What we owe Christianity

What we owe Christianity
Many people mistakenly confuse the Catholic Church with its governing structure, writes David Quinn

People are by now well familiar with the case against the Catholic Church. As Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said in a little-noticed address a few days ago, the attacks are relentless. We are much less familiar with the case in favour of the Catholic Church, so let’s make a stab at it here, in the space allowed.

We should begin by asking ourselves what the Catholic Church is. When boiled down to its essence, it is the community of the followers of Jesus Christ through time. The Catholic Church has a hierarchical structure being led by the Bishop of Rome and the other bishops.

Unfortunately, when people think of the Catholic Church, they often think of the hierarchy and little else. That would be like thinking of the FAI when thinking of football. Every organisation needs a governing structure, but to confuse the thing in itself with the governing structure is a big mistake.

Nearly all the scandals involving the Catholic Church involve the governing structure, including what you might call the ‘officers’ of the Church, that is, the priests and religious apart from the bishops.

They ran, and run the parishes. They founded and ran so many institutions from hospitals to schools to industrial schools, mother and baby homes and Magdalene homes. When people think of the actions of the Catholic Church, they think mostly of the actions of those who ran these places, as well as the parishes.

If this sounds a bit like saying we’d have been better off without the priests, the bishops and the religious, it isn’t. Without them, we would have no parishes, no monastic communities, no convents and for a very long time few if any hospitals, far fewer schools (for the poor in particular) and few universities.

Going back centuries, the monasteries were often the only places of learning and civilisation for miles around. They cultivated the land and they looked after the poor. When the Roman Empire collapsed, cultivation of the land often disappeared in large areas as well. The poor would not have been looked after, even in a limited way, without the monasteries.

When Henry VIII suppressed the monasteries, he had to introduce England’s first Poor Law to compensate for the fact.

We Irish should hardly need reminding of our tremendous monastic tradition.

In Ireland and elsewhere for a very long time only the rich could afford to have their children educated and could afford any kind of real medical care. The religious orders saw this gap and so set up and ran schools aimed at the poor. The State only began to step in from more or less the late 19th Century on, when money became more available.


When critics attack the Church over the way it ran its schools and hospitals etc., they ought to remember that for the most part without the Church and without the congregations (or some equivalent, for example Protestant societies), many schools or hospitals wouldn’t have existed at all.

Why did the Church set up such establishments? The answer to this question brings us all the way back to Jesus himself who told us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves, that everyone is our neighbour, and that when we care for the least of our brethren we care for him.

We borrowed a lot of this from Judaism, but Christianity universalised the message. The message wasn’t just for the Jews. It was for everyone. Nothing like this message had ever been properly heard or preached in the West before.

Christianity taught us that we are all created morally equal, that we all have equal moral worth and dignity no matter what our station in life. The king and the peasant are morally equal.

This was an absolutely revolutionary message. We take it for granted now, but as The Guardian newspaper (no friend of the Church) observed in an editorial a few months ago: “The idea that people have some rights just because they are human, and entirely irrespective of merit, certainly isn’t derived from observation of the world. It arose out of Christianity, no matter how much Christians have in practice resisted it.”

In other words, the idea we are all morally equal is a Christian doctrine that is very hard to maintain if you believe we are chance products of evolution rather than the creatures of a loving God who bestows each of us with ultimate value.

The Guardian went on: “Although human rights have become embedded in our institutions at the same time as religious observance has been in decline, they could become vulnerable in an entirely post-Christian environment where the collective memory slips from the old moorings inherited from Christian ethics.” Precisely.

To put it another way, when people attack the Church for not treating people with the dignity they deserve, they are drawing on Christian doctrine in a way they fail to recognise.

They review history and they see the Church standing with oppressive rulers and therefore they condemn the Church in its totality. But they cannot see what The Guardian writer can see, namely that the idea we are of equal moral worth “arose out of Christianity, no matter how much Christians have in practice resisted it”.

This teaching began with Jesus Christ (and Judaism) and was spread to the world of the Gentiles (us) thanks to St Paul who convinced the early followers of Jesus that his message wasn’t only for the Jews.

There is so much more to be said, but suffice it to say that the Church (meaning all the faithful) is at its best when it is most faithful to the teachings of Jesus and at its worst when it is not.

In the final analysis, Christianity is a failure as a religion only if the example and person of Jesus are not worth emulating. But his teachings, and especially his teaching that we must love our neighbour, and that everyone, including the ‘least of us’ is equally my neighbour, is the single greatest teaching that has ever been given to us.

We should not forget the origin of this teaching or take it for granted. It is one of the inestimable things we owe Christianity.