Chris Stedman: Indeed, Peter! I think you’re absolutely right. This is a distinction I am hearing articulated more and more often by members of religious communities who see evangelizing as a cornerstone of their faith – and it’s one I welcome with gratitude. Maintaining a general orientation toward encountering diversity with inquiry and empathy, rather than lecturing at it, can facilitate more productive dialogue. In that respect, I think it is important to recognize and grapple with the tendency to demonize an out-group in order to make our own case. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI came under fire for warning against “aggressive secularism” and comparing a lack of belief in God with “Nazi tyranny.”
A true and honest dialogue between people of varying commitments requires civility, mutual respect and a commitment to freedom of conscience. I know I join people of many different faiths, including many Catholics, in hoping for more of those kinds of conversations.
Lorna Dueck: About starting points on why so many have left the church: The acid suspicion of all authority that comes with postmodernity is pretty tough on papal infallibility. The nature of the Roman Catholic Church’s authority, that the Pope’s official pronouncement of doctrine is infallible on our life and practice, is just too hard to receive. Understanding why that is a valid stance for global teachings has a lot of barriers to overcome.
Guy Nicholson: Lorna, that brings me to another question for the group. Assuming that there are legitimate issues for the church to address that would serve the purpose of becoming more relevant, what is the single most important one? And what needs to be done to tackle it?
Chris Stedman: As an outsider, I’m a bit reluctant to make concrete recommendations. I recently asked a friend, a former nun, what she thinks the Church needs to wrestle with today. For starters, she said the leadership needs to really listen to all people in the Church; to open the Vatican up to a real dialogue, and not just the enforcement of doctrine. She also said that the role of women needs to be addressed. Women are leaving the Catholic Church at a rate higher than men are – this is unprecedented. As someone who has studied with nuns, I agree that there is a real need for a conversation about gender in the church.
Additionally, most people I know – Catholic and non-Catholic alike – wish to see greater transparency. The Roman Catholic Church is perceived by many as deeply hypocritical, and as covering up some terrible things. This will need to be acknowledged and dealt with.
I also think greater support for secularism, rather than casting it as an enemy, is important. Living in a pluralistic world means recognizing that others must be free to live their own lives. As a queer person, I can respect that some people believe differently than I do about the morality of homosexuality, but I should be able to decide how to live my own life.
Finally, as an atheist, I return to the idea that a respectful dialogue with all non-Catholics is imperative. In his resignation statement, Pope Benedict spoke of “today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith.” In this sense, I think dialogue with non-believers and other non-Catholics will be essential. Acknowledging the legitimate doubts and questions of all people, within and outside of the Roman Catholic Church, is vital.
Lorna Dueck: At the risk of offending Peter, and fellow golfers out there who don’t want the game changed, here’s my humble opinion: The Roman Catholic insistence that the magisterium of the Church, its Pope, its bishops and cardinals, have a communion with God that gives them infallible authority to mediate salvation, has to be revisited. It could begin by accepting women into that level of authority, and opening the dialogue into a common level without losing the authority of Scripture.
Paul Hansen: Lorna, count me in on this one.
Peter Stockland: First of all, and I will happily defer to genuine experts on this, I think there is a great misunderstanding about infallibility. Infallibility actually encourages vigorous enquiry and debate because there is an understanding that, at some point, on matters directly affecting faith and morals, and only when the Holy Father speaks ex cathedra, differences and disputes can be clarified and settled. It’s not called the College of Cardinals for nothing. It’s collegial.