In Sydney recently (May 2009) there was a meeting of forty members of a Catholic religious congregation, almost all over sixty-five, a sprightly group considering their ages. Three members of the congregation's Leadership Team were present.
At one point, a member of the Leadership Team introduced a piece of writing which contrasted two approaches to Christianity: one declared traditional; one declared a new approach to 'vital' Christianity. The latter was the one endorsed overwhelmingly by the Leadership Team.
In that article, the idea of a Church was hardly mentioned; the teaching authority of the Catholic Church did not rate. Yet the small, ageing gathering comprised surviving members of a Catholic religious congregation originally missioned by the Church to minister to young people; under the circumstances the Church seemed deserving of a mention.
On the first page of the document in question there was an attempt to focus those present on a few key, but unrelated areas of difference between so-called traditional Christians (viewed as yesterday's people) and the new emerging Christians (seen as the wave of the future). The 'crunch' came immediately:
* the active gay and lesbian life styles were endorsed;
* the ordination of women to priestly ministry was supported;
* the obligation to preach the Gospel and to convert people to the Catholic faith was declared unnecessary, a threat to ecumenism, peace and harmony in a pluralistic world;
* the writer was also opposed to war: something, at least, we can agree on.
Actually, before the Religious present read the six closely typed pages, they were invited to sing a song around a new view of God - not the one they may have been used to. Croaky voices did as they were asked; but some sang uneasily and the awkwardness was not merely the result of old age. Then they settled to read the statement quietly.
It was not said at the time, but it should be stressed here that these types of thoughtful 'religious' articles are legion where people interested in 'spiritualities' gather; what was amazing in this case was not that the article existed, but that it was offered to Catholic Religious by members of their executive to be taken seriously.
Other ideas amid the mishmash included:
* The Bible is a human product: simply the experiences of the people of Israel on the one hand, and of the early Christian community on the other; it was human not divine thinking.
* Salvation has nothing to do with an afterlife; it is life lived now!
* There is a seductive stress on a personal relationship with Jesus;
* The political dimension to life is important; Christians must struggle for justice and social righteousness.
Of course, orthodox Catholics have no difficulties with the idea of a personal relationship with the Lord, nor that the struggle for a just, peaceful society is a valid goal. But these reasonable ideas found themselves in bizarre company.
In this observer's view, the article reflects the seeping of modern secularism into a religious congregation whose members are urged to accommodate to the bewildering range of fashionable ideas, few of them fully Christian, let alone specifically Catholic.
The document's author appeared especially interested in acceptance of the active gay and lesbian lifestyle as valid for the follower of Jesus. He noted that this lifestyle is condemned in the Old Testament book of Leviticus but that was merely the personal opinion of some grumpy, intolerant Hebrew.
In fact, the active gay lifestyle was condemned by St Paul in numerous of his epistles, and since then by the Latin and Eastern Churches up to the present time.
However, the piece of writing used as inspiration did reflect certain views widely held within the modern post-Christian world:
* the general resistance to institutions;
* an unwillingness to accept absolute moral positions;
* an overwhelming emphasis on this world, ecology and the environment;
* an openness to a variety of spiritualities, whether or not compatible with Catholicism;
* an emphasis on individual freedom and personal relationships.
Some of these pervasive modern ideas and attitudes pose no problems for the conscientious Catholic when they are phrased in general terms. The difficulty comes with certain specifics; the 'devil is in the detail'.
Catholics believe that Jesus is Lord and that after His life, death and resurrection, He commissioned the disciples to 'go teach all nations', appointing one of them, Peter, as leader. After Pentecost, the preaching of the Apostles was immediately effective and gradually the Church evolved, guided by the Holy Spirit working through the Apostles, as they gradually framed the Church organisation in response to the conditions they faced.
The bewildering variety of modern 'spiritualities', be they influenced by Christianity or not, tend to focus on the here-and-now. Salvation is ignored or presumed to be virtually automatic.
But the Catholic Church holds that while life is worth living, this life is but a preparation for eternity and that a loving God makes certain demands on His creatures. These demands concern issues of belief, worship, lifestyle and concern for others. Salvation is not automatic.