Mass boycott risks splitting community unity

Fr James Good admires Jennifer Sleeman’s stand on women, but sees no purpose in a Mass boycott, he tells Dan Buckley.

FATHER James Good, one of Ireland’s most eminent — and most outspoken — theologians knows what it is like to be a lone voice against Catholic Church orthodoxy. Like Jennifer Sleeman, he has not been slow to take the Church to task on many moral issues, but he sees no purpose in a boycott of mass.

Fr Good admires the pluckiness of Mrs Sleeman’s stand for the status of women in the Church and he agrees with her central conclusion — that the Church must change or diminish.

However, he takes odds with her call to the female faithful to boycott Sunday mass on September 26. In evidence he chooses noPapal encyclical or Church doctrine, but prefers to cite the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians.

In Chapter 1 of the Corinthians, Paul said: “I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.” In other words, the faithful must sing from the same hymn-sheet.

The Catholic Church responded to Mrs Sleeman’s call just 24-hours after it was publicised. It said: “The mass is a community sacramental celebration of the life, death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus. We would encourage people not to absent themselves from the Eucharist where we re-enact the Last Supper and the Paschal mystery, following the command of Jesus, ‘Do this is memory of me’. The celebration of the mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation is essential to the practice of the Catholic faith.”

That is Fr Good’s stand, as well. “She is on a good project,” he says. “The Church needs to be shaken up, but boycotting mass risks splitting the unity of the community and anything that does that is bad.

“During the life of the early Church, St Paul recognised this and was concerned at splits in the community, which was a feature of early converts to Christianity. Paul was particularly concerned about the division between rich and poor.

“Mrs Sleeman is very well intentioned and she is right for wanting the Church to change, but I don’t think that having women boycott mass is going to do any good.”

Fr Good sees the lowly status of women in Catholicism as stemming from the time of St Augustine, who died in 430 AD. “Augustine hated women and felt they were somehow evil and his philosophy dominated the Church for eight centuries after his death. In fact, we have never quite rid ourselves of that theology in the Church.

“Augustine led a rather wild life before his baptism by Ambrose, bishop of Milan. He was also a member of the Manichee sect who believed in two gods: a good god who created the soul, and an evil god who created the body. Hence anything connected with the body (especially sex and marriage) was of necessity evil.” As for making changes from within the body of the Church, Fr Good is part of a new organisation of priests which he believes will do good in the long run.

Fr Good prefers to battle from within. As a priest, philosopher and professor of theology at University College Cork, he took on the Vatican at its most powerful in July, 1968, challenging Pope Paul’s encyclical Humane Vitae and its copper-fastening of the Papal ban on contraception.

Right up to the moment of its publication, rumours had been streaming out of Rome. Was it possible that Pope Paul VI would reverse the Church’s traditional ban on contraception, first formally pronounced by Pope Pius XI in the encyclical Casti Conubii in 1930?

At a press conference in the Mater Dei Institute in the grounds of Clonliffe College in Dublin, Mgr Frank Cremin, professor of moral theology in Maynooth, held up a copy of Humanae Vitae under the glare of the RTÉ camera lights, and said it all in two words: “No change!”

Within 24 hours of the publication of Humanae Vitae, Fr Good made worldwide headlines when he became the only priest in Ireland to publicly dissent from the encyclical, describing it as a major tragedy for the Church.

“I disagreed with the total ban on contraception in the encyclical, and said so publicly. As I was the only priest in Ireland to do so, I attracted a good deal of attention.”

It also left him exposed. “Bishop Lucey had no option but to suspend me from diocesan functions (preaching and hearing confessions), but my university posts remained intact.”

Like Jennifer Sleeman, he sees “no reason why one should discriminate against half of the human race.” Fr Good served for 24 years in Kenya, where he observed the rights of women being frequently subordinated. On one occasion he asked a Kenyan woman to preach a sermon on his behalf. “It was,” he says, “one of the best sermons I ever heard.”


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