Being faithful to the Gospel comes at a cost but regaining the respect of others in the public sphere should never be the end game, writes Sister Patty Fawkner SGS.
“These days it’s almost a crime to be Christian.” Thus said former New South Wales Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, in response to the commentary when so-called ‘conservative Catholic’ Dominic Perrottet became NSW Premier two months ago. It might not be a crime, but it definitely isn’t easy being Christian, let alone being Catholic.
If anyone was in any doubt about the standing of the Catholic Church in the eyes of the wider community, one had only to listen to, or read, the agitated discourse surrounding Perrottet’s election, the debate accompanying the Voluntary Assisted Dying legislation in various jurisdictions, and the Federal Religious Discrimination Bill. Pre-judgment, suspicion and sheer contempt have become the order of the day.
It seems that Perrottet has become a whipping boy for those who are hostile to the Church, and some of its critics within. His ‘sins’ are said to be plentiful. He doesn’t espouse an inclusive brand of Christianity. He is dragging Australia into sectarian exclusiveness and religious wars. He mouths off as though he speaks for all Christians. His religious dogma will stifle personal freedom of choice. His attitudes are severely at odds with the central demands of democracy. His conservative faith and ‘bizarre’ interpretations of the Bible blind him to the urgent issues of the day including the need for climate action. He flouts the time-honoured tradition of the separation of Church and State.
This perception is yet to be confirmed by Perrottet’s actions. Despite being vocal in his opposition to the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill, he gave his Liberal MPs a conscience vote. His government has increased funding for services for women and children escaping domestic abuse, enacted laws against modern slavery and established an inquiry into gay hate and transgender crimes. His stated goal is for NSW to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
A further claim in a letter to the editor in the Sydney Morning Herald said that a Catholic group lobbying against the Voluntary Assisted Dying legislation was “an example of a dying human being used as a cash cow by extending life for the purpose of earning income to help finance its religion.” Though offensive in the extreme, this is indicative of the deficit of trust in the Church.
For me, it wasn’t coincidental that the same week as vitriol swirled about Premier Perrottet, a report on Sexual Violence in the Catholic Church France 1950-2020, known as the Sauvé Report, was released. The report estimated that up to 330,000 children had been abused by clergy, religious and other Church officials. Yet again, a sickening pattern emerged of wholesale sexual violence against young children and adolescents, followed by a calculated effort to protect the institution and a cruel indifference to the victims.
The findings of the Sauvé Report and our own Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse go a long way towards explaining the growing anti-Church sentiment in the Western world. The Sauvé Report called on the Church for an “unfeigned abasement” and an honest, humble, no-excuses admission of responsibility and of guilt, together with a whole-hearted commitment to amend and repair.
In the public domain the Church has had abasement thrust upon it. It occurs to me that the Church – we the Church – must not only endure unfeigned abasement, but must embrace unfeigned abasement honestly, squarely, and humbly. Therein lies our ‘redemption’.
What might unfeigned abasement look like? I offer some considerations.
In regard to sexual abuse, the Church must resist any temptation to use the defence of ‘a few bad apples’, or to ‘move on’ and ‘bring to closure’. For victim and survivor, sexual abuse has a lifelong traumatic impact; innocent people have been hurt, are hurting and will continue to hurt. The Church must forever own and lament its past sins, pay for the crimes of the perpetrators in its midst, and continue to reform a sordid culture that facilitated rampant abuse. It must go above and beyond in supporting victims and survivors and invite them to be its teachers and guides. It must never forget. We must never forget.
Being faithful to the Gospel comes at a cost but regaining the respect of others in the public sphere should never be the end game. Any Church person who makes a sortie into the public square to offer an opinion on issues such abortion or euthanasia is sure to be roundly condemned and vilified. But the Church should not resile from its core mission of being there for the most vulnerable, protecting all life “in season and out of season”. Deplorably, this is the very thing it failed to do with children abused in its care.
The Church wouldn’t be faithful to its mission, Jesus’ mission of bringing fullness of life to all, if it didn’t speak in the public square. Pope Francis gives us the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of doing this. He honours the long-standing Western tradition of the separation of Church and State, a convention founded on Jesus’ teaching to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
And the Church cannot limit its concerns, nor be seen to limit its concerns, to beginning and end-of-life matters. Its mission demands that it be there on the side of human flourishing for all who are disadvantaged, marginalised and unjustly treated – the homeless, the hungry, the refugee, those on death row, the victim of family violence, the person who is trafficked, and the victims of natural disasters. All who suffer hold a legitimate place in the Church’s circle of concern.
The medium is the message, so how the Church engages is as important as the content of any message. In many instances, the Catholic Church has spouted an authoritarian, dogmatic message and a black-and-white moralism. Pope Francis personifies how the Church can be a sympathetic listener, humbly attesting that it has much to learn from other traditions, the human sciences, and all people of good will. With his emphasis on synodality, Francis embodies a modus operandi of dialogue rather than decree, and promoting participation and persuasion as safeguards against polarisation.
Above all else, the Church must follow in the footsteps of the ‘abased one’, Jesus the Christ, the one who emptied himself in loving service of humanity. The Church’s current position of abasement and vulnerability is the most authentic place for the Church to be.
As popular social worker, author and podcast host, Brené Brown, says: “Vulnerability is … the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
Christmas celebrates God’s overwhelming self-giving by becoming human in the vulnerability of a child. My prayer is that God who made Godself as vulnerable as a baby may guide the Church, the People of God, into accepting its own unfeigned abasement. In doing so it will be true to its God, true to the people of God and true to itself.