21 August 2008
Today's editorial is partly sparked by the events currently unfolding in the Archdiocese of Brisbane concerning the parish community at St Mary's South Brisbane. The editorial ends by addressing that particular situation. Before that though the editorial seeks to raise some wider issues concerning the role of our institution and its leaders. Are our churches primarily a means of replacing the intrinsic uncertainties of life with man-made dogmas, certitudes and fundamentalism? Or are they primarily a means of providing comfort and companionship as we, the community at large, negotiate the uncertainties of life?
Embracing the incertitudes and mystery of life with confidence…
At the foundation of all religious beliefs there is ultimately a mystery — the mystery of the supernatural, the mystery of the Divine, the mystery of God. Our religions, whatever specific tag we give them, are our frail human attempts to penetrate the Mystery at the foundation of Life. Through our religions we attempt to access, and understand, the mind of God — the mind of that Source, Force or Creator whom we look to as the ultimate spring from which Life comes.
For some, perhaps unfathomable, reason we human beings abhor incertitude and not having answers. We don't like having to live with Mystery. All the institutions we set up are in some way an attempt to take the mystery and uncertainties out of life. Our political institutions are designed to help us create social and economic stability. Here in the Western world we have today established these vast superannuation and insurance industries that are primarily designed to reduce much of the financial uncertainty that was a feature of life for our forebears in old age and if the forces of nature, or the errors of our fellow citizens, rained on our parade. The institutions of science and education are part of our human attempt to better understand how life ticks, the planets and stars sustain life, and how we can plan for the future with more certainty. Our religious institutions also are part of this complex endeavour through which we try to make our lives less uncertain and understandable.
While these attempts we human beings make to reduce the unknowns of life are both understandable and indeed laudable, and we need to continually acknowledge that it is part of the drive in human nature to better understand the world around us, and our neighbours, and to better understand the Mystery of the Divine itself, we also need to be remain cognizant and humble in the face of the essential Mystery that our Creator-God endowed to Creation. We are on a journey. It is a long journey which over the long course of human history has gradually peeled back some of the layers that envelope this Mystery of Life that enfolds us. We need to remain humble that there is much that we still don't know — perhaps even vastly more that is still unknown compared to what we have already discerned.
"Religious" people who exceed their own authority…
A particular danger that seems to continually face religious institutions and their leaders is an attempt to exceed their own authority. At the continual prodding of their more insecure members they attempt to dogmatise parts of the Mystery that they have no right to try and dogmatise. Our religious leaders often seem to put themselves across as though they have "all the answers" to Life's mysteries — they have special entré to interpreting the mind of God. Religious fundamentalism is born of this propensity in human nature to manufacture artificial certitudes that create an aura of certitude about things that are ultimately not yet within our provenance to know.
Human civilisation faces a number of enormous challenges at the moment. One concerns climate change and the sustainable use of our planet's resources — including the very water and air that sustains life in this delicate ecosystem we label as "planet earth". Another concerns the threat posed by terrorism and fundamentalism — the activities of individuals who convince themselves that they have all the answers or they know "the mind of God" with more assuredness than anybody else.
One doesn't need to travel very far from Catholica to other discussion boards where you will find any number of individuals who seem convinced that they have all the answers to life and who are forever "laying down God's laws" with a certitude that probably exceeds the certitude that God's Godself probably has about the unfolding future of Life and the Cosmos. It is one of the great insights of our own religion, Catholicism, that the greatest gift God endowed to the sentient part of Creation is the gift not only of Free Will but an invitation, through that gift, of participating in "the unfolding plan of Creation itself". Intrinsic to that understanding is an understanding that God's self probably does not know how history will unfold with any degree of uncertainty. The decisions as to how it might unfold are quite possibly within the provenance of human beings who have not yet even been born. This is a, or should be, a humbling insight for all of us.
Could we here at Catholica put forward a radical suggestion…
A radical suggestion…
All the major religious institutions today, including our own, are facing an unprecedented challenge in retaining the attention and confidence of their congregations. The people at large have lost confidence in the Benedicts, the JPIIs, the Peter Jensens, George Pells and Raymond Burkes who seem convinced they have "all the answers" and who seem to prosecute the belief that they can "read Life" with more certitude than God's Godself can "read Life".
If our religious insitutions are again to position themselves where they make a significant contribution to human affairs and insight our institutional leaders need to fundamentally rethink their role. Instead of envisaging themselves as the originators of dogma that provide certitude to the insecure sectors of their flocks, they need to start thinking of their role as pastors and servants who help us negotiate the uncertainty, the Mystery and incertitudes of Life. Their role is not primarily a role of inventing dogmas that provide some aura of certitude. It is a role of encouraging us to "sit comfortably — in spiritual equilibrium" with both those things we have discerned about life with some certitude but, more importantly, with those vastly greater number of things to which we don't presently have any clear answers.
St Mary's, South Brisbane —
This editorial has been partly sparked by the news in recent days of developments at St Mary's Parish in the Archdiocese of Brisbane. We submit these developments have largely been sparked by the activities of "busy bodies" who believe they "have all the answers". The Catholic Bishops of this nation face an enormous litmus test at the moment as to whether they provide real spiritual leadership or whether they are going to cave into these "busy bodies". The Archbishop of Brisbane, John Battersby, is the particular leader under the hammer in sorting out this issue but it would be pathetic for the other bishops of this nation to not provide him with moral support as he works through the challenges presently being imposed on him. The easy solution is to simply close down St Mary's. That is not necessarily the correct decision though. Here at Catholica we do not pretend that the priests and parishioners of St Mary's South Brisbane "have all the answers". We are reasonably confident though that they are a heck of a lot closer in understanding "the mind of our Creator God" than any of these "busybodies" who think they are "God" or they have special access to the many more answers God might have compared to the rest of humanity.
Could we urge that all readers of this editorial take the trouble over the next few days to contact your bishop or archbishop and urge them to demonstrate their moral support for Archbishop Battersby in the difficult decisions he has to make. Urge your leaders to view this issue as a litmus test understanding of two fundamentally opposed ways of viewing what our religion is about — is it an institution that has been set up to exclusively mollycoddle the insecure members of society … the ones who hanker after certitude at any cost? Or is it an institution that presents itself as "the spiritual companion" as we search forward endeavouring to discern the sort of civilisation and parish communities that God calls us into … ones that are inclusive and welcoming to all, ones seeking to build bridges across all the divisions in society and break down all the barriers that divide human society? Yes, there is a limit somewhere as to what we need to subscribe to in order to merit the title that we are a "Catholic community". That may need some re-definition as part of the process that is presently underway. Let us urge the more pastoral and reflective bishops of this nation to courageously and collectively work with Archbishop John Bathersby and the community of St Mary's, South Brisbane, as they discern how St Mary's can fit comfortably in the mix of what it is to be a truly "Catholic" community today.
We welcome comments in the forum from members, or as Letters to the Editor from Catholica subscribers, expressing your views on this commentary.