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Another time bomb: symbol v. literalism


The pedophilia issue may well be the biggest scandal to hit the church in the United States, Australia and other countries. Catholics ask how could criminal activity become so widespread in their church. They feel let down by the ecclesial system in which they had placed enormous trust. It is now obvious that this issue was a time bomb that had to explode somewhere.

I want to suggest that Catholic anger, now out in the open like never before, be harnessed and used, not just on this issue but on others as well, to shape the church we want to experience in the future. I think there is another time bomb ticking away, and again we have general episcopal refusal to face reality. The issue that will explode in our faces very soon is traditional Catholic belief about God and Jesus. We have to find new images, new ways, even new or different names to talk about God, to rescue us from the images and ideas of former times. We have to work at articulating a new and quite different understanding of how human beings have been and are in relationship with God. And we have to interpret Jesus of Nazareth in a context quite different from that in which the early church articulated its understanding of who Jesus had to be to redeem us.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church’s understanding of the fall and of Jesus, interpreted strictly within the limits of scriptural literalism and an antiquated notion of the cosmos, a God-man who does not live by faith as the rest of us do, with a physical ascent back “up” into heaven, belongs to the library of what-was-once-believed. Many defenders of the faith have long seemed incapable of living with metaphor, mystery, symbol and myth. They have constantly crossed the line into literal interpretation.

A classic example is one by which I was judged and found wanting -- as were others teaching in Australia. It was penned by the now archbishop of Sydney, George Pell. In 1994, he wrote that after the consecration the bread and wine “become really and truly the Body and Blood of Christ.” “Really and truly” is classical church language, and is confusing enough. But Pell went on to say how Jesus told his followers “that he would give them his flesh to eat and his blood to drink.” Well, yes, but surely we are not going to take that literally, are we? Surely this is metaphorical language. But not for Pell.

“Even today,” he wrote, “many people, including some Christians, find it impossible to accept that the bread and wine are not just symbols, but truly the Body and Blood of Christ. But this is what Catholics believe.”

All these things became, and still remain, an essential part of the test for “orthodox” teaching. However, I doubt that middle-of-the-road Catholic theologians would treat all of them literally. Catholic sacramental theologians would not be comfortable with Pell’s literalism, which reflects the literalism in official church documents.

The effect is that we continue to muddle through an atmosphere of extraordinary intellectual dishonesty, an unreal world of make-believe in which the men with absolute power can silence the voices that disturb their officially sanctioned, concretized literalism. We must have open discussion and sharing from our theologians if the body of Christ is to be prepared for the major shifts in thinking confronting us even now. But what do we find?

We find episcopal leadership, with some few exceptions, unable or unprepared to deal with the issue of how to speak of God and Jesus in the light of contemporary scriptural studies or knowledge about the development of life on earth or any appreciation of the magnitude of our universe. They simply will not discuss it or promote open discussion.

We find the usual tactic of resorting to absolute power and authority to squash discussion or to make sure our theologians are not heard if voices or writings dare to cross the line of traditional doctrinal formulation. We find fear of contemporary Catholic scholarship. We find failure to face reality and truth. We find extreme concern about protecting the institution at all costs. The task of church leadership, as in any time in history, is to bring the story of Jesus to this age and to the questions and massive advances in knowledge of this age, not to repeat formulations defined in the context of questions and understandings that are no longer our questions or understandings.

The cover-up of pedophilia has its counterpart here. Bishops can hide behind the demand that assent be given “to what the church officially teaches,” and this demand protects them from the challenge we all face -- of articulating how in our times, with what we now know, we are to shape a spirituality, a faith vision of life, based on the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

I have never read, heard or seen any Catholic bishop who is critical of “liberal” theology offer anything to help Catholics move away from the literalism into which they have been nurtured. What I have seen, again and again, is the reference to the Catechism in order to end all discussion on important issues. Or, as a slight variation, we had Cardinal Bernard Law saying in 1996 that there could be no dialogue on the “common ground” found in “sacred scripture and tradition and … mediated to us through the authoritative and binding teaching of the magisterium.” This is an escapist tactic. It demands that we not raise any questions about the worldview and context in which scripture was written and doctrine formulated. So many bishops and other church leaders can continue to ignore reality and contemporary knowledge that disturbs their theological literalism. Trust us, they say. We know best. We are acting for your own good.

It is time we let our justifiable anger be heard. How? By being stirred, as many Catholics are stirred over the pedophilia issue. By being concerned enough to meet with others to talk about our faith. By being open to questioning, new insights. By praying in small groups that respect wonder, metaphor, imagery, risk, listening, creativity and a new story about God, about Jesus, about ourselves, about all of creation.

Yves Congar believed that the pattern for the exercise of authority in the early church was this: We listen, I learn, I teach. It changed gradually to this model: I teach, you listen, you obey. If we can harness the anger we feel and start doing something about it, shaping the church we want to experience, bishops may in time start listening again. What a gift to our church our anger would be then.

Michael Morwood lives in Australia. He is author of Tomorrow’s Catholic: Understanding God and Jesus in the New Millennium (Twenty-Third Publications) and Is Jesus God? Finding Our Faith (Crossroad).

National Catholic Reporter, April 19, 2002