Cathblog - On being behind

I am indebted to a recent article by George Weigel, from the Ethics and Public Policy Centre in USA, for stimulating me to write this Blog. In that article, George provides one answer to a claim made by the late Cardinal Martini, that the ‘Church is 200 years behind’. George’s answer follows from his own question ‘Behind what?’, writes Garry Everett.

I asked myself the same question, and discovered another possible answer. Perhaps there are many answers, because in one sense part of the genius of Martini was his ability to provoke our thoughts and imaginations.

It seems to me that George seeks to find his answer by using criteria external to the Church. He chooses contemporary culture, and in particular its secularist expressions. In a dialectical manner he opposes Church and culture, and concludes that the last place the Church would want to be, is behind such a culture. Contemporary culture in brief, is for George, nothing to measure our self against.

However, it is possible to choose internal criteria; that is, internal to the Church. In this case, the answer, which I believe is closer to what Martini was hinting at, is, ‘Behind where we should be’. Were he alive today, Martini may well have chosen as his theme song: ‘You raise me up, to more than I can be!’

To find one of the clues to which criteria Martini intended to be used, look at the accompanying questions that Martini asked in the same interview, and which George quotes in his article. These questions are: ‘Why does the Church not rouse itself?’ ‘Are we afraid?’ and ‘Fear instead of courage?’

Each of these questions is obviously addressed to the Church. Equally clearly, each question raises the need for reform within the Church. We are also reminded that in Michael Leunig’s famous poem, he says there are only two motivations, ‘Love and Fear’; only two outcomes - Love and Fear.  Could this have been the Cardinal’s concern? The Church was 200 years behind in practising Love, because it had spent 200 years practising fear!

In the same death-bed interview, Weigel notes that Martini asked a further question: ‘Where are the heroes?’ Weigel castigates Martini in a sense, for not recognizing  Blessed John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and Blessed Popieluszko. I am convinced that Martini recognized a longer list of deceased heroes.

Martini’s concern was about the future – where were the emerging heroes: the Helder Camaras; the Congars; the Courtney Murrays; the Suenens and Cardijns, Kungs and Kaspers whom he admired for their courage and honesty during Vatican II. Martini was lamenting their passing as much as he was searching for their replacements, in a Church that had fallen behind its own promise.

Weigel concludes his article with the assessment that modern culture is not open to dialogue or to notions of the transcendent. Martini on the other hand seems more concerned that the Church may not be ready for dialogue because it is still governed by fear and not by love. In one sense the Church is ill-equipped to talk about the transcendent if it can’t manage its place in the immanent.

For genuine dialogue to occur, the Church must know its own identity well. For Martini this was not a given. His ‘200 years behind’ is a wake-up call; his questions, a hint that the answer lies within.

Years ago, Carl Jung, the great psychiatrist , offered us an insight similar  to that of Martini’s. Jung wrote:

He who look outside, dreams,

He who looks inside, awakens.

I believe Martini’s last call was for the Church to awaken; awaken to itself; to its lost possibilities; to its lack of courage; to its being fettered by fear; to its need to regenerate in love.

I also believe, he was prophetic!


Garry Everett is deputy chair of Mercy Partners in Queensland and a former Deputy Director of the Queensland Catholic Education Commission and previous chair of the Brisbane Archdiocesan Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.

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