child I knew him well he tried to draw a picture for you as well

    (…Continued in following comment)

  2. Kevin Walters

    2 of 2:

    No child was more honest and this is true on First Communion day you tore his heart in two.
    You cannot read you cannot pray, this is a sin this is not the perfect way, go away
    Guilt was the price to pay I did not know the correct words to say

    Benediction came can I ring the bell? No! you will not do it well
    “But I do all you ask”, why are you like an Asp

    Puberty came, now this really was sin, I could not win
    I tried but all you did was chide
    In trust I gave you the picture of my heart, you tore it apart
    I took you at your word you see, you said.
    “Be perfect”, just like me
    You knew that my heart fell at the apple tree you did not tell, that you fell as well
    Now we have a picture on display, perfect in every way.
    Whose reflection is shown?
    Why does hers, not hold the higher place, was not she the one with the grace.
    But for you Mother it will not do, it must be perfect to reflect you
    Will love find a way to show the truth, form the way and mould a heart so that it may pray?
    Let the children come and play, taste the water and feel the gentle ray
    So that they might live in day
    Venerate the picture of Broken Man we reflect the Lords heart the best we can.
    “Father” we only have to turn to you and always you give the morning dew.
    Your heart is nailed to a tree, so that we dance free when we bend our knee

    “Jesus I put my trust in thee”

    Please consider continuing via the link and comprehend that the True Divine Mercy Image, is an Image of Broken Man

    kevin your brother
    In Christ


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