Dr Graham English was one of the panelists last Saturday at a discussion sponsored by Australian Reforming Catholics. The broad topic for the discussion was "What are the possibilities today for identifying as Catholic?" His talk is nostalgic and pointedly critical of how Catholicism seems to have lost focus and direction.
Am I still a Catholic?
I was asked the other day if I still identify myself as a Catholic. My reply is not straight forward. To answer I need to talk about insanity.
As anyone who has lived with insanity knows it often damages the people round about. For example alcoholism is a form of insanity. A child growing up in an alcoholic home begins to think that the alcoholic and the other adults are normal and she is mad. After all adults know what is going on. Children don't. People in a mad house are inclined to act insanely to fit in, even unaware adults do. They will keep secrets, live a life of denial, and take part in crazy even dangerous things. A woman I know who is married to a bad drunk has often got into the car with her children while her almost paralytic husband is at the wheel. This is irresponsible but she is acting insanely. To do anything else is just too hard. The insane drive those around them mad. It is very difficult to fight against and we all know people, maybe you are one, who once they wake up spend much of the rest of their lives recovering.
One definition of insanity is "the compulsion to keep doing something that has always failed in the belief that THIS TIME it will surely work". Psychologists call it repetition compulsion. It is a sure sign of serious dysfunction. It is the kind of insanity I am talking about.
The Catholic Church, here in Australia and worldwide is dysfunctional in this way. It is acting insanely. Too many people keep doing things that have failed in the belief that THIS TIME they will surely work. They beatify a recent pope when it is not at all clear he is a saint. They dismiss a theologian who asks awkward questions. They still think women are less valuable and able than men. They dismiss a successful pastoral bishop because he trusts his experience. A Cardinal somewhere is in trouble with the law so they move him to a sinecure in Rome. And they demand that we keep all this to ourselves in the name of unity.
They are living in denial.
This makes it very hard for me, who am trying to remain sane to continue identifying myself as a Catholic.
Still identifying as a Catholic...
I still do identify as Catholic, more or less but it is a close run thing. I have been a Catholic for sixty seven years — though it feels much longer — and the insanity of the organisation is getting me down so that in the recent census while I ticked the box marked 'Catholic', for the first time in my life I had to think about it before I did.
If you looked at my CV you'd wonder why I'd pause for, as well as being christened I've done all the other Catholic initiation things (the sacraments, daily rosary when I was a child, nine first Fridays, my middle name is Joseph, Mum was pregnant all of my childhood etc), then I was a Christian Brother for seventeen years, and I spent all my working life, forty six years of it in one or other form of Catholic education. I've even written a small book on prayer, though it did not sell very well.
But for some years now I have been wondering, "Why bother? Do I NEED this? Would it be better for me to just walk away? Am I also insane if I stay?"
I was born in 1944. I am of the last generation who experienced the Church as it was before Vatican II, then the excitement and hope of the Vatican II years, then all that has happened since.
I have seen what seemed a complete and confident community of whom more than 70% were at Mass every Sunday change to one where now less than 14% are there, and where except in migrant areas most of those are senior citizens. Beside that we are in disarray. Those of us who are left fight amongst ourselves. Most of our leaders do not have our confidence or respect. And the Taoiseach of Ireland is attacking the Vatican in the Dail, the Irish parliament.
When I was a child and a young man there were lots of good reasons to identify myself as a Catholic. We were mostly socially cohesive. We were still nearly all of Irish or British ancestry with some Italians and other Europeans who were expected to fit in.
We were a substantial minority where the majority, being nearly all British were like Britain basically anti-Catholic. We had an enemy. We knew where we stood.
We also had our own schools. They were poor, some were very inadequate. I know because in secondary school I attended one. But we had something to strive for. We wanted State Aid. We wanted to be socially upwardly mobile. We wanted to be successful. We wanted to beat everyone at sport. When I was young we had the added bonus of over full seminaries and novitiates. The future looked assured.
Of course we did not know the Bible. Until I was fifteen I thought the psalms were something the Salvation Army had. They had a sign outside their hall in the town where I lived that said, "The Lord is my shepherd. Ps 23". It took me years to find out what "Ps 23" meant.
In Australia we did not have a strongly intellectual Church. Nor a Church replete with beautiful things as the French and the Spanish did. We did not have their fierce divisions either. Our priests were mostly of the people. Our nuns and brothers were distinctly of the people. Our religion was based on devotion to the Mass, to Mary and the saints, fear, and to a very narrow description of good behaviour.
Most Catholics when I was a child were poorly educated. They were not academically unintelligent of course, many were wise or canny. It was just that years of oppression in Ireland and being almost all working class here meant that we lacked the advantages of education. I come from the country. No one I knew in my parents' generation completed secondary school. Even in the late 1950s few of my contemporaries male or female went further than year nine. Apart from one Christian Brother I was fifteen before I met anyone other than the two Catholic doctors in town who had been to university. I hadn't the slightest idea what a university was or where there was one.
Still I grew up in a Church full of possibilities. There were lots of places to discover and things to find out. Being a young Catholic when I was one was an exciting if narrowly focused place to be.
Social reasons for being a Catholic...
BUT as vital and as permanent as that Church seemed to me as a fifteen year old, and as hopeful and exciting as it still seemed when I was in my early thirties most of the reasons for being Catholic in Australia were social. They were to do with identity, cohesion, having somewhere to go on Sundays, and someone to feel commonality with. Catholicism was meeting social needs that depended on a lack of mobility, social and otherwise, lack of communication, strong peer pressure to stay, and on very few alternatives.
The major social changes in the whole of Australian and western society that occurred in the 1970s, the disappearance of bigotry among them, dissolved much of what held Catholicism together.
The changes in the Church at Vatican II, Humanae Vitae, and the fierce resistance to change from many of our leaders who didn't even recognise that everything else had changed, the restorationism of the last two papacies, and the general collapse of all institutions and authority, secular and religious finished off much of the rest.
Then the technological revolution that allowed easy travel, an explosion of information and an impression of being connected with the whole world finished off anything that was left.
Many Catholics do not need the Church any more.
What are the possibilities today?
So what are the possibilities today for identifying as Catholic especially here where we are in the developed west?
The short answer is: I do not know. I find it hard sometimes to maintain hope. I often wonder if I will hang on. Because any movement including the Church only has a future (indeed only has a present!) if people NEED it. And the question for me is: do I NEED to be Catholic now?
I am not sure the answer is yes.
The Church I am told is flourishing in some underdeveloped environments. Some Third World countries are even sending us missionaries. But I do not live in the Third World, or Eastern Europe. Nor do most Australians. Things that might work there and lead to a flourishing Church do not apply here. The old ways of doing things no longer work and the old gang running things seems to me to have no idea what to do except the insanity of trying the old things over and over.
So my questions are, "Does the Church have anything to say to us here? Does Catholicism have anything useful to say to Australia that would tempt us to identify as Catholics? Is there something in Catholicism that we need?"
Well, we have some things going for us. Catholic schools are so much better educationally now than they were when I went to school. The physical violence is gone for a start. About twenty years ago when I was teaching or inservicing young teachers former students of Catholic schools stopped telling horror stories of their Catholic education. Young people at Catholic schools now usually like school. The teachers are much better educated too. People want to send their children to Catholic schools though some research I did when I worked in the Catholic Education Office showed that the reasons children are sent to Catholic schools are not always the ones some Catholic education officials hope. Discipline, pastoral care, and a homogenous ethic all count for more than religious education for most parents.
The social justice agencies like the Edmund Rice Centre, the various refugee centres and advocacies are doing great work too. On the Thai-Burmese border for example the Gospel is the motivation for really good work done by Jesuit and Marist organised ventures. The infrastructure of Catholic religious orders still works. Many Catholics work in voluntary and other agencies for the disadvantaged. We have an aged and healthcare infrastructure that is flourishing.
And words like empathy, compassion, kindness, truth and acceptance, what some of us think the Gospels are all about, provide the motivation for many Catholic inspired institutions.
I still value being a member of the same Church that had Mozart, Aquinas, Frederic Ozanam, Thomas Merton and John Henry Newman as members. I love Romanesque art and I feel at home in Notre Dame in Paris.
But I also love Bach and Bonheoffer and any number of other Christians, Jews and Buddhists and these days I am enriched by agnostics and atheists like Wittgenstein, John McGahern, or George Orwell as much as by St Benedict, Thomas Aquinas or Herbert McCabe. My prayer comes from the psalms which are Jewish. My struggle against anxiety is helped by Zen.
Catholicism, Christianity indeed is by no means the only source of truth or the only way to live a good life. I find much of the vitality I need for my spiritual life outside the Church where once I was assured there was no salvation. My experience tells me that claim is just not true. Like Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty Four I have learnt to trust my experience instead of being swayed by other people's need for power or other folks' ideologies or neuroses. If I see people acting insanely I find I am bound to say so or get out, to save my own sanity. Salvation is where you find it, just as God is. Many people find God and all their salvation outside the Church. They do not need the Church. In fact for many it gets in the way.
One of the societies I know that helps people affected by others' insanity is called Al-Anon. In Al-Anon they say, "Take what you need and disregard the rest". An alcoholic friend of mine puts it, "Take what you need and file the rest". Lots of Catholics actually believe that. It is how they survive, though they keep quiet lest they be branded 'cafeteria Catholics'. Al-Anon is also extraordinarily accepting of difference and of the needs of those who choose to come to them. They demand only that members seek to grow. Lots of Catholics do that too though often on the quiet lest the Temple Police come around and report them to Big Brother.
So when asked the question, "Are you still a Catholic?" I ask myself if being a Catholic meets my needs or does it threaten my sanity.
Some of my needs...
Here are some of my needs. I need beauty, insight, poetry, contemplation to enable me to have a still mind, good liturgy, and awareness that this is the way it is and it is okay. I need empathy, compassion and love in a caring community. I need the reassurance of Psalm 126, "They that go forth weeping, carrying the seed to be sown will come back with shouts of joy, carrying sheaves" and of Psalm 91, "Those who dwell in the shelter of the Most High and abide in the shade of the Almighty say to the Lord, my refuge, my stronghold, my God in whom I trust."
For me these are the thick inner core of my needs. All the other stuff out at the edges just gets in my way. It drives me mad.
I don't care anymore about the Temple Police and I am happy to be thought a cafeteria Catholic because everyone who is Catholic is. I have realised there are lots of things about Catholicism I do not need. In fact there are many things that are harmful to me. It is not a club where you either accept all the rules or get out. It is a community where anyone who identifies as a Catholic has the right to be accepted and it is a community that is here for the people, especially for the bruised reeds and the outcasts.
As Jesus says, "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them". That I think is basis enough for a Catholic community.
Where I experience that I find it is possible to identify myself as a Catholic. If instead I experience insanity I need to get away from it for my own well being. I do not need the pain.
Graham English submitted to Catholica on 01 Nov 2011
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2011Dr Graham English