Jo and Saoirse debate the Church’s future
28 April: Jo O’Sullivan suggests where the Church may be headed
I have been thinking about the Catholic Church of the future.
I have been imagining that all those people who have been requested to do so, have walked away – those ‘liberal’ priests and ‘progressive’ religious and those members of the general laity who, in good conscience, cannot accept certain teachings of the Magesterium, cannot force themselves to cease their own reflecting and bow to the ways thinking and acting that are acceptable to “head office”. How does the Church look now?
There is tremendous relief, first of all. The people who sit in the pews can feel confident that those on either side of them share their world view. They do not have to worry that some day they might have to attend a Mass that is celebrated by a married man, or a woman! They do not have to fear that there may be “failed” Catholics, who are living in sin by cohabiting, going up to receive Communion. And they certainly don’t have to concern themselves with the horror that there might be practicing homosexuals among the ranks participating in the Sacraments! They are happy to be directed and guided by ‘Father’ – they are confident that, if they are in any way doubtful about the right or wrong in any situation, Father will put them right and they’ll do as he directs to the best of their ability.
They have truly beautiful, reverential liturgies – liturgies wherein they keep to the formula approved by Father – because there’s no need for personal initiative, Father knows best. They expect certain behaviour from Father, and they keep a respectful distance from him. Though they recognise that he is, of course, human, he is not quite like them – he has been elevated to a higher plane because of his ordination. They certainly don’t like to see Father in the pub or dressed in jeans and sweatshirt. He is being disrespectful to his office by being ordinary.
Father finds it quite a burden to carry – to have the responsibility for other peoples’ moral codes and spiritual direction and never to show that he, too, is a struggling human being, but he accepts that this is the cross he has to bear to be part of the suffering of Jesus, so he accepts his burden and ‘becomes’ his role. Anyway, he can go to fellow priests and to his Bishop to unburden himself. Together they can support each other and reassure each other that they are on the right path (the Magisterium has told them so) and that they will attain their reward in the next life. Then he can go back to his flock – who are anxiously awaiting his next utterance – and resume his role.
And the people in the pews? What happens when they leave the church after Mass? The world is a very difficult place. Society has become increasingly secularised and, as such, is disdainful of good, practicing Catholics. The media is foul – attacking Catholic values left, right and centre – scorning those who adhere to the one true path to salvation. Our good Catholics try to participate fully in the life of society around them but they see that there are more and more people who are living in ways not compatible with the one, true faith – many couples living together outside of marriage, many couples in second or subsequent relationships, many homosexuals living openly with gay partners. And, while our good Catholics try to love such people- at a distance, of course, outside of their beloved Church, the said people don’t seem to want their love. They seem to regard the Catholics as bigots and fundamentalists for some reason! But our good Catholics accept that this is part of the suffering that their faith has promised them they’d have to endure so they do so stoically.
They surround themselves with like-minded people – of whom, of course, there are many within the confines of the now cleared out Catholic Church. They raise their children with the same great love for the Church – alerting them to the fact that the world is now quite a hostile place to people like them – that they have to be on constant guard against non-Catholic teachings and influences. They feel it’s best to keep their children from such influences by allowing them to mix with only the right people – people who share their world view. In doing so, they raise confident, secure, good Catholic children.
When those children begin to explore the world beyond their parents’ realm of influence one of three different things happens. The children think, reflect, explore for themselves and come to the same conclusions as their parents did – and that’s wonderful. All are secure and confident in their shared world view. Or the children find themselves questioning some of their parents’ / Church’s teachings but they know that their Church’s world view doesn’t allow for different conclusions to be reached so they repress their own critical thought processes (there’s no point in allowing yourself to think if the conclusions you have to reach are already cast in stone!) and continue to go through the motions. Alternatively, the children come to entirely different conclusions and find themselves in constant conflict with their parents – to the point that they either cannot accept or cannot be accepted by their nurturers. The family unit is ruptured. The parents fear for the souls of their children – they have rejected the one true path to salvation!
So much of our good Catholics’ time and energy are being taken up with guarding against the hostile world that there is very little room left for being practicing Christians. It’s very difficult to be Christ’s hands and feet and eyes and ears in a world which sees you as being a passive follower of a misogynistic, homophobic fundamentalist church – a church which has cleansed itself of anybody who dared challenge its teachings in the area of sexuality or in any other area.
So the Roman Catholic Church has indeed become an exclusive institution. Where has its universality gone? Where is the inclusiveness that the title implies? In fact, it can’t really call itself ‘Catholic’ any more, can it? This may seem like gross distortion – Catholicism could NEVER come to this! This is a major world religion which has served the world for two thousand years – it couldn’t possibly become a small, fundamentalist sect. Could it?
16 May: Saoirse commented:
Quote: ’They do not have to worry that some day they might have to attend a Mass that is celebrated by a married man, or a woman! They do not have to fear that there may be “failed” Catholics, who are living in sin by cohabiting, going up to receive Communion. And they certainly don’t have to concern themselves with the horror that there might be practicing homosexuals among the ranks participating in the Sacraments!’
I can only say that if these are really the kind of reforms you wish to see in the Catholic church then you really shouldn’t consider yourself a Catholic at all. That may be blunt, but true Catholics who wish to practice their faith in peace would be more than relieved if people with your views did indeed leave the Church rather than try to destroy it from within and insist on inflicting your heretic views on the rest of us. I don’t really understand how you consider yourself to have a ‘catholic faith’ when so many of your beliefs are in direct conflict with the Magisterium of the church and the commandments of God. We may be out of step with the ‘real’ world in our thinking, but we are called to be ‘out’ of this world. I see nothing controversial in the Church’s teachings on sexuality and hey! Sin does exist. Now there’s a dirty word for you.
17 May: Jo replied:
Oh Saoirse, I am so, so sorry you feel as you do.
I had actually been feeling a bit guilty that I had written as I did about how Catholicism might develop. I had felt I was being cruel to and judgemental of those good Catholics who genuinely believed that the correct path to God was to adhere with total obedience to the teachings of the magisterium. I have no right to judge anyone.
But your response has cut me to the quick, because it shows that there ARE people who want Catholicism to be an exclusive, ‘pure’ religion which tolerates no freedom of thought or expression.
With the greatest of respect and humility, if Catholicism DOES develop along those lines, my conscience will dictate that I leave.
However, because of the thousand or so people who attended the Regency Hotel on Bank Holiday Monday, because of the majority of contributors on this site, because of the writings of many sincere Catholic theologians and thinkers – male and female, and because my heart and soul still feels it belongs in the Catholic Church, I am still here.
Even though I suspect you will not appreciate it, I have taken you into my heart.
17 May: Saoirse replied:
Jo, I was feeling slightly guilty myself for speaking so bluntly, and also because the church is.. and should be! … full of sinners, but your position truly confuses me. A Catholic should surely strive to follow the teachings of Christ (Never even mind the Magisterium) and He stated that even looking and thinking lustfully about another was a sin…so if you want to ‘live in sin’ or be a practising homosexual, how can you be in communion with the church? More than that, how can you expect the Catholic church to approve and condone this when it is contrary to the teachings of Christ, which they have managed to preserve for 2000 years? Our Lady of Fatima stated that more souls are lost to hell through the sins of lust than for any other reason. Yes, Christ would have us all at the table, and does not want a soul to be lost, but he said Himself that if we love him, we will keep his commandments. He doesn’t sit in judgement of us (yet) but he forgives us on the grounds that we go and sin no more. Eddie, I am well aware of the meaning of my name. And I have experienced true freedom only in obedience to Christ. You are all in my heart too!
20 May: Jo O’Sullivan replied:
Believe it or not, Saoirse, I can totally relate to your confusion as to why I still consider myself to be a Catholic. And I’d like to try and explain myself to you. I’m from a very ordinary Catholic background – no great delving into the tenets of my faith during my life – no great exploration of theology or church history – no participation in ‘progressive’ movements or anything like that. In fact, all I did was try to observe the teachings and ‘living out’ of Catholicism as best I could – going to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days (and the occasional daily Mass if I was in a position to do so) and playing a full part in my church, parish life (I have played the church keyboard and been part of a lively children’s liturgy team, among other things, here in my parish for many years).
I suppose, to be totally honest, I carried a unease with certain aspects of Catholicism for a long time and had to reconcile things as best I could –sometimes by acknowledging I was ‘breaking the rules’ but letting myself off the hook (eg. for using contraception) and sometimes by not allowing myself to think too deeply about them (f.eg. the huge wealth in parts of the church contrasted with the poverty in the world; the position of women, people in second relationships, gays in the church etc.)
I sometimes felt I was a ‘bad’ Catholic for having such critical thoughts about the structures and teachings. After all, those who dictated how things should be- those in positions of authority over me in my spiritual life, were much greater than I in every way and it was the sin of pride on my part to harbour such criticisms and doubts. In particular, anything coming from the Vatican was coming from those closest to God in this world so I had no business questioning the validity of anything they had to say. I spent most of my adult life in that way, Saoirse, living a rather superficial version of Catholicism because, I think, I was afraid to delve too deeply! However, my relationship with my loving Creator, as experienced through my Catholic faith, sustained me through many rough times in my life – many situations/times when no amount of logical, rational thought helped to see me through – life’s messy, difficult, paradoxical and sometimes cruel and painful chapters.
So it was enough that I practiced Catholicism without thinking too deeply about it. Life kept nudging me in my unease every so often though – sometimes it was in the shape of my growing children asking me questions and not accepting pat answers so I had to try and find answers which I felt to be true and valid; sometimes it was in finding myself in situations where the Catholic teaching just didn’t sit properly with my conscience. It was in meeting and knowing wonderfully Christian, caring people who were deeply hurt by the fact that the faith of their childhood rejected them because of their life’s circumstances. I continued trying to accept that my ‘betters’ knew more than I did – I didn’t want to be proud and arrogant – so I tried to quieten my conscience by continuing to try and build a nurturing community in my own wee world and keeping my head in the sand over the rest of it (not something I’m proud of, but it’s the truth!).
The revelations of the Murphy Report caused a chasm to appear under me. I had been able to accept that there were individual criminal perpetrators of evil but I could not bear the fact that my ‘betters’, my moral and spiritual guides, had totally failed our most vulnerable little ones by choosing to protect the institution of the Catholic church over them. I could no longer continue to contribute to building up the church in my own wee way if, by doing so, I was allowing the rottenness to continue. It set me off on a long, terrifying journey, Saoirse, where I felt blasphemous and heretical and totally confused by my thoughts at times.
All I could do was read and talk and listen and agonise over what was right and what was wrong. For every article I read by experts extolling adherence to strict Catholic teachings evidenced by readings from scripture, I read another one which interpreted scripture in a different way in the light of on-going theological exploration. All the experts were absolutely sincere and genuine in their arguments. I so wanted to be able to go back to being as I was before, but I couldn’t and I still can’t!
The conclusion that I came to was that, for me, there are no absolute certainties anymore. I can never know for sure that I am ‘right’. So, it follows on from that that I can never be sure that anyone who doesn’t see things MY way is ‘wrong’. In reading such people as Richard Rohr O.F.M., I have actually come to realise that I am moving beyond dualistic thinking and that’s a GOOD thing! I’m getting to a place where I can accept that I don’t HAVE to be right and others don’t HAVE to be wrong! I can reconcile myself to living in faith, living in the paradox, and constantly trying to see things from as broad a perspective as possible
. I have no problem accepting that our church leaders sincerely wish to discern what God’s will for humanity is so that they can be our teachers and our guides. I know the argument that they do not come to decisions by their own power alone – they pray and reflect and study scripture and Tradition very carefully so that they can eventually speak ‘the mind’ of God. But what if God is now nudging us, those of us living in the non-rarefied conditions of messy, secular society, towards having our voices heard? I cannot accept is that putting up walls and silencing debate is the way to move forward. Neither can I go back to my old argument (with myself!) that I’m a nobody, so I’ve no business speaking out my silly little views.
I think I have to speak out . I truly worry that there’s a move to make Catholicism smaller and tighter. My whole belief is that our role in life, as Catholic Christians, is to reach out to all of humanity in love, tolerance and compassion – not to judge them and find them wanting. There’s so much more in my head and in my heart that I’d like to say – but it has taken me three days to get this much down on paper. I’ve been dipping in and out of it – adding to it, taking from it, since I read your comment on Thursday morning. If I don’t submit it now, I won’t do it at all.
I respect your views Saoirse; I know you speak out of honesty and I can feel that you’re hurt that other Catholics seem to be utterly disloyal to something you hold very dear; that they’re trying to destroy Catholicism from the inside. And I don’t know if I’ve gone any way to explaining to you that I honestly don’t want to do that – I want Catholicism to be a way of life that attracts the lonely and the lost – a way of life that nurtures all its children – a way of life that gives my grandchildren a path to follow so that they will ‘live life to the full’ and be happy that relationship with their loving Creator is at the very core of their everyday living. I don’t know what stage of life you’re at Saoirse, but I bet you’d want the very came things for your grandchildren?
22 May: Saoirse commented:
Jo, there are so many things to address in your response that I wonder where to start! Thank you for sharing your journey of faith and disillusionment with the Church; believe it or not, many times in my life I have asked similar questions. The difference is that I am now utterly at home with the traditional teachings of the Church and understand why it teaches what it does, for example on sexual relationships, contraception, homosexuality, female priests and so on. I am happy to address any of these individual issues with you but I don’t feel that is the real issue at stake here, and that kind of information is easy to find and consider in your heart yourself.
The issue here seems to be that, because the Church failed so abysmally to protect, as you rightfully say, our most innocent and vulnerable members and betrayed the trust of each and every one of us by doing so, that the Church can no longer be trusted as an institution. Why should we listen to those who were complicit in evil? I don’t think there is a Catholic on earth who has not asked themselves that question in recent years. But here lies exactly the problem.
As Catholics now, we have to defend the faith in the setting of people like you who want to exploit the hierarchy’s compromised credibility in order to change Church doctrine. But Church doctrine has not been given to us by the perpetrators of abuse or by those who covered it up; it has been given to us by Jesus Christ and handed down by the apostles and Popes for 2000 years. When did the Church last state an infallible doctrine? Even Vatican 11 in 1962 was a pastoral doctrine and not issued under infallibility. Therefore the dogmas and the teachings of the Church have not changed, and using the actions of an evil minority to demand such change is just adding to the sin and confusion.
How can it be logical to claim that because of the actions of these evil men, everyone, including Christ and all the saints of the Church, have always been in error? Because if the teachings of the Church, are wrong now, then it follows that they must have always been wrong, and all the saints like St Patrick or St Augustine were also just blind and ignorant and wrong too! It is not a sensible argument, is it?
You feel there are no absolute certainties anymore, but maybe your faith in certainties was misplaced; my faith has always been rooted in Christ and He is the same now, yesterday and forever. You talk about difficulties in interpreting scripture, but before the printing press was invented, how was the Catholic faith passed on? This is what I was referring to in my earlier post when I mentioned the role of Tradition, one of the Pillars of our faith. This is why the Church fathers have always interpreted scripture for us to help us understand its true meaning, and why there are now thousands of Protestant sects, because when they broke away from the Catholic church, none of them could agree on the true meaning of any scripture, so they began setting up diverse branches. ‘The wisdom of man is truly folly to the Lord!
Jo, I do truly sympathise with your struggle, but the types of reform you seem to be interested in are heresy to a true Catholic, and as a fellow Catholic, in all conscience I have to point that out to you. I do not want the Church in Ireland to split, I do not want a single soul to be lost. It would be heartbreaking if another of the fruits of those evil men within the Catholic Church was an attack on doctrine and the loss of so many once faithful believers.
I wish for quite different reforms within the Irish church; I wish that the Church would admit that because of its failure to protect our children, it has currently lost moral authority for many people (but that does not mean the teachings of the church are wrong!) and set about addressing that issue. I would like to see a true penitence expressed by the bishops and clergy, expressed in some meaningful penance, perhaps by giving away the riches and the bishops’ palaces that so many of us find disturbing to say the least.
Personally I think any clergy involved in the cover up of paedophile priests should be donning sackcloth and ashes and living for a time as a hermit in a cave; that would go some way towards demonstrating true sorrow and true repentance. I would like to see Mass offered continuously for the victims of abuse and their families in a perpetual offering. I would like to see, hear and read an admission of guilt and sorrow that did not look as though it was written by a lawyer, and I would like all the perpetrators of abuse to be charged and prosecuted, all over the world. Priest apart though, the sexual abuse of children is not confined to priests, and I would like those in the Church who are innocent of any blame to use their expertise gathered from this unspeakable tragedy to influence the protection of children in the wider world and to ascertain that our secular society also knows how to identify, treat and punish this crime against children.
So like you I wish for many reforms in the Church, but there we differ. I would like to see the widespread availability of the pre 1962 Latin Mass, the mass of all our ancestors which has sustained us throughout the centuries. I would like to see the Irish priests call on the Vatican to ask why the Consecration of Russia, asked for by Our Lady in 1917 at Fatima, has still not taken place. These are the things that are needed to reform the Church! My children are in their teens and early twenties, so I am not yet a grandmother. For my grandchildren, my most fervent wish is that they have as their inheritance the one, holy Catholic and Apostolic faith entrusted to our church by Jesus Christ.
29 May: Jo O’Sullivan commented:
Saoirse, I thank you again for taking the time and the trouble to respond to my response! And thanks to everybody else who has added your voice here too. It is so good to ‘talk’. I read your response last week, Saoirse, but I haven’t had time to get back to you as life has been wonderfully hectic due to a family wedding. Evan amidst all the celebrating, I found myself mulling over various points you made and I hope I can answer some of them now.
In the first instance, I sincerely hope some of the people who ‘hold the reins of power’ in our church have read both your postings and mine because, even though they can see that we come from different parts of this Catholic family, I am in 100% agreement with you when you say “I would like to see a true penitence expressed by the bishops and clergy, expressed in some meaningful penance, perhaps by giving away the riches and the bishops’ palaces that so many of us find disturbing to say the least.
Personally I think any clergy involved in the cover up of paedophile priests should be donning sackcloth and ashes and living for a time as a hermit in a cave; that would go some way towards demonstrating true sorrow and true repentance. I would like to see Mass offered continuously for the victims of abuse and their families in a perpetual offering. I would like to see, hear and read an admission of guilt and sorrow that did not look as though it was written by a lawyer, and I would like all the perpetrators of abuse to be charged and prosecuted, all over the world. Priest apart though, the sexual abuse of children is not confined to priests, and I would like those in the Church who are innocent of any blame to use their expertise gathered from this unspeakable tragedy to influence the protection of children in the wider world and to ascertain that our secular society also knows how to identify, treat and punish this crime against children.” Well said, Saoirse! After that, though, I’m afraid we differ……
In response to my article of 20 May, you wrote: “As Catholics now, we have to defend the faith in the setting of people like you who want to exploit the hierarchy’s compromised credibility in order to change Church doctrine.” I actually don’t believe I’m a cold, calculating exploiter of opportunity, Saoirse, one who has been waiting for the chance to go for the jugular of Church doctrine. On the contrary, I believe myself to be a very flawed (substitute the word ‘sinful’ there if you wish) human being who spent a lot of my adult life refusing to follow the niggling questions my conscience kept pricking me with.
Like a lot of humanity, I don’t grow in meaningful ways until I’m faced with crisis – until I can no longer rely on the answers that have sustained me up until now, but I have to find new answers. The way my spirit ached in response to the publication of the Murphy Report was just such a crisis. And this is where it has led me.
I believe, to the best of my limited human ability, in the inalienable dogma of the Catholic faith. I believe in God, the Parent (Father), Son and Holy Spirit. I believe in the Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. I hope I have never intimated in any way that I believe that “Christ and all the saints of the Church, have always been in error”. How can you have read in anything that I’ve said that I believe St. Patrick, St. Augustine et all were blind and ignorant? If I have done so, it has been a total mis-communication on my part. I would never have such arrogance! I agree with you that the dogma of the faith has not changed but I can’t agree that the teachings haven’t changed down through the years.
You know, Saoirse that Catholic teaching is constantly changing and developing. And don’t you agree that it has to continue to develop as it has always done? Otherwise it will stagnate. I’m sure there’s some fundamental principle which states that if an organism isn’t in a state of growth, if it isn’t developing, it decays and dies. So all I’m suggesting is that we need to be in a constant ‘dialogue’ with the teachings of Christ and the saints. And I think it’s a form of laziness to leave it to the experts to have that dialogue.
Do you truly wish to hand over your own powers of discernment, by leaving it to “the Church fathers” to interpret scripture for us “to help us understand its true meaning,” Do we not all have a responsibility to acknowledge the Holy Spirit within ourselves? Having said that, I have no intention of entering into an academic exploration of all the teachings of every saint who ever lived – life’s too short! I’m happy enough to do my own exploration as and whenever my conscience throws up a new question.
I see my ‘job’ as living my life in a way that my loving God can work through me. If I constantly seek to do that, I trust that the Holy Spirit within me will prompt me to ‘refine’ my understanding of Christ’s teachings anytime I wander off course (that niggling conscience of mine again!). As of right now, this is my understanding. Living as Christ has taught us to live is all to do with relationship. My early understanding was very narrow in that relationship with God was ‘just’ me and God – just the two of us – me protecting that relationship by concentrating on all the rules I had to follow. Yes it involved ‘doing good deeds’ and ‘loving my neighbour’, but everything was done to assist MY relationship with God, not THEIRS! I could feel sorry for people who were ‘sinners’ – people who disobeyed God and I could pray for their conversion to the true path, but I worried that they were ‘lost souls’. The story of the Pharisee and the Publican eventually got through to me on that one! And it was that story that flashed into my mind again as I read your last couple of sentences, Saoirse. “the types of reform you seem to be interested in are heresy to a true Catholic, and as a fellow Catholic, in all conscience I have to point that out to you. I do not want the Church in Ireland to split; I do not want a single soul to be lost.”
I now know that God never wanted the two of us to have an exclusive relationship – in fact, it was glaringly obvious (once I saw it!) that relationship with God actually involves relationship with everybody and everything around me. Is that not what poor Jesus had to plug again and again? God is in and around EVERYTHING and finding our path to that Love that is our Creator, involves our growing in love with the world around us. And that love HAS to be non-judgemental or it cannot be meaningful.
If getting bogged down in rules which pertain to show us how to develop that love actually has the effect of curtailing that love, then the rules need to be re-examined. If our ‘rules’ claim that we are the only ones on the right path to our God, we are actually guilty of the sin of arrogance. That certainly does not indicate in any way that interpretations of Christ’s teachings in the past were ‘wrong’, it just shows that we, as humans, recognize that we are not perfect (we are not God), our capacity to understand is in a state of constant development.
As our understanding of the human condition develops in the areas of psychology, sociology and all those other ‘ologies’, so too does our understanding of what Christ taught. It never ceases to amaze me that, as we come to a ‘new’ discovery of the human condition, we find that Christ had actually been trying to point that out to us 2000 years ago!
When I first read your response, Saoirse, I had a bit of a wobbly moment. How could I possibly answer this? Saoirse is obviously so much more learned than I am! She has studied the lives of the saints and has a very deep knowledge of church teaching. I was back to “Who am I to speak out? I don’t know enough.” But I truly believe in the loving Creator whose dearest wish is for all His/Her (oh, the limitations of language!) children to have a voice and to trust in the Holy Spirit to use it. I do not know the intricacies of all the ‘rules’ of Catholicism, but I DO know love – and especially the adult love for my adult children. If that is a pale reflection of the infinite love our God has for each one of us (and I believe it to be so), then God is quite happy we are having this exchange of views!
God bless you, Saoirse.