Bishop John Keenan has led the Diocese of Paisley since 2014. Prior to this he served as Catholic chaplain to the University of Glasgow for 14 years, and as vocations director for the Archdiocese of Glasgow. He has emerged as a strong proponent of the New Evangelisation, and of a renewal of faith in Britain. I spoke to him in St Mirin’s Cathedral, Paisley.
Bishop Keenan, what are the main challenges facing the faith across Britain today? Could you offer a diagnosis?
Bishop John Keenan Britain is one of the most secularised countries in the Western world. It has bought into the idea that it became a modern state by winning out against religion and the Church. People see their dignity as being that which enables them to determine their own identity and morals, particularly in the realm of sexuality. This has become such a widely held view that anyone who holds an opinion to the contrary – namely, that there is an objective truth about ourselves and our lives given to us by God – is considered to be an enemy of the modern state. The Catholic Church is now the one institution in Britain which still believes that there is a God who gives us our human nature and identity, and who has made known to our reason what sort of lives we should be living in order to truly be free and fulfilled.
I am reminded of the comments which the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, made in 2018 in which he suggested that certain rights – mandated by the state – “trumped” other rights.
JK It is a new manifestation of what Orwell said: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” This is where we are now. All rights are “equal”, be they religious rights or LGBT rights … but some are more equal. Orwell used that as a parody of communism, and eventually he identified this as the fatal flaw which would bring about its downfall. It was predicated on a contradiction, as is postmodern society. He said that of the Eastern Bloc, but it now equally applies to the politics of the West. You cannot have equality for all and say that some are more equal. Ultimately it ceases to be about truth, but about power. It is built on sand, not nature, or reason. It is built on the will to power.
This sounds like a fiercely difficult environment in which to preach the Gospel. Are there signs of hope?
JK There are. Initially, the Enlightenment began in affirming the freedoms of the individual, but the project has now got itself into such a tangle that in order to assert the freedoms of certain individuals it has become censorious of others. There is now a social kickback against postmodernism and what Pope Benedict XVI termed “the dictatorship of relativism”. It is under the surface, but it is there and widespread, and looking for a focal point. The Jordan Peterson phenomenon, for example, began because he was seen as the undeserving victim of the dictatorship of relativism. Peterson’s position, which is close to the Thomistic-Aristotelian ethic which the Church proposes, is so obviously reasonable to most people, which should encourage us. He exposed the emperor with no clothes. The Church can act as that focal point which people are searching for.
What then can the Church do to attract people to the faith?
JK The question is never one of what, but who. That is probably one of the biggest insights I have had as a priest. In one sense, we know that we must propose the truth of the human person, including sexuality, as being revealed by God, and which is consistent with what we discover by reason. The problem is that there are fewer Catholics who believe that themselves, or are clear enough about it, or who understand with enough depth or comprehension the teaching of the Church about the dignity of the human person, and so to propose it to the world. If there is going to be a new evangelisation then there has to be a new catechesis. Any renewal must be grounded on these two.
It strikes me that few leave because of scandal, but rather because of a lack of belief or knowledge of what the Church proposes in the first place.
JK Chesterton said that Christianity had not been tried and found wanting, but that it had never been tried. Most Catholics drift away from the faith, but what they drift from is a vague sense and feeling of the faith, which is too vague to resist the secular world. The outside world is very insistent in its demands on people, whereas we are very light in our demands on people. I think that the modern world gives a false vision, but an insistent one, whereas we have a true vision, but present it so vaguely and limply. Little wonder that our people might not be clear on the basics of the faith. This is not their fault. Nor is it the fault of our Catholic schools. It is a deficiency of the Catholic Church in the Western world.
As the Western world has rightly understood the value of experience as well as reason, it has recognised the value in discussion and argument. But it now sees these things as antithetical; it is no longer about truth, but about experience. It is no longer about teaching, but about opinion. It is no longer about God’s truth, but about my truth. It is no longer about the Catechism, but about my story. Because we have made them antithetical, and because we have dismissed the old to bring in the new, we have left our people very unsure of what it is to be a Catholic.
This resembles what Pope Benedict XVI labelled the “crisis of faith” in the Church.
JK Yes. A lot of the “isms” which are found outside the Church, and which she supposedly opposes, are found inside the Church; secularism, relativism, materialism, consumerism. It is naïve to think that the Church is a fortress against the world. There are no real walls between the Church and society. Priests and other people live in among these “isms”. Secularism in particular is about finding solely human solutions to problems. We see this in the tendency to focus on plans and strategies, whereas the Gospel would insist on prayer and penance.
A return to the spiritual life and the courage which it brings would seem urgent.
JK Yes. St Augustine said that there are some reasons why the preacher must remain silent. It can be because the people will not hear, or because of a lack of courage. Either does damage to the Church. But there is, for example, a reticence to speak of life issues or sexuality from the pulpit. We think that we can carry on without ever addressing these issues, but the net effect of this is in the world which so desperately needs a clear, consistent voice is there for all to see. Jesus was the Word, but he needed the voice of John. Our Catechism is our word, but it needs the voices of each one of us. It is not enough to say, “Refer to the Catechism.” It must be on my lips. I myself must suffer before that voice, that word, becomes effective.
Furthermore, we must resist notions of consumerism: the idea that we have to have the best and to have it now. This impinges on notions of sacrifice, of giving up, of living simply and austerely, the life of discipleship which Christ commends. When we are too attached to things, the freedom of the Gospel becomes difficult to attain. These things are all in the Church. With respect to renewal, it has to start with ourselves. Vatican II spoke of an Ecclesia semper reformanda. We are always in a process of conversion, particularly with reference to the hard things we do not want to admit to ourselves. We have to recover this idea of conversion if we are to renew the faith.
I am interested in this oft-forgotten notion of sacrifice. It seems as if sacrifice has been replaced by false notions of happiness in the Church. We have forgotten that we must sacrifice in order to arrive at true happiness. That understanding has to be recovered, surely.
JK Absolutely. The Church sees happiness as a fruit, not a goal. This comes from following Christ. If I follow Christ, the fruit of this is happiness. I do not set out to be happy. I set out to follow Christ, who then promises me blessedness. Someone wishes to follow Christ and he immediately points out all the hardships of this. This is the mystery of following him. We realise at the end: who else can we go to?
That happiness, or true joy, is something which is absolutely contingent on prayer and a relationship with our Lord, isn’t it?
JK People are very angry today, but no one is saying why. The reason is that they have no meaning. No hope. The world says that all there is to eat, drink and merry, for tomorrow you will die. People are hungry for more, and something more noble, but are fed this very unsatisfying diet. There is a terrible anxiety in the world, and among the young in particular. The world is a very angry, and anxious place. But what Jesus promises us is peace. For me, being close to Christ and unloading my burdens on him in prayer leaves me with a sense of peace in knowing that he is with me and the Church. This gives me a sense of tranquility and assurance. Knowing that Christ is there through thick and thin: this leads to contentment, which leads to authentic spiritual renewal.
Touching on some of those signs of renewal, then: where do you see them?
JK I would always refer to the newer movements and our university chaplaincies in particular: Faith, Evangelium, the pro-life movement, the Neocatechumenal Way and Communion and Liberation, to name but a few. I would also add, however, that this is also true of older movements like the Legion of Mary and the SVP, particularly when they are active with enthusiastic younger members. What they do is offer a serious way of living your faith. If you want to live your faith more intensely, with more commitment then this is a good way to go.
The context and the conversation around them are things one which affirm, rather than dilute, the faith. The key to many of these movements is the proposal of a serious prayer life, and seriously teaching the Catholic faith and why we believe it. Those who come then conclude: now I see how it all fits together. Now I see the faith as a unity, and I see the extent of the faith. A test of renewal and strength then is to be asked by the world what it is to be a Catholic and to be able to confidently answer. This confident faith, supported by authentic Catholic friendships, is what these movements can offer.
That strikes a chord. There seems to be qualitative difference between Catholic friendships and secular friendships. Now, speaking of differences; would it be right to say that the Church stands to benefit by teaching how she differs from the world, rather than what she has in common with the world?
JK Yes. Ultimately, what we have to offer is our Lord Jesus Christ. We have to offer the world a person: Jesus of Nazareth. We can discover him in the Gospel, but meet him and know about him in the Holy Eucharist, the sacraments and in the liturgy. He gives us grace – divine, supernatural help to live our lives in truth and charity. We can personally encounter him in prayer. Who is this person? He is a human being, but who also is the fulness of truth. Everything that God is is given to us in the person of Jesus Christ, the fount of all renewal in the Church. He is, as he says, the only way for each person and for the world. Against this, the world has nothing to offer. Nothing. Ultimately everything is dust. It came from nothing more than stardust, and ends in the dust in the street. In Christ, we have everything. Without him, we have nothing.
The Church has always sought to find people in their own cultures, context and spaces in order to bring Christ to them. Is part of the Church’s mission and renewal also to be found in the online space, where so many spend so much time?
JK The best way to see the internet is to see it as a new continent, and the Church must be there to evangelise it. The internet is good as it is a gift of providence. What can it be used for? For truth and communion. To herald the truth and to bring communion. I personally use Facebook a lot, and those who follow are very appreciative. Those who follow the page feel a closeness to their bishop on a day-to-day basis. Secondly, they appreciate when we use it to speak to hard truths in particular. If the bishop is speaking on some of the teachings of the Church, then they remain true. The Church still believes them. Therefore, if I express these beliefs, I sense that the Church is standing with me. People want to know that the Church is with them and social media is good way of demonstrating that. Any renewal of faith must consist of a Church that is steadfast in its faith and in its teaching to its flock. The internet can provide such a voice.
What, then, is your own greatest source of hope for a renewal of the faith in Britain?
JK A strong sign of hope is the sheer faithfulness of ordinary Catholics who continue to practise their faith and support their priests and parishes, even amid all that has happened in the last years. I am often drawn up in my tracks or taken by surprise at the strength of faith and depth of love many Catholic still have for Jesus and the Church. It is much more than we would believe or be led to believe.
I think this resilient faith is going to be strong enough to keep the flame of faith alive in Britain until it is rekindled again at a later date. The sufferings these good Catholics are bearing today are likely to make their faith and our Church as well founded as it was in the times of the faith of our fathers.