The Context of a Theology of Engagement: Part 1

December 2015 Opinion Joe Grayland Pope Francis calls for us to be open and to be an engaging Church. To engage is to commit – not stand on the peripheries…

December 2015
Joe Grayland
Pope Francis calls for us to be open and to be an engaging Church. To engage is to commit – not stand on the peripheries – to get below the surface to explore the depth in a relationship so as to be able to experience, better understand and live it more fully. Fr Joe Grayland offers the following opinion.
A theology of engagement with the modern, technological world of the secular-believer and the secular-non-believer needs to engage with the reality of ordinary lives, and it needs to take religious truth seriously. It needs to explore the muliple influences that shape the contemporary person, beginning with the contemporary Christian believer. A theology of engagment will have to dialogue with our new expectations in communication and decision-making as it seeks to include in its programme the multiplicity of voices that, in the end, find their way into the programme of belief, faith, worship, salvation, many of which are drawn from the public debate surrounding the role of religion and secularism.
The complex issues now being faced by the teaching Church have, in many instances, already been faced by Christian families and Sunday assemblies. Debates on contraception, homosexuality, abortion, divorce, women ministers and married clergy began for many families with garden weddings, extra-marital children, boring homilies and threats of excommunication if one’s children did not attend Catholic schools. There are many instances, for example, of a parish assembly’s willingness to encourage ministry at Sunday worship from those whose life-situations are defined by the magisterial authority as illicit, just as there are for school boards to accept the same in their teaching staff or management.
Theological and pastoral practice debates in New Zealand are not that much different from other countries with calls for a deeper awareness and acceptance of cultural difference, geographic particularities, ethical exceptions, gender equality and sexual and gender diversity. The reality of being Catholic in today’s Church is to negotiate a path between what one personally believes and what the Church teaches, where the disconnect can be quite pronounced.
The divergence between the teacher’s, or magister’s, theological worldview and that of the ordinary Western Catholic has been illustrated in movements such as the Aufruf zum Ungehorsam (Call to Disobedience) in Austria and the Voice of the Faithful in the United States. But, perhaps the most illuminating instance of this divergence is the 2015 general vote in Ireland for marriage equality. The overwhelming public support for marriage equality for all people, irrespective of gender or gender identity, is an example of the crisis the Church faces both internally and externally. In the wake of this staggering outcome the Archbishop of Dublin described the vote as a ‘wakeup call’ to the Church, but perhaps he meant the magisterial teachers?
Belief, faith, truth, religion and worship are complex elements of a simple ecosystem. Depending on your point of view, this ecosystem is either weakened or defined by the internal disconnections between the magisterium, parish assembly and personal belief. What cannot be denied is the impact this evolution has on our contemporary environment of worship and religion. It creates a world where believer and teacher alike are being constantly ‘evangelised’ through forces that neither control and which many are ill-equipped to address.
Today the teacher can no longer command the believer to a submission of will, intellect or belief where the teacher is seen as unreliable, or where the teacher has already given significant scandal, rendering its words untrustworthy. This unfortunate position leads to a situation where believer and teacher become competitors in the work of God’s salvation. Such a situation, where it exists, calls us all to penance, dialogue and reconciliation.
Jesus was not slow to challenge the error of his tradition, or to show where it falsely understood the human condition. Tradition must be subject to truth, and truth is not posed in a vacuum. All theological inquiry into truth is posed within the context of a living tradition, just as all cultural truth is posed within the context of an actual culture.
All of this shows, first that Catholicism is more openly divided than united in its approach to key contemporary questions and, second that the Church’s teaching authority is catechised by the believers themselves. The Church, people and teachers, has never been theologically homogeneous, but the distance today, between the theological worldviews within the Church is further complicated by a social and political context that generally sees religion and belief as an irritating, irrational ‘problem that must be solved and contained by the secular state and/or by confining it (religion) to the private sphere’ (‘Faith in a new world order’, Churchill 21st Century Statesmanship Global Leaders Programme, The Tablet, vol. 269, No. 9124, 31 October 2015, p16), reveals the opportunity for intelligent, authentic and honest pastoral action.
Religious leaders in the western world today cannot ignore the mathematics of religious decline neither can they ignore growing secularism that reduces religious belief and theological truth to a matter of opinion, or a private hobby.