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Seeking a Catholic Church


by Richard Lennan

Good news about the Catholic Church seems nowadays to be in short supply. Bad news, on the other hand, seems to abound: the downward spiral in numbers attending Sunday worship; the ongoing trauma of sexual abuse; disquiet over both the appointment and performance of bishops; and the 'greying' of congregations and clergy, which results in anxiety about the future. In short, it can appear that the Catholic Church is in trouble, perhaps even in terminal decline.

Inevitably, that perception evokes a variety of reactions: talking up the numbers at Easter ceremonies or showpiece events for young people as proof that 'the tide has turned'; rejoicing that the signs of institutional decay might presage the possibility of broad and deep reforms; blaming 'the enemies of the church' (no longer the Communists, but the secularists) for distorting the real situation; opting out of 'big church' in favour of either (or both) a less structured gathering of like-minded Christians or a service-oriented group in which faith can be lived, rather than debated; or simply shrugging shoulders at the irrelevance of all things Catholic.

That spectrum of responses indicates how difficult it can be to achieve a common understanding of the present situation of the Catholic Church, let alone develop common responses to it. Compounding the problem is the lack of dialogue, or even at times, the will to dialogue between groups in the church. While the lack of dialogue might seem to be of lesser importance than many other issues facing Catholics, it is a significant obstacle to the realisation of any claim to genuine catholicity in the church.

Lacking that quality, no groups can claim validly to represent the church of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. In other words, as the authors of the Common Ground Initiative, the project sponsored by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in the mid-1990s in the hope of overcoming divisions among Catholics in America, emphasised: there can be in the church no such thing as a group that alone has the truth and represents a saving remnant. That principle is valid irrespective of whether the group is 'conservative' or 'liberal', whether it emerges from the 'right' or the 'left'.

It might be, then, that the requirement of catholicity offers both a means by which we can articulate the mission of the church, assess its present state, and propose changes that might bring the church to a more authentic existence. Although catholicity might appear too 'churchy' a term to appeal to those already disenchanted with the Catholic Church, it is worth remembering Avery Dulles' claim that the Incarnation is the primary catholic event: in Jesus Christ, God proclaims that all life, as well as all humanity, is precious. Consequently, nothing is alien to the catholic spirit. That means that a genuinely catholic church will be one whose members are interested in all of life's questions and issues. Within such a church, members will be aware of, and value, what Dulles calls 'the partial catholicities' of the arts, sciences, sport, and economics, all of which are efforts to interpret, celebrate, and enhance life. That response would counter what seems to be the increasing trend among Christians, not just Catholics, to look askance at our society as if the Spirit could not be active there.

A positive, catholic outlook on the world does not mean that we renounce the right to challenge what damages life, but it does mean that suspicion and distrust of social developments ought not to be our first response. Such suspicion and distrust ignore the fact that in matters such as environmental awareness and the overcoming of discrimination in society - genuinely catholic achievements - it has been 'the world' that has shown the way for the church in recent decades.

Catholics can boast that our faith makes us 'counter-cultural', but we need to distinguish between opposition to what damages life (being genuinely counter-cultural) and being churlish about what we did not initiate. It might also be that Australian society beyond the confines of the Catholic Church would be more receptive to the identification of faith in Christ as the source of our actions if it was clear that that faith made us more than mere critics of our culture. Perhaps more than anything else, being counter-cultural - and authentically catholic - at this moment of our history means that we ought to eschew the dominance of consumerism. This concerns not just how we live as individuals, but also whether our communities, be they parishes or less traditional groupings, witness to something beyond self-interest.

Although the implications of living catholicity in the world reflect what is at the heart of the Gospel, our energy for such a response, within the Catholic Church in Australia no less than elsewhere, is muted at present by the internal divisions alluded to earlier in this article. As a result, there is an urgent need to re-appropriate the catholic spirit within the Catholic Church. What would this mean?

First, catholicity challenges both a consumerist approach to the church - 'this is what "they" ought to do' - and a purely political one, which sees every issue in terms of winners and losers. Not only does the Spirit at work in the Word and the Eucharist promote activity rather than passivity, it also, as the Common Ground Initiative emphasised, ascribes goodwill to those with whom we disagree. The human difficulty involved in doing so highlights that catholicity is a work of the Spirit.

Secondly, then, the possibility of a genuinely catholic church requires our conversion to the primacy of the communion of faith. Catholicity means something other than either uniformity or factionalism. To the extent that we in the church in Australia today tend towards either one or the other, we have yet to realise what it means to be catholic.

Clearly, if it is to be faithful to the Spirit, whom Karl Rahner described as "the Spirit of dynamic and unrest", and to the implications of communion, a catholic church will be less than neat. Neatness, however, is not necessarily a sign of unity. Although we tend to fear that debate in the church over complex and controversial issues will be divisive, the lack of such debate is more likely to impede the achievement of genuine unity. As the Acts of the Apostles testifies, differences in the church are toxic for genuine discernment and genuine communion only if there is not a shared willingness to place seeking the Spirit above personal preference.

Thirdly, a genuinely catholic church is one whose members expect that the Spirit works in more than one way: through women as well as men; through the new as well as the old; through the local as well as the universal; through those with formal authority as well as those whose gifts do not work through official channels. Within such a church not only will there be, for example, the recognition that liturgy is always about God and humanity, rather than one or the other, but there will also be an expectation that, to return to The Common Ground Initiative, no one group is the depository of all wisdom and faith. Once again, the lack of prominence of such catholic elements accounts for much of the tension in the contemporary church.

Fourthly, a genuinely catholic church will be willing to experiment as an expression of the desire to be faithful to the tradition in new circumstances. This might well be the area where the church in Australia today is most in need of conversion. At present, it seems that there is either an unquestioning commitment to maintaining the existing structures, irrespective of the consequences (what will happen when priests baulk at or are unable to assume responsibility for an ever-increasing number of parishes?) or a resigned conviction that something better will be possible only when the old structures die. Both approaches are not only short-sighted and lacking in creativity, they also fail to make use of the resources within the whole communion of faith.

Fifthly, a genuinely catholic church will be one whose members anguish over how to achieve the catholic 'both. . .and', rather than willingly embrace, the simpler 'either. . .or'. For Catholics in Australia today, that means, for example, anguishing over how we might be faithful to the heart of our tradition about marriage and sexuality while also including divorced/remarried and homosexual people within our communion. It includes too the willingness to wrestle with the implications of both an ordained ministry and the baptismal gift and responsibility of all members in the church to contribute to the church's communion and mission. At present, we seem more likely to divide along one side or other of those issues. Surely, though, the catholic spirit cannot abandon the longing to hold the two together?

Although catholicity is crucial, it is not a magic bullet. It will neither make every challenge disappear tomorrow nor ensure, in an equally short time, the production of simple recipes for the radical transformation of the church. Its importance, however, resides in the fact that it affirms passion, hope, and the ongoing conversion of all members of the church as inseparable from an authentic response to the Spirit of Jesus.

Catholicity is not an abstraction at odds with concrete decision-making, but it identifies the characteristics of decisions that will manifest a church responsive to the Spirit. To the extent that we recognise the deficit of catholicity in the Catholic Church in Australia today, we can also gain a clearer sense of our present task.

Richard Lennan lectures in theology at Catholic Institute of Sydney















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