“Holy Mother” Church: Time for Frail Care?

Writing about John McNeill earlier this week left me reflecting on his ideas of mature faith as reflecting a mature relationship with our parents. McNeill’s thesis, simply put, is that when we are young children, we assume that our parents are always right. If they reprimand or punish us, we assume, even if the evidence points to the contrary, that they are right and that we must be wrong – because our “perfect” parents have said so. As we mature, we are able to recognise the fallibility of our parents, even as we continue to love them. We recognize that they too are human, and that they too can and do make mistakes, and can be wrong. In the same way, we in the church begin by accepting without question the idea that the “church”, as represented by the Pope and bishops are necessarily right in their teaching, and that if we differ, it must be we who are wrong. By analogy with a mature relationship with our parents, McNeill argues that in a mature relationship with the Church, we should similarly recognise the possibility of fallibility.

My thoughts on this were triggered too, by a recent homily I heard which expounded on the image of “Holy Mother” the Church, an image that I find increasingly irritating, for its implied portrayal of us as children. Then, putting this together with McNeill’s conception of the parental image, I took the idea further. After reaching an adult relationship with our parents, we and they continue to grow and age. Sadly, this inevitably leads to a point where our parents’ health begins to fade, and if death does not first overtake them, they may may become frail, or suffer from some form of dementia, losing their grip on simple understanding or their own past and the world around them.

Is this what is happening to the institutional Church? Is “Holy Mother” Church in need of frail care?

It certainly seems that Alzheimer’s has set in. Gone is any connection to Christ’s ministry as one of unbounding love, compassion and inclusion. Gone is any memory of the important place of women in the early church, whether as the early apostle and disciples Junia, Priscilla and others, or as powerful medieval abbesses; gone is any acknowledgement of the many prominent saints, clergy, bishops and popes with openly homosexual relationships, which did not prevent their ordination or elevation to high office; gone is the memory of liturgical rites for blessing same sex couples in Church, or the burial of some such couples in shared graves in honoured church tombs, exactly as married couples.

Gone, in other words, is any connection to any history which does not conform to the distorted understanding of the modern institutional theologians.

Perhaps it is time for us, as adult and mature lay Catholics, to recognize the weakness of our frail and ageing mother, the Church, and nurse here through her slow demise.

Related articles

Womenpriests, and Vatican Horror.

The Vatican has issued new guidelines on dealing with sexual abuse (which in principle is to be welcomed), and included in those guidelines a declaration that the “attempted” ordination of women is to be classed among the  “delicta graviore“.

That women’s ordination is to be linked with paedophilia is so ludicrous that I will not even attempt to discuss the stupidity. Likewise, I will not discuss the abuse guidelines until I have properly scrutinized the original document. However, the Vatican horror at women’s ordination is highly topical in the light of events elsewhere, and worth some consideration. Before coming to the Vatican statement though, let us take a quick refresher in recent history, in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests, and in women’s ordination in other denominations.

Did you realise that women priests have been around for over two centuries?  As early as  the late eighteenth century in England, John Wesley allowed for female office-bearers and preachers.

Here are just a few notable dates over that period: Read the rest of this entry »

Church, Sex – and Silence

A light-hearted aside here yesterday brought a typically pertinent response from reader Etienne:

I’m not too sure that yet another code will do the trick, but otherwise I get the point. May I suggest a thorough theological [re-]thinking in the preparatory phase? I’d want to explore the following subjects for a start: freedom, love, play, the body, sexuality.

Earlier, Colleen (of Enlightened Catholicism) had this useful observation about the Vatican in response to  my previous post, “Episcopal Pornography”:

What they lack is any understanding of sexuality as a relational experience. Reducing sexuality to acts, divorced from it’s relational aspects, is in itself a definition of pornography.

Mareczku, responding to the same post, refers to the Sipe report. By wonderful serendipity, National Catholic Reporter now has an article by Richard Sipe, discussing precisely these ideas we’ve all been circling. I also have an extended post in preparation,  on the “Nature and Purpose” of sex, as observed in real lives (human and animal) and in history, rather than in dry and dusty theological manuals. When I responded to Etienne, I wrote that the re-thinking of the issues  he proposes must involve lay debate, in plain language. My reply to Colleen noted the irony that the “relationships” we are seeking are exactly what the Vatican accuses us of being incapable of, while themselves focussing exclusively on acts.

This discussion and re-valuation has already begun, even without the participation of the Vatican. Long may it continue, and may the discussion here play some small but constructive part.

Here’s Sipe:

Theologian Yves Congar once said, “In the Catholic Church it has often seemed that the sin of the flesh was the only sin, and obedience the only virtue.” This dynamic dichotomy forms the linchpin to the structure of the entire clergy sexual abuse crisis currently embroiling the Catholic Church.

But the sexual abuse of minors by clerics vowed to celibacy is only the symptom of a system desperately in need of fundamental reconsideration.

Human sexuality is the core of the whole Catholic upheaval that the Pope and the Vatican still refuse to face and discuss realistically.

In 1990 a bishop returning from Rome told me that Pope John Paul II personally instructed every new bishop that he “should not discus in public” birth control, a married priesthood, women’s ordination, abortion and the host of celibate/sexual issues that constitute an agenda that theologians have pointed out for decades are precisely the “tangle of issues that clog up” the Catholic agenda.

Roman Catholic leadership has failed to deal credibly and openly with all of human sexuality. William Shea outlined the challenge most elegantly already in 1986 when he listed the issues that need discussion: “divorce and remarriage, premarital and extramarital sex, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, masturbation, [women’s ordination, mandated celibacy] and the male monopoly of leadership.” He opined that the fear and perhaps hatred of women could be at the bottom of the ecclesial hang up.

It would be disingenuous to protest that the Church has discussed these issues or invites dialogue about human sexuality. True enough, the Vatican has made pronouncements and declarations on every item on the list, but none invite dialogue. Congar’s observation is validated; sex is all sin virtue is submission and obedience to authority and its dictates.

Despite Pope John Paul’s four-year effort to define a Theology of the Body he never transcended some of the basic constraints of church teaching that sex is sin. Sex remains permissible and holy only within a valid marriage.

A chronic problem with church pronouncements about sex is their use of the idea of natural law as they define and apply it. The Vatican represents their interpretation of sexual human nature as an absolute determination. They isolate the idea and impose it as an instrument of control. The approach fails to acknowledge that natural law is also the inherent practical and reasonable guide to conscience independent of revelation. Many Catholics use natural law as the road map to guide their sexual behavior. For instance natural law often trumps the dictates of Humanae Vitae in matters of family planning. Some behaviors labeled by the Church “contrary to natural law” (masturbation one instance among many) should be open for examination and dialogue in the minds and hearts of many serious Catholics.

“Intrinsic” is a church-word that seals off any possibility of conversation. Birth control is presented as intrinsically evil; so is abortion; and masturbation. Sex with a minor girl, however, is not considered intrinsically evil only gravely sinful.
Homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” A 1986 document authored by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger declared that homosexual orientation although not sinful in itself, “is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” As if the concept of Original Sin were not sufficient to cover all human beings of any orientation or inclination.

The definition of sex as sin establishes and maintains authoritarian control because bishops and priests (alone) have the power to forgive mortal sin. They are lords over the inner territory of the soul where secret violations are stored. Catholics are required to submit grave sins in sacramental confession for a priest’s absolution at least once a year. All sexual sins, of course, are grave according to Catholic teaching.

(Read the full article at NCR)