Jo O’Sullivan suggests where the Church may be headed

I have been thinking about the Catholic Church of the future.
I have been imagining that all those people who have been requested to do so, have walked away – those ‘liberal’ priests and ‘progressive’ religious and those members of the general laity who, in good conscience, cannot accept certain teachings of the Magesterium, cannot force themselves to cease their own reflecting and bow to the ways thinking and acting that are acceptable to “head office”. How does the Church look now?
There is tremendous relief, first of all. The people who sit in the pews can feel confident that those on either side of them share their world view. They do not have to worry that some day they might have to attend a Mass that is celebrated by a married man, or a woman! They do not have to fear that there may be “failed” Catholics, who are living in sin by cohabiting, going up to receive Communion. And they certainly don’t have to concern themselves with the horror that there might be practicing homosexuals among the ranks participating in the Sacraments! They are happy to be directed and guided by ‘Father’ – they are confident that, if they are in any way doubtful about the right or wrong in any situation, Father will put them right and they’ll do as he directs to the best of their ability.
They have truly beautiful, reverential liturgies – liturgies wherein they keep to the formula approved by Father – because there’s no need for personal initiative, Father knows best. They expect certain behaviour from Father, and they keep a respectful distance from him. Though they recognise that he is, of course, human, he is not quite like them – he has been elevated to a higher plane because of his ordination. They certainly don’t like to see Father in the pub or dressed in jeans and sweatshirt. He is being disrespectful to his office by being ordinary.
Father finds it quite a burden to carry – to have the responsibility for other peoples’ moral codes and spiritual direction and never to show that he, too, is a struggling human being, but he accepts that this is the cross he has to bear to be part of the suffering of Jesus, so he accepts his burden and ‘becomes’ his role. Anyway, he can go to fellow priests and to his Bishop to unburden himself. Together they can support each other and reassure each other that they are on the right path (the Magisterium has told them so) and that they will attain their reward in the next life. Then he can go back to his flock – who are anxiously awaiting his next utterance – and resume his role.
And the people in the pews? What happens when they leave the church after Mass? The world is a very difficult place. Society has become increasingly secularised and, as such, is disdainful of good, practicing Catholics. The media is foul – attacking Catholic values left, right and centre – scorning those who adhere to the one true path to salvation. Our good Catholics try to participate fully in the life of society around them but they see that there are more and more people who are living in ways not compatible with the one, true faith – many couples living together outside of marriage, many couples in second or subsequent relationships, many homosexuals living openly with gay partners. And, while our good Catholics try to love such people- at a distance, of course, outside of their beloved Church, the said people don’t seem to want their love. They seem to regard the Catholics as bigots and fundamentalists for some reason! But our good Catholics accept that this is part of the suffering that their faith has promised them they’d have to endure so they do so stoically.
They surround themselves with like-minded people – of whom, of course, there are many within the confines of the now cleared out Catholic Church. They raise their children with the same great love for the Church – alerting them to the fact that the world is now quite a hostile place to people like them – that they have to be on constant guard against non-Catholic teachings and influences. They feel it’s best to keep their children from such influences by allowing them to mix with only the right people – people who share their world view. In doing so, they raise confident, secure, good Catholic children.
When those children begin to explore the world beyond their parents’ realm of influence one of three different things happens. The children think, reflect, explore for themselves and come to the same conclusions as their parents did – and that’s wonderful. All are secure and confident in their shared world view. Or the children find themselves questioning some of their parents’ / Church’s teachings but they know that their Church’s world view doesn’t allow for different conclusions to be reached so they repress their own critical thought processes (there’s no point in allowing yourself to think if the conclusions you have to reach are already cast in stone!) and continue to go through the motions.  Alternatively, the children come to entirely different conclusions and find themselves in constant conflict with their parents – to the point that they either cannot accept or cannot be accepted by their nurturers. The family unit is ruptured. The parents fear for the souls of their children – they have rejected the one true path to salvation!
So much of our good Catholics’ time and energy are being taken up with guarding against the hostile world that there is very little room left for being practicing Christians. It’s very difficult to be Christ’s hands and feet and eyes and ears in a world which sees you as being a passive follower of a misogynistic, homophobic fundamentalist church – a church which has cleansed itself of anybody who dared challenge its teachings in the area of sexuality or in any other area.
So the Roman Catholic Church has indeed become an exclusive institution. Where has its universality gone? Where is the inclusiveness that the title implies? In fact, it can’t really call itself ‘Catholic’ any more, can it? This may seem like gross distortion – Catholicism could NEVER come to this! This is a major world religion which has served the world for two thousand years – it couldn’t possibly become a small, fundamentalist sect. Could it?

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  1. Jo O'Sullivan says:

    Believe it or not, Saoirse, I can totally relate to your confusion as to why I still consider myself to be a Catholic. And I’d like to try and explain myself to you.
    I’m from a very ordinary Catholic background – no great delving into the tenets of my faith during my life – no great exploration of theology or church history – no participation in ‘progressive’ movements or anything like that. In fact, all I did was try to observe the teachings and ‘living out’ of Catholicism as best I could – going to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days (and the occasional daily Mass if I was in a position to do so) and playing a full part in my church, parish life (I have played the church keyboard and been part of a lively children’s liturgy team, among other things, here in my parish for many years).
    I suppose, to be totally honest, I carried a unease with certain aspects of Catholicism for a long time and had to reconcile things as best I could –sometimes by acknowledging I was ‘breaking the rules’ but letting myself off the hook (f.eg. for using contraception) and sometimes by not allowing myself to think too deeply about them (f.eg. the huge wealth in parts of the church contrasted with the poverty in the world; the position of women, people in second relationships, gays in the church etc.) I sometimes felt I was a ‘bad’ Catholic for having such critical thoughts about the structures and teachings. After all, those who dictated how things should be- those in positions of authority over me in my spiritual life, were much greater than I in every way and it was the sin of pride on my part to harbour such criticisms and doubts. In particular, anything coming from the Vatican was coming from those closest to God in this world so I had no business questioning the validity of anything they had to say.
    I spent most of my adult life in that way, Saoirse, living a rather superficial version of Catholicism because, I think, I was afraid to delve too deeply!
    However, my relationship with my loving Creator, as experienced through my Catholic faith, sustained me through many rough times in my life – many situations/times when no amount of logical, rational thought helped to see me through – life’s messy, difficult, paradoxical and sometimes cruel and painful chapters. So it was enough that I practiced Catholicism without thinking too deeply about it.
    Life kept nudging me in my unease every so often though – sometimes it was in the shape of my growing children asking me questions and not accepting pat answers so I had to try and find answers which I felt to be true and valid; sometimes it was in finding myself in situations where the Catholic teaching just didn’t sit properly with my conscience. It was in meeting and knowing wonderfully Christian, caring people who were deeply hurt by the fact that the faith of their childhood rejected them because of their life’s circumstances.
    I continued trying to accept that my ‘betters’ knew more than I did – I didn’t want to be proud and arrogant – so I tried to quieten my conscience by continuing to try and build a nurturing community in my own wee world and keeping my head in the sand over the rest of it (not something I’m proud of, but it’s the truth!).
    The revelations of the Murphy Report caused a chasm to appear under me. I had been able to accept that there were individual criminal perpetrators of evil but I could not bear the fact that my ‘betters’, my moral and spiritual guides, had totally failed our most vulnerable little ones by choosing to protect the institution of the Catholic church over them.
    I could no longer continue to contribute to building up the church in my own wee way if, by doing so, I was allowing the rottenness to continue.
    It set me off on a long, terrifying journey, Saoirse, where I felt blasphemous and heretical and totally confused by my thoughts at times. All I could do was read and talk and listen and agonise over what was right and what was wrong. For every article I read by experts extolling adherence to strict Catholic teachings evidenced by readings from scripture, I read another one which interpreted scripture in a different way in the light of on-going theological exploration. All the experts were absolutely sincere and genuine in their arguments. I so wanted to be able to go back to being as I was before, but I couldn’t and I still can’t!
    The conclusion that I came to was that, for me, there are no absolute certainties anymore. I can never know for sure that I am ‘right’. So, it follows on from that that I can never be sure that anyone who doesn’t see things MY way is ‘wrong’. In reading such people as Richard Rohr O.F.M., I have actually come to realise that I am moving beyond dualistic thinking and that’s a GOOD thing! I’m getting to a place where I can accept that I don’t HAVE to be right and others don’t HAVE to be wrong! I can reconcile myself to living in faith, living in the paradox, and constantly trying to see things from as broad a perspective as possible.
    I have no problem accepting that our church leaders sincerely wish to discern what God’s will for humanity is so that they can be our teachers and our guides. I know the argument that they do not come to decisions by their own power alone – they pray and reflect and study scripture and Tradition very carefully so that they can eventually speak ‘the mind’ of God. But what if God is now nudging us, those of us living in the non-rarefied conditions of messy, secular society, towards having our voices heard? I cannot accept is that putting up walls and silencing debate is the way to move forward.
    Neither can I go back to my old argument (with myself!) that I’m a nobody, so I’ve no business speaking out my silly little views. I think I have to speak out.
    I truly worry that there’s a move to make Catholicism smaller and tighter. My whole belief is that our role in life, as Catholic Christians, is to reach out to all of humanity in love, tolerance and compassion – not to judge them and find them wanting.
    There’s so much more in my head and in my heart that I’d like to say – but it has taken me three days to get this much down on paper. I’ve been dipping in and out of it – adding to it, taking from it, since I read your comment on Thursday morning. If I don’t submit it now, I won’t do it at all.
    I respect your views Saoirse; I know you speak out of honesty and I can feel that you’re hurt that other Catholics seem to be utterly disloyal to something you hold very dear; that they’re trying to destroy Catholicism from the inside.
    And I don’t know if I’ve gone any way to explaining to you that I honestly don’t want to do that – I want Catholicism to be a way of life that attracts the lonely and the lost – a way of life that nurtures all its children – a way of life that gives my grandchildren a path to follow so that they will ‘live life to the full’ and be happy that relationship with their loving Creator is at the very core of their everyday living.
    I don’t know what stage of life you’re at Saoirse, but I bet you’d want the very came things for your grandchildren?

  2. “The Catholic Church” (he katholike ekklesia) is found for the first time in the letter of St. Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, written about the year 110. That’s about 150 years before St Athanasius.

  3. Soline Humbert says:

    I was surprised St Athanasius referred to “Catholics”: We weren’t invented then, but were simply Christians, followers of “The Way”. And then, is faithfulness to Christ the same as faithfulness to tradition, in the sense of what has been? Surely we need a dynamic understanding of Christ and tradition or we’ll be fossilised.
    The Holy Spirit keeps us ” green”.
    About sex, lust and love,there are other ways of looking at things, as Bishop Geoffrey Robinson points out:

  4. PS : “Even if Catholics faithful to Tradition are reduced to a handful, they are the ones who are the true Church of Jesus Christ.” -St. Athanasius:

  5. Jo, I was feeling slightly guilty myself for speaking so bluntly, and also because the church is.. and should be! … full of sinners, but your position truly confuses me. A Catholic should surely strive to follow the teachings of Christ (Never even mind the Magisterium) and He stated that even looking and thinking lustfully about another was a sin…so if you want to ‘live in sin’ or be a practising homosexual, how can you be in communion with the church? More than that, how can you expect the Catholic church to approve and condone this when it is contrary to the teachings of Christ, which they have managed to preserve for 2000 years? Our Lady of Fatima stated that more souls are lost to hell through the sins of lust than for any other reason. Yes, Christ would have us all at the table, and does not want a soul to be lost, but he said Himself that if we love him, we will keep his commandments. He doesn’t sit in judgement of us (yet) but he forgives us on the grounds that we go and sin no more.
    Eddie, I am well aware of the meaning of my name. And I have experienced true freedom only in obedience to Christ.
    You are all in my heart too!

  6. Mary O Vallely says:

    “On Erin’s green Vallelys look down in thy love.” And sure the awareness of that love keeps this Polyanna smiling. 🙂
    Eddie,drop me a line and I’ll answer your question. My email is maryov@btinternet.com
    I do feel sorry for all Cardinals at present, not just the one on Sandy Hill. (SB) There is a very interesting recent interview with Cardinal Schonborn in Vatican Insider. (just google) It’s all very vague and has all the hallmarks of a man under pressure to toe the party line. He was looking hopeful there for a while and appeared to be open to listening and certainly showing some compassion,not a trait one usually associates with the higher prelates. Maybe he has gone too far and is being reined in? Thank God I have the freedom to speak my mind though all have that freedom if they would only realise it. It is good to dialogue and to keep dialoguing, is it not?

  7. Thank you, Jo. By painting an alternative frightening scenario, you highlight the values that Jesus preached and lived for. His stance was non-judgmental and he encouraged people to find their own answers. Above all, he was and is, inclusive, welcoming everyone especially those by whom the so-called ‘respectable’ people might be afraid or shocked. ‘Catholic’ means universal, as you point out. To make it otherwise is a betrayal of Christ’s mission.

  8. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Mary O, Armagh could do with a few Polyannas at the moment. During my six years on Sandy Hill, looking around at the other six hills, I have to say I always found the vallelys more interesting. Especially J.B. Any connection? An in-law?

  9. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Saoirse, yours is a beautiful name. It means ‘freedom’. Well worth fighting for. I didn’t think you’d be one of the Exclusive Brethren & Sisterhood. As Jo says, “people who want Catholicism to be an exclusive, ‘pure’ religion which tolerates no ‘saoirse’ of thought or expression.” And why are you throwing SIN in Jo’s direction?

  10. Mary O Vallely says:

    Friday’s 1st reading from Acts 18:9 God speaks to Paul and tells him, “Do not be afraid to speak out, nor allow yourself to be silenced. I am with you….”
    Words which speak to all of us.
    Jo and Saoirse, you are both courageous in speaking out as your conscience dictates. There is room for all of us here. The Holy Spirit is alive in each one who is open to listening and hearing the Word of the Lord. Christianity is above all about love and compassion. Christ would have us all at the table. He would not reject anyone especially one who loves Him. This might sound as if I am Armagh’s answer to Polyanna 🙂 but that promise of “I am with you” is so hugely comforting to me. Let us keep dialoguing as was emphasised again and again on Monday 7th with open ears and open and loving hearts. All WILL be well and all manner of things WILL be well. Jo and Saoirse, you are in my heart too. God bless.
    Mary V

  11. Jo O'Sullivan says:

    Oh Saoirse, I am so, so sorry you feel as you do.
    I had actually been feeling a bit guilty that I had written as I did about how Catholicism might develop.I had felt I was being cruel to and judgemental of those good Catholics who genuinely believed that the correct path to God was to adhere with total obedience to the teachings of the magisterium. I have no right to judge anyone.
    But your response has cut me to the quick, because it shows that there ARE people who want Catholicism to be an exclusive, ‘pure’ religion which tolerates no freedom of thought or expression.
    With the greatest of respect and humility, if Catholicism DOES develop along those lines, my conscience will dictate that I leave.
    However, because of the thousand or so people who attended the Regency Hotel on Bank Holiday Monday, because of the majority of contributors on this site, because of the writings of many sincere Catholic theologians and thinkers – male and female, and because my heart and soul still feels it belongs in the Catholic Church, I am still here.
    Even though I suspect you will not appreciate it, I have taken you into my heart.

  12. Quote:’They do not have to worry that some day they might have to attend a Mass that is celebrated by a married man, or a woman! They do not have to fear that there may be “failed” Catholics, who are living in sin by cohabiting, going up to receive Communion. And they certainly don’t have to concern themselves with the horror that there might be practicing homosexuals among the ranks participating in the Sacraments!’
    I can only say that if these are really the kind of reforms you wish to see in the Catholic church then you really shouldn’t consider yourself a Catholic at all. That may be blunt, but true Catholics who wish to practice their faith in peace would be more than relieved if people with your views did indeed leave the Church rather than try to destroy it from within and insist on inflicting your heretic views on the rest of us. I don’t really understand how you consider yourself to have a ‘catholic faith’ when so many of your beliefs are in direct conflict with the Magisterium of the church and the commandments of God.
    We may be out of step with the ‘real’ world in our thinking, but we are called to be ‘out’ of this world. I see nothing controversial in the Church’s teachings on sexuality and hey! Sin does exist. Now there’s a dirty word for you.

  13. You write,”They do not have to worry that some day they might have to attend a Mass that is celebrated by a married man, or a woman!” More to the point, they might have to attend a mass someday at which they are asked to be alive and involved- a real challenge, that! At the moment, in so many parishes, they are encouraged to be passive, a perfect context for clericalism -among the laity as well as among the clergy-to continue to thrive.

  14. Mary Cunningham says:

    Your willingness to embrace all of the teachings of the Church including all of the controversial sexual teachings, is your freely chosen decision. I wholeheartedly respect your right to this embrace.
    All I ask is that this respect is afforded to others whose truth about the reality of their lives, may be at odds with some church teaching. With goodwill, a spirit of inclusiveness, dialogue and above all the guidance of the Holy Spirit, such truth does not have to be in conflict with love of the Catholic Church.
    One of the recommendations (n.44) from Catholic Bishops at a Synod, ‘Justice in the World’ (1971) is;
    ‘The Church recognises everyone’s right to freedom of expression and thought. This includes the right of everyone to be heard in the spirit of dialogue which preserves a legitimate diversity within the Church’

  15. Jo O'Sullivan says:

    “Unthinking zombies”, “unthinking drones”, Tracy and Peter, I am sorry if you read my article as accusing the Catholics in a future “cleaned out” church as being such.
    It was never my intention to be offensive. In fact I refer to such Catholics as having a certain world view and I suggest that it’s fortunate for all if children of such parents “come to the same conclusions as their parents did”. Does that not show that I recognise that these are thinking, reflective people?
    And Val, I daresay you’re right about certain elements of the press being ready to jump on anything that smacks of a spiritual code, where values like upholding certain moral standards and the suppressing of any selfish impulses conflict with their own superficial, hedonistic thrusts.
    But my fear remains.
    I cannot see eye to eye with thinking, reflective people who believe that any institution can have the authority to order other thinking, reflective people “You must believe this. You must accept this and you can’t even talk about it. If you cannot force your conscience into accepting it, you are wrong and you don’t belong here”.
    Does that not scare you?
    And, if that way of thinking and operating continues to retain ascendency within Catholicism, does it not mean that the Catholic Church will become a place where, despite all its incredibly good work for social justice (and again, Tracy, I fully acknowledge that aspect of the church’s work – I’m still here, after all!), it has ceased to be catholic and all- loving and all-embracing in the way Jesus asked us to be?
    In the light of ever-developing understanding of the human condition, ever-deepening awareness of the complexity of human relationships (sexual and otherwise), surely it is only right to have open and honest dialogue – a dialogue which includes diversity of views – not a dialogue wherein boundaries are already marked out and freedom of thought and expression is restricted.
    Is that not what we’re doing here on this site and is it not great that we’re able to do so?
    I am not asking that every Catholic shares my way of thinking, I am fully accepting of the fact that there are good, sincere, honest, reflective people who want to follow the teachings of the Magisterium to the letter.
    What I’m asking is that I can continue to be a Catholic with MY beliefs. My article was in response to the view that people like me did not belong in the Catholic Church – and that hurt me. Like Val, I too hope that a way forward can be found where we can all feel valued and accepted within our Catholic family.

  16. There are so many strawmen in this article!
    I am young and was not brought up with any special focus on spirituality or religion. There were no holy pictures in the house, no family prayers or anything like that. In fact, my parents rarely went to Mass.
    Yet I, who am in my 30’s and am educated to doctoral level, have willingly embraced the fullness of Catholicism. I have done so using my brain, and I willingly embrace all of the teachings of the Church (and yes, that includes all of the controversial sexual teachings as well. Oh, and by the way, I also believe in social justice and in tolerance – truth and love are not in conflict you know).
    The portrayal of orthodox Catholics as fearful, unthinking drones is deeply offensive and profoundly uninformed. Perhaps that was the case with a certain older generation; it is certainly not the case with those of my generation.

  17. Kathleen Fitzsimons OP says:

    A great angle Jo. Thank you.

  18. I’m sure it’s not the reaction the author intended to provoke, but yes, it sounds great!
    … with one reservation — obedient Catholics are not the unthinking zombies this article would have us believe. It’s possible to use your brain and still be obedient.

  19. Hi Jo, we will all be treated poorly whether we stay together or split, liberal secularism is aggressive to us all. They align themselves with the liberal part of our church for the minute but they will attack this side too when it does not serve a purpose to them any longer.
    If you take the time to read comments under any church related article in a number of on-line news forums they attack the ACP as quick as other parts of the church. Yesterday was a perfect example when some ACP members admirably spoke out in defence of the seal of confession, some of the comments against them were horrible.
    A new liberal church would initially get browney points for embracing homosexuality but it would not be long before the criticism would start for being anti abortion.
    I’m not pointing this fact out as a reason not to have any change, but rather to dispel the myth that a liberal Church will get an easy ride, for it won’t.
    I think you made a lot of good points, especially about having an isolated stand off priesthood, this would be a terrible direction to go in. You are right also that are children have to live in the real world and the church will loose them if it is too far removed from the real world.
    I just hope and pray there will be no split and a way forward can be found.

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