A report in last week’s edition of The Record carried a photo of supporters of what is called same-sex marriage protesting at the gates of St Mary’s Cathedral on August 13 as a congregation of approximately 150 people gathered inside participated in a Mass celebrated by Bishop Donald Sproxton to mark National Marriage Day.
National Marriage Day is an initiative of the Australian Family Association aimed at celebrating the most fundamental of our society’s institutions and to promote its benefits and unique nature in an era when the very ideas of commitment and fidelity between adults is under attack from a range of quarters – not so much from protestors as from the media who are our culture’s main formers of opinion in almost everything.
Several things were very interesting about the August 13 event at St Mary’s Cathedral.
The first is the protestors themselves. The young people protesting outside St Mary’s were not the outrageous queer campaigners we might expect such as, for example, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who usually appear to be drag queens with a penchant for attacking the Catholic Church.
(We might observe, in passing, that the remarkable witness of religious women over centuries such as the Sisters of Mercy, St Mary MacKillop’s Josephites or Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity – to name only a handful – hardly seem an appropriate subject for the often vicious ridicule they are subjected to by groups such as the ‘Sisters’ of Perpetual Indulgence – but that is another matter.)
In fact, the young protestors outside St Mary’s looked and acted very much like typical young Australian university students – as, in fact, many of them were.
It was clear that they were protesting what they see as a clear injustice in belief and attitude towards those who experience same-sex attraction, an intention to deny others the fulfilment they seek for their own lives which others are allowed to experience purely on the basis of blind adherence to obviously outdated religious dogmas.
Here, in a nutshell, was the whole problem of the Catholic Church in the present era – or, at any rate, a large slice of the problem.
Meanwhile, gathered inside St Mary’s was a relatively modest number of people whose average age was significantly older than the protestors.
In fact, the evening was, in one sense, really all about the thing called the New Evangelisation.
It was clear that the whole challenge of the New Evangelisation for the Catholic Church was expressed in the events of the evening of August 13, for the Church has come gradually (often aided by self-generated scandals such as the sexual abuse issue of the last 15 years or so) to be perceived widely over several decades in the ways in which the young protestors see it.
What the Church actually is, of course, is something utterly different, something so radical and ever-new that those protesting outside the gates would be astonished if they saw it.
However, what they see (or think they see) is something completely different.
First, they see the Church as an institution. Considering that Christianity’s very first adherents referred to the Church not as ‘the Church’ but as ‘the Way’, it is clear that the Church is widely perceived in our society to be something like a corporation (and in the most suspicious sense) rather than a way of life, a way of being.
For the young protestors, and huge numbers of Australians, this is how the Church is primarily perceived.
Secondly, the Church is seen as overwhelmingly (again, usually in the worst possible ways) committed to the primacy of dogma over human persons and the most important questions which each and every human life is confronted by – who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? How am I meant to be?
The Church, in their eyes, is essentially hostile to the deepest aspirations of the human heart and to the deep desire for fulfilment which drives every human being, a body obsessed with the letter of the law but not its spirit.
In short, it seems fairly clear, both the young protestors and large numbers of Australians see the Church exactly as the Pharisees who crucified an innocent man in the interests of maintaining power and political expediency.
The scene set out above is actually the field of the New Evangelisation, a renewed impulse coming from the heart of the Church to re-propose the faith of Christianity to all men and women in new and fresh ways so that its reality and the beauty of its faith, rather than the mirage so widely believed, can be perceived by anybody.
The scandals and the betrayals from within in the issue of sexual abuse, and the widespread perception of the Church as utterly our of date and irrelevant to all except the simple, the obtuse and the unintelligent, mean that business as usual and evangelisation by diocesan committee cannot possibly work.
There are some reasons for hope that the Church in Australia is slowly beginning to understand this.
This is also one reason why Pope Francis is such a refreshing presence for the whole world and the Church.
He speaks directly to all in simple, sometimes blunt, language.
What the young protestors and the rest of our contemporaries need to hear from the Church is – firstly – that they are not judged, that they are respected even if we disagree with them, as Bishop Sproxton importantly pointed out inside St Mary’s that evening.
What they need to hear is what they have not yet heard – that God is love and that they are, before anything else, loved. They also need to sense that Catholics regard their lives as more important than their own.