The word “church” doesn’t inspire confidence like it once did. For the casual, agnostic observer who has kept up with the Royal Commission, or simply sat through 129 minutes of Spotlight, it seems that Christian institutions are doing more harm than good. Which begs the question: do we still need the church? Would it be such a bad thing if all mainstream incarnations of Christianity just disappeared?
This Sunday (June 10) a panel at Dark Mofo in Hobart, Australia, will debate this very question. Defending the church is Paul Collins, a former Catholic priest who quit in February 2001 because he could "no longer conscientiously subscribe to the policies and theological emphases coming from the Vatican."
We caught up with Paul to get a sample of his argument, pre-panel.
VICE: Hey Paul, let’s start with the big question: should the church be saved?
Paul Collins: Yes, we do need to perhaps save the church, but in a way that is more acceptable to contemporary life. We certainly don't need to save the toxic Catholicism that has been highly abusive—which has been illustrated vividly in the abuse of children, and the subsequent cover up of that. We don't need a kind of Catholicism that tried to dictate to people their moral lives and tell them, ‘you can do this, and you can't do that’. But we do need a kind of Catholicism that encourages personal conscious and social justice.
We need a kind of Catholicism that helps people understand the sacramental nature of the world. By that I mean the natural world: the plants, the animals, the landscape. I suppose it's a little bit like the Aboriginal Dreaming and their sense of place in the landscape - we have a tradition within Catholicism that helps us able to do that.
In other words, I'm looking for a reformed church. Not a hierarchical, priest-ridden, dictatorial kind of church.
Sure, that makes sense. But I would ask the question, why is it necessary to have the church to achieve a social conscious or social justice? Why can’t we just get that through basic humanist kind of principles?
Without doubt we could. It's true that many people who have no religion at all are profoundly good people, and have all of the principles that I’ve outlined. However, I would very strongly claim that historically speaking, Catholicism has contributed that to human kind. That's not to deny the negatives, however—at the present moment it's the negatives that are getting all of the emphasis.
When one looks at the European cultural tradition, we can see that the Church has contributed an enormous amount to it. In many ways, I think we can argue historically that tolerance itself in some ways is a product of the church and of Christianity generally.
It is one of the great humanist traditions in itself, I know nowadays neglected; it doesn't feature part of modern education. But I for one am not prepared to kind of surrender that tradition, and I think it needs to continue to exist.
If we did a pros and cons list, and under the cons we had rampant sexual assault, but under the pros the archival of the European cultural tradition—do you think the pros would still outweigh the cons?
Oh absolutely. I don't have any doubt about that. The reliable statistic is that 7 percent of priests were child abusers - but that indicates that the majority of priests are reasonably decent human beings. I'm not pretending they’re saints or great heroes or something, but most are just reasonably decent human beings.
So my view, the pros outweigh the cons by a pretty considerable margin. But then again, I am biased because I'm a born and bred Catholic that has been involved with the church for quite a long time.
VICE: Just to be clear—you've been a Catholic your whole life, and a priest quite a long time, 30 years?
Yes, 33 years.
And you're still a devoted Catholic, but no longer a devoted priest.
I still go to mass on Sunday, yes. And I tend to get dragged out by the media as a kind of spokesperson for a more, well one might say, a more... gentle form of Catholicism, than what you might for instance from George Pell.
Let's turn this conversation around now to the issue of tolerance. There's a lot of people, particularly in left-wing media, calling for religious tolerance particularly around Islam. Do you feel that the Catholic Church is increasingly persecuted in a similar way?
No, I don't think the Catholic Church is persecuted. Given what has happened with the Royal Commission and the clearly toxic situation that has existed in the Catholic community, I think Catholics in Australia need it to cop it sweet. I think it's as simple as that.
Young people seem to be increasingly turning away from the Catholic Church. Whereas it seems like there is a sort of tolerance towards Islam, as Islam is controversial, modern—and therefore cool—Catholicism seems like it’s just for old people. What do you think?
I mean, you're absolutely right in terms of the loss of young people. We are educating in Catholic schools, both primary and secondary schools—that’s 20 percent of the population. And yet, that doesn't kind of click over into ongoing commitment the church. But do younger people see Islam as more contemporary issue? Yes, I think there is validity to that argument, and there might be something fuddy-duddy, old fashioned, or out of date about Christianity in that context.
Yes, I mean, is there something that the Church can do about that? Is there a way that the Church can become cool again?
Sadly I think we are dealing with long-term trends that are not easily reversed. More enthusiastic Christians would think that you can attract people back by having a hip worship with a band. I think it does change things a little bit—but I also think what we're dealing with is the long-term trend in modern western society towards secularism.
If we can could just zoom in on that for a moment, can I ask for your prediction on how you will think that will go? Are we kind of just locked into a path where the Western world is going to become increasingly secular?
It's very difficult to answer that. Sociologists who are much smarter than I am have had a go at it. Generally speaking, there is probably going to be a core of people who will maintain a commitment to Catholicism, and more broadly to Christianity. But just what percentage that will be, it's hard to tell. Maybe somewhere between 6 percent and 10 percent. But I think that the broader influence of the church through its social welfare. Consider that between the St Vincent’s de Paul Society and the Protestant Salvation Army, they account for close to 60 percent of social welfare in Australia, such as care for homeless people. And I think the church's influence will continue through that.
This article originally appeared on VICE AU.