Towards an adult Church

Patty Fawkner SGS

“I recall that the Church came to birth amidst the unfolding tensions between, paradoxically, the conservative Peter and the liberal, boundary-pushing Paul. Without a liberal component, life petrifies; without a conservative component, the centre doesn’t hold,” writes Patty Fawkner SGS.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS*

Years ago I took a job in a Catholic adult education centre solely because of the team’s desire to work towards building an adult Church. “Towards an adult Church” was our mantra and our goal. Our key principles were dialogue, leadership, mutual responsibility and partnership. Today that goal seems ever more elusive in the institutional Church.

As young adults my siblings left the Church condemning it for its perceived hypocrisy and repressive teaching on sex. “Why do you stay?” they ask. It is a challenging question in the face of my own struggle with the Church’s pervasive clericalism. But I have been born and baptised into a Church that has formed and continues to nourish me with its rich spiritual, scriptural, theological and liturgical heritage. I cannot leave.

Others have asked the opposite question. “Why don’t you go?” was put to me by some angry participants at a workshop we ran on women’s participation in the Church. This group was offended because I didn’t “look like a nun” and dared to discuss barriers to women’s participation. I in turn was affronted by their “if you don’t like it, get out” taunt.

Soon after, I came across Carlo Carretto’s ‘love letter’ to the Church.

“How much I must criticise you, my Church and yet how much I love you!
You have given me much scandal and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.”

Carretto’s words continue to be a source of deep comfort. Like him, if I were to leave the Church where should I go?

“To build another Church?
But I cannot build another Church without the same defects, for they are my own defects.
And again, if I were to build another Church, it would be my Church, not Christ’s Church.”

So I don’t go. I stay. But how do I stay especially when I am hurt and angered by some unhealthy systems within the institutional Church which preclude transparency and mutuality.

How do I deal with my disappointment and anger? How do I cope with the polarisation I experience? What can help me in my struggle to be a critical lover of the Church like a Carlo Carretto, rather than an embittered unloving critic?

The first thing I do is reach into my spiritual tradition. The Hebrew people and Christians over the centuries have prayed the psalms of lament to help deal with their deep inner pain, sorrow and anger as they sought to comprehend the heart of God.

I lament, believing it can be a holy and healthy thing to do. I lament the forced retirement of Toowoomba Bishop, Bill Morris. I lament abuse within the Church. I lament that women’s voices are not heard and that their leadership gifts are ignored. I lament that staff of Catholic institutions don’t say what they really believe for fear of censure. I lament that a patronising authoritarianism is deaf to the sensum fidelium. I lament that the new wine offered by a hope-filled Vatican II seems to have soured. I lament that an adult Church is yet to be. And I lament my own failure at times to be adult in my faith.

“The spine of lament is hope,” says Clifton Black. This hope isn’t a naive optimism that things will get better. It is a hope that is bluntly honest with God, trusting that even if nothing changes, God is with me in the struggle. My hope can’t be in systems and processes but in an ever-faithful loving God who assures me in Julian of Norwich’s words, that “all will be well”, even if I am thinking “I don’t know how”.

As I compose my litany of lament wise, helpful words come to me.

At Mass our Parish Priest, Gerry Gleeson, reads the letter from the Australian Catholic Bishops about Bishop Morris. He comments on the letter with nuance and sensitivity. One sentence strikes me: “Bishops must be conservative”. Instead of being on the edge pushing boundaries (which would lead to even more conflict-ridden factionalism), the role of a bishop, says Gerry, is to create a community that holds people together, that sets boundaries and is a source of unity.

I’m left pondering this word “conservative”. Seeing myself politically left of centre and holding more liberal views within the Church, I can all too easily use “conservative” pejoratively and “ultra-conservative” as the ultimate putdown

What is the gift of being conservative? The etymology of the word conservative – “to keep safe altogether” – points to the value of that gift. I begin to realise that within myself I am both conservative and liberal. Both are God-given human tendencies that can dynamically interact and co-exist in a healthy tension within me and within the Church. Both conservative and liberal have their strengths and their blind spots. Both can be entrenched equally in ideology, each taking the moral high ground convinced that God is on their side.

A friend recommends I read Anne Hillman’s book Awakening the Energies of Love, which critiques polarisation within the Church and beyond. Hillman explores the concept of paradox – something which appears to be a contradiction but at the same time is true. Paradox, she says, is a central quality of creativity that binds polarities together.

Instead of seeing conservative and liberal, left and right as necessarily adversarial, might we not see them paradoxically? Jesuit theologian, Walter Burghardt supports this view when he describes the Church as “this paradoxical people, this community of contradictions”. Something new can be born when I bring together in my mind or in real life, seemingly irreconcilable opposites.

I recall that the Church came to birth amidst the unfolding tensions between, paradoxically, the conservative Peter and the liberal, boundary-pushing Paul. Without a liberal component, life petrifies; without a conservative component, the centre doesn’t hold. We need both preservation and transformation.

Canadian priest and writer, Ronald Rolheiser, talks of the “ecclesiastical apartheid” between Church members of a conservative bent and those with a more liberal persuasion. There may be politeness and civility but no real engagement. What if I began to move away from dualistic, polarising thinking and quit labelling others left-right, liberal-conservative, right-wrong, either-or, us-them, good-bad?

What if I let go of my entrenched position, my certainty, and was really prepared to dialogue by speaking honestly and listening openly with someone formed in a different spirituality and a different ecclesiology?

I don’t want to move to a bland, compromised middle ground; I’m too feisty for that. I want to move to a new place where I can take up Ann Hillman’s challenge to hold both sides of a polarity in my embrace.

Can I, I wonder? Can we?

*Patty Fawkner is an adult educator, writer and facilitator. She is an Australian Good Samaritan Sister who is on the leadership team of her congregation. Though her ministries have been diverse, Patty sees a connecting thread of making the riches of our Catholic tradition accessible to the women and men of our time. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality. Her formal tertiary qualifications are in arts, education, theology and spirituality.


The Good Oil, June 14, 2011. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

20 Responses to “Towards an adult Church”

  1. Leo Pitts says:

    Dear Patty,
    You must never lament your “failure” to be adult in your faith, nor that an adult Church is “yet to be”. The church is necessarily dynamic and has always moved between conservatism and radicalism. It will never be perfect as there is only One Who is Perfect and the current misdemeanours of a few “black sheep” only serve to remind us of our flawed humanity.
    Patty, you mustn’t lament your position, as,through it, you provide us – “the plebs” – with your intelligent insights to absorb and digest.
    Thanks Patty,
    Leo.

  2. Marea Donovan says:

    Dear Sr Patty,

    I am to be MC at a Catalyst for Renewal dinner soon where Bishop Morris will be our guest speaker. I am encouraged by your thoughtful insights into our Church which on the one hand is so criticised and on the other so loved – and will use a quote from your paper to help set the tone for the evening.

    My heartfelt thanks. Marea Donovan

  3. Sarah Puls says:

    Thanks for your thought-provoking article Patty.
    I was struck by Carretto’s words which made me reflect on the ways that I am critical of those I really care for. When we don’t care, or if we don’t have a deep hope in the possibility of the future, we would just walk away.
    Lots to think about! Thank you.

  4. Carolyn Doherty says:

    Thank you Pattie for a wonderful article. As Bishop Bill Morris said in his interview with regard to conservative and liberal “There is room for all of us!”.

    I also loved Anne Hillman’s book and would love for us all, to be able to dialogue about what can enrich our Church.
    Blessings
    Carolyn

  5. Patrick Kempton says:

    Thank you Patty. I appreciate your approach of lament. I have tendered to feel anger and a great deal of sadness. You also challeged me to dialogue and listen with respect remembering that, as Bishop Greg O’Kelly reminded me, “Jesus always proposed. He never imposed”.

    With all the seemingly undoing of Vatican II that is going on, I do well to remember the “whole law and the prophets is based on ” Love God and love your neighbour” . Everything I do and say must match this.

  6. Chris P says:

    Thank you for a great article.

    Sadly Power and Authority are big players in this “contest”, and those that have it (or see it has been challeged by Vatican II), will not easily give it up.

  7. Richard N says:

    Liberal Catholics always seem to think it is necessary to try and change the church for one reason or another eg it needs to be less dogmatic,more inclusive,more in touch with women,less hierarchal etc..They often fail to see that the main function of the church is a spiritual one.She must maintain and preserve the one true faith for us and future generations.She needs to look literally hundreds of years into the future.The church is now in deep crisis in Australia with a dirth of vocations and generations of poorly catechized youth.Conservatives and liberal Catholics hopefully could work together to address these issues but I kind of doubt that catechesis of our youth would rate very high on the average liberal catolics list of piroities.

  8. Michael Mason CSSR says:

    How refreshing! How creative! What a welcome relief from the wearisome whinging that fills public forums on church issues, leading many potential contributors to walk away in disgust! Both sides on almost every issue have some part of the truth, and neither a monopoly. I might not agree with all of her criticisms, but Sr. Patty’s piece is itself an inspiring example of the mature and self-critical reflection that makes an adult church.

    I also found a bit more of Carretto’s wonderful “Love letter to the Church” on the web.

    How much I must criticize you, my church and yet how much I love you!
    You have made me suffer more than anyone and yet I owe you more that I owe anyone.
    I should like to see you destroyed and yet I need your presence.
    You have given me much scandal and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.
    Never in the world have I seen anything more obscurantist, more compromised, more false, yet never have I touched anything more pure, more generous or more beautiful.
    Countless times I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face – and yet, every night, I have prayed that I might die in your arms!
    No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even if not completely you.
    Then too – where should I go?
    To build another church?
    But I cannot build another church without the same defects, for they are my own defects.
    And again, if I were to build another church, it would be my church, not Christ’s church.
    No, I am old enough. I know better!

    Perhaps there’s more in his book: I souhght and I found: My experience of God and of the church.

  9. Gavin O'Brien says:

    Dear Pattie,
    I see my self nodding with agreement with what you have written.The Church History is littered with divions as a result of these tensions and they continue.I will take to heart and ponder deeply what you have expressed.I will also share with friends.
    Regards and best wishes,
    Gavin

  10. Emmy Silvius says:

    Thanks Patty, Yes the Church needs tension so as to open up discussion and dialogue. It’s a shame that the latter does not occur. It seems that only the voice of the conservatives is being listened to by our hierarchy.
    The institutional Church is not seen to be modelling the example of Christ. Namely, one that is open and welcoming. A Church that values equality and participation of its entire people at all levels of ministry. A Church that does not discriminate; is compassionate and promotes justice, peace and openness to other faiths at every facet of its ministry. A Church that not only tends to the needs of the poor and disadvantaged but also advocates on their behalf.
    As Fr Matthew Fox stated in his recent article in NCR, we need a different way of being church. What is required is a backpack filled with the words of Jesus, the mystics and the prophets. We should follow Matthew 25’s vision of compassion and remain true to the collegiality of Vatican II rather than to an institution that Jesus never heard of. (NCR 15/6/11)

    Many are keen to remain in their Church and follow this way of life. It is not easy, but the life of a prophet is not meant to be easy. History would not treat us kindly if we did not stand up for our Church and speak out. A Church that does not change with the signs of the times becomes like a blocked stream – smelly and dry.

  11. Alastair Mackay says:

    Thanks, Sr Patty, for articulating so eloquently the concerns and frustrations of very many of us. More importantly, thank you for sharing the way in which you choose to address them in your own life. Your approach is one which has given me pause for thought. I just pray that I have the courage and humility to imitate it.

  12. Narelle Mulins says:

    Thank you Patty for your rich reflection.
    I found it so hard to be really honest about my genuine commitment to a Parish Community that has nurtured me over 20 years with constant disturbance from my comfort zone in terms of injustice. That parish community now finds itself not recognised by the offical Church but for me a place of continued disturbance in terms of injustice and a level of authenticity deep within that has a mysterious sense of liberation – Liberation that is not triumphant but has deep peace and even tinged with sadness sometimes about the destruction of not listening nor being listened to with the “ear of the heart.”
    Narelle

  13. Diana Law says:

    Thanks Patty! Well done!
    I like the way you say where you stand in this dilemma.
    Certainly love is the only healing, uniting level which can join us all together in the mutual respect which underpins justice.
    I think the problem is when love is rescinded and individuals or subgroups within a community (church) are disempowered through injustice, abuse, perverversion, exclusiveness, bombastic ostentation etc.
    As Kristin says: “…those with the power, silence the voices (the Spirit) with which they do not agree”.
    This shatters the foundation of genuine unity.
    Such a dichotomy within the community was and still remains the cause of the crucifixion.
    While we cannot condone crucifixion or any form of mental or physical ostracization, the paradox is that through the power of the Spirit, it is caught up into resurrection.

  14. Kristin D says:

    Thanks Patty for your challenging and thought provoking reflection on the state of the institutional church and the integration of the conserving and liberal forces within. My difficulty however is that the institutional church at the moment in the form of the male hierarchy has a great deal of power and this power is used abusively. It is OK to have the various voices come together, but while power is abusive many voices are not heard because the “leadership” -those with the power, silence the voices (the Spirit) with which they do not agree. I can only be grateful for the rich heritage given to me throughout the years that continue to sustain, but feel for those younger members in our community who are deprived of this heritage because of the barriers to receiving it. Thank goodness there are communities such as the Good Sams who can share this heritage with those who are able to access it. I’m not sure how this abuse, this silencing of the Spirit, can be stopped.

  15. Thanks Patty. I like the way you suggest seeking a resolution of the polarities within ourselves and engaging with others with respectful listening. Marie

  16. Catherine Slattery says:

    Well done Patty and thank you for this reflection. You have given me much to consider and I look forward to sharing your ideas with others as we all struggle to reconcile tensions both within and without!

  17. Pat Hearity says:

    “Yes WE can”, Patty. Not just can “I”? Continue being courageous, as prophetic voices do ! With the demise of the exclusive, dualism of the Enlightenment , there arises amidst diversity and difference in the contemporary globalcommunity,another “d” – dialogue. No longer is dialogue an attempt from a stand of suspicion to change the other,but a genuine opportunity to experience and respond to the God who interuppts time and my story, my comfort zone,and calls to extend my limits of meaning, to respect the otherness and be enriched and challenged to a more authentic embrace of God’s world that is preciously different.

  18. Frank S says:

    Thank you Pattie. I see the wisdom of a conservative -liberal tension in balance. I have the same internal tension, but perhaps I am ultra-conservative in the sense that I hope for the church to re-incorporate the traditions of the early church such as the strong role of women and election of bishops by clergy and laity, and to remove the non-essential encrustations that have developed over the millenia. I see the need for a central guiding hand in the pope, but everyone including the pope needs to listen respectfully to each other. Rather than being in balance, the Church today has ossified because the Roman headquarters does not appear to listen but to issue memoranda to its staff in the colonies.

  19. A wonderful piece there Sr Patty…..I have often reflected as to whether we can understand and even use the terms: conservative,progressive liberal,right,left in more healthy non judgemental ways. Personally, I wonder if they are terms that really belong to the last century,other times and if we do need to move on from continually using them…I don’t know, but I have thought about it often and your presentation here has very much enlightened me and brought it together extremely well. Thank you as I look around for anything else you may have written that can be of help in these somewhat confusing times……every best wish, Fr Louie

  20. Sr Pat Snudden rsj says:

    Dear Pattie,

    How I needed to be challenged by your reflection!!

    I intend to take time to really ponder what you have shared and to chat with friends about the content and hope it opens up if we can dare to take another stance.

    How can I print the article so as to share it with others?

    Thanks, Pattie.

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