‘Church is Mission’?

Dec 10, 2023 | 3 comments

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’?

St Anselm of Canterbury 1033-1109 CE

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

Alain de Botton – Philosopher

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.


  1. Hilda Geraghty

    Yes the Atonement theory urgently needs to be abandoned. However a more correct notion needs to be put in place. See article “…So that sins may be forgiven.’ in The Furrow Dec 2023.

    • soconaill

      Many thanks for that referral, Hilda. Your article in the Furrow is seriously interesting, especially in its understanding of forgiveness, but I must read it again to be sure of doing it full justice.

      Already I know that I will have more to say on the matter of ‘original sin’ and the Catechism’s insistence that we inherit the effects of that ‘by propagation, not imitation’ – a contention so obviously open to bafflement and misunderstanding that there too a close review is needed, under the heading of ‘mission’.

      Maybe an unspoken subtext of the synodality discussions is that the Catechism overall, as it stands, is not in all respects ‘mission ready’? It is very difficult to square a theology that insists upon God as unconditionally loving and forgiving with the theology of Cur Deus Homo, clearly embedded in that same Catechism.

  2. Sean O'Conaill

    Having been through your Furrow article again, Hilda, I find it a convincing argument in itself against the Catechism’s contention that unless we hold to the Augustinian understanding of ‘Original Sin’ the crucifixion cannot be explained in connection with the ‘forgiveness of sins’.

    I have always felt myself that St Anselm’s God the Father and the father of the prodigal son as described by Jesus were not the same, and that Anselm was at odds also with Jesus’ repeated insistence in John’s Gospel that ‘the father and I are one’. As you insist, that must obviously be the case when it comes to forgiveness.

    This of course does turn the spotlight fully onto that question of ‘Original Sin’, an issue also when we try to explain the origins of evil, including human violence. That the latter may have been a consequence of our sourcing of our desires in what our neighbour possesses has strongly been argued by the school that follows René Girard, but that in turn raises a question about CCC 419 which insists that original sin is transmitted by ‘propagation not imitation’.

    In his challenging book ‘The Joy of Being Wrong’ the Girardian James Alison argues that this apparent contradiction between ‘propagation’ and imitation can be resolved by considering the possibility that we humans may be genetically programmed to imitate from birth, as the fastest way to learn.

    You will remember that the sequence of the ‘Fall’ as recounted in Genesis is that even prior to the eating of the ‘forbidden fruit’ Eve’s self-esteem has been upset by the temptation to ‘be as Gods’ – i.e. to want whatever Gods have that she does not. That unstable self-esteem is an ‘original frailty’ that is obviously part of her (and Adam’s) humanity – not a consequence of anything she has yet done.

    That we are indeed fragile in terms of self-esteem is as true today as it ever was, so were we to speak of this ‘original frailty’ as a necessary component of our humanity, then God’s compassion and forgiveness becomes even more ‘logical’, since God has made us this way.

    There is much more to this, obviously. I would strongly recommend ‘The Joy of Being Wrong’ – especially for what James Alison has to say about how the Crucifixion and Resurrection together transformed the early Christian understanding of death. That is another obvious issue for the CCC – which in CCC 1008 argues still that ‘original sin’ brought death into the world.

    Thanks for directing us to your article, a ‘must read’ in my view on that particular question of divine forgiveness and the atonement.


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ACI’s Campaign for Lumen Gentium 37

The Promise of Synodality

What we have experienced of synodality so far gives ACI real hope that a longstanding structural injustice in the church may at last be acknowledged and overcome.

As all Irish bishops well know, the 'co-responsibility' they urge lay people to share - as numbers and energies of clergy decline - has been sabotaged time and again by canonical rules that deny representational authority and continuity to parish pastoral councils.  ACI's 2019 call for the immediate honouring of Lumen Gentium Article 37 becomes more urgent by the day and is supported by the following documents - also presented to the ICBC in October 2019.

The Common Priesthood of the People of God and the Renewal of the Church
It was Catholic parents and victims of clerical abuse who taught Catholic Bishops to prioritise the safeguarding of children in the church

Jesus as Model for the Common Priesthood of the People of God
It was for challenging religious hypocrisy and injustice that Jesus was accused and crucified. He is therefore a model for the common priesthood of the laity and for the challenging of injustice - in society and within the church.

A Suggested Strategy for the Recovery of the Irish and Western Catholic Church
Recovery of the church depends upon acknowledgment of the indispensable role of the common priesthood of the lay people of God and the explicit abandonment by bishops and clergy of paternalism and clericalism - the expectation of deference from lay people rather than honesty and integrity.

For the full story of ACI's campaign for the honouring of Article 37 of Lumen Gentium, click here.


"Come Holy Spirit, Renew Your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost. Grant to Your Church that, being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Saviour, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace. Amen."

Saint Pope John XXIII, 1962 - In preparation for Vatican Council II, 1962-65.

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