MARGARET O’CONNOR. Changing the culture of the church.

“What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for good behaviour, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them? I do not mean for a moment that we ought not to think, and think hard, about improvements to our social and economic system.  What I do mean is that all the thinking will be mere moonshine unless we realise that nothing but the courage and unselfishness of individuals is ever going to make any system work properly. It is easy enough to remove the particular kinds of graft or bullying that go on under the present system; but as long as men are twisters or bullies they will find some new way of carrying on the same game under the new system.  You cannot make men good by law, and without good men you cannot have a good society.” 

The author of this quote, C.S. Lewis, an enduringly popular Christian theologian, bequeathed a range of observations on humans and human society which retain a prophetic and eerie pertinence 60 or 70 years after they were written. This quote from Mere Christianity relates to the concept of morality, but it dovetails nicely into a discussion about culture. Systems and rules for engagement may come and go, but underlying moral and cultural issues will always underpin enduring abuse and corruption. Again and again new ‘Rules for good behaviour’ are ‘drawn up’, ‘on paper’, but we are back to square one when the same crimes, corruption and evils rear their heads under the new regime.

Why? Live long enough and you see it play out, over and over again. Humans retain their grip on old, toxic attitudes relating abuse, privilege and entitlement and remain ‘twisters’ and ‘bullies’ – and other things. Revolutions and reforms may change the rules, but they don’t always change the culture. And most of the time, nothing ultimately changes.

Many features of Catholicism retain stubborn echoes of the era of Imperial Rome; Mass in Latin, vestments, administrative structure.  And don’t get me started on Canon law. The cultural bedrock of all of this was that of the Ancient Romans; notably, a highly patriarchal culture which (amongst other things) minimised women’s role and largely excluded them from power structures and influence. Women may have been key witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, but as religious scholar Elizabeth Ann Clark says in Women in the Early Church: ‘the (Church) Fathers often quote the Bible in ways that serve to bolster and justify traditional attitudes towards women, attitudes derived from the Old Testament’s adulation of the busy housewife and warnings about “loose women”, pagan antiquity’s ideal of a chaste and retiring matron, and unfavourable representations of women in some classical literature, especially satire’.

When politics was blended with faith with the adoption of Christianity as the State Religion of the Roman Empire in 380 AD, to what extent was this a case of the new religion simply ‘carrying on the old game under a new system’?  I sometimes wonder what other games, if that’s an altogether appropriate descriptor, were quietly and covertly maintained and preserved under the banner of the new State-sponsored faith.

But reverting to degenerate and base patterns isn’t inevitable. Sometimes a community succeeds in truly creating something new by stepping outside the toxicity of the existing status quo. An excellent home grown example of this occurred recently in the Electorate of Indi in country Victoria. The ‘Voice for Indi’ campaign allowed the people of Indi to take ownership of, and re-create, the democratic process through grassroots citizen participation during the 2013 Federal Election which resulted in the election of a new parliamentary representative (Cathy McGowan).

This wasn’t achieved by buying into the existing regime. Nor by endorsing a candidate who was part of, or willing to be part of, that regime. Instead, ‘Voice for Indi’ participants went back to the basics, commencing with a program of open honest dialogue to establish what exactly were the most important issues to Indi constituents, based on a culture of respectful information sharing. In other words, they implemented a process which in turn created a new culture and an outcome too; all based on respectful engagement. A process, a culture and outcome in which, incidentally, women played key roles.

These features of grassroots citizen engagement can, indeed must, be applied to other systems in need of root and branch reform and plagued by issues of systemic corruption and abuse; for example, in the Catholic Church, patriarchy, clericalism and the centralisation of power – which all contributed to the scourge of child sexual abuse. Pope Francis explores these issues in ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ and ‘Letter to the People of God’.

I understand the wholehearted loathing held by some for the global Catholic Church and the fervent desire that it would just simply vanish away overnight. But this isn’t going to happen; at least, given projected global demographics, certainly not overnight anyway. Latin, vestments, Canon Law and Popes aside, the laity needs to step up and create a new and renewed culture based on open and respectful dialogue. Like the ‘Voice for Indi’ campaign and other similar movements, it must be one underpinned by inner moral values, rather than one which simply provides the means to continue ‘the same game under the new system’. Given humanity’s propensity to revert to old, vile, horrible ways, the future safety of vulnerable people depends on it.

Margaret O’Connor is based in Canberra. Her interests include music, history and sustainable living. She tweets at: (at)MargaretOConno5.

This article is based on a background paper developed for a forum convened by ‘Concerned Catholics Canberra and Goulburn’ which will be held on 29 November 2018 at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture. The purpose of the forum will be to enable grassroots Australian Catholics to contribute to a submission to the 2020 Plenary Council at a time when the global Catholic Church is in urgent need of new and renewed culture change.

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