The other day a visiting Israeli man bluntly asked me during a small dinner: was I religious? Well, yes, I replied, though not quite in the way I once would have answered. But Cardinal George Pell is not to blame for that.
Twenty years ago, I probably would have replied more confidently, as a cradle Catholic approaching her middle years, trying to live a good life and hand on the heritage and traditions to children. Because they matter to me. Indeed, they are part of my fabric.
My much-loved and late husband was an atheist, a good man of strong values, not overtly antagonistic to faith like some, but steeped in an anthropological sense of religion being “sophisticated crowd control”, he’d quip.
So there was a layered approach to Catholic institutional life in our household. Yet simultaneously within me, oddly, a growing sense of gratitude for being rooted in a belief tradition rather than not having one, even if I rejected parts of it. I realised it had bequeathed me a precious identity security plus an ability to ask deeper questions about meaning, even though I concede that it took years to fully develop that.
Ex-priest and church historian Paul Collins told a group of us just last weekend, during a book club discussion about one of the seminal texts of Western culture, St Augustine’s Confessions, about his very committed Catholic father’s pragmatic attitude. Respect the priests, he told young Paul, but don’t take them too seriously. It was precisely my own mother’s dictum to me and she was undoubtedly “religious”.
The yield for Paul and myself, alongside others no doubt, might be a capacity to listen to church officials, to grasp their place in some hierarchy but not to elevate them beyond their station in terms of my personal wellbeing or search for purpose. Maybe it is to see their flaws (my mother certainly could about some priests in our South Perth parish), to know that we needed them to officiate but not to stand for the Divine. They are deeply mortal souls and always have been.
In my growing world, the nuns who taught me were probably far more important to my developing sense of Catholicism. The priests enabled the structure to survive, to be a highway of meaning, in a way. But how I drove my car along that route was up to me. To some much older Catholics, that can sound very Protestant.
But to my eyes, that vital commodity called personal conscience has always imbued the Catholic spirit at its core, which is its genius and which makes the church so troubling for many dictatorships around the world because it fortifies individuals to reinvent themselves and defy authority.
Yes, defy authority. That is hardly the sense permeating the coverage of the church of late. I do wonder at the headlines about the church being in full-blown crisis, suggesting this charging of Pell is some special climax.
It’s not an easy time. But I detect more flamboyant verdicts from outside the church than within. I wonder where they think Catholics have been for the past two decades and the past five years, especially during the recent royal commission.
During that time, shame after shame was sheeted home to my institution and various decision-makers from accounts of highly vulnerable people about their treatment. We had to sit, reflect and consider deeply: where was the Good Shepherd with the sacred commission of minding his flock, that superb imagery that is said to be the most beloved of all biblical references? Where indeed, as diabolic people were moved around from parish to parish?
It was legitimate and truly devastating. But as the great saying goes, that which doesn’t defeat you makes you strong. I probably went through my nadir about three years ago and had to decide then: what do I do now? Do I stay within the structure, in some form? Do I find a whole new subgroup and be satisfied with being on a margin but still connected to people who think like me? Do I step back and just assume I’ve received the best of it and am in the afternoon of life anyway: that’s enough?
Do I wrestle with how much this reflects deep-seated attitudes within the church about sexuality, clericalism and power? Yes, and I’m still doing so. And if it means defying established church authorities to re-nuance some of them, well I hope I have the courage to do so in my own small way.
Do I remind myself and other Catholics that our church truly represents far more than these stories: 700,000 schoolchildren in the Catholic sector, served by 82,000 staff, 66 hospitals including 19 public hospitals run by church-related entities? The St Vincent de Paul Society is the most extensive volunteer welfare network in the country and the church is the largest welfare provider outside government. Some of those vulnerable people who have populated the royal commission will surely need some of these services during their lives, along with multiple thousands of other needy Australians.
So how does one synthesise all this? With difficulty. It is a work in progress. I will of course incorporate details of the cardinal’s coming court case but will probably not be blindsided by whatever may emerge, on the upside and the downside. Because as a source of ongoing consolation and meaning, of searching alongside others not merely alone, the broader Catholic Church simply has no peer.
Geraldine Doogue is an ABC journalist and broadcaster and is a former presenter of Compass.