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Saturday, 22 April 2017

Revelation and the New Catholicism

In my capacity as a tutor, I meet quite a few attendees of religious schools, especially Catholic ones. I assumed, when I started, that these kids would have an advantage when dealing with certain material, given that so much of western literature draws heavily on biblical imagery and language and, especially amongst the modernists, Catholic conceptual frameworks.

This assumption was proven incorrect the very first time I mentioned Revelation. I should point out that I also went to a Catholic school - a Jesuit institution, in fact - and that our primary method of subverting Catholic dogma was to flip to The Song of Solomon in order to snicker at descriptions of breasts and thighs, and then head straight to the back pages and drink in the crazy apocalyptic code talking of John of Patmos. While the more spiritual aspects of Catholicism held no real appeal, our compulsory engagement with the bible kindled an interest, in some of us, in the arcana of literature and ancient history.

Fast forward to today, and I find myself confronted with students of Catholic institutions who have actually never heard of Revelation. Or The Song of Solomon. While I'm not necessarily heartbroken about this, it strikes me as a bit of a shame that kids being forced to undergo religious education are missing out on the two strongest opportunities for comedy contained in the corpus. These gaps, of course, led me to ask what, in actual fact, they do during their religious indoctrination... I mean, education. What they report is deeply worrying to me.

Students describe sessions where they are given verses from the bible, without context or discussion, and instructed to translate the 'moral message' of each verse. From an intellectual point of view, this is an exercise in absurdity. Let's take an example:

Matthew 16:19: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

From this enigmatic fragment, students are supposed to derive the doctrine of papal infallibility, god (haha) only knows how. Not a word is said about the fact that Matthew's gospel is a standout as a persuasive effort grounded in a framework of Old Testament prophecy. No explanation is given of the fact that the entire book should be viewed as an argumentative attempt to legitimise the messianic status of Jesus by manipulating his life to parallel Israel's history, or of the highly flexible attitude to fact and sequence prevalent amongst contemporary authors at the time. All things, I should point out, which were pointed out to me by my school's more scholarly lay brothers and priests. The verse is presented as monolithic, authoritative and unquestionable. And most importantly, incomprehensible. The implication is that all meaning must needs be received from competent authority, as the text is demonstrably opaque. Which is cheap trickery, of course - the text is child's play to understand, so long as one is presented with the relevant facts. Deliberately obscuring these is the kind of cheap trick I expect from televangelists and crazy fundamentalists.

Other sessions involve writing (read: 'paraphrasing') long and highly prescriptive essays on various points of Catholic ethics, and, most weirdly, turning one's chair to face the wall and having an imaginary (or not) conversation with God. Now, any members of evangelical churches reading this will probably look at these practices and nod sagely, these being core activities for many evangelical Christians, but to someone more familiar with high Catholicism, all of this looks strange and disturbing.

I can only speculate as to why this shift has occurred. It may be a part of the global membership crisis being faced by many churches worldwide, or possibly an effect of the shifting nature of the Catholic church's core membership. Either way, I think it's an innovation to be greatly deplored. Given that sending a child to a Catholic school is going to result in attempted Catholic indoctrination, there is a core reason for accepting this regardless of one's faith or lack thereof. Simply put, the Catholic church is old and learned, and the kind of engagement my generation was exposed to was largely scholarly in bent. This meant that even though I'd never in a million years decide to believe in God and Jesus and all that jazz, I was exposed, in a valid and constructive way, to something which forms a central pillar of our history and culture. Academic knowledge of the bible is key to understanding all sorts of aspects of western and world culture, and encourages, depending on the individual, either healthy skepticism or sophisticated and moderate faith. Reducing this kind of instruction to the level of Sunday School, fairy tales, and new age 'communing with spirits' garbage breeds ignorance, and destroys what is conceivably the only advantage of Catholic education for the non-Catholic, i.e., high quality education.

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