Spirit of the Age

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS nothing new, in the long and unsavoury history of religion, about dissent. In bygone times, it was pretty much, by definition, a minority pastime. But in our individualistic era it sometimes seems that everybody's doing it.

Paul Collins was in town recently. Now there's someone who has elevated dissent into a veritable art form. Collins is a Missionary of the Sacred Heart, and is the latest Catholic to fall victim to the Vatican's crackdown on anyone who so much as raises a theological eyebrow over its increasingly conservative rulings. The Australian priest is being investigated for his book, Papal Power, which had the temerity to suggest that the Catholic Church has now become over-centralised to the point of dysfunctionality - the kind of thesis which, he conceded, was "not exactly designed to win friends and influence people in Rome".

Indeed. Especially so when one of his suggestions was that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the body which was, until 1964, known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition) should be abolished.

It is that very body which is now trying to put Collins's book on the rack.

Rome may have taken on more than it bargained for. "I've now talked to a lot of people who are being investigated," says Collins, a burly, ruddy- faced character who describes himself as a brash Australian. "They feel isolated." He is determined to end that. And, having been head of religion at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for 10 years, he has the contacts and the know-how to do that.

It began when Collins received, via the superior general of his order, a letter demanding that he answer a list of charges made anonymously against him. Collins's response was to contact perhaps the most eminent of Catholicism's dissidents, Professor Hans Kung, the first person John Paul II disciplined when he became Pope. (Kung had suggested that certain extensions of the scope of papal infallibility were, in fact, illegitimate).

"The only protection you have is honest opinion," Kung told him. So Collins waited for what journalists call a "a slow news day", and leaked the Vatican's documents to the Sydney Morning Herald. "I made sure it was a Saturday with no sport, so there'd be no competition for air time, and the TV would pick it up big." They did. "The Collins case" became big news in Australia, where he was a household face on television. He then posted on the Internet all the Vatican's confidential correspondence, together with his replies, and set about contacting others currently under investigation.

There are many in the Catholic Church who take a dim view of all this. After all, they say, the Church is not a democracy: God sets the framework, the Pope makes the rules, and if you don't like them you should leave the club. But then, in the words of Tissa Balasuriya, the Sri Lankan theologian who last year became the first dissident to be excommunicated by the Pope, the Church is not a club, and its civil servants in Rome cannot claim to be exclusive arbiters of truth.

There is, in all this, two distinctive visions of what the Church is. Rome has returned to the idea that the profound mysteries at the core of faith are outside history; static law and unchanging doctrine are thus required. The second view, which the Church embraced with the Second Vatican Council, is that faith is lived out within the context of history and our theological understandings are determined by the constraints of culture and human experience. Rules and doctrine have to change as our understanding of ultimate mystery develops.

This second vision - what the theologian Adrian Hastings called Protestant Catholicism - challenges the rigid style which the Church has inherited from late medievalism: "Rigidities whose intellectual justification is incredibly weak, but whose organisational defence [is] intensely tenacious," as Professor Hastings put it. "Taken to its logical conclusion," insists Collins, "this is fundamentalism, and leaves the Church at variance with the day-to-day experience of the Catholic faithful, whom it expects simply to pray, pay and obey."

What is striking is that the Vatican has now turned its attention from heavyweight questioners like Kung, to lesser figures such as Collins. "I'm a populariser, not an original thinker, of no significance outside Australia," Collins says with brazen humility. "The same is true of targets such as Tissa Balasuriya, Anthony de Mello and Lavinia Byrne." De Mello, who died recently, is an Indian Jesuit whose best-selling books on meditation the Vatican decided were too close to Buddhism. Byrne is a nun whose five- year-old book advocating the ordination of women has recently been pulped in the US on the instructions of Rome.

"The whole nature of this pontificate has shifted to the popular - the Pope sees himself as a jet-setting teacher," says Collins. "So it's not surprising that popularisers are the targets, especially as a new short- termism is evident in Rome as this papacy nears its end, and the knives come out as everyone positions themselves for the next one."

The irony is that it's all pretty counter-productive. Balasuriya's once- obscure book is now available worldwide; Collins's is in its fifth imprint; and Byrne's is being reprinted by a secular publisher. Cardinal Hume recently wrote to Rome to "strongly advise" that they were making fools of themselves and should lay off Lavinia.

Collins gives the impression that he'd be disappointed if they laid off him. Last month, he and Balasuriya wrote to the heads of all the religious orders in Rome asking them to meet to discuss the issue. "Personally, I am enjoying all this," says Collins. "I love a good fight." You have not heard the end of this one.