So what exactly is religious indoctrination? Well first of all it’s important to note that such a thing wouldn’t have been possible prior to the rise of modern science that properly began in the seventeenth century with Galileo’s championing of heliocentrism. Most notably, the rise of science precipitated the development of secularism in the Western world. In particular, the new power over nature effected by machine production had a profound impact on religious and theological thought. Natural phenomena that had previously been attributed to the inexplicable workings of a divine mind were now known to be governed by laws that could be harnessed and used for the benefit of humanity. Philosophers were enabled to imagine humanity as self-sufficient, no longer dependent upon an all-powerful deity. Their opinions soon spread to the general public and were quickly assimilated. Belief in a God or gods became optional in the West and with it the possibility of atheism. Prior to this great leap in understanding of material reality brought about by science, religion was as much about superstition and magic as it was about genuine spirituality. Indoctrination into belief in a transcendent dimension of existence was unnecessary, since nature itself was thought to be permeated with its own magic and mystery.
In the modern era therefore religious indoctrination is associated with the presupposition that there is a supernatural dimension to existence, and that a God or gods exist. Denominational religious education that focuses on faith formation is often criticised for being a form of religious indoctrination. In Ireland most schools are denominational, with Catholicism being the biggest denomination due to our history as a nation. To understand what the specifically Irish form of religious indoctrination is, a quick look at the historic rebellion of Martin Luther will put us on the right path.
As is well known, it was Luther’s criticism of Church corruption that sparked the Wars of Religion and the Reformation, although the appetite for reform had been growing in Europe during the previous centuries. He was brought up during the outrageously corrupt papacy of the Borgias at a time when Christianity was characterised by a strong emphasis on hell, damnation and how to avoid it. During the medieval era in Europe Christianity was rather like what Islam is now, a political and powerfully cultural force as well as a religious one. The safest route to salvation was held to be the religious life, at that time considered vastly superior to all forms of lay existence. Luther, a sensitive child, suffered from religious terrors. As a young man he showed no desire to enter the religious life; he was exceptionally clever and enrolled to study law at the university of Erfurt. His father, a miner, expected that the young Martin would do well and support him in old age. Fate, however, intervened and Luther’s life took a dramatically different course. Returning to university after a weekend visiting his family, Luther was struck by a bolt of lightning. Terrified that he would die, he prayed to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, to save him, and promised to enter the religious life if she did. Having survived the lightning bolt, Luther swiftly entered a strict Augustinian order and began to study for the priesthood. His religious terrors did not leave him however, and he was dogged by a constant sense of unworthiness before God. Years of spiritual struggle followed, which even included a trip to Rome to gain an indulgence.
Luther was eventually saved from his torment when his confessor and the vicar of his Augustinian order encouraged him to study theology and take the chair of Scripture at the university of Wittenberg At that time Bible study was not an important part of theological formation and it was inaccessible to the vast majority of Christians due to the fact that it was written in Latin. His studying of the Bible would change Luther’s life for ever, and was the catalyst for his posting of his 95 theses on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg. But it was his encounter with the humble, compassionate and socially radical Jesus that reassured Luther and healed him of his spiritual travails. It also caused him to cast a critical eye on his Church, which now struck him as falling very far short of the Christian ideal epitomised by Jesus, since it instilled fear rather than love. Perhaps most of all, Luther developed a heightened awareness of the hierarchical nature of the Church especially in relation to the clerical-lay divide. At that time the monastic/clerical state – largely due to the requirement for celibacy – was considered to be both spiritually and morally superior to the lay one, which gave rise to an elitist clerical caste and a passive, religiously inferior laity. Luther’s encounter with the Bible also convinced him that every individual Christian should have access to it and via the text to God, without the need for a priestly intermediary. This powerful conviction led him to translate the Bible into German (creating modern vernacular German as he did so) and to abolish, in his reformed version of Christianity, celibacy and along with it religious orders both male and female. Liturgical celebration became a Service rather than a Mass, the priestly celebrant a minister or pastor, and there was a greater emphasis on the word of God and the preaching of it than on the Eucharist. Luther still held to the real presence of Christ, but his theological approach was that this occurred due to the action of the entire congregation rather than the celebrant alone. Drawing on scriptural texts such as 1 Peter 2:5 (“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…”) Luther in fact declared the priesthood of all believers. The idea that every Christian believer is a priest means that there is no hierarchy with regard to a person’s role in life; laypersons and clergy have equal rights and responsibilities to proclaim the good news of the Gospels. God calls us all according to our gifts so it is not necessary to work in ordained ministry to bear witness to Christ.
Long before he initiated all of these changes, however, Luther’s calling out of the Church hierarchy on the corrupt practice of selling indulgences along with his new theologies brought him to the attention of Pope Leo X and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. When he refused to recant his writings, he was excommunicated by the Pope and declared an outlaw of the Empire by Charles. This meant in effect that anyone who wanted to could kill him without threat of punishment. Fortunately for Luther he had a powerful ally in his sovereign Elector Friedrich the Wise of Saxony; the latter staged a false kidnapping of Luther and the beleaguered monk was enabled to recover from his trauma in Wartburg Castle where he remained for about a year. In standing up to the two most powerful men of the era at the risk of his life and reputation, Luther had certainly embraced the risks that authentic Christian faith can entail.
Vatican 2 was, in many ways, a belated recognition of Luther’s reforms. This can be seen above all in its new emphasis on Christology, on the importance of the Bible in religious education, its abandoning of the Latin Mass in favour of Masses said in the language of the people, and in its permitting the laity to be ministers of the eucharist and to hold the host. Prior to Vatican 2, only the priest was allowed to touch the host, which meant placing it on the tongue of the recipient. Lumen Gentium, a document of Vatican 2, highlights the importance of the role of the laity in the Church and emphasises the priesthood of all believers. The main difference between the Catholic Church and Protestant Churches on the matter is that the many of the latter reject the ordained priesthood. Overall, the trend initiated by Luther in the medieval period harks back to the early Church, when there was no clear demarcation between priests and bishops on the one hand, and laypeople on the other. The former tended to live in the same way as everyone else, tending to their livelihoods, marrying and rearing families. It was only when the Church became the state religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine that strict demarcation between both classes emerged along with elaborate ecclesial structures.
Due to its mix of Christian denominations, the U.S. is perhaps the best present day example of what Luther had in mind. My first trip there was an eye-opener for me as well as something of a culture shock. The sight of lay preachers on tv – even female ones – almost made me feel that I had arrived on another planet. Protestant denominations like Methodism, for example, have male and female lay preachers, a revolutionary development that goes back to its founder, Wesley; In the States evangelical Christianity also fields lay preachers and then, of course there are the televangelists. These ministers can be attached to a Church or self-proclaimed, and many of them – like Billy Graham, Gerry Bakker and Jerry Falwell – become very famous, even if not always for the most wholesome of reasons. There are also famous female televangelists, such as Joyce Meyer, Marilyn Hickey and Aimee Semple McPherson. The latter, who became famous in the early 20th century, was a pioneer, especially in the use of modern media, and even founded her own Church. Founding one’s own Church in America is not unusual; indeed most of the first black churches founded before the 19th century were begun by free blacks.
My visits to the US, which included two summers spent at Fordham, a Jesuit University in the Bronx, introduced me to a kind of dynamic Christianity that I had never before encountered. This includes the Catholic denomination also; as one of my lecturers, the leading religious education theorist Gabriel Moran explained to us, in the US Catholicism has been so influenced by the denominational mix in the country that it is something of a hybrid in practice. No doubt the strict separation of Church and State where religion is concerned has also contributed to the unselfconscious, non-pious enthusiasm regarding Christianity that I found so refreshing and so different to what I was used to here in Ireland where proclaiming and/or preaching about one’s religious beliefs is considered to be the exclusive province of professional religious and is generally restricted to liturgical settings. To understand the difference between here and somewhere like the US, you only have to think of the sensation caused when Marty Morrissey recently gave an inspirational talk at a Knock novena, an event that became a national talking point and sparked a great deal of outrage. In the US, no one would have batted an eyelid at such an occurrence.
As should by now be clear, religious indoctrination where Christianity is concerned relates, not to the religion itself, but to Christian ecclesial institutions when they become ends in themselves. As Christians, our faith should be in Jesus of Nazareth and not in an institution. Jesus himself lived simply and dressed as others did. Is there really a need for the elaborate costumery that characterises some Christian denominations, most notably perhaps Catholicism? Whenever I see yet another newspaper article on the Church that is illustrated by pictures of red hatted and elaborately dressed cardinals I feel like saying “With all due respect to the good and necessary administrative and liturgical work that you do, could you move aside please? This isn’t really about you, we’re here to see someone else”.
As regards the legalistic straitjacket of rules and norms which is as closely associated with Catholic Christianity as are its elaborate ecclesial structures, in this area too the Church is very far removed from the simplicity of the Nazarene. Jesus delivered an uncomplicated message which can be briefly articulated: love others, be kind to the less fortunate, stand up for the underdog, be peaceful, honest, humble and forgiving. He saw himself as a reformer of the ultra legalistic Judaism of his era, and preached against the tyranny of overly strict rules. This is not to say that Jesus was an anarchist or dismissed rules as unimportant, in his own words he had come ‘not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it’. This means living by the spirit, not the letter of the law, avoiding petty restrictions, and knowing when it can be transcended and when exceptions can be made. It also means that the emphasis is a positive one; doing unto others as you would have them do unto you will make negative ‘thou shalt not’ rules redundant.
In Ireland, as a result of our colonial history which involved the oppression of the overwhelmingly Catholic population, the Church gained far too much political power and influence for its own good after independence was achieved. There has also always been an institutional opposition to theological speculation here, the powers that be preferring a passive, acquiescent laity. The Irish Universities Act of 1908 prohibited any state funding to be directed towards theological studies depriving generations of Irish people of any intellectual engagement with theology. Most European countries provide financially for faculties of theology and in the US college students are expected to take either philosophy or theology as a minor. Imposed intellectual passivity along with a homogenous religious environment, has engendered a strong perception here of the institutional Church and Christianity as one and the same thing. The backlash now occurring against it is not against Christianity as a religion, but against an institution that for too long had too much power.
Change however, despite perceptions, is well underway. Although we have yet to see ‘the age of the laity’ heralded by Vatican 2 emerge in any meaningful way, the tide is turning. A whole generation of young people has grown up in Ireland with a religious education programme that emphasises the person of Jesus, and in an environment that is no longer theocratic and overly authoritarian. The backlash now occurring will die out with the present baby boomer generation. By then, the lack of vocations throughout the Western world will have created an existential necessity for lay involvement in the Church, and this trend will contribute to the changes already occurring in the Irish Church. Who knows what the shape of the future Church will be? One can only hope that it will be simple and non-censorious like its founder, with clergy and laity united as one people of God. It should go without saying that women will have to have a far stronger presence in the Church of the future, but this will probably be the greatest battle of all and the most crucial one.
Such a transformation would dispense with any form of religious indoctrination. For a Christian Church that is truly representative of Christianity, indoctrination is impossible. A Christian has to be prepared to take social risks if necessary and even share in the contempt suffered by Jesus himself if called upon to do so. The emphasis will turn to the person of Jesus and the question of his divinity. (“Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered “God’s Messiah” ). Religious adherence will then result from critical reflection for those who need it, and choice as well as faith.