Even with changes to governance and participation, the Catholic Church remains at a cross roads between life and death, between relevance and irrelevance, between a Church and a museum in our post-modern world.
After the recent Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, Pope Francis wrote in In Christus Vivit, ‘A Church always on the defensive, which loses her humility and stops listening to others, which leaves no room for questions, loses her youth and turns into a museum.’
In the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, why bother with the Church? In the wake of the Church’s ongoing failure to give women their place at the table, why persevere with the Church? In the wake of the Church’s wrong turn 50 years ago on the issue of birth control, why expect that the Church will in our lifetime play catch-up with the social mores of those who think the strident utterances of a group of celibate men ring hollow given the prevalence of child sexual abuse by those in the ranks of those supposedly celibate men at the very time that Humanae Vitae was promulgated and enforced, requiring that all future bishops sign up to it, without any corresponding requirement that they sign up, for example, to John XXIII’s insistence on adequate protection of human rights in all societies? Yes, Paul VI taught: ‘each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life’. But five years earlier, John XXIII taught that there were three demands for the juridical structure of any state:
‘The first is this: that a clear and precisely worded charter of fundamental human rights be formulated and incorporated into the State’s general constitutions.
‘Secondly, each State must have a public constitution, couched in juridical terms, laying down clear rules relating to the designation of public officials, their reciprocal relations, spheres of competence and prescribed methods of operation.
‘The final demand is that relations between citizens and public authorities be described in terms of rights and duties. It must be clearly laid down that the principal function of public authorities is to recognize, respect, co-ordinate, safeguard and promote citizens’ rights and duties.’
I’m not saying that John XXIII was necessarily right, nor that Paul VI was absolutely wrong. But I am saying that each published an encyclical which was an invitation to dialogue, an invitation to reflect on contemporary experience in the light of tradition.
There are many bishops who subscribe to Paul VI’s dictum on birth control but who have no time for John XXIII’s views on human rights and their best means of protection. I know that many Catholics would continue to distinguish the natural law definitions such as those contained in Humanae Vitae from the more contingent prescriptions contained in Pacem in Terris. But when the natural law is not self-evident or coherent to many of those naturally engaged in sexual relations, it is time to call a halt to pontifical pronouncements which purport to be ultimately definitive exceptionless norms.
One of the great things about being Catholic is that one is part of a Church community with an authority structure in place to formulate teachings which can assist all the faithful to discern what it is that God is asking of them, and this can be done by drawing upon the wealth of the tradition and the competence of the present community of scholars and leaders. But it must always be an invitation to dialogue. It must always be a call to form and inform one’s conscience, and to that conscience be true.
I am preparing to take over as Rector of Newman College at the University of Melbourne next year. So I have started a little reading on John Henry Newman and Henry Edward Manning, two of the great churchmen of Victorian England. Newman came across to Rome on 9 October 1845 and Manning five years later on 6 April 1850. Each of them in his own way wrestled with the place of tradition and authority in the life of the faith community. They both became cardinals, and they both had a bundle of human foibles.
The last straw for Manning with the established Church of England was when the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was required to deliver a definitive and unappealable judgment on the evangelical views of the Reverend George Cornelius Gorham who found himself in conflict with his High Church bishop over the issue of baptism. Robert Wilberforce was worried that Manning might be headed down the same path as Newman. He suggested that Manning might look offshore for a sympathetic colonial bishop and establish a Free Church, spared any prospect of state intervention. Manning replied, ‘No. Three hundred years ago we left a good ship for a boat; I am not going to leave the boat for a tub.’
Nowadays, many of us see that the ship is full of holes. Could it be that it is sinking? And many, especially the young, wonder about the need for any ship, boat or even a tub? Why not simply believe what one chooses and on one’s own, letting a thousand flowers bloom, floating alone on the open seas, clinging to the occasional piece of driftwood should it be to hand in choppy waters, while happily floating unencumbered when the sea is calm and one is close to port?
Those of us who remain Catholic, and who espouse our faith, our doctrine and our practice as a commendable way of life do so because we just don’t see how we can live a complete life on our own, following our own star unaccompanied by the community of saints who went before and unaccompanied by the community of believers with us now. Gifted with the tradition and with the authority of the Church, we believe that we can be more attentive to all possibilities and more attuned to truth and to the poor. We see the value in being on a ship, and especially a ship with its own museum. A museum can be a very educative place, but you don’t look to the museum as the place from which to steer the ship or as the cabin in which to abide for the course of the voyage.
This is an extract of an address Frank Brennan SJ AO gave at a forum of the Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn on 26 June 2019.