Creed and Credibility in a Critical Age
Jacquie Lambert was one of the opening speakers at the September Colloquium in Palmerston North celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Diocese.
Her task was to identify some of the ‘gaps’ where the modern church lacks credibility. This is an amended version of her address.
We do not all have the same experience of church, and if the institutional church really wants to know whether its lofty Catholic ideals are being brought to fruition, it needs to go to the darkest, most isolated, forgotten or ignored part of its membership and ask there. It needs to go to its own lepers. Then it needs to listen and listen carefully. The church looks very different when seen from the bottom looking up. In a sweepingly simplistic way I’ve chosen to reduce the issue of credibility to two basic questions:
What do we say we as Catholics are ultimately about?
Do we as Catholics act in a way that supports that?
Between these two lies the gap.
Identifying these religious hazards in each generation is critical. The trouble is that most of them are only seen ‘as through a glass darkly’. We might like to think that our Catholic or even Christian truths are absolute, but perhaps the only absolute truths we can trust are that we don’t fully understand it all and we’re not really in control. In many ways we’re still spiritual children, and God grows us not only through the church but also through the rest of the family. Many defining visions have come from the most unlikely sources, sources the church has been known to initially dismiss, outlaw or ignore. The Spirit appears to find a freedom of expression in these souls, a freedom seemingly often denied her in the belly of the church itself.
For this reason we must take seriously the criticisms of credibility that come to us from both inside and outside our church. Both may possess a wisdom worthy of respect, and we ignore them at our peril. Sue Monk Kidd writes: “When you can’t go forward and you can’t go back and you can’t stay where you are without killing what is deep and vital in yourself, then you are on the edge of creation.”
And the truth is that the church cannot go back and it cannot stay where it is regardless of how hard it is trying and the future looks decidedly murky. So what does this mean? It means that we have an incredible opportunity to reframe and refresh and resurrect. The enormity of God’s love must always keep doctrine on its toes; it’s always more than we can explain or understand.
What would the inspectors think?
I have wondered on occasion what God would say if the church were to have its millennial divine performance appraisal. Would God find us credible based on the legacy of his Son? I have imagined in my darker moments that in the performance stakes we would be considered to have overstepped our authority on occasion, to have neglected to invite our CEO to one or two fairly critical planning and policy meetings, and to have focused too much investment in the corporate takeover, marketing, personal accounts and debt collection departments and too little in complaints procedures, customer service and repair.
I also suspect we may face insider trading litigation and accusations of head office fraud and financial padding at the cost of branch management resourcing. Of course this is only in my more cynical moments.
As I spoke with people inside and outside the church about this topic four issues arose:
a) Many of the gaps shared common foundations.
b) Often there were the same credibility issues for people both inside and outside the church.
c) It was not so much core beliefs or doctrine that caused the biggest credibility problems for people. It was the church as an institution, its processes, power, and structures, and its relative intolerance and acceptance of them and their families at times that caused greatest concern.
d) And there was the ‘sin’ of omission, things people did not see in the institutional church: humility, tolerance, inclusion, and – amazingly – joy.
So I’m going to consider just a few of these issues under characteristics I believe would be considered important hallmarks of our faith:
• Love, living the centre of our faith
• Power and Humility
• Diversity and Inclusion
• Images of Priesthood
1. God’s Love: living the centre of our faith
The ‘what we are ultimately about’ is part of my simplistic definition of credibility. You would struggle to find a single person at odds with the idea of Christ’s unconditional love being a credible foundation for the Catholic Church. But you might also struggle to find people who feel that the church is genuinely striving to embody that – and there lies a huge credibility gap.
So we must ask ourselves: is our institution trying to be loving? Is it looking after its family of priests lovingly, a contemporary priesthood where there exists pain, isolation, stress and worrying levels of depression at times?
Is your parish a loving environment? What would that look like, feel like? Every parish/institutional decision or direction should be framed around that question. Are we genuinely trying to love as we are loved.
I don’t know about you, but that frustratingly difficult idea of love is what my faith is all about. The impossibility of living up to it is what keeps me honest. The unconditional offer of it every day from God to me, I find miraculous and humbling. It reminds me that I have a lifetime of work ahead of me just trying to get myself in some kind of order without worrying about judging anyone else. It holds me lovingly in my own gutter so I can sit with others there and accept them where they are, working for love rather than correctness; and I think perhaps the church hasn’t spent enough time in its own gutter in recent centuries.
This love was Christ’s profound point of difference, and without it we have nothing to offer other than our own obsessions and pompous self-righteousness. It is not naïve. It’s ultimately all we have: so impossible in its audacity, it has to be divine – but are we are too scared to let it loose?
2. The issue of Power and Humility.
The church is struggling to give answers, old and new, but in doing so we are being seduced by the secular need for definition and solutions and away from the essence of Christ’s love. In a world where society is trying to foster personal accountability, determination and empowerment, the church is continuing to model a heavily parental and authoritarian role. The jarring of this discrepancy for many is just too hard to live with: the answer for most outside the church is to simply ignore it, and for those inside is to follow their consciences regardless of official doctrine.
None of us has to look far to find all kinds of people and institutions ready and willing to tell us how to live. People do not need decisions made for them; they need to be supported and accepted through the painful process it may take to make them on their own. We don’t have to get it right, we just have to try and love people through the pain and joys of life – and this is a key paradigm shift that I believe the church as an institution has never truly made.
Does this smack of secular individualism? Perhaps. But I think the church has too often thrown out charges of individualism as a way to simply scare people and endorse its own parental agenda. Groups are made up of individuals and the strength of groups reflects the strength of its individuals Disempowerment weakens the individual and by consequence the church.
Christ touched people as individuals in a world that barely even acknowledged them. He met them where they were as people with their own history, experience and faith or lack of it; and often sent them on their way with little more direct guidance than ‘sin no more’, leaving it to them to work out what that meant in their own hearts. And of course they made mistakes but that should come as no surprise. Institution, age, wisdom and a clerical collar or a crimson cape afford no protection against that.
This leads into another authority issue in the credibility question: transparency, important for any institution’s credibility. In the wake of the sexual abuse scandals we must be transparent and not just to outsiders. Most people including Catholics themselves are beyond submitting to the ‘have faith and trust us’ scenario, and the church has been largely responsible for that cynicism by its own actions.
3. Diversity and Inclusion.
Several key credibility issues raise their heads under this topic. Examples of these are the shameful exclusion of women from the priesthood, of other Christians at our table, the plight of divorced Catholics, gay Catholics, the changing face of what it means to be a family – to name but a few. But this idea of diversity and inclusiveness is a key point in many credibility issues, not the least because it is actually something that the church does amazingly well on the one hand and yet in other ways we suck badly.
Can we any longer say with absolute assurance what defines a ‘family’? And is that because the definition has changed or simply that our limitations have been exposed. The official church view may give one definition of family, but what if we polled its members?
The issues of divorce and sexuality are good examples here. The church has a position on both those. But within our churches, particularly our older members know the struggle of what it takes to keep a loving family together through overwork and stress, divorce, through homosexuality, through remarriage; the compromises, the tolerance, the patience, the forgiveness, the compassion. They are living the gospel and feeling let down by the institution. Who is the more credible in this?
And what about inter-denominational inclusion. How can we be credible as a loving institution that harbours the compassion and inclusion of God when we deny our believing brothers and sisters a place at our table. There seems no credible answer to this exclusion any more, and hiding behind lofty theologies won’t cut it any longer. I often wonder how it might have been different if we had chosen foot washing as the centre of our worship instead.
We must look again at what it means to be Catholic and to be a credibly welcoming and compassionate church. Catholicism is a lived experience, not a check list. The Catholic church is a complex animal and therein lies its most precious treasure. Within this family most people can find a home, from hermit to charismatic, mystic to scholar; and if there isn’t a home there is a potential to develop new real estate and build yourself one.
We are not and never have been like peas in a pod. That is our strength. That is inclusion. That is gospel. We were never called to like, approve of or even understand our neighbour, only to love and accept them.
In an age when the concept of family is becoming increasingly complex and stressed – and the priesthood is suffering a support crisis of its own, the question of married clergy seems another no brainer as a credibility issue regardless of which side you align with. I believe most parishioners who support a married priesthood, do so because they genuinely want to see their priests in supportive, intimate family environments, something they believe their priests may be missing and are very much in need of, in the current environment of their ministry.
And the concept of priesthood itself is changing. People are looking for less of an intermediary and more for someone of faith and skill and knowledge/wisdom to walk beside them and mentor their faith journey. They are looking for a spiritual home, not just a sacramental experience – an Emmaus road companion. Currently we are running around trying to plug a bleeding sacramental timetable. Is this a credible response? Maybe we should be asking tougher questions.
On the issue of priestly vocations, I also offer some food for thought. People pray for more vocations. I asked myself another question not long ago. If you were God wanting to reach into the heart of Catholicism and breathe new life into it, would you inspire more vocations so that you would have more of the same? What reason would the church have to change then? So maybe – just maybe – the Sprit is already at work.
Rome has not cornered the exclusive rights to wisdom just yet, at least not last time I looked. So as a New Zealand church we must be courageous. If we are to narrow the credibility gaps, we must ask ourselves these core questions:
• Do we come from a striving for unconditional love?
• Do we reflect humility and are we empowering? Are we transparent?
• Are we inclusive, compassionate and forgiving?
• Can our existing model of priesthood facilitate what we need to do?
• And lastly, are we showing a willingness to risk it all for the core of our faith, to be faithful to the delicious scandal of the gospel? I ask this because I still believe in this church and its capacity to do just that.