June 2011

Towards an adult Church

“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 Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner.

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

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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