FRANCIS SULLIVAN. Why stay?

Since the conviction of Cardinal Pell I have been asked why I remain a Catholic.It is an obvious question. The extent of criminal behaviour and the active cover up by bishops and religious leaders of perpetrators has been breath taking. Ordinary Catholics have been played as mugs by the Church leadership. Why stay?

My answer is why not! The abuse scandal has rocked my confidence in the clericalist management of the Church but not my sense of the collective journey I walk with other Catholics. I believe the “assembled walkers” are the Church! I feel no compulsion to leave them. I feel participating in a faith community a vital aspect of my self expression. Being Catholic for me is less a religious tag or a member of a religion and more a chosen pathway of personal and spiritual discovery best undertaken in community. It is my way of living the Gospel.

I have found deep comfort in and direction from my faith tradition. I feel nurtured in the sense that I am part of a pilgrim people, ever moving into a better understanding of the divine in my life and an appreciation of what that means for me as person in society.

The clerical sex abuse scandal is a crisis primarily about the culture of the Church. It may well cause some to rethink their beliefs and practices, but for me it has been a call to deepen my spiritual practice. To commit to daily meditation and reflection. To draw on the sacramental life of the Church and the richness of scriptural practices like lectio divina. It has been a time to become mature in my faith development, less dependent and literally more adult in my engagement with the institutional Church.

I have benefited by being raised as a Catholic and being involved in social and spiritual apostolates of the Church. I have found the wisdom of the teaching and spiritual tradition a rich source of inspiration, information and discernment.

At the same time I understand that participation in the Church is a continuum of engagement. For some the Church is a mainstay or safety net providing moral and social certainty. For others it is more a launching pad for confident and competent engagement come storms or calm waters.

So if others are asking whether it is worth hanging in there with the Church I say now is the time for lay Catholics to claim their rightful place within the organised expression of the Church. If nothing else the scandal has demonstrated the massive power imbalance that lays at the heart of the institution. The clericalism, so bemoaned by Pope Francis, has delivered an institutional structure too top heavy with clerics, company men and time servers. It has relegated the interests of lay people to a sad second after the organisational demands for financial sustainability, orthodoxy and the maintenance of social conservatism.

Being Catholic has always been a mix of the identification with a religious tradition and a personal integration of faith and reason. When this development is healthy Catholics gain confidence of their place in the Church and become more articulate in the revealed truths the faith. The abuse scandal has clouded the atmosphere for Catholics but not the imperative to seek the Beyond and join with others in pursuing truth, goodness and beauty.

I believe the wisdom of the Gospel tradition has much to offer post modern society. Not as a bulwark against secularism or a last bastion of traditional values. More as a font for personal freedom and agency in a society that prizes human rights and autonomy. A reclaiming from the Catholic tradition of the primacy of personal conscience would be no small thing in how Catholics navigate life with its competing philosophies, social narratives and identity politics. For to be Catholic is to be attentive to how our society becomes more human, more compassionate and creative in prizing the dignity and inherent value of everyone. Virtue ethics is far from being outmoded and prudence in discerning our times and circumstances remains an essential life skill.

For me that makes my faith real, practical and important. It compels me to be less self centred and precious. It implores me to move from my comfort zone to places that open my spirit and hopefully my heart. It shows me that God is forever creating and I can participate in that. So, why leave?

These days I am energised by a spirituality that seeks to promote human flourishing. This is a far cry from my childhood catechism, with its obsession over sin and undertones of a judgemental and exacting God. For today’s Catholics an authentic spiritual pathway does not need to involve a constant struggle to deny healthy instincts and desires. We can and should celebrate the embrace of love as it arrives in our lives and not demonise human nature when it presents inconveniently or challenges us to rethink our set ways.

This spirituality leads to an ever deepening acceptance of my self as the place God comes to me. A self centeredness that by its nature is expansive and transcendent. It gives religious expression in that it personalises the way forward in someone like Jesus and seeks to search for an evolving depth to our reality in a consciousness named as Christ.This is my catechism today. If I have that wrong then so be it. If it means somehow I have drifted from elements of the institutional Church, or they have left me, I can live with that. Otherwise let’s stay and keep going!

Francis Sullivan most recently was CEO of the Catholic Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council. He has degrees in Theology and Politics and lives in Canberra.

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9 Responses to FRANCIS SULLIVAN. Why stay?

  1. Carey McIver says:

    Francis thank you for these insights. I find you a prophetic voice and a beacon of hope as you amplify on ‘why not?’ As a cradle catholic from Hobart I am witnessing first hand the damage that unaccountable clericalism is doing. Listening, collaboration, dialogue remain ideals here in any institutional sense. I am heartened by a strong spiritual life beyond the institution formed and enriched by religious (SOSJ), some inspiring priests and laity.
    My sense is that we are in the chrysalis stage of a transforming church and the imaginal cells of a new butterfly yet unimaginable will emerge so that the divine in us all can flourish and create a new life giving experience as the real church- the people of God. (With due acknowledgement to Margaret Silf).It is long overdue for the institutional
    heirarchs who are deaf to their people to move on.

  2. Rosemary Lynch says:

    Thank you for your tireless advocacy for decency.

    I thought about the culture of the clerical church, the shuffling of clerical paedophiles from state to state, diocese to diocese, the deification of the clerical state, and decided to leave. I loved the liturgy before they murdered it, loved the people doing their best to do good, and became increasingly appalled by the preparedness of the clergy to accuse people of their sexuality as sin.

    And even yet, aware of other humble folk who really do give their lives in love for their community, others who were theologians who were silenced by the likes of Pell. The exquisite flower of the Third Reconciliation Rite was trampled by Pell’s clergy: was that about control? I only ever saw it as a rite of conscientisation. The regula of Rome must be over.

    A lay Church is a new Church. The deification of all things clerical must be gone. I wish you well. I no longer share that institutional hope.

  3. Patricia Hamilton says:

    Unfortunately when sitting in the pews and hearing the hypocrisy and denial eats away at your Christianity the need to survive as a Christian takes precedence. The acceptance by those sitting in the pews ,and their turning away, when the chance to make a difference especially without clergy support is suggested was just too much pain to bear. We lost a community but found our tribe with the victims and survivors!

  4. Kathleen Engebretson says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful article. Yes, I too will not give up my Catholic heritage because of the crimes of pedophiles who used the Church for their cover. I will still be there when a holier, more loving and inclusive Church emerges.

  5. Thank you Francis. As you may know, I am a survivor of both childhood and adults clergy abuse. I am slowly coming around to a similar way but not the same. One reason: pure secularism holds nothing for me and is itself consumed by abuses at every level. The one thing it doesn’t have is a central core that makes sense personally. I am also so tired of the left and right extremes in the Church but find few places in between. As my anger at certain hierarchs we both know and of the business/legal side of RCC Inc subside, a new desire to find a new concept of God is returning and I am liking what is developing, but won’t go into it here. I just wanted to thank you for your work and encourage you to remain in some form as a lay leader into a very blurry future.

  6. John Edwards says:

    Well said Francis. Indeed, the clerical superstructure might be swaying – it might even topple over! – but the foundations are sound. Those up in the penthouse might need to do some re-calibrations, but for the folk with their feet firmly set on the ground life goes on. It was never really about those in the penthouse anyway, but they weren’t listening. Hopefully that might change.

  7. David Maiden says:

    We, the Baptised, the punters in the pews, are the Church, not a few administrators who have lost sight of the Mission of the Church-to always proclaim the Gospel, and if necessary , use words.
    I have not abused children,lied to police, protected criminals, operated secretly. Those who have behaved this way are those who should be reassessing their position; not me and my fellow everyday, workaday Catholics.
    I am staying. I will not abandon the mission of St Vincent de Paul, Caritas or CentreCare. I will continue to support the dedicated teachers at Catholic schools.
    Interesting, is it not, that the face of the Church seen today by the sort of ordinary, everyday people Jesus walked and worked with , is not face the face of the institutional Church, but the face of lay people; you and I ? We are the Church.
    I am invigorated by the current situation. It has bought into sharp relief the chasm between the behavior and attitudes of the institutional Church on the one hand and the Gospel of the Lord, on the other. This is a clarion call to do as Jesus did, and reject the Pharisee-like behavior of some of the clerical class and apply the Gospels, the Word of God.

  8. Trish Martin says:

    Thank you Francis for sharing your personal thoughts, I too struggle with the same question: Why stay with the Catholic Church? This faith tradition with direct links back to Jesus and his disciples has dramaticlly strayed off course, placing itself and its self appointed ideology at the center rather than the teachings of Christ. What we have is a boys club of bishops that consider its members to be ontological monarchs and superior to society. The result is these celibate princes fail to understand the true nature, value and dignity of a child and so it is time for the faithful to assert its fury and presence as a faith community. Yet as you say, there is goodness in the Church when it comes to wisdom and spirituality, but when it comes to the Sacramental Church there is hypocrisy, segregation and isolation around who is worthy and who is not.
    The Church has lost its credibility when it comes to ethics and morals, it lacks the ability to relate with heartfelt care in the service and healing of victims and their families. This rigid ideology that was shaped and formed mostly in the medieval culture is the antithesis of genuine faith. May God bless you Francis and thank you.

  9. michael lacey says:

    My answer is why not! The abuse scandal has rocked my confidence in the clericalist management of the Church but not my sense of the collective journey!

    I am not religious at all but that is a strong and correct answer to that question!

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