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Not a good time to be Catholic


Girl lighting a candle

Now is not a good time to be a Christian – especially, if you are a Catholic.   Read The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, listen to the ABC or read Irfan Yusuf's recent piece and it's obvious that the critics are on a roll.

Wendy Squire's op-ed in The Age provides a good illustration of the often vitriolic and very public campaign to tarnish religion and to undermine the beliefs of the 61 per cent of Australians who describe themselves as Christian.

In addition to refusing to be a godmother to a close friend's baby as the ceremony was in a Catholic Church, Squire attacks the Church for opposing her views on marriage and abortion and for, supposedly, indoctrinating children and condoning child abuse.

Ignored is that Christianity is one of the foundation stones on which Western civilisation is based and that the various Christian denominations and their related organisations and community bodies constitute an overwhelmingly positive and beneficial force in Australian culture and society.

There is no doubt, as Cardinal Pell and Pope Francis admit, that child abuse is an offensive, horrific and evil act that destroys the innocence and faith of those who are most vulnerable.

But, to use the fact that priests have been guilty of such an unforgivable betrayal of the Church's teachings does not mean that Christianity has no value or that we should turn our backs on Christ.

Growing up in working class Broadmeadows in a Housing Commission estate with a communist father and a Catholic mother – mass on Sunday and the Eureka Youth Movement on Tuesday – taught me first hand about what BA Santamaria described as two of the most influential and powerful forces of the 20th century.

My father taught me the socialist mantra of 'from each according to his ability and to each according to his needs' and my mother taught me how to recite the Rosary and to follow the Stations of the Cross.

The Eureka Youth Movement taught me about Stalin's glorious revolution and how Mao heroically struggled to free his people from years of oppression, disease and starvation. 

It was only years later that I read about the gulag and how Mao's cultural revolution, like Pol Pot's Year Zero, killed millions and condemned others to poverty and oppression.  The reality is that communism, as pointed out by George Orwell, is an evil ideology that promises a working class paradise on earth while delivering subjugation, suffering and thought control.

Being a Catholic, on the other hand, taught me that we have a conscience and free will, that there is good and evil, that life on earth is far from perfect and that the spiritual and transcendent are equally as, if not more important, than our physical and worldly needs and aspirations.

Many of the parables and sayings I heard as a child still resonate as they portray something essential and significant about human nature. 'Turn the other cheek', 'let he without sin cast the first stone', 'as you sow, so shall you reap' and 'be a good Samaritan' offer a strong moral compass to help navigate life's dilemmas and pitfalls.

The aphorism that 'it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God' and Jesus' act in expelling the money changers from the Temple also resonate in an age where material pursuits and gratuitous consumption are rampant.

Studying literature at university made me realise how important Christianity is to Western literature.  John Bunyan's A Pilgrim's Progress, William Blake's poetry (even though he criticised organised religion), much of TS Eliot's poetry and novels, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment – all require an understanding of Christianity.

Listening to Bach's Mass in B Minor recently performed at the Melbourne Recital Centre underscored the fact that Christianity has also profoundly affected the music that is such a fundamental part of Western culture.

The great European galleries and museums also contain thousands of religious icons, paintings and sculptures that are testimonies to how religion can inspire a sense of artistic beauty associated with the transcendent and the sublime.

From a more practical perspective Christian morals and beliefs are also a prime motivating force for charitable organisations like the Salvation Army, the Brotherhood of St Laurence and Caritas Australia.

There is also no doubt that Australia's hospital and education systems would collapse if not for the presence of Christian, mainly Catholic, schools and hospitals.  Catholic schools, for example, enrol approximately 20 per cent of Australian students and save taxpayers billions every year as governments do not have to enrol such students in more expensive to fund state schools.

Having lost a son to a hit-and-run accident I can also attest that in times of great suffering, anguish and loss, religion, while never offering complete peace and understanding, offers succour and hope.

In times of darkness and despair, as suggested by the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, there is comfort and reassurance.  She writes: 'And although the battle is not won nor the pilgrimage completed, we know that we have sufficient light.  This is our source of life.  But we cannot escape the suffering and the sorrow: there are dark sides to life.  Realism forces us to face the fact.  And the same realism enables us to trust the light and life and love in which we are enfolded'. 

Andrew Hamilton

Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of the Educational Standards Institute and a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University.


Topic tags: Kevin Donnelly, Catholicism, communism, Western literature, Catholic Church



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Existing comments

Excellent article as always Kevin Donnelly, spot on, it is time to be stronger than ever in our Faith.

Terri Marley | 27 August 2014  

Well said Kevin, even as a life-long atheist I have always appreciated the values of and the continuing value of our Christian social heritage, sadly to many minions of the left are far to keen to throw it away while have useful alternative. Essentially they are just haters pure and simple and they should be resisted at every opportunity.

iain Hall | 28 August 2014  

Too often all the goodness and wisdom of Christianity is drowned by voices whose bias is evident. Ignorance of all religions creates much unnecessary noise.

Trish Taylor | 28 August 2014  

An interesting view of the world but not all encompassing. Missing is the beauty of Islamic architecture and its influence as well as the incredible learning in mathematics which stimulated the enlightenment in western culture. These contributions and ideas from Judaism are equally at the centre of the Australian understanding of what matters. What about their incredible contribution to music and art? The Catholic Church has been called to account for the devestation it has caused to many families and their children. In doing this the corrupt behaviour of the hierarchy of that Church has been revealed. Catholics want it fixed. You also missed mentioning the extraordinary tax relief given to religious groups in Australia that have allowed the Christian Churches to become so very wealthy. As for education there are many teachers from all religious persuasions working in the public school system which educates most of the poor and disadvantaged children of Australians. Although the Catholic Church started out to educate the poor it has all but abandoned this calling and the public sector schools are doing this work while the Catholic system benefits from huge injections of taxpayer funds. As for sorrow in life! It comes to all.

A personal view | 28 August 2014  

Best article ever published in ES!

john michael george | 28 August 2014  

A very sensible and insightful article, Kevin. I tend to think "thinking Christians", those with genuine biblical and theological knowledge, who also engage with modern life and culture, like you seem to very much do, may be the salvation of their various Churches. Australian Catholicism these days, as far as those sitting in the pews goes, seems, in many places, alive and vital. I think people like Pell represent a sort of established, administrative "Father Knows Best" sort of celibate male dominated Church which is about as up to date as the bow and arrow. That sort of setup needs to change. The atrocious paedophilia scandals and its woeful and inept handling were partly a result of this mentality. You are right though in saying we don't need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Christian morality; the sense of awe and reverence inculcated by regular worship, which could lead to genuine spiritual insight; treating people properly and a sense of being deeply rooted in one's own Western Christian culture (the last, properly understood, being a very personally enriching experience) are all things we seem, in some ways, both individually and as a nation, to be a little short of. As long as this sense is not manipulated by politicians and people are free to believe, or not, as they choose, I am happy.

Edward Fido | 28 August 2014  

Well written. I like the focus on the teachings of the Catholic Church rather than the fallabiliity of its members. Many today focus on the latter rather than the former and want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

kevin reed | 28 August 2014  

I have lost respect for the institution called the Catholic Church. I need its sacramental system, although the Sacrament of Reconciliation needs modification, and to maintain its availability I will put money on the plate each Sunday. The more I see of our church leaders the less I am impressed by them. That they give more importance to the moaning of the temple police than to the actions of the people of God is a scandal second only to the child abuse tragedy. That the Bishops still have the gall to put before us an annual statement is,pretentious.and patronising. Stop wearing silly clothes and become part of the real church. Kill clericalism rather than continue to reinforce it.

grebo | 28 August 2014  

One part of me cheers the author on in this article - that part of me that feels kicked and beaten by the blunter and thugish end of New Atheism. Another part of me looks at the brand-name "christians" in power that are encouraging society in the direction of fear, hatred, selfishness and ruthlessness. And as to the church - well... Pell and Co. seem to be much more concerned about protecting a corrupted institution than being channels of God's grace. What I want is spirituality without ideology, and politics without ideology.

De C | 28 August 2014  

Wonderful article which is so true.....please get it published in the newspapers & bring it to TV. So much undermining of Christian belief exists in Australia.......what a refreshing article. Thanks Kevin....so good to hear someone proclaim the good side for a change.

Penny | 28 August 2014  

Julian did not use that word 'realism'. Her commentator did. http://books.google.com.au/books?id=0vuB4y_GwxoC&pg=PA142&lpg=PA142&dq=julian+norwich+realism&source=bl&ots=fYbfSai3cN&sig=R6PNcuK_arEzUrJMgVjYmvCJw7Y&hl=en&sa=X&ei=wmT-U535Es2PuAS334L4DA&ved=0CFQQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=julian%20norwich%20realism&f=false

Max Richards | 28 August 2014  

"...the often vitriolic and very public campaign to tarnish religion and to undermine the beliefs of the 61 per cent of Australians who describe themselves as Christian". As is often the case with this author, the rhetoric is well in advance of the facts. The recent criticism of the church is well-merited and comes from within as much as from without.

Name | 28 August 2014  

'Didn't think i would find myself agreeing with KD, but his heartfelt and very rational comment moved me...as did First Communion Sunday last at my old parish [ " Ashby", Geelong] where we saw how Sunday Mass might be done. When George Pell gets buried in his accounting books, the Australian Church will rise again - as a believing, worshiping and serving community worthy of the respect we once had in our land.

bernard p ryan | 28 August 2014  

To use the vernacular, did Julian of Norwich also say to "get real"? ".Realism forces us to face the fact." Comparing past and present realities gives me a different view from Kevin. While ever grateful for past benefits and influences of major religions I have noticed music, novels ,plays, and films and what I see on the street seem to reflect a different view of the world,and a need for different human endeavor. Organized religion , apart from the scandal of the clergy and fundamentalism, does not have a place.at all.Maybe we all need a new focus to deal with the present realities.

Celia | 28 August 2014  

Hi Max, thanks for pointing that out. Best wishes, Kevin

Kevin Donnelly | 28 August 2014  

Dr Donnelly seems to drift between two concepts, one the christian faith the other the Catholic church. One is a belief system, the other an organisation.There is no doubt that Christianity along will all faiths has had a profound influence on all societies. However the role of the Catholic church has been more problematic. In recent times "the church" has adopted very un-christian attitudes. Pell's truck driver analogy was simply appalling. Defending the "reputation" of the church was more important that providing care for the victims. Moving the offenders into fresh pastures was not the correct response. And the Vatican's placing a blanket ban on handing over any findings from internal church enquiries was almost akin to being an accessory after, or possibly before, the fact. But this attitude is not limited to the Catholics, or christian organisations generally. By all means have faith, but don't let that faith blind us to some entrenched wrongdoings by those running the churches.Yes, it is not a good time to be Catholic.

Tom Mitchell | 28 August 2014  

"Now is not a good time to be a Christian - especially if you are a Catholic." I prefer to think in terms of Mao Tse-tung, who, when the Kuomintang (KMT) seemed to be winning control in China and Soviet communism's industrial working class revolution was waning, Mao declared to his comrades in their mountain retreat from the KMT in 1930s - The revolutionary situation is excellent. In China the socialist revolution must arise among the peasants, with whom we are living, and not from the industrial proletariat. I see a similar situation within the Catholic church. Now is an excellent time to assess the revolutionary potential of the current situation. Regrettably I don't see at the moment a Christian leader or group of Christian leaders with the strategic skills of a Mao Tse-tung to read the signs of the times we are going through. The People of God will prevail - despite the frailty of the hierarchy that claims to lead them.

Uncle Pat | 28 August 2014  

I share in the sentiments of so much of what Kevin says. However, I also feel that no Royal Commission removes the crying need for the Catholic Church to reflect internally on where it is now at in our world, including reflecting on whether and how to break down the pervasive patriarchal structure and give women a meaningful voice at the highest leadership level and whether and to what extent the way in which the Church approaches issues of sexuality is skewed by the profile, including age, gender and experience, of the people who are formulating the Church's official view on these things. Until that is done I am concerned that the value of all the things Kevin writes about may become lost in all the noise. The Catholic Church has lost a lot of its respect and moral authority at the moment on a lot of things. The present Pope has breathed some new life into the Church. But it is only a start. As a Catholic I cannot help but question whether the institutionalised form of the Church I belong to is really what was envisaged by the Jesus written about in the gospels. Brendan

Brendan A McCarthy | 28 August 2014  

If the hierarchy of our church is lost in a plethora of trappings, silly suits and pomp and ceremony I have no doubt that in our loving creator's good time the church will extricate itself from these shortcomings. This is especially so since so many voices, both among the laity and the hierarchy itself are calling us to dialogue and prayer on this.

Paul van Ruth | 28 August 2014  

You include in this very good article, Dr Donnelly, an elegant yet simple exposition of the place of literature, music and art in the elevation of the human spirit towards God, an essential element of the pre-Vatican II sacred liturgy of the Catholic Church. Personal interpretations "in the spirit of Vat II" or, more descriptively, preferred life style options have destroyed the sacred liturgy since Vatican II. Catholicism in the modern world is unlikely to recover until those responsible (the hierarchy who seem afraid of the challenges of the godless world) gather the collective courage to correct the damage done by Vat II in the delivery of a human rather than a God centred Church. It may be that if the Church continues to be overwhelmingly human centred (i.e. humanist or secular) it will continue to become further alienated from God and will suffer accordingly.

john frawley | 28 August 2014  

I agree with most of what you say, Kevin. My background is similar to yours - though Braybrook, not Broadmeadows - and I heard 'opium of the people' as often as I heard 'time for Mass'! Actually, though, I think this is a very good time to be a Catholic Christian. We're forced to look at ourselves and our church with a critical eye and take responsibility for the bad as well as recognizing afresh the extraordinary gifts we receive through that church. Must be good. BTW, what this with equating Yusuf Irfan with Wendy Squires? Her piece was just silly and ignorant - I've never read anything by YI that wasn't worth considering.

Joan Seymour | 28 August 2014  

Donnelly is a partisan as ever. He can't resists taking a shot at those "expensive to run" government schools that educate ten times as many students disabled, rural and remote and low income students than the Catholic schools he espouses. He also fails to talk of the changes he wants to make to education to meet the LNP agenda. But most tellingly he fails to mention the slur that has been cast on the Catholic church by a majority Catholic front bench which wants to punish the people at the lower end of the spectrum so they can keep their entitlements and get the budget back into the black. As for Pell? Less said about his contribution to Australian Catholicism the better.

John | 28 August 2014  

Twice I have visited the Alhambra in Spain. Each time I have been moved by the genius of ancient Islam and have reflected how tragic it is that the ideology and actions of certain sects within contemporary Islam seem drastically alien to their rich, humanising heritage. Likewise, there is the pernicious effect of those whose ways of thinking and acting in the name of Christianity, are antithetical to the Gospel. So, this is to say that if we, of whatever faith or none, allowed ourselves to be true to the heart of traditions - religious or humanist, we would be honouring the dignity of every human being and reverencing all creation.

Caroline Ryan RSM | 28 August 2014  

I agree, a very good article, and close to my heart. Wendy Squire`s article was intellectually infantile, but is useful in reflecting what the inner-city greenie elite think of us. And this should make us ponder on our faults and to put them right; we do have an awful lot of planks in our collective eye. However, I would also say that John F has it almost 180degrees wrong: Vat 2 was an inspirational chance to change things from a great and holy pope. We were not allowed to take that opportunity for change by the likes of JP2 and Ratzinger in his various offices (and Pell as his numbers man). So now it is late in the day and we have even more to fix, and even more need to be radical in doing that. Out with the funny medieval clothes; the funny medical titles; the outrageously out-dated view of women and married sex; introduce some synodal democracy (like the Anglicans and some Orthodox), and get it done quickly. I hope Francis is the man for this; by focusing on the core messages of Jesus he has made a great start. But there is a huge catching up to do.

Eugene | 28 August 2014  

"Ignored is that Christianity is one of the foundation stones on which Western civilisation is based" I think Kevin says it all in this comment. If you believe that 'western civilisation' is a success, as it appears Kevin does, then you have a good point in congratulating Christianity for contributing to this. If you see western civilisation as a failure for the majority of the world who are simply sourced to supply its materialism then you might have a right to blame Christianity for this. I am of the opinion that, in part, Christianity is to blame and the blindness of those who would credit Christianity with the 'success' of western society only becomes clearer as you read such pieces as Kevin's.

Tom K | 28 August 2014  

Well done, Kevin. What a simple, but powerful way you have expressed Catholic Christianity which can and does permeate every aspect of our lives, culturally, educationally and musically. While the institutional church has let its followers down, as a good friend of mine wrote quite forcefully about faith: don't throw the baby out with the bathwater! Your words give hope. Well done!

shirley McHugh | 28 August 2014  

Eugene, Disappointingthat you spoiled your useful response to Kevin's article by using put downs like "inner-city greenie elites". We use far too many such remarks nowadays, in all areas of life. Resist!

ml | 29 August 2014  

Excellent article! Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that classical music is the music that grew out of the Church and still carries within it the soul of the Church. If classical music is the music that satisfies the soul, surely much modern music contributes to the savagery in the human breast.

Ross Howard | 29 August 2014  

The argument underpinning this article seems to be circular. That western civilisation is founded/based on Christianity, you say. But isn't the positive basis of that Christianity really the HUMAN values? The basic ideals of the dignity and value of the human person? All the problems and turmoil, including the Inquisition, the lead-up to the Reformation and now the Sex Abuse Scandals are also part of that western civilisation - the negative side of it - the human failure, where the church did NOT follow the example of Jesus.

AURELIUS | 29 August 2014  

Yes I believe that a lot of people seem to concentrate only on the problems and the negatives of religion and especially of Catholicism and forget about the benefit of Christian teaching & institutions to society. Where would we be without a conscience that our teachings and our Christian influences have taught us?

Maria Prestinenzi | 30 August 2014  

I am a cathoic,I need Christ in my life,but where do I turn.?

Cathy | 01 September 2014  

Good article except for the boring swipe at 'socialism'. A little 'socialism' is a good thing and perfectly OK in my book. Saying the Rosary does not mean any Catholic needs to join the moneyed side of politics.

Michael Webb | 05 September 2014  

You make some valid points and I think e sometimes need to be reminded of the many and marvellous contributions of Christianity. However, for all that we'll only ever be as good as our last game and for us Child Abuse has been diabolical. The response continues to be an insult.

Genevieve O'Reilly | 18 October 2014  

Unfortunately the young don't have the context of historical Catholicism as described by Donnelly which we older Catholics are intimately familiar... Nor the depth to put clerical abuse (raised occasionally by students) in the perspective of a church always seeking perfection. In this situation catholic schools are operating in a post Christian society and the priesthood may never recover from the actions of the few. Just how catholic schools will continue is an opportunity for Donnelly or others to investigate in detail. A good article except for the reference T.S.'s novels.

Graeme | 27 October 2014