OPINION

The different models of what it means to say:
"I am a Catholic"

An article for CathNews discussion board exploring the different models people have in theirs minds as to what being a Catholic entails...

Anselm, What you write here is basically something I think we might agree on. The person who "Knows self and Knows Christ" is a changed person and ought radiate something different to those about them. I think it is those qualities of "balance, equilibrium and wholeness" across the four dimensions of our being.

The question continues to be though why have we (the Church) somehow been ceasing to do that? We've "lost our shine" or we've lost our appeal in contemporary society. What's gone wrong? Our faith literally built one of the great civilisations. For centuries it "inspired" half the world. The news reports in recent days are saying things like the Pope is head of the "1.1 billion Catholics in the world" but the reality is that the 1.1 billion is actually a pretty nominal figure these days. In Australia, for example, it might be said that the Pope is head of the (roughly) five million Catholics in Australia. The reality though is that it's probably less than seven hundred and fifty thousand who meaningfully believe or practice their faith. Grahame yesterday had some interesting comments on the "folk Catholicism" in a nation like the Philippines.

It seems to me part of the problem we have is that the Church does have to cater for an enormous diversity of understandings of what Catholicism actually is. Ultimately, of course, it is about being a follower of Jesus Christ. But being "a follower of Jesus Christ" does actually have very different meanings to different people. Just quietly sitting back and listening to the diversity of voices one hears on a discussion board like ours demonstrates that. Jeannie, for example, passionately believes she knows what Catholicism should be and I, equally passionately, believe that if the Church followed Jeannie's pathway we'd all end up the garden path. Equally though I believe that if the Church tried to conform to what Margaret Il, Steve Gethin and the traditionalists are trying to promote that would be a disaster also and end up doing even worse damage than what the Church is already having to suffer.

In my own case I know I place enormous importance on the intellectual dimension of the spiritual quest. Ultimately I do think salvation or "getting to heaven" is largely an intellectual exercise concerned with the acquiring of Divine wisdom and Divine love. It's a business of "growing ourselves into a state where we are fit to sit in the presence of God". Others though would totally dismiss the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom dimension of that. To them Catholicism would be more understood only as a business of growing in love.

At the same time I do think we have to truthfully acknowledge that a heck of a lot of people wouldn't conceive of it in either of those terms. To them "being a Catholic" is equated more to something like "being an Australian" or "being a Melbournian or Perthite" — it's to do with some "mark" that you are born with like race or nationality. They don't perceive of their Catholicism as something that you do something with or that it takes you anywhere, or is even meant to take you anywhere. Rather it is something you are "saddled with" like some sort of deformity in the case of some or "asset of great beauty" in the case of others. They might either hate or cling to their faith like limpet mines for totally opposite reasons but it literally might never enter their heads in a meaningful way that there is more to "being a Catholic" than simply the sense of identity or "marking" that it gives you.


There is, of course, an inevitable "tension" that is intrinsic to Catholicism and "the faith journey" even if one has got to the point of understanding that it is something that you do something with and it does something to you. This "tension" comes from the fact that it is "a journey". We grow in our faith. We are meant to mature in our faith. A six year old child does have to have a very different understanding of what it means to be Catholic to a person who is about to complete the journey and who has worked themselves very close to the Beatific Vision - of being able to see as God sees. The six-year-old can be nothing other than a hoop-jumper because before you can learn to break any rules you first have to learn what needs to be broken or what may need to be broken if one is to successfully make the journey.

I think a large part of our problem at the moment is that, institutionally, we've lost our vision. We are no longer able to project to the world in some clear fashion what this whole "(faith) business of Catholicism" is all about. There is enormous confusion in the voices emanating from the Church today. And the confusion exists at the very top of the organisation. You don't have to be Albert Einstein to work out that a heck of a lot of Bishops and even Cardinals actually do not agree with the Pope on some pretty fundamental issues. For example, and to name just one, the particular emphasis that he places on Mariology. That is not the same priority for a lot of other leaders in the Church. There are a host of other issues one could name and far more controversial ones than that. Just the difference in interpretations on something as important as the meaning of Vatican II would be just one of those examples. Some, like some on this board, see Vatican II as some enormous mistake and aberration and they want to dismantle it as one of the most urgent priorities known to man. Others though passionately believe precisely the opposite: the spirit of Vatican II, and our getting back to the thrust of that Council is the only thing that can possibly save the Church from its decline to remnant status.

How do we reconcile all these divergent strands of thought and understandings of who we are as Catholics? How do we get back to those core things you are writing of which are essentially to do with the personal relationship with Jesus Christ and how that "transforms" our outlook and demeanour? But even that is problematical. Some do want to follow the saccharine-sweet, baby-in-a-manger picture of Jesus as some sort of pied piper taking us on some journey akin to tip-toeing through the tulips. Others though want "the balls and all man" who literally walked through Hell. Others see him as some "wise sage" and are attracted more to the wisdom of his "Word" than the picture postcard images of the Nativity or the blood and guts violence of The Passion. How do we marry all these so totally conflicting images of who Jesus Christ is and how he invites each of us to transform and transcend each of our lives?

But, Anselm, I think one of the big problems is contained in what you are covering in your last paragraph. This is something of what I was trying to drive to a few days ago.

I honestly believe there are TWO almost totally incompatible understandings of where we all stand in relation to this rules business. One faction honestly and sincerely sees Catholicism as a business of learning a lot of rules and then faithfully following them. The other faction does not see it that way. Their position is not quite as clearly articulated. They sense though that the "following rules" model "ain't it" but they do not necessarily know what "is it". People can often know something is wrong but they don't know how to fix it, or they don't know what the better alternative is. I think that's what's going on here for a lot of people. It helps explain at least a significant amount of the disenchantment with the Church. I think the alternative is that Christ is not actually about "following rules". He's about breaking all the rules. This gives the first faction the screaming heeby jeebies. This is BIG WORRY territory to them because they see Church as a place of certitude and security. They don't live in a paradigm of moral dilemma. They simply see no dilemmas in their lives. Most other people do though.

Christ is, essentially, about navigating moral dilemmas. Unfortunately one cannot even give examples in a public forum such as this as to the common sorts of moral dilemmas that people face because it literally does send the first faction around the twist. They start falling out of their trees such is the threat that this sort of discussion poses to their very stability and sanity. (Just look at the homosexuality debate and what happens each time that word in mentioned in public here.) Most of the intelligent discussion about these issues only happens in private forums where all that sort of reaction can be "shut out" and things can be discussed quietly and sensibly. The bishops and spiritual leaders in the Church face that problem as much as any of us do.

I honestly do not know how the institution is going to be able to bridge this gap between what are fundamentally two totally incompatible understandings as to what the core understanding of "the Way (of thinking and acting)" like Christ is all about. There's no way in a zillion years that I, or anyone else, even Cardinals, are ever going to convince a Pete or Steve Gethin in this forum that there is any alternative view to the one that is fixed in their minds with Araldite.

Talk privately to bishops and you find they basically line up in three different camps. There are the conservative ones (and I believe they are basically in the minority perhaps slightly larger than the 5% minority in the wider population but still a minority) who are into the whole security and certitude trip. They do have far higher weight than their numbers because of the "stacking" that has gone on under PJPII.

The broad mass of bishops though broadly line up with the majority out in the community. This was very evident reading the transcripts of the Oceania Synod. It's not a "liberal" view they are pushing. It is an understanding that life is complex and often the nitty-gritty decisions we have to make will be seeming to be breaking some "rule" or other. These are fabulous men to talk to IN PRIVATE. They, like the rest of us though, do tend to only offer their advice in private. You never see them firing off long diatribes to newspapers and so on. They get into the same trouble that people like TonyC, Grahame, myself, UDS and a few others get into who try and argue things through with more subtlety.

The third faction, and my own Archbishop here is probably the best example in Australia of that, are blokes who see their prime role as trying to be "a symbol of unity" across the factions in the Church. I do have enormous respect for BJ Hickey and the diligence with which he endeavours to be "even-handed" and to encourage all people in their faith journey. I honestly believe though his strategy is flawed and more so since I've been studying the situation in this forum over recent years. The events of the last week or so with Michael Webb's activities on the OnLine Catholics board are the most graphic proof I've yet seen of this. You simply cannot reason with people like that. You CANNOT reason with them. They will literally drive the entire Church into the sea before they can loosen their bonds to their own insecurities and need for certitude and this red-necked behaviour of constantly trying to prove they are not insecure through "over the top" behaviours. When someone is trying to play a mediator role and you have one faction you are trying to mediate with totally unable to compromise about anything you do eventually get dragged into the sea with them. That is literally what's been happening to the Church.

Just look at all the good things that have gone on in the Church over the last 30 years: The massive lay workforce she can now afford to employ. Our liturgies are light years better than anything that existed in the past. Even our adult education programs, as scantily resourced as they are compared to the primary, secondary and tertiary education fields, ARE heaps better than anything that existed in the past. None of this though has been able to "stem" the outflow. The reason basically is, I submit, that you cannot reason with this 5% faction that literally does want to take the Church into the sea unless she (the Church) rewrites ALL the rules to satisfy their insecurities and need for certitude.

At the heart of all this, I submit, are these two incompatible views of what "The Way" is: Is it about learning a whole heap of rules and then following those rules, OR, is it about learning a whole heap of rules and then learning how to discern between all the rules and make the correct moral decisions for the myriad particular moral dilemmas we face in our lives. Sometimes, in doing that, you need to break some of the rules?

Some further quick thoughts on the two alternatives...

Christ is, essentially, about navigating moral dilemmas. It is the very process of learning how to navigate the moral dilemmas that "grows us in holiness" that is what takes us closer to "heaven" closer to the Beatific Vision of being able to "see" as God "sees".

The alternative view tries to present this business of salvation or getting to heaven as some kind of process of trying to prove to God that you've learned all the rules and that you are keeping them. It's modelled on the old model we had of the education process. One is trying to score high marks and prove to the teacher that you've learned what's got to be learned for that year. If you have learned it you will be promoted to the next grade. The business of "improving self" doesn't come into except in this sense of "filling one's self with more knowledge of more rules/information". Salvation and "getting to heaven" is likened to some process of "earning enough brownie points" in the boy scouts or girl guides rather than a process of self-improvement where one is able to better reason one's way through the dilemmas of life and maintain "calm", "balance" and "equanimity" across the dimensions of being. Most people today do not operate in this older paradigm. The whole education system has changed, both secular and religious. Much, much more emphasis today is placed on how the student processes the information he or she has rather than the quantum of what they might or might not have packed into their brains. There are new terms like "collaborative learning" and "outcomes based education" which endeavour to describe the new paradigm.

©2005Tom Scott/Brian Coyne/Vias Tuas Communications
Written: 28Feb2005

Tom Scott

"In spite of all that might be said against our age,
what a moment it is to be alive in!" James McAuley