An Outsider Inside

For a long time now, I have found myself to be in a lonely place, and I wonder if there are others who feel the same way. I’ve struggled with being a Catholic since the publication of the Murphy Report, when I first became aware of the total betrayal by the leaders of my church. That the people I had relied on to be my moral and spiritual guides could have behaved in such an abhorrent way, totally  pulled the rug from under my feet and caused me to enter into a freefall from which I’m not quite sure I’ve yet landed!

I had to grow up spiritually and question everything I had previously accepted as being true. From this distance I can thank God for the struggle – without having being forced to confront my thoughtless acceptance of the moral and doctrinal “rightness” of those who passed on my church’s teachings and those very teachings themselves, I would probably have gone to my grave an infantile Catholic. I would have remained in a place where I believed that those in authority always knew best and any doubts that may have niggled at me were simply my sin of pride. Who on earth was I to think I could possibly question any teaching or moral stance?

My understanding of God has grown and developed and deepened in wondrous ways – way beyond the God of my previous immaturity. And with that, my hitherto unquestioned acceptance of Catholicism as being THE“One, true, Catholic and Apostolic faith” has given way to seeing it as Atrue faith among others. But Institutional Catholicism?

The countless, on-going revelations of the failures and dysfunctionality (and oh, how much is contained within those little words!) of the Institutional Church have led me to one place of certainty. I cannot support it.

I cannot tolerate its on-going inability/unwillingness to adopt a zero-tolerance to the covers-up of abuse among its leaders and to hold them accountable. I cannot support its views of, and attitudes towards women. I cannot accept its teachings on homosexuality and its attitudes to the LGBT community and whether they should have the right to marry. I cannot accept its stance on who should or should not partake in the Eucharist. I do not accept that ending a pregnancy is always wrong.

So, to many traditional Catholics, I am simply NOT a Catholic anymore and should get out and leave it to those who are TRUE to their faith.

The vast majority of my family and friends have walked away from Catholicism. They cannot live authentic lives within a faith community whose teachings and attitudes are so abhorrent to them. I respect them for their honesty and integrity.

But I can’t join them even though I share their views in so many ways.

Because, you see, I find I cannot separate my life from my “Catholic” practice. My whole spirituality is expressed in my involvement in my parish community – in seeking ways to be the hands and feet and smile of Christ among the people I see around me. (I cringe as I write that, because it comes across even to myself as sounding pompously pious – and it’s anything but!)

Since I realised I could not continue to support the Institutional Church I have tried to find alternative ways of living authentically. I have walked away from Catholicism only to find the loss too great. I have given my support to various organisations who seek to reform Catholicism.  At different stages during the last number of years, each one of the organisations seeking reform has given me the reassurance and support that I am not alone.

But none of them has been able to tick all my boxes – and I think that’s as it should be. None of them should ever be my new comfort blanket – my substitute for my erstwhile infantile Catholicism! They provide me with great material to read/listen to and reflect on, but they don’t live my life for me.

Many of the people I have met at events held by some of those organisations have been able to walk away from involvement in parish life and find other ways of expressing their Catholicism. The parish structures just don’t allow them to practice their faith in meaningful ways. They find more true and valid ways of being church in other communities – in house churches and the likes.

But my heart is in my community.

So I stay within my parish community. The dilemma then is, of course, am I propping up a dysfunctional institution by continuing to give of my time and talents to it? It was easy enough for me to stop giving my money to it – well, easy – but difficult on the aul pride that my neighbours must think me mean when they see me shaking my head as the basket comes to me every Sunday. But to stop praying through my fingers on the keyboard accompanying the children’s singing at our weekly Family Mass; to stop  seeing some of the things that need to be done to support and develop  our parish community and doingit? That’s another matter.

The Institutional Church has, in theory, accepted that it is dysfunctional and needs reform. At the very top of the list of causes for such dysfunctionality is Clericalism – the belief that the ordained stand on a pedestal due to an ontological change which keeps them apart from and superior to the rest of us. That is the church I grew up in. It is so deeply embedded in my psyche that it is still my default position although I know it to be false. (While I’m quite sure the priests of my acquaintance wouldn’t suspect any inner struggle on my part to address them as equals, I still have to fight that initial “tip the forelock” feeling when I meet them. I’m very good at disguising it!)

The Institution has put structures in place which are supposed to dismantle clericalism by acknowledging the “priesthood of the baptised” and the co-responsibility of the laity. The basic unit of lay leadership lies in the Parish Pastoral Council. I say “leadership” but what the PPC really is, is a group of committed parishioners who seek to serve their parish community by matching the needs of said parishioners with those who have the talent and skill to fulfil those needs provided the President of the PPC, the Parish Priest, is in agreement with them! Because, ultimately, the lay members of the PPC have no real authority – the power all rests in the hands of the PP. He can wipe out any decision made by the PPC with the full blessing of the Institution.

I became involved with my community’s PPC recently. In many ways, it makes no sense for me to be involved as I perceive it to be yet another example of dysfunctionality within the Institution – not genuine reform. People who belong in PPCs are surely people who can accept the structure and are in agreement that the PP has the ultimate power. The likes of me, who claims PPCs just support the status quo, albeit with a new mask, should have nothing to do with them. The reason I AM involved is, quite simply, nobody else would do it – too many parishioners have given up on the Pastoral Council notion! It would be nice to think that I was CHOSEN by my parish community because of my passion to change structures/ attitudes within my church, but the sad reality, as I perceive it, is that I was accepted DESPITE my views. Yes there are many among my parish friends who disagree with the Institution’s views as I do, but they don’t seem to want to join me looking over the parapet.

And that’s where my loneliness now comes from. I feel I am caught between three different worlds – that of my family and friends who believe that Catholicism has nothing to offer any more – the world of Catholic Reform where adherents go outside of the Institutional structures in order to be authentic catholics, and the world of the Institutional Catholicism where people are basically willing to work within the current structures. The other members of our PPC, as I perceive it, are happy to concentrate on the running of our own parish and do not feel driven to spend time or energy on what I deem to be even more important – working towards change; showing our alienated families and friends that Catholicism IS capable of changing. This is not meant to be a criticism of or a judgement on my fellow PPC members – they are all very good, sincere people. But they have different priorities.

I seem to be the one who is constantly trying to change the conversation and I’m not comfortable being that lone voice. I am not a natural activist and I’m not confident enough to be sure of my voice. I still struggle with “Who am I to be rocking the boat?”

I know there are many, many people who are happy to be living their catholic lives outside of the Institutional Church while trying to influence change within. I know there are many, many people who are happy to be living their Catholic lives inside the Institutional Church, and accepting of the status quo or willing to leave it to others to change it. But are there any more like me? Are there any more who feel their home is within their parish community, but who can only stay there if they keep chipping away at the edifices they find to be unacceptable? My hand gets very tired wielding that hammer – and it’s very disheartening to see that my chisel hasn’t made any dent in the stone, but it would help if I knew there were others doing likewise.

I sense a huge spiritual hunger in our wee island here – a need to find proper soul nourishment in a world that is full of superficial and short-lived, fast-food “meals” that don’t satisfy and leave one hungry again almost immediately. True Catholicism, as I believe it to be, an awareness of the mystery of abundant love of a Creator which asks nothing more of us than to share in the meal, is one such source of real nourishment. While I no longer see it as the only true source of nourishment, it is the one that sustained my forebears and has been passed on to me through my DNA. And (again at the risk of sounding pompous!) I feel I owe it to them to fight for it.

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  1. Paddy Ferry says:

    Excellent piece, Jo. It certainly resonates with me and, I am sure, many others too.
    Its great to have you sharing your thoughts with us again.

  2. Mary Vallely says:

    Jo, as ever, I admire your searing honesty, your courage, passion and tenacity. Many a person would have walked away long ago but the commitment you show to your family mass in Kimmage is admirable. They are blessed to have you at the keyboard!

    I think that this is a plea for affirmation that you are not alone in your feelings of isolation. Paddy Ferry has already affirmed that and I add my voice to his in stating that I totally understand your position. However the one act of courage I cannot commit myself to YET is withholding finances to the parish. I deliver the parish envelopes to my own area ( very hard to get volunteers for any task as I am sure most parishes would agree) and even though I believe, deep down, that if we all withheld finances surely that would make the powers -that – be sit up and listen, I still cannot do it.)

    Each one of us must find a reason to stay and fight for reform. I think that many of the older ordained who drop in here to read nodded their heads in agreement at your words but fear retribution of some sort from their bishop. A loss of financial security as they stumble into old age is a scary prospect. Those of us with no status to lose have more freedom to speak as we find. This isn’t the time or place to go into a rant on what is wrong with some church teaching. Like yourself I suffer from too much of that ‘who am I to talk’ ‘non sum digna’ syndrome but like yourself, I believe in straight talking, honesty and openness to dialogue and learning.

    So, Jo, keep the chin up. Remain ( oh how I wish more had voted ‘remain’ …sigh) and continue to be yourself. Each of us has to compromise in some way but there are many, many more who understand your position and agree with your thoughts. Just not always easy to say so in public perhaps. Rath Dé ort, a bhean. Misneach.

  3. Colm Holmes says:

    Dear Jo,

    I admire your total honesty and share your analysis.

    Can I offer you two quotes from Pope Francis’ exhortation:

    Make a ruckus! (para 143)

    And when you arrive where we have not yet reached, have the patience to wait for us (para 299)

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