I believe in one wholely Catholic Church

Patty Fawkner SGS

Patty Fawkner SGS

In 2014 it’s not easy being Catholic. Perhaps the way forward is not to disavow our catholicity, but to truly claim it, writes Good Samaritan Sister, Patty Fawkner.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS*

My faithful, church-going sibling told me she was embarrassed to be a Catholic. The international leader of a religious congregation shared his sorrow that some of his Irish brothers were too ashamed to leave their monastery. Some sections of the media barely hide their contempt for all things Catholic.

In 2014 it’s not easy being Catholic.

Rather than being defensive, we must humbly admit that we, the Church, through a misguided arrogance that presumed Catholics had a monopoly on truth, and a dysfunctional Church culture that did not see or, more troubling, did not want to see the horrific criminal abuse of children, have brought this situation on ourselves.

Perhaps the way forward is not to disavow our catholicity, but to truly claim it.

This is what Ilia Delio does in The Emergent Christ: Exploring the Meaning of Catholic in an Evolutionary Universe. Described as being “ahead of the curve” on the relationship between science and religion, Delio, a Franciscan sister and senior professor at Georgetown University, explores a renewed and, for me, liberating understanding of the word catholic.

We know that catholic means universal, but a careful study of its etymology reveals a fresh and timely insight. Catholic signifies movement towards wholeness. “The word catholic,” Delio writes, “means ‘through-the-whole’ or ‘throughout-the-whole’ like yeast that leavens bread. The word catholic connotes an active presence of ‘whole-making’ or leavening the stuff of life to create a greater whole.”

Delio says that since the third century the term catholic has commonly been used as a mark of true orthodoxy, more a mark of ‘who’s in who’s out’, and less as a process of whole-making for the People of God.

Whole-making connotes unity not uniformity. It is a process involving a movement from parts and objects, from fragmentation and disconnection, to wholes and subjects, inclusion and relationships. A whole-maker relishes diversity, being more concerned with both-and rather than either-or.

To be catholic is to be a whole-maker and Jesus is the whole-maker par excellence.

“Healing and mealing” – this is Scripture scholar Dominic Crossan’s whimsical yet accurate description of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus heals and “meals” in order to make whole.

Often in the one encounter Jesus heals the whole person of their physical, relational and spiritual wounds. “Your sins are forgiven you… get up and walk”, he says to the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12). He heals the diseased, the deranged and demented, calling each person to greater human wholeness.

In what would be akin to Prime Minister Abbott inviting a people smuggler to dine at his table, Jesus “meals” with tax collectors and prostitutes. He feeds the hungry with bread and, like yeast permeating the hearts of his listeners, nourishes them with his word. At a farewell meal, in an amazing display of mutuality and friendship, he washes the feet of his motley disciples (John 13) and prays that they be whole, that they be one (John 17:11).

Jesus makes whole by including the outsider, by gathering the scattered and by giving the diminished the means to flourish. If ever there is a choice between the need of the human person and the demands of religious legalism, Jesus always chooses the human person and calls his followers to do the same. Jesus’ inclusive, self-giving love is utterly catholic.

Is the Pope a Catholic, we rhetorically ask? Yes, Pope Francis is certainly catholic because he too is a whole-maker.

During the first year of his papacy, Francis’ gestures have dramatically displayed what is intrinsic to human wholeness and what is not. Gone are the Mercedes, the suite and many a papal trapping. “Stuff” and consumerism don’t make us whole.

Like Jesus, Francis’ papacy is characterised by an overarching concern for those who are in need of being made whole. By washing and kissing the feet of prisoners, women and Muslims, by kissing an horrendously disfigured man, by his famous “Who am I to judge?” in regard to gays, by visiting the island of Lampedusa (Italy’s Christmas Island) and weeping at the loss of life of asylum seekers, Francis declares that no person should be excluded from human comfort, freedom, security and dignity because of gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or class. Privilege, social status and appearances don’t make us whole.

Francis’ words are at one with his gestures.

Evangelii Gaudium – The Joy of the Gospel, Francis’ first major document is inclusive in content, tone and language. The Church, he says, “expresses her genuine catholicity and shows forth the beauty of her varied face” in the diversity of peoples, each in accordance with its own culture” (EG #116).

Francis reminds Christians of their call to respect, to heal, to build bridges and to strengthen relationships. He critiques a society that’s “willing to leave part of itself on the fringes” (EG #57). He is aware of a world and a Church in which “the whole is greater than the part” (EG #234-237) where we “do not need plans drawn up by a few for the few, or an enlightened or outspoken minority which claims to speak for everyone” (EG #239). He says no to clericalism and an overly centralised Roman bureaucracy, and yes to a more wholesome ecclesial culture inclusive of all cultures, the laity and women.

Francis warns against speaking “more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ”, and tellingly, “more about the Pope than about God’s word” (EG #38). The cult of celebrity (even making the cover of Time and Rolling Stone) doesn’t make us whole.

Francis’ catholicity is refreshing in its warmth and lightness of touch. His love and mutuality has proven to be leaven and balm for those within and beyond the Catholic Church. In response to the so-called “Francis-effect”, Catholics find themselves standing a little – perhaps more than a little – taller.

It’s all style and no substance, say the Pope’s detractors. Not so, says Jesuit Father Thomas J. Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. “In the Catholic Church, style is substance,” Reese says. “We are a church of symbols.”

We are also a church of structures, and wholeness requires integrity between both symbol and structure. Francis’ greatest challenge will be to translate gestures and words into Church governance structures, and liturgical and pastoral life to reflect a genuine and authentic catholicity.

Women, gays and remarried divorcees constitute well over 50 per cent of the ‘card-carrying’ membership of the Catholic Church. Do they feel that they are genuinely part of the “whole”?

Just as gays were encouraged by Francis’ much quoted “Who am I to judge?”, divorced Catholics excluded from Communion would similarly take heart when Francis says that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”. The pastoral consequences of this, he says, must be considered “with prudence and boldness”. “Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems” (EG #47).

We say, “How catholic is that!” as we await the Church’s “prudent and bold” response to those who are divorced.

And then there are the women.

Like so many before him, Francis is loud in his praise for women and their “feminine genius”. Similarly, at times, he raises the “issue” of women in the same revered breath while speaking of Mary and motherhood.

Many Catholic women find it disconcerting when lavish praise does not translate into more viable roles for women in Church governance and liturgical and pastoral life. Francis seems to be aware of this. “We need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church”, he says, including the various settings “where important decisions are made both in the Church and in social structures” (EG #103).

The Pope is a realist. “Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded”, (EG #104) he says.

Francis is right. In the name of the Church’s catholicity, questions about women’s roles cannot be evaded. A catholic response is called for. This means that women themselves must be involved, not as objects to be spoken about, but as subjects being seriously listened to as they share their own “profound and challenging questions” about their place in the Church.

Not only listened to. Women must be genuine dialogue partners in exploring how the Church can be made more whole by honouring and using women’s differing gifts and insights. This would be a most welcome and necessary break from current Church practice.

A recent global poll of more than 12,000 Catholics in 12 countries lays bare the challenges as Francis’ papacy enters its second year. On issues of contraception and abortion, divorce, gays and women, Francis leads a Church dramatically divided between the developing world in Africa and Asia, and Western countries in Europe, North America and parts of Latin America.

Hard questions are, well, hard. There is always a temptation to water them down, to obfuscate or sweep under the Vatican carpet. Thankfully, this seems not to be Francis’ style.

Francis cannot allow one size to fit all, nor can he allow individual local churches to go it alone. Amidst authentic diversity he must be faithful to a Centre that holds, the Centre being Jesus the Christ, the Whole-Maker.

We hope and pray that Pope Francis’ response and that of the universal Church will be, for the sake of the whole, truly catholic.

* Good Samaritan Sister, Patty Fawkner is an adult educator, writer and facilitator. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality. Her formal tertiary qualifications are in arts, education, theology and spirituality.

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The Good Oil, March 18, 2014. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

18 Responses to “I believe in one wholely Catholic Church”

  1. jeff murphy says:

    dear patty
    i confess i didnt read all you wrote however may i say the chruch should give everything it has to the poor. on judgement day there will be no cathloics just those who followed CHRIST who will stand for the truth
    the gate to life is narrow and the true 2nd commandment has been lost to you come to jesus not the pope. love is his to you

  2. msparks says:

    Always wonderful to participate in your insights.
    Love to you

  3. Edwina says:

    Dear Patty your words here are very insightful, healing, life-giving and true for the “whole” body of Christ. I hope your article goes further than The Good Oil and can be read more widely. There was a day on the calendar for remembering Oscar Romero recently. As I read more about him I was also drawn to think about Pope Francis and some of the things about his way that you mention here.

  4. Brian Gleeson CP says:

    Only if and when we see structural change, will the rubber be hitting the road. Meanwhile, we thank God for the vision of our Christ-like Pope Francis, who clearly adheres to the principle once stated by Gerald O’Collins: ‘What we DO with the Church depends upon what we THINK about Jesus.’ Thank you for a particularly insightful analysis of catholicity and your practical applications of its meaning as unity in diversity. Such a refreshing read!

  5. Sr. Mary Luke Jones, OSB says:

    Patty, we met in Melbourne last August when I was visiting Michelle. Your article echoes all I am reading these days about our good Pope. I am very proud of the stances he is taking on behalf of the poor and marginalized. It is a breath of fresh air that is filling our lungs with hope and our hearts with joy. Keep up your good and holy work.

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      Dear Mary Luke, how lovely to hear from you. Of course, I remember our meeting. There is a freshness with the Pope that is so encouraging. Here’s hoping we will all follow in his footsteps, which surely are the footsteps of Jesus, the whole-maker. Blessings of peace.

  6. Kristin Dawson says:

    Thanks Patty for a very thoughtful consideration of what it means to be Catholic in an hostile environment that has been created in large part through the criminal element and lack of Christian response by the institution. It does seem that as Pope Francis returns to the core Gospel values and leads with the mind of Christ the authenticity of the message will resonate with all those who seek a way in a world that is materialistic, atheistic and in many/ most places cruel in treatment of others. We do yearn for whole ness and healing and the inclusion of all who are less powerful who are at the core of Christ’s ministry and message and where we are all called to be.

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      Dear Kris, you should be writing for The Good Oil. I mean that in all seriousness. I agree with your that the Church has brought so much damage on itself, by not following the way of Christ’s ministry and message. You’re right, we all yearn for wholeness, that’s why I think that there’s such hope generated by Pope Francis. He has so much to teach us. I just hope he is truly comitted to structural reform in the name of a more ‘wholey Church”.

  7. Virginia Ryan says:

    Thank you Patty. It’s wonderful to see how a good and courageous leader can initiate change and, in particular, a change of heart in people. Or as you say perhaps we are being ‘made whole’. For the first time, in a very long time, my children, teachers, friends and work colleagues have a renewed joy and enthusiam for the Gospel, Jesus and the Catholic Church. Great article.

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      That’s right, Virginia. At times I feel sorry for Pope Francis as all of us now have such high expectatations, but as you infer in your response there’s “the power of one”.

  8. Garry says:

    Thanks Patty. “Wholely Catholic” for the newly appointed Prefect for the Congregation for Defence of the Faith, A German Hierarch, has indicated that in his view, “wholey” means complete obedience to Church teaching. Thus on the matter of divorced and re-married Catholics, and communion/Eucharist, he says there is no moving room for a bold and prudent reconsideration.The rule is the rule!
    We, the rest of the Church, must take up the challenge of Francis, and help those in influential positions to change their paradigm from Black/ white; in/out; true/false; body/spirit to something more akin to Ilia’s call for “whole-making”. One step in that direction is for all of us to walk the paths of mercy and compassion that Pope Francis is walking. His perspective on God, the poor, and the world, changed, so can that of all of us.

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      Thanks, Garry, for your thoughtful response. Obviously I have a different take on “wholely Catholic” from the newly appointed Prefect for the Congregation for Defence of the Faith. I think I prefer my interpretation than his! Yes, let’s hope Pope Francis continues to lead in word, gesture and structural change.

  9. Elizabeth Buchel says:

    Patty,an excellent and informative article. Will use some of your phrases when encountering people who are having difficulty being catholic in todays world.

  10. diana close says:

    Excellent article. Thank you for what you wrote of Pope Francis and his inclusiveness.

  11. Mary says:

    Being a Catholic is a challenge. I haven’t been directly affected by organisations with Child Abuse in their midst although I have been affected by it happening on a least scale to one of my sons. When I look around me at all the good people who when they have been aware of any problems in the Church have done something about it. Being so attached to a priest or brother or teacher or anyone so that our own image of the Body of Christ is impaired allows for wrongs to happen. A young Australian mother said to me recently, when all those people left the Church they created a vacuum into which good could fail. Do non abusers feel guilty because they failed to do anything? Do parents who failed to respond to changes in their children’s behaviour feel guilty? What is is that is making the Catholic people so guilt ridden that they are ashamed to be Catholic. I don’t feel guilty. Nor do I think that sympathy will strengthen these people. I’m also questioning of how monetary payouts are going to heal people abused. Is it like winning the lottery where increasing evidence shows that most spend it unwisely. I sense there is something wrong about the way we are dealing with this issue. I have enough sins to confess of my own without taking on others sins. Surely if I ask forgiveness and do the best I can to find some way to do something about the hurt from sin then I have fulfilled God’s asking. Put on sack cloth and ashes if you want but surely God is asking us to build his Church, not pull it down with maudlin sentiment. There is so much to do, compassion for the sick and elderly; learning and teaching our faith to young ones; sharing ourselves and our goods with others who sometimes don’t have enough etc. Backing big political issues is not necessarily what most of us can do, but there’s plenty we can.

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      Dear Mary, Thanks for your thought-provoking response, touching on a range of issues. I agree with you that there is plenty we can do and I don’t believe in “maudlin sentiment”. However, as part of a community, I do believe that in some ways, following in the footsteps of Jesus, we do take on the sins of others, even though, like you, I have “enough sins of my own.” Blessings on you in your endeavours.

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