Reasons to believe

Paul Collins is an engaging writer. He engages with his audience, with the defects of his church, and with the public issues of his day. In this book, he stands back a little, asking why, in the face of so much that he finds to criticise, he remains Catholic.

He makes a persuasive, if not original, case for leaving the church behind. For Collins, sexual abuse and its cover-up, the harassment of faithful Catholics, intolerance, dishonesty and a repressive sexual ethos, have deep roots. They lie in an abuse of power that makes office holders unaccountable, infantilises local churches, and encourages vigilante groups. His is a deeply dysfunctional church, that alienates its members.

Caught in such a deep winter, one may well ask why not head for warmer climates. Collins replies that Catholicism is in the blood. A genuinely Catholic faith affirms the goodness and promise of the world that God has made. It shapes a community that encourages a confidently enquiring attitude to the world, and looks for God’s footsteps among the people and the plight of the world. Collins values prayer and contemplation as ways of finding God’s presence in the world. In more recent years, he has responded to God’s presence in nature and has committed himself to the environmental movement.

He refers to this generous vision of the world as the Catholic imagination. If it sets him against a rationalist and fearfully dogmatic form of Catholicism, it also leads him to criticise the secular rationalism that finds no value in faith. He finds both adversaries shallow.

The Catholicism which Collins describes represents the Catholic tradition at its best. It is informed, reflective, undemonstratively devout and confident. Collins has a good eye for its enemies and for its counterfeits. He is right to claim that an emphasis on control and on unthinking is alien to the Catholic tradition. His book will encourage those who espouse an inclusive style of Catholicism to hang in. If the Roman hobgoblins of his book seem to wear black hats of unnatural darkness, his readers will enjoy the more their decapitation.

The broad Catholic tradition, however, is not simply for celebrating. It is also for passing on. That the struggle to pass on the full Catholic tradition will be fought on an unfavourable terrain with few troops becomes evident if we reflect on the questions that will shape the Catholic Church of the future. Who will be regularly involved in the church? Where will the young adults who pass on the tradition come from? How will they be led to find the humane Catholic tradition instead of a fashionably narrow version of it?

Let me guess at the shape of the church in 25 years time. The number of Catholics with a regular contact with the church will be much reduced by death and ill health, and by the failure to replace older with younger members. It will include few of Collins’ (and my) generation.

The Catholic Church will include many children of immigrants, from ethnic communities. They will preserve the devotional emphasis they have inherited with their culture. Few of the children of the Vatican II generation will be much involved in the church, not least because they are more likely to be alienated by an authoritarian style of church. Groups with a strong and narrow sense of Catholic identity will be more significant, both because they are committed and because their relative numbers will be greater. In this smaller church, to pass on the Catholic tradition with its respect for intellect and its universal imagination, will be a great challenge.

The challenge becomes even more exigent if we ask where we shall find the young adults who will bear the tradition, either as ministers or as full-time church workers. They will be drawn largely from a relatively small number of young adults who are enthusiastic about their Catholicism. Current trends do not suggest that this group will naturally come to a Catholic imagination, nor that they will have a passion for social justice. The majority will come from families with a strong Catholic identity, or will have had a conversion that associates them with a devout and cohesive group of their peers.

Because their commitment is so little shared by their peers, they will need encouragement from others who are enthusiastic and wholeheartedly affirming in their allegiance to the church. Hero worship of the Pope, attraction to World Youth Days and pilgrimages, interest in new Catholic groups, a desire for clear boundaries in Catholic life and faith, and a willingness to explore exposition and other traditional Catholic devotions are some of the things that offer firm structure to their identity.

Those who take on a new and distinctive Catholic identity are vulnerable to the temptation to define themselves in opposition to a wicked world or to backsliding fellow Catholics. Certainly, they will never lack for older guides who are negative and waspish in their judgment of society or other Catholics. So, to encourage this group to enter the broad Catholic tradition will be done into the wind. It will certainly not be enough to decry the narrowness and superficiality of the attitudes they adopt. Nor will it do to wait until they are alienated by the narrowness of the world they have chosen.

The challenge to commend a liberality of spirit and a habit of looking beyond the adversarial and beyond slogans is not confined to the Catholic Church. It is evident also in public discourse, where it is hard to go beyond the dismissive and the shallow. Nor is this a condition unique to our own time. Civility, liberality, respect for the complexities of tradition, a respect for truth, faith and reason are highly developed things. They are always threatened. The ages always threaten to be dark; the barbarians are always at the gate.

Dark ages are times for lighting candles and polishing the silver, for preserving fruit, for conversation. In commending the full Catholic tradition, there is no substitute for engaging in conversation with those unfamiliar with it. In conversation, people are drawn by the splendour of the truth. Even those sheltered within the high walls of certainty find with experience that the broad fields of truth are more attractive places in which to play. These, after all, compose God’s garden.

Between the Rock and a Hard Place: Being Catholic Today, Paul Collins. ABC Books, 2004. isbn 0 733 31429 5, rrp $29.95



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