In our 21st century, and even allowing for widespread secularism especially in the West, about 2.2 billion people still call themselves Christian. Of these, about 1.2 billion are Roman Catholic. This number is only slightly smaller than the total number of Muslims (1.3 billion). The overall picture is clear: Catholicism is still a force to be reckoned with. What’s more, its influence – for better and worse – goes well beyond the parish gate. So maybe you’d prefer to ask, “Should the Catholic Church be saved (from itself)?”
My own relationship with Catholicism is complex. I am an ordained interfaith minister and have been for many years. I am also a “sort of” Catholic. (The challenging, radical, non-compliant kind who can’t walk away entirely. And I suspect there are many of us.) I am also shaped by faiths other than Christian, especially Judaism and Buddhism. Within Christianity, I am familiar with the mainstream progressive Christianity found in most but not all Uniting churches. In fact, I led interfaith, spiritually inclusive services for more than 11 years at one of Sydney’s largest Uniting churches and am more than grateful for their welcome. I’m also familiar with the uncluttered worship and social justice practices offered by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). I owe much to the Quakers. And some of that drives my frustrations and hopes for the infinitely more influential Catholic Church.
It was, after all, early Friends who dared suggest that we don’t need a priest, bishop or any intermediary between ourselves and God. “High or low”, “male or female”, we’re all available to the literal “moving” of the Holy Spirit within our minds and hearts. We can all be inspired in our conduct and valuing of life. The resolute simplicity of Quaker thinking and the conduct it calls forth demands as well as develops a high level of emotional and spiritual intelligence. Such thinking refuses and refutes dualistic notions of worthy and not-worthy, saved and not-saved and of any race, gender, culture as intrinsically superior to any other. “Walk cheerfully over the world”, urged the dissenter and Quaker, George Fox, “answering that of God in everyone”.
Almost 400 years later, the revolutionary notion of God in everyone still massively challenges us. It disallows prejudice, contempt or hatred. It disallows any form of dehumanising “the other” or seeing difference as inevitably “less than”. It disallows the notion that some are nearer and dearer to God than others. Or that some can read the mind of God and interpret it, while most (of us) cannot. It also disallows the belief that we can justify harming or killing others. “Do no harm” becomes, in this context, quite literal.
Fox’s revolutionary egalitarianism was both vertical and horizontal. It resonates in the way we view and relate to God, and to one another. As a lived experience, it transforms our very sense of self: how we respect and value our own lives as well as the lives of other people. Fox expressed this with almost unimaginable courage at a time when racial, class and particularly gender inequality was fiercely defended as God’s plan by those with most to gain materially and ideologically. But Fox’s ideas weren’t new. Revolutionary egalitarianism is surely what Jesus taught? In the Hebrew Bible, too, you can find these lovely words: “Do we not have just a single Father? Did not just one God create us all? Why then does humankind deal treacherously with one another? This betrays the teachings of our ancestors.” (Malachi 2:10) Mystical wisdom across all faith traditions holds that every life is of value and that our happiness and wellbeing depend absolutely upon our consideration of others – without exception. “See yourself in others and others in yourself. You will have nothing to fear” is a teaching from Hinduism, a religion more ancient than Christ’s own Judaism. But it was the early Christian, Paul, who wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile [or Greek], neither slave nor free person, neither male nor female. You are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Yet that potent message of inclusion (Galatians 3:28) seems soon lost as the early Christian communities of women and men, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, morphed into the highly masculinised, profoundly and unashamedly hierarchical Roman Catholic Church. For 2000 years, give or take a couple of centuries, and give or take some highly disputed anti-women remarks widely quoted and attributed to Paul (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_the_Apostle_and_women), male Christians have seen themselves as unquestionably “worthier” than women not just to lead Christian worship and thinking, but to dictate it.
How tragic it is that for all its mighty, centuries-long and sometimes quite insane pursuit of “heresy”, the institutional Church failed to recognise its own heretical sexism, as well as its corrosive racism and religious prejudice. The “othering” of women, of people of colour or of religions or denominations other than its own, brought devastating harm. And the time for that harm is over.
Unifying, loving, healing: that’s the work of religion(s). To be a clearer, cleaner channel of healing for the billion-plus people who look to it for spiritual sustenance, the institutional Church must heal itself. The sexual abuse scandals should be enough to wake those who sleep. But it is perhaps even more the distortions of spiritual power that allowed such abuse, such blatant gender prejudice, such appalling absence of care and insight, that must now end. At present, the least qualified male candidate can consider a call to the priesthood. The most qualified, willing woman cannot. Welcoming women into the priesthood and the beating heart of the Church, re-framing a newly moral leadership with women and men as true equals, may not be enough to save the institutional Church – or the men who rule it. Perhaps in the West at least, entrenched sexism will reveal an organisation beyond repair. Yet I remain cautiously hopeful.
Alone among Christian denominations, the Catholic Church is also called “Mother”. A mother’s love – tender, humble and renewing – is surely what’s needed. If healing is to take place along with rebirth, it must be shared. We will rise only if we can rise together. “The hour has come to wake from sleep”, Paul wrote to the Romans (!3: 9-12). “Love those with whom you share this world. Where love is present, no one is harmed. Love fulfils God’s longing for the world…Lay aside whatever lingers in the shadows…Live honourably…let your life be worthy of its light.”
Reverend Dr Stephanie Dowrick is the author of many books including Seeking the Sacred, Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love, and Heaven on Earth. http://stephaniedowrick.com/ https://www.facebook.com/StephanieDowrick/