Obedience and Justice

Dedicated to Ted Kennedy who was buried yesterday

Charles Curran, the first recipient of the John Courtney Murray Award of the Catholic Theological Society for distinguished achievement in Catholic theology, recently reflected on his disappointment at the election of Benedict XVI. This was not so much an expression of concern for the state of the church or its future, but it recalled the decision of Ratzinger who concluded a seven-year investigation of Curran’s theological writings in 1986 with the judgment, approved by John Paul II, that “one who dissents from the magisterium as you do is not suitable nor eligible to teach Catholic theology.”

Curran reflects on his experience of being wounded not because he was stopped from teaching as a Catholic theologian; nor because he was found wanting as a theologian; nor because he was humiliated by the Vatican machine; but because his efforts to substantiate his claims fell on deaf ears – the great machine had decided and spoken, and there was no more need for correspondence. His arguments and calls for clarifications failed to gain a response.

Now here is the problem with obedience in the Church or the world in its current state. Serious work being done by dedicated people is dismissed with slogans or silence because they have not caved in to bullying pressure to change their professional opinion. This seems to have more to do with a threat to the absolute power of religious or political authorities because these dedicated theologians makes sense to the people who hunger for a message of hope. It is this that most threatens Vatican power. Prophets like Charles Curran, Edward Schillebeeckx, Leonardo Boff, Yves Congar; Tissa Balaysuriya; Hans Kung; Paul Collins and the many others censored by the Vatican have fought for intelligent discussion and professional competence on important issues not because they claim that their positions are “infallible” but because they see the hunger of the people. Their authority comes from a struggle for truth and they are listened to because they speak with authority not like that of the scribes and Pharisees. They speak with an honesty born of the personal integrity. This is the primary obedience required of Christians as Vatican II noted in the Declaration on Religious Freedom: this Vatican Council urges everyone, especially those who are charged with the task of educating others, to do their utmost to form people who, on the one hand, will respect the moral order and be obedient to lawful authority, and on the other hand, will be lovers of true freedom – people, in other words, who will come to decisions on their own judgment and in the light of truth, govern their activities with a sense of responsibility, and strive after what is true and right, willing always to join with others in cooperative effort. (No 8)

Charles Curran’s story is about more than obedience it is also about justice. Curran was judged by the Vatican as dissenting from the magisterium – he argues that there is a world of difference between dissent from infallible and noninfallible teachings. He quotes the American bishops in their response to the church’s teaching on artificial means of contraception. We could just as easily quote the Australian bishops who followed similar lines – that in noninfalible matters, legitimacy for dissent must be for serious reasons, the teaching authority of the church must not be impugned, and scandal must not be given.

Curran argues further that this kind of dissent is not only the preserve of the liberals and progressives. He says: “Dissent from noncentral teachings spans the conservative/liberal divide in the church today. Too often dissent is seen as a problem only for liberals in the church. But many conservatives dissent from papal teaching on capital punishment, on opposition to the wars in Iraq, and on some criticisms of free-market capitalism.”

Obedience requires us to engage in a critical analysis of the present situation in which we find ourselves and a deeply theological and spiritual application of gospel principles and church teaching. Insulting terms like “cafeteria Catholics” used as political slogans and clever rhetoric fail to honour the deeply held struggle of Catholics searching for the truth in complex situations. It is not a matter of picking and choosing as one feels at the time, as is often the quip of smart doctrinaire types. It is a matter of personal integrity to stay with the heart where God resides in the most sacred of all duties of the Christian – to discern God’s will for me now even in the darker moments and when the choices seem so limited or complex that the narrow way of parroting black and white answers would seriously weaken the sanctuary of the human heart where the person is ultimately answerable to God alone.

So how are we to find our way in the struggle for justice in the complexities of our world? The answer lies in the gospel ethic of taking a stand in favour of the poor, imprisoned, naked, sick and hungry. It is in being fearless and fiercely defending the rights of the marginalised, forgotten, lost and alone. Former priest of Redfern parish, Ted Kennedy, who we buried just yesterday, is famous for his clarity of insight on this point. He went to Redfern with little experience of Indigenous people and their human struggle but quickly came to throw in his lot with theirs by the gospel imperative that the hungry and dispossessed were the human face of Christ in our midst – “when done to one of the least it is done to me”. He would say the only way to see God in this world is to place yourself in a direct line of sight with the poor so that acting as a lens, they will enable you to see God. To “come alongside”, the literal meaning of the word Paraclete, is the only way to act in true obedience to the gospel.

Only from this position can we be truly respectful and obedient to the teaching authority of the church and to the gospel. Chris Geraghty noted on the Religion Report this morning that Ted acted fearlessly to engage with the world in the justice struggle. This stands in contrast to many church leaders who act fearfully believing the very survival of the church depends on them holding on to the reigns of this runaway horse as the church sometimes seems to them. They seem to have no faith in the gospel ethic: Whoever clings to this life will lose it, and whoever loses this life will save it” (Lk 17/33)

Fearlessness is not the same as picking and choosing at will, or worse, to make it easy by completely disregarding church teaching. It is about giving full weight to this gospel imperative while taking very seriously the magisterium. It is about making the poor the lens through which we read the way to God. As Ted said: he believed the liberation of the Aboriginal people was intimately tied to his own liberation. This is a deeply biblical position which is filled with spirituality – that quality that must be present in applying church teaching to the constantly changing landscape of our personal lives and the social world.

Quoting Ted Kennedy (I believe from the BBC documentary) but recounted on the Religion Report the day after Ted died: I want to make the confession that within the Catholic community in Australia, there has been a deep, dark hole for a long time now, which amounts to a lack of genuine spirituality. Religion can become the possession of an elitist group whose power reinforces the power of all the other institutional forces in society. It’s language then becomes spiritually hollow, incapable of criticising or challenging any of those forces. In so becoming, religion moves inevitably away from where people, especially the poor, live and move and have their being. I want to confess that the Australian Catholic church has built up a momentum which is heading away from the poor and to the extent that it has done so, it has become unfaithful to the Gospel.

I personally owe a great deal to Ted Kennedy. As with many others he challenged and formed me in the ways of gospel loving and resistance strategies. As a deeply middle class Christian, I am challenged by Ted to abandon self interest and position and bravely enter the unknown world of the poor, not only for their freedom but for everyone’s freedom. While Indigenous Australians; refugee men women and children; single parents; people with a disability; women; gays and all the forcibly silenced are oppressed and unheard; we are all unfree. The gospel imperative is to come alongside the marginalised in action and reflection; learning through doing; a spirituality of the imagination and a clear sense of being in connection with the cosmic reality. At this level we are both insignificant and all powerful – everything is interconnected which makes every fearless act of love productive.

Australia today is mesmerised by a culture of fear of loss. For me obedience and justice are fused in standing up to this fear and naming the true danger – the loss of our humanity. The gospel is our homing beacon pushing us to stand in the way of making the poor scapegoats. As John Dalzel of the Salvation Army said on Sunday’s Meet the Press – in a culture constructed on fear of loss, the poor are seen as the problem because they are trying to cheat the system; yet they are in fact the victims of the system. The system is the problem because it props up the property rights of the rich and gives scant regard for the way it dispossesses the poor through social, cultural, economic and religious mainstreaming – one size fits all. If you are on the edge of our society, a slave of the system, you are further sidelined – indeed blamed.

We must confront this rhetoric head on with all the creativity, ingenuity, imagination; intellect, spirituality and dance. The gospel and the magisterium calls us to be obedient to this project and thus advance the true liberation of the human spirit in the incarnate glorified Christ.

Peter Maher
Spirituality in the Pub: Fivedock, May 25

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