Muted challenges to our modern corrosive world

Muted challenges to our modern corrosive world The late Cardinal Godfried Danneels
Archbishop Martin would have nothing to lose by speaking up, writes David Quinn


In an address last week, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin criticised the “euphoria” that greeted the fall of communism in Europe some 30 years ago. He was quoting the recently deceased Belgian cardinal, Godfried Danneels.

Archbishop Martin said Cardinal Danneels had been troubled “by the superficial euphoria that spread within Europe after the fall of communism and the attempts to view it as simply a victory of belief over materialist communism and the emergence of a mono-polar ‘end of history’”.

The fall of European communism was actually one of the greatest moments in recent world history. Hundreds of millions of people in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were liberated from a totalitarian nightmare that had claimed countless lives, imprisoned many more and crushed the freedom of everyone else.


St John Paul II played a not inconsiderable role in the fall of communism in Europe. It was most certainly a moment worth greeting with euphoria, unlike say, the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, which was greeted by scenes of total ecstasy in Dublin Castle last May.

But Archbishop Martin has been mostly silent about both the referendum and its aftermath, even though it is a topic worthy of extensive public analysis by the leader of the biggest Catholic diocese in the country.

The address by Archbishop Martin was called ‘The Church of the Future’ and it was delivered at St Michael’s Church in Limerick on the occasion of its 175th anniversary.

Archbishop Martin, as is his wont, spent some of this time criticising those in the Church who have a “fear of change” and “seek to find comfort zones where they can feel the support of the likeminded and not open themselves to the challenge of change”.

They try to “build firewalls between their belief and the world in which they live”, he said.

Maybe he has in mind people who want to find some kind of ‘Benedict Option’, to borrow the words of American author and journalist Rod Dreher. That is, those who are seeking ways of preserving and handing on the faith in a culture that is often very hostile to it.

When using that term, Dreher is referring to St Benedict, not Pope Benedict XVI. But he might as well be referring to the Pope of that name because Benedict XVI often called upon Christians to form ‘creative minorities’ which would preserve the Faith and also act as a leaven to the wider society.

It would be good if Archbishop Martin would expand on what he sees as the differences between seeking out ‘comfort zones’ and building up creative minorities of the sort Pope Benedict discussed. This would be of genuine pastoral assistance to the Catholics of Dublin, who he has led for the past 15 years.

In any case, having dealt with the ‘fearful’ in the Church, he then turned his critical attention to modernity. As we have seen, one of the sharpest criticisms he made was of the ‘euphoria’ which greeted the fall of communism in Europe.

Cardinal Danneels was a strange person for Archbishop Martin to be quoting. Unlike the Archbishop of Dublin, Danneels’s record on the child protection issue was highly tainted. As the New York Times described it last week, “Cardinal Danneels’s reputation was badly hurt shortly after he retired in 2010, when Belgian newspapers released recordings of a secretly taped conversation in which he was heard urging a victim of serial sexual abuse by a bishop to say nothing about it for a year, until the bishop – the victim’s own uncle – could retire.”

On another level, however, Cardinal Danneels was the right person to be quoting because he and Archbishop Martin would have similar views of Church and society. Cardinal Danneels was archbishop of Brussels-Mechelen for three decades during which time the radical secularisation of Belgium continued, much as is happening in Ireland now.

Critics felt the cardinal offered only muted opposition at best to what was unfolding in his country. He could not have stopped it, of course, but sometimes there is a time to give witness, and Cardinal Danneels was only rarely willing to criticise what was happening in Belgium, which now permits same-sex marriage, abortion and assisted suicide. Ireland has ticked two out of three of those boxes. Can the third be far ahead?

But what the Belgian cardinal’s example also tells us is that the softly-softly approach to liberal, secular individualistic cultures does not win them over. On the contrary, it confirms to them that they are on the right course, while discouraging those who are trying to offer some opposition to it, and paying severe reputational damage for doing so.

Archbishop Martin would agree that communism was on the negative side of modernity’s ledger, as is a sort of untamed, ruthless, materialistic capitalism plus environmental degradation.

But modernity’s hyper-individualism is also enormously damaging. On the plus side of the ledger it promotes personal freedom, but it also tells us that in the name of choice we have a right to dispose of all unwanted burdens in our lives, whether that be a crisis pregnancy, our marriage, or the old and infirm.

Archbishop Martin would agree that all of this is bad, but he says so only rarely and quietly.  He is now barely a year away from his official retirement age. At this stage he has nothing to lose by using his platform as the Archbishop of Dublin to hold a mirror up to society and to try and jolt people into examining some of the corrosive effects of making personal choice into a version of God.