New Wine and Old Wineskins

     Lately, I have begun asking myself if it just might be impossible for the Catholic Church to do away with its old wineskins, to use a metaphor from Scripture. The old wineskin I am referring to is the ancient culture of patriarchy in which our ancient religious institutions are rooted. Some societies have made great gains in finding new ways to imagine the relationships of persons – ways that call for reform of patriarchal biases, reform of laws and customs associated with the primacy of males.

     Some of us had hoped that the new Pope, Pope Francis, would open a door to new discussion about the equitable distribution of power within the Church’s own structures and seek an end to gender discrimination. It seems, however, that the patriarchal roots of the Catholic institution run so deep that it may be “impossible” for anything substantial to change when it comes to, say, the ordination of women. What recourse do people have when a desire for change is present among them in their communities, but when their leaders stand behind religious barricades shouting demands for obedience to out-dated and harmful laws and customs?

     What does it mean for a Catholic to be faithful? What does it mean for a Catholic to be obedient? Some would argue that these two questions can be answered quite easily, while most of us stand in the midst of a dilemma. Growing up as a child of the fifties and sixties, my generation had one foot in a paternalistic culture where “Father knows best,” and the other in a brave new world of democracy, dialogue and institutional reform. Obedience to conscience led revolutionary movements both in the public arena and in the so-called “private” realm of the domicile.

     In some areas of human development, the Church has been a leader in opening new pathways for justice and equality. It must be noted, however, that whenever such pathways have been suggested and followed by renegades within the Church, these revolutionary thinkers and actors have almost always met with resistance from within the institutional Church. Sometimes, the Church officially takes a stance of opposition in response to these new pathways, refusing to acknowledge calls to reform its teaching in the face of new knowledge. This can be especially trying for those who work and walk along new pathways in innovative ministries that, only a few decades ago, would have been difficult to imagine.

     When the Church “clamps down” and denies Catholics the right to adjust their understanding and knowledge of the faith in light of new learning and new opportunities for ministry and mission, we can be left with the feeling that we are faced with two bleak alternatives. Either we abandon conscience and responsibility, deny the validity of our thinking and feeling, go against the grain of social consensus in the new movements objected to by the official teachers and leaders of the Church, or we “opt out” of the narrow consensus of official Catholicism in order to explore new ways of being faithful.

     Why should we be presented with such stark alternatives in living dynamic lives of faith in the year 2014? While we can probably agree that new ideas, concepts and methods require the whole Church to enter into a process of discerning their value, it’s hard to agree that the discussion should be limited by imposing rules on what can be explored. Once the “queen of the sciences,” theology as a field of study seems to be quickly losing its appeal to those who want the freedom to explore what God is doing by peering outside the box of conventional understandings.

     If the post-Vatican II period has been a time of renewal it has also been a time of retrenchment. At times the People of God move rapidly in the direction of novelty, and at other times we seem to be abandoning the inspired teachings of Vatican II. At times we are encouraged to engage the world as the context in which we find the raw materials for personal and social transformation. At other times, we picture ourselves locked in a battle with everything in the world that is not exactly like us. 

     Influence and persuasion can be positive ways of advancing change and development in society if they are aimed at the goal of greater justice and compassion, redressing of wrongs and institutional reform. But using positions of power and dominance to advance agendas shaped by “what we want” is not the proper way to advance any genuine religious mission. There are no biblical parallels that connect Jesus and his followers with this way of advancing the Christian mission, no matter how much that pattern of behaviour has been part of the Church’s history. 

     In a way, it is because the early Church fathers selected a canon of scripture that could not be added to or have anything taken away from it that we find ourselves in dilemmas when it comes to Christian faith and Catholic teaching. Each new generation must discern what the scriptures mean in the here and now. What dissenters disagree with is interpretation of Scripture, especially particular interpretations that clearly advance traditional law and custom and refuse to engage contemporary understanding shaped by innovation and revelation. 

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About Kathryn Perry

Kathryn Perry, MDiv, is an alumna of Regis College, Toronto. She is the author of The Courage To Dare: The Spirituality of Catherine Donnelly, Founder of the Sisters of Service (Novalis 2013).
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