The Church: Resentment and Reality

This is not a theological post (although I shall try to write one on the subject some day), more a musing-aloud about something that perplexes me. When people refer to ‘the Church’, what do they have in mind? For example, even practising Catholics will sometimes refer to the Church as though it were something other — most frequently, the clergy, the Vatican, or some amorphous institution quite separate from that which they experience whenever they go to Mass and of which they are themselves members. Those who profess no belief can be forgiven for using the term even more loosely. What tends to be common both to believers and non-believers when they speak thus, however, is a kind of resentment of the Church — especially, its wealth, power, and rules.

The wealth of the Church is certainly arguable, for not only is some of it bound up in works of art that are, literally, priceless (and therefore a net drain on resources), but there is no single body called ‘the Church’ that owns it all. Ownership is vested in different groups: dioceses, religious orders, individual communities, and so on. The power of the Church is easier to reckon because there are millions of people throughout the world  who live by its doctrines and help shape the society to which they belong. The numerous agencies of the Church providing healthcare, education and other services are another example of power, if you like, though in this case exercised through service. It is when we come to the rules of the Church, the disciplines it expects its adherents to observe, that the real difficulty begins. Then there is a kind of double whammy. Sometimes ‘the Church’ is regarded as wrong to impose rules (e.g. the ban on abortion) or is held to be deeply hypocritical because some of its members break them (as in the case of sexual abuse). There is even the notion that people today are responsible for what happened in the past, even if they had no connection with that past other than being members of the same Church. Two examples may help explain what I mean.

When I was first asked, in all seriousness, to apologize for the Crusades, I looked rather blank. I have not the slightest idea whether any of my ancestors were involved and feel no sense of personal responsibility for them. When asked to apologize for (unproven) allegations of abuse by religious sisters in another country, I pointed out that (a) I’m a nun, not a religious sister, (b) I’m English and (c) I wasn’t even born when the alleged events took place so doubted whether my responsibility were any greater than my interlocutor’s, who was at least a citizen of the country in question and an adult when the alleged abuse took place. It didn’t go down well. I was accused of tying to wriggle out of responsibility. In fact, I was trying to get at the truth. What is the degree of responsibility individuals have, as members of the Church, especially for events in the past? Is it different in kind from the responsibility we have as citizens for whatever our country may have done in the past? Is there a cut-off point, an unwritten statute of limitations, as it were, or is resentment distorting reality?

I have no answer to those questions. What principally concerns me is working out how to satisfy the demands of truth and charity when faced with the consequences of what I’d call lazy but commonplace thinking. In the end, what people think the Church is is almost as important as what the Church actually is, and we who belong to her must do the best we can to reflect the mind of Christ in any and every situation. Perhaps, deep down, I resent that a little, but it is the reality I know I must try to live. Q.E.D.?

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Responsible or Not?

You may have noticed that that the more we, as a society, try to force others to accept responsibility for this, that or the other, the less responsible we actually seem to become. News that Italian scientists who failed to evaluate and adequately communicate the potential risk attached to the L’Aquila earthquakes were to be charged with manslaughter was, inaccurately but almost inevitably, reported as a failure to predict the earthquakes themselves. One could say that the scientists had been negligent in doing their duty, irresponsible in the true sense of the word; but the reporting of their case was equally irresponsible, because it allowed half-truths to obscure the facts.

Whenever bad things happen, we look for someone to blame; and if there is no one else around, we blame God. The trouble with this kind of thinking is that it tends to keep us moral Peter Pans for the whole of our lives. We avoid responsibility by projecting it onto someone else. Of course, a civilized society should have laws which protect its citizens from murder, rape and so on; we should be able to assume that public servants will provide the services for which they are paid; but should we assume that every failure is one for which someone is responsible? Is there such a thing as an honest mistake? How far are we ourselves accountable? For example, if living in L’Aquila, how far would we ourselves be responsible for informing ourselves of the likely risks and making sure we took the most appropriate action? If we walk down a dark street in the middle of the night in a notoriously violent district, should we really be surprised if we meet someone with a knife or a gun who wants both our money and our life?

Today, in Britain, we have a host of enquiries being undertaken or soon to take place into the failures of the past. Hillsborough, Savile, the very names send shockwaves through the system. At the same time, my inbox is overburdened with offers from dubious firms to press charges for misselled insurance, accidental injuries and the like. The failure to distinguish between crimes and failures from which the public must be protected and the results of one’s own stupidity leads inevitably to a deadening of the sense of scale and of personal responsibility. Without a lively sense of personal responsibility, no institution on earth is ever going to be able to inculcate a sense of corporate responsibility in its members. That’s another problem we should be addressing, but who’s going to take responsibility for it? How often does one hear parents blaming schools for the conduct of their children and ignoring their own responsibility for instilling values? And so on and so forth.

I think there is hope in all this, however. It has been my good fortune to meet many people who DO take responsibility, who are honest, truthful and brave in situations where the temptation to hide or fudge the issues must be great. They shine like lights in a dark world; but they do shine, and we should be grateful for them. If only we were readier to learn from them!

Note: You can read about the case of the Italian scientists here.

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