Agreeing on something

The lively group of essayists who write in the book edited by Chris McGillion is indeed a long way from Rome. The stimulus for the book was the meeting in Rome between Australian bishops attending a Synod and Roman church officials. The bishops were presented with the Statement of Conclusions, a document that presented a negative view of the Australian church. McGillion himself summarises the events well, and his contributors offer an alternative view of the Australian church to the one the bishops heard. The book’s enterprise is inevitably tinged with polemic, for the perspectives of the Roman Congregation and of the writers differ greatly. The Statement of Conclusions finds fault with the independence and lack of respect shown by Australian Catholics; the contributors blame an excessively centralised and partisan Roman administration.

Two themes are developed in A Long Way from Rome. It describes the harmful consequences for the local church that flow from the centralisation of power in Rome. It also reflects on the specifically Australian context within which the local church lives. I found the discussion of this second theme the more interesting and significant. For even if the proposals made in this book for a less centralised church characterised by trusting relationships were implemented, the challenges of living faithfully as a Christian church in Australia would remain. Indeed their intractability would come into clearer light. The contributors to this collection demonstrate this by agreeing in their account of the symptoms of decline, and by disagreeing about its causes and about what in detail a healthy church might look like.

The Australian diagnosis of the health of the church offered in Chris McGillion’s book is consistent with that offered elsewhere. In the other books to which I refer, Winter, Cornwell and the writers in Hoose’s collection also consistently speak of a crisis of authority and of inappropriate uses of power in the
Catholic Church. They argue generally that the way in which authority is exercised is counter-productive, because it simultaneously distracts attention from the major challenges that the churches must confront in contemporary societies, and blocks attempts to meet those challenges reflectively.

The critics also converge in the evidence that they offer to show that the Catholic Church is dysfunctional. They argue that centralised organs of power limit the ability to adapt to local conditions, and furthermore disregard reflection by the local churches on their cultural environment. The more explicitly theological treatments of Winter and Hoose suggest that centralisation of power leads simultaneously to increasingly extensive claims for the authority of Roman views on details of faith and of sexual and medical issues, and to increasing local incredulity about the truth or wisdom of those views. Moreover, they agree that consultation by officers of the Roman congregations is limited, and their policies often reflect a partisan agenda. As a result, the life of many local churches is shaped by the desire to avoid any overt conflict between Roman policy and local experience. Conflict is concealed by creating a culture of silence. There is no place where controversial issues can be discussed freely, and in any case, the most significant issues, like the ordination of women, are withdrawn from conversation. Furthermore, scandalous and unwise behaviour by church representatives is kept hidden out of a concern to maintain an appearance of rectitude.

All these books see an emblem of this church culture in the failure to deal decisively with child abuse, and in the preference given to maintaining the public reputation of the Church over concern for victims. They argue that, in dealing with child abuse, as also in the treatment of divergent thinkers, church procedures fall well short of the standards of justice presumed in modern democracies.

In marshalling the evidence for this indictment, Cornwell and McGillion, both journalists by trade, are most effective. Cornwell, particularly, writes with some passion, having rediscovered faith in his middle years, and having met with personal criticism for his book, Hitler’s Pope. They instantiate the harrying of those who hold divergent opinions, the alliance between local minority groups and Roman officials, the widespread disaffection caused by the rhetoric of teaching about sexuality and about women, and the appointment of bishops to local churches where, in a free election, they could not have bought a vote.

I find persuasive the argument made by McGillion and the other writers, that the culture and operations of authority and power in the Catholic Church today obscure the Gospel and need to be reformed. Agreement with their judgment, however, commits the reader to face the deeper question raised by McGillion’s book. Namely, how can even a reformed church embody and speak persuasively about the meaning of the Gospel within a culture whose public values and practices seem in many respects distant from it? If we are to avoid the polar responses of total contempt or total accommodation with culture, we need to approach this question with a sensitivity both to the Gospel and to the complexities of Australian culture. And we should not expect convergent answers on matters of important detail.

This is evident in the differences about liturgy. In A Long Way from Rome, for example, John Carmody argues well for a liturgy that responds to Australian spiritual depths. He dismisses as banal and derivative what is on offer in most Australian churches. In this critical judgment of church liturgy, he would find support from Cornwell, who was brought up on Gregorian chant well practised and performed. But in the essay previous to Carmody’s, Morag Fraser introduces her discussion of women with a warm appreciation of local popular music used in a Brisbane liturgy. The difference between the two writers is partly a matter of taste. But underlying it are divergent understandings of the relationship between faith and culture. At this level lie difficult questions.

In passing remarks about the Blake Prize for religious art, for example, Carmody refers to a tension that existed between those who wanted pious art and those who sought a spiritual artistic expression. He goes on to deplore the decline in standards of paintings submitted in recent years. He is correct to recall the debate among the patrons of the Blake Prize, but I believe that the conflict cut much more deeply than he suggests. It lay between those who wished to locate the prize within a religious tradition, and those who believed that in an increasingly unchurched Australia, the prize must be open to those who wish to represent a more diffuse religious and spiritual sensibility. The broader definition of religious art won, as I believe it had to, but the decision did not guarantee that better art would be the result. A more inclusively conceived religious faith does not always liberate either art or people. This in microcosm is the dilemma with which engagement between faith and culture must deal. Its sharpness explains why a rhetoric of robust opposition to cultural trends is an attractive option for some Catholics.

These accounts of the church, however, suggest that consistent opposition to culture is inappropriate for two reasons. In some areas, the attitudes embodied in contemporary culture and institutions are ethically superior to those embodied in the Catholic Church. Catholics are therefore morally bound to engage with the culture in order to learn goodness. To be radically opposed to culture, too, forgets that faith and culture are abstractions. In people they run together, and in practice contain good and bad elements. So, the only reasonable possible stance is of an open dialogue between two siamese twins.

If you are a siamese twin, the only way to go is to preserve your own identity and to find a language in which you can address respectfully issues which divide you from your twin. The conversation will touch all aspects of life. The chapter headings of Cornwell’s book suggest the breadth of the conversation required in the Catholic Church. The way they are expressed indicates, too, that culture feels aggrieved by the failure of this conversation. He heads his chapters: ‘The Great Adulteration’ (of worship), ‘Dilution of Belief’, ‘Catholic “Sexology” ’, ‘Priests’ (celibacy), ‘A Disgruntled Laity’, ‘Women in the Church’, ‘The Science and Politics of Saints’ and ‘Hierarchy’.

To be fruitful, conversation demands an intimate understanding of culture. For that reason, I find most helpful contributions that attend to contemporary culture and reflect on the rules of engagement with it. In A Long Way from Rome, Juliette Hughes offers a lively and sensitive account of cultural trends, particularly within the younger culture, while Paul Collins suggests the importance of the imagination within Catholic identity.

Collins’ insistence on the imagination is suggestive, for it links the two themes of the book. It intimates why the pathologies of church matter, and it demonstrates how, in the conversation between faith and culture, both identity and openness can be preserved. In faith, the imagination is caught by a vision of life and of the world. The vision is fed by the symbols of Christian faith. This faith expresses itself and is nourished by the community of those whose imagination is similarly caught. When authority and power are misused in the service of uniformity and control, the imagination is atrophied and not fed. It is nourished by open conversation.

In the dialogue with culture, however, Christian identity is not infinitely malleable. For the imaginative vision is distinctive. The uncompromising opposition of the churches to the war in Iraq, for example, is based in an imaginative vision of the ultimate value of each individual life from its beginnings to its end.

In places the expressions of this vision are counter-cultural, as in resistance to abortion. In other places, as in opposition to the war against Iraq, it finds sympathy in popular culture, even if it is opposed by political culture and those who serve it.

Discerning what is integral to the Christian imagination requires energy and sensitivity. The issues raised in these four books are important because the ills they describe sap energy and sensitivity.

A Long Way from Rome: Why the Australian Catholic Church is in Crisis, Chris McGillion (ed). Allen & Unwin, 2003. isbn 1 86508 917 6, rrp $29.95Misguided Morality: Catholic Moral Teaching in the Contemporary Church, Michael Winter. Ashgate Publishing, 2002. isbn 0 7546 0742 9Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People and the Fate of Catholicism, John Cornwell.  Penguin, 2003. isbn 0 14 100463 0, rrp $23.95Authority in the Roman Catholic Church: Theory and Practice, Bernard Hoose (ed).  Ashgate Publishing, 2002. isbn 0 7546 0531 0, rrp $19.50

Andrew Hamilton sj teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.

 

 

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