Do it Yourself Catholicism

Three posts I have seen online in the past couple of days have had in common observations about people of faith moving ahead without on religious matters without ecclesiastical sanction – Christians doing it themselves. At Open Tabernacle, Obie Holmen wrote about the expanding womenpriests movement in “Roman Catholic female ordination“. At Gay Mystic, Jayden Cameron cross-posted two pieces on the parishioners of St Mary’s Brisbane, who say they have been “Liberated with Joy from a Failing institution“, and on the Home Eucharist movement. Before we condemn these out of hand, it is worth giving some thought to history: to the early history of the Church, and also to some lessons from twentieth century secular history.

Some Prominent Women in the Early Church

In the very early Church, there was no distinct, set-apart clerical elite. Even as there emerged distinct roles for deacons and bishops, their roles were markedly different to those we know today. “Deacon” took their title from the Greek for “to serve”, while bishops were “overseers”, leading small local teams – with the emphasis on team work and leading. Worship was in small congregations, led by its own members, who were not professional clergy.

Over the centuries that followed, by a gradual process the bishops began to reserve for themselves an increasing degree of power over the rest of the Church, while the bishops of Rome asserted increasing claims to authority over the other bishops (a claim that was for a long time vigorously contested, particularly by the Eastern church.) For a long time, the gradual transformation of the church from its original form into a powerful temporal authority matched and paralleled the emergence and expansion of large territorial empires across Europe.

Paradoxically, however, as democratic movements began to transform the rest of Europe, and the Papal States lost much of its territory, the response of the Church was to diverge from the movements to democracy elsewhere, and to tighten its grip on power, in marked contrast with the democratic, collegial style of the early church. This retreat into tight authoritarian control from the centre was most marked in the First Vatican Council of , which effectively locked the style of governance of the Church into a medieval, feudal mode, already badly out of date.

A century later, Vatican II attempted to begin the process of blowing away the cobwebs, reaching back into the roots of the early church for a more authentic expression of the faith for the modern world. At the same time, mindful of the need for compromises, it was careful not to take the move too far. Since then, even the tentative reforms that were introduced have been steadily eroded, first by the powerful and power conscious bureaucrats of the Curia, and later by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI (who ironically had been one of the key reform minded theologians during and just after the council).

In its attempts to assert and reassert authoritarian control, however, the Vatican would do well to pay attention to the lessons off secular history. Popular demands for reform cannot be resisted indefinitely, especially not once the people have sampled just a small dose.

Mahatma Gandhi developed a strategy in South Africa, later refined and further developed in India, which he called “Satryagraha”, which in time achieved what just a few years earlier had seemed impossible: the withdrawal of British government from India, and a little later to the complete dismantling of the British Empire. Later still, Martin Luther king adapted the technique for the American civil rights struggle, with similar success.

Gandhi’s method is usually, but inadequately, translated as “passive resistance”, but there is nothing “passive” about it. A more appropriate description would be active non-compliance.

My experience during the closing years of apartheid in South Africa showed me clearly that while there were many and varied forces which worked together to achieve its ultimate downfall, the key was a gradual process whereby increasing numbers of ordinary people simply ignored an increasing range of obviously unjust laws, until it became abundantly clear to all who could see, that the apartheid state had simply lost control.

We are now seeing the same process beginning in the church. This is most dramatically seen in the expanding womenpriests , movement and some other splinter groups – but a far more significant indicator is the widespread decisions of ordinary Catholics, in conscience, to simply ignore official teaching on sexuality: on contraception, on pre-marital sex, on masturbation, on re-marriage after divorce – and on same-sex relationships. Other, local examples can be seen in parishes such at St Stephen’s in the Diocese of Minneapolis, and at St Mary’s, Brisbane South. In both of these, diocesan attempts to rein in vibrant reforming trends at local level by removing the much loved reformist priests, and parachuting in its own yes-men backfired, when the congregations simply decamped to new premises, and began to do things for themselves.

I have sense that at many different levels, the Pope Benedict and the Vatican curia are attempting to assert by decree a harder line on matters such as sexuality and church discipline. I suspect, though, that these attempts will have much the same result as President P W Botha’s attempts to resist meaningful reform in South Africa by exerting greater military force. Together with the help of the Holy Spirit, the people will increasingly just do it for themselves.

(Originally published yesterday 10/01 at Open Tabernacle).

See also my related posts :

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2 Responses to “Do it Yourself Catholicism”

  1. Jayden Cameron Says:

    Very helpful historical context, Terry, many thanks. To realize there have been precedents in the revered ancient past for present developments is both hopeful and inspiring. Your site is such a great resource and needs to be turned into a book!

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      Thanks for the kind words and encouragement, Jayden. There is in fact a book in gestation, but for now it’s just an idea, a title, and a skeleton outline. I will reveal more as it begins to take shape.


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