This past week has witnessed a number of adverse headlines: admissions made by a Diocese in Australia that those exercising ecclesial oversight were aware of predatory conduct and abuse by a priest permitted to remain in ministry; reports of an American Bishop chartering private aircraft; and opinions of an abuse survivor concerning the personal merits of a current Archbishop of such a character that one might be forgiven for concluding there was to be the initiation of a cause for canonisation inter vivos. The list would, however, be incomplete without mention of the exchange between the German Bishops’ Conference and the Holy See on the ecclesiology of a forthcoming synod.
On any view, reports such as these confirm the Church is currently sailing in turbulent waters. Without stretching the metaphor too far, there are those aboard the vessel who would have the Church abandon course. There are others who would have Her abandon ship. However, the principal challenges for control of the vessel come not from those who have served upon the High Seas but rather, those who might – for want of a better term – be considered armchair admirals and strategists; each very much preferring a course of their own devising. In peddling their wares, they point to the deficiencies of others, the ignorance of times past and the insufficiency of the Church’s teachings on matters which are considered all too contentious; and unnecessarily so. If only the Church could be more pragmatic or more yielding.
This pattern is familiar enough. The traditions of the past are considered outmoded, and anachronistic; insufficient to address the unique problems of the day. These problems – so the argument runs – either arise from, or are compounded by, the ignorance of the past, or human failings of those in leadership. The solution: a new path, unfettered by doctrinal tradition. In secular terms, this perspective proceeds upon the basis that it is possible (and indeed desirable) for organisational values to be defined and adopted on the grounds of expediency alone. It requires no authentication against the wishes of the founding fathers. It is a mindset which neither welcomes nor accommodates an eschatological view of the human condition. One might have thought such a perspective is hardly an auspicious start for those wishing to apply this same ideological template to the faith community which is the Church. But, according to some, these new charts lead not only to waters new, but Utopia!
No matter how elaborate the strategy or skilled the cartographer, history has shown that maps are prone to error. Witness: the ubiquitous satnav device which insists you are obliged to turn right; even when there is no means of doing so. Worse still, the guidance system which appears incapable of directing your homeward journey, without taking in the sights of the city 20 miles away. Such devices, carefully crafted, programmed and engineered are prone to serious error. This reality is unchanged by the persistence of their instruction or the issue of the imperative: “please make a ‘u-turn’ if possible.”
The recent media coverage suggests there are those within senior positions within the Church who might wish to make this exhortation their own. However, a number of impediments stand in the way of acceding to this direction. First: the Church is and remains the vessel founded by Christ. Second, and in consequence, it cannot be mistaken for a pleasure craft. It is obliged to continue in His salvific mission. Third, the voyage cannot be considered subject to deviation to accommodate the subjective preferences of a particular crew. Our faith requires us to put out in to the deep. No more. No less. This is not the counsel of those seeking a commission aboard HMS Pinafore:
“Now landsmen all, whoever you may be,
If you want to rise to the top of the tree,
If your soul isn't fettered to an office stool,
Be careful to be guided by this golden rule.
(Be careful to be guided by this golden rule.)
Stick close to your desks and never go to sea,
And you all may be rulers of the Queen's Navee!
(Stick close to your desks and never go to sea,
And you all may be rulers of the Queen's Navee!)”
This voyage requires a singlemindedness, a clarity of vision and a certainty of purpose. The potential for turbulent waters should come as no surprise. The cargo with which this vessel is entrusted is as unwelcome as it is essential. Having counselled would-be mariners to take aboard only that which is essential, Jerome K Jerome observed of those hostile to his mission:
“...they cursed us - not with a common cursory curse, but with long, carefully-thought-out, comprehensive curses, that embraced the whole of our career, and went away into the distant future, and included all our relations, and covered everything connected with us - good, substantial curses."
Perhaps our greatest peril lies - not in the turbulence of the waters- but our own refusal to recognise both the nature of the voyage and its destination. Providence forbid that we are taken for messing about on boats.
Our Lady Star of the Sea, Pray for us.