In the Supermarket of the Soul, Not all Aisles Lead to Christ
One of the nice things about our multicultural and ecumenical society is that an irreligious Jew like myself can comment on disputes within the Catholic Church without anyone feeling able to complain about my right to do so---at least in public.
But the current controversy about the involvement of the Presentation Sisters and the Sisters of Mercy in the Womenspace centre at Kedron suggests that many of the faithful think that ecumenism has gone too far. Certainly, even to a non-believer, it does seem odd that Catholic orders would initiate and fund a centre which provides room for pro-abortion organisations and advertises magical paraphernalia, or that a nun would present classes celebrating 'shamanistic journeying' and other supposedly 'ancient Celtic tools' of paganism.
To conservatives in the church, this involvement is yet another sign that the 'generosity of approach' that Brisbane's Archbishop John Bathersby urges 'in trying to bring people to Christ', leads to a theological relativism, a pick-and-choose supermarket of the soul where nothing is forbidden and heresy is impossible by definition.
Nevertheless, the Archbishop may have a point. An insistence on rigid orthodoxy is often inseparable from an arrogant self-righteousness in which religion is used as a bludgeon against rivals and personal enemies. There is something distasteful about people going to particular Church services in order to obtain ammunition against priests and bishops who are not toeing a purist line, then sending the details off to the Vatican. Apparently this has been happening for some years, and it is hard not to sympathise with Archbishop Bathersby's complaint that this involves 'a desecration of worship'.
In a predominantly secular and materialistic culture such as our own, where established denominations are struggling to gain committed adherents, particularly amongst the young, perhaps the best that mainstream churches can now hope for is to start with people who have real spiritual yearnings. While the Archbishop probably wouldn't express matters in quite such terms, from this perspective leanings towards pantheism or polytheism may be preferable to atheism or religious indifference; for with patience and sympathetic understanding genuine searchers may be led to more doctrinally acceptable positions.
This is the kind of approach that Catholic missionaries have adopted in many parts of the non-western world, in the hope of winning over the followers of tribal religions. Provided that reprehensible customs are abandoned, the church has been prepared to accommodate more harmless practices, and even to incorporate some traditional elements into its liturgy.
However, this doesn't always work. In one Vanuatu island where I carried out anthropological research, people interpreted the comparatively liberal attitudes of the Catholics as an indication that the church was ineffective.
To these indigenous people, a potent religion was one which demanded sacrifice and restraint. Consequently, fundamentalist Protestant sects which denounced all non-Christian beliefs and practices thrived, while the Catholic Church attracted only a small number of followers. The irony---which a few perceptive Catholic missionaries did seem to appreciate---was that those who took indigenous notions seriously had to be committed to destroying the traditional religion.
But whatever the merits of Archbishop's general approach towards religious conversion, I am not convinced that his statements on the matter are actually relevant to the Womenspace controversy. For the centre and its supporters do not seem to show much enthusiasm for channelling the spiritual hunger of New Age dabblers and other lost souls into a path that will eventually bring them to Christ.
Judging from its website and the published reports about the activities at Womenspace, those involved with the centre seem more interested in encouraging women who are disillusioned with mainstream churches into non-Christian forms of worship, such as singing 'Goddess Chants and Magical Uplifting Songs'. It is as though members of the Liberal Party were using party funds and resources to drum up support for the ALP and the Australian Democrats. Certainly, such acts would demonstrate a 'generosity of approach'; but one that would quickly become totally self-defeating.
The needs and desires which lead people to religion are diverse. No doubt some individuals are looking for an 'amorphous experiential spirituality'---as a defender of Womenspace from the University of Queensland put it in a Courier-Mail article last week. For such free spirits, a theological fruit salad containing dollops of the Bible, Eastern mysticism, neo-paganism and white witchcraft, all topped with a thick syrup of radical feminism, may be the best way of satisfying religious cravings.
I may be wrong, but I suspect that on this matter the majority of contemporary Catholics---and prospective ones as well---are more in tune with the wisdom of my tribal friends in Vanuatu.
They may not adhere to all, or even most of the strictures and doctrines laid down by the church. But that doesn't mean that they want them to be swept away. When they are told that core beliefs and practices should be abandoned in order to bring the church into line with contemporary fashions, they rightly sense a demoralising weakness. What they expect from their church is a coherent structure of beliefs and practices, defended by a staunch but sympathetic clergy who sincerely believe that they are offering the true word of God.
And if priests or nuns lose this faith, and come to believe that people's spiritual longings are better served by other religious traditions, they should at least have the courage and integrity to leave the church and not draw on its resources. Otherwise they can fairly be called impostors.