In January, tucked among the repeats of repeats that dominate summertime TV, I watched something new – season 2 of Shaun Micallef’s Stairway to Heaven. Over three one hour episodes he explored differing ways of living out religious beliefs. He spent time with Mormon families, travelled to Brazil to be participate in a healing ministry that was a mish-mash of Christianity, badly digested psychology and new age practices, and ended up traipsing around a large part of the world with fundamentalist, cultish kind of groups, all with a common belief that the end of the world is near and only true believers like themselves will join God in the afterlife we call heaven.
In Australia it hasn’t been a good week to out oneself as a Catholic. In a report released by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, nearly 2000 Church figures were identified as alleged perpetrators. Throwing our hands up on horror and walking away from the Church of our baptism is not going to fix it.
Like me, Shaun is a cradle catholic, baptised as a baby. Unlike me, he is an actor, an interviewer, a comedian while I could be described as a professional Catholic. I was educated in the Catholic system and spent all my productive years working in Catholic institutions. Catholic values and beliefs and practices were an integral part of my life.
I say were, because over the years thinking about religion, learning more about scripture, the Gospels in particular, delving into Church history and struggling to integrate Catholic theology with standard psychological and scientific beliefs has become difficult. Religion has had a love affair with words and correct ideas, whereas Jesus loved people, most of whom never quite measure up.
It has seen to me that along with other Christian religions, Catholicism is more concerned with organizational structure and getting people to behave in a certain way, than working in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth.
The hierarchical Church labels Catholics who move beyond acceptable boundaries of practice as lapsed, or fallen-away Catholics, even heretical, that not following man-made rules and regulations implies a lack of faith. When I was already a woman in my fifties, full of the frustrating aftermath of Vatican 2 and the struggles of being a woman in a religious environment dominated by males, I remember a passionate moment when I stated that if I could have a second chance at living I’d choose to be a non-Catholic male.
Well, that was then and now I’m more sad than angry that the religion that has been the mainstay of my life leaves me with more questions than answers. I’ve been labelled a cafeteria Catholic, questioning s or challenging beliefs or practices held dear by other Catholics, choosing to keep some, put aside others.
And I do. I’m no longer a child sitting in class while Sister Marcellina scared Grade 2 with stories about purgatory and hell and a God who punishes. Childhood faith is like a laid aside wedding dress, beautiful, but it no longer fits. We might get nostalgic about it, but we’ve moved on from the days of our romantic youth in more ways than one.
If faith is to become adult then the way we understand and express that faith, the way we deal with 2,000 years of Catholic tradition, papal declarations, rules and hearsay will change, coloured by the world we live in and our own life experience. We have to ask questions and keep asking them. We could do well to re-read the Jesus story, as story that has been swallowed up by religious bureaucracy and institutional inertia. The one constant we have is the life of Jesus.