In her highly entertaining and incisive contribution to A Long Way From Rome, Juliette Hughes ponders the possible significance of a fully-poseable Jesus doll advertised in an American internet catalogue of Catholic resources. Posing Jesus is something that all Christians do to greater or lesser extent, Hughes writes, but she adds, Saying -˜Thy will be done’ is a lot harder.
The question of how much people create a Jesus that suits their own needs and how much they allow the power of the god-man’s message to create them is central to the debates which currently rage in the Christian churches.
It is often a question posed by conservatives attempting to reassert the supposedly authentic voice of tradition over what they see as corrupt modern practices. But tradition is a notoriously slippery term that can be just as easily manipulated as the arms of a holy doll.
Chris McGillion, The Sydney Morning Herald’s religious affairs columnist and editor of A Long Way From Rome, thinks tradition is all too often just a moment artificially frozen in time.
You can see this in environmental thinking, he explains. The Church has basically stopped talking about the environment, but if you go back to biblical texts and other places you can find a rich tradition of environmental thinking, and it’s been forgotten at one point in time, and that point in time becomes what’s called the tradition.
McGillion’s book includes essays by seven Catholics of diverse backgrounds ranging from former priest and Vatican-condemned Australian theologian Paul Collins to editor and Catholic feminist commentator Morag Fraser.
McGillion describes himself as an exploratory Catholic.
I still feel a great attachment to the Catholic Church or at least the Catholic faith. I’m not a stranger in Catholic churches but I certainly don’t attend weekly and I’m as wayward as anybody else, he says.
But McGillion’s own experience is not the only impulse behind the new book. As a journalist he sees the seismic shifts in the Church as an irresistible hot story.
In religious journalism terms the Catholic Church both locally and internationally is the one continuing big story. The changes within the Church and the lack of changes in the Church are throwing up all sorts of tensions and conflicts that just make it a great story -“ a story that stands out above and beyond anything happening in any of the other churches. The cultural shifts, the power shifts, the ideological shifts are all the stuff of great news.
Part of what makes the Church a media favourite at the moment is the scandal of clerical sexual abuse. But other issues such as the participation of women and gays are also lightning rods for controversy.
I think there has always been an overriding emphasis on those kinds of issues [sex and gender] because in large part it comes down to control. If you can get into people’s heads when they’re in their bedroom, you are in there to stay, says McGillion.
But things, even in the church, don’t always go as planned. This strategy of control -“ if that is what it is -“ has badly backfired.
What has happened since the late 1960s is that most people have said: -˜Okay, we’re not going to let them have that influence in our heads. We’re just going to make pragmatic decisions.’ In one sense that’s the beginning of the great disconnect between the faithful and the institution.
Sexuality and gender issues are the ones where the Church has really opened up the gap with ordinary Catholics and -“ not to put too fine a point on it -“ pissed a whole lot of people off and they’re really playing a rearguard game that they’re never going to win, McGillion concludes.
The essays in A Long Way From Rome trace the strange struggle that has taken place in the Church locally and internationally over the last 20 years. The Church has not only lost support -“ church attendance and recruits to the priesthood have fallen catastrophically -“ but it has also hardened into a much more inflexible conservative institution.
Although he takes some care in framing his comments, McGillion makes crystal clear that one of the main reasons for the Church’s current crisis is quite simply that its leadership doesn’t cut it.
More or less -“ there are exceptions -“ the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Australia is constituted of people that are not necessarily representative of their generation. You could argue that the real talent that should now be expressing itself in the hierarchy either didn’t go into the priesthood in the 1970s or else they left. So we are kind of left with a group of people who -¦ well let’s say it’s questionable how well qualified they are for the job.
So according to McGillion, if change is to happen it won’t come from the hierarchy. Some sociological evidence from here and the United States suggests there is a drift back to the Church amongst the baby boomer generation.
Typical boomers, now they’re getting closer to death, they want to buy eternity, McGillion quips.
This could mean a sudden influx into the Church of people who value participation, dialogue and democracy and who are skilled at making their voices heard. It’s a long shot though, and it comes with its own set of problems.
One of the possible problems is it then shunts out again Generation X and Generation Y. They’re already turned off because of the expression of the institutional church but if the baby-boomers come back in their dotage and try and run things they’re just going to be kicked out again.
There are, it seems, no easy answers. Perhaps if the Church were merely the ageing white man’s club that it seems to want to be, then we could all just watch with a certain glee its gradual demise. But as McGillion points out, the Church is also a uniquely powerful social institution. It’s still the biggest employer outside of government and the biggest player in health, welfare and education outside of government. It’s also a powerfully organised political lobby.
So more than the fate of those who choose to be Catholics hangs in the balance. But the answers will not come from the outside. The best we can hope for is that answers of imagination and courage -“ hinted at in this book -“ will somehow take hold at the heart of this strange unwieldy beast.