Don’t you love when ex-politicians get at each others throats about religion?
Tony Abbott, the ex-Prime Minister of Australia and a Catholic, recently stated that Islam needs a reformation. Kristina Keneally, the ex-Premier of the Australian state of New South Wales and also a Catholic, has responded with “Tony Abbott, you do know you belong to a church that has not reformed, don’t you?” She thinks the Catholic Church needs a reformation and that Tony needs a head check.
(Oh, let the fun begin!)
I don’t have much time for Tony’s thoughts on Islam. For what it’s worth, I think Islam is going through a reformation right now. That’s why it’s so turbulent and unstable and no one knows what’s going to happen next. More to the point, an internal reformation of Islam is Islam’s business and I’m not nearly qualified enough to have an opinion the world’s second biggest religion.
I’m on solider ground, however, on the world’s biggest religion. I can safely tell you that Kristina’s characterisation of Catholicism and her call for reformation is, at best naïve and at worst, groan-inducingly bonkers.
So begins Kristina Keneally:
Jesus Mary and Joseph, Tony Abbott. Did you just tell Muslims that they need a theological reformation, like Christianity has had? [Laura says: I’m picking up my snarky tone from KK, in case you missed it.]
I know it was some time ago that you were in the seminary, but surely you remember that the Reformation created Protestantism. You and I are members of the unreformed strain of Christianity, the Roman Catholic church. You and I and our 1.2 billion fellow Catholics around the world have had no reformation. We are part of a church that has steadfastly refused to embrace, in both internal structures and theological development, modern concepts like democracy or gender equality.
Did the Catholic Church Have a Reformation?
Before we get to specifics, let’s sort something out.
The Catholic Church has had a reformation. By any historical definition, we have had many reformations. We even had a reformation during the Protestant Reformation, popularly known as the Catholic or Counter-Reformation. (Think St Ignatius Loyola, St Teresa of Avila, St Charles Borromeo, St Francis de Sales and above all, the Council of Trent.) The most recent reformation occurred following the Second Vatican Council, a watershed moment in Catholic history that dramatically reformed the Catholic Church while honouring it’s integrity.
That’s what real reformations do. Real reformations reform and refine an institution, they don’t chuck out anything that inconvenient or distasteful to the passing prejudices of the day. They prune away the extravagances and exigencies of time so that the true form of the thing can be seen more clearly. Reform is not smashing what we don’t like and grabbing what we do like, it’s the gradual, prayerful, Spirit-led refining to transform the externals of the institution so they more clearly image the interior, heavenly mystery of what (or rather Who) the Church is.
But this kind of reformation is not good enough for Kristina. The Church failed to change any actual doctrines and so has failed to become “a modern institution.” (Modern, you’ll remember, is the benchmark of all that is good, true, and beautiful.)
Catholics apparently belong to “an unreformed strain of Christianity” because, well, I’ll let Kristina explain…
Our church condemns homosexual people as sinful – and defines them as disordered – if they act on their sexual orientation, even in mutually loving, monogamous relationships.
Yes, our Church has the audacity to teach what all Christians everywhere believed until about five years ago. The Church believes in and defends marriage as the unique life-long sexual relationship between one man and one woman. Any of us — homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, pansexual or whatever — condemn ourselves if we knowingly act on sexual orientations outside the sanctity of marriage. (I like to think of that as true marriage equality.)
Our church denies women the ability to use modern technology and medicine to control their fertility, even though Pope Francis told us this year that we no longer “need to breed like rabbits.”
Au contraire, Kristina, our Church positively encourages women to use modern technology and medicine to understand and work with our fertility. Not to “control” it like it was a disease. We don’t need to breed like rabbits (but the Church never said we should) and we don’t need to neuter ourselves like dogs either. We are human beings, our fertility is a gift, and I’d rather not take a class-1 carcinogenic so I can give the best years of my life to Google.
Our church tells divorced people they have failed as Christians – even if the marriage was abusive or if their spouse was cheating on them – and denies them access to the sacraments.
Divorce is not actually a sin, did you know that? It may be necessary for married couples to separate, particularly if the marriage was abusive. In this case, you may well need a civil divorce. You’re also well within your rights to have your marriage examined to see whether it was a valid sacrament to begin with.
What is a sin is if you “marry” someone else while you’re still married to your spouse. Like any other mortal sin, this means you can’t receive the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist — but don’t worry, you can still receive some sacraments. Like the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We could all receive this sacrament a lot more often because it’s where we acknowledge that we have all failed as Christians.
Our church foists priests on to our parishes without consulting us, bishops on to our diocese without consulting us, and cardinals on to our nation without consulting us.
Foists? Foists? You’re right, Kristina. Our Church is not democracy, it’s a theocracy. (*cue evil Darth Vader music*) We actually believe that Christ the King governs His Body, the Church, through His ministers, the bishops, priests and deacons.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for going old-school on this. Until recently (and by recently, I mean “Catholic recent” which is 200 years ago), many bishops were elected by their brother priests. Wouldn’t that be nice? So medieval! In the mean time, at least you know how the rest of us feel when a political spill made you our Premier without an actual election.
Our church thinks nothing of having a couple of hundred old, celibate male bishops tell the rest of us about the “proper role” of sexuality in a relationship, or what it is to be a good parent, or what a child needs in a family. How many of those guys have even been on a date in their lives, much less know what it is to live in a sexual or family relationship?
Quite a few of them, actually! If they’re good priests, they will also have spent hundreds of hours in the confessional, listening to both men and women, wives and husbands, fathers and mothers pour out their sins, stresses, and hardships. More to the point, our celibate priests can teach us about sex, marriage and family because they’re not handing out specialist advice, they’re teaching us how to love. And love is essential whether you’re old or young, married or celibate, man or woman.
Our church tells women they are not capable of representing Jesus Christ in the role of a priest, as if the most important thing about the Son of Man is that, well, he was a man. Never mind that Jesus was born of a woman, never mind that he appeared first after the resurrection to two women, the Vatican seems to harbour a fear of people with vaginas that Jesus never did – and that most of the rest of the world has gotten over.
Ah, the best til last. No, women cannot be priests because believe me, it’s not because the most important thing was that Jesus was a man. The most important thing is that He is our Lord and Saviour. But was He a man? Indisputably. Christianity is an historical faith, rooted in real events, about real people. And our Lord was a man. So His priests have always been.
This is despite the fact that He was born of a woman, who is exalted above the angels, as Mother and Queen of us all. (She’s the one the Protestants have a problem with, remember? Chucking out Mary was all part of their little “Reformation”.) Women have been central to Christianity from the beginning and we will continue to be — but that doesn’t mean we need to be priests.
Yes, the Vatican can and should do more to engage women in meaningful (rather than tokenistic) dialogue and include women in the non-clerical structures of the Church. This is not because we are priests but because we are not. We are the mothers of this Church. We are it’s spiritual heart and by the Holy Virgin Mary, we are a force to be reckon with.
The Real Problem Here
Now I’ve got all that off my chest, let’s get to the real problem. It’s really quite simple.
Kristina, like many Catholics today, seems to have forgotten that our Church is a Church. She is so caught up in the fact that it is ours, i.e. hers, and thus amendable to our, i.e. her, will. She’s forgotten that our Church is, first and foremost, His Church.
It’s Jesus’ Church.
It’s not and never has been a “modern institution”; it’s the faith handed down to us from Jesus Himself by His Apostles and their successors.
But in a way, she’s also right. Many, many, many people agree with Kristina. They see the Church’s teachings on human sexuality and the dignity of marriage as intolerable burdens. We do need a reformation, not to change what the Church teaches, but to teach it better.
We need a reformation of tender, supernatural mercy. We need to proclaim the truth of marriage and sexuality but we also to proclaim more clearly and winsomely the mercy of Jesus Christ. This mercy was won on the cross, when the despised One gave His life to wash us clean from our sins and give us eternal life, a life that begins right now in all it’s fullness.
This is the kind of reformation the Catholic Church has always believed in, a reformation that begins in the hearts of the Faithful and flows outward to purify and transform our homes, our parishes, our nations, our Church and the world.
I’m all for that kind of authentic reformation.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.
V. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. R. And You shall renew the face of the earth.