|Rev. Tony Flannery, Redemptorist Priest|
It is stating the obvious to say that the Catholic Church has lost a great deal of its credibility, particularly here in this country. There are some very obvious reasons for that, the clerical sex abuse revelations, clerical control and the side-lining of women in decision making and ministry, various teachings on sexuality and relationships, a serious failure of leadership, and many others.
But I believe there is a deeper, and more fundamental, problem than any of the above. Some of the very basic doctrines of the Church no longer make sense to the modern mind, and are being quietly rejected even by people who still attend church. Some of these doctrines are not Scripture based, but came out of the early centuries of the Church, a time when there was a very different understanding of the world and of humanity, and, probably most significant of all, a very different language which is still used to proclaim these doctrines. (And here I am not only referring to 'consubstantial'!) Our understanding of the universe and of the human person, through science, has greatly influenced the way we look at ourselves and the universe, and Church doctrine has not adapted to this. So it becomes increasingly meaningless to the modern mind. I will give some examples of doctrines that are no longer credible.
The traditional understanding of God in Catholic teaching is of a male individual, resident in the heavenly realm in the skies, a dwelling we are told we will attain to if we live well and keep the commandments. There are a whole range of problems with this understanding of God and his relationship with us, not least being the notion of God as male. Modern science, and maybe especially quantum physics, has opened up for us the wonder and mystery of the universe, and how creation was not just an event of ancient history, but is an ongoing reality. In this context it makes more sense to many to view God as the spirit/energy/consciousness/presence in the whole of creation, a being that is in and with all aspects of creation including all humanity. This understanding opens us up to wonder and mystery in a way that the traditional understanding never could. And it also helps us to realise that all of creation is bound together in a wonderful unity, and that we must learn to live in harmony with all life.
Church doctrine has told us that the sin of our first parents broke the connection between humans and God, that God was angry with humanity, and that the gates of heaven were closed against them. Then eventually he sent his son, Jesus, whom he decreed would have to die a horrible death in order to appease his anger and open the gates of heaven again. The main problem with this teaching is that it paints a picture of a horrible God, vindictive and tyrannical. We now know that humans inhabited this earth for many thousands of years before Jesus. Are we to believe that all those people were shut off from any relationship with God and denied heaven, and that they had to wait in some limbo state for Jesus to come and rescue them?
There is no indication in the Gospels that this was Jesus' understanding of his mission. He clearly saw his task as attempting to build what he called the 'Kingdom of God', a way of living and relating that would create a world of peace and love, not just in a heavenly existence, but here and now in this world. The manner of his death was an inevitable result of his life and teaching, in that he challenged both the civil and religious ruling classes, and they needed to get rid of him. Equally it is clear that Jesus didn't see the people of his time as being shut out from God; quite the opposite, God, he told them, was as close to them as a parent.
We are burdened with doctrine from the past that has tried to explain the nature and existence of God in a way that we now know is impossible. We are told to believe in a three person God dwelling in heaven, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, predominantly if not exclusively male. Along with being a futile exercise, trying to explain God, and worse still, making it a doctrine of the Church, was a big mistake. The wonder and mystery of the universe, that we are now beginning to glimpse, is only a small insight into the far greater wonder and mystery of the creator. It should have been left at that, and leave us free to gaze in awe at the mystery in the many ways in which it reveals itself to us in our lives and in the world.
Maybe the most problematic area of all Catholic doctrine is the teaching on Mary. I wonder how many of us really believe in the nativity stories and the virgin birth, and that Mary remained a virgin all her life and had no other children? And what exactly does the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception mean in today's understanding? The Gospel of Mark, the first of the gospel accounts to be written, gives a very different idea of Mary, and the difficulties she experienced in dealing with this son she clearly could not understand.
I know that theologians and Scripture scholars, reading something like this, will immediately talk about the importance of story and myth, and how they can be understood as opening up deeper truths. I fully accept that. But the problem is that theologians and Scripture scholars have mainly spoken to each other and have not engaged with the ordinary believers, who were left with the understanding that these stories and myths were historical fact. Church authorities, by imposing strict discipline on teachers of the faith, did not allow them to enter into the type of discussion necessary to help people to understand the difference between myth and historical fact. It was easier to leave people with their stories, which uneducated generations accepted. That no longer works, and people are rejecting these doctrines as childish fantasies, and walking away from it all.
Unfortunately all of this doctrine, much of it embedded in ancient language that makes it even more inaccessible, is presented in the Code of Canon Law and the recently revised Catechism of the Catholic Church, as something that must be accepted and believed by all catholics. Many of the accretions of history are now installed as unchangable doctrines, and are an obstacle in trying to get to the real person of Jesus and his teaching.
Published by Association of the Rights of Catholics in the Church.
Tony Flannery is a Roman Catholic Priest, and member of the Redemptorist Order. He is a popular commentator on Doctrine and Religion, and writer who lives in Ireland.