Dialogue or Dissent. Dan Baird; Open House, Scotland
The abrupt and ignominious end to the Scottish Catholic campaign against gay marriage brought a welcome, though temporary, period of silence from ubiquitous and highly vocal ‘Catholic spokesmen’. This should have, but has not, given space and time for reflection on the need for, and conduct, of the Church’s contributions to public debate. If the Church insists on a presence ‘in the public square’, it is important to examine how it should behave when it gets there. As it is, there are undoubtedly many Catholics whose hearts sink when they see the fateful words ‘A spokesman for the Church …’
During a TV discussion, MSP Michael McMahon threw an all too depressing light on the gay marriage campaign. Asked about the extreme and counter-productive language that was used by Church spokesmen, McMahon said that the Bishops’ advisers – and it would be useful to know who they are – had warned of the dangers of this language. The rationale was that it was necessary to communicate this way in order to obtain wide media coverage. In other words, the Church elbowed its way onto the public square little concerned about what impression it made on getting there. In effect, what we saw was the substitution of loud proclamation for Christian witness.
In the light of this, it is tempting to suggest that the time has come to set up in Scotland the equivalent of the English group ‘Catholic Voices’: theologically well-informed Catholics, conversant with the media, backed by experts from a range of professions and academic disciplines. This, though, would not be enough in what has been called a ‘winter time of the Church’: we need to reflect on and discuss how we communicate with each other within the Church and with society at large. For the two are clearly connected.
In this year’s Newman Association London Lecture, Fr Michael Campbell-Johnstone SJ, addressing ‘The Crisis in Today’s Church’, identified two different ecclesiologies. One, he said, ‘understands the community of believers in accordance with the language of the Gospels, like being the yeast, or like grains of salt or seeds. The other understands the Church as more of a stronghold, as an institutional power that will compete with the secular powers to impose its own way of thinking.’ There is little doubt which of these views predominates both within the Church and in its response to contemporary events.
Human-rights lawyer Conor Gearty has used the term ‘reluctant concessionists’ to describe those currently in the ascendancy, ‘who hanker after a world of papal power but, failing that, want a world of strong papal influence over civil society’. [Theirs], he suggests in a chilling description, ‘is a Church of priests, power and clerical authority, deferring to the Pope, demanding of everyone else. Where civil power does not impose the church-favoured solutions it desires, then the Catholic flock has a duty to secure these as a matter of obligation… the reluctant concessionist reasons that if his or her version of what it means to be Catholic leads to a slimmed down Church, fewer believers, more obedience – so be it’.
Such people obscure Christian witness. Religion is relevant to public life and should not be relegated to the status of a private hobby. The Irish theologian Gabriel Daly argues that ‘The privatising of religion contributes substantially to the fragmentation of society and the promotion of individualism [in a situation where] the pieties of church life are pursued in peace by an ever dwindling church membership. But meanwhile secular life goes on uninfluenced by the kind of analysis, conversation and argument which a reflective religious faith can offer in freedom to the secular world.’
Daly sees, though, the danger of strident proclamation of Christian views without respectful dialogue and reasoned engagement with society. He adds that ‘Churches convey the impression that they are wired for transmission only, not for reception. They appear to enter the public arena only to pronounce on some religious or moral matter. Rarely, if ever, do they suggest they might have something to learn from dialogue with people from outside Church circles.’
And hand-in-hand with the assumption that we have nothing to learn from others goes the ease with which we appear to ignore or forget our institutional faults. Blanket condemnations of ‘secularism’ overlook what we owe to that secularism – for instance, secularism made possible the freedom of religion denounced in the 19th century Church and fought tooth-and-nail by a conservative faction as late as at the Second Vatican Council. And, more recently, the investigation and exposure of clerical child abuse and its attempted cover-up was the work of ‘secular’ newspapers . Few imagine that, left to itself, the Catholic press would have carried out this task. Again, Gabriel Daly’s words are relevant: ‘The Church needs to listen to its media critics for the theologically sound reason that the Spirit of God may be speaking through them. Judaeo-Christian tradition has always, theoretically at least, accepted the role of the prophet, whose task has traditionally been to address the consciences especially of those most liable to religious complacency. In a secular age the lash of prophecy may come from hostile critics outside the Church’.
But if there is an unwillingness to engage with and value what is good in society, there is a corresponding aversion to pluralism and debate within the Church, with a demand for obedience rather than a readiness for dialogue. For instance, it is logical and legitimate to say that a Christian law-maker is not obliged to insert Christian moral teaching into civil law. Yet, after the House of Commons vote on gay marriage, letter-writers to the Catholic press demanded the ‘punishment’ of Catholic MPs who voted ‘the wrong way’, just as some US bishops, ignoring the rights of conscience and the concept of prudential judgement, wish to deny Communion to legislators who disagree with them on abortion laws. And current moves to reform Ireland’s abortion laws will no doubt ignite similar controversy.
Werner Jeanrond, formerly Professor of Divinity at Glasgow University, has spoken recently of being ‘shocked by the absence of an organised Catholic laity in Britain compared with other European countries’. Certainly, the creation of a representative lay body would provide a forum for informed internal discussion and a relevant Christian contribution to our society, saving us from a stream of statements which apparently emanate from a hermetically sealed Catholic bubble.
The existence of a lay forum could generate interest within the Church and in society at large. Yet open discussion is often feared. There is still a culture of delation and denunciation where disagreement is confused with disloyalty, where there is a deification of Curial pronouncements – often provisional and certainly reformable – and a concern to be considered ‘theologically sound’.
Our incapacity for public discussion, suggests Gabriel Daly, stems from our experience of church life: ‘A Church which has a strong internal tradition of public debate in fora such as synods and general assemblies will, I believe, be better fitted to take part in public secular debate than a church which is organised in a predominantly hierarchical manner, the leaders of which meet in secrecy, and which has no channels of communication between its different levels’.
Dan Baird, Glasgow.
Open House, June/July 2013