Background: In this exchange on July 30, 2012 in Galway, Ireland, Charlie Davy, S.J., and Colin Steele discussed the state of the Catholic Church in Ireland, specifically its role in the educational system. They also considered how values-based education might help the nation cope with the reality of rapid economic success followed by a painful economic recession.
Describe your vocation as a Jesuit.
I joined the Order in 1967 after finishing Jesuit secondary school in Dublin. Most of my training was done in Ireland—Dublin and Limerick in particular—but I did have the chance to go to the Continent for philosophy studies in Paris. I’ve spent most of my time working as a school teacher and retreat leader or spiritual director, and at present I’m working with a small spirituality center here that comprises three Jesuits (including myself) and three lay women.
As a priest who’s been working in Ireland from the height of the Church’s power to its current ebb, what is your perspective on the Church and culture in this country?
The Church is definitely experiencing a crisis in Ireland right now, you might say a crisis of credibility. It’s not just to do with the pedophilia scandal, either—probably the biggest root issue is the long and complicated process of the entire cultural transition out of the insular, Church-dominated 1950s. There’s been a very painful history of Church control and meddling in affairs of state and private life here, and the social revolution that’s taken place in the last few generations is proving hard for everyone to manage gracefully. The Church, like other institutions accustomed to having a certain degree of power, is finding it hard to accept being relegated to the sidelines of Irish life. The government is still struggling to make sense of the whiplash of the Celtic Tiger years, when we suddenly attained wealth that we were unaccustomed to having and unprepared to manage wisely. Expectations, of course, adjust quickly upwards but slowly downwards, and we’re now stuck with assumptions (including mortgages) based on a level of prosperity that is no longer ours and is not likely to be again any time soon.
The people themselves are of mixed minds watching this once-central cultural and, yes, political institution withering before their eyes. I suppose the bright side of all this is that the people who come to church on Sundays now are there of their own free will and for the right reasons, rather than out of parental, educational or social pressure. That said, the social pressure pendulum has swung the other way: it’s hard for young people to be counter-cultural vis-à-vis their peer group, and the culture of their peer group is now very much weighted towards little or no interaction with the Church. Even if a young person in Ireland today wants to go to church, he or she may be put off by the questioning of his or her peers. Now, there is a sort of residual spirituality left in the population, which is expressed in people’s continued desire to use the Church for baptisms, sometimes confirmations, weddings, and funerals. It seems there is a sort of logical appeal to these traditional rites of passage that secular society has not found ways to mark satisfyingly. People have a baby, someone gets married, someone dies—people want to mark these occasions with some kind of ceremony or formality or ritual, and the Church provides that. But religion on a daily or even a weekly basis is totally passé, so I think it’s time we start thinking about new forms of spirituality for daily life. Prayer groups—small, community-based, probably lay-led—seem the most obvious way forward. People want to develop their spirituality independently of traditional religion and to cultivate personal relationships with God and with each other. This tradition is weak at the moment, but so is the one that centers on encountering God in the pew on Sunday morning, so maybe it’s time to try something new.
I know the Catholic Church’s role in education in Ireland—like its sanctioned role in politics—is being greatly reduced right now. How is that going and what do you feel are the cultural pros and cons of this phenomenon?
The Church is still present in the educational system, though you’re right that it’s playing less and less of a role. Legal regulation, societal norms and sheer lack of educators are all contributing to the decline of Catholic (and Jesuit) education here, but the decline is going on around us. As much as society is reacting against the authoritarian legacy of the Church and making its feelings known by wanting the Church out of education, there are still groups of parents who have received Jesuit educations who are pushing for the maintenance of the Jesuit educational ethos in the instruction of their children. There is a general sense at Chroí Íosa, the school I teach at, that it’s decision time as to whether we’re properly a “Jesuit” educational institution any more, but there are several of these parent groups advocating for continued discernably Jesuit education. Even if they are not religious themselves or do not particularly want their children to be, these parents are invested in the values that they feel a Jesuit education provides.
And what do you think those values are?
Well, Jesuit spirituality and education are different things to different people. As with religion writ large, many parents today focus on the spiritual dimension more than the faith dimension. They want their children to be exposed to the critical, spiritual, discerning tradition of Jesuit education. Whether implicit or explicit, there appears to be a sentiment that “Jesuit” spirituality should be spun off and provided separately from “Catholic” faith. Jesuits can’t take that distinction—being Catholic and tied to the Church is central to who we are. Ignatius put this Society at the service of the Church, even if and when that Church is broken or sinful. The current superior general, Fr. Nicolas, expressed it well after he was appointed: asked whether there were tensions between the Society and the Church, he replied that of course there were—any time there are close, strong relationships, there are tensions and sometimes conflict, but that shouldn’t prevent us working and serving faithfully and effectively. Some of the onus has to be on parents, as well: they’re not wrong to be suspicious of the Church in education based on its history, but raising children in a cultural vacuum or without a values-informed education doesn’t seem a brilliant idea. We—Jesuits, parents, and educators—have got to find a way forward that’s acceptable to everyone and nurturing to children. The challenge to Jesuits in education, then, is to figure out how to attract or draw or challenge other people to follow us now that the Church can’t impose its will on society. If we do have something of value to contribute to the education of Ireland’s children, we’ve got to convince people of that. We don’t even need to be a majority of educators to make a difference—the important thing is that we get as many people working with us in teaching our model of education as possible.
As a Jesuit and an educator, what’s your perspective on the potential “lost generation” of Irish youth that are either in school or (maybe worse) graduating right now?
A friend of mine owns a fruit shop down the road and tells me that children used to come in with notes and are now bringing coin. Frankly, that may not be a bad thing; perhaps having such wealth as we had a few years ago was not proper (at least without figuring out how to survive our own success). But students today are graduating into the teeth of a fierce recession and bleak job prospects. We’re seeing more of them interning in professional capacities or, if they can’t find work here, taking off for London, Europe, or the States, a trend that may make the recession self-reinforcing, if it’s not there already. After tasting the fruits of the Celtic Tiger—huge increases in personal wealth, national investment, and expansion of credit—it’s sobering for this generation [i.e. Millennials] and the one ahead of them to face the drastically reduced possibilities now facing them. The current graduates can’t find jobs; the graduates of ten years ago can’t figure out how to make their jobs pay for their mortgages. The most common sentence I’ve heard regarding the Celtic Tiger is that it brought us great—even unprecedented—material wealth, but we lost the run of ourselves. We’re just waking up to the latter now, and it hurts.
Meanwhile, one of the consequences of having lost the run of ourselves, namely austerity economics, continues to be imposed on us to our detriment. It’s pretty clearly depressing the economy still further, and it’s looking daily more dubious as a valuable or realistic way forward. Popularly, there’s a lot of anger and scapegoating directed at favorite targets (politicians, bankers, sometimes the Church), but we’ve got to keep some perspective and move on. The first half of the twentieth century in this country was far worse than today (and they hadn’t yet had the benefit of EU-funded infrastructure improvements). What I’m convinced we really need at this stage is creativity, leadership, and gratuity. We’ve got to convince ourselves that we can make things better, come up with a credible plan for doing so, and then cut each other a little slack as we try to implement it. Prominent private- and public-sector employees on top salaries should show some leadership by taking voluntary cuts to their own pay; politicians need to come up with and execute plans to actually steer us into the future, not put out the small fires of today.
Most of all, we need some real cultural change. We’re crying out for a new sense of solidarity: an ethic of identifying and protecting the common good, of teamwork, and of recognizing and valuing everyone’s input in our economy. It’s not just the executives inventing and making the things we consume, after all, but all the people in their firms and a host of public-sector workers providing them the structures and institutions the firms operate in. We’ve got to reduce the inequality in pay—if everyone’s contributing, we can’t pay most of them as if they’re not. We also need more merit-based rather than patronal hiring in the public sector. Finally, we need to develop a national spirit of gratuity, a willingness to do what’s needed and not seek the most possible reimbursement for it, or sometimes any reimbursement at all. That’s beginning in fits and starts; there’s a community in Cork, for example, that has set up some kind of service-bartering system in which neighbors pool their skills and exchange with their neighbors for other services.
I’ll leave you with a story, though, which I think demonstrates exactly the spirit we need to (re-)discover in this country. One of my friends used to tell about his grandfather, who was a country doctor in Cork during the Depression. He’d answer every house call he got and take whatever payment his patients could make, which often enough was none at all. Several times, his wife told him he’d have to charge for his services—she hadn’t enough money to run their own house as it was. But the doctor refused, reasoning that he could not withhold care from people even more needy than he and his wife. Even when he possessed little more that his neighbors lacked than a specialized professional skill, the doctor felt the only human thing to do was to care for people. We’ve got to trade the individualistic, money-driven mindset of the Celtic Tiger years for the humility, generosity and humanity of the doctor in Cork.