The gift of speaking freely

In anxious times, the free exchange of ideas is an early casualty. Lines spun at parties contract to the Party Line.

In some English-speaking Catholic Churches, the last decade has been notable for the sporadic restriction of free speech. Some bishops have excluded from their churches speakers who enjoy good standing in their own diocese. Others have forbidden priests and religious to address meetings of which they disapprove. It is not uncommon to exclude from adult education programs and bookshops material that does not reflect a narrow theological perspective. Diocesan newspapers are often discouraged from treating difficult issues, like sexual abuse by clergy, and sometimes may not carry letters critical of the policy or practices of the local church. In a restrictive climate, it is also common for church groups to restrict the topics they discuss and the speakers they invite.

Critics of the Catholic Church are not surprised by this. They see in it an expression of the totalitarian mind. I see it as a more complex and interesting set of responses to a changing Catholic world. These are some of its salient features.

The Catholic Church today is generally declining in numbers, and the priests and religious who have sustained it are ageing. There are few places in which it forms a sub-culture that shapes its adherents’ imaginative world. Those to whom the Catholic Church remains of central importance often have sharply opposed images of what church should be.

In this world of loose association, few Catholics look to Catholic media in order to find an agreed understanding of Catholic faith and life. They more often derive their information about the Catholic Church and its policies from the secular media, and form their judgments on the strength of the reports they find there. These reports naturally emphasise conflict and scandal and offer an outsider’s view.

In the face of diminishment and diffusion, one of the strongest resources of the Catholic Church is Pope John Paul II, a recognisable and strong leader. He commends an active, united and renewed church, confident in its faith. Local churches often co-opt his vision, describing their life and pastoral strategies in abstract and idealised terms that do not touch day-to- day realities. Against the touchstone of this enthusiastic rhetoric, questioning and disagreement can be read as signs of mediocrity and infidelity.

Over the last 40 years, the central issue touching the Catholic Church has been the relationship between ordained ministry and laity. It shows itself in arguments about the relationship between authorities, and particularly between the central and congregational levels. Recently, the moral authority of clergy, including bishops, has been much weakened by scandals of sexual abuse, and the claims of consultative and decentralised leadership have become correspondingly attractive.

In such a church, no one could seriously hope to control what Catholics read and hear. The gestures at limiting conversation should be seen rather as having symbolic value. They make statements in response to different aspects of the Catholic Church’s predicament.

When you exclude reputable theological books from libraries and speakers of good reputation from church premises, for example, you are saying that only one of the many ways of thinking and acting common among fervent Catholics is truly Catholic. Exclusion reflects and extends polarisation.

If you prevent church newspapers from treating unpleasant or controverted aspects of church life, and decline to publish letters critical of church policy and practice, you usually express the desire for a quiet life. Your preferred conversation about the Catholic Church will be conducted in idealised and abstract terms, perhaps liberally quoting the Pope. In this way you can avoid confronting a messy reality.

When you draw lists of people who may and may not safely speak on church property, and of authorised and proscribed events, you are usually engaged in an exercise of authority. The boundaries drawn are a symbol of clerical authority over Catholic conversation.

Why does this matter? Those who criticise these restrictive practices within the Catholic Church often imply that free speech is an unqualified good. Certainly, in political societies, free speech serves an informed public opinion and fuller participation in decision making. But even there, free speech is not an absolute value. Generally, societies do not tolerate the open advocacy of behaviour that would subvert its foundations.

The Catholic Church famously is a distinctive kind of political society. Catholics receive a faith that is handed down and Catholic conversation about faith assumes the framework of what has been handed down. Bishops are responsible for encouraging the handing on and living of the received faith. These qualities of Catholic life structure conversation and suggest boundaries. In particular, they may justify restricting conversation when it subverts the faith that is handed on. They also demand, however, an active public opinion and the largest measure of free speech.

The heart of the Catholic Church is the living faith of Christians. That is the gift where Christ is understood to be present, and where the Holy Spirit to be working. At this level, there is no distinction between different classes of Christians. At the level of living faith, too, all Christians, teachers and those taught, are weak. In their grasp of Christ’s love and their response to it, they are always limited. The Spirit works to encourage a fuller faith and fuller Christian life.

The importance of teaching and pastoral leadership lies in the need to enlarge narrow minds to believe more fully, and constricted hearts to live more generously by faith. This requires both authoritative teaching and open conversation.

Unconstrained conversation is important, because it is the ordinary way in which we are converted to a fuller form of faith and of Christian life. When tinny ideas have license to speak themselves, they may initially be attractive. But their deficiencies soon appear when set against something better. When they are suppressed, they seem daring and attractive.

If they are to encourage people to live more fully by faith, teachers need a climate of open conversation. For you can only encourage people to a better mind if you know how they are living, how they imagine the world, and how they relate their faith to their world. Without the understanding that comes from easy conversation, your pastoral strategies will inevitably be flawed.

Teachers also need to encourage free speech to complement their own limitations. Because of the weakness of their own faith, their responses to people and their pastoral strategies will inevitably be influenced by prejudices and cultural conditions as well as by faith. Conversation is the normal way through which the Holy Spirit leads us to examine our conscience.

Encouragement of open conversation and its authoritative declaration are two sides of the same coin. The risk of marking out authoritative boundaries to conversation is that it suppresses self-criticism. One comes to stand over and not under the Gospel. For this reason, the restrictions on conversation in any church should be as narrow as possible. To remove issues like clerical abuse, Eucharistic hospitality and women’s ministry from conversation hinders teachers from encouraging a fuller faith. They fly blind, with answers to questions that are not being asked, but without words to address the questions that are being asked.

Because it so respects living faith as Christ’s gift, the Catholic tradition typically celebrates a breadth of devotional expression, of theological perspectives, and of forms of Christian life. Where people whose lives and words are respected in their own churches are excluded from speaking in other churches, there is a breach of universality and of communion. Where the refusal is based on the exclusive preference for one among many legitimate expressions of Christian life, whether radical or reactionary, Augustine’s harsh words about the Donatists, the sectarians of his day, form sufficient comment: ‘The heavens proclaim the glory of God, and these frogs squat in their marsh and croak, “We are the only Christians”’.

Ultimately effective evangelism demands open conversation. For it invites people to find a deep trust in God by entering a community that lives confidently. In the early church, the gift of the Spirit to which the evangelists appealed was boldness of speech. When we restrict and control conversation in the community, we communicate anxiety and timidity. We may attract those who seek security, but it is not the Gospel of freedom that we commend.  

Andrew Hamilton sj is the publisher of Eureka Street.



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