My iPod seemed to be making a point of shuffling songs by Sinéad O’Connor into my ears the other day as I took my hour-long walk around the high school track. Earlier, a friend on Facebook had mentioned O’Connor in a status update. So I got to thinking about Sinéad and her hardly typical career as a singer and songwriter.
I think there’s no arguing with the quality of O’Connor’s music or its ability to challenge listeners on many levels, whether musical, historical, political, or theological. She is perhaps most known for her notorious practice of free speech during a performance on Saturday Night Live in 1992, in which she tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II while saying, “Fight the real enemy.” I’m sorry to say I missed SNL that night, but it’s one of those pop-cultural moments, like Woodstock or the death of Elvis, that seem to become part of the social fabric and memory.
I was Catholic back then, and I took note of O’Connor’s action. I was not, like many others, offended by her action and statement. In fact I never had much affection for the Catholic hierarchy and was more interested in participating in a sort of Catholicism “from below,” focused on the justice Jesus espoused in the Gospels when he wasn’t caught up in handing out “difficult sayings.” The radical nature of that justice becomes more visible once you strip away all the centuries of pageantry, vestments, and abuse of power mucked onto it by the official church. Sinéad’s action fit right in with my Catholic sensibilities. I’m also an American and I think that the only cure for free speech is more free speech. Anyone who disagreed with Sinéad had plenty of opportunity to respond, whether on editorial pages or by booing at her concerts.
There’s another moment that comes to mind when I think about O’Connor. Later in the 1990s she announced that she had been ordained a priest in the Irish Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church, which is an independent church that is not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and that she would be known from that point on as Mother Bernadette Mary.
It wasn’t a front-page story (this was before the internet became saturated with every imaginable kind of news), but one of those you might see on page 2, not longer than a few paragraphs, with a small picture of the shaved-headed O’Connor in a Roman collar to bring the point home that this woman was one odd duck. I was working at the time for a Roman Catholic publishing company, and it was the reaction there to this little story about a gifted musician that came to the front of my memory as I circled the high school track with ear buds delivering Sinéad’s music to me.
I was not the only “progressive” Catholic (oxymoron be damned) on the staff of this company. Most of us were well aware of the Church’s misogyny, abuse scandals, and condescension toward the faithful, but we hoped we were part of a wave of Catholics who would overcome the conservative and paternalistic Church of Rome. The Vatican, though, was digging in its heels. It had issued a new catechism in the early 90s—a poorly written, badly structured tome of male-centered conservative ideology that did little to promote love of God or neighbor—which was to become the bellwether of all Catholic curriculum that publishers such as us were producing. If we didn’t play the game of making our product “consistent with the catechism” we would find ourselves on the short end of the market share when we could not put the official stamp of approval on the covers of our books.
In the Church, as everywhere, money talks, even if it means conscience walks.
There was an editor and curriculum writer, I’ll call him Rob, more senior than I, whom I admired for his commitment to trying to bring the Church down to earth. Conservatives didn’t like Rob because of his “low Christology,” which emphasized the humanity of Jesus over the divinity of Christ. A low Christology has greater and more creative pedagogical possibilities and is arguably a better direction from which to build a faith that is oriented toward everyday people than toward the hierarchy and an overly abstract idea of divinity. If the Church is ever to be reformed in any meaningful fashion, the theory goes, it will have to happen from below.
Rob read the news story about O’Connor with a bemused look on his face. He rolled his eyes. I don’t remember our exact conversation, but I’m sure Rob used terms like “flake” and “crazy” and asked “What does she think this accomplishes?” His point was that this sort of action was ineffective—O’Connor was in no way a real Catholic priest (and had not claimed to be one) because her ordination was not valid in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church. She was merely thumbing her nose at the Vatican, stirring up a hornets’ nest, which was not, in Rob’s view, an appropriate way of responding to the oppressive and repressive past and present of the Roman Catholic Church.
I didn’t say much. Live and let live would have been my attitude. If that’s how Sinéad, Mother Bernadette Mary, wanted to live out her Christian commitment, then she had every right to do so. What I would have liked to say, but did not given the office politics of the situation, was that Rob’s approach to reform—tweaking traditional catechetics into a more progressive and humanistic enterprise—was no more effective than what O’Connor had done. It was a meek and mild whisper of a protest that reached few ears and would be drowned out by the conservative voices that dominate the Church. I did point out that Sinéad O’Connor made the news, and that when she did, it was impossible to ignore the implications of her actions in terms of justice in the Church and the need for it to become a more inclusive and contemporary institution. I chose not to point out that Rob’s work reached only a few parishes around the country. Okay, maybe a few hundred parishes, but there is little evidence that work such as his has the potential to be a significant agent of change in the Church at large.
These days my views are radically different from back then, when I thought reform might actually be possible. Today I think that the Church is more likely to implode than be reformed, and implosion would be a desirable outcome. Progressive or traditional, liberal or conservative, the bottom line remains that the Church stands on an edifice of antiquated, outdated “wisdom,” human-made myths, and magic rites. It is rife with corruption, including that of protecting generations of child abusers, which is simply unforgiveable. I can imagine no reform that goes far enough to make the Church the least bit palatable to me, and I can no longer conceive of a “god,” big-or-little g, that is worthy of belief.
Sinéad and Rob are intelligent, talented, and interesting people. I respect their intentions regarding their faith, but at the end of the day cannot take seriously a worldview that remains enmeshed with the myth and magic required of even the most progressive Christian belief system. They would both be great humanists, even atheists, if they could just buy into the idea that what is good and necessary, that what we strive for when we are at our best—fairness, justice, community, taking care of one another—are human characteristics, not some sort of divinely given invention that is ultimately achievable only if we play by an arbitrary set of god-spawned rules.
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As long as we’re on the topic, enjoy a classic Sinéad performance of “Thank You for Hearing Me”:
With thanks to Brian at Atheist Nexus, here’s the Saturday Night Live performance: