Brian Coyne responds to my "Open Letter"

Thanks to Arabella for letting me know that Brian Coyne has responded in the discussion board of Catholica Australia to my Open Letter to the Catholic Laity of Australia. He seems relatively happy with it, but takes issue at some points that are rather crucial to the over all intention of the letter. (By the way, regarding “that petition“, Bishop Kevin Manning of Parramatta–who is no hard-line conservative–has come out against it: read what he has to say here).

The first of those crucial points is with my contention that the current crisis in Australian Catholicism results from a “fear of faithful evangelisation and catechisation”. He believes that the main cause for the crisis is “deep confusion between what basically boils down to two factions or paradigms within the Church as to what we are supposed to be evangelising — what, ultimately, is the Jesus story all about.” (Which interestingly puts him in close agreement with the John XXIII Coop’s Counter Petition which lays the blame on “dissidents”).

He identifies these two paradigms in accordance with the rather fallible teaching magisterium of Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, who suggested that “the split is between one faction who sees their faith basically in terms of a Search for Certitude and the rest who are basically Searching for Truth.” Furthermore, he believes, this “split” is “actually unbridgeable theologically or philosophically”, and those of us who are trying to “act as a bridge across this divide” are “playing some self-delusional game.” (Which kind of reminds me of the debate we had about whether Orthodoxy and Catholicism were irreconcilable…)

I must say right up front that I don’t quite get the Coyne/Robinson definition of the “split”. How can it be that one searches for Truth, if one has no confidence in the possibility of discovering and knowing that Truth with some degree of certitude (at least in so far as the Truth is comprehended)? Moreover, how can you say that those who seek certitude are not seeking the Truth? How can there be certitude in anything else? And if we are all seeking the Truth, and moreover acknowledge that that truth is Christ, surely then we are all travelling the same path, a path which has fidelity to Christ as its goal, and hence which will ultimately (in God’s good time and by the grace of the Spirit) lead us to unity. That is in fact the way we approach ecumenism. But then, maybe we are “self-delusional” in that little game too…

As to my suggestions for action on the part of the laity, he accepts most of these “without reservation”–again with a significant exception. He takes an odd reading of my appeal that we should “never be ashamed to preach the Gospel”. To this, he replies:

I accept that with the reservation that we do need clarification about what we are actually endeavouring to evangelise or catechise “the faithful” to. If it is Tridentine Theology I disagree with you. Most people today can see through that for the sham that it is. They are searching for something different — something that does make greater sense with their intuitions and what they can see with their own eyes is the manner in which God manifests himself in the world and in their lives. They have rejected a model of religion and faith that is basically modelled on the mindset we adopt with young children at the earliest stages of social development.

I don’t quite get that. I was talking about proclaiming the Gospel, the Name of Jesus Christ, and the paschal mystery of his dying and rising. I don’t know how he sees “Tridentine Theology” fitting into this. Since when did anyone ever get evangelised to a “theology”? The Gospel doesn’t fit anyone’s “model of religion”–it breaks it apart at the seams. Neither does the Gospel of Jesus Christ necessarily give people what they are “searching for”–on the contrary, it usually exposes in us a need we had never fully articulated or understood.

If Brian doesn’t understand what is meant by evangelisation, then I doubt if he understands what I am trying to say in the “Open Letter” as a whole. But that doesn’t surprise me. Part of the crisis of evangelisation in the Catholic Church is that there are so many who have not only forgotten how to do it, but have forgotten what the word even means. Perhaps it is simply a matter of disagreement between the “two factions” as to “what, ultimately, is the Jesus story all about”.

The only other thing he picks up on is my suggestion that we should not criticise the Church in the presence of the young. He counters that “priests, bishops, cardinals and even popes” should never be “beyond scrutiny and accountability”. I wasn’t suggesting that they should be. Rather I was simply saying that we should be prudent about the way in which we hold them to accountability. It is not prudent to criticise the Church (even validly) before those whose faith is weak. Such criticism may do greater damage to their faith than to the Church. This certainly was St Ignatius’ point when he included this rule in his explanation of what it means to “Think with the Church”:

Although there may not always be the uprightness of conduct that there ought to be, yet to attack or revile them in private or in public tends to scandal and disorder. Such attacks set the people against their princes and pastors; we must avoid such reproaches and never attack superiors before inferiors. The best course is to make private approach to those who have power to remedy the evil.

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