Here’s the thing. I remember when I was a kid a new development was being built and the houses were modern. To a 12 year old, they were really cool. I remember asking my mother if we could move there. That request was filed away with my birthday wish for a monkey. (BJ and The Bear was a popular show at the time.) Needless to say, I didn’t get the monkey and we didn’t move.
But you know what, when I visit my parent’s house I sometimes pass those modern houses. And quite frankly they all look a little silly. OK. A lot silly. They look…irrelevant.
And yet we constantly hear people who never go to Church yelling that the Church needs to “bend” to modernity. And newspapers like the Courier Mail declare that it needs to happen in their defense of a priest who’s bending so bad he needs an emergency chiropractor.
THE New Testament’s Matthew 7:1 preaches tolerance in warning us “judge not, that ye be not judged”.
Yet today we see little evidence of the Catholic Church’s forgiving acceptance as it condemns Father Peter Kennedy’s modernist approach to his St Mary’s parish in South Brisbane. Roman Catholic Archbishop John Bathersby appears to be taking an especially hard line against the popular local priest for bucking church traditions. Father Kennedy has, among other things, encouraged women to sermonise and blessed same-sex couples, activities wholly proscribed by conventional Catholicism.
Despite the 900 or so parishioners attracted weekly to the South Brisbane church – when most suburban places of worship struggle to find a tiny fraction of that number – the powers-that-be are so shaken by Father Kennedy’s unorthodoxy they have threatened to expel him from St Mary’s. Father Kennedy, imbued with something of an evangelist spirit, has vowed to continue preaching his way, even if it means accepting a Trades and Labor Council offer to take up unofficial residence down the road.
As nonsensical as this seems, this is but the latest episode in a long war of attrition between conservatives and modernists, a conflict stretching back at least to the 1960s and the Vatican’s Second Ecumenical Council, or Vatican Two, under Pope John XXIII. After decades of watching Catholic conservatism become increasingly out-of-step with wider public opinion on a range of social and moral issues, modernists today fear their church will fall into irrelevancy, especially among the young. But those same progressives, holding their breath in excited anticipation when Benedict XVI succeeded the arch-conservative John Paul II, could utter only a collective groan when the new Pope passed judgments against homosexuality and contraception.
The Catholic Church might bristle at accusations of irrelevancy, and ponder why only 13 per cent of self-identifying Roman Catholics now attend Sunday services, down from 50 per cent 60 years ago. But those who seek the real reason behind the crisis of the faithful need look no further than what is preached, and how. Tradition can be a fine thing. Rites and practices handed down through the centuries can build up a body and cement its very greatness. And certain practices and beliefs cannot – and should not – be disposed of for appearances’ sake. But no organisation, religious or secular, can afford to place blind tradition above the need to serve its mission faithfully, especially if that mission is to remain relevant to, and inclusive of, the masses to whom the organisation is spiritually responsible. Put bluntly, on some issues the church has become, in part, a slave to its own rigidity.
The Catholic Church today is therefore at a crossroads. While this issue may initially concern just one small Brisbane parish, the church’s decision over Father Kennedy’s fate may reverberate widely and for years to come.
Well right there is the mistake. The newspaper mistakenly suggests that the Church’s mission is to “remain relevant to and inclusive of the masses.” That sounds like a good definition for a politician or even a newspaper but not to a Church. The Church isn’t here to tell us what we want to hear. The only Church I want to join is one that sometimes tells me things I don’t want to hear. Otherwise I would just start the Church of Matt. It would be a fine church. We’d be well fed. There’d be lots of laughing. We would do what Matt thought was good or fun at the time. There just wouldn’t be any truth in it. And without truth, unbending and eternal, a church is useless. And I wouldn’t want anything to do with it.