Leading questions for New Zealand's Religious

Leading questions for New Zealand's Religious

Sr Micaela Dillon OP

Sister Micaela Dillon, O.P. teaches at St. Dominic's College, Auckland. Her special field is Religious Education, in which she has extensive experience.

She recently completed a Bachelor of Theology Degree at the University of Otago, Dunedin. Her degree work included a dissertation on the vocation of a Director of Religious Education.

The dissertation, published last month in The New Zealand Tablet, expressed concern at the state of religious education in New Zealand and warned that Catholic schools were in danger of becoming slightly more exclusive copies of the State schools down the road.

Recently all members of religious orders in New Zealand received a "Questionnaire on Spiritual Practices of Religious". The introduction to the questionnaire states that the aim is "to gather information from every member of every group of religious in Aotearoa New Zealand." Most of the questions are about the Eucharist.

It would seem, however, that there are good reasons for New Zealand religious to be suspicious of the philosophy behind this survey and the use to which it will be put. For example, who is actually running the survey?

The introduction to the questionnaire says that, "Over the last three years, our New Zealand Major Superiors' Annual Conference has discussed the changes taking place in the spiritual attitudes and practices of New Zealanders. Since accurate information was lacking we have set up a study group of our members and others with expertise in this field. This group will undertake a two year reflection on this matter, the first stage of which is this survey."

How objective?

Religious might well ask who are the members of the Major Superiors' Conference who are members of the study and who are the "others with expertise in this field"? The only information is a panel at the end of the survey which requests that replies be sent to a religious in Wanganui. It has been said that the survey is not the product of the general meetings of major superiors but that it was suggested by two women's orders and endorsed only by the executive of the Major Superiors, Conference. This is not the impression given by the introduction of the questionnaire.

Religious might also ask how the survey is being funded, what use will be made of the results, and how objective the survey is. The last point is pressing as some questions seem to suggest a particular attitude to the Mass. Also, many questions seem to be structured in such a way as to convey to the respondent a clue as to the expected, and approved, answer.

The questionnaire is introduced with the following statement, "We realise that the spiritual life of religious is showing some change in its outward practice and we would like to find out how individual religious experience Eucharist, worship and prayer in their lives in Aotearoa New Zealand today."

After questions about the respondent's age, sex, background, and the availability of Mass, the survey goes on to ask how frequently the religious chooses to attend Mass. The options for the reply are "Daily", "Weekly", Two/Three times weekly", "Monthly", "Other." The survey asks where the religious chooses to attend Mass and then goes on to ask which situations of celebrating Eucharist are "helpful (lifegiving, meaningful, etc.) for you" or the reverse.

This is followed by a section entitled "Different Emphases" which begins with the statement, "People have different ways of thinking about Eucharist. Every statement below is true for someone but not for everybody. That is because each one of us lives in a different reality and sees the world (including our spiritual practices) differently. The following statements may help to clarify why the Eucharist is important for you personally. Please rank each statement from 1-7."

Among these statements "true for somebody but not everybody" is the statement that "the bread truly becomes the body of Christ." Other statements include, "To participate means being able to share one's bread (one's life) with the needy", "To participate means to work for greater equality in our society", and "to break open the word together is for me a vital part of Eucharistic celebration."

Part 'b' of "Different Emphases" begins with another short introduction: "Recently some people have expressed concern about some of the tradition associated with celebrating Eucharist."

The statements to be ranked on a scale of 1-7 are, with no omissions,

  • "The language and symbols used are often a barrier to my truly celebrating",
  • "Eucharist is celebrated in a way which does not touch my daily experience",
  • "Barriers exist which exclude some from full participation, i.e., divorced who are remarried,
  • "Little opportunity to discover new ways of expressing a broader understanding of Eucharist",
  • "There is insufficient emphasis and reflection upon the Word",
  • "The role of the male priest is too dominating for encouraging participation",
  • "Women are excluded from ministerial priesthood", and
  • "Church practice over 2000 years has made celebration of the Eucharist too complicated."

Subjective experience

The questionnaire concludes by inquiring into "attitudes to differences" and "other communal forms of worship." Finally the respondent is thanked for "valuable information regarding your understanding of and experience of Eucharist" and told that he or she has made "an important contribution to the validity of this survey."

The overall impression given by the questionnaire is that the Mass is a subjective experience, that the Church's tradition is likely to be a barrier to participation in the Eucharist, and that some religious are commendably forward-looking in their approach to Eucharist while others are reactionary to the point of obstructing and persecuting the forward-looking.

These attitudes conveyed by the questionnaire certainly need investigation. Can a religious really choose to go to Mass monthly? Is it right to say that not everybody believes that the bread becomes the Body of Christ? Does the fact that the Eucharist is life-giving come only from the experience of the participants? Why is the Mass as sacrifice, as the making-present of Calvary and the Last Supper, as the Eschatological Banquet, not mentioned? Why investigate attendance at the Liturgy of the Word or a Communion Service celebrated alone? Can a shared homily be considered to be what makes the Mass meaningful? Are all points of view about the Mass equally valid? These queries throw grave doubts on the validity of the survey and on the agenda behind it.

Then the questionnaire suggests that the Church's tradition is likely to be a barrier to participation in the Eucharist. The fact that recently some people have expressed concern about some of the tradition associated with the Eucharist" is not a justification for offering a bank of statements critical of the Church's position on the Eucharist. The inclusion of statements on divorced and remarried people and on the "exclusion" of women from the ministerial priesthood suggests a provocative attitude to the Church's stand on these issues.

The questionnaire also implies that some religious are commendably "ahead" on the Eucharist and some are "behind." The section of the questionnaire on "Attitudes to Differences" has martyr-statements for those who are "ahead" such as "I don't feel accepted if my views diverge from traditional practice."

Those who are "behind" have rigid, judgmental statements like "I feel angry when people have non-traditional views of Eucharist." The questionnaire also asks, with reference to "parish", "religious community" and "other groups", "In what ways would you like to worship in any of these communities?" and "How far ahead of your actual practice are your ideas/hopes/visions?"

Points of view

What use is going to be made of the results of this survey? The introduction to the questionnaire says that "this survey is to help each of us." The agenda revealed by the questions suggests that this "help" will be the promotion of particular points of view. It seems that a certain group is taking advantage of the docility of religious to gain statistical backing for opposition to the Church's teaching. Certainly, the limited options for answering in the questionnaire will produce a bias in the results. In addition, the options which reflect traditional Church teaching tend to caricature orthodox attitudes while the "forward-looking " statements are sympathetically worded. This is a clear channelling of the respondents towards a certain kind of answer.

Then, although the questionnaire is headed "Questionnaire on Spiritual Practices of Religious", there is no mention of the Divine Office, meditation, or spiritual reading. It would seem that whoever composed the questionnaire was interested only in gathering evidence on certain practices and attitudes in relation to the Eucharist.

Finally, and more fundamentally, should religious not be looking outwards, promoting sound doctrine and attendance at Mass by all the members of the Church? This would seem to be a more appropriate task for them than looking inward to the fulfilment of their own "needs" or questioning the Church's teaching.

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