Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004
“Where in the Gospels does the Lord say: ‘Thou shalt be right?'”
Fr Richard Rohr O.F.M.
When I was going through Catholic secondary school in Dublin in the 1950s I was never taught that there could be serious disagreement within our Church. The notion that there could be different schools of thought in an infallible institution never surfaced.
The often-repeated phrase ‘the church teaches’ implied that it could speak with only one voice – on everything.
The intention behind this ‘single voice’ theory of the church was to reinforce for us young people the church’s authority. Our teachers thought back then that if the church was believed to have just one voice – on everything – we would then know exactly what to believe. The church was a rock – and all the atoms in a rock move together, like well-trained soldiers. There was a fear that if we all started thinking for ourselves the rock would crumble into dust.
However, the effect of this kind of education was to send my mind to sleep. If all of the most important questions had already been answered by theologians and philosophers long dead – and those answers were now as fixed and final as the multiplication tables – then what could I ever hope to discover for myself? I went to university in the early 1960s expecting, with no great enthusiasm, to have the dull certitudes of secondary school reinforced.
Instead I found people of my own age arguing over virtually everything – and my mind woke up.
And then I learned that in a great council of the Catholic church taking place at that very time in Rome, there was deep disagreement between conservative and liberal church leaders and theologians. I became totally fascinated by those disagreements, and tended to take the liberal side.
I have never since lost that fascination, and never stopped thinking about the great questions the council raised. Had I gone on supposing that Catholicism was all about everyone thinking the same about everything, I would certainly have abandoned it long ago – because asking questions is obviously what our minds are for. And finding the answers – or at least some of them – for oneself – is by far the most exciting thing anyone can ever do.
I became a liberal then because I believed in freedom, especially the freedom to think my own thoughts. My main subject was history – and I loved the story of my own era – the story of the triumph of freedom and democracy. I was appalled that Catholic church leaders could ever have sided with the cause of an unequal society, ruled by aristocrats who inherited wealth and power. The God who freed the Jews from the Egyptians must surely be the same God who was at that very moment, through Martin Luther King, teaching African Americans to sing Let My People Go and We Shall Overcome.
So I was deeply disappointed when Irish church leaders, led by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin, took a negative view of the council and told us that it should not disturb “the tranquillity of our Christian lives”. For me no pope since John XXIII has come close to matching his confidence that the Holy Spirit is busy renewing the church.
Yet now I find myself arguing vigorously with Christian liberals who go too far towards an accommodation with modern secular ideas, belittling the faith of past eras, and especially the faith of the earliest Christians. My questioning, and the deepest experiences of my life, have led me to the conviction that the fundamental statements made in the creeds are essentially true and need to be upheld: Christian identity and freedom depend upon them.
What is it that divides liberals and conservatives in the church?
The best answer I can come up with goes as follows. Conservatives hold to the notion of an unchanging church – a church that has always been the same. Changing anything means tampering with what we have received – and that is to endanger what God has given us.
Liberals insist the church must change if it is to survive. The worldview of the early Christians included beliefs that have been scientifically disproved (for example that the earth was fixed centrally in the universe, and everything else, including the sun, revolved around it). To hold to that worldview is to invite the ridicule of educated people, the liberals insist – so our Christianity must change to include what science teaches.
How Christians react to the word progress can often tell us which camp they belong to. Liberals have no problem with it, often terming themselves progressives. Conservatives, however, often associate progress with the abandonment of what they wish to retain. It is almost the equivalent of apostasy – the rejection of their faith.
Another key phrase to which liberals and conservatives usually react differently is ‘the modern world’. Conservatives want no accommodation with the modern world, because this too smacks of an abandonment of what the church has always been – a critic of the world. Liberals, on the other hand insist that if it is to survive in the modern world the church must adapt itself to that world – otherwise it will not be taken seriously.
I am now convinced that conservatives are quite right to complain about the modern world – and that liberals are perfectly correct to say we must adapt to it. Let me explain.
When Jesus said I have overcome the world I believe he meant that he had resisted the temptation to be a success as success was defined in that world: in military, political and religious terms. He was not to be just another David who would declare a new independent Jewish kingdom, and precipitate another war with Rome. He was a messiah sent to lead us – all of us – to a peaceful world that lies beyond any we can imagine – because our understanding of success is the acclaim of our own era , and our era – led by the media – will acclaim virtually anything.
To adapt our faith to our own era I believe that we must see the potential that contemporary culture presents for raising questions about the meaning of success today – understood especially as the acquisition of wealth and celebrity.
We must also do what true Christians have always done: challenge contemporary culture by identifying the human flaw of mere mindless conformity – and choose to be different.
We are at a moment in time when true freedom – Gospel freedom – is both possible and needed by the world. It is a moment when the minds of many people are open and searching. We must seize that moment.
One example of seizing the moment lies in the language of secularism itself. For example, many educated people today have been influenced by the ideas of a great psychologist called Abraham Maslow. His work on human motivation suggests that beyond the satisfaction of material human needs, and even the need for success, lies the need for self-actualization – the full realization of one’s personal gifts and potential.
There is absolutely no reason why Christians should not define this need in Christian terms. We need above all to become our true selves – the persons that God wants us to be – making full use of the talents he has given us.
In Christian spirituality, human gifts are not simply the possession of the one who has been gifted: they belong to the community also. To fully realize our gifts, and to become truly free, we must understand the freedom that lies in voluntary service.
And conservatives are right to insist that the church can never change: it must be centred on its founder. Yet liberals are also right to insist that the church must learn to speak to the modern world in a language that it understands – because Jesus would have done that too.
He would not have said “forget self-actualisation and seek salvation instead”. He would instead have asked: Can you truly fulfil all of your gifts without seeking first the greatest of all – the gift of love?
By a remarkable coincidence the word salvation is very close in meaning to the word salutary meaning conducive to health. And the word holy is very close to the word whole . We cannot be whole – self-actualised – or healthy , or saved , until we are centred upon the source of all love and all truth: the being we Christians know as God.
And while conservatives are right to insist that there can be no progress in moving away from the truth, liberals are right to say that we can make progress towards understanding and expressing that truth more clearly.
Stupid Christian evangelism – the kind that talks about being saved as though the meaning of that word had not been almost bankrupted by mere repetition – has done enormous damage to Christianity by failing to connect its convictions with the language, and thought, of our time.
How many saved people have we met who have a clear idea of what they mean by the word? They usually remind us of nothing more clearly than those daft young Chinese fanatics who waved the little red book of Mao Zedong during the cultural revolution in the 1960s.
I spent the first ten days of June 2004 in the close company of someone who has a completely different take on Vatican II – Tom Lennon, founder of United Christian Aid. Just a few years younger than I, he reacted strongly against the liturgical changes introduced after the council, and decided it was part of a vast Masonic conspiracy to overthrow the church.
I am quite convinced, on the other hand, that the theory of a global Masonic anti-Christian conspiracy began with elitist Catholic clerics who opposed democratic ideas – especially the idea of human equality – at the time of the French Revolution. To see Vatican II as part of a Masonic plot is, I believe, deeply mistaken, even perverse.
So I sometimes found Tom uncomfortable company. Yet I deeply respect him for something that we liberals too often lack – a commitment to helping people who do not have the luxury of being able to discuss great questions on the Internet or anywhere else – the poor of Eastern Europe. He founded a charity for that purpose, and gave me the priceless gift of an experience of that work.
Because I have spent time with Tom I now know why he did it. He believes that God is a pure spirit of love who wishes to rebuild the world on that principle. That, for me, is a Vatican II principle – so Tom and I can work together on that shared principle. All our disagreements are secondary to it
That, I believe, is why Jesus made loving, not knowing, the highest priority for all of us. He never told us to be right – to spend our lives amassing so much knowledge that we can tell everyone else where they are wrong.
Life is a pilgrimage that will end only when we die. An essential element of that pilgrimage is the road our minds travel, asking and re-asking the great questions. We must never suppose that we have understood everything, and must be constantly open to the questions and answers of others. To suppose that the point we have now reached is our final position – an exalted platform from which we can now criticize the ideas of everyone else – is to declare our pilgrimage at an end prematurely. There is always something more to learn – so intellectual arrogance is always unwise.
It is time we liberals and conservatives learned to continue our disagreements while we travel together as pilgrims, doing our utmost as we travel to lift the burdens that lie so heavily on others – co-operating for that purpose. It is time to put Christian love above everything else – even the need to be right.
Catholic conservatives and liberals will both be right if we obey the great commandment of the Lord – to love one another. We will all be wrong if we don’t.