Though always a message of liberation the meaning of the crucifixion today remains distorted by a medieval mistake.
‘Rather than saying that the Church has a mission, we affirm that Church ‘is’ mission.‘
Those are just two of 110 occurrences of the word ‘mission’ in the Synthesis Report of the October 2023 16th Synod of Bishops in Rome.
Nowhere is there a convincing manifesto for this mission. With the Irish national synodal synthesis of 2022 saying that ‘we are unsure about how to evangelise in the modern world‘ there is no help with that problem in the forty-one pages of the report.
So far also the two Irish bishop representatives at the synod – Brendan Leahy of Limerick and Alan McGuckian of Raphoe – are also unhelpful. All Catholic bishops are still imprisoned by a medieval theology of atonement and redemption that no missionary in Ireland today could offer as ‘Good News’?
Originating with St Anselm of Canterbury in the late 11th century this theology proposes that the crucifixion of Jesus was demanded by the Father who sent him – to give ‘satisfaction’ for the ‘dishonour’ caused to the Father by all of our sins – by dying an excruciating death in ‘substitution’ for ourselves. (CCC 615)
This was not the theology of the early church. The very idea of ‘redemption’ derives from the ‘buying back’ of the freedom of a slave. It was to God the Father that the first Christians attributed their own liberation from fear of the judgement and condemnation of their own Roman world. The greatest power of that time had been proven powerless to overwhelm an ever-living truth – by Jesus’ Resurrection.
What exactly do Irish bishops believe: that the Father of the mission we are now to embark upon is bent upon our liberation from the source of all oppression and fear in our present world – or that he is still, as he was for St Anselm in 1098 CE – in the business of calling in debts?
This theology never even liberated any bishop. No Catholic bishop anywhere in the world is known to have warned his flock about the possibility of clerical sex abuse of children – before victims of that abuse or their families took secular legal action themselves. In December 2009 the Irish Conference of Catholic bishops named the fear that had paralysed them: of a loss of ‘reputation’ if the truth was known.
The Root of All Evil
An overbearing concern for ‘reputation’ now has a name – status anxiety – given in 2004 by the philosopher Alain de Botton. If our bishops cannot see this same affliction in every aspect of the evils that surround us – from manic consumerism, absurd inequality and climate change to compulsive cosmetic plastic surgery, stalking and mass shootings – and even invasive imperialism in Ukraine and violence in the Holy Land – how are we to convince anyone that Jesus has anything to do with overthrowing the power of evil? If they cannot see it also in the problem of clericalism, how are we to overcome that?
Status anxiety is essentially fear of scorn – of being ‘cast out’ – the fear that stalks our dreams. It also drives the pursuit of ‘likes’, admiration, influence, celebrity – and power. This explains the absorption of younger generations with digital media. A globalized personal ‘brand’ can now be created, via a handheld device, even by children.
Meanwhile our prisons and psychiatric hospitals and addiction centres struggle to cope with the depression, self-harm, trolling, addiction and criminality that results from the lack of status – even the shame – that the victims of the digital age must feel.
Is not status anxiety also the source of the fear that attacks would-be whistle-blowers everywhere? Is that not what Jesus was – a whistle-blower against all injustice, who stood firm – without violence – against the merciless judgement of that ancient world? Did he not name his own mission, when he said, just before his own judgement, that he had ‘overcome the world’ – the fear of that judgement? Did he not by his crucifixion and resurrection dissolve the same fear in his earliest followers, who then took up their own crosses – and changed an empire?
We Catholic Christians urgently need official recognition that the first person of the Trinity, far from being himself trapped in medieval status anxiety, is still bent – with the Son and the Holy Spirit – on rescuing us from that affliction. Until that happens the mission ahead will be ‘mission on pause’.
First published on the website of the Association of Catholic Priests of Ireland – Nov 21st 2023.