Past is present for the Catholic Church



When I have the chance to come to Australia from the States I always like to check out what's on television. The last few weeks I've been watching the recent Annabel Crabb-helmed history-meets-foodie reality show, Back in Time for Dinner on ABC iView.

Family from Back in Time For DinnerOver seven episodes the Sydney-based Ferrone family is asked to live, eat and dress the style and customs of the past, from the 1950s through the 2000s. Crabb is always value added as far as I'm concerned; whether she's interviewing politicians while they make her tea or talking to Leigh Sales about books and The Americans, she brings a keen mind wedded to a merry subversiveness.

As for watching some suburban family struggle over the lack of a microwave or wifi, well, it all seems very much the purview of the privileged. You want a reality check, try asking your family to live seven weeks with the refugees on Nauru.

But amid the frothy wonder of it all, as the family experiences moments like the 1956 Olympics — they listen to Dawn Fraser's race on the radio with Fraser herself — or the advent of push-button telephones (which the children have to be taught how to use), come unexpected moments of pain and dislocation.

Mother of the family Carol knew she probably was going to be stuck in the kitchen for at least part of the 1950s, but in fact her entire existence is spent in the home, cooking and cleaning using devices that remind one more of medieval dentistry than modern housewares. It's actually quite brutal on her. Meanwhile husband Peter is also frustrated, as he's forced to eat by himself, the kids having been fed earlier and Carol with hours of cleaning still to do.

In the 1960s daughter Sienna is told it's time to leave school and get a job, as at age 15 girls' schooling was considered unnecessary; time to find a man. And oldest son Julian is reduced to silence as he struggles to understand the idea that young men his age were forced to go to war on the basis of a random lottery.

Again and again, the Ferrones' struggles lead us to the same question: How could people have ever thought this was a good idea? How could it be, within living memory, that women could be afforded so little independence? That people would slather themselves — or worse, their children — with oil and lie in the sun all day? That school canteens were filled with junk food?


"Again and again, the Ferrones' struggles lead us to the same question: How could people have ever thought this was a good idea? But what has really changed?"


But what has really changed? Sifting through the daily news these days, similar questions arise. How is it that workplaces even to today have allowed women to be harassed, made to feel unsafe and far worse? Equally, those familiar with the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church might wonder, how could any decent person have thought moving abusive priests could solve the problem, or that sexual contact with a minor could be 'gotten over'?

The immediate instinct is to write the persons of the past off as deeply deficient, if not monsters. And yet, to take up the latter example, these days I so often hear Catholics confiding how things used to be, that you just never questioned Father or Bishop, or that sometimes you saw things, knew things but couldn't quite get your head around them. We use the term 'blind spot', but more than an area we couldn't see, it was something so foreign, so outside our frameworks that we couldn't comprehend them. Our imaginations had no place for what we found before us.

In Chicago where I grew up abuse was not an unknown phenomenon in the 1980s. But our references were oblique and clouded; we knew, but we didn't really know, and our parents were much the same. Now the paradigms have shifted so dramatically that the past seems in some ways like an entirely different world, and thank goodness. But to conclude that we now have the full picture is dangerous.

Yes, the Church might now understand matters more clearly, proceed more justly. But the broader insight is, stigmatism is a part of the human condition. We are always in the process of seeing and becoming.

In the earliest decades covered by Back in Time for Dinner, the three children are more or less constantly together. In a moment alone, unaware of the implications of what she's saying, ten year old Olivia confides to the camera about how happy she is; in their normal present-day lives her older siblings never do anything with her.

As the television eventually shows up in their house, then the computer, then mobile phones, it's fascinating and sad to watch the family structure start to fray at the edges. And much of the time no one even seems to notice.



Jim McDermottJim McDermott is an American Jesuit and screenwriter.

Topic tags: Jim McDermott, Back In Time For Dinner, Annabel Crabb, Catholic Church, clergy sexual abuse



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Existing comments

I think the Catholic Church, if it is to much more closely embody the values of Jesus of Nazareth, needs to travel back in time to the origins of its problematic hierarchical institutional system of church governance, which appears to have begun in the 4th century, when Constantine became a Christian, and then travel on in time to the formatisation of this dysfunctional system of governance at the Council of Trent (1545–1563). I currently hear the Australian Catholic Bishops making pronouncements about the recommendations of the Royal Commisssion into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, and doing this without consulting widely with the Catholic laity. Will the Bishops ever learn? Jesus never ordained anyone, but those in ordained Catholic ministry hold virtually all the power. If the clergy aren't prepared to co-govern with the laity, I think the Catholic Church in Australia and other countries will continue to decline. Wide consultaltation with the Catholic laity would be a good start to Church renewal, which I hope will happen with the 2020 Plenary Council. Or will it just be 'business as usual'?
Grant Allen | 31 August 2018

Any student of history who has got beyond the 'Kings, wars and explorers' stage has faced this problem of 'how on earth could our ancestors have thought this or that situation or behaviour normal and acceptable?' We ask the question because we are looking in from outside and don't really see the internal consistency and auto-validation of the culture as it appears to those living through it. Future generations will express the same dismay about us and our culture. Escaping the constraints of our own culture requires an eternal scepticism and questioning, especially of those 'catechised' elements of our culture. In using the term 'catechised' I'm not just referring to religious catechising, which is probably conditioning fewer people than in the past, but also, and perhaps primarily, to the shallow and superficial secular catechising of notions such as 'western democracy', 'the free world', 'capitalism', 'the fair go' and 'what it is to be Australian'.
Ginger Meggs | 01 September 2018

Certainly, Ginger, it is difficult to escape the constraining influences of one's own cultural milieu; however, knowledge history can provide liberating perspectives that are more constructive than a stance of "eternal scepticism" (even were this disposition possible) - which prompts me to remind Grant Allen that the patristic tradition of priestly ordination in the Catholic Church and its connection with the Last Supper, celebrated today in the Holy Thursday liturgy, pre-dates the Donation of Constantine.
John | 03 September 2018

I grew up in the 1950's so I find this article very amusing. Maybe I was already a 'rebel' by age 12. As one of two boys whose dad died when we were very young,we were sent off to boarding school; me at age 7 and my brother at age 5. Brutal you might say- yes in hindsight it was, but then that was the way things were done then. We both completed our education as boarders, first with the Sisters of Mercy, then the Marists. Life was tough and very regimented. Discipline was by todays standards, barbaric. But that was the way it was. Yes we were aware of abuse, but no one believed us, so what was the point of making a complaint? I had mates who were Presbyterian . I soon came to realise they were human too and had the same right to salvation . I soon recognised the hypocrisy of sectarianism rampant at the time and began to question church traditions , but not core beliefs. The Brothers, Nuns and the Parish Priest exercised great power and influence over the laity in the 1950's.That began to evaporate in the 1960's, particularly following Vatican II. Sadly the decline of power and status has not yet been reflected in Church governance. The hierarchy , clergy and religious still hold most positions of power and influence as was shown in the recent press conference mentioned above . There was not a representative of the laity on that panel! I totally endorse Grant Allen's comments .I too hope that the 2020 Plenary Council will reflect an enlightened approach to Church Governance in Australia. I trust that my hopes are not in vain
Gavin O'Brien | 03 September 2018

Gavin O'Brien, I recognise the need for reform, but as yet have no clear picture of what "an enlightened approach to Church Governance in Australia" would actually look like. Some measures advanced in ES postings (e.g., women's ordination) conceived exclusively in secular terms ( viz., rights, equality) suggest rupture from rather than organic development in a defining element of the Catholic Church's tradition.
John | 03 September 2018

Can you help me to understand what you mean by 'knowledge history' please John? It's a term that I've not come acrsoss before.
Ginger Meggs | 03 September 2018

Sorry, Ginger - that should be "knowledge of history".
John | 03 September 2018

Thanks John, that's clearer now. Note that I used the word 'scepticism' not 'cynicism', and while I agree that seeking to maintain an 'eternal scepticism' is never easy, what are the 'liberating perspectives' that you suggest are more constructive?
Ginger Meggs | 04 September 2018

Ginger, in a world where advanced technologies facilitate the dissemination and control by the State of ideologies and propaganda subversive of truth, freedom and the value of the individual (e.g., totalitarianism, fascism), alternative historical perspectives are supplied in efforts, individual and organised, to overthrow such oppression, (e.g., Churchill's opposition to Nazism, and the French Resistance). Such temporal and spatial manifestations or "perspectives" I regard as "liberating", or conducive to human flourishing. Contemporary examples can be found in the work of Church missionaries in places where religious/socio/cultural/economic conditions define locals as outcasts. Fr Tony Herbert SJ's recent book, "Disturbing the Dust" (Sydney: Jesuit Mission, 2017) exemplifies this.
John | 04 September 2018

History 101: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." L.P. Hartley, 'The Go-Between' (1953), opening sentence.
Richard Jupp | 06 September 2018

John, I recognise the need for reform. Like you I am not sure what way it will manifest .One point I do want to make very powerfully is that the Church Hierarchy, and the Clergy must realise that they do not have a 'Divine Right' to impose their views/interpretations on the Laity .Vatican II made this abundantly clear. These days many lay people, including my self have theological qualifications ,in my case Masters (Theology) . However not once have I been consulted at Parish let alone Diocesan level! The attitude seems to be "Father knows best because he is ordained". I was involved in education , mostly Catholic schools, for thirty years. Many of our church leaders have not studied beyond their Seminary years , because they are so overwhelmed with administration and other clerical duties. Lay people have many gifts the Church could use, but I suspect a fear of loss of control is a reason for our exclusion. Grant, your summary of the Church governance is spot on. Any objective reading of Church history reveals many occasions when leadership was anything but Christian in its actions .Sadly we tend to gloss over these unpleasant facts, particularly in the teaching of Religious Studies.
Gavin O'Brien | 06 September 2018

I agree with most of the points made by Grant Allen, Ginger Meggs and Gavin O'Brien. I think I have some idea where John is coming from. His position reminds me of the caution expressed by Fr Tony Percy (The Voice, September 2018 p8, Diocese Monthly for Canberra-Goulburn) re- Plenary Council 2020. "As the process of consultation at the national level continues, all the responses that the faithful have made will be collated and presented to the Plenary Council. Clearly those that are not in accord with Catholic faith and morals will not be given credence." And who is going to give this credence? The experts on Catholic faith and morals, I suppose, who among other thing puzzling things in the Apostles Creed explain "the resurrection of the body" with the prediction that in the next life we will have "a spiritual body" - an oxymoron if ever there was one.
Uncle Pat | 06 September 2018

Your choice of the word "impose" prejudices the exercise of teaching authority by the Catholic Church's pastors. Gavin. Popes, bishops and priests not only have the right but also the sacred duty to ensure that what is taught in Christ's name is consistent with his teaching and that of the apostles in every age. Thus Vatican II: "When the Roman Pontiff , or the body of bishops together with him, define a doctrine, they make the definition in conformity with revelation itself, to which all are bound to adhere and to which they are obliged to submit." (Lumen Gentium, III, "The Church is Hierarchical", par. 25). Theologians, clerical and lay, obviously have an important role to play in this process, but, as Vatican II affirms, it is for the pope and bishops in communion with him to make the call on what authentically represents the faith of the Church and what does not. Practically, the very plurality of theological opinion and discussion, however academically qualified, at times necessitates formal discernment and adjudication by those with the Christ-given authority to do so. St Augustine captures incisively both the distinction and interdependent relationship between the Church's authorised teachers and the lay faithful: "To you I am the bishop, with you I am a Christian. The first is an office, the second a grace; the first a danger, the second salvation." (Sermon 340.1). No suggestion here of a competition for "power", as Grant's posting implies.
John | 06 September 2018

It is now almost 40 years since I decided to become a Catholic. I was instructed by a very wise Jesuit and I recall only one moment at which I was less than grateful for this. At one point he observed that women who aspired to the priesthood mistook the nature of priesthood. It was not, he assured me, about power. It was about service. I can vividly remember an almost overwhelming urge to hurl my ‘textbook’ (600+ pages of the “New Catechism”) across the room at him. These days I often have a similar urge reading ES. What the laity in general, and women in particular, are seeking is indeed not power. It is the opportunity to exercise their God given gifts in service. In my own highly dysfunctional parish it is precisely the denial of that right that has caused a seemingly fatal rift between pastor and flock. If perchance any opportunity is afforded within the parish for us to contribute to the Plenary Council (and this now seems extremely unlikely) will we be heard? Unlikely I would say. Not to worry. The flower arrangements are still beautiful.But I for one am weary of considering the lilies.
Margaret | 06 September 2018

Thank you, John , for reminding us of what Vatican II actually said. There are so many interpretations of what Vatican II said or "made abundantly clear". Unfortunately many of these serve individual preferences and opinions and often bear little relationship to the Vatican II documents involved.
john frawley | 07 September 2018

John and John Frawley. John, your reference to Lumen Gentium is refreshing, given that, as John Frawley points out, all too often, many do not consider what the documents of Vatican II actually say. Vat II has been blamed by many, often through their own interpretation of what it all meant, for all of the ills in the Church. I suggest that just as we must use Scripture carefully, so too Church documents. John, your citation from Lumen Gentium regarding ‘"The Church is Hierarchical", par. 25’, must be coupled seriously with what is further down the page in the entire of Lumen Gentium, IIII, "The Laity”. In summary, we were supposed to have a regular listening process (‘organs’ set up – article 37 para. 1) by the hierarchy whereby the laity (all laity – theologians or otherwise) could speak. This has not happened in the Church in Australia since Lumen Gentium was promulgated in 1964. No diocese/archdiocese has these structures. The up-coming 2020 Plenary Council is to be applauded, but is the first in 80 years! This is hardly an ongoing listening process. Therefore, the ‘unlistening’ hierarchy, clergy and the Church, past and present since 1964, has failed in this duty herein requested of Lumen Gentium. It seems that many have not read the documents carefully!
Thomas Amory | 10 September 2018

Thank you, Thomas, for the reference to LG, IV, paragraph 37, where the laity are encouraged to " . . . manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church." Almost immediately in the same paragraph, we read: " . . . the laity should promptly accept in Christian obedience what is decided by the pastors" who are described as "teachers and rulers of the Church." The Council both acknowledges relationship and maintains distinctive roles of laity and pastors. Nor is there any prescription here of a particular form of 'organ' to be implemented in order to facilitate lay expression of opinion, so it would seem that the specific forms for it are left to the discretion of individual bishops in their dioceses - some have established Diocesan Pastoral Councils, an initiative that could well be extended to ensure and further lay input into decision-making.
John | 10 September 2018

John. Thanks for your response regarding Lumen Gentium and the balance between laity and hierarchy. I understand that some dioceses have set up such organs, but these are not compulsory, have been slow in coming, have not involved all laity and have usually been of a spasmodic nature. What’s more, there has been nothing on a national level involving the whole Church in Australia, resulting in the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing and thinking. Even ‘parish’ pastoral councils are at the discretion of the Parish priest, resulting in many parishes today still not having them. One local parish in my area has not had one for over ten years! The various Vat II documents on these issues, as well as Canon law is clear. Again, it is important that all documents are considered in these matters, and from the result of the investigation and subsequent recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual abuse, this area of the Church in Australia has been shown seriously lacking. It is only now with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference response on August 31, 2018, and their agreement to matters such as this that the hierarchy has been forced to act. While it is clear that they continue to enjoy the teaching authority etc., as you point out, they have not listened in humility and with a desire to journey with all members of Christ’s faithful.
Thomas Amory | 10 September 2018

Well said, Thomas Amory! In his Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exaltate Pope Francis, as one would expect of a follower of St Ignatius, puts great emphasis on spiritual discernment in our quest for holiness. All members of the Catholic church in Australia who wish to partake in the Plenary Council 2020 process will need spiritual discernment in spades. But ever the realist, Francis writes at para. 170 in his Exhortation: "Certainly spiritual discernment does not exclude existential, psychological, sociological or moral insights drawn from the human sciences. At the same time. it transcends them." Where we are as a religious community of Christians in Australia reminds me of Mao Tse- tung's call to "Let a hundred flowers bloom". When the flowers of free thought, criticism and suggested reforms that blossomed proved to be displeasing to Chairman Mao and the Communist Party hierarchy a period of worse repression followed. It will take a lot of courage, perseverance and discernment for concerned Catholics to answer the PC2020 question "What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?"
Uncle Pat | 11 September 2018


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