SIP at the Nott: Geraldine Doogue
My Ideal Church in Australia: Hopes and Fears
Sip at the Nott 10 May, 2016
This turned out to be hard to distil. And I had to choose, really, between speaking about it 'in the broad' or personally. So I've chosen to be relatively personal but also included some broader thoughts. It's a hybrid, in other words, that I hope satisfies you.
I know that the Church is part of my identity: I have discovered that during crises in my life. I know it can be the source of consolation without peer and I also know that really I can't slough it off: it's too embedded in the way I see the world, the way I see myself. For me it's a truly symbiotic relationship which actually I take for granted, to be honest, even more than treasure: it's an odd distinction but I suspect one of the products of being formed in post-WW2 Australian Catholicism, with its strong Irish inheritance.
It's been one of the most rewarding venues of growth and stimulation of my life. I've said that many times. I believe that if you do hang in there, that Christ's great offering comes true, in ways you might never have dreamed possible. "I have come to give you life, and give it in abundance."
Abundant life...such a booty, not available to all. So I'm not about to step aside from all this easily.
But the unfolding headlines of late, together with what I've forced myself to look at square-in-the-face, have tested these verities, I concede.
I think I have been through something of an epiphany. (Don't you love the way these biblical allusions that we were bequeathed change shape as one ages; and suddenly you realize they meant so very much more than you were inclined to believe during all those humble catechism classes?)
What is that epiphany?
I think that deep down, I've come to believe that maybe the world beyond the institutional church is a kinder, gentler place, full of more conscientious ethics and values and care for others, than the official church.
That is, the much criticised secular world in which lay people live is probably more functional and more ready to conscience-examine than the institutional church. What an extraordinary thing.
And as a result, that it is more welcoming of the real challenges of the 21st century, warts and all, more ready for 21st century citizens with all their pains, hopes and dreams, than the Church itself; despite Jesus Christ's clear invitation to his followers to be a sign of hope and love within the world they found, not the one they neatly constructed, like the old Jewish world.
For me, this was an epic moment. Some of you might say, "She took that long, did she?" Well, yes I did.
You might also take another view, a sort of fatalistic approach which says these headlines are all of-apiece and that the Church will ultimately roll along, sweeping your own identity up with it, just as it always has.
But I don't think it is going to be like that and I can't think of myself somehow as the same passive recipient of that story, out-sourcing, as it were, my life of meaning. I sense that I've altered as a result of these dramatic times and I'm not at all sure I can `go back' to being the rather compliant person that I was, by and large.
What it means is that there is a crisis of legitimacy to my eyes emanating from many of the people sitting in authority, especially when they pronounce about the perfidy of the world. Leaving things to be sorted by the same systems that proved so wanting is surely not an option for us.
And yet I do still look to scholars and wise ones to pull me up short, to tap into counter-cultural messages; to remind me that all is not obvious and that virtue is hard won; and to remember that "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" applies to us all. I'm aware that self-righteousness can creep in alongside just anger.
You see, one of the good yields of a thorough-going Catholic formation was that it taught me to respect authority. But in retrospect, I think it did also encourage a bit if timidity towards figures that were clearly more powerful that I, and frankly, I thought more possessed of wisdom than I.
I think for years — and you'll still hear me slipping back into the jargon during the talk, I suspect — I just naturally accepted that the Church was, more or less, the hierarchy, and a bit afraid of it.
Vatican Two's idea of a Pilgrim Church definitely influenced my thinking considerably. But as the wonderful 'London Tablet ' columnist Clifford Longley put it in a recent edition: hierarchy is a top-down model. Authority — both teaching authority and administrative authority — flowed down this chain-of-command, which he read as Holy Spirit-pope-cardinals-bishops-priests-deacons-laity.
"It used to be said," he wrote, "that the laity's proper place was to 'pay, pray and obey'...and for all the talk of collaborative ministry and shared apostate, little has changed."
I suspect he's right. Well, Vatican Two's central idea of a Pilgrim Church definitely influenced my thinking as a young 20-something believer, there's no doubt about that. It raised my expectations, it met me and stretched me. But it performed a slow burn.... Nothing hasty. Only very gradually did my Catholic identity shift. (The Mercies who formed me would have definitely recognized me!) I've remained pretty much a faithful adherent, that's my point. I've sought out broader Church experiences via groups like Catalyst For Renewal and by good reading and so on. Yes, but I've been pretty orthodox.
So, without the sense that the ordained officials of the Church had so powerfully lost their way, would I be speaking to you like this? Without the awful conclusion that I feel I must draw — that the institutional Church decided that it had to protect its priestly caste and caste system above all, rather than the most vulnerable, the lambs among the supposed shepherds — would I be feeling like this?
If I were reporting this story dispassionately, as an interviewer inviting central characters onto my shows, that is honestly the conclusion I would draw. I'd listen to different arguments and remain open, as I try to in my journalism. But based on the evidence, I'd find it hard to avoid that overall shameful verdict.
And that is truly shocking, let's be frank. So would I be speaking like this to you? Would I have crossed the Rubicon without all the headlines? I doubt it...Because I'd so much prefer not to draw those conclusions.
But even a compliant person like me would feel foolish at best and cowardly at worst if I didn't have the guts to look this crisis in the eye and see devastating dysfunction at a systemic not just individual level, in an institution so close to my own values-centre. It really demands my own self-audit. I have to say, what next? Why am I bothering? Or do I simply retreat into something small and extremely private, in the comfort of people who feel exactly the same as I do?
Until now, I've seen my duty and vocation as pursuing my personal journey, always guided by the wonders of our great Tradition, feeling how much it could help me, how much it could both humble and elevate me by applying it to my own like; I certainly have tried conscientiously to introduce my children to what a Pilgrim Church has to offer (though I'm not sure how successful I've been, I must concede).
I would have been alive to requests from the ordained ministers and religious to serve the Church. But I would have left the bulk of it to them. I would have considered that the job of ritual, of teaching and administration belonged to them and would have respected them for it.
Whereas now I feel naive and yes, pretty angry; because I am struck by some inconvenient truths about
some key Church officials' priorities.......... amidst them warning of the perils of the world! The
contradictions are amazing.
Let's enumerate some of the key ethical blind-spots that eventuated:
- In protecting a priestly caste at all costs, this value system privileged the Institution over its members: the very thing that totalitarian governments do to their constituents.
- By ascribing different values and different worth to different people's lives, ie by worrying more about the well-being of Church officials than the fate of another group of pilgrims, namely children (the cannon-fodder, one is inclined to think!) one flies right in the face of all justice and kindness: the central injunction to "love one another" was surely mocked cruelly.
- And in following these lines, that it introduced a callousness into officials' consciences in ways that I still find exceptionally hard to grasp. Did they wake up at 3am in the morning, I wonder, bathed in sweat, worrying about the corrosion of their souls. Or did they not, as Voltaire once said, "there is nothing so acceptable as an ancient abuse" ... except that I doubt it is ancient, on this scale certainly.
And I know that we've probably all been reading and trying to discern whether some sort of perfect-storm descended on the Church post-war, for a range of reasons, yielding this terrible booty.
It is causing a major re-alignment within me, certainly. Discerning a truly constructive role for lay-people, drawing on their experience and talents in the best interests of the Church, is the major work-in-progress for me; what is asked of us, if we care about the Church and what must we ask of the institutional Church? The institutional Church needs lay-people desperately, right inside its corridors of power, in my judgment, as a harm-minimiser.
Of course we lay-people have to search our own souls over this. How did we so avert our own gaze from the challenges at hand, the very thing that is hurled at some of the bishops?
After all, we know what it is like to live in the broader world, amidst such rapid technological change. We know about the pressure-points that challenge peoples' humanity: the 24-hour open-all-hours societies; the real revolution in technology that is still unfolding at breakneck pace; the consumerism which can offer great material change but much less sense of purpose and meaning; about changing family structures, the much more democratic model that is asking people to adapt dramatically fast; the
sense of 'plenty' in the West certainly, which has all come about so fast........................................................................................................ offering bounty and
challenge, often fuelled by destructive debt of course; we're well aware of the 'distractables, as I call them, the television, the car, the (pods, the iTablets, the Snapchats that can all focus on the surface, rather than the depths.
It's an exciting brew, essentially. I like it. But I'm doing quite well out of it because I was set up quite well for it. Not everyone is, as you well know.
Another thing: we lay-people know how much reform has taken place in our work-places during all the last, say, 4 decades, in order to manage that breathtaking array of change. Most of us will have been through at least one major reform process.
It's true virtually everywhere in lay organizations, even, for goodness sake, in amateur sport, that doyen of old-school behaviour. Charity workers, people in not-for-profits and community organisations: all of them, I bet you agree, have their experience of reviewing their mission, or exposing themselves to outsiders, invited in for a real overview with invariably some prescription for significant change. There can be strong resistance but the presumption of re-evaluation is really incredibly persuasive.... It is, prima facie, cleansing.
How many of you, honestly, have not seen your organizations turned upside-down at some level, as they try to better discern how they can serve their people and the changing environment? The assumption is: look again with fresh eyes, with fresh energy.
Did we seriously imagine the Church could escape this? I know that this was exactly the idea behind Vatican Two and I realize how many of us have forgotten the big changes that took place, to e.g. the Mass to external uniforms of the Religious. To attitudes towards non-baptised people. But as Tablet columnist, Clifford Longley says, the deeper attitudinal changes were always likely to take far longer and require much more commitment and skill: just as they have in the secular world.
If something goes seriously wrong in the lay world, there is much more inclination to explore what did elude people's best efforts.
This is called accountability, one of those words like transparency that can seem like a catch-all tag, value-free, tossed around gaily and sometimes back-firing. (But look at the Royal Commissions into the Black Saturday fires, e.g. or the deep soul-searching over the apparent misdeeds of Dr Jayant Patel, not only hearing of his victims but posing an explicit and implicit question: how did Queensland Health let this happen?)
Now this is altogether healthy and it develops a habit of competence, of extending our talents in the service of others. Sometimes it can drift into a distinct lack of mercy and a whiff of witch-hunt, which I deplore. But to my eyes, there's incredible dedication to the task when someone of note is invited by the government or Governor to ask questions on behalf of their fellow citizens and find out how we can
avoid this happening again. Dare I say, it is humility on behalf of the system, (as well, of course, as trying to protect one's own job.)
But quite a few of the ubiquitous features of our modern working-world — formal appraisals, accountability, KPls, rules against unfair dismissals, industrial tribunals, anti-discrimination procedures, and so on — really, they are riddled with good values in the care of individual souls, in an effort to achieve a level playing field. I think they've often been heavily influenced by Christian and Catholic values. But they have become institutionalized in ways that we take for granted. And they are precious —yes precious — checks and balances that assume it's to everyone's advantage that those in power and those governed have routine means of auditing each other.
A psychotherapist from St Louis, Missouri, who'd been right through the traumatic American church's experience of sex abuse, offered some interesting observations based on his experience which I'd like to read to you because I thought they were helpful.
"It struck me recently that the hierarchy is in the same position as sex-addict clients that I treat. When I'm working with a married sex addict who's betrayed his wife's trust by affairs or other sexual fantasy behavior, I urge him to do four vital things to begin to heal their marriage and restore trust: take responsibility for his actions, make amends and have empathy for the pain he's caused, give full disclosure of his behavior and adopt what I call 'proactive honesty': that is, don't wait for questions to be asked and then react defensively but rather initiate honest and open communication about the problems of the past and present...this is what the Church in Rome and elsewhere in Europe, (learning from what happened in the American church — and we could add here) had the chance to do." But didn't, till pulled "kicking and screaming" (as the Irish novelist Colm Toibin said during a visit to Sydney), towards something new... and he said it was very much a work in progress.
What the institutional Church may not have fully grasped because it hasn't had good press, I don't suppose, are those efforts underway within some of these reformed lay institutions, to grab back better values. That is, these nostrums about nicer work-places which genuinely value people, producing better productivity and being, well, happier to work in...are being taken more seriously.
I've been reporting on this type of language for about 10-15 years and frankly was sceptical about it. But I gradually realized that in some of the better CBD firms, some sort of sea-change in attitude was underway. And their example was being noted by others. There's still far to go and I wouldn't for a moment defend some of the un-family-friendly schedules demanded of some law firms and consulting houses etc.
But truly there is worthwhile work underway in places like the ABC which I know well, e.g. by professional managers like our MD Mark Scott, to model and identify the Corporation's better spirit: the "better angels of our nature", to quote Kim Beazley's marvellous words after the 2001 election.
It's not just one way. According greater respect to workers also implies appropriate performance back from employees. That is, this is not an entirely benign, permissive culture being encouraged; it very much has repricocity at its base. But there is more of a stated expectation of collegiality and preparedness for new thinking that I think is producing visible results.
I think it's leading to greater creativity. There's a sense that the Corporation is a better place to work: it's moving in the right direction. There's s an explicit aspiration for better individual respect for work
colleagues — can mean everything and nothing but it's stated — and it's trying to invigorate a more civil work culture.
I just don't see anything equivalent in the Institutional Church.
Amidst my scepticism, I have come to respect the campaign as a real effort to name good guiding principles, a sort of road map, that goes beyond simple professional codes of conduct. I can see the results too: people will ask each other, slightly rhetorically but it's allowed it to happen: is that a decision of integrity? It's a worthwhile query. It changes the discussion because we were all drawn into it.
I know of several stories of men who left the priesthood to marry who were, in effect, completely rebuffed by the Church from that moment on. The door was closed on people who'd faithfully given over their whole lives to service but who'd changed their minds after, no doubt, much reflection.
Surely this is an appalling commentary on lack of charity: it indicates attitudes within the formal Church that frankly would not be tolerated within the wider lay Catholic community or wider world.
Another example of real neglect of feelings that I read recently and really saddened me. More than 800 heads of women's orders met in Rome in early May to consider their work with the poor...they represent around 800,000 women Religious across the globe. Those who really make the Church something remarkable. It's only held every three years and their emphasis this year was how to strengthen their mystical and prophetic witness in a world of suffering.
"We want our energy for ministry," said Sr Maureen Cusick, president of the International Union of Superiors General. "We don't want to use it to deal with this crisis but we have to use all our energy to contain and to calm, without rendering impotent our members. How do we find words to speak with care and compassion, yet give voice to the indignation we feel?"
Well, that remained an open question. But do you know there was no papal audience scheduled with the Pope for this pretty impressive group... they had a very short telegram from Cardinal Bertone, the Secretary of State, Sr Cusick said, "but it would have been nice to have had a message from the Holy Father at least."
(The article telling me all this reminded me of the words spoken by the soon-to-be beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman as he got closer to Rome during a stormy journey: "If you don't want to get seasick, don't get too close to the engine-room!"...which is rather wry and very English. And actually I've taken that view for years, that some of the least happy people I knew were working right inside the bowels of the institutional Church while some of the most energized were on the fringes.)
I thought that was a terrible neglect of those nuns. How callous that no-one thought to alert the Pope or someone high up that this was a special group, meeting just down the road from St Peter's who laboured their hearts out for the Church and those they served. In a lay world, someone would have belled-that-cat...would have openly questioned the attitudes inherent in such a neglect. People in public life and indeed at senior levels of business expect to look over their shoulder now and be questioned about their public acknowledgement of people down the pecking order...and if anything, I think this is growing again, as a sentiment. It might have some hypocrisies associated with it, but I think it's got real promise. Appearances matter.
So why do I bother.
I am re-evaluating some of the attitudes I took for granted inside the Church which have always bothered me but which are now yelling at me: the institution doesn't seem to prize the people who serve it.
This is simply lacking in charity and it's an own-goal, to be perfectly blunt about. It's so silly to behave like that.
Therefore it does lead me, as I said before, to wonder out loud: maybe better values exist outside the hierarchy and official Church, in the 'dreaded secular world' ; yet this is the organization that positioned itself as the purveyor of good values to us, primarily lay people. As Clifford Longley says, there is another model of influence inside the Church and it existed inside the original historical model: the power flow is reversed and becomes pope-cardinals-bishops-priests-laity-Holy Spirit: a model of hierarchy upturned..
And really I think that's where my thinking is leading me.
But we certainly don't live with anything like that.
So why do I bother? I think it's to do with
- Tradition ...I respect it. I really do. I seek it. I'd feel so much poorer without it. It anchors me somehow in ways that elude my capacity for language. My tradition accompanies my character, introduces me to the notion of a journey in life. It brings with it a greater capacity for rapture and beauty because emotion is not mortgaged in the scheme of things, so risks are taken as the full human range is experienced.
- It helps me fulfill the natural human urge to make meaning. Humans are meaning-seeking animals.
- It answers my profound belief that a total vacuum in belief leads to terrible drift and often much worse.
- It refers to my growing conviction that our children and grandchildren will be immensely the poorer for not growing up with a Catholic sensibility; without access to the rich tradition of belief, consolation, glimpse of the divine, the whole notion of commitment, of artistry contained within it, of life, abundant life.
So somehow we, lay people especially, have to ask ourselves some big questions. How much are we prepared to commit ourselves to refreshing this Church of ours?
How much do we really value it in our lives? How much have we replaced it with other elements? How much have we dodged its impact on ours and our community's lives? How much have we willingly left it to the officials: have we abandoned them and left them unreformed, when all about us we're living through considerable institutional reform in our daily lives, and we know it can't be dodged...that it never proceeds at a pace we choose, but dislocates us.
Did we seriously delude ourselves that the Church could escape that? We may never have imagined the awful scale of the failure to reform and its gruesome and humiliating headlines. In the words of John Allen, the respected Vatican reporter, from his new book "The Future Church": "The real question
therefore is not whether the bishops are up to the challenges of the 21st century. The question is whether the rest of us are?"
It will be handing on a Catholic identity for the 21St century: in many ways, 'the big one'. We're in a much more contested environment these days in search-for-meaning and frankly, we need to imagine this challenge better.
Why do I bother? Because somehow I just can't stand back from all this. Would I do well if I stepped forward, somehow or other? I'm honestly not sure: that's the truth of it. I haven't been set up for what I imagined were the sorts of roles required. But I think we have to work with each other, but quite boldly too, to develop new roles.
Am I up to St. Edmund Campion's great statement before returning to England in Elizabethan times, and to almost certain martyrdom? "The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun, it is of God, it cannot be withstood; so the faith was planted; so it must be restored."
Stirring stuff: courage and humility required. Am I up for it? Are you? I might leave the question open.