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James Martin SJ on the "Future Church": Sympathetic, Free of Fear?

To kick off my proposed series of discussions of the Patheos collection on the future of the Catholic Church, I begin with the vision of James Martin, SJ.

Martin begins with a discussion of the problem of disagreement and dissent within the Church, whereby almost any suggestion of disagreement with any church leader is seen as dissent. This knee-jerk response provokes a fear of coming under attack, and so we too easily find it easier to just hold our tongues, and avoid saying anything out of line. Fear, however, has no place in the Christian faith. Scripture, he reminds us, says to us in different variations of wording “Be not afraid”.

And so the headline for his piece is   “Casting Out Fear: Imagining a Sympathetic Church”, which sounds warm, fuzzy and uncontroversial. I was initially disappointed that his argument does not go far enough, but on rereading, I recognised  how  for truly subversive it is. For he is not saying simply we need a church free of fear in general, but specifically, a church free of fear of criticism for disagreement.

The problem with fear engendered by attacks on any disagreement, is that first, it stifles all discussion. Where there is never any debate or open exchange of views, mistaken ideas become entrenched, and appropriate responses to changing circumstances become impossible. Fossilization occurs. Secondly, emotions become involved, of which fear is only one. Anger and grievance are others – on both sides of the exchange. Where particular people find that they are constantly on the receiving end of these attacks, they will often find themselves growing weary of the constant, fear of honest speech, the anger and the hurt that ensue – and simply leave.  The Church becomes diminished.

The tragedy is that there should be no grounds for this fear.  It is an established part of Catholic theology that we have not only a right, but an obligation, to follow (informed) conscience, even where it contradicts papal authority. (Pope Benedict in earlier times said so himself). Church history is littered with instances of people who were once damned for “dissent”, but later honoured. Heresy, it is said, is sometimes only a matter of timing. There are strong grounds for arguing that there is a moral obligation to dissent.

It is obvious that sadly, we do not have such a climate in the church today. Academic theologians who stray from the approved line live in fear for their careers, under the ever watchful eye of the CDF, the modern incarnation of the Inquisition, while those who write the wrong thing in internet comment threads may find themselves under heavy personal attack.  (Please note that here, I want to be entirely non-partisan: comments from the “progressive” wing can sometimes be as hurtful as those from conservatives. We all need to be more respectful of those who disagree with us.)

There is one aspect of the subject that Martin does not go into, in which I have been increasingly interested.  His entire approach is based on the need to create an atmosphere free of fear, by concentrating on the listeners, urging that they become more tolerant and open-minded.   There is another tack that can also be helpful, and that requires a change of mindset on the other side, by those who currently find that they are the ones in “dissent”. That is, quite literally, to take seriously the words of Scripture and to “Be not afraid” – even if there is not (yet) the prospect of a sympathetic response. We must continue to speak up (as many have been doing already), refuse to be cowed into silence (as some sadly, have been)  – but accept the inevitable recriminations calmly, without reacting in the same intolerant tone ourselves.

This is  indeed a vision of Church that I can subscribe to – and perhaps it is indeed attainable.

Here is Martin’s opening:

We live in a church where almost any disagreement to almost any degree with almost any church leader on almost any topic is seen as dissent. And I’m not speaking about the essentials of the faith — those elements contained in the Creed — but about less essential topics. Even on those topics — say, the proper way to deal with politicians at odds with church teaching, new translations of the Mass, the best way for bishops to deal with complicated pastoral issues, and so on — the slightest whiff of disagreement is confused with disloyalty.

What does this engender? It engenders a fear-based church. It creates clergy and religious frightened of speaking out, terrified of reflecting on complicated questions, and nervous about proposing creative solutions to new problems. It leads to the laity giving up. It causes the diminution of a thoughtful theological community. It muzzles what should be a vibrant, flourishing, provocative, innovative, challenging Catholic press. It empowers minuscule cadres of self-appointed watchdogs whose malign voices are magnified by the blogosphere, and who, with little to no theological background, freely declare any sort of disagreement as tantamount to schism — and are listened to by those in authority. It creates fear.

Now, does this seem like what Jesus wanted to establish on earth? It doesn’t to me. I thought he said, “Fear not!” And I thought St. John said, “There is no fear in love.” And “Perfect love casts out fear.” But perfect fear casts out love, too.

Bishop Kevin Dowling has said there is a “pressure to conform” and he is correct; it is intense, particularly in official church circles. As we face the effects of the clerical sex-abuse scandals, what we need is not a fear-bred silence, but a hope-filled willingness to listen to all voices, because the Holy Spirit works through all of us.

-(For the full, thoughtful piece, go to Casting Out Fear: Imagining a Sympathetic Church at Patheos)

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