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Looking Backwards, Going Nowhere

If not being progressive means being backward, then I’ve realized I’m backward. And if the life of faith is a process of getting better all the time, I’m going nowhere. So, here’s my confession.

I was born and grew up in Zambia, and I was nine when that country gained independence in 1964. After I was married we lived in Kenya and Zimbabwe before my English husband persuaded me to return to his home country with our four little children in 1988. Like many people with a colonial background, my awakening to political engagement was slow. It was when we moved to Zimbabwe shortly after Robert Mugabe came to power in 1980 that I became interested in politics. In those early days of black majority rule, Mugabe painted a vision of racial reconciliation and introduced innovative reforms which promised much. We later learned that his henchmen had murdered thousands of his political rivals during those years.

Our eight years in Zimbabwe led me to the Catholic Church. The Justice and Peace Commission in that country was a brave and critical voice both before and after the former British colony’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in November 1965. Catholic religious orders provided education and health care to poor rural communities, and I witnessed a level of racial inclusivity in the Church that was sadly lacking from the Presbyterian Church I belonged to in the white suburbs in Harare. There was also a charismatic and handsome Polish pope who cut a dashing figure on the world stage. What wasn’t to like?

My political conscientization continued when we moved to England, when Thatcher and Reagan were on their neo-liberal crusade to stage a global economic revolution. I began to see that this ruthless capitalist enterprise, no longer constrained by any communist alternative, was a form of global apartheid, perpetuating the exploitative and divisive politics of the western empires through an economic system which ensured that the poor remained poor while the rich became richer than ever before.

I became a vocal politicised Catholic, joining justice and peace groups, organising petitions, scorning those who rattled rosaries and raised money for charities but refused to see that the system they belonged to was rotten through and through. When I began theological studies as a mature student at the age of 36, I discovered feminism and liberation theology, and for a while these articulated for me the redeeming promise of God’s justice and the very essence of what it meant to be a Catholic living out the vision of Vatican II.

So why now, when the UK and the USA are languishing beneath the most undemocratic, corrupt and destructive governments in living memory, and the Catholic hierarchy is riven with scandals and abuses of power, do I find myself in a state of troubled ambiguity about politicised Catholicism, however radical or progressive it might be?

During lockdown, I experienced a profound transformation in my understanding of what it means to be Catholic. I still can’t make theological sense of this, and I don’t know what it ultimately means in terms of my relationship with the institutional Church. I am on a personal journey, groping somewhat blindly, and yet with a deep sense of being led by One I can neither see nor hear, but who goes ahead of me and lights up the path just enough for me to take one step at a time.

While our church leaders lamented the closure of churches and many Christians complained about not being able to enter church buildings even for private prayer, I was discovering God in the temple of creation. During the silence and serenity, suffused with the knowledge of unspeakable sorrow and suffering all around but also with a heightened awareness of the healing power and beauty of nature, I began to see creation itself as the primordial sacrament.  I didn’t miss Mass. I felt I had no need of the formal sacraments, though I recognise this is a transient and probably unsustainable way of experiencing the Catholic faith. Was I reverting to my Protestant roots? No – because that tradition never offered me the sense of being immersed in the living world of material beings through all my senses and desires. This ongoing process constitutes my discovery of the Catholic sacramental imagination, nourished by my theological interest in and devotion to the Mother of God, and by reflection on creation in the light of the environmental crisis. And as the Covid19 virus continues to rampage through the human family, I remind myself that this too is part of nature. A minute, mindless living organism is proving more powerful than all our institutions and systems. Like Job, we are being called to stand thunderstruck before the awesome power of nature, and to see how small and insignificant we are.

In all this, I’ve been wrangling with some forms of liberal or progressive Catholicism expressed in the pared down ecclesiology of a non-hierarchical, democratic, collaborative and inclusive Church. Do I want that too? I’m not sure. I fear that such an institution inevitably falls prey to bureaucratic preoccupations and death by committee. This isn’t to say that we should be uncritical in the face of corruption and abuse, and I continue to believe that the full sacramental inclusion of the female body is the sine qua non of the Church’s witness to the world. It’s the claim that this is progressive that I resist, because I regard progress as a dangerous myth of modernity which subtly but insidiously feeds an evolutionary ideology of cultural, religious and racial superiority. It implies that those who don’t conform to this vision and value system are in some sense backward. As many evolutionary thinkers are now arguing, the science of evolution is a richly complex and fascinating tapestry of adaptation, survival, annihilation and transformation. It can certainly provide theological metaphors for how the Church might adapt and change, but it doesn’t lend itself to the linear concept of progress as an evolutionary trajectory of historical improvement.

The Catholic tradition enacts a wondrous story on the world’s stage – a story which is shot through with tragedy, failure, corruption and disgrace, and yet which has never lost its central vision of hope in an incarnate and redeeming God who floods creation with life, mercy and love. This unfolding narrative encompasses the complex reality of the human condition, and it can accommodate many cultures, political systems and expressions of faith. I worry about those who would tidy up this unfinished story by claiming to know what the Church should look like, with a vision that is heavily indebted to rationalised western modernity. I share with American feminist Charlene Spretnak a sense that, for all its many benefits, the Second Vatican Council may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Spretnak appeals for a rediscovery of the Catholic Church as ‘a container and guardian of mysteries far greater than itself’, and she describes the destructive influence of rationalizing modernity on Catholic devotion: ‘Today, the theology and liturgy of the Catholic Church is less “cluttered,” less mystical, and less comprehensive in its spiritual scope. Its tight, clear focus is far more “rational” but far less whole.’[i] To say this is not to identify with those who seek a nostalgic return to a rigid and austere doctrinal tradition, but it is to appeal for a shared Catholic vision shaped by sacramentality, humbled by the mystery of which we are a part, and suffused with a hope that resists the cynicism of our times.

So while I have been formed by many different perspectives since becoming a Catholic more than thirty years ago, I find myself falling back on the basics of what it means for me to say I’m simply Catholic, without adjectives. Feminist theology has inspired me to struggle for justice for women in the Church and society. Liberation theology read through the lens of my own colonial past has suffused my consciousness with a tormenting awareness of the injustices that so many suffer on account of race, poverty and all forms of exclusion which protect the smug complacency of the status quo. Yet the sacramental mystery of Mother Church, as a prism through which to view the redeeming work of Christ throughout creation within the vagaries of history and the messy struggles of being human, remains for me the most fundamental and essential truth of the faith I still bumble towards, with the best of intentions but without making much progress along the way!

[i] Charlene Spretnak, Missing Mary: The Queen of Heaven and Her Re-Emergence in the Modern Church (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 4.