‘Bleaching’ the gospel

Bleaching the gospel
Picture of Francis Sullivan

Francis Sullivan

Francis Sullivan was the Chief Executive Officer of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council.

We need to be realistic about the place of Catholic social services in the broader theatre of Australia’s welfare and community services sector. Where once it was the foundation of the evolving safety net, it now occupies a somewhat niche contribution within a wider and more comprehensive government and other non-government services network.

I sincerely believe that the desire to bring about justice and wellbeing for others is intimately motivated and sustained by God. That is what faith in action means to me. Not an overt mission for conversion and redemption. Nor an organised strategy to demonstrate how caring the church can be.

I also believe that we need to be realistic about the place of Catholic social services in the broader theatre of Australia’s welfare and community services sector. Where once it was the foundation of the evolving safety net, it now occupies a somewhat niche contribution within a wider and more comprehensive government and other non-government services network.

So, there is likely to be debates over the essential, if not crucial, contribution Catholic based services provide the community and the necessity or otherwise for their continued support from governments, policy makers and funders of all descriptions.

In the financial world a margin call occurs when the value of an account has fallen below agreed levels. At that point additional capital is required to restore the value of the account and in turn the confidence of investors. If the trader doesn’t deposit funds into the account, then assets are sold regardless of their previous market value. The trader remains active for as long as it has assets and can find willing buyers. The upshot is a depleted company, with its reputation damaged, its product on the slide and its management under notice.

I put it to you that this is not too far from the situation we currently find ourselves facing in the Catholic Church. Through gross mismanagement and blatant deception, the institutional church has squandered the good will of the overwhelming majority of its members. It has debased the value of the church in the broader community. It has added fuel to the fire over the relevancy of the Church to modern day life.

Just as depressing is when some in positions of authority and influence in the institution remain on a course that holds little hope for any correction in the near term. You can still hear senior church personnel deluding themselves that the crimes, cover ups, and obfuscations are things of the past; that the good works of the church, in schools, welfare and health, will restore its public standing and that the public critics and cynical media are part of a broader ‘anti-church’ agenda in a post Christian world.

Throughout the royal commission years some would lament there was little attention paid to the extent of good works undertaken by the church across our community. Works of social service, health care, pastoral support and education. Some now fear those works will be tainted by the loss of trust the community holds for the institution in general. Others despair at the ‘brand damage’ the revelations of the scandal have brought.

Have we the capacity to let our broken hearts speak? Can we dare to be different? Are we too captive to an arrogance born of certainty and institutional longevity? Have we stopped hearing the cries of the poor, the oppressed, the misunderstood and the strange ones?

These questions are the type of self-analysis that comes with spiritual discernment, supposedly a mainstay for any ministry. They are also prompted by the prophets of our times. Those who have courageously unsettled our comforts, questioned our intentions and stretched our imaginations.

They are the brave hearts who dared to speak truth to power, who wore the rejection and the scapegoating of an institution in denial. They are the free spirits who have stood proudly in the face of prejudice and discrimination knowing all too well that ‘fitting in’ was the price for acceptance and harmony. A price no longer able to meet the margin call.

First and foremost, we need consensus on what a church, and in turn, church run social services, are on about. In a society that regards religion as just another lifestyle choice at best, we need to resist trying to pump air into old tyres that have run their course. We need to dream of an engaged, vibrant and relevant church that is reflected not just in its outreach but more importantly in its manner, disposition and basic humanity.

The sex abuse scandal made it abundantly plain that when the institution is threatened it closes ranks, manages its risks and does not act and speak out of its heart but strategises out of its head. Only a heart driven church will have any chance of relating beyond its increasingly narrowing base.

Secondly, the scandal revealed just how ‘victim friendly’ the institution really is. It was rare to hear of occasions where victims were believed rather than tolerated. To hear where victims were assisted to make their case rather than interrogated in order to be found wanting. To hear where the church authorities were transparent and pastoral rather than cautious and reliant solely on legal and insurance advice.

Only a church that walks along with victims and risks becoming a victim with them can resonate the spirit of Jesus and the dream of the gospel.

Thirdly, the glaring lack of moral leadership during the scandal not only speaks volumes about the potential to be disconnected from our basic reason for being, it also warrants major surgery as to who gets to participate in the governance of the church. Unless we break the shackles of entitlement and cronyism, become inclusive and more representative in our decision making we risk losing any claim to renewal and reform.

Yet, maybe not unsurprisingly, we still find the same model of administration and the same culture of clerical entitlement controlling the management of the institution. Doing more of the same should not be the answer, but there is every indication that the fear of loss of control will continue to ward off sensible power sharing between clergy and laity, the promotion of women into governance roles and the democratising of administrative functions such that local parishes and communities are trusted to design and oversight ministries to meet very local needs.

That challenge lays very much before us and we should not let it fall to those inside the church bubble. Instead we need to agitate for the change we identify, to speak confidently of its benefits and to insist on a seat at the tables that matter.

We are very much a part of the socially conservative infrastructure of society – upholders of traditional values, lifestyles and conventions. Our asset holdings across dioceses, hospitals, education and welfare settings implants a Catholic footprint the envy of any land and capital speculator. It also engenders a conservative, cautious instinct that makes responsiveness and flexibility difficult to deliver.

We bleach the gospel of its radical nature and we tame its spirit to fit our narrow vista.

This is a conditioned response, a confected culture of self-protection and self-promulgation. I think we are called to be so much more. Not mere subjects to an institution or the expectations of an organised religion, but rather active participants in stretching our sense of church and ministry into frontiers where others stay disengaged from difference or even worse fight against it.

We need to adopt a spirituality that is non dualistic, person centered and humble. One that readily holds what may first appear as opposites in a creative tension. From this disposition I put it to you that there is a call to go to the existential margins as much as there is the imperative to be at the economic and socially impoverished places. Poverty does have a postcode, but not just spatially. The dignity and wellbeing of people is coming under significant threat particularly in the areas of gender identification.

The despair and despondency some people experience as they seek to literally be themselves in communities where prejudice and religious fundamentalism make them outcasts or worse must be eradicated. It is not enough for churches to spruik platitudes and empty rhetoric over the challenges confronting people of same sex attraction, gender dysphoria or trans sexual orientation. Respect and loving embrace should come with no strings attached.

To be truly Catholic is to find unity across differences. It is to acknowledge that everyone is being made in the image of God.

The signs of our times are calling the church to rediscover within its tradition this more pastoral approach. For too long we have adopted a ‘one size fits all’ approach to human sexuality and intimacy. The upshot has seen alienation and despair.

These days we are blessed by prophets of honesty and hope. Victims for sure but advocates for life indeed. Whether they have visited us from the scandal or whether they tentatively live amongst us eager for our awakening and embrace, they deserve our heartfelt respect and we their forgiveness.

This is an edited version of a speech titled, Margin Call – The Risk of Integrity, presented by Francis Sullivan at a Catholic Social Services Australia conference in Melbourne. Mr Sullivan is the former Chief Executive Officer of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council.

Adelaide will host the Plenary Council from October 4 to 11. The final report of the Listening and Dialogue stage, Listen to what the Spirit is saying, can be accessed at: www.plenarycouncil.catholic.org.au/resources/reports

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