New Zealand Catholicism to put on Maori clothing?

New Zealand Catholicism to put on Maori clothing?

John Kennedy OBE

AD2000's New Zealand correspondent John Kennedy reports on the New Zealand Bishops' controversial Maori Pastoral Care Plan and other moves to "acculturate" (or "inculturate") Catholicism in New Zealand. Such expressions have tended to become part of the habitual nonsense language of contemporary missionary theory.

A distinguished New Zealand writer, Carl Stead, was sent to Coventry last year by the country's literary elite because he wrote that nowadays it seemed that the best way to get a poem published was to be either a woman or a Maori. Sadly, there is a lot of truth in that and I am afraid that it is a judgement which has an application in the Catholic Church in New Zealand today.

After the women's ordination issue, the state of our indigenous people (to use the jargon) looms large. Many Catholics find this rather hard to take. First, for most of the Church's history here Maori Catholics tended to be neither seen nor heard. They were set off to one side, and it was the job largely of two religious orders, the Society of Mary and the Mill Hill Fathers to care for them pastorally. Secondly, the laity now find deference to things Maori, liturgically and otherwise, a feature at any gathering of any consequence. Many think it is being overdone.

The Maori people are now very much at the centre of the action here, both in the Church and in the secular world. In the Church the latest development has been the announcement of a Maori Pastoral Care Plan. The plan, presented to the recent Bishops' meeting, is virtually a fait accompli. Even as it was being presented eight booklets and two videos on Maori theology and spirituality were in preparation. A detailed operation in each diocese will "review and, if necessary, increase its commitment to formation, education, health, welfare, justice, language retention, cultural development, tribal structures and honouring the Treaty of Waitangi."

The New Zealand Tablet, in an exclusive report on the plan, stated: "Plans include the continued diffusion of Maori spirituality and culture by way of the Maori community, through Catholic teaching and through Scripture. Catechetical and educational texts of Maori spirituality and theology will be made available to colleges and schools. Traditional Maori imagery and patterns of speech will be brought into the life of the Church along with new hymns. The questions surrounding ministry will be addressed, including lay ministry, deacons, priesthood, celibacy, vocations to the priesthood and religious life."

The only public reaction to the plan so far has come from The Tablet's columnist Veritas. This columnist has been a perceptive and, when needed, trenchant, commentator on the life of the Church. In the June 12 Tablet he expressed his concern that aspects of this plan could be separatist, leading to a church within the Church. He had grave doubts about the emphasis being placed on a Maori theology and he suggested that some further explanations other than those already given might be in order.

I think he is whistling in the wind, but I heartily concur. This plan has the potential to create serious division and unrest in the Church and perhaps even to erode some basic Catholic doctrine, e.g., our monotheist view of God. It would not surprise me at all if there is not a determined effort to fit the Maori pantheon of gods - and it is quite a collection - into Catholic ritual on the grounds of "inculturation", or should it be "acculturation"? The old Maori gods, like their Greek and Roman counterparts, should be treated as purely mythical.

But it is not a matter of theology alone. There is a solid core of politics, driven from the radical left, underlying all this. Many of the people pushing for women's ordination, especially nuns, ex-priests and some existing clergy are constantly beavering away. I'm sorry if it all sounds complicated but, believe me, the situation is.

So here is some essential background: the Church came to New Zealand in 1838 when Bishop Pompallier headed a tiny band of Marist Fathers. In the years that followed they did good work among the Maori people, but as settlers poured in and wars developed over land-grabbing, the influence of the Church with the Maori waned and the fast-growing settler population became her main preoccupation. More than a century was to elapse before the first Maori priest was ordained and nearly another fifty years before Fr Max Takuira became the first Maori Bishop. (He is Auxiliary in Hamilton Diocese.)

The Church examined her conscience on the Maori situation in the late sixties and early seventies when the Maori anthropologist, Fr Gerry Arbuckle, S.M., prepared a massive report for the Bishops. Since then there has been continuing discussion on how the Church could improve its pastoral care of the Maori people, and, in particular, bring them more into the mainstream of parish life. That resurgence of interest has coincided with a new, vigorous Maori nationalism. To some extent the two have become linked, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the matter of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Foundation document

This treaty was signed between many of the Maori chiefs and the Crown in 1840 and it is now regarded as the foundation document of New Zealand. The trouble is that it has not always been honoured as it should have been. The Crown's shameful record is only now, very grudgingly, being put right. The bureaucracy in the Church in New Zealand has taken the Maori cause up very strongly, far more so than the laity. The laity, generally, accept that there are wrongs which must be righted, but they and New Zealanders generally are alarmed by the separatist demands of the more extreme Maoris and some of their supporters. Groups such as the Major Superiors (Men and Women) have climbed enthusiastically aboard the bandwagon.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the whole question of Maori injustices has been the astonishing patience and tolerance of the Maori people. Our modern church operators lack that patience. They want action, and they want it fast. They see a situation made to order for such ingredients as liberation theology, acculturation, the preferred option for the poor, liturgical development, hands across the sea to the Aborigines of Australia and indigenous peoples of the Pacific and North America. In the long run they might be better off if they looked more closely at the Maori and at some of the tragic, yet undeniably noble moments of Maori history, such as Parihaka.

The key factor in all this is the Church's National Commission for Justice, Peace and Development (JPD), under the leadership of Mr. Manuka Henare. Mr Henare grew up as Alvin Arnold, a white New Zealander, but because he has some Maori blood, he changed his name to the one he now holds. He is very pro-Maori, and I remember him telling me some years ago that his ambition was "to develop a Maori theology." He is now well on the way to achieving it.

The plan was presented to the Bishops by the national Catholic Maori organisation, Te Runanga O Te Katorika Ki Aotearoa, of which Mr Henare is president. In The Tablet of May 22 Mr Henare said that the presentation of the plan was "an historic moment in the life of the Catholic Church of Aotearoa/New Zealand." Note the preposition "of". It has a separatist ring to it. No longer do we have the "Catholic Church in New Zealand," in other words a part of the universal Church. Note again, how JPD has changed the name of our country, apparently with the approval of the Bishops, from New Zealand to "Aotearoa-New Zealand." "Aotearoa" is the Maori name for New Zealand. I like it, but I would like to have had some say).

Meanwhile there has been in recent years a steady belittling of the heroic efforts of the early missionaries. Never mind that they forsook everything to obey Christ's command to take His Word to the ends of the earth; never mind that they gave themselves unsparingly for the people they served. They were not up with the acculturation play and missiology and they really didn't understand the natives.

The talk today is of the spirit of "aroha" (love and giving) which characterised the culture of the Maori before the white man came. Rubbish! As a distinguished modern Maori leader, the Hon. Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, said to me a few years ago: "There was precious little aroha in New Zealand before the coming of the missionaries."

She was right. Life then was far from that of Rousseau's noble savage, which is the way some people would have us think it was. The Maori society of those days was a brutal, bloody, war-driven, slave-owning regime in which both cannibalism and human sacrifice were common. Indeed, one of the reasons why many Maori people took up Christianity quickly, and espoused a non-violent philosophy, was precisely that they saw in it a way of life so much more human, fulfilling and spiritual than that of the old dispensation of savagery and sorcery.

A Maori theology? I have always seen theology as that branch of learning defined as discourse about God, either from the point of view of what can be known about him from the created world by the natural power of reason (natural theology) or from the point of view of a revelation given by God, and received by man in faith (sacred theology).

Frankly, I cannot see why a Maori theology is necessary at all. A Maori spirituality, yes, because the Maori are a very sensitive people and deeply spiritual by nature. There are aspects of their life we can absorb and be the better for. But a Maori theology? It seems to me that a theology based on race is a contradiction.

Maori gods

The pastoral plan proposes liturgical developments. Good, provided they do not become compulsory in other than Maori services. 1 can even see a place for a Maori rite, if that is what the Maori people would like. But even that would not need a Maori theology. Here I think of the Middle East and of the variety of Catholic rites there. But there is still the one theology.

Lastly, there is the problem of the place of the old Maori gods. Not everyone in the Church here, I fear, would consign them to myth. Indeed the old Maori "departmental" gods (see below) are still very alive in the minds of many Maori, Christian and non-Christian alike. They are treated with respect and their powers feared, much as "pointing the bone" is with Aborigines.

For instance, my wife recounts a disturbing incident involving heitikis (carved pendants, usually of greenstone or bone). Many Europeans as well as Maoris wear them as a gesture of respect for Maori aspirations. I have a simple one carved from ordinary bone; my wife has a striking one, carved for her from whalebone a century old. It is a sign of the mana my wife enjoys among the Maori people because she speaks and teaches their language and was responsible for introducing it into St Paul's (now Kavanagh) College, Dunedin.

A few months ago she attended a Mass at which a diocesan Maori chaplain said he would bless any heitikis those present had. They might, he said, already have had a church blessing, but that would not be enough to prevent any harm flowing from them, from a variety of sources, to the wearer. Only a Maori blessing could end that threat.

My wife who was wearing her heitiki stood fast. But the principal of a major Catholic secondary school was quick to have the church blessing 'topped up.' I've often wondered since if he stopped to consider what his action told the pupils present about the relative powers of Christ and the Maori gods.

What do Maoris Believe?

Primitive Maori religious beliefs governed virtually every aspect of life from the preparation of food or hunting to the making of war, from fishing to building a canoe, to birth, marriage or death.

The Maori firmly believed that without the help and protection of his gods evil powers would overwhelm him. Fear of offending the gods was a daily reality before the coming of Christianity.

The Maori system of gods was complex, with Io, the supreme being, omnipotent and omniscient, heading the list. But knowledge and worship of Io was not for ordinary folk; it was reserved to the tohunga (priest) and superior families. Then came:

1. Ranginui and Papatuenuku, the Sky Father and Earth Mother.

2. The offspring of Ranginui and Papatuenuku make up what are known as the "departmental" gods who control the principal forces of nature. There are perhaps 70 of these, headed by Tanemahuta (forest, trees, birds), Tunatuenga (war), Ronginatena (peace), Tangaroa (sea and fish), Tawhirnatea (wind and storm, Haun-tiatiketike (sweet potatoes), Rantiwoke (earthquakes).

3. Personifications such as Uen-uku (rainbow), Tunui (meteors), Rakaiora (lizards) and so on through an almost endless list.

To all these must be added a host of demons and evil spirits, including atua kahu (spirits of still-born children).

One of the great scholars of Maori life and practice, Elsdon Best, summed it up thus: "The Maori religion was ... a loose, free-and-easy series of beliefs and ceremonies that left each individual at liberty to please himself to a great extent" (The Maori as He Was).

There is more than a hint there of modern super-market Christianity!

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