It is something of an irony that one of the greatest achievements of the Church has been in the realm of education. The irony being that as we've been educated we've also begun to question many of the old certitudes upon which the edifice of the institution was built. Dr Graham English is a recently retired member of that important cohort in Australia who helped build the modern Catholic Education system. In today's commentary he reflects back on the maturation of his own faith discarding many of the shibboleths but also disinguishing those things he still believes have enduring truth or insight.
The background noise in my childhood...
In the 1950s there was a journalist, Eric Baume who was heard on commercial radio and had a short daily comment called 'This I believe'. It was not a religious program but what we now call an opinion piece. I cannot remember any of the things he believed but it was basically him giving his forthright opinion on whatever took his fancy, and finishing each segment with, 'This is Eric Baume. This I believe'. I do not know if he influenced me, or anyone, but he was popular enough to keep going on radio for years.
The wireless was the background noise in my childhood. Commercial radio, in my case 2LF, the voice of the South West Slopes, was turned on by whoever got up first at our place and turned off by whoever was last to bed. It was the source of news, music, sport and race results, quiz shows, drama, serials, and comment. I did not listen to the ABC regularly until my mid-twenties. Apart from a children's session The Argonauts which a friend had pointed out to me when I was twelve I didn't know the ABC existed. Now I do not listen to commercial radio at all. I cannot bear it. A lot of it here in Sydney is toxic, almost all of it is redundant to my well being, a little is barely tolerable, and almost none of it is life-giving for me.
The foregound noise in my childhood...
If the wireless was the background noise of my childhood Catholicism was the foreground noise, though 'noise' doesn't quite capture it. It was more like one of those cars some teenagers drive around in with the speaker system on FULL, the windows open and the tone knob turned all the way to BASS. Nightly rosary, Mass every Sunday (much more often when my brother and I became altar boys), Lent, no meat on Fridays, confession on Saturdays and first Thursdays, feast days, 'Faith of our fathers living still' and 'Daily, daily sing to Mary'; you could see the church from our back door, hear the bell ringing in the tower just before each Mass or benediction started. We were always at something that was Catholic; school where religion and violence went hand in hand, the church itself, the blessing or opening of yet another new building, one fundraising event after the other; the constant reminder of sin and death, heaven and hell, the constant assurance that with sex there were no venial sins only mortal ones that would place you in the depths of hell should you die like that.
Making a list of thing I do not believe...
It seems such a long time ago, as if it happened in a different country far away. It also seems very recent as it still affects me every day. I thought of it all, and Eric Baume because I have been making a list of the things I do not believe. This is part of a process I am caught up in; I am wondering what I do believe and what is important to me in the autumn of my years. I found it helpful to start by discarding things. After all there was a lot pumped into me before I realised that I had a choice. Now I can throw stuff out willy-nilly until something says 'Hey, this is important'. Then I will look carefully to see if it is. Maybe some of that can go too if I ask 'Important to whom?' and find that 'me' is not the answer.
Then I thought of sorting things into categories: the toxic, the redundant, the tolerable, and the life-giving. The life-giving I will hold onto. Some of the tolerable might survive. The rest goes OUT. I have a limited amount of time left (I always did but at 65 it is more apparent to me). So the time has come. What am I going to spend my time developing or defending? What am I going to fight? What will I ignore or just let go?
Seamus Heaney the great contemporary Irish poet says of himself,
"When I was young, from first awareness until at least my early teens I dwelt entirely in the womb of religion. My consciousness was dominated by Catholic conceptions, formulations, pedagogies, prayers and practices. ... You'd hardly got out of the cot before you were envisaging your deathbed." (In Dennis O'Driscoll's Stepping Stones: interviews with Seamus Heaney, 2008, p471).
I envy Heaney his talent but I also envy his insight. He began to emerge from the Catholic womb in his early teens. For me it took much, much longer but now that I am out, weaned and on my own feet I want to make some adult choices. So here goes! I am no longer prepared to be part of the surplus population that is a condition of the Church's existence; I am no longer prepared to say yes to everything, to be part of the madding crowd.
This is from Karl Marx, Das Kapital Volume 1:
But if a surplus labouring population is a necessary product of accumulation or of the development of wealth on a capitalist basis, this surplus-population becomes, conversely, the lever of capitalistic accumulation, nay, a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production. It forms a disposable industrial reserve army that belongs to capital quite as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost. [my emphasis]
I spent forty six years, all my working life employed in one or other Catholic Church education institution. I taught, wrote, researched, and thought about Catholic education in all its forms for a long time. My students ranged in age from year-three primary school boys who are now in their mid-fifties to doctoral researchers. I experienced the Church at its best and at its worst (no, nothing physical that would rival the evil of the Borgia popes, but I have seen the way we treat people and the way we misuse power and it is sometimes ugly and sinful). I concluded that too much of what the Church institution has done is like what Marx accuses capitalism of doing; building a disposable reserve army that belongs to the Church, people who will behave themselves and unthinkingly say yes to what they are told. Too much of what we have done as a Church has been, is toxic, at least for me.
As a tiny child I was taught this little chant, 'I must die. I do not know when, or where or how but if I die in mortal sin I am lost forever.' I know I will one day die but I don't believe that such a chant helps anyone, especially children. And I no longer believe in all that stuff about eternal life. I am in favour of living this life, the only one I am sure I have.
People do not choose to be born. I know some cultures claim that we do but if I did I cannot remember it, and I am sure that if I did choose to be born I made the choice on grossly inadequate information. My choice had none of the requirements ethics demands for an adult autonomous decision. When Catholics of my age were born and eventually reached the stage when people began talking to us, we were told that we were certain to die, and that after that we would still exist forever. The message I got, at home, at church and in school was that life is too hard and that death is preferable, as long as when I die I am not in the state of mortal sin.
Sister Cummerbund (I can't remember who told me about mortal sin and eternity, so I am using a pseudonym for her or him to protect myself from a libel suit) told me that 'forever' was like a beach full of sand where a sparrow came once every million years and took one grain of sand. When that long lived sparrow had entirely cleared the beach of sand 'forever' would be only just beginning. Then we were told that we had two choices for the era after our deaths, heaven or hell. I won't burden you with the various descriptions the Redemptorist fathers gave us of hell but they were grim beyond imagining. Heaven had no appeal for me either. Anything repeating forever is just misery.
Heaven OR hell forever is NOT a choice!
Heaven OR hell forever is NOT a choice! Endless repetition, even of pleasure and joy is not a reward. It is toxic stuff that taught to children damages them and is part of the reason so many former Catholics now claim they are atheists. They cannot accept that god; it is a false god that is condemned by the first commandment so rightly, they reject it. Of course they think they are giving up on God entirely because as children they were told, 'It's this god or no one; my way or the highway to hell'. So they've chosen no one. I reject that god too. I am still trying to find God though because I know the search is worthwhile and my experience has been rich enough to keep me going. But there are lots of gods I don't believe in even if I hear them being praised or adored in some Catholic churches.
What will happen to me when I die? I don't know. I have never believed that only the baptised, be they Catholics or Christians go to heaven. My mother, conservative and life-fearing as she was when I was a child, assured me that somehow God handled all that. They could get to heaven too. Now I have no idea what heaven means. I leave all that to God. I am content to just live the best life I can, to grow if I am able, and if at all possible to help others grow. That is enough. Scaring me accomplishes nothing useful, nor does scaring other people. Anxiety is not one of the virtues.
I no longer believe either that God knows everything or that he or she is always watching, aware of what each of us is doing. I believe in privacy even from God, and that I have a real choice. God might be Father or Mother but God is not Big Brother!
As well as no longer believing in a frightening, vengeful God I no longer believe in a narrow God who is limited by the anxieties and self interested rules of humans. I think that the line attributed to the post-resurrection Jesus, 'whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven', was added to the gospels by someone anxious about his own power. I am sure that it was taught to Catholic children when I was a child to make us do as the pope told us. Well it didn't work. Too many things they tried binding on earth turned out to be wrong. The binders lost credibility so now only about 14% of Catholics go to church regularly, and being Catholic is little more than a tribal memory for so many.
I still go to Mass almost every Sunday but I no longer believe all the things I hear there. I don't laugh much at church, at our parish there is little that is funny, but I think God must find many Church rules and statements laughable. I know God can't laugh having no vocal chords, mouth etc but you know what I mean. For example I don't think God is frightened of women and I find the fear of even discussing women's ordination risible. I am not frightened of women either. My parents had a joint cheque account. One day my father came home amazed because one of his friends expressed surprise when he found out about this. 'What?' his friend had asked, 'you trust her with your money?' I think it had never occurred to my father that it was his money. He really thought it was their money. My father was not a proto feminist. Nor was he a real egalitarian. Coming from a working class background, he always listed himself in the electoral role as 'labourer' much to my chagrin. He was loathe to challenge doctors, priests or the landed gentry even though he'd seen enough to know their foibles, their misdeeds indeed. But I got the message from him that humans are persons, whatever their gender, age, religion, colour, sexuality or race. He hated gossip, and enough aberrant behaviour had happened in his family to make him very careful about judging or condemning others. It never occurred to him or me that women might be inferior. Now I find the Church's attitude to women toxic. I don't believe that women cannot be ordained, or preach, or be bishops. I do not believe there ever was a Pope Joan but I think God will cope when one day there is.
Called to be attentive...
I do not believe that obedience is a virtue for adults if obedience means doing as we are told by people in authority. I have seen too much evil done by people whose excuse was, 'I was only doing as I was told.' Too often people in authority, popes as well as the rest of us, don't know what they are talking about. Too often someone's opinion, even a saint or a really wise person, works well for them but applied to others or when made a rule for everyone just destroys people. Wisdom, goodness, great insights in one era or place, paradoxes or myths that get flattened out into ideologies or literalisms, all of these can become dangerous when they become concrete and are forced on people in other times and places, with widely different experiences, and with different emotional and spiritual needs.
Obedience might be a virtue if it means, as Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast defines it:
Ascetical obedience is also rooted in the peak experience, in the insight, namely, that everything makes sense the moment I stop questioning, the moment I listen. Learning to listen is the heart of obedience; following someone else¹s commands is merely a means to this end. In the last analysis, we have only the choice between absurdity and obedience. "Ab-surdus" means "absolutely deaf"; "ob-audiens" denotes the attitude of one who has learned to listen thoroughly, to listen with a heart attuned to the deepest meaning. (From Contemplative Community at www.gratefulness.org, 2nd August 2010
This obedience, "ob-audiens" means someone or some institution has learned to listen thoroughly; to listen with a heart attuned to the deepest meaning of what is going on; and to listen with the presumption that having heard they might be obliged to change their opinion even if it means losing face. I suggest it also means a humble presumption that the deepest meaning might come from outside our group or from people we do not even like. This applies to the leaders as much as the individuals who make up the Church.
It means that the authorities need to listen to the people who know what they are talking about. There are things only women know about. There are things only homosexual people know. There are experiences only alcoholics and those affected by alcoholism know. People who have never had an intimate relationship or a deep friendship have to be very careful when they make rules about sexuality for those who do have experience. People have a natural need to think for themselves using their own experience as a guide. They are better off cultivating attentiveness than doing as they are told. The 17th century French philosopher priest Nicolas Malebranche said, 'Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.' I think we are all called to be attentive.
I agree with the English philosopher Bernard Williams that any view of morality which claims that its position is the only one that is coherently tenable is logically absurd. As we become more attentive we become aware there are lots of things none of us knows so we have to wait, hearts attuned until we get closer to knowing what is happening. We have to both presume we do not know and that someone else might. 'For the time being' is a very handy moral position. There are times when we have to be content to be confused or to know that in the long run we just have to stay unknowing and therefore silent. In the words of the American country singer Iris Dement I am content 'to let the mystery be'.
One of my favourite 20th century thinkers was the English Dominican Herbert McCabe. He was one of those people like Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and G. K. Chesterton who became Catholic then contributed a great deal to enrich our lives. McCabe says that ethics are our attempt to respond to life more sensitively by entering into the significance of human action. We are working out gradually ways of being with each other and with the universe in ways that make us more fully human. I find that exciting.
I do not believe many of the things the official Church tells me about sexuality, intimacy, and reproduction. Too many people in authority have spoken too soon. I believe that many Catholics who have walked away from the Church or who are still at Mass regularly but who clearly do not keep the Church's laws see the Church as having little credibility in the area of intimacy and sexuality, and so they see it as having little credibility in other areas too. The great unquestioning reserve army that once belonged to the Church and provided it with priestly and religious vocations as well as the crowds at Mass and confession each week has dissipated. Conscription is no longer a possibility; the official Church has lost credibility because it does not listen.
I believe that some Catholics need to get out for their own good. When I was sixteen a Brother whom I respected, and still do, told a class I was in that Luther's big error was that he did not stay in the Church. Getting out was the wrong thing to do. Of course Luther did not think of himself as getting out, only reforming the Church but not listening to Rome whom he thought wrong. Even then I thought that if Luther really thought that the Church was wrong, and they would not listen to him, breaking away might be the only option.
Recently I heard someone say at a gathering I attended that we all loved the Church; we were not all leaving the Church or attacking it, we just wanted to reform it. We wanted Rome to treat us as adult Catholics, not as children or as a great unquestioning reserve army of faithful. I realised then that I do not love the Church. I love people who are part of the Church. I love others who are not and will never be. I have been formed and profoundly influenced by the Church and I have a Catholic way of being in that liturgy, sacraments, poetry, art, the Bible and much of the tradition give me life. I often love being Catholic. I still cringe each time there is a sex scandal involving priests or religious. I am still pleased when Catholics do well, just because they are Catholics the way I am pleased if other Australians do well. The old tribal feelings emerge now and then. I have looked carefully at other parts of the Christian Church and know that I would make a poor Protestant. John Calvin gives me the creeps, though I love his idea of the family church. I am not going to join one of the other Christian groups or approaches.
But I do not love The Church. I don't think I ever did. I don't love institutions. I am not a joiner even of a family. Unlike that girl in Oklahoma with me it is NOT 'all or nothing'. It is 'take what helps me grow and disregard the rest' or with my family 'take what helps and gradually get over the rest'. Loving THE Church is more than I can cope with.
One of the Catholics I deeply admire but do not wish to emulate, Dorothy Day, said of the Church, 'Although she is a harlot, still she is our mother.' Unlike Dorothy I find the mother image doesn't help me when I am looking for a metaphor for the Church. 'People of God' is much better; 'Body of Christ' helps me especially. Adults love their mothers; as Dorothy notes, often in spite of their dysfunctional lives, but they do not do as they say without asking questions, they do not still get manipulated by them, or get controlled by the fear that was used to control them when they were children. Especially they no longer say 'Yes Mummy' unquestioningly or spend time trying to keep Mother happy. They know that even the best mother in the world is or was often wrong, she is or was limited, and all of us spend some of our adult energy trying to recover from our parents. A student once reported me to an Archbishop for suggesting that this applied to Jesus as well as us. Despite the rebuke my claim occasioned I still believe it.
God finds me, and you, delightful...
I also believe passionately in the Incarnation, that God takes creation so seriously as to become part of it, to become it in the sense of 'to grace it' or 'to adorn it fittingly'. I believe God finds me, and you delightful and nothing I or you do can alter that. I do not believe there was a pre-fall time, there never was a golden age and there never will be. The Incarnation means to me that, as God has chosen to be part of us, Jesus Christ can transform us from within, has indeed transformed us and the whole universe. I think Incarnation is a sign that this always was so.
One of my teachers, Bob Young wrote this:
A mature capacity to deal with doubt and to hold one's own beliefs without absolutising them or abandoning all warranted assertion in the face of nihilism and relativism is the aim of critical education.
As I have become older I have realised that living out a life-long critical education is the only life-giving way for me to go. Another teacher, via his writings, Shaun Gallagher wrote,
We are genuinely responsible for ourselves only when we challenge the readymade answers provided to us by others.
I would like someone to have said that to me years ago but I arrived at it eventually. It is the only way to become adult.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2010Dr Graham English