People in power in the Church should ask themselves ‘Could I be wrong?’

I attended the meeting of the fledgling ACI in the Regency Hotel on Saturday last and have come away with renewed sprits that this path I am on is the right one for this humble, middle of the road, truth seeker.
Our session was interrupted by a man who worried that we were being led by satanic influences. He felt passionate about bringing us back to the right path. While a lot of people just dismissed him as a fanatic and wanted him to shut up and go away once he had been given his chance to speak (I did myself, at one level), I found myself trying to get inside his head and look at the situation through his eyes.
He was brought up in a church which constantly reinforced the need to be wary of false Gods – they were everywhere and used cunning disguises. He was taught not to trust his own instincts or feelings, but to subjugate any individual niggles of conscience he might have in the realisation that he was being guilty of the sin of pride. If anything in his head or heart was contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church, he was simply wrong. His only duty in life, and the one and only way to be a good person, was to follow the rules and regulations determined by his betters – those men who were priests, bishops, cardinals and popes. He couldn’t interpret scripture as he wasn’t learned enough, and he shouldn’t try to do so as the Evil One would probably lead him to read it falsely. All he had to do was put his total trust in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and to follow their directions. Failure to do so, allowing himself to be led astray by his own pride and arrogance (even allowing the question into his mind “Might they have got it wrong in some instances?”) would lead to eternal damnation. Rejection of any aspect of Catholic teaching was the ultimate sin – those who had never become aware of the One True church, through no fault of their own, would find eternal salvation, but those of us, who were fortunate enough to have been born into the True faith, turned our back on God if we rejected that faith, and consigned ourselves to Hell for eternity.
And he wants to be a good person. He wants to do God’s work by helping others to see that they are being led astray. He genuinely cares about us and is deeply worried that we will all go to Hell. So, while he may be at the extreme end of a particular scale, while he may have other issues which dictated the way he felt he had to behave during Saturday’s session, I don’t want to ignore or dismiss his feelings.
Because, you see, I understand his horror at what is happening within Catholicism. My own starting point within our church wasn’t so very far away from his. Until it was made all too glaringly clear to me that those in positions of authority within my church COULD get it sickeningly wrong at the most fundamental level – the level of cherishing our children – I didn’t take a lot of time to question the church’s teachings.
Oh, I was disobeying certain teachings, and I had serious qualms about others but I just accepted that I wasn’t a very good Catholic. While I wouldn’t have used the language of “being led astray by Satan” or “false Gods”, I did acknowledge that I was probably guilty of pride and arrogance in my inability to accept quite a number of the church’s attitudes and teachings.
I tried to make up for my failings by making a positive contribution to the everyday life of my parish community – but I did so in areas where I felt I wouldn’t have to confront my flawed following of the “One True path”. I kept my guilty secret to myself – the knowledge that I was in danger of going to hell because of my pride and arrogance.
This must seem so pathetic to any reader who has been an adult Catholic for many years – I realise it shows me to be a totally immature, undeveloped member of the church. But it is the truth- not necessarily at a reasoned level, but somewhere deep in my psyche.
That was where I started, back in November 2009, when I had the scales fall from my eyes as a result of the publication of the Murphy Report. I had to ask myself the question “Why am I a Catholic?” and not run away from where that question led me.
And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since! I don’t have any definitive answers for myself – and that’s ok. In fact, I think I don’t want definitive answers any more. I don’t think I’ll ever again WANT to have the certainty that MY view of the situation is the one that is absolutely real and right. I read everything that appears on this website – and I’m grateful to each and every person who contributes. I WANT to read opposing views and beliefs and I honour each person who sincerely holds those beliefs. Your life’s journey has brought you to that place and, if it brings you to a place of inner serenity, it is the right place for you to be.
I thank you for caring enough to want others to share that way of seeing things. But what I can no longer accept is the insistence that “You MUST sees things this way, or you’re wrong”. In all conscience, each one of us can only see glimpses of reality. Peter McVerry put it very well – and I’m not able to quote him, I’m afraid – when he said we all see situations/life through our own limited lenses, from our own particular perspective (sorry if I’m misrepresenting you here, Peter!). It therefore follows that, if we surround ourselves with people whose perspective is somewhat similar to our own, we will possibly come to conclusions that are true for our particular grouping, but not necessarily true for others with different lenses. The only way we can possibly find more general ‘truths’ (and I’m using the word only because I can’t come up with a better one) is to step into others’ shoes and see things from their perspective.
And that’s why I’ve come away from the ACI gathering with renewed spirit. What I experienced there was a true and sincere desire to listen to others – to honour many different perspectives. I felt real humility from the members of the steering committee – no trace of an arrogance which said “This is the way we must proceed”.
It’s a very difficult ground to hold – the place where very diverse paths cross. There are those among us who feel passionately that their way is the correct way to go and they urge us to follow that path – there are those who feel passionately about specific issues and they push to see their issue at the top of the agenda. In honouring each person and listening to his/her perspective, the steering committee must, of necessity, find a middle ground. They have to find a way past “Damned if we do and damned if we don’t”.
I trust them. I trust us. I felt a tremendous sense that God is with us as I listened on Saturday. I thank each one of the eight members of the steering committee from the bottom of my heart.
I have very few absolutes left in my life at this stage. But here they are.
The Spirit that created us has given us a roadmap to living life to the full. We have to keep interpreting that roadmap with humility and love-filled hearts (for us Christians, God had sent His only Son to show us the way to the Father, and that way is by loving all of creation).
None of us knows the mind of our Creator – it is human arrogance to say we do. So it follows that it is human arrogance to claim we are on the One, True path. (And here I have to take the opportunity to dissociate myself totally from any commentator on this site who disrespects any other religion or code of belief.)
We can only be the sum of our own life’s experience, so we cannot determine what reality is for anybody else. We can only come closer to seeing others’ reality by listening to them and they can only come closer to us by listening to us. We must talk.
Not one single human being has the whole truth – not Peter McVerry and not Pope Benedict. The difference between them is that Peter McVerry acknowledges he doesn’t have the whole picture – he is open to being wrong.
With every fibre of my being I pray that those in positions of power and authority in our church – and I hope some of you read our postings – just allow the question to enter your hearts “Might I be wrong?”

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  1. Mike Riordan says:

    Well said Jo,
    I’m not sure what I can add to what you have so eloquently expressed, except to endorse it wholeheartedly.
    I don’t know where our Church is going, but I am more and more convinced that the Church as we know it today will not last unless we learn to listen to one another, because none of us has the whole truth. We need ‘listening structures’ I don’t know how else to say it. Places, spaces…(whatever) where we listen to one another and hopefully by doing so we hear the call of the Spirit. What is the Spirit saying to our Church today? The whole church, not just the hierarchical church.
    We have all these different factions, and groups and opposing theologies, right wing or left wing, traditional or progressive…etc etc. We in our own group are convinced that ‘we’ see the light, the way, the ‘answer’ and that ‘they’ dont. All of us have little bits of a larger Truth, little glimpses of who God is, senses of what Church needs to do. But we need to listen respectfully to one, it is too easy to dismiss those we don’t agree with. I want our Church to be big enough to have all of us in it, wide enough to be able to hold difference together. It is as we struggle in love with our differences that we grow towards unity with the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
    Like I said earlier I don’t know where our Church is going, but one of the ‘things’ we need to be is be a listening Church, we are not good at that, we need to learn how to listen to one another, or we will never be able to listen to the Other!
    Thanks for that Jo

  2. Tom Morally says:

    What a wonderful respectful article.
    I too was at that meeting and was over whelmed by a great sense of sadness for this man.
    Indeed my thoughts moved quickly to my own father who in his latter years was introduced to the devotion which is so widely encouraged today ‘Divine Mercy’. A man who all his life lived a good christian life, committed to caring for his family and worshipping his God, he ended his days in fear of meeting a God that he then believed would have kept count of all his weaknesses and assign him to misery forever. It was a dreadful experience for us his family and has turned my children off church and religion, I fear, forever.
    I still go to Mass even though It breaks my heart to see vulnerable people being subjected to such dreadful devotion. Can we not return to the messages and the person at the centre of the New Testament- in our devotions and prayers ?

  3. The following information may be of some comfort to Jo, and others who may be struggling with the same problem.
    The late Yves Congar, O.P., had some interesting and praiseworthy accounts of the Brothers of Taize, its founder Bro Roger Schutz, and its Spirituality, in ‘My Journal of the Council’.
    One such anecdote recounts: “I met with Pastor Roger Schutz on 20 June 1960. Schutz told me, though with the greatest of discretion, about the audience, arranged for him by Cardinal Gerlier, that he .. had with John XXIII on the day.. after his consecration. According to Schutz, the Pope had said some incredible, even downright heretical, things to him, such as : ‘the Catholic Church does not possess the whole truth, we should search together’….I think that the leading members of the Curia very quickly realised that, with John XXIII and his plan for a Council, they might be in for a very strange adventure, that they may need to erect fences, regain control as far as possible, and limit any possible damage”.

  4. Thank you for this, I attended the meeting on Saturday and spent all day Sunday completely exercised by it all. You have helped me anchor my thoughts once again.
    What has helped me most is that you are speaking from a place of humility and while I will carry on – more motivated than ever – to be some part of an inspiration towards a genuine renewal of our Church, I hope to do this from a place of humility and genuine openness for all whom I meet on the way.
    Thanks again.

  5. Con Carroll says:

    I wasn’t impressed by ACI meeting on Saturday. I felt that this was the boys and girls club. which didn’t want to upset the status quo.. contributions from the floor were of a conservative nature

  6. Br. Adam Conroy says:

    “I WANT to read opposing views and beliefs and I honour each person who sincerely holds those beliefs. Your life’s journey has brought you to that place and, if it brings you to a place of inner serenity, it is the right place for you to be.
    I thank you for caring enough to want others to share that way of seeing things. But what I can no longer accept is the insistence that “You MUST sees things this way, or you’re wrong”.”
    “None of us knows the mind of our Creator – it is human arrogance to say we do. So it follows that it is human arrogance to claim we are on the One, True path. (And here I have to take the opportunity to dissociate myself totally from any commentator on this site who disrespects any other religion or code of belief.)”
    I also wish to read, analyse, study and engage with opposing views and beliefs. However if we begin to treat all other beliefs and faiths as equally important as our own…we automatically relegate our own to merely being “one of many”? If there is nothing particularly important about what we believe…why bother at all?
    The argument you present is an argument for moral relativism and a world where all religion is equally important.
    If God in his infinite wisdom did indeed become man, die on the cross for our sins, and then found the church do we not think that He would also endow the Church with the necessary means to lead people to salvation.

  7. Con Devree says:

    You describe yourself as a “humble, middle of the road, truth seeker.” That’s quite an achievement.
    If you wish Catholicism to be the context of your truth seeking, it is worth considering the following:
    Since Christ is the Way, Truth and Life, it’s good to interact with him. An ideal way is to do an hours Eucharistic Adoration per week. Since Catholicism is problematic for you, you could spend some of each hour reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church and interact with the Lord on the content as you find it.
    Eucharistic Adoration is different for each person so it’s not possible to predict the experience or the outcome. Commit yourself to an hour each week. It is worth the risk!

  8. Mary O Vallely says:

    “Lord, wherever my day takes me, whoever crosses my path, and whatever work I undertake, I commit myself to you. I pray that I am totally present to the people who share this day with me. Help me to really listen and not be preoccupied with preparing my response. Guide me so I am more interested in doing right than in being right. And after I have listened, Lord, help me to stand for the truth by speaking with courage and consideration.”
    —The Jesuit Prayer Team

  9. Jo O'Sullivan says:

    Thank you to each of you who has responded to my posting. I have to smile when reading them because even in nine comments it’s so clear that we have differing realities!
    Con D, thank you for wanting to help me ‘solve’ my ‘problem’ with Catholicism, but I actually don’t feel I need to solve anything. If I came across as being TROUBLED by my lack of certainty, I didn’t express myself properly. I know it sounds paradoxical, it isn’t logical or reasoned, but I actually have more peace of mind, more serenity in my questioning than I ever had when I was trying to force myself to be certain! And I do try to spend time with God.
    And Brother Adam, and again I know it’s illogical, I DON’T think it’s not really important what we believe, I have a strong belief that Catholicism is my home, a true roadmap for me to be the best I can be. If I didn’t have that gut feeling (?), Spirit-inspired knowledge (?) I would have walked away. I tried walking away – I spent much time and energy – even sleepless nights – trying to work out why it mattered so much. Was it the comfort of the familiar? Was it a deeply ingrained fear of damnation? Was it laziness?
    It certainly wasn’t fear of rejection by the people I loved if I were to leave! Most of them had left! In fact, it’s more the case that THEY worry about ME – continuing to be part of this dysfunctional institution!
    So here I am – irrational, illogical, with seemingly contradictory viewpoints and ideas, but with an inner peace that it’s absolutely fine to be this way.
    There is one question which has puzzled me for some time though – and it’s for those of you who firmly believe that Catholicism is the ONE True faith – well actually, it’s two questions.
    1. Do you believe that if a person has been part of the Catholic faith and rejects some of its current interpretations/teachings, they are rejecting God?
    2. If so, when you ask the likes of me to “get out” are you, in your mind, consigning me to eternal damnation? Isn’t that what rejecting God leads to?
    I’m not trying to be smart or clever, or trying to trap you here. I honestly want to know how you see the situation.

  10. You know, I really hate to say this: But I donot think many clergy in the Vatican would ever think they were wrong……and the ones who do think they might be wrong…….well, if they speak up, there are probably consequences, so they probably remain quiet.
    You may recall the story in Acts where Peter confronts the married couple who sell their property, but donot give the monies to the community. Peter knows that the wife and husband are lying and he says so….he says, I know you are lying and I know Satan caused you to do this…..He questions them separately….and each of them denies wrongdoing and each them falls dead on the spot. Their hearts condemned them and they were gone……..lights out.
    I have often wondered, what if Peter stood in that great hall, where the Pope sits in his chair and all the clergy sit around him…….I often wonder, if Peter, were there, how many in that room, if Peter talked to them, would drop dead? Perhaps, it’s too graphic an image for you……but, I think, it would be extremely telling!

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