GERALDINE DOOGUE. Flawed Catholic Church a test for the true believers

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.



John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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5 Responses to GERALDINE DOOGUE. Flawed Catholic Church a test for the true believers

  1. Avatar Frank Golding says:

    A thoughtful article, full of insights. And so are the responses. Am I too fussy to detect that the focus is on the writers and nary a word about what can be done for the victims/survivors whose trust was betrayed? Just thinking!

  2. Avatar max bourke AM says:

    I am sure Geraldine Doogue’s concerns are reflected by many Catholics and indeed they are by friends of mine BUT…I would hope she will be more activist and find ways to do and be seen to do something which Pell seems incapable of doing and that is showing some strong from of support, compassion and contrition for what their institution has now been proven to have done. The same of course applies to the many other institutions who have acted so badly.

  3. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    This questioning of one’s faith and the institutional structures supporting it are not only Catholic. I was too young and idealistic to remain within my fundamentalist protestant version when the disconnect between admonition by clergy and their failure to live themselves by their standards (which they told us came from God…the “Do as I say” – not “Do as I do” school of thought) grew too apparent!

    Unlike Geraldine – and Tony – however – my seeking for some kind of spiritual clarity took me to other paths. I examined Catholicism, the Anglican way, another minority sect – and read for myself the Qur’an. Years later during my nearly two decades in Japan I walked a major pilgrimage – similar in distance and in intent/outcome as that you walked, Tony (in Spain – from Granada to Santiago de Compostela) in fact your account inspired me to walk the 88-temple pilgrimage around Shikoku.

    Some years before that – in Japan – I was made an honorary parishioner of a mate’s Shintō Shrine. And three years ago a group of Lubavitcher youth in NYC declared me Jewish, recited some prayers over my head as I held some sacred scriptures and faced the four compass points – handing me a card with a Hebrew verse on one side and a photo of the Rebbe (Schneersohn) on the other.

    These are certainly difficult times for those who want to see their particular faith as blameless and holy – yet having to understand that its religious “servants” are as flawed as – if not more flawed than – its general adherents. That the secular state has to deal with these flawed mortals in a secular way – and that God will deal with them, too – in some appropriate – way – when their time of judgement arrives (or not)!

    It is certainly hard to ignore the choral/musical traditions – and the artistic expression – of so many faiths – not only Christian – as surely worthy of being maintained.

    I saw the musical – “The Book of Mormon” – in Melbourne – earlier this year – delighting in the explanation at the end of that joyously extravagant romp through a kind of craziness that is the actual story of the LDS founder and his writing of that Book – that it is not (in so many words) important to believe in the story – as it is to see it all as metaphor.

    It explained at once all religion and doctrine and injunctions to me – it is all metaphor. It is “The Golden Rule.” It is “The World is a Mirror.” Take the form as a cultural wrapping – take the detail as a way to lead a good life – serving others before self. Thanks Geraldine for this essay on your personal reflection of faith amid other distractions. (And, by the way, COMPASS was one of my all-time favourite programs!)

  4. Avatar Tony Kevin says:

    Hats off to Geraldine Doogue for her honesty and clarity of thought here. Geraldine, this short essay might be the most important thing you have ever written. It will certainly be cited when the time comes – hopefully, many years from now – to honour your life and work. Meanwhile, you will be accused by a few of being a ‘smorgasbord Catholic’ – a phrase you will know all too well. Actually, you have beautifully articulated pretty much how I feel about still being a Catholic despite everything. Plus the beauty and grandeur of the music – Protestant as well as Catholic. And yes, I will ask to see a priest for the last rites, if God grants me this blessing before I go.

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