Catholics demand to be treated as adults
Western People 6.4.2021
The news last week that the lockdown – despite a few cosmetic adjustments to ease the disappointment – would continue for some weeks has compounded the mounting frustration of many people. Understandably and not surprisingly, the third (ongoing) lockdown is taking its toll. There’s a limit (as we know) to what people can endure.
Even very holy people, happy to give God the benefit of any doubt that’s going, are wondering where He (or She) has gone. How can God be so silent?
While religious faith involves living with the dilemma of reconciling our belief in a loving God with the random suffering that life throws up, there can come a point when Christians become frustrated trying to bridge that gap, to reconcile what to others may seem irreconcilable, to assuage the discomfort of struggling to find a solution to the mystery, to wonder where God is or at least to question His (or Her) apparent silence.
The Jews, less prone than Christians to discomfort with uncertainty about God’s silence and with explaining mystery, tend to take such dilemmas in their stride.
In his new book, Stories We Tell Ourselves, Richard Holloway instances a scene from Elie Wiesel’s holocaust novel, Night, where a child was hanged in Auschwitz. As the child struggled for life, someone was heard to exclaim, ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ The narrator heard a voice within him answer: ‘Where He is? This is where – hanging from this gallows’.
Holloway translates the exchange as God being either helpless or dead. In response Holloway accepts that he’s with the rabbis in Auschwitz who put God on trial, found him guilty and then said their evening prayers. On the one hand while he struggles with the Christian need to explain every mystery (including the existence of a God of love in a world where there is so much unexplained suffering), he finds himself ‘unable to tear up the ticket of his membership’ of the Christian Church.
Twenty years ago Holloway, once the bishop of Edinburgh and head of the Scottish Episcopal Church, famously resigned as archbishop as he struggled to accept how God has been traditionally defined or understood and in his own words had ’thrown away the ticket forever’.
However, slowly and gradually he found himself ‘slipping back into the place where my prayers had once been valid’. He has again reclaimed the ticket of membership of the Christian Church – though frayed as it is at the edges.
Not that the search is over. He still prefers poets and other artists who are content to express the human condition, rather than theologians who grab him by the arm and insist on explaining things to him.
Holloway’s dilemma is now everyone’s dilemma. If we are, as Pope Francis (and the Irish bishops) are suggesting, moving towards a synodal Church, we can no longer afford to indulge those who cling to the wreckage of the past – as if holding on to Belloc’s famous nurse ‘for fear of finding something worse’.
The Irish Catholic Church has paid a high price for mollycoddling those who want to stick to Plan A because they never imagined they might need a Plan B, for those who remained silent even though they could see what was happening, and for those whose contribution to the looming crisis was little more than to sit on their hands while the Church imploded around them.
In these truly Titanic times for the Catholic Church in Ireland, shuffling the deck-chairs in little more than a public relations wheeze is an indulgence beyond reason. Make-believe, illusion and denial need to be named and shamed. In present circumstances, not facing the truth is a form of religious treason.
The focus now has to be on intellectual rigour, on a robust commitment to a respectful re-imaging of our Church, on an honest acknowledgement that clergy need to divest their control and on leaders who are in touch with the lives of their people.
What we don’t want are pious platitudes about saying our prayers or condemnations of the terrible times we live in or blaming Satan or secularism or the government or whatever convenient excuse absolves us of personal responsibility for the unravelling of our Church. Or worse still, some vague, pious hope that, you’d never know, soon there might be a turn in the road when things will revert to where they were, please God.
There was a time when Catholics were less questioning, less educated, less conformist and less critical – Catholics out of a false loyalty or fear who left their intelligence outside the door of the Church and who (happy or unhappy) adopted a childish approach to their faith.
It’s different now, as we know. Now the priest in the pulpit is probably less educated, less in touch with life, less articulate and possibly less intelligent than many in the pews. More Catholics now no longer accept a spirituality of fear or a theology that makes little sense to them. And what the priest has to say will be subject to the same remorseless criticism as anyone else and if it makes no sense to them, it makes no sense and will be cursorily dismissed at the court of reason.
In other words, Catholics are demanding that they be treated as adults, that pious nonsense masquerading as spirituality be named and shamed and that the individual faith journey struggling forever between the co-ordinates of belief and unbelief be given due respect.
Reducing Catholicism to a series of anathemas will not do anymore. Not just because few are listening but because it does no justice to the richness of the Christian faith. That’s what people are saying. And we need to hear it.