Paul Kelly named what is the biggest untreated socially communicated disease in the Western world: narcissism (The Australian, 8/07/2017). He’s not alone of course and quotes several other commentators who believe the same thing, among them David Brooks.
And Kelly does well to link the condition to the poor state of public life in general and the mediocrity of our political leadership in Australia. The latter contributes to the mistrust of institutions of all types. He adds, but for my money not so persuasively, that the disease in fact is undermining democracy in Australia.
But to propose that the recovery of the Christian values allegedly underpinning democracy that apparently made us great in the generations that endured the Depression and WW2 is a bridge too far for me.
It is self-deluding to construct Australia as a Christian culture till the 1960s. What on earth is Christian about the racist, exclusivist, sectarian, judgmental place Australia was as many of us remember it to be at least till the 1960s?
Anyway, as historians will attest, the Enlightenment was as influential in the establishment of Australia as any Christian inspired leaders were. Australia was established at white settlement as a fresh start for Europeans. Despite the best efforts of early Anglicans and a grant of one seventh of the land of the colony of NSW to them, there was never an Established Church in Australia.
Moreover, throughout its early decades and at the time of Federation, figures more informed by the beliefs and values of the Enlightenment had a major and significant influence on Australian values and institutions. Henry Parkes is probably the most obvious. But he was in a long line of people to our own times – Gough Whitlam was probably the last and most articulate example – whose starting point is not the New Testament and owes more to British institutions, the rule of law, the separation of powers and hard-won liberties through parliamentary processes than the teachings of Jesus.
As Kelly points out, the churches have been much better than any other institutions in Australia and far more successful than the Enlightenment at creating social capital. But there is no straight line from social capital to politics.
And there is no logical connection between Christianity and democratic values and institutions. For example,the Roman Catholic Church (which remains the largest and most influential slice of Christianity) did everything it could to stem the spread of democracy till the end of the 19th. Century. It then fell silent for decades (as it does when it wants to bury policy mistakes) and only formally endorsed it from the 1960s.
In the 19th. Century, reeling from the French Revolution, it even got a point when the risible list of damnable mistakes condemned by Pope Pius IX in his Syllabus of Errors (1854) declared that anyone suggesting that the Roman Pontiff should accommodate himself to, let alone endorse, “liberalism, democracy and civilization at latterly understood, let him be anathema”. So, take that, you misguided democrats!
Moreover, every time the Church in some form in Australia becomes active in political affairs, it would be well to recall the calamitous consequences (for the Church and Australia) of the intervention in public affairs by BA Santamaria, operating during his early destructive period explicitly from a Catholic base. His legacy was an enfeebled Labor Party and a still divided Australian Church.
But, says Kelly, the deeper issue and where Christianity comes in is with the critique of the narcissistic culture. Here, Kelly is dead right. But he needs to recognize that Christianity can only ever be part of the solution.
I have had quite a deal of experience with narcissism at work in many settings: in myself, my family, the work place and probably most of all in the institution I’ve been part of all my life and in which I’ve served all my adult life: the Roman Catholic Church.
Narcissism is like any addiction: its victims remain unaware of its grip till it’s all but strangled them and then they feel it’s too late to do anything about it. The fatalism of the drunk who explains “I can’t beat it, it’s killing me, I may as well die of it” is the logic of this decline.
But there is another way. The path out of narcissism is not the appeal to a code (Christian values) or to extra effort of the will. It’s to be found in experience. It’s to be found in empathy.
But how do you learn empathy? Simple: we are given it by falling in love, by failing and accepting we’ve failed, by being grateful for completely unexpected blessings and opportunities, by being forgiven, by experiencing reversals that aren’t the end of the story but a prelude to new opportunities and grace. Sheer, unmerited grace.
That’s the saddest thing about the culture Paul Kelly laments and we’re all part of. It’s not the moral vacuity or the absence of principle or the flight to worship idols of money and power that are so obvious.
It’s the empty hearts and souls our culture generates with its celebration of victory and achievement, wealth and trophies.
All the intellectual stuff – more information, codes of conduct and the like – pales into insignificance as ways out of those black holes. It’s experience and finding your heart and soul and living from that every day as you meet stricken humanity in all its need. It’s discovering that you’re loved.
And for Christianity’s future in Australia, a focus on that discovery for everyone that to me suggests the way forward.
Fr. Michael Kelly is an Australian Jesuit living in Bangkok and publisher of La Croix International, the only Catholic daily in English in the world