Beth Doherty-Recovering the “True” Church – Book Review

Jun 5, 2022
Book reading
Who has the key to the thoughts of the spirit and how do we know? Image: StockSnap / Patrick Fore

One of the great chants of Latin American protest marches, is the phrase: “El pueblo unido jamas será vencido”, meaning: “a united people will never be overcome.”

“Recovering the true church” by Paul Collins

In many ways, some of the conclusions of liberation theology which originated in this part of the world find their way in parallel into Paul Collins’ latest book “Recovering the true church”, certainly in its plea for a return to the Gospels and the practices of the early Church.

Unfortunately, the Plenary Council being conducted by the Australian Church has displayed anything but unity, or “un pueblo unido”, and in many cases simply magnifies an already haemorrhaging fracture.

Recently, an Archbishop was given space in the Catholic Weekly to make a point about the Plenary Working Document:

He wrote:

“One senses in this document a church that has become tired and has lost its sense of purpose; a church that has surrendered to the surrounding cultural ethos. While it speaks of making “God’s reign of justice, love and peace” visible, it rarely speaks of the task of bringing people under the grace of salvation by a bold proclamation of the cross of Christ.”

I agree with that paragraph and a few other assertions. The rest of the article is sadly a confirmation of the bitter culture wars that have become so prevalent in the Australian Church since the Plenary Council was announced.

The part I like, and it seems that Paul would agree with me, is the point that we need to bring about God’s reign of justice, love and peace and indeed bring people under the grace of salvation by a bold proclamation of the cross of Christ.

But, our tactics and methods and ways of proceeding are different.

Indeed, I suspect that if women wanted to boldly proclaim the cross of Christ from a Catholic Church pulpit that this would present a problem for some. I suspect that if members of the LGBTIQ+ community asked if they could find safety in the grace of salvation, the cross they would be asked to carry by some would be too much to bear.

On the other hand, I hope and have no reason to believe otherwise that seeking God’s reign of justice, love and peace for refugees and asylum seekers is in the hearts of most of the Australian episcopate and backed up by the last five decades of church teaching….. as long as that justice, love and peace doesn’t translate into banners displayed in support of said refugees at church venues.

It may or may not be correctly attributed to Irish writer James Joyce who said “Catholic means here comes everyone”. For some, that “here comes everyone” is a joyful, colourful and hope-filled cause for celebration. For others they are threatened to their very core. Because what happens if everyone includes a transgender teen?, a woman who senses a call to priesthood? A muslim fleeing persecution in the Middle East? Then the welcome becomes complicated.

The title of Paul’s book “Recovering the true church” is an interesting literary device whether intended this way or not.

Should we think of the word recovery in terms of recovering alcoholics? Perhaps. I suspect Paul is still recovering from the last two papacies which while giving him much to write about, probably also have driven him to the drink.

Or is the word re-cover in a journalistic sense? Paul covered story after story for the ABC and perhaps wants to be able to do so again, covering a story of hope rather than disillusion?

Perhaps his use of the word recovering is a commentary on cover up?

Does he mean to recover from the cover-ups? The way in which the institution has broken down and failed so spectacularly in the area of sexual abuse requires more than just first aid, bandaid recovery. It needs major surgery. So, to recover that trust, and to find ways to elicit beauty from the ashes of the church’s more recent history is one of the only ways forward. Forgiven, but not forgotten.

Or maybe it is to recover something lost? I suspect this was his original intent, because we have lost much, and Paul’s commentary as a historian on the Early Church tells us what we could be.

So, having read a few of Paul’s books, I enjoyed “Recovering the True Church”, as I do all of his writing. He brings his wit and intelligence to the table, and dazzles us with his historical knowledge.

His ‘true’ Church, as aforementioned, is based in part on the earliest Christian communities. The 1986 Roland Joffe film “The Mission” which chronicles the story of the Jesuits in South America with the Guarani indigenous people has an interesting scene which resonates here.

In this scene, a young Jesuit is speaking with Cardinal Altamirano who has been sent to the Mission as some sort of ‘apostolic visitator’. They are having a conversation about money and resources in the community that the Jesuits share with the Guarani people.

The Jesuit says to the Cardinal, “all the money is shared equally among the people, we are a community.”

The Cardinal responds: “There is a radical French group that preaches that doctrine.”

The Jesuit responds: “It was the doctrine of the Early Christians.”

Indeed. I think this is what Collins is partly trying to say in his newest book.

“Let’s get back to basics. Let’s not forget where we came from.”

The Plenary Council, to which Paul’s book is partly addressed, talks of discernment of that key question “what is the spirit asking of the Church in Australia at this time?”, and this question has become, unsurprisingly, something of a lightning rod.

Who has the key to the thoughts of the spirit and how do we know?

Is it those who have been chosen as representatives?

Is it the periti, the experts called in to observe and support the Council?

Is it the bishops only and everyone else is window dressing?

We still don’t know.

And, just because someone thinks something or has an opinion, how do we know it is informed by the Holy Spirit and not some agenda. This is the more difficult conundrum.

In the spirit of healthy dialogue, there were parts of Collins’ text which made me bristle. On page 67 he speaks of the very few public Catholics left in the Australian context, and mentions the ones he can think of by name. Fr Frank Brennan, Francis Sullivan and himself.

If we want diversity and diverse views, we do need to go there and ask why this list is the default position.

Collins’ omission of female names is not unusual, and it’s been happening since before the Church began. It simply still does not occur to us that women’s voices, that female commentators exist…and it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When women are not included, when their voices aren’t heard, they disappear. This is certainly one of the most important aspects of the “true” church to which we need to return.

Perhaps if we take away anything from Paul’s text is the exhortation that we need to do better.

The project of Church reform is a large and, oftentimes, exhausting one.

There’s an old saying that we should “pray as if everything depends on God, and work as if everything depends on you.” It’s been attributed to St. Ignatius and to St Augustine, and many other men of repute.

But let me remind you. The Church is feminine, and I don’t just mean because of the dresses and lace donned by members of the clergy.

More importantly, the Church should be, and is capable of being a place of radical welcome, inclusion, one that truly models Christ. Indeed, as the deceased writer Rachel Held Evans, a young woman and theologian who grappled with some of the same questions said: “The church is God saying: ‘I’m throwing a banquet, and all these mismatched, messed-up people are invited. Here, have some wine.”


“Recovering the true church” by Paul Collins is available from Coventry Press

Beth Doherty is a journalist, author, teacher and musician living in Canberra. She is the Diocesan Director for Caritas Australia in the Archdiocese of Canberra Goulburn and author of the 2020 book “All the beautiful things: finding truth, beauty and goodness in a fractured church”.

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