BY JOHN RYAN
A well-organised synod or consult engaging the committed membership of our contemporary Australian Catholic Church would be an exciting prospect. Given that our Bishops Conference is not holding such an event, The Year of Grace which apparently comes in its place, could be quite worthwhile.
Though there has not been one consistent meaning given to Grace over the years it does draw into its embrace many of the matters that determine our present faith life. These include:
- issues of the interrelationship between God and us;
- sin, especially Original Sin;
- the value of the human and the natural over against the supernatural,
- the relationship between Church and world;
- the place of sexuality in the transmission of Original Sin and with relationship to sin in general;
- questions of salvation and merit;
- freedom versus determinism, dogma versus opinion
and surely many more.
Within this world embraced by Grace there is a conglomeration of stories that have been assembled over the centuries in our efforts to grasp some understanding of this immeasurable gift. These stories have taken their contexts from the evolving historical eras from which they have emerged and so they fluctuate in their ability to contain and transmit the mystery involved.
Too often in our Church culture we find it difficult to adjust and make changes. “What has been must always be” leads us too easily into an accumulated morass of statements that confuse and even stifle the message over time.
Whenever we come to a project such as this Year of Grace, we must be prepared for some change and we are well warned of this in the preliminary literature. Change in the context of conversion that means new thinking and new values! We must be ready to have our hills leveled and our valleys filled in! [Isaiah 40:4]
Several years ago the late great Jesuit psychiatrist Father James J. Gill, speaking of our attempts to understand sexuality over the years, said; “So many are victims of ignorance and dysfunctional myths/ [stories] that need not exist.
These distortions and ‘ignorances’ are causing great pain and awful behaviour and are a burden to the Church and its mission to evangelise”. These words are prophetically true of sexuality and equally true of our teaching about Grace!
In Church we have a worrying tendency of moving on from one position to another without pausing to say why we are changing from what has been nor what it is about the new that is different and promising to be better. My guess is that it has something to do with our fear of making a mistake and the damage that his might do to our credibility. Be that at it may, in this context of Grace there must be a lot of attention given to this task of sorting and explaining.
One, though not alone, who must surely take a big hit in this process is the great St Augustine. If today we are appreciating Grace predominantly in the context of relationships, we will have to face the fact that much that this great man has to say is coming from one who the eminent English Catholic psychiatrist Jack Dominian describes as “an emotional disaster as far as relationships go.”
Though Augustine used a “language of love” he spoke out of a particular set of experiences and heavily sited his understandings in the context of objective pagan philosophical categories thereby feeding into the stream of western theological consciousness some of the most problematic myths that still linger in the ecclesiastical air we breath.
It is my firm conviction that there is no way forward without an exhaustive audit of what we have been saying about grace, original sin, sexuality and so many issues such as those mentioned summarily above. Who will identify and nominate the questions for consideration and direct the resources to address them?
For me the answer is clear. It must be the People of God, loud, clear and unhindered. What resources need to be applied to this task? Whatever resources will be deemed to be necessary. Modern scholarship has much to offer and the talk of possible E Conferences and such like is promising. Any move to censor the voice of scholarship in order to protect the sensibilities of “God’s little people” should be treated for what it is, a diabolical temptation!
So far we can take heart from the efforts employed to structure and promote the Year of Grace. The use of helpful technology and people to organise structures is clearly evident. What is not so encouraging is the emphasis that shone through in the initial video presentations.
Was I alone in thinking there was a intention to try to move forward without tackling some of the challenging questions? Was there a smell of “peace at any price” when that is too high a price to pay in this instance? Were there signs of an attempt to move forward in faith without the necessary pain and death that have always accompanied sorties into questions of “Grace”. Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have us recall that there is no such thing as cheap grace!
If this sounds like a call to arms then that is what it is. There is more than enough wisdom and understanding out there to usher us into to new era. Languishing in a challenging malaise we are challenged to look for the prophets and call them forward with all the encouragement we can muster.
Maybe this Year of Grace comes to us a second best but it has about it signs of the Spirit breathing. The task for all of us who care is to make sure the Spirit is not stifled!
Father John Ryan, who lives in Canberra, has spent much of his 49 years of ministry working in renewal projects, especially with priests.
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