Wednesday, October 24, 2012

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.


Anonymous said...

I think one's past experience of the church has a bearing on this kind of thing. Some people grew up in a Catholic church that was basically loving and affirming and hopeful. Their base experiences with the church were positive, which (as they grow older and may struggle with particular individuals or doctrines) remain there as a reminder of the good that they can continue to find in the church. Their basic good experiences make the struggle seem worthwhile.

I grew up in a Catholic church that had me convinced (by the age of ten) that I was going to hell. This was a conviction that stayed with me for many years. My base experience of the church was mostly guilt and fear, with a fair amount of shame and anger mixed in. When I began to intellectually disagree with various things the church says, I didn't feel compelled to stay and struggle with the institution, because I didn't have any of the basic good experiences that might have made me want to stay.

If one's emotional sense of the church is warm, and one's larger view of it is that it is a positive force in the world (despite its flaws) one will always have a hard time understanding people who never felt that.

Anonymous said...

I agree with "Anonymous." Getting to the point of "...therefore I am simply leaving..." could have resulted from years of public or private struggle. You may just be seeing the tail of the kite.

Anonymous said...

First, I thought this was a great post and I agreed with you on many points. But, as someone who has also struggled, (but hung in there until very recently) can I offer this: I have seen a similar "toddler-like posture from "the Church" in the form of my parish priests. Their response to my frustrations and struggles has been - "hey - this is how it is" and make almost no attempt to assist me with my true attempts to integrate real questions.

I certainly don't think I expect the Church to conform to my way but I think I do need to be spiritually fed and I think that is why many Catholics have left in recent years. We are wrestling with complex issues and we need to hear more than "this is the way it is."

Unknown said...

I think you're quite right. Sadly, a good number of clergy have the notion that 'they' are the Church and represent the axis around with the Church should spin. How wrong! Just as each one of us must confront our own de-centered position so, too, must our leadership. It's incumbent upon all of us to remember that it is not 'I' but the 'Most High' who is at the center of the Church.

jamez said...

As a gay person, former seminarian who struggles mightily with the Churches current posture and direction on many teachings, I have chosen stay on the vine not so much perhaps as a seed bearing fruit but as a thorn on the branch as it were, pricking the forces of self righteous satisfaction, prideful triumphalism and displaced persecutory complexes that vex the vine. For I trust that, despite claims to the contrary, the Church evolves and the journey is not over.
Many of the greatest theologians, thinkers and saints within the Church were condemned as heretical and disordered in their own time only to be vindicated sometimes centuries afterword – Abelard, Aquinas, Theresa of Avilla, John of the Cross, Lacordaire, Yves Congar, Teilhard deChardin and Hans Urs Van Balthazar to name just a few. The individual human spirit operates faster than the institution ever will and is only around for a minute period of time comparatively. The progressive Catholic thinker will almost always find him/her self ahead of the institutional curve perhaps by centuries. Such is the frustrating nature of prophetic witness. But the Holy Spirit guides the whole of the Church, individual seekers, institutions, saints, sinners, prophets and buffoons. I, in good conscience, prudent humility and – most of all Charity, will trust in God’s mercy, be “Israel” (God Struggles) for the Church and press on in the hope always of a better future for the Church and all Her messed up progeny.

Joanne Ni Riain said...

I'm late to the comment party, but I come across this attitude so often in Ireland. I'm reminded of a quote from Francis de Sales:"While those who give scandal are guilty of the spiritual equivalent of murder, those who take scandal-who allow scandals to destroy their faith-are guilty of spiritual suicide." In previous times I was guilty of having such an attitude, but my aunt who is a religious sister put me right and told my fifteen year old self simply that "God comes first, the rules after". It may have taken over five years, but the penny has truly dropped, and it was only when I began to do my own research that I arrived at this point. It is no longer a case of 'I can't believe this teaching or that', but now its 'the Church teaches something I find difficult, I must learn why it is taught'. I absolutely urge people to make use of resources available to them within the Church, and make sense of the 2000 years of wisdom available to you within Catholicism.