I Can't Believe...

Several weeks ago, I was out to dinner with a group of friends, many of whom are involved either in Irish music or dancing. A few bottles of wine into the evening, as it so often happens, one of the group announced from across the table brought up the topic of religion. Actually, he didn't so much 'bring up' the topic as he did launch into a monologue about how he used to go to Church but now, because the bishops dared to tell him how to vote, he would never go back into the Church again. "I simply can't believe in the Catholic Church any longer," he said, staring at me.

Now, here's the thing. If "Believing in the Church" is translated into "Believing in the Bishops," then I stand with my friend. I wholly believe in the episcopacy and I acknowledge the importance of apostolic succession. I even think it appropriate to the Bishop qua Shepherd and qua Teacher that the faithful be instructed in all topics pertinent to adequate conscience formation. My problem tends not to be the with office of the bishop so much as it is with individuals who occupy that office.  The Church, much to my constant relief, is far bigger than any one bishop or any particular ordained ministry.

At the risk of being gauche, I challenged him on the above point and then pushed it a bit further. I think there's a real difference between saying, "I'm struggling to integrate this or that teaching of the Church into my life," and, say, proclaiming, "I disagree with the Church so I'm not going any longer." On the one hand, there is an effort to try to remain unified with the wider Church while still recognizing personal limitations, possible areas for mutual growth, and owning one's struggles. On the other hand, we see something more akin to a toddler's foot-stamping and snatching away his toys. In other words, one is the confession of a sincere seeker, the other is the claim made by a person who'd like to see the Church built around him.

Part of being in the Church is the realization that we are, all of us, de-centered from the institution. The Church is a motley crew, to be sure, yet it is our belief that we're all gathered together around the same host: Jesus. Were it up to me, I'd be only too glad to trim the guest list to make it a group more in line with my enlightened views and outlook on life. I reckon we could all say the same thing, that "If I were in charge..." things would be so much better. I cannot help but to think, however, that a Church built around me might be great from my vantage point but a living hell for everyone else.

Part of "believing in" the Church is "believing with" the members of the Church, believing with everyone else who is struggling to make sense of human life. Our act of "believing in" is made possible by believing with, by joining others in prayer and worship. This certainly isn't limited to those who sit next to us in the pew each week: when we gather, we join with Peter and Paul, Theresa and Ignatius, John of the Cross and Therese Lisieux. We gather with countless women and men - saints and scoundrels - who have tried to make sense of life by working out all of life's issues together, fed at the same table, nourished from the same bread and cup.

To my friend, ultimately, all I can say is this: the claim of quitting because one feels unable to "believe in" means either frustrated surrender or an excuse to not bother. I'm entirely sympathetic to people who struggle with the Church in regard to things like, say, the Divinity of Christ or the Trinity. Heck, I can understand people who struggle on topics such as women's ordination, divorce, and gay marriage - regardless of whether I agree with them on any particular topic, I can grasp the difficulty of integrating a challenging teaching into one's life...or, being unable to integrate it, to have to walk away.

What I don't get, and can't condone, is someone who blithely or cavalierly says "I don't agree with" or "I can't believe in the Church's teaching on x" therefore I am simply leaving. No struggle, no effort to remain in communion, nothing. I take 'communion' and togetherness as fundamental to the experience of being a believer and I should think it would take a great deal of struggle over a matter, rather than a mere exercise of fancy, to dislodge me from the place I call my spiritual home.


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