We’ve had enough silence

Garry O’Sullivan on the need to speak out.

“He had to be silenced,” a distinguished theologian said to me, referring to the late Fr Sean Fagan who was silenced by the Vatican after writing his book “Does Morality Change”, which this theologian assuredly told me that it certainly does not. 

He still has his voice but denies it to those with whom he disagrees. As John Wijngaards has written, “Pope John Paul II and  Benedict XIV continued the reign of terror by trying to silence hundreds of prominent scholars around the world. This is absolutely stupid. The Bible itself teaches: If you listen to constructive criticism, you will take your place among the wise. If you ignore criticism, you will hurt yourself”. (Prov 15.31). 

Former Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin used to complain that there was no Catholic intellectual tradition in Ireland. He said this with a straight face while knowing that Sean Fagan was silenced, as were the Capuchin Owen O’Sullivan and writers that engaged with ordinary people of faith such as Fr Brian D’arcy, Tony Flannery and many others.

It reminds me of the German TV host who asked comedian Robin Williams  why Germans weren’t known for their comedy to which he  replied ‘Who do you think killed all the funny people?!’ She replied; “I don’t know,  who?”

Freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom was what Jesus came to help us find, ‘to set free the captives’ and give us life to the full. Isn’t that ultimately what everyone yearns for, life to the full, to not be captives of someone else or some unhealthy ideology/ addiction? 

St Paul says we are all free, that there are no more distinctions between male and female, slave and free, Jew and Greek as we are all one in Christ Jesus. How can we then allow ourselves to be enslaved by legalism and twisted theology and morality that are all unbearable and inhuman? 

The Romans physically crucified Jesus, but it was the Jewish priests and teachers who plotted and made it happen. Institutional religion as we have seen again and again protects itself and exaggerates its importance in the relationship between God and mankind. Question that and like Jesus, you’ll end up on a cross of some sort.

The Church should be a beacon of freedom but she has rarely been and when voices for freedom emerged in her, take St Oscar Romero, she tried to crush them. 

Imagine a Catholic Church whose symbol was a tall proud woman holding a torch calling  humanity to her: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,  The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This is the Catholicism I know and respect, except that message sits on the Statue of 

Liberty and not the gates to  the Vatican. In Ireland as in elsewhere, we had huddled masses of unmarried mothers, orphaned children, uneducated poor people, hungry and sick. We opened ‘golden doors’ to shelters, laundries, orphanages,  schools, homeless accommodation, we fed and watered. 

And we know the legacy of that, the good of it gone and forgotten, long drowned in a sea of filth and shame.  How do we understand our relationship with the Church? Looking back, it was understood through trust. The root of the problem today is that the institutional Irish Church no longer enjoys the trust of its people.

Appeals to return to the faith fall on stony ground because that ‘Faith’ in the first place had far more to do with cultural conditioning than it had to do with genuine spiritual development. Calls for mission and evangelisation from senior prelates demonstrate the complete disconnect, even after a listening process. 

Propositional religion, to paraphrase Yuval N. Harari, has too much of a contractual basis to it, where the need is for spiritual growth. Harari makes a complementary observation, which I believe to be very important: Christianity’s authority, based on doctrine/scripture, is no longer a source of creativity, reflecting the famous verse in Proverbs – ‘Without vision, the people die’ (29:18).

One of the reasons for this situation is that ordinary Christians now apply their (educated) common sense to situations (like homosexuality, for instance), realising that many of the authoritative texts used to justify certain prohibitions are no longer justified, in light of the findings of the natural and social sciences.

Claims to know what is the teaching of Jesus (mediated by the Church), fall flat because 

the reality is that very little of the material attributed to Jesus in the New Testament is actually his own. In fact, Jesus never said anything directly, all the accounts are second hand at best and written 80 years after his death.

 But our theology does not take account of such realities, and it probably never  will: Catholicism has manoeuvred itself into too many doctrinal cul-de-sacs, for which it is now paying the price. Question those cul-de-sacs and you are told you are a heretic; thankfully they don’t burn to death heretics anymore.

John Stuart Mill talked eloquently in his essay On Liberty on the importance of free speech, of vigorous interaction. Here’s a quote from On Liberty:“If society lets any considerable number of its members grow up as mere children, incapable of being acted on by rational consideration of distant motives, society has itself to blame” – and Thomas Jefferson said the same thing, in somewhat stronger words. 

He said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be”.The famous scientist Carl Sagan, who quoted the above in his so called ‘Lost Lecture’ republished by the magazine Quillette, appealed for a bit of mutual understanding. “If we are agreed that there is nothing we can be absolutely sure about, that we have no monopoly on the truth, that there is something to be learned, why is each side so frightened about having the principles of the other expounded?

“What’s wrong with a little understanding of what the other side believes? Maybe there is something that can be understood. Maybe there is something that can be used. The fact that both sides are so reluctant to have the philosophy and theology of the other expounded to its people suggests that neither side is fully confident that it has convinced its own people of the truth of its doctrine. And that, of course, is a dangerous circumstance”.

The Church needs to allow the freedom that science has allowed for and not just rely on authority, tradition and in the final analysis the silly retort, ‘well it’s a mystery’. 

Faith should always be on the far side of reason, which is God-given. “In Science, things like arguments from authority have little weight. Like contentions have to be demonstrable. Like experiments must be repeatable. Like vigorous substantive debate is encouraged and is considered the lifeblood of science. Like serious critical thinking and skepticism addressed to new and even old claims is not just permissible, but is encouraged, is desirable, is the lifeblood of science. There is a creative tension between openness to new ideas and rigorous skeptical scrutiny” – Carl Sagan. 

Now imagine that paragraph when we swap ‘Science’ for ‘Catholicism’: In Catholicism, things like arguments from authority have little weight. Like contentions have to be demonstrable. Like experiments must be repeatable. Like vigorous substantive debate is encouraged and is considered the lifeblood of Catholicism. Like serious critical thinking and skepticism addressed to new and even old claims is not just permissible, but is encouraged, is desirable, is the lifeblood of Catholicism. There is a creative tension between openness to new ideas and rigorous skeptical scrutiny. Now there’s a healthy Church.

Fr Richard Rohr says that the Catholic Church is always behind on the latest freedom and growth in human consciousness, whether it’s an astronomical insight such as the earth revolving around the sun, democracy, human rights, and so on. He adds that there’s a reason Peter was not first to the tomb. Peter, the older man, was beaten to the empty tomb by John whom we are told was younger. But that’s not the reason says Rohr. In the Gospels, Peter represents the Church and authority, older and a bit crusty and slow.

John, represents love, and love is always first to the truth, the Church always coming in second. 

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