The distinguished novelist, Morris West (left) on a brief trip to London, talks to Martin Newland about his own faith and view of church authority.
WHEN reading novels by famous Catholic writers like Graham Greene and Anthony Burgess I have been struck by their capacity to enter into the typically Catholic mind set and to see the world and the Church through the eyes of the Catholic who is an acknowleged .sinner and yet who has a place in the Church, paradoxically, as a member of the Community of Saints.
Morris West, author of such well known works as The Devil's Advocate and The Shoes of the Fisherman js just one such Catholic writer. Technically he is at odds with his Church and yet, in his own words when talking to me, "The Church is that Christian community into which I was born and baptised. I have never felt the need to separate myself from it though I have often been in conflict with its views and attitudes."
This paradox was possible because Morris West has a different notion of what constitutes the Church from most of us. His is the truly universal Church, the Church that is not summed up by its institutional structures but rather by where the Spirit moves.
"We have inherited too much from the old Imperium which, now being the Magisterium, simply tells us what to do and believe through a filter that is hierarchical in nature. The spirit blows where it will and we have only experiential knowledge of its movements. In defining truth the Church must be humble in its use of authority and respect the fact that it is mostly in the dark like the rest of us."
It seems that Morris West criticises the Church when it is at its most triumphal, making assumtions about what constitutes the truth and then enforcing it with juridical power.
"The fact is that the Good News has little to do with legislation," he contends. "The Godspell is to do rather with the action of the Holy Spirit on the individual as the subject and object of salvation."
The subject of the divisions and polarisations in the Church soon came up hot on the heels of these intimations about Spit it versus structure, charism versus institution. I asked Morris West how he felt about the splits in the Church today between progressives and conservatives, and between those who uphold the law and those who feel marginalised by it.
"I'm now 71", he said, "and have lived variously and often contentiously. in the Christian community and now I find the best thing is to eschew polemic. I have found out that it all lies with admitting the duty not to know. This is the real nature of the act of faith. One has to realise that there is no monopoly of the truth and that the purpose and nature of God are mostly unknown. I prefer to hold the mystery in the palm of my hand like a butterfly and just not close my hand."
What about 2,000 years of tradition, I wondered anxious to show that God's revelation to man throughout history was a basis for action today in the realm of doctrinal truth and ecclesiastical practice?
"History was written by the winners", he said "and the Church has always taken the attitude of dogmatic certainty". There isn't really an answer to that one.
Switching to a more contemporary subject I asked Mr West what he thought of the up and coming Synod on the Laity". The very term 'Synod on the Laity' implies the separation of the servants of God from the servants of the servants of God. There will be no laypeople adequately represented there and the laity will be the objects of discussion, not the agents of change," he said.
Again the subject of polarisation in the Church came up and again Mr West refused to envisage any schismatic movement being justified, especially among marginalised groups such as the homosexuals and divorced and remarried Catholics.
"There is no need for any breakaway movements", he said. "Marginalised groups always feel they have to push a point, that they have to force approval from the official Church. There is no need to be so vociferous. Such people do better through guerrilla action rather than through storming the walls and getting their heads blown off."
He followed up this outline of tactics with a masterly exposition of the benefits of the internal forum, the careful balancing of pastoral ethics with the guidelines of the Magisterium.
Morris West referred to an initiative in his own parish in New South Wales called Shalom which mobilised all members to seek ways of bringing those whose dispositions alienated
them from the Church back into communion with it.
The priest naturally said he was unable to officially endorse action which was objectively adverse to the official teaching of the Church, but he was prepared to reconcile and communicate those who as a result of the Shalom programme, approached the altar in the spirit of repentance.
Mr-West has been working on a programme shown on Channel Four on Easter Day called The Paradox of the Papacy, the last part of which examines the phenomenon of the base communities in Brazil where the internal forum is • of necessity always in operation due to the scarcity of clerics and the thriving theology of the laity which has subsequently emerged.
"In the end there is nothing priests or bishops can do about the movement of the Spirit, except align themselves with it," he said.
Morris West acknowledges now that he is old and suffering from an arterial disorder which causes him a lot of pain at times. He is not the progressive Catholic with respect only for the "if it feels good, do it" approach to religion. He has had many years of a productive, questioning relationship with the Church through his novels and elsewhere but has never, despite his divorce and subsequent remarriage, considered himself to be outside the worshipping community.
"The Church is essentially a community of life and love in which people support each other in love and with practical help. Nobody, in this sense can call themselves outside the Church, because there are also the concerns of the much larger human family".
He holds hope for the whole of humanity as creatures of God and he is not prepared to countenance any exclusivism on the part of the Church. The unknowable direction the Spirit wishes to take in the future renders authoratarianism in establishing and maintaining truth untenable.