Stephanie Dowrick. Can the Catholic Church survive its near-terminal self-harm?

(This article was also published in a slightly shorter version in Eureka Street (on-line journal): LINK . You are welcome to comment thoughtfully there or on Stephanie Dowrick’s public Facebook page.)

A couple of weeks ago I went to a sung Mass in Wellington, New Zealand, at St Mary of the Angels. Wellington was the city of my childhood, although for much of that childhood, I lived on Wellington’s outskirts. To a great extent that also sums up my relationship to Catholicism: I am on the outskirts, yet close enough and invested enough to care very much how the Church evolves. Because, it seems to me, how it evolves and the speed at which those urgent and essential changes take place, will significantly determine whether it will survive – and whether it deserves to survive in any form.

My relationship to Catholicism has always been complex. It was only after my mother died of cancer at just 38, and I was eight, that my father – previously an intellectually convinced atheist – converted to Catholicism. In his wake, my older sister and I received ‘instructions’ – from a timid, entirely ‘appropriate’ curate – and then were received into the Church and re-baptised. In the many decades since I’ve been through every kind of permutation in response to Catholicism from absolute rejection and incredulity about the cruelty, banality and indifference that exist alongside genuine care and social justice action, to far more meaningful re-engagement. There’s been intimacy, too. Over the last 25 years or more I have worked in my capacity as a spiritually inclusive minister and retreat leader with Catholic groups of all kinds, including congregations of nuns, school staffs, laypeople, chaplains and pastoral care workers, and priests.

Through those richly welcome opportunities – and the parish I intermittently attend – I’ve met so many people whom I could unconditionally admire and learn from, also experiencing in their company that ineffable, uniting spiritually alive ‘something’ that does seem to survive as a stillness, a resource, in the heart of all the ancient faiths, despite whatever human behaviour swirls around them. (Psalm 46:10 ‘Be still and know…Be still and know that I am God. That I am what the people seek.’) A lack of stillness desolates, plainly.

At a more personal and explicit level, I also experienced among those committed Catholics shame, sorrow, confusion, rage, abandonment, remorse: remorse for crimes others had committed or allowed or covered-up. Worse, horror – and it is horror – that their once-beloved Church has been massively more willing to shield perpetrators rather than victims: that the Church that preaches mercy and God’s love had failed in its mission and duty of care to those whom Jesus specifically named as deserving of care, warning: ‘Whatever you do to these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.’

This teaching – Mathew 25:40-45 – feels and surely is profoundly significant in this transitioning moment of history. It matters for those who attempt in any way to defend the grotesque abuse of suffering individuals – children, children – by the Catholic church or any groups or individuals trading on entrenched assumptions of ‘specialness’ in relation to God. It matters also for those enjoying the vast privileges of political power – most especially when they seek to gain credibility through their ‘Christian’ affiliations. But where there is a promise that an ordained person can mediate between an individual and their God, the responsibilities are awesome. They require not just maturity; they require and deserve profound humility.

Jesus was inescapably specific. He threatens abandonment, even ‘fire’, for those who, when he was hungry, gave him nothing to eat; when he was thirsty, denied him drink; when he was a stranger, did not invite him in; when he was sick and in prison, did not care for him. Jesus anticipates the incredulity of those who hear this and would rush to say, ‘Of course we would do it for you.’ His teaching is repeated in a typically effective, typically Jewish way: ‘Whatever you did not do for one of [the most vulnerable], you did not do for me.’

When a massive global Church has so plainly lost its way on this core teaching on conduct and care, should it survive? And that’s not the only core teaching that seems to have been trampled by Christian denominations including and beyond Catholicism – not least in their obsessive rush to impose ‘sexual correctness’ on others.

There’s also John 13:34-35. Here the radical wisdom teacher, Jesus, again speaks plainly: ‘A new teaching I bring you: Love one another. In the way I’ve loved you, you must love one another. If you love one another, all will know [from this] that you are my followers.’ How had Jesus loved them? We can guess at this from consistent stories of inclusion of people on the margins, also from the dignity and respect he showed universally – that is, without discrimination; for his reliance upon women as friends and his easy willingness to honour their support in every aspect of his ministry.

In the light of centuries of ‘forgetting’ or at least failing to take seriously those profound, central calls to meaningful inclusion and love, to consistently protective conduct rather than the preservation of monstrous power, is the institutional Catholic church worth saving? Indeed, is any Christian denomination distorted by its rank history of bigotry, racism, sexism, encrusted clericalism and unforgiveable hubris worth saving?

Many, many, many would say not. But perhaps from the margins, my own response – for what it is worth – would be somewhat different.

The sight of row upon row of pink-capped, male heads, their bodies encased in lavishly embroidered, costly green silk, gathered at the Vatican to reflect upon the horror of sexual abuse of children (and adults) by priests and religious, was almost unbearable to witness. Yes, a few women spoke and spoke powerfully, but the weight of power remains ‘rock solidly’ patriarchal in the Vatican-run, male-determining institutional church. The anti-modern hierarchical model; the fawning, the pomp, the elevation of servants of God and humanity to princely or mere bishop status; the revelling in power and misuse of it: do I dare say that that Church – that version of church – should not survive? Should not survive in its present form or with its current moribund priorities? Yes, I do dare.

For the truth is, that Church is not surviving. In the West, fewer and fewer men are willing to enter a deeply tainted priesthood. Reverse colonialism means priests ‘borrowed’ from Third World countries where ‘traditional Catholicism’ better survives are preaching to shrinking congregations. The simplicity of gatherings based on need and understanding, on soul-led spiritual seeking, on authentically loving conduct, on inner resourcing – with all the self-responsibility and mutuality that brings – is the renewal. For there is another Catholic church also, far from the pomp, posturing and power: quieter, yes, but undoubtedly alive. And not just alive, but growing, refreshing, questioning; unafraid of doubt, tentativeness, good humour; unafraid of difference and diversity, and certainly unafraid of Jesus’ call to love.

This is the church that is ‘catholic’ in the real meaning of the word. This is the church where women take their place alongside men with dignity and without apology. And where all races, all cultures, are respected. This is the church where inclusion and welcome means something – and where people are not invited to turn away from one another on the basis of…well, anything at all. This is where social justice and social inclusion become synonymous with spirituality; never at odds with it.

There are formidable spokespeople in this evolving church, but it is notable that they consistently speak with and not down to. Some may be in your local parish. Some – and not discounting the power of ‘two or three gathering in My name’ – just outside it.

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and widely published writer, whose ‘congregation’ is as global as it is inclusive, is just one figure who embodies the way forward. Significantly, he consistently teaches alongside women spiritual teachers. Not incidentally, when he visited Sydney some years ago from his home in the US, the then-Archbishop Pell forbade any Catholic organisation to host him. We gathered in our many hundreds elsewhere.

Using gender to privilege half of humanity over the other half – so that the least spiritually mature man would always be welcomed into the priesthood before the most spiritually and life-mature woman – is unjustifiable by any measure, but most particularly within a spiritual framework where a rudimentary awareness of the spiritual truths of interdependence should challenge the dualistic thinking so tragically expressed in, ‘Men can…and women cannot.’

It is not by chance that on this question primarily – the ordination of women, the sharing of power with women, the unshackling of a church from exhausted patriarchal imperatives – the so-called traditionalists part ways from the so-called progressives. Along with this, but secondary to it, goes the issue of men who choose to – and some would not – enrich their ministry through honest personal relationships, both in friendship and marriage.

This cannot be ‘too much to hope for’. The existing power structures are unviable as well as repugnant. They do not reflect the teachings or example of Jesus; they create barriers between people; they speak of ego not spirit. Change has to be possible.

Just in my own lifetime, the Catholic church has moved significantly on what was once thought fundamental. Its relationship to other denominations and other faiths is the most uplifting example of this. Genuine dialogue, worship sharing, social activism, mutuality of learning and respect have replaced the rabid exclusivity of the former ‘one, true church’ rhetoric. At least, for most. Could the church now also interrogate and undo centuries of a particularly deforming, self-harming, other-harming misuse of power? Perhaps only in part, perhaps only in part. Yet more than a few Catholics are more than ready. They live this now.

As Richard Rohr famously said, ‘Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.’ Perhaps also about religion, church, and spirituality itself?

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Rev Dr Stephanie Dowrick was ordained as an Interfaith minister in New York in 2005. She is also a writer, social activist and commentator, and a retreat and worship leader. You can find her on her public Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/StephanieDowrick/
Her books include Seeking the Sacred, Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love, Heaven on Earth, The Universal Heart and In the Company of Rilke. BOOKSTORE LINK.