What is needed in our church?

By sister Christine Burke IBVM

Civil society has exposed the hypocrisy and face-saving of many in church leadership. People are angry and disillusioned. Shame rather than loyalty or pride is the dominant feeling associated with being Catholic in many countries.

At leadership level, protecting the mask of a church “beyond reproach”, (rather than one in constant need of reform as Pope John XXIII recognized), was believed to be more important than caring for victims. Frighteningly, many did not recognize that those reporting were victims, rather than trouble makers. How we define people and events controls how we respond. The Church, which took such high moral ground on sexual issues, is rightly reaping the whirlwind as the practice of its leaders is seen to be so remote from the gospel standard of care for the most vulnerable.

Understandably many are out for blood. Outrage at double standards is rarely calmed by repeated apologies, though these have their place. The abuse scandal tears at trust, and world-wide it is easy to line up against all in church leadership, to allow the “them and us” perspective to shape our response. But this is trap. Some leaders have failed abysmally, in care, integrity and leadership. Their failures have been laid bare, with heart-breaking clarity. However, as lay members of the church, we will never draw life from feasting on their failures. It can be a way of exonerating ourselves. We were part of a culture which, in the main, did not report such incidents to police; that, as parents and teachers, failed to credit the stories of young people; that was blind to and silent about the pain of families suffering sexual abuse or violence. ‘Scapegoating’ is an age-old way of handling stress and guilt. But it is not the way of Jesus.

How do we step up to take an adult role of working for a solution? Over fifty years ago a surprising turn-around was promulgated by the leaders of the Catholic church. After centuries of Popes, bishops and priests telling Catholics to be silent and wait for official answers on key issues, Catholics at large were reminded that they are the church. Through Baptism, each one of us is part of a pilgrim people, renewed by a personal relationship with Christ, each member of the church is equally commissioned to take the Good News of a loving God to the world. We are called to negotiate our route, read the messages encrypted in the surrounding landscape, and discern a way forward through reflection on the action of God in our everyday lives. It was a message of hope and a call to a new understanding of the Christian vocation- a call to holiness, not passivity. It met opposition from those who might lose power, bewilderment from the many who had over centuries had imbibed the message that their role was to “pay, pray and obey”, and excitement (and ensuing persecution in some cases,) from those who hastened to implement the varied calls of Vatican II.

Fifty years later, as one reads news from around the world, the importance of this insight that “we are the Church” takes on fresh urgency. We need to rethink how to BE Church. The Gospel base in which church is meant to be embedded must be our touchstone, together with learnings from social sciences about change, participative leadership, and transparency.

Clerical culture with its outdated theology stressing the “exalted otherness” of the priest, places behavior beyond normal scrutiny. Training young men away from ordinary opportunities for human growth, enshrines privilege and status. But seeing faults in our structures does not equate with dismantling all leadership. We have to find new people to lead in new ways if the message of Jesus is to speak to a younger generation.

The response of many has been to walk away. For those who decide, or are given the special grace to stay, the issue is one of discernment. How can we sift the wheat from the weeds, find what in our tradition has been helpful and what must go?

For those with ears to hear, a cry for deep change, built on a re-reading of Gospels and our Christian tradition, has been growing from varied sources over these fifty years. People in the poorest sectors of the globe have been speaking out about the impacts of the globalized economy on their lives, questioning the theology of the European based church which accompanied and often supported the rape of their land by colonial powers and in some places continues to be silent alongside the rich. Often less formally educated, these people are planting a grass-roots church at the local level with BECs.

Our planet, under climate stress, is urging us to think again about who and how we are. Scientists and theologians are repositioning humans: from being the centre or highpoint of all creation, to being part of the web of life, linked to earth, to all matter. They present a model of a network, of a life force residing in the connections, rather than in power over. Their message reinforces the cries of indigenous peoples across the globe: the earth is our mother.

An upsurge in interest in our multi-faceted spiritual tradition has resulted in groups providing more varied opportunities for those whose lives focus on family and the public sphere to experience some of our rich heritage of reflective, imaginative or charismatic prayer styles and through these to come to a deeper union with Jesus.

Women theologians have been reclaiming the richness of our tradition, looking with fresh eyes at structures, but also at the core of our faith. They insist it will take more than adding a few women to curial or clerical ranks to bring about change. The whole structure needs to be to re-envisioned based on Gospel priorities-this cannot be done in a synod composed of high-ranking clergy.  Recent theology highlights the early church model of a communion of equal women and men disciples, and a revitalized understanding of our triune God in whom equality and diversity are “in communion”, rather than a patriarchal grandfather in the sky. Our language impacts our way of behaving. Using male-only language for God is a form of idolatry. Any image for God that is beyond question fails to recognize the limits of that image and affects how we behave. In this case it has carried the message that men are more god-like, with terrible consequences for both women and men.

As a church, can we hear the message the Holy Spirit is speaking through so many different voices? As Bishop Vincent Long said in a recent talk in Australia: “For the Church to flourish, it is crucial that we come to terms with the flaws of clericalism and move beyond its patriarchal and monarchical matrix… So long as we continue to exclude women from Church governance structures, decision making processes and institutional functions, we deprive ourselves of the richness of our full humanity….So long as we continue to make women invisible and inferior in the Church’s language, liturgy, theology and law, we impoverish ourselves as if we heard with only one ear, we saw with only one eye and we thought with only one half of the brain.”

It’s tempting to cast stones. But maybe Jesus is squatting down beside this broken church and writing in the sand: let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. Dare we show the same compassion for the broken church as he showed to this woman?

At another point in the Gospel, Jesus turns to the women and men who were with him and asked: will you also walk away?  It is a challenge. To stay and struggle is only possible if we believe that Jesus’ way does offer hope. It’s not a way of success, if this is calculated by status and achievements. It is based on the belief that love wins through, that loving one’s neighbour allows for hope and peace to emerge out of the current tragedy.

If there is to be a new church it will have to be built on reconciliation, because at present we are fragmented. Reconciliation demands integrity and justice, but also a recognition that we are called to forgiveness as well as judgment. A sense that we are all sinners, all entrusted with the responsibility to be forgivers, is needed as we work for new structures, challenge taboos, question prohibitions that no longer convince, and find ways to make decisions as a whole church. We cannot continue to be an impoverished church that uses only a small percentage of one half of the body.

We need renew in ways that both draw on and critique our tradition in dialogue with the insights of our era discerned in the light of the Gospel, not just accepting that either the stance of the Church in the past was right or that our varied cultures have it right today. Our reference point lies in a personal relationship with the one who said: I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. That means each one of us has a task, given us at Baptism, but we can only do it well if we are part of community, valuing each other and searching together.