Outside, Beyond, But (Still, Ever) in the Church

Cambridge, MA. I’ve been wandering a bit in the last few weeks, inside, outside, around the edges of the Church. Part of it had to do with actual travel, trips to Washington DC, Santa Clara, California, and New York City, but much of it was movement in a mental space, in a series of conversations taking place either at the margins of Church or quite outside it. As mentioned in my last entry, two weeks ago we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Center for the Study of World Religions, a grand occasion accentuated and deepened by a series of stimulating presentations, on topics such as: some 19th century Protestant American Christian views of other religions; the shift from “world” religions to truly global, globalizing religions (that is, from noticing that discrete religions happen to spread around the world, to an emerging, historically intense realization that being-global, being inter-connected on social, economic, political, religious grounds is our new religious situation); the ways in which the “study” of religions, Christianity included, must ever balance traditional modes of learning — text and tradition based — with the evidence of religious flourishing in the oral and practical, visual and internet media; and another round in the unending debate whether faith matters in scholarship, in the classroom. In the background of all this, the Tibetan sand mandala was constructed and duly deconstructed, a cosmos come and gone.
     Immediately, even as the anniversary ended (I missed the end of Director Donald Swearer’s memorable closing address), I headed to DC for a weekend Hindu-Christian dialogue, joining a group that had been meeting for more than a decade, though I had joined them only once before, in the beginning. This dialogue involved Vaisnava Hindus and Christians of various denominations, including a significant number of Catholics, including at least four priests. It was an interesting event — the theme was fear and trust in the several traditions — but what was interesting too was that it is not revolve around the issues in the Church that have been distracting and dismaying us in recent times, particularly the ongoing revelations about sex-abuse and its handling by Church authorities. The Hindu participants were interested in conversation with Christians; recognizing that the Church, like Hindu communities, is imperfect, they wanted simply to move on to spiritual matters.
     During the following two weeks I heard a fascinating panel discussion on Protestant African-American churches’ internationalization in Africa and the Middle East — global churches of a different sort — and a highly nuanced academic paper on the experiential refinement of dramatic literature in medieval Hindu India, interpreted alongside contemporary analytic reflection on how language works. In the same weeks I was also finishing my spring courses. In the first, which I’ve blogged about throughout the semester, we were reading some more Tamil devotional poetry, that of the woman poet Karaikkal Ammaiyar (6th century), who praised Siva, and of Apirami Bhattar (18th century) who praised the Goddess Apirami (the Beautiful Goddess). In my larger lecture course, the Study of Religion and Ministry, we finished by reflecting on religion and violence after 9/11, and the themes of secularity, writing, and interiority in Ian McEwen’s novel Saturday. I also had the privilege to hear Roger Haight, SJ, give the annual Tillich Lecture at Harvard’s Memorial Church, a superb and typically insightful on why today’s emerging and complex spiritualities rightly matter today for those of us who care about religion, understood in light of the wisdom of St. Ignatius Loyola and the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich.
     And finally, this weekend, I had the chance to hear and respond to the senior honors theses of four religion majors at Santa Clara: the Jesuit tradition of education in its current American embodiment; the ways in which Maronite Christians suffered through and survived the Lebanon violence of the 1970s and 80s, with stronger communal values; clarifications on the identity of a northern European Heathen deity — historically obscure, but worshipped all the more today; a study of (overwhelmingly passionately positive) undergraduate preference for the ordination of women in the Church. This new generation — including surely some of our future scholars and religious leaders in the decades ahead — is thinking in, for, around, beyond the Church: it made me feel somewhat old — but happily so. There is life after me.
     I am lucky to be in a position where such events are available to me, where I can see, hear, and learn in these most interesting ways. You have your own examples, I am sure, of what has made you think anew during these past weeks.
Yet all this has also made me think about the Church’s inside and outside in a new way. We have rightly concerned about the wickedness of clerical child abuse, and the sinful irresponsibility of its concealment, and we rightly worry about our future. But we need to raise our eyes and see the horizon too: much of the world’s life of religion and spirituality is moving forward, flourishing, growing, rising and falling — quite outside the Church as we normally think of it.
     But none of this suggests in the least that I would actually be better off or happier outside the Church, this Roman Catholic Church as community, tradition, authority structure, sacramental way of spiritual practice, Christ’s own mysterious body in this world. It is only in this very interesting and diverse world that the Church can be Church, so we need to look out as much as we look in. I hope none of us is Catholic because she or he thinks that nothing interesting or wise or spiritual is happening elsewhere, or as if the best of and within us hinges on what happens in Rome or what we think about what happens in Rome. I hope we are not angry with our hierarchy merely because we think everything depends on that hierarchy, or on our anger at it. We are better off if we can think of ourselves as called by God to be Catholic, finding God as Catholic, even thinking that the Church stands near the very center of God’s plan for the world — while not taking ourselves or Rome too seriously, attributing too much importance to the Church as we see it, as it is governed, as we would imagine governing it better. Were the Vatican (and me too!) to disappear tomorrow, the work of God in the world would go forward quite well, I suspect. The Church matters absolutely, but not as we think. God calls us to live, love, serve in the Church, but not to be obsessed with the Church by being too loyal or worrying about it too much. If this strains our minds and leaves us speechless, so much the better.

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Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 5 months ago
very well said, Fr. Clooney.  Amen and thank you.  Being Catholic is a way of knowing God in the world.  A sacramental way of spiritual practice, a certain structuring of the psyche.  Your testimony to the passion of the religion majors at Santa Clara is indeed hopeful.
8 years 5 months ago
Fr. Looney seems to hold a fascination for eveything but Catholicism...
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 5 months ago
Read a little deeper into Fr. Clooney's post, Maria.  The fascination he holds for the world come from his looking OUT from BEING Catholic.  We can't always be looking back at ourselves lest we become symied and frozen in our own limited conception of who and what we are - at some point we have to take the risk to BECOME Catholic in the world.
Sunil Korah
8 years 5 months ago
" much of the world’s life of religion and spirituality is moving forward, flourishing, growing, rising and falling — quite outside the Church as we normally think of it."
I feel very aware of this as an Indian Catholic, living in India, as part of a small minority, surrounded by people of other religions and very many different cultures. 
"God calls us to live, love, serve in the Church, but not to be obsessed with the Church by being too loyal or worrying about it too much."
Very well put. I think too many people, both on the right and left are so strident in their protestations, as if the future of the church depended on their view carrying the day, that Christian love and Christian charity are missing. I believe that this is God's church and He will see it through
Jim McCrea
8 years 5 months ago
Maria:  I'll give you the benefit of the doubt about calling him Looney rather than his correct name of Clooney.
The substance of your snippy little snippet is not worthy of further comment.


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