Monday, December 29, 2008

Time to Go?

. . . Or Time to Acknowledge a Maturing Catholic Faith?

Although I don’t resonate or agree with everything in Rose Murphy’s reflection, “With Age, My Catholicism Holds More Uncertainty,” I nevertheless sense she powerfully articulates what many Roman Catholics are questioning and experiencing.

For me, Murphy’s reflection brings to mind certain questions I’ve been living with for some time now. And in the spirit of honesty that infuses Murphy’s article, I share these questions on The Wild Reed . . .

First, is a mature faith, one that allows questioning, faithful dissent, and the potential for evolution in our understanding of truth, possible in the Roman Catholic Church? Or has the church become a ghetto for those afraid to grow - both spiritually and psycho-sexually? Is it worth my time and energy working to reform such a ghettoized church? Maybe a place will always be needed for such people and maybe the Roman Catholic Church serves as this place? Who am I to deny those unable and/or unwilling to evolve a place to feel safe, a place to call “church”? Is it fair to expect this particular church to evolve with me and others when: 1) God’s welcoming and encouraging presence can be readily discerned and experienced by spiritual pilgrims such as ourselves elsewhere, in other churches, and 2) when the Catholic Church is obviously bigger than the “Roman Catholic” church (a term which, after all, is an oxymoron)?

Of course, I experience God’s welcoming and encouraging presence in the Catholic communities to which I belong, but, at the same time, these communities are increasingly being maligned, condemned, and threatened by the hierarchical Roman Catholic Church that is fearful of such communities very presence undermining its limited and static understanding of church. How best, how most Christlike, does one respond to such fear-based intimidation and oppression?

Do questions such as these signify that it is time to go or simply time to acknowledge and embrace a maturing faith?
All of which brings us back to the first question: can such a faith be honored and nurtured within Roman Catholicism?

These are some of the questions that Rose Murphy’s reflection, “With Age, My Catholicism Holds More Uncertainty,” raises for me.

Although it’s reprinted in its entirety below, I recommended you also view Murphy’s article
online at the website of The National Catholic Reporter, so as to read the many and varied responses it has elicited. Some of them are truly horrendous. Take, for instance, this response by “Augustine” to Murphy’s honest and heartfelt reflection:

You’ve long since stopped being a Catholic. The heresies in this one essay alone are legion - and quite old. Stale. “I would like to think I am still welcome at the communion table,” [you say.] You might like to think this, but no, you are not welcome. Get out.

Others are more empathetic, such as “Serenity” who writes:

Thank you, Rose, for articulating so clearly what I knew in my own heart but could not express. No offense to the younger posters here, but it seems that it takes a certain amount of age and life experience to evolve spiritually on one's life path. As this happens, our relationship with God becomes more personal, and transcends church dogma and doctrine. We come to realize and accept that there are many paths to God, and we don’t condemn other religions or people for not believing according to our own personal path or according to the doctrines of the Catholic church. We let go of our need to judge others. We choose to live and let live, and we find peace in that. We allow ourselves to ask the questions, and we trust and become more comfortable as we wait for God to reveal the answers. The spiritual path is a journey and if we have the courage, we will trust God to lead us.


With Age, My Catholicism Holds More Uncertainty
By Rose Murphy
National Catholic Reporter
December 26, 2008

My current, critical reading about religion and my growing disenchantment with the Catholic Church do not proceed without some pronounced unease. I feel driven to question beliefs I once held with assured confidence. But am I needlessly cutting off a strong spiritual lifeline by going so rarely to my local church? Am I wallowing in intellectual smugness and neglecting an insistent Catholic tie that goes beyond logic?

It is difficult to stay loyal to a church whose members once unleashed cruel forms of the Inquisition on presumably evil non-believers and whose clergy so recently and secretly protected pedophilic priests. But I am more disillusioned by dogmatic bans on birth control that afflict poor women in developing countries and that too often obscure the core message of Christ’s call for compassion.

Impossible now to recapture that ardent, unquestioning faith I had as a child, and into adulthood: that Christ was physically present in communion, that I had a special guardian angel, that certain prayers chipped away at Purgatory time. Even after outgrowing those fantasies, I continued to keep a core faith in the larger Church tenets: that Jesus was the Son of God, that he died for my sins, that I was preparing for an afterlife where I would see God and presumably my parents and all those who had gone before me. Today all of that doctrine is hazy to me, not so much rejected as irrelevant. I know now that humans can never penetrate the idea of God; certainty is – and has always been -- an illusion.

Intellectually, I can reject much of the Catholic Church, but emotionally it reels me in whenever I wander from it. I am still nourished by certain Mass rituals: the Prayers of the Faithful (with touching reminders of so much pain among my neighbors), the Sign of Peace and the communal grasp of another hand, the preparations for Eucharist, and the walk up the aisle to receive communion. Just what am I receiving? I know the act of communion matters to me, feeling the host on my tongue is significant, but I don’t know why.

But slowly, I am becoming more comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. And I find that meeting the challenge of practicing compassion in this troubled world is much more difficult than showing up for Sunday Mass. More and more, I see Christ as a rebel, an advocate for the poor, an agitator, an outsider who spoke truth to power and paid the ultimate price for it.

His message focused on loving one another, without reservation, not on explaining the Trinity. And whether or not he is the Son of God seems a pointless discussion.

Such realizations still do not alleviate feelings of restlessness and guilt when I choose a bike ride and coffee on Sunday morning instead of Mass. But on those Sundays when I do slip into church, I hear a foreign language all around me, especially when it comes to the Apostles Creed. I cannot dutifully mumble it any longer. I cannot relate to ecstatic utterances about a “personal relationship” with God, because for me such a relationship is impossible. It smacks too much of a cozy, privileged connection with a physical being who sits among the fluffy clouds and notes all the details of my daily life. I can imagine a spiritual force at work in the universe, something that connects all life, humanity and nature, but I cannot personify it or give it the familial name of “Father” or “Son.”

But rather than reject a lifetime spiritual path, perhaps I need to get more comfortable with the idea of metaphor in Catholic doctrine and look beyond the literal pronouncements; then it becomes easier to see Christ as a symbolic son of God, as a presence that helps me find the divine spark (God) within myself, and more importantly serves as a model for truly compassionate living.

Receiving the spiritual nourishment of communion then becomes a reminder of so many people who lack food or the means to acquire it.

So can I continue to call myself a Catholic? A friend once framed the dilemma in whimsical language: “I can no more stop being a Catholic than a Navajo could stop being a Navajo.” Ultimately, I think this struggle will always be with me, and that I will come to accept, and perhaps even embrace, a natural state of discomfort. Despite all the ambiguity, I would like to think I am still welcome at the communion table.

Rose Murphy is a writer based in Sonoma, California, who explores current events and also focuses on Irish culture and history.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
What It Means to Be Catholic
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Dispatches from the Periphery
Beyond Papalism
Conflicting Understandings of Church and Revelation Underlie Situation in Madison and Beyond
The “Underground Church”
To Whom the Future of the Catholic Church Belongs
The Holarchical Church: Not a Pyramid But a Web of Relationships
The Two-Sided Catholic Crisis
Comprehending the “Fullness of Truth”
The Shrinking Catholic Tent
A Smaller, Purer Vision of Church – and Why It Won’t Work

Images: Michael Bayly.


Dan said...

Serenity writes, that "it takes a certain amount of age and life experience to evolve spiritually on one's life path. As this happens, our relationship with God becomes more personal, and transcends church dogma and doctrine."

I take issue with the idea that a "mature" faith entails jettisoning any specifics about God, that the dogmas of antiquity somehow hold people back in their love of neighbor. If for no other reason than counterexamples abound. The first that comes to mind is my 78 year old grandmother. She was born and raised Lutheran, embracing the doctrines of the Trinity, Jesus' divinity and his unique atoning sacrifice on the cross to take away the sins of the world. She was also raised in the mission fields of Madagascar and returned to raise her five children there, spreading the good news of Jesus love and mercy through the forgiveness of sins. And she is not some close-minded old lady, having earned a college degree early on and returning to seminary late in life to earn a MDiv degree so that she could serve people who had suffered the loss of a loved one. Her faith has only grown more vibrant and alive over the years, remaining simple rather than "maturing." Didn't Jesus say that we must have the faith of a little child, for to such belong the Kingdom of God?

Rose Murphy is especially put off by (shock of shocks!) the Church's teaching against contraception and abortion, citing the harm done to poor women the world over. However, there is always a counterexample.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta:
"I know that couples have to plan their family and for that there is natural family planning.

"The way to plan the family is natural family planning, not contraception.

"In destroying the power of giving life, through contraception, a husband or wife is doing something to self. This turns the attention to self and so it destroys the gift of love in him or her. In loving, the husband and wife must turn the attention to each other as happens in natural family planning, and not to self, as happens in contraception. Once that living love is destroyed by contraception, abortion follows very easily.

"I also know that there are great problems in the world - that many spouses do not love each other enough to practice natural family planning. We cannot solve all the problems in the world, but let us never bring in the worst problem of all, and that is to destroy love. And this is what happens when we tell people to practice contraception and abortion."

Might she be speaking from a simple faith as well, one that acknowledges the many problems facing the poor but still believes that good will not come by doing evil?

I do not wish to boot out of the Catholic Church each and every person who asks questions. But I think the dividing line for Catholics is where does one go to find the answers? The Church teaches that you go to the revelation of God given in the scriptures and sacred tradition, as authoritatively taught by the bishops in communion with the bishop of Rome. I think it's important for each person to be honest with him/herself. When one claims to be a "faithful" Catholic while rejecting nearly everything that the Catholic Church claims to be introduces a kind of duality that is neither intellectually nor spiritually healthy.

Cathy_of_Alex said...

Michael: It is possible to mature and grow in the Catholic Church. However, true maturity into the Sacred Mysteries does not come thru the eyes of dissent, it comes from acceptance.

I'm praying for you. Blessed Christmas to you!

Anonymous said...

To respond to Ms Murphy's thoughts in the abstract (since she decided to have them published in the way she did, it would seem that she's inviting responses, though many of the responses at the NCR comment box are less helpful than they might have been otherwise):

Ms Murphy's apparent desire to reduce Christ to metaphor and ethical Morningstar, as it were, has been a constant temptation in Christian heresy since at least the post-Apostolic age. The track record of that approach is even more miserable and dispiriting than the dogmatic Trinitarian Christianity she is currently so wary of. In the end, the Gospel of the Merely Ethical Jesus (which is usually some confection of Pelagianism and Arianism with a few contradictory shots of Gnosticism and other isms) is dismayingly unliberating.

It's *much* more liberating to come to terms with one's fundamental need to be redeemed (or, if you prefer the American vernacular, saved) in grace rather than to try to earn one's salvation by doing good and avoiding evil.

It is most interesting that pre-conciliar American Catholicism was criticized for its shallow moralism - that is, an emphasis on avoiding vice and cultivating virtue - over the richer sacramental and ontological depths of Catholic tradition. The liturgical and sacramental revolutions of the 20th Century (starting with Pius X) were supposed to displace such shallow moralism.

And yet, what we see with the "disenchantment" articulated by such as Ms Murphy is substantially the very same shallow moralism in new clothes. Her "compassionate living" is just as much mere moralism as the emphasis on virtues of purity and obedience were in a prior generation.

That is not to say that virtue and compassionate living are unimportant. It is to say that they are not the end point. Christ is the end point. And having a relationship with someone (and Someone) involves getting to apprehend (if not comprehend) Who that Someone is in objective terms rather than What that Someone does vis-a-vis me or you or everyone. What Ms Murphy decries as dogmatics and doctrine is actually more progressive than she understands - it's a delving into being (ontology) rather than reduction to functionalism. Progressive Catholics have long been champions of understanding that being precedes doing, and that we do an injustice when beings are reduced to their doings instead of appreciated merely for who they are. When doctrine and dogmatics are understood from that perspective, one can see they are not baggage but preciously valuable. Attempts to avoid doctrine and dogma end up being shallow not only in terms of meaning but also in terms of liberation.

And thus this is a sad but compelling example of how, despite the best of intentions, one can end up in the very place one strives to avoid being in.

Anonymous said...

The problem is not so much church doctrine as the way the Church has effectively ruined so many lives -- I think especially of millions of people who have spent their lives in agonizing solitude when they might have enjoyed the blessings of domestic companionship -- JSOL

Anonymous said...

Let me add that Rose Murphy does not come across as an intelligent Catholic. She is content to wallow in an agnostic muddle, and is the sort of person who would be the bane of any teacher of theology. JSOL

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks to everyone for their thoughtful responses.

Just a couple of points:

Dan asked: "Didn't Jesus say that we must have the faith of a little child, for to such belong the Kingdom of God?"

There's more than one way to understand this. I don't believe it means blind obedience to church authorities but rather a trusting and open attitude to the presence of God throughout human life and experience.

It's important to remember that Jesus also said that there comes a time for "putting away childish things." I've come to see literalism within this category of "childish things."

Cathy, faithful dissent is part of our Roman Catholic tradition. Scholar and author Robert McClory has written a great little book in which he documents a number of faithful dissenters who "loved and changed the church." It's well worth looking into.

Another observation: It seems St. Ignatius and St. Augustine, among others, would today be regarded as not Catholic enough. After all, both had a very different understanding of Christ present in Eucharist than does the Church today.

In his book, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, Garry Wills explains:

Within the congregation there is “a union of the flesh and spirit of Jesus Christ.” The faithful are “created again in faith, which is the Lord’s flesh, and love, which is Jesus Christ’s blood.” It makes no sense to form a sacred area away from the faithful, who are the real altars and temples and bearers of Christ’s flesh and blood. They are not distant from the mystery. They are the mystery. For Ignatius, the Eucharist was the full realization of that “one-ing” (henōsis) among themselves he urges on all the communities he addresses.

Almost three centuries later, Augustine was still talking of the faithful as the stuff that is transformed by the Eucharist. He never mentions (any more than the New Testament did, or Ignatius did) the power of the priest to consecrate. He says it is the faithful recipients who make the body of Christ present by becoming it.

Over and over Augustine places the validity of the sacrament in the recipient’s unity with God and each other, not in any preceding words or magic of the priest. He denied that Christ’s risen physical body could be in more than one place. When Christ is said to be in several different places, it is the members of his body in the Christian community that are referred to.

Augustine rejects the idea that teeth and chewing and swallowing make one receive the body of Christ. Augustine says that we cannot take Christ into us. “The symbol is received, it is eaten, it disappears – but can Christ’s body disappear, Christ’s church disappear, Christ’s members disappear? Far from it.” We must be taken into Christ’s body, not he into ours: “We abide in him when we are his members, and he abides in us when we are his temple. And for us to become his members, unity must bind us to each other.” The Eucharistic transformation is, for Augustine, a change of the community into a single thing, and the symbolism that he finds in the Eucharist is not of the physical body of Christ but of the mystical union of his members under the sign of bread, made a unit from many grains of wheat, and wine, made a unit from many grapes.

So clearly is the bread a sign of the unity of Christians that it was customary in Augustine’s time to send some of the bread left over from the eucharistic meal to other communities, expressing a general oneness. That would never happen today, when people think the host could be desecrated if handled by anyone but a priest. Candles were not carried alongside the eulogion (as it was called). The only effect of an unbeliever’s eating the bread is that he or she does not become a member of the body of Christ. There is no actual body in the host to bleed or be abused.

Finally, don't underestimate the power, the truth, of symbols. Sadly, modern humanity has lost "symbolic consciousness" - everything now has to be literal to be real or truthful. Many of the stories of the Bible are myths, are symbolic. This doesn't mean that they do not harbour and convey truth. A thing doesn't have to be literally true to be true - unless you're a child. When it comes to such matters I believe we're called to be adults.

Filmmakers and other artists are generally those in our contemporary Western society who still possess symbolic consciousness and attempt to share it through their art. Thus I resonate with the observation of filmmaker Werner Herzog about “the deeper strata of truth in cinema . . . [the] poetic, ecstatic truth [that is] mysterious and elusive” and which can only be reached “through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”

I believe this observation crosses over into many other areas of human life and creative activity, including theology.



kevin57 said...

I have no problem with adhering to the teaching authority of the bishops united with the bishop of Rome. However, not to notice that the bishops are chosen almost entirely by Rome under such tight constraints that Sees are currently vacant for years without a shepherd because "the right one" can't be found, makes the above formula laughable. If bishops were truly chosen at the local level, then the unanimity of bishops throughout the world would be a telling work of the Spirit. As it is, it's careerism, nothing more.

Anonymous said...

To say it's nothing more than careerism is a facile cop-out.

It assumes the Spirit is necessarily defeated by a human political process. That's an interesting and somewhat legalistic view of how the Spirit works and when the faithful are loosed from certain obligations (kinda antinomian).

Now, I am not in favor of magical thinking, and I am very definitely of the view that the current process of selecting bishops (which IIRC only became the dominant one after the formation of the kingdom of Belgium, but I digress) needs a serious makeover. That said, however, the assumption that a better process would result in (1) better bishops, and (2) bishops speaking more tellingly in the voice of the Spirit, is an unproved and naive assumption.

I think what can be said credibly is something much more narrow: that the current process for selecting bishops gives the faithful too much of an opportunity to cop-out of taking what they say serious - in that sense, it conspires with weakness on the part of the faithful.

kevin57 said...

Liam, I may be misinterpreting your remarks, but it sounds like you are implying that my faith is a cop-out and weak.

Unless you are a gay Catholic--as am I--you have no right to make that statement. You have no possible way to understand the difficulty that goes into being gay and Catholic, especially under this retrograde pope.

Anonymous said...

I did not say your faith is a cop-out.

I said your remark about careerism is a cop-out, especially if you think that careerism allows you to ignore the bishops as being incapable of being channels of the Spirit, which is what your statement strongly implied.

A blessed New Year to all.

kevin57 said...

Again, Liam, because you are not a gay Catholic, you have no right to make these judgments. And this blog is principally for gay Catholics to come and discuss how we can live our faith in a more integral manner.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Liam and Kevin,

Interesting exchange taking place here.

For all its worth, I think certain human attitudes, mindsets, and practices (e.g. careerism) can prevent us from being channels of the Spirit.

Mother Teresa once said that "God loves the world through us - you and me." If people aren't open to God's love and to sharing it through their attitudes and actions then it can be experienced in a limited way in their interpersonal relationships and thus in the world around them.

Thus, the flow and workings of the Spirit can, sadly, be obstructed and even "defeated" by human "processes" - though not ultimately. We do, after all, follow the way of the resurrected Christ.

I think careerism is at play in the hierarchical church and that, as a result, this aspect of the church is not as open to and reflective of the Spirit as it could be.

Also, I don't believe that is naive to assume that the Spirit would be more readily discernable in the Church if the church was more democratic. The Spirit is within each and everyone of us. All voices need to be heard, and we all need to bring our bit of the truth to the table.

Given this, how can the role of the bishops be best understood? Perhaps we should seek too understand their role as "shepherding" this gathering of voices and perspectives, and then clearly and lovingly articulating the resulting insights.

Just something to think about.



Anonymous said...


One of the problems with a position that gives you leave to ignore an entire class of people as being incapable of channeling the Spirit is that you thereby validate those people's ignoring you as members of a class of people.

If progressive Catholics actually want to promote change, we have to be careful about the insidious ever-present temptation to mirror those whom we feel oppress us. It's not necessary for spiritual or mental health, and can be quite the opposite (though it may seem healthy).

I spent many years in democratically run Catholic communities, as well is in hierarchically run ones. My own experience is that the democratically run one were *at least* as unhealthy as the hierarchically run ones, but in a way that allowed many to co-conspire to self-delude that they were an New! Improved! Church!.

Yes, naive indeed.

Anonymous said...

I should add, upon reflection, what I think about a more democratic process and what it would likely result in.

I favor a deep change in how bishops and pastors are chosen, and even how clerics are called forth.

I believe the current system is a problem not principally because of careerism (though it is a problem - one best addressed by reviving the old canons that restricted the transfer of bishops and even pastors), but because it results in a major cop-out in accountability and responsibility among the faithful. Democratic processes are not about results that would be better (they might be, might well not be) but about sharing responsibility and accountability, which is spiritually much healthier.

I have zero reason to be hopeful that a democratically ordered community at this stime would be more open to reconsideration of the teaching on homosexuality. Actually, I suspect it might be even more harsh than most of the bishops have proven to be. This is especially true in the Anglosphere, where popular legal culture is one that abhors the more flexible Roman way of saying one thing but doing another. I don't think parishes will suddenly become anything like PFLAG chapters. Some might, but a shocking number would withdraw in horror.

For example, I remembered when a priest of our community presided over a commitment ceremony of two lesbian congregants, off site. Then arose a pattern of quiet denunciation of said priest by many of the most pro-gay people in the congregation, which led to his eventual departure (among other causes). Layfolk are at least as capable of deception as prelates, and Catholic laity are very accustomed to not being held accountable in community. That's a culture shift that would have to happen before one attempts more democratic structures.

I don't share the blithe Hegelian assumptions of some about the inevitability of progress by synthesis.Human beings can regress, and for centuries at an episode.