March 2014

I believe in one wholely Catholic Church

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.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. 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.

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