A View from the Pew: Jo O’Sullivan
I believe that God is Love –an infinite capacity to love – a love that our limited human imaginations can only snatch glimpses of- a love that puts our poor little human capacity to love into the halfpenny place. I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was that God become human and live a human life to teach us and guide us and help us to live lives centred on love. I believe the Spirit of God is in us all to continue to guide and direct us in our seeking and striving to live out that love. I believe that the Catholic Church can trace its roots right back to the early communities who walked with Jesus when He was with us and came together after His death to help each other keep true to His teachings and be in the world as He wanted us to be – be His body, His hands and feet and eyes and ears and see Him in every other body and every other situation we encountered. I believe they did it in the most natural ways possible – talking together as they ate and drank, pointing out different ways of seeing things, arguing and all the while remembering how Jesus was- not just how He died but also how He lived.
It was also a natural progression that the life and death of Jesus would be recorded in written form, together with the struggles of the early leaders to put some kind of shape on the ways He had taught us to live. I believe that the Tradition of the Catholic Church developed from sincere reading of and reflection on those written recordings. I believe that the formal, ritualised Eucharist is the development of those early gatherings and we now gather together, remember the life and death of Jesus and its implications and say a resounding “Yes!” to being part of His body by sharing the nourishment of Communion.
I believe that the Sacraments are occasions of special closeness to our loving Creator where our spiritual life gets a “booster” of nourishment. I want to live as the best ‘me’ I can be. I try to ‘be’ and ‘see’ Christ in all that I do (failing miserably regularly – but getting up and trying again!).
If any of this disqualifies me from being part of the Catholic family, then I will have to acknowledge it and walk away from the Spiritual home that I have been part of all my life. I will have to cease attending the Sunday Family Eucharist where I’m part of the group who shares with our children God’s incredible love for them, who thanks God for that love and who sings out our praise and celebration.
It tortures me to think that I don’t belong because I cannot, in all conscience, accept the validity of certain teachings of the Magisterium of the church. Neither can I accept the ‘rightness’ of imposing those teachings by refusing to allow dialogue. It hurts and saddens me deeply that other members of my faith family want to cast me out because of this.
I keep going back to Love. In my limited human grasping of what love means, I look to my love for my children as being the ‘purest’ form of love that I’ve experienced. When my children were small, they needed clear boundaries – they needed certainty and it was the job of their father and myself to provide them with such security. They learned about right and wrong from their parents and they accepted their parents’ teaching because they knew we acted out of love for them. As they developed their own capacity for abstract and reflective thought, they challenged aspects of our teaching – and it was right and natural that they should do so. In adulthood, they continue to develop their own codes of belief and codes of conduct. I am honoured that my adult children do not have to come and ask me what’s right and what’s wrong. I am proud that they have the confidence to reflect for themselves – to seek to inform and deepen their own conscience. What parent would want an adult child to be so insecure that he would have to ask mum and dad “Am I allowed to do this?” or, even worse, “Am I allowed to believe this?” before embarking on any course? It fills me with gratitude that they are so sure of my love that they can tell me they see things differently than I do and know that it will not affect my love for them in the slightest (if anything, it deepens it).
As I have moved through my life and had different experiences, my ways of perceiving the world have changed, so I would ask nothing less for my children than that they too would have open minds and open hearts. The greatest gift I hope I have passed on to my children is the ability to learn and change and grow into Love (I know that love to be God – they may not be so sure). This is why I just cannot make any sense of the way the institutional church is acting. If the Church authorities genuinely believe themselves to be the loving guides and ‘parents’ of the church family, how can they say “Believe what I tell you to believe or you are no longer a member of this family”. At a great stretch, I can accept that the ‘parents’ see things in a particular way – that they truly believe the teachings of the Magisterium are cast in stone, but no matter how hard I try, I just cannot understand why they silence all honest dialogue. I am not the most logical of persons, but the only logical explanation I can come up with is that any body which holds on desperately to “I am right! And do what I say or get out!” has to be incredibly fearful that, in fact, it may not right and cannot defend itself against differing views.
I know my relationship with my children is deepening all the time because we know that we love each other and we know that we see things differently and can accept and respect each others’ views. It also seems logical to me that any organisation which purports to apply to all humankind wherein the leadership keeps interpreting and informing itself from the standpoint of one gender only and keeps coming to conclusions based on that gender’s way of experiencing reality cannot be well-balanced. Before I’m accused of being a feminist (perish the thought!), I would say exactly the same of an organisation wherein the leadership was all female.
Life has taught me that men and women need each other as equals; life has taught me that sexuality is a God-given gift and honouring one’s own sexuality, whether it is heterosexual or homosexual, and forming loving relationships is good and right; life has taught me that, with the best will in the world, relationships can break down and the person who is able to find love again in a second relationship is indeed blest. Life has taught me all of this and more and I just cannot accept that my God, who is Love so much greater than I can even understand, could want to keep us in a family which did not acknowledge all of the above.
With the horrific revelations of the various reports into the clerical child abuse, I had to examine my conscience very deeply to see if I could remain a Catholic. I had to question what was my own bottom line. Was I a Catholic simply because it was the path of least resistence – I had been ‘born into the faith’ and it was too much like hard work to seek another code of belief? Was it because I was so brain-washed into believing I would be damned to Hell if I left? Was it because I loved being part of my parish community and didn’t want to leave it? I had to ask myself all those questions and more, because I knew, without a shadow of doubt that I could not continue to be the way I was – doing my bit to build a local church community but keeping my head in the sand as far as the bigger picture was concerned.
I had to stand in solidarity with the survivors of abuse – those who had showed incredibly courage in standing up to the might of the institutional church so that others would not face the soul-murder that they had undergone. My debt of gratitude to those good people knows no bounds and I still stand with them in their struggle for accountability within the hierarchy. My answers came to me in the form of playing my part in the struggle to see a way forward for my church family where such situations could never arise again and, with my hand on my heart, I believe that it can only come about with a deep and honest exploration of current church teaching and church structures.
I struggle with speaking out at times because I am deeply aware of my limited capacity to grasp complex theological and doctrinal concepts. I can feel inadequate to join a debate where the language used and the ideas expressed are sometimes beyond my understanding. Part of me screams out “Leave it to the experts. You don’t know enough or understand enough”. But then, I come back to my belief in a loving God – a God who just wants me to be the best ‘me’ I can be – a God who, like me with my children, says “Good on ya, girl. I want to hear your voice just as much as the voices of the learned and clever!”
And I write these things down so that those in my family who want me cast out might just get a wee glimmer of what it feels like to be in my shoes. I can love and accept you even though I cannot believe the way you do. Can you not do the same for me?