Essayists miss the faces of the church

By  Dorothy Cummings, Catholic Register Special
  • January 17, 2007
Why I am still a CatholicWhen I first saw the title of this book of essays, my heart sank. Was it going to be full of whining about that faceless entity, "The Church," meaning that other faceless entity, "The Magisterium"? And indeed, one clever contributor, BBC radio presenter Edward Stourton, points out the dark connotations of the word still: "…I detect a whiff of prejudicing the argument in the use of the word 'still'; it suggests a 'despite' in the sub-text, a conviction that we apologists must make our case in the face of overwhelming evidence of the general ghastliness of the church under the long reign of John Paul II."

I confess I was surprised by the title because all the contributors live in Britain, not an island famously known for its tolerance of Roman Catholics.

Most of the 14 essays of Why I am Still a Catholic are thoughtful and honest expressions of deep and abiding Catholic faith. Many of the essayists express anger and sorrow towards the pedophile priest scandals and their disappointments with "the people in power in the church." Others outline their disagreements with the faith, which they locate not in the faith, but in a (faceless) magisterium that refuses to come around. But overall the essays have been written with love and respect for Roman Catholicism.

With the exception of Cherie Booth, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and of Anne Maguire, who was wrongly convicted of terrorism, I have not heard of these essayists before. They are presumably familiar to British readers, having been drawn from the ranks of the media, politicians, professors, comedians and athletes. Although this strikes me as a narrow field, it gives the reader the advantage of reading some very good writing. 

Their ages range from 31 to 86, which also strikes me as narrow. Where are the young people? Seventy-five-year-old Brian Kent, the vice-president of Pax Christi (and ex-priest), reports that "too often the church here looks like a beleaguered fortress of the increasingly elderly faithful, terrified of a world outside and endlessly respectful of whoever happens to have political power." Well, I'm not in Britain, but I have my doubts about that. It is Kent's kind of thinking that sank The Catholic New Times. Ignore the rising twenty-something young fogies at your peril. 

The collection begins with Frank Cottrell Boyce's excellent "A Global Caravan Site," which takes the form of an argument between himself and his inner skeptic. I was disappointed with the next essay, by Christina Odone, a newspaper columnist and the wife of a divorced man. She believes this second role makes her "an unwanted guest at the eucharistic banquet," but refuses to look into the possibility of an annulment. She says the process "smack(s) of casuistry" and, outrageously, links it to the (faceless) church's "turning of a blind eye" towards pedophiliac priests. Needless to say, her thoughts on the subject betray a misunderstanding of what an annulment is.

For a truly heartbreaking story, turn to "Locked Away like a Nun" by Maguire. Maguire was imprisoned for 14 years on charges of running a bomb-making factory for the IRA. She was later found innocent. Maguire was sustained by her faith, but not by pastorally inept priests or her parish: "No one from the parish I had lived in all those years made any effort to contact me. They knew me, but now they didn't want to have anything to do with me. They preferred to believe everything they'd read." And yet Maguire found fellowship among the other Catholic women (some linked to the IRA) in prison. In the end she was freed through the efforts of a number of nuns and priests and Cardinal George Basil Hume.

Of the late Cardinal Hume, Maguire says something odd. She writes, "I didn't see Basil Hume so much as sent by the church, but by God." As Hume was the principle prelate of Britain, it seems strange that she did not see the church in him. And at the end of her essay, she shrugs at her impotence before the "people in power in the church" who "will just go on doing what they're going to do." And this sentiment is representative of the great paradox of this book: a church of faces and yet constant mention of a faceless church.

 Why I am Still a Catholic  has neglected to include essays by priests, nuns, monks and bishops, but the essayists include their voices themselves, in stories and quotes. Some, like comedian Mel Giedroyc, paint brilliant word pictures of the Catholics, including priests and nuns, around them. And yet there are invocations of that bogeyman, "The Institutional Church," as if the men who write the encyclicals and face the music have neither names nor faces.

Gay journalist and convert Charlie Brown addresses this enduring paradox by presenting an anecdote told by his hero Henri Nouwen: "People complain about the church, they say the church isn't interested in their problems. I spoke to a young man with AIDS a few days ago and he told me, 'The church doesn't care about me, where is the church in my life now when I'm dying of AIDS?' And I said, 'Who do you think I am? Who do you think any priest is? I am the church! And I care about you. That's why I am sitting with you, now.' "

The church is a church of millions of faces and millions of voices.

Why I am Still a Catholic gives us a chance to hear at least 15 of those voices. For the most part, it makes for good listening.    

(Cummings is a doctoral student at Boston College.)

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