Jamaica's population is around 5 per cent Catholic. Although we are a bit beleaguered by a very Protestant milieu, we have the comfort of being tucked away from the waves of angst and anger that occasionally sweep across the church. If the Vatican is saying anything these days to inflame liberal sensitivities, I haven't heard about it, and I must confess that articles about such topics are the only ones I skip in Compass.
Catholics here are not beset by the issues arising from the interface with a liberal and secular culture. We are more preoccupied with defending the Catholic Church against charges from our Protestant neighbours: idolatry (Mary, the saints and the pope), moral laxity (smoking and gambling) and Sunday worship. It is not always a winning battle. Members regularly disappear, to emerge as newly baptized adherents of the Seventh-Day Adventist or Zion churches.
In one sermon, somewhat irate at the most recent evangelical raid, I asked, "Who founded the Catholic Church?" The unanimous answer to my question was, "God!" Apparently previous catechists had drilled their students well. I then asked, "And who founded that other church?" With the same enthusiasm the answer came back, "Man!" (Inclusive language is another issue that has not yet penetrated rural Jamaican consciousness.)
This was not my best ecumenical moment and I must plead frustration at the pressure tactics of some evangelical sects. But at least in Jamaica, people believe what they believe. They have not yet been demythologized to the point where they have to be apologetic about every piece of Catholic dogma or discipline that does not sound sensible to liberal pagan neighbours. They have yet to reap the fruits of historical critical scholarship that renders the Bible into a quaint collection of out-of-fashion beliefs of people who never had the benefit of the Enlightenment.
I am grateful for the Second Vatican Council. I don't have to sing Latin masses or wear a dress. But I have some hesitations too. Vatican II, I am told, brought the church into the modern world, but what's so great about the modern world that we want to rush into it? If the church isn't democratic, neither is the modern world. Both have too many bureaucrats and ego-laden politicians. If the church flounders about without a clear sense of purpose or identity, unable to give even a decent experience of community to its huddled masses yearning for something more, welcome to the modern secular world. Tolerance that slides into indifference, rationality that slides into secularism, individual rights that slide into individual isolation--this is the modern world the church is embracing, and it's much overrated.
In Jamaica I will say to a backslider, "Where were you on Sunday?" The backslider, who has no intention of coming next Sunday either, will at least look ashamed. Nobody has told backsliders here that in our modern world they are autonomous moral agents who are not supposed to be oppressed by externally imposed obligations and whose mental health depends on following their feelings. Nobody has told them that we don't really know what is true, that it's all relative, or that the tradition of the Catholic Church is a merely human construction based mostly on male celibates' desires for control.
Catholics in Jamaica share the same puzzlement about why women shouldn't be ordained; they are as quick to resent domineering clergy; they interpret the church's teachings on sexual morality according to their own cultural norms and beliefs. But these sorts of issues have a different weight here. The Enlightenment program of remaking humanity has not yet taken hold. From the underside of history, it looks a bit pretentious. It may have given Jamaicans emancipation, but it also has given them new forms of colonialism and racism and has unravelled the communal fabric of family and village life. They--we--are in the Catholic Church not to join the modern world, but to find salvation from it.
I relish my refuge from secularity here, and dread the day when I'll have to go back to North America to be apologetic again for being Catholic. I'll have to break some bad habits, like telling backsliders to go to church or evincing opposition to beliefs or practices the church teaches are wrong. But meanwhile, I will probably let my congregants here continue to believe that the Catholic Church was founded by God. You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. After all, appearances to the contrary, it might actually be true.
Martin Royackers SJ works in a rural development project in Annotto Bay, Jamaica. He was Compass's managing editor from 1990 to 1994 and is now its Jamaica correspondent.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld