Funny how religion finds its way into everything. A few weeks ago, Irish singer, Sinead O’Connor, appearing on the U.S. television series, Saturday Night Live, tore up a picture of the pope while singing words to the effect that it is time we attacked the real evil.
Reactions were both strong and mixed. Her audience was left in a stunned silence. The television network that produced the program was bombarded with negative calls and, publicly at least, did nothing in the way of defending Sinead O’Connor, but instead promised the public that it would be a good long time before she appeared on their network again.
A week later, singing at a Bob Dylan concert at Madison Square Garden, O’Connor was booed by a large segment of the crowd even as a fundamentalist group in New York City publicly smashed her records. However, there were cheers as well, both in Madison Square Garden and elsewhere.
More than a few persons rushed to her defence, claiming that her action was a prophetic one and that it gave voice to many “recovering Catholics” who feel that the Roman Catholic Church has radically abused its power in general and abused them in particular.
O’Connor, herself, in an interview in Time, explained herself as follows: “It’s not the man, obviously—it’s the office and the symbol of the organization that he represents. I consider them to be responsible for the destruction of entire races of people and the subsequent existence of domestic and child abuse in every country they went into. . .
“I consider the Vatican to be anti-Christian because in the name of Christianity, they committed anti-Christian acts. They blessed the bombs that went into Ethiopia. They gave permission for the Irish people to be starved, the French people, the African people, for the Jewish people to be slaughtered. They are responsible for all of the destruction we see in the world today.” (Time Nov. 9, pp 64-65).
What’s to be said about all this? Freud once said that we understand things best if we examine them when they’ve been broken. What then does a torn picture of the pope of the Roman Catholic Church help us to understand?
Irrespective of how we react at the level of the feelings, this action invites reflection, far beyond what would be called for had this been the act of a simple madman. For better and for worse, it carries more things than can be easily sorted out. Sinead O’Connor is a talented artist and she is also the product of a very dysfunctional Catholic background.
Again, irrespective of where our emotions spontaneously land on this issue, it is obvious, and not just from her need to shave her head and to tear up pictures of the pope, that Sinead O’Connor is more than a little scarred by a bad brand of Catholicism . . . within which the Gospel coerced rather than freed and within which more death than life was peddled.
Before a word of counter-challenge is uttered, every apologist for the church, including this one, should first clearly hear what such a symbolic action says about the dangers of bad religion.
However, beyond that acknowledgement, some more critical things must be said: Such an act, publicly tearing up a picture of the pope, is itself much like flag-burning, an act of violence which consequently is ill-designed to serve as an instrument to further love and peace.
Moreover, it is an ideological inflation: To link all of the world’s troubles, all domestic and child abuse, and much of the world’s problem with starvation, war and violence, to a single root (“the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church”) is simply untrue and, more importantly, is dangerously inflammatory. Nine-tenths of the truth (and this isn’t even close to being 9/10th true!) is the most dangerous of all heresies.
What statements and symbolic actions like these by Sinead O’Connor do is to create an unhealthily and false polarization within society and within the church. In the end, this serves to divide the sincere from the sincere and God ends up fighting against God.
Worst of all, it helps instill a dangerous hatred and scapegoating which is the most dreadful characteristic of all fundamentalism. Surely by now, historical experience and psychological insight should have taught us what happens when any group begins to blame all of its troubles on some other group!
In her interview with Time, she says that she did this because the “fact is that people are asleep. They need a short, sharp shock.” It’s ironic that this is precisely the type of talk that so often characterizes those particular Catholic circles that Sinead O’Connor is trying to recover from.