Monday, January 26, 2015

The Australian Roots of My Progressive Catholicism

Given my recent sharing about the significance of my first years in the U.S. (1994-1996), one might think that it was during this time that I first became interested in and outspoken about issues from a progressive Catholic perspective. That's actually not the case.

My "progressive Catholicism" has Australian roots, and given my homeland's history (and celebration) of trouble-makers, outliers and "wild colonial boys" of one kind or another, this really shouldn't be surprising!

Right: Hello, boys! Jon Finch (far right) as the "gentleman bushranger" Ben Hall (1837-1865) in the 1975 Australian TV series about the outlaw's exploits and life.

Following is a paper I wrote for a theology class in 1994, my first year of study at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota. As you'll see, it documents events that took place the previous year when I was living and teaching in Australia.

I share it this morning as today, Australia Day, is the 21st anniversary of my arrival from Australia to the United States.


The Church as the People of God

A Reflection Paper
Michael Bayly

October 31, 1994

Last month I attended the annual Renaissance Festival in Shakopee, Minnesota. This experience reaffirmed for me an image of Church that I’ve had for several years.

In the would-be medieval setting of the festival I observed a diversity of people, many in costume, united in their desire to contribute to – and share in – a unique experience. From clowning court jesters and satyr-like rogues to elegant lords and ladies and pious friars and nuns, those re-enacting the Renaissance period exuded a spirit of fellowship and camaraderie.

Difference and diversity were what gave the festival its unique and contagious sense of involvement and excitement. The atmosphere deemed no one or nothing out of place – the gypsies, the knights, the elephants, the wizards, the craftsmen and women, the musicians – all were given credence and validity by the overwhelming sense of shared vision and participation.

The festival paralleled my image of the church as the people of God – an image that sees the Christian community as a vibrant and spiritually-evolving assortment of individuals united in their openness to the mystery dimension of life and in their seeking to understand, embody, and celebrate this mystery as exemplified by Jesus.

Right: A photograph of me taken in Goulburn in 1993.

My articulation of this understanding of church was consolidated for me in 1993 by my involvement in an exchange of letters-to-the-editor of the Goulburn Post newspaper. At that time I was teaching in Goulburn, New South Wales, Australia at Sts. Peter and Paul’s Primary School. I had also recently graduated from the Australian Catholic University with a Graduate Diploma in Religious Education. My three years of part-time study at the nearby Canberra campus of this progressive institution was instrumental in my theological development, and the views I expressed through the Goulburn Post owe much to my studies at the Australian Catholic University.

In April of 1993, Goulburn resident Mrs. Maree Kennedy wrote a letter to the editor of the Goulburn Post warning Catholics of the “heresy of Modernism.” The previous year, when debate was running high over female ordination in the Anglican church and when controversy swirled around the Australian Broadcasting Corporation series Brides of Christ, I had exchanged conflicting views through our local paper with Mrs. Kennedy and the parish priest of North Goulburn, Fr. Kevin Brannely. Compared to the furor that was soon to erupt, however, that exchange was a mere ripple.

I responded to Mrs. Kennedy’s April 1993 letter and perhaps somewhat bluntly, referred to Catholics like her as being “entrenched in the Roman Catholic subculture” – one dominated by “a patriarchal hierarchy and claims of infallibility on questions of faith and morals.” Naturally enough, my remarks were interpreted as a condemnation of the church by those who did in fact view “the church” as exclusively the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Implied in my letter was a decidedly ecumenical understanding of church and thus the belief that the church is bigger than the hierarchy in Rome. Perhaps if I had explicitly stated this, I might have averted the “snowball” reaction which I had set in motion.

A week after the publication of my response to Mrs. Kennedy, C. Pearson from the outlying village of Breadalbane wrote a length, somewhat erratic defense of the concept of church that I had labeled a subculture. The hallmarks of Pearson’s church were the Vicar of Christ, “revealed Truth, the teaching of the Magisterium, the infallibility of the Pope in faith and morals, the Sacrament of Confession, and the Blessed Eucharist.”

Indirectly, Pearson accused me of being “gutless,” and labeled the faith I described as “watered-down.” In conclusion, Pearson demanded to know: “From whom does your authority come, Mr. Bayly?”

Needles to say, I was somewhat stunned by the vehement tone of Pearson’s letter, though as my good friend Cathy Conroy pointed out, I had attacked something of immense importance to both Kennedy and Pearson: their understanding of church and thus their understanding of faith. I decided to lie low and carefully consider how I should respond as, in my mind, Pearson’s concluding question made it impossible for me not to.

In May I attended a family gathering in Wagga Wagga. It was my niece’s christening, and my parents, grandmothers, brothers, sisters-in-law, and nephews spent the weekend at a motel complex in the city.

Left: Members of my family in Wagga Wagga, May 1993. From left: my nephews Ryan and Liam; Dad; my older brother Chris; my younger brother Tim (holding Layne); my paternal grandmother, Belle Smith; and my maternal grandmother, Olive Sparkes.

It was here in the early hours of a Sunday morning that I was inspired to write my response to C. Pearson. The words seemed to simply flow from my pen. It was a very special experience, through which I had a strong sense of the presence and guidance of the Spirit.

Returning to Goulburn I experienced again the presence and wise counsel of God, this time through the advice and recommendations of others – primarily Bernadette McGowan, the wife of my principal – regarding the tone of my response.

Published under the headline “Catholic Liberation Causing Division,” my response clearly articulated an alternative model of church to that of C. Pearson’s. At the same time I identified and critiqued the model of church championed by Catholics such as Pearson and Kennedy, a model which I maintained was indeed a subculture.

C. Pearson asks how dare I label the Roman Catholic faith tradition a subculture. I ask C. Pearson and reactionaries like him: how dare you deform the vision of community inspired by Christ and mold for yourselves within the Catholic tradition a subculture that is withdrawn from the world and which purports to have sole access to and control of the free-flowing gift of the Spirit.

It is this subculture that is the warped vision of church that Mr. Pearson advocates. It is a vision that the Second Vatican Council rebuked in the 1960s, and one that is in complete contract to the vision of community that Jesus instilled in his followers. For far from being something separate from the world, Jesus’ vision of what we now term “the church” calls us to be as yeast in bread, permeating our world and spreading – through word and action – the good news of God’s unconditional love and liberating power.

The view of church offered by Mr. Pearson in incapable of doing this as, first, it sees itself separate from the world which it despises and, second, alienates all whose experiences take them beyond its narrow confines of interpretation and understanding.

Mr. Pearson asks from where does my authority come, a usual question from those entrenched in a subculture of religious legalism, infallibility, and an unrealistic and uncompassionate black and white view of spiritual and moral matters. My authority comes from the God-given gift of an informed conscience – one developed and sustained by my relationship with the Risen Christ. It is a conscience guided but not dictated by the Roman Catholic faith tradition, and it’s one that has been shaped by life experiences lived in prayerful union with Christ and openness to the Spirit. It has been these experiences that have provided me opportunities to reflect upon and challenge certain elitist and narrow aspects of the Catholic tradition. [Of course, what's unspoken here is that the most important "life experiences" for me at that time were to do with my growing into awareness and inner acceptance of my homosexuality. See, for instance, here here, and here.]

They are experiences that have liberated me from a black and white view of many spiritual and moral matters, a view that the church – the people of God – is, as a whole, in the process of being liberated from. This is the re-birthing I metaphorically referred to in my previous letter. It’s a rebirth that reactionaries and traditionalist fear as it challenges their black and white perception of many complex theological and moral issues, a perception that gives them a false sense of security and which fuels religious bigotry and elitism.

The Second Vatican Council was instrumental in instigating this process of liberation for Catholics. What a pity that so many choose not to be open to the transforming spirit of the council – the transforming Spirit of God.

The greatest obstacle preventing Catholic reactionaries from participating in this liberating process of which the church is in the midst, is their erroneous belief that what Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of God is now exclusively the Roman Catholic faith tradition. What is it that blinds them from perceiving the creative work of the Spirit beyond the boundaries of their subculture?

It is ironic that it is these reactionaries, fearful of change, who label as “gutless” those of us striving to continue Christ’s mission of liberation. Do they really perceive the wider church to be as stagnant as their subculture? Do they honestly believe that the church is incapable of further growth in understanding of itself and of a range of issues? Why can’t they acknowledge that while they choose to remain unresponsive, others are capable of accepting the challenges inspired by the Spirit of transformation?

If anyone is “gutless” in today’s church it is those who refuse the challenge of liberation and openness that Jesus calls us to embrace.

It requires only narrow-mindedness and arrogance to envision the church as a hierarchical institution guarding a sole pool of revealed truth. Yet it takes courage and compassion to embrace the reality that the church is comprised of individuals – male, female, heterosexual, homosexual, western, indigenous, Catholic, Protestant – whose lives when lived in union with God are capable of being well-springs of revealed truth.

How dare anyone deny the Spirit of God its freedom to “blow where it will.”

In the weeks preceding the publication of the above response to Pearson, two pieces were published in the Goulburn Post which added “fuel to the fire,” so to speak. The first was a letter from a friend and former student, Garth Lamb (pictured seated at right with our mutual friend Jeremiah McGowan). Garth, a student at St. Patrick’s College in Goulburn, wrote a letter that with all the sincerity and directness of his youth, critiqued and challenged the fundamentalist perspective of Kennedy and Pearson. I consider Garth’s concluding paragraph one of the greatest compliments every made to me.

At one time I had a fundamentalist teacher who told us that the stories of the Bible happened exactly as they were written. The teacher offered the explanation that “since Gad can do anything, who are we to question?”

Mr. Bayly gave me a better explanation, offering that “not all the stories are literally true but that there is a good message behind them.” Through this explanation and his general teaching I now understand the Bible a lot better and feel closer to God.

In twenty years time my age group will be managing this world. I’m glad that there are some people today who will give us a more open view of religion and the way God wants us to live.

Thank you, Mr. Bayly, for opening my mind to other ways of understanding and for helping me see what Jesus’ message was all about.

In the ensuing weeks Garth’s words would be ones I would come back to again and again as an invaluable source of affirmation and strength.

The second piece published at around this same time in the Goulburn Post was an article about my graduation from the Australian Catholic University. The actual graduation ceremony occurred in late April of 1993, and during the proceedings I was awarded the university’s prize for academic excellence. My parents made the eight-hour trip by car from my hometown of Gunnedah and, along with Mike and Bernadette McGowan and their eldest son Jeremiah, attended the ceremony in Canberra.

Above: A photo taken by Dad showing myself and Mum with Mike, Bernadette and Jeremiah McGowan – Canberra, April 1993.

Above: Mum (center) with Mike and Bernadette McGowan – Canberra, April 1993.

Both the article about my graduation and Garth’s letter identified me as a teacher at Sts. Peter and Paul’s Catholic Primary School. In the eyes of Kennedy and Pearson I was no longer merely a dissenting voice but a “heterodox” teacher corrupting young minds.

Their response to this information and to my letter of May 14 was swift and savage. In two separate letters they rebuked my understanding of church (primarily by reiterating their own “true” understanding) and attacked me personally with regards my spiritual and educational credibility: “Your assertions, Mr. Bayly, are spurious and lack logic, truth, reality, commonsense and authority. They show ignorance of church history and ignorance of the faith;” “The letters of Michael Bayly are a sad example of baptized Catholics who have evidently never been exposed to true teaching.”

In all truth their words hurt me deeply. Outwardly I gave the impression that I couldn't care less, yet inwardly it was a different story. My reputation as an educator and theology student had been publicly discredited. That my theological understandings would be challenged and possibly condemned was to be expected. But the personal insults and moreover the vehemence accompanying them, totally stunned me. For weeks I bottled inside me feelings of bitterness, frustration and anger.

It was during this time that I was notified of the death of my grandfather. I returned to Gunnedah for his funeral, physically and mentally somewhat of a wreck. At night I would break out in hives, and I developed a respiratory infection. Nevertheless, witnessing and sharing my family’s grief helped me put things into perspective, and I returned to Goulburn considerably more together than when I left.

It was also during this time that people – mainly parents of children whom I was teaching – spoke to me in relation to my letters. These encounters often took place in the most unlikeliest of places – the frozen food aisle of the supermarket, for instance. At first I was never sure if I was about to be verbally attacked or not. Yet to my relief every reaction was positive and affirming. All thanked me for writing, and spoke of how much they had gained from the sharing of my understanding and thoughts. I also received equally positive letters through the mail. Annie Zappia’s letter in particular was an immensely appreciated affirmation.

I have read with interest your letters in the Post over the past months, and the tirade of opposition which you’ve encountered also.

For a number of years I struggled with the question of whether or not I should convert to Catholicism. My upbringing was devoutly Anglican, and it was not a decision I took lightly. I finally went ahead in July 1990.

My last remaining doubts were dispelled by people like you espousing the beliefs that you do, convincing me that the Catholic Church has a future which is not buried under mountains of dogma and pointless traditions. I was and still am heartened by moves to shed all that is peripheral to the real belief system that we embrace.

You have many supporters, Mike – take heart! There will always be many who cling to what is comfortable. I admire you enormously for stating your views so publicly . . . and copping the flak!

Concerned with the effect the exchange of correspondence might be having on the school, I approached my principal (and in many respects my mentor) Mike McGowan. To my immense relief he informed me that there had been no negative feedback from parents concerning my letters. However, our parish priest Laurie Blake was being criticized by some older members of the parish and by Kevin Brannelly about my “radical” and “unorthodox” statements in the press. Accordingly, I agreed not to respond to the most recent letters of my detractors.

Interestingly, none of those approaching Fr. Blake ever attempted to contact me, though a friend and teaching colleague named Michael Baker was mistaken for me by an elderly member of the parish choir and informed in no uncertain terms of the quality of my theological thoughts: “What’s all this shit you’ve been writing in the paper?”

Dismayed by the unnecessary personal insults of Pearson and Kennedy, my friend Cathy Conroy (pictured with me at left) wrote a short but direct letter in my defense in late May. “All manner of emotional responses have been leveled at Michael Bayly – responses that speak of an anti-intellectual and highly ignorant stand.” Cathy concluded her letter with the suggestion that “perhaps Pearson and Kennedy could harness themselves to some academic work at the Catholic University and, God hoping, gain some insight and deepening of faith.”

On June 1, 1993, under the misleading title “True Church Teaching,” a letter by Fr. Kevin Brannelly was published in the Goulburn Post. Brannelly, a notorious conservative, evidently seized the opportunity provided by Cathy’s letter to denounce the progressive Australian Catholic University. “C. Conroy should not be duped by academic awards in religious studies handed out by tertiary Catholic institutions these days,” wrote Brannelly. “Deviation from authentic Catholic doctrine is endemic and widespread in these tertiary institutions.”

Brannelly condoned the outrage that Kennedy and Pearson expressed over my letters as, after all, “their statement were made in response to the theological inanities expressed in writing by a teacher in a local Catholic primary school.”

Furthermore, Brannelly indirectly questioned the wisdom of the Catholic Education Office of the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn in its employment of graduates from the institutions he condemned.

The real tragedy in our Catholic Church today is that too many individuals are lt loose to peddle their heterodox theories before unsuspecting children and youth. Catholic parents are being let down by these teachers in our schools. The many loyal Catholic teachers are swamped by the determination of the heterodox teachers, aided and abetted by their tertiary mentors, to insinuate their theories as Catholic doctrine.

Needless to say, Brannelly’s remarks caused quite a stir at the archdiocese’s Education Office in Canberra. Obviously dismayed by the public slinging match now involving both a Catholic school teacher and a Catholic priest, the office sent a representative to Goulburn to discuss the matter (separately) with both Fr. Brannelly and myself. My meeting with the representative went very well. He was empathetic to the understanding of church I had expressed in my writings and when I asked him of his opinion concerning my replying to Kennedy and Pearson, he replied that if my response was of the caliber and tact of my previous letters then he would see no problem with that. I informed Mike McGowan of my intention to respond and, although I knew he would have preferred that I didn’t, he made no attempt to stop me, for which I remain to this day grateful.

My final letter in this exchange was published on June 23, 1993. The Goulburn Post entitled it, “Down to Earth View of Catholic Church,” which I thought was very apt. The primary focus of this letter was the concept of church as the people of God. Following is the bulk of my response.

. . . The church should not be envisioned simply as a hierarchical institution. The Second Vatican Council rejected this limited understanding and rightly so. Jesus abhorred the dehumanizing tendencies that hierarchical institutions are prone to – tendencies to exclude, to judge, to alienate, and to promote elitism.

A more inclusive and thus more Christ-like understanding of church suggested by Vatican II promulgates the good news that the church is the people of God – a community of believers equal in the eyes of their Creator. We are a pilgrim people, continually growing in our understanding of ourselves and of that ultimate mystery which is God.

To equate any one particular religious structure to the Kingdom of God and accordingly suggest it is “supernatural,” is false. As Irish priest Diarmuid O’Murchu, MSC states: “Patriarchal leaderships and hierarchical structures belong to the ‘this world’ domain and not to the ambience of the Kingdom of God.”

I would like to clarify one point raised by both Mrs. Kennedy and P. Phemister. At no time have I upheld the theories of Barbara Theiring. My reference to her was to make the point that people in relationship with the risen Christ have nothing to fear from the speculations of someone like her. Our faith, our relationship with God, is not built on speculation but on our lived experiences of the risen Christ in our lives.

One correspondent dismisses such experiences as “self-centered” and lacking in truth. Yet it is human experience that is the locus of divine revelation. It is through self-giving experiences of relationship with others that we encounter Jesus and his life-giving message – a message that encompasses openness to the Spirit, equality, inclusion, and unconditional love.

It is a liberating message, yet unfortunately one which not everyone is willing to embrace. For liberation involves letting go of our black and white perceptions and of our attempts at categorizing and “controlling” God through our rigid and dogmatic rules and our catechisms of formulated answers.

It isn’t easy to say “yes” to Jesus’ challenge of liberation. But as one correspondent so eloquently put it, “God’s grace is sufficient for the task.” [These words were used by one of my detractors, with the "task" in their view being total obedience to the hierarchy.]

Mrs. Kennedy replied to my letter with one of her own in which she declared that the Catholic bishops and cardinals had been “duped” by the likes of the Australian Catholic University.

The present situation in Australia and elsewhere is the the manipulation of bishops (willingly or unwillingly) to go along with dissenting theologians rather than staying loyal to the Pope. This is indeed a painful situation for lay folk to face, but face it we must. We the loyal Catholics are not interested in “war of words,” Michael, nor do we blame your generation, so sadly led astray, for the present division in the Church. The fact remains that we must stay faithful to Jesus Christ and his Vicar, Joghn Paull II – with or without our local bishops.

We are obliged to obey our spiritual authorities in all things except sin. Institutions which digress from the truth in Faith, Morals, and Church Discipline are not genuinely Catholic and Episcopal support in no way exonerates them.

There was much in Kennedy’s letter that I could have responded to – in particular her understanding of the role of theologians and her refusal to acknowledge the important part that questioning (which she views as divisive) plays in the continual development of our faith. Yet my previous letters had to varying degrees addressed these matters, and so I did not respond.

In the following months as I prepared to leave Australia to study theology in the United States, the memory of this confrontation receded in my mind. Yet my recent experience of the Renaissance Festival, my involvement with the progressive Minneapolis parish of St. Frances Cabrini, and my theological studies at the College of St. Catherine have brought the events of last year to my attention and, in many ways, into clarifying focus.

Such remembrance and clarification have enabled me to perceive the positive role that this exchange in the Goulburn Post has played in my ongoing theological and spiritual development. Accordingly, the writing of this paper has been somewhat of a catharsis – cleansing me of residual bitterness and hurt, and revealing to me the growth that has been facilitated as a result of this experiences, one that provided both crisis and opportunity.

– Michael Bayly
October 31, 1994

Following are photos of some of the people mentioned in the above reflection paper from 1994. Most of these photos, though not all, were taken during visits I made back to Australia between 2003 and 2014.

Above: With Mike and Bernie McGowan – April 2003.

Above: My friend Cathy Conroy with her husband Gerry and their youngest son Joseph – Goulburn, 2003.

Above: My parents (at right) with Joe and Annie Zappia – Goulburn, April 2003.

Above: With Annie and Joe Zappia, their daughter, Ingrid, and Cathy Conroy – Goulburn, August 2006.

I taught Ingrid when she was in both fourth and fifth class (1990 and 1991 respectively). She now has a successful career in law in nearby Canberra.

Above: Garth, pictured at the north end of Coogee Beach, Sydney – 2003.

Left: In December 2007, Garth traveled from Australia to the U.S. to visit his girlfriend (now wife) Jenya in Baltimore.

On December 29-30, 2007, Garth made a quick 18-hour visit from Baltimore to visit me in Minnesota. For more images of this special time, click here.

Above: Garth and his wife Jenya at their Newtown home – Friday, December 10, 2010. For more images of this visit to Sydney, click here.

Right: Garth and Jenya's two beautiful daughters – Saturday, March 22, 2014.

Above: My friends Jeremiah and Garth at the former's January 8, 2011 wedding in Kingscliff, New South Wales, Australia. For more images, click here.

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
Remnants of a Past Life
More Remnants of a Past Life
20 Years Stateside
Goulburn Revisited
Goulburn Landmarks
Goulburn Reunion
What It Means to Be Catholic
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
The Treasure and the Dross
Beyond Papalism
Genuine Authority
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
It’s Time We Evolved Beyond Theological Imperialism

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