New pope must confront inconvenient truths – a Scottish perspective
‘Turn to me and be saved’, says the Lord, ‘For I am God, there is none other, none beside Me, I call your Name’. Hopefully, without being unduly and prematurely maudlin, I can share that those versified simple words of scripture resonate with me. I have asked for them to be included in my requiem mass come the day my family and friends will gather to pray for the passing of my soul and, God willing, perhaps celebrate my life.
Like many 21st-century western Catholics, in falteringly answering that call I have the contradictory sensation that it has never been easier but, at the same time never harder, to cling to the barque of Peter. Certainly, as Scottish Catholics, we now no longer suffer the unjust fates of our forebears. Most of the often still heated anti-Catholic rhetoric flows from an aggressively secularist body of opinion challenging Catholicism as its most robust opponent in the public square rather than the crazier, if equally bitter, sectarian rantings of yesteryear.
Yet my greatest anxieties for the future of the Catholic Church flow more from the antics of some inside our church rather than any enemy without. The church my parents raised me in, and which I doubt I could ever leave, often is an uncomfortable place for a liberal Catholic (not yet an oxymoron). There is an air of shrillness and fundamentalism to much of the monologue emanating from elements of the episcopacy.
A visiting spaceman might think that our global church, founded on believing impossible things made possible by a loving and living God infatuated with His creation, had elected instead to ignore that simple, eternal and glorious Truth. He might judge that we had opted for the internal debates of a sect obsessed with issues of gender and sexuality.
As 300 million children face going to bed hungry tonight, as our planet groans from her exploitation and degradation, as racist voices are raised again across Europe when people falteringly struggle to understand the causes of the global financial collapse and as our own lacklustre government locates the answer to collective corporate greed in austerity imposed most on the most vulnerable, many good people, if asked what the Catholic Church stands for nowadays, would point to the bishops’ campaigns against equal civil marriage or legal abortion.
Were the Risen Lord to address His church tomorrow, I fear His pastors would face some awkward questions. Yet those awkward questions must lie at the heart of the prayers faithful Catholics are duty bound to be offering for the deliberations of the forthcoming conclave.
- There will be those who say that Papa Benedetto returned awe and solemnity to the liturgy of the universal church in place of happy-clappy claptrap. Agreed.
- That he brought to the papacy the insights and rigour of a first-class intellect. Agreed.
- That he addressed many of the structural weaknesses ignored by his sainted predecessor. Agreed.
- That he did more than any other pope to help heal the scandalous breaches of unity with the Lutherans and orthodox. Agreed.
But he also presided over a drive for internal orthodoxy that meant the saintly, the compassionate and those ready to question, ponder (or worse) loyally disagree, were passed over in the promotional stakes of the church by those who made the right noises when asked their views on priestly celibacy, gay marriage or women priests.
This Sunday, across the globe, millions of Catholics will not share the Eucharist because of some of those choices. The Catholics who have no priest for want of priests due to the rules against married priests; the divorced Catholics who, in every parish church, self-police and do not approach the altar and are so often joined in their exclusion by conscientious gay Catholics; the confused and betrayed who feel let down by Episcopal cover-up after cover-up of clerical abuse.
Yet, in that same simple act of worship, is also to be found the hope of the world. It is why I, and a billion like me, cling however uncomfortably to that barque. As the priest, any priest (however frail, unworthy or undeserving) repeats the words of the Galilean who is my Lord, I receive the same graces and benefits as I would had I been in that Upper Room 2,000 years ago.
Not from any merit on my part. Far from it. The very opposite of it. But because across the boundaries of time and space a loving God so loved me, and all of His Creation, that He took human form, walked the earth, died for me and rose from the dead – for undeserving me. Those impossible beliefs must drive, inform and renew the church. A conclave ready to release the Spirit to do Her work, as was done at the 21st Ecumenical Council (Vatican 2), is capable of being utterly transformative of a church much in need of transformation.
As we look to the forthcoming conclave I thank the departing pontiff but I also look for a pope who will awaken every day to proclaim those inconvenient truths to a world that needs, and longs, to hear them. A good start would be to proclaim a global act of repentance for the priestly child abuse catastrophe and demand the collective resignation of the Irish bishops, and any bishop anywhere, who knowingly shielded an abuser of the same Lord’s ‘little ones’. We shall see. God willing.
Brian Fitzpatrick is an advocate and former Labour MSP