Monday, November 08, 2004

The Universal Church: God, Us and Intellect

Writing a title for this post reminds me of the irony (perhaps hypocrasy) that is inherent to the Catholic Church. 'Catholic' literally means universal, and yet the perpetually institutionalised marginalisation of anyone 'different' speaks volumes about the real universalism of the Catholic Church. We'll be universally accepting, as long as women and gay people in particular aren't within the bounds of what is described as universal.

My idea of Jesus, whether the Son of God or not, from an historical perspective, was a person that was universally accepting. A church that supposedly embodies the teachings of Jesus the Christ has a funny way of demonstrating its links with the founder of Christianity. I don't know, maybe universal means 'global' in that the Catholic Church is a world-wide institution, does not discriminate on the basis of nationality (or does it - I would say prima facie no). Which still begs the question, why does it continue to discriminate against people for their gender? Sexuality?

A lady with whom I work, a good friend, teacher and mentor is a practising Catholic, dedicated to her faith. My friend (let's call her Mary) is a thinking, professional woman, feminist, socialist and intellectual. Mary calls herself a 'dissident Catholic', one who challenges a conservative parish priest and gender neutralises readings before giving them at mass. Mary continues to argue that you can separate faith from the religious institution in which you practice. I think to a certain extent this is true, and I suppose I held that view myself for a number of years. One can be a practising Catholic, and not like the Pope or the Church that this particular pope is moulding. But where is the line drawn? Surely it must be said that the values of the Church espouse to a certain extent the faith of its members, the common understanding of Christianity that is reflected in Church teaching? And isn't that why a person with faith is Catholic, rather than Buddhist, Hindu or Pentecostal - because the institution's teachings and faith community most closely reflect their own value system? (Of course, it is wrong to give such credence to the idea of choice in this context, as many people who choose to be Catholic/remain Catholic, were brought up within the Church). Or is it that people with faith stick with the Church that they believe most closely reflects their value system, and while a wayward leader might take the institution away from what many members of the Church believe are its core values, they remain, waiting for a better, more inspired and progressive leader?

Phew, for a second then, I wondered whether I was talking about the Catholic Church or the ALP. Writing that last paragraph made me realise that maybe it is possible to separate faith and institution - suddenly a political analogy makes life comprehensible to me! I joined the ALP when I most disapproved of its policy platform, a few years ago, and yet I joined because I believed the 'core values' of the party reflected my own understanding of life and social responsibility. And now I stay involved, hoping to 'bring change from within'. And yet I've promised myself that the day the Labor Party sells out on the East Timorese I'm resigning my membership.

So are gays and women my East Timor in the church? Are these the kind of big-ticket items, enough for me to no longer wish to be associated with the Church? Well, yes.

I mean, it would be ludicrous for me to suggest that I had the kind of faith the church espoused anyway, and certainly the kind of repressed tension within the church around sexuality, families, marriage and the role of women make me exceedingly uncomfortable with the Catholic Church generally.

I would consider myself essentially secular these days, whereas I wouldn't have a few years ago, and I feel a bit weird admitting that (I considered myself quite religious) publicly.

The next thing I wanted to consider is a comment made to me by a lecturer, another mentor of mine,several years ago, and his is an opinion I'm certain many collegues and fellow students share. The comment went something like: 'You surprise me Carita. I thought you were too smart to be religious'.

It was a comment I found quite odd at the time. Immediately, images of for instance, the then Dean of the Law School, my Mum, people like my work friend, Mary, mentioned above, sprung to mind - all people I consider intelligent, and all of them ardent Catholics. I suppose it firstly depends upon one's definition of smart.

In the last few years, I almost came to accept that position, as it was my own intellectual maturity that caused me to question my association with the Church. The smarter I have become, in my opinion, the further I have gone from wanting to be part of the Church at all. And yet, that doesn't explain the intelligent, thinking people around me who are all devout Christians.

Maybe it's a burning faith that keeps people involved with the Church, a faith that I could not profess to share or understand. And yet, even that surprises me, because wouldn't the intellectual type sooner have faith in themselves, their own ability, and the people around them? I don't know. This is the inherently secular me talking.

Maybe it's a kind of social identity. It's just a part of who you are. The Catholic Church will probably be always a part of who I am, if only from a distance, because the limbs of its institution, the faith of its members around me, has played such a formative role in my life to date.

I have been simmering on these points for the better part of two years. Sometimes boiling over with rage and indignation. Severing all ties to the Church would be a difficult thing for me to do, if for no other reason than that I'd need to admit it to Mum, and the rage and indignation seems to manifest itself in cries of 'Why me? For what reason am I forced to be part of a church, the exit from which makes life difficult for me? I don't get why secularism is not the sort of default switch, from which you can choose to go and explore the faiths and religious institutions of your choice'. It's not that I regret my upbringing, but that I resent the way I feel about it all now. I suppose slipping quietly out of things is the easiest and most probable path for me. Yet, the path of least resistance is not one I choose often - bull in a china shop, roaring and kicking seems more my style, if not by choice, by natural compulsion. I am obsessed with this idea that I have to make my mind up, decide what I think about it all and come to a final conclusion for my life.

But maybe life doesn't work like that.


At November 7, 2004 at 9:10 PM, Blogger Anthony said...

Look I'm probaly not the person to ask and were you asking anyway? Ditched the church after a quiet moment while supposedly researching Chinese history at the library in high school and stumbled across Bertrands Russel's "Why I am not a Christian". Voltaire had kind of lined 'em up and Bertie knocked 'em over.

Which has been a big shame in my life as I've been fascinated by Christianty and have felt like a vegan at an Argentinian restaurant. Certainly not the fundie born again god as invisible sky buddy bunch but people, and not just superheroes like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but my philosophy lecturers like Julius Kovesi and Reverend Borthwick, or my town Doctor that made the switch. AB Peter Carnley is a fantastic man and seeing him have to wriggle over the issue of gay marriage made my heart go out to him. Give me a thoughtful Christian over a vapid materialist, any day of the week.

Regardless, my instinct says run, or at least sneak out during communion and don't turn back. The problem is though, if churches are going to be influential in society, then they need people like you. In your absence there'll be others doing the work - hello Cardinal Pell. If you can't change it, then leave it and let it wither and put your efforts elsewhere.

Small country town played a big part in my life. I'm not there now.

At November 8, 2004 at 11:08 AM, Blogger Sunili said...

I am obsessed with this idea that I have to make my mind up, decide what I think about it all and come to a final conclusion for my life.

But maybe life doesn't work like that.

I don't think it does, hey? Maybe the crux of the problem is that when you actually are "smart", you have the ability to sit there and think about every little facet of the problem--wondering and pondering and obessing but really not getting anywhere--while other people (and I promise I don't mean "other, less intelligent, people" but I can't think of a nice PC way to put it) can just shrug and say "well, ok, I'm cool with that"?

Sorry, rambling. I really appreciated that post, thank you...

Hah, and you laughed when I said I was looking forward to your insight!

At November 8, 2004 at 8:43 PM, Blogger Manas said...

Thanks for finding my blog guys! Posts will be light on till exams are over, sorry.

Should churches have a big influence in society? Do they currently I guess it depends where you live.

there's been a decline in Church influence in Australia recently (across denominations) but if the rise of Family First and the moral debates Tony Abbott's trying to use to divide the country currently are anything to go by, church influence is once again on the rise.

The role of the Church in developing countries is a whole nother kettle of fish, and a strong interest of mine. I suppose in countries like East Timor, through Africa and South America, where the churches have an enormous role, Anthony, your point about having good people running them is certainly true.

When I returned from East Timor, actually, the paper I wrote was about the RCC in East Timor, kind of a post-colonial critique vs theories of libertarian theology.

I have to say that one of the more positive aspects of the Catholic Church to me are the social justice programs that more 'outer' groups such as the Edmund Rice Centre provide.

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