Catholic writer John Waters believes his country is blighted by mediocrity – but ‘a better day will dawn’
John Waters’s career in Irish journalism lasted for more than 30 highly successful years before he quit what he thinks has become an “ideological cesspit”. Waters is now one of the country’s “last men standing” in defending the Catholic faith, though he is unsparing in his criticism of the Irish Church. His new book Give Us Back the Bad Roads will be published this month.
With the dust settling on the referendums that took a wrecking ball to Catholic Ireland, I wanted to ask Waters to survey the ruins. We had the following exchange over email.
Chesterton once wrote that a religion is dead “when it has ceased to dwell on the positive and happy side of its visions, and thinks only of the stern or punitive side”. Does this description fit the fate of Irish Catholicism, at least in part?
JOHN WATERS In part, yes. In the post-famine period, the Church was forced into the role of moral government and required to restore order in what had become a deeply chaotic situation. One of the legacies of this is that the moralistic note became dominant in Irish Catholicism. In truth, we were told very little about the joyousness of the Christian proposal. We were never taught to connect Christianity with the wonder and mystery and glory of life. We just assumed that reality was some dark and forbidding state that was ameliorated by the prospect of the next life. Nobody told us that eternity had actually begun.
Do you see any figures emerging from the clergy and hierarchy in Ireland who might explain Catholicism better, who might take the fight back to the people in that way?
JW There are a couple of bishops now who offer some hope, but they appear to be oppressed by the collegiality of mediocrity that defines the episcopal whole. They are thoughtful and intelligent and wise, but they need to take their courage in their hands and help us to wrest the Church from the grasp of the mediocrities.
About 10 years ago, you predicted that, as Ireland welcomed more people from other cultures who still held firm to their respective faiths, the now faith-less Irish would become “spectators at the carnival of belief”.
JW The other faiths have not as yet become fully visible in Ireland, other than perhaps Islam, which people tend to walk around without saying much. But at a deeper level, there is evidence of the syndrome I wrote about in the willingness of Irish people to dismantle their own belief system out of a kind of deference to outsiders. In part, this is a post-colonial tendency.
What it leads to is that there is no core culture, merely a space around which other cultures are invited to build themselves as freely and as fully as they wish. There are signs of this even now. That will be a very interesting phase: when we survey the glory of other cultures in full bloom on Irish soil, while we have nothing left of what we once were. It will be a sad, bracing, but ultimately challenging moment. I hope I live to see it.
Returning to Chesterton, he found his way to his adult faith by reconnecting with childhood and the “submerged sunrise of wonder”. You have also written about the feelings of wonder you felt as a child. They gave you “a profound sense of the religious reality”, but nobody ever told you that this is what it was. However, given all of the antagonism that surrounds discussion about religion in Ireland now, are you still able to tap back into wonder as the wellspring of faith?
JW Yes. Pseudo-rationality has become the core form of thinking in our culture now: what Pope Benedict characterised as the thinking of the bunker: the bunker that man has built for himself to live in, excluding Mystery, including the Mystery of himself. But I can exit the bunker at will, simply by going through a series of rational steps.
I imagine that I have just arrived here, having perhaps tumbled through space. I think: what if I had never existed until now, and suddenly had the opportunity to be here, to have this life? This enables me to bypass the logic of the world, the culture, the media, even the everyday sense that we depend upon to engage in our essential transactions.
When I do this, I become astonished, as though for the first time. I cannot believe I am here. I start to wonder where “here” is? What is it? What am I? What or Who makes me? I become conscious of myself as governed from without, because I know I do not make myself and have no memory of coming up with the idea that I should look like this and speak like this and arrive in this place. This is the natural state of man, but the conditioning of the bunker hides this from us. We take everything for granted. We are all-knowing; but all-knowing only about the bunker and its logics. In this state of wonderment, I can look backwards at the bunker, having left it, and see it for what it is: a construction designed to deny man’s true nature.
Have you ever contemplated leaving Ireland?
JW The question is: when I think of “leaving Ireland”, what do I mean? Certainly not the landscape, or the history of courage, or the literature, or the personality that connects the people to the landscape. When I think I might escape from Ireland I mean escaping from particular narrow, limited, unimaginative ways of thinking and seeing. From those who purport to lead us, politically and culturally, and those who follow them blindly, who question nothing, who care about nothing except remaining within the fold of the mediocre. Nothing frightens them more than the idea of being cast out of that number. That is why they become so angry when people like me start to question things. The anger is really fear: fear that you may be able to place the truth before them in such a way that they will have no choice but to leave the bunker, and find themselves. Nothing terrifies them as that does.
So, I want to get away from that, yes. But that is not Ireland, not the continuous Ireland that I know and love. It will pass. I may not live to see the end of it, but I know it is not definitive. I am too attached to the continuous idea of Ireland to be able to leave, or even to see the present usurpers as having anything to do with that Ireland. If I thought for a moment that Ireland was represented by Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris, I would definitively leave. For certain. For good. But I do not feel that. They are interlopers, fools.
And, by the same token, I cannot be happy any place else. I sometimes go away and feel relief that I am in a place I do not have to care about in that way. I go to Andalusia, which reminds me a little of Ireland when I was a child. But I know it is not my country and never will be.
A better day will dawn in Ireland. I may not be here for it, but I know it is coming. If I did not believe that, I would not be entitled to call myself a Christian. That is part of the promise we hold to: that we can leave our loved ones behind in the knowledge that they will be looked after as we were. That’s all I can hope for now, as these terrible days unfold themselves. I know a better day is coming, when every tear will be wiped away.
Michael Duggan is a freelance writer
This article first appeared in the October 12 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here