Pope and church

Thanks to :

John Paul II
You are Pope John Paul II. You are a force to be
reckoned with.

Which Twentieth Century Pope Are You?
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Which, combined with the proclamation of the Unitarian Jihad, seems as good a reason as any for me to gather my thoughts about the Pope and the Church, now that I’m back from my travels.

I was brought up in the somewhat constrained and conservative Catholicism of Northern Ireland, but with a couple of unusual wrinkles – both my grandmothers were converts from Protestantism (one an Ulster Presbyterian, the other an Episcopalian from New Jersey); we spent a year living in the Netherlands when I was 13; we were a very academic family. So although I accepted without question the rituals of my Catholic school (the Mass for all pupils at the start and end of each term, compulsory O-levels in Religious Education, the prayers at the start of each class – which the more enthusiastic teachers would insist on us saying in Irish – do any of them still do that, I wonder?) I was also prepared to not accept authority where the Church’s teaching made no sense – in particular, the line on contraception seemed to me, by the same logic, to apply equally well to other artifical aids for other physical activities, for instance shoes.

At Cambridge I was fortunate enough to come under the influence of Christopher Jenkins, a Benedictine who was the chaplain to the University, and the Catholic Chaplaincy became one of my social centres. I served on the St John Fisher Society Committee, was the rep for Clare College, and helped out behind the bar and organised weekday lunches. I also sometimes attended Father Chris’ talks. Although he was politically and theologically very conservative, his approach to Catholicism was based on intellectual inquiry much more than the blind acceptance of tradition that I was used to from Belfast, and his red lines were not on contraception but on understanding what God was all about. He used to regularly castigate the Christian Union for doctrinal error on their interpretation of the Crucifixion.

I’m very grateful to Father Chris for enabling me to move on from the Church’s magisterium, and to feel comfortable in disagreeing with its “traditional” teachings (some of which are actually very recent) on premarital and gay sex, on women priests, on papal infallibility, on the ontological proof, and ultimately (though this took me a bit longer) on abortion, without being made to feel that I was excluding myself from the Church as a result – unlike most of my friends in Ireland, who once they had made the same intellectual adjustments felt (probably correctly) that the Church wanted little to do with them. There was a knock-on effect on my relationships; my first serious girlfriend was English, and an atheist, and eventually I realised that the question of God was one of a number of indicators of a deeper incompatibility. (My next girlfriend was a Catholic convert, and became a nun after we split up. Obviously, after me, only God would do; or so I comforted myself at the time. That didn’t last either; she’s now an Anglican, and has a very nice girlfriend of her own.)

Back in Belfast in the early 1990s, I soon got married to Anne who was in training to become a Methodist lay preacher, and I was also heavily engaged in politics. Catholicism took a back seat in my order of priorities, and also I realised that in a sense I had been spoiled for the Northern Irish version by my Cambridge experiences and by my encounters with the Methodists. My sweeping generalisation is that Irish priests have a (decreasing) captive audience, and don’t feel the need to make any effort to preach an interesting sermon. Too many of them prefer to complain to the congregation that not enough people are coming to Mass rather than to think about incentives for people to actually attend. Of course, as a political activist in Northern Ireland, even in the cross-community Alliance Party, my religious identity was inescapably part of my political identity.

We then became expatriates. In both Bosnia and Croatia we found local English-language Catholic congregations, which we attended with the then very tiny B. In Banja Luka it was the British army barracks which had a Catholic chaplain; normally there were only half a dozen military personnel there besides us, but I remember a packed out Midnight Mass, jointly celebrated with the Protestants, at Christmas which was very moving. In Zagreb it was a British diplomat who had organised it in collaboration with the Jesuits, but the congregation were mostly Americans, including a surprising number of my professional contacts. In our first years in Belgium we occasionally attended the English-language services of Our Lady of Mercy, but felt very dissatisfied with their lack of pastoral engagement.

Since we moved here three and a half years ago, I’ve been a fairly regular attender at the local Flemish church. This is a radically different environment from the Catholicism I grew up with. The local hierarchy have decided to dispense with the painfully wrought compromises of Nicaea, and we profess our faith in a God who is father and mother of us all, and in Jesus the friend of the poor. Normally one of the Bible readings is replaced with a reflective passage from a more modern writer (though I remember once there was a reading from the Koran instead). The parish has an activist engagement with international development issues. We don’t spend a lot of time on it, but it’s a place where I feel at home. (It should be noted, of course, that the Church in Belgium is linked with the centrist Christian Democrats – this is a country where the Liberal Party is on the right wing of the political spectrum.)

My time as an active Catholic more or less coincides with the reign of the late Pope. I have of course been worrying a bit about his likely successor. I really do hope that it isn’t Cardinal Ratzinger, who I actually shook hands with once when he visited Cambridge in 1988, or any of his proteges. While it was good to see the Church take strong lines under John Paul II against poverty, war, and the death penalty, I think that Ratzinger and the Pope have painted themselves into a corner on matters to do with sex, and I hope that the next reign will see a different approach. (I don’t go along with those who blame the Pope for either the population explosion or the AIDS epidemic in developing countries – it’s not obvious to me that these are strongly correlated with Catholicism – but I still think his teachings on contraception and sexuality were grievously wrong.) It’s probably too much to hope that the ultra-liberal Cardinal Danneels of Belgium might have a chance, but it would be great if it ends up being someone like him.

In the end, I remain in the Catholic Church for a number of not very good or rational reasons. I’ve come to feel that everyone should be “free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true”; that anyone “may, in the observance of any religion whatever, find the way of eternal salvation, and arrive at eternal salvation”; that “Good hope at least is to be entertained of the eternal salvation of all those who are not at all in the true Church of Christ” and that “Protestantism is nothing more than another form of the same true Christian religion, in which form it is given to please God equally as in the Catholic Church”. (These four statements were all condemned by Pope Pius IX in his Syllabus of Errors.)

In addition, I do feel some attraction to the weight of historical tradition. Hilaire Belloc said something along the lines that he was sure the Church was divinely instituted because no purely human institution that had been so badly run could have survived for almost two thousand years. (If anyone can tell me the exact quote, I’d be very grateful.) I’m irrationally reassured by the fact that our local priest is part of a line of historical ordinations going back to Jesus summoning the Twelve. I find places of pilgrimage fascinating, but also sometimes funny (some time I’ll write up my feelings about St Peter’s in Rome, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem).

But basically, I believe in God, I want a regular means of communication with Him, and there seems to me no compelling reason to abandon what I’m used to, especially as its local form feels like it’s politically on the right wavelength. I have no intention of thrusting it down anyone else’s throat, but it seemed like a good moment to write it all down for myself.

One thought on “Pope and church

  1. Have there been any Big Finish or novelizations of First Doctor stories prior to An Unearthly Child? Seems those are wide open.

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