I had a brief rant about it on Facebook which led to some angry responses from Catholics on my friends list, who claimed that the Church’s authority was not being listened to, and this was responsible for a decline in morals.
It would be tempting to simply respond to such suggestions with a raised middle finger, but it did set off a few thoughts in my mind, partly with regard to my own experiences as a former Catholic. So I’m going to engage in a bit of reflection on religious belief and church authority.
Scroll back in time a couple of decades, and I was a good Catholic boy – served on the altar, attended a Catholic school, Mass every Sunday. But something was troubling me, and it wasn’t just the usual conflicts between religious strictures and teenage hormones. During the Sunday Mass, I kept getting plagued by the thought that I just wasn’t getting it. No matter how hard I tried, how dutifully I served, I wasn’t feeling any sense of a relationship with the Divine. At least, not in the rituals of the Mass. It was as though God wasn’t there in the Church with me.
At the time, I was plagued with guilt over it. Surely I must be doing something wrong? Not to feel the presence of God in the Sacraments? Was I a bad person, not to be able to sense how holy all this was?
A couple of months ago, I was reminded of this confusion when I set foot in a Catholic church for the first time in years to attend a requiem. The sense of spiritual ossification was palpable. A priest recited the scriptures in a dreary monotone to a small, mostly elderly, frequently bored-looking congregation, there to be reminded of their place by the Mother Church. Without any adolescent angst to befuddle me, it really didn’t seem so surprising that I’d previously felt utterly uninspired. The church was the yearning for a higher spiritual truth, shrivelled and then beaten down into a set of rules to obey and a hierarchical authority to take instruction from. Any personal relationship with the Divine was simply secondary to this.
A friend of mine was told in Sunday School that the Mass was God’s penance. We really must be punishing Him, to make him listen to so many prattling priests.
Nowadays, I practise no religion, though questions of spirituality still intrigue me. For a period I became a neo-pagan. For all the (many) intellectual flaws of that particular movement, it does tend to attract disillusioned Catholics looking for a refocusing of spirituality away from the authority of the priesthood and inward to the individual psyche. Personally I suspect that the high prevalence of Ex-Catholic Syndrome among contemporary pagans accounts for a lot of “No more the Burning Times” rhetoric they tend to indulge in, usually to the dismay of historians.
Some Catholics switch to Evangelicalism. The “happy clappies” we used to disparagingly call them. At least they look like they’re enjoying their religion.
And of course, there are those Catholics who renounce religious belief altogether. It’s sometimes said that Catholics make for the most erudite atheists, because they were educated by Jesuits.
If Catholicism is about the acceptance of authority and subordination of the individual, then there is a rock against which that authority breaks with a resounding crash. And that rock is the sexual abuse scandals. The church is supposed to be the bedrock of Absolute Truth and spiritual leadership, with an infallable Pope at its head. Yet this supposed bedrock turned out to have ignored and even protected the child abusers in their midst. Why? Because defending the priestly hierarchy turned out to be more important to them than common human decency.
By the time the scandals were starting to emerge across the world in earnest, I’d already drifted away from the authority of the priests. As the true scale of the cover-ups unfolded, this scoured away any remaining respect I had left for Mother Church. This Massacre of Innocence is the Church’s brand new Original Sin for the 21st Century. An unspeakable crime for which its institutions will never be clean again.
The Catholic Church sees itself as the ultimate arbiter of moral authority and truth. If their objection to gay marriage is that it allows new moralities and new truths to emerge in a way they can’t control, then so be it.