Home Essays Articles by Michael Whelan SM, PhD Do we dare to dream? Catalyst for Renewal QandA

Do we dare to dream? Catalyst for Renewal QandA


Spirituality and religion are of a piece. A good working definition of spirituality is living relationships – with God (however we name God), with ourselves, with other people and with the world at large. We are all constituted in and through our relationships. A good working definition of religion is spirituality incarnated – the actual institutional structures, organizational processes, rituals, symbols etc that enable our relationships to flourish.

Spirituality without religion tends to become individualistic, even narcissistic. Religion without spirituality tends to become an ideology – and that is at least deadening, more likely dangerous.

Spirituality is the necessary ground of religion – and its reform and renewal.

I am going to offer some very brief notes, from my field of spirituality, that pertain to the grounding of the process of reform and renewal in the Catholic Church in Australia today. I am encouraged by the knowledge that this is a Catalyst event, therefore promoting conversation is its primary aim. Conversation shares its etymology and meaning with conversion. The one thing above all else that will enable a true conversation to take place is the willingness and capacity to be changed in this encounter.

Historical background and context – Contantinianism

On the 11th October 1962, the day the Second Vatican Council opened, Fr Yves Congar OP wrote in his journal:

“I see the weight, that has never been renounced, of the period when the Church behaved as a feudal lord, when it had temporal power, when popes and bishops were lords who had a court, gave patronage to artists and sought a pomp equal to that of the Caesars. That, the Church never repudiated in Rome. To emerge from the Constantinian era has never been part of its programme. (Emphasis added.) Poor Pius IX, who understood nothing about the movement of history, who buried French Catholicism in a sterile attitude of opposition, of conservatism, of Restorationist sentiment . . . was called by God to listen to the lesson of events, those masters which he gives us with his own hands, and to free the Church from the wretched logic of the “Donation of Constantine”, and convert it to an evangelical attitude which would have enabled it to be less OF the world and more FOR the world. He did exactly the opposite. A catastrophic man who did not know what the ECCLESIA was, nor yet what Tradition was; he oriented the Church to be always OF the world and not yet FOR the world which nevertheless stood in need of it. (Emphasis in the original.) And Pius IX still reigns. Boniface VIII still reigns; he has been superimposed on Simon Peter, the humble fisher of men!” (Yves Congar OP, My Journal of the Council, trans. Mary John Ronayne OP and Mary Cecily Boulding OP, Liturgical Press, 2012, 88).

Seven years later, in 1969, the eminent medievalist, Fr Jean Leclerq OSB, presented a brilliant paper at a symposium held at the Benedictine Abbey of Notre-Dame-du-Bec in Normandy. He observed in that paper that the historical consequences of the Edict of Mila in 313

“resulted in what G Le Bras has called ‘the exaltation of the clergy’, a phenomenon which has two main aspects; the progressive clericalisation of the church, which was manifested by a growing tendency to place all church affairs into the hands of the clergy; and, secondly, a concomitant modification of the life of the clerics; if we may make use of a recent French neologism, we could call this second process the ‘clergification’ of the clerics” (Jean Leclercq, “The Priesthood in the Patristic and Medieval Church,” The Christian Priesthood, edited by Nicholas Lash and Joseph Rhymer, Dimension Books, 1970, 58).

The way out of the situation that Leclerq says arose in the 4th and 5th centuries, and that I am calling Constantinianism, will ultimately be by the grace of God. But we must play our part. That’s where the rubber meets the road! We cannot afford to ignore this or trivialise this or misrepresent this or dismiss this historical fact that has had such an influence on Tradition. The process of graced emergence will be slow – painfully slow – and messy – horribly messy.

I am reminded of Pablo Casals (1876-1973), the Spanish-born cellist. He was a lifelong opponent of fascism, a man who took every opportunity to speak out for freedom, even in the most threatening moments. He was forced to flee Spain in 1936. Twenty years later, on his 80th birthday, he told his assembled friends and guests: “The situation is hopeless, we must take the next step.”

Two significant recent events – danger and opportunity

Two highly significant events have happened in the past fifty years, exposing the fragility of the Constantinianism that has characterised the Catholic Church for nearly fifteen hundred years. The question arises: Will we accept them as moments of grace and allow the Spirit to lead us where we need to go, or will we resist and try to prolong the Constantinian shape of the Church?

The first of these events is marked change of the landscape in health care and education in Australia. The once highly visible and impressive profile of vowed religious women and men has gone. Those women and men and the amazing work they did – their talents, sacrifice and generosity – contributed mightily to the identity of the Catholic Church in Australia. The Catholic Church in Australia today is struggling for an identity. Like someone who has suddenly become unemployed, that question of identity cuts deeply into the psyche. It can be a source of despondency and despair or renewal and hope. I see both happening in the Australian Catholic Church at the moment.

The second of these events is closely related to the first. Over the last fifty years there has been a steady erosion of the Catholic Church’s credibility in the wider community. The sexual abuse crisis has obviously been a major part of this loss of credibility, but it should not be seen as the only cause or even the main cause. The Constantinianism, which is more about a kingdom of this world than the Kingdom of God, has left us dreadfully vulnerable to the work of the Evil One. Authoritarian attempts to tighten laws and demand orthodoxy, is like taking Panadol for a melanoma. More radical surgery is demanded.

Two significant challenges – deep roots and deep possibilities

Two deeply rooted – and I would say generally not life-giving, often enough quite destructive – emphases in Catholic Church thinking and practice need to be dealt with. They have been used to support and mask Constantinianism.

The first of these emphases is moralism. In sum, moralism sees Jesus first and foremost as a moral teacher and the Bible first and foremost as a moral map. The good Christian, in this thinking, is the one who behaves him/herself. There is a simple equation operating at the heart of moralism: behave yourself (ie do as you are told) and you will be rewarded by God; misbehave (ie don’t do as you are told) and you will be punished by God. In this equation, God is primarily a judge and therefore to be feared. Eternal punishment is an ever-present possibility. This kind of thinking has to be healed by a genuine Christian mysticism. A good working definition of mysticism is the lived and living awareness of unity in all things. Specifically Christian mysticism experiences that unity in Jesus Christ. We must, as a sine qua non, for any renewal and reform within the Church, recover the mystical heart of our faith.

The second emphasis is closely related to this moralism. The faithful must be educated beyond a practice of the faith that is driven by duty, to one that is drawn by delight. In days gone by, Catholics could be defined – and get their sense of identity – by their fidelity to certain duties – Friday abstinence, Sunday Mass, various devotions and pious practices etc. In the light of everything said above, duty, in and of itself, is not going to motivate most people today. The community must have available to it all the rich resources of Word and Sacrament and Tradition. This, I believe, was the central thesis of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (2013) – “the joy of the Gospel”.

A new evangelization

The vision of the Founder of the Society of Mary – Fr Jean Claude Colin (1790-1875) – was that there would be a gathering of men and women, laity, vowed religious and clergy, who would be present in the Church as Mary was present in Nazareth and present in the early Church. Our Marist Constitutions remind us “to be present in the Church in Mary’s way by learning to love the Church as it is while at the same time being an agent of its renewal and unity” (#78).

Thomas Merton said, whilst giving a retreat in 1967: “Presence is what counts. It’s important to realise that the Church itself is presence and so is the contemplative life. Community is presence, not an institution. We’ve been banking on the ability to substitute institution for the reality of presence, and it simply won’t work” [Thomas Merton – The Springs of Contemplation: A Retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Ave Maria Press, 1992, 17].

We have to discover again the power of presence. I suggest this ought to be our first step when it comes to evangelization – not what we do, not what we say, but who we are. In fact, it ought to be our first step when it comes to our daily lives.