Monday, March 11, 2013

Why is it that...?

Can someone explain to me why it is that, when I'm gathered in rather polite company, someone (usually after a few drinks) leans in, points toward me, and begins (what is almost certain to be) a harangue with the line, "You know, the Church needs to..."

Insert here your list of agenda items that the Church "needs to":

  • ordain women and married men
  • be relevant 
  • relax on the issue of abortion (Sort of an "Awww, geee, I guess it's okay" stance?)
  • be nice to nuns
  • let people use condoms and artificial birth control (this always conjures up an image of a bishop standing in one's bedroom, withholding the Trojans or denying the pill)
  • get in touch with the needs of real people
  • Do something about sex abuse (No argument here, but I have to admit that a great deal has been done: most of the cases we hear of in the news are decades old)
  • be more inclusive (this is a catch-all term, I find)
When I hear "You know, the Church needs..." my stomach instinctively tightens and my mind wanders off to its happy place where I can be untroubled. The smile on crosses my face as the person excitedly tells me about "the Church" never betrays that, on the inside, I'm totally checked out.

Condescending? A bit. Simply for this reason: I have no idea what people are talking about when they say "The Church" as though there exists some monolithic building out there. Truth be told, there is no such thing as "The Church" over-and-against the people who receive the Gospel in every generation, over-and-against the faithful who attempt to live out their call to discipleship as sinners in in a broken world. 

In short, all the things that people say "the Church" fails are are precisely the things that we fail at, in various ways. If the Church isn't relevant, or inclusive, or nice, or whatever it's because we as a Christian people tend not to be relevant, inclusive, or nice, whatever. 

There's an Irish joke that starts, "How do I get to Dublin" and the response comes back, "If I were you, I wouldn't start from here." Do you see the joke: there's no place else to start but here, where one stands, if one wishes to get anywhere. There's no point in dieting "after I finish this cake" because there'll always be another cake to devour before the diet starts. Likewise it does no good to say "the Church needs to..." if we, ourselves, are not willing to be the change we wish to see. 

I'm far from good at this. Despite my best efforts and sincerest intentions, I am pretty frequently mean, petty, obnoxious, mean-spirited, competitive, and irritable. I can be exclusive with whom I associate, I can deride those with whom I disagree, I can mock those whose opinions differ from mine, I can dismiss those who may sincerely be seeking after the truth simply because it doesn't fit into my schema and my zone of comfort. In short, I can be a huge jerk. 

Reading other Catholic blogs, or Christian blogs, whether they are liberal or conservative, progressive or traditional, I have a feeling that I'm not alone in this. 

We will never see a change in "the Church" if we don't start at the ground-level by responding to the Holy Spirit's invitation to follow the Lord more closely. We are the Church, called to be a light to the nations, a sign of contradiction to a sinful culture, a people of hope walking together toward the promised land. 

9 comments:

Paul Young said...

Similar to a conversation I had many years ago with an elderly black man. He expressed much the same frustration with everyone want to tell him, "What the the Negro people need to do".

I suppose it all goes back to most of us being more comfortable pointing out what's wrong with others, than admitting what's wrong with us.

naturgesetz said...

Yes, Mr. Duns, you are far from the worst, from what I see. In my experience, the worst offenders are some of the people who comment on news stories and other people's blogs. ;)

The problem you point to is the problem that the New Evangelization seeks to address: the tendency of Catholics to see "the Church" as separate from themselves.

I suppose the phrase "the Church teaches" is behind the misperception, but to say "the teaching office of the Church tells us," or better still, "our pope and bishops teach us," is a habit we'll have to work to develop.

Anonymous said...

Let me give you a couple of scenarios, to clarify if I understand what you are talking about.

1. Let us say that I find my local parish to be cold and unwelcoming. I think that you would say my job is to do something to change that -- I should start some kind of program to welcome newcomers, or maybe encourage the formation of a Bible study class or something. I should be part of the solution, and not part of the problem, yes? If that's what you are saying, I have no problem with any of that.

2. Now, let's say that I think priests should be allowed to marry. Which of the following should I do?
a) I should admit that I am just wrong. The rule on the matter is clear, and therefore I should not think that priests should be able to get married.
b) I can think it, but I shouldn't say anything about it.
c) It is OK for me to have the idea floating in the back of my mind, but I should focus on volunteering at the food pantry or something.
d) I should leave and find some church where married men can be ministers.
e) I should do something that might actually lead to priests being permitted to marry. (Of course, that's impossible.)

I don't disagree that the Church is the people of God. But a word can have more than one definition, and the Church is also a large, top-down organization that has plenty of clearly defined rules, sanctioned as authoritative and binding by those in power. Ordinary laypeople have no say in making these rules, nor in changing them. If I truly (in all good conscience, and after due study) disagree with a rule, what exactly am I supposed to do? There would seem to be nothing that I could do that could ever conceivably result in priests being allowed to get married. Am I allowed to think about it and talk about it, or is it my duty to just shut up and never bother anyone about it?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous is absolutetly dead on! Some things we can work to improve or change; many we cannot. after 40 years trying to"accept" the latter, I hope you will understand why I have thrown in the towel on the "magisterium" which I think you may suspect is what people those people bending your ear mean.

Ryan G. Duns, SJ said...

To the two anonymous posters, I think the issue isn't whether you speak about it - you clearly are speaking of it - but how to go about doing so.

I think the major question is always, What's the issue? Generally, I suspect, we're not quibbling over things like the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the Real Presence of the Eucharist. It tends to be practical issues, what many dismissively say "Man-made inventions" as though we have anything within our heritage that hasn't been refracted through human experience.

There is a triangular relationship: Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. The Magisterium's responsibility it to tend to the faith, its various expressions and interpretations. It doesn't exist without Scripture and Tradition. Ideally, trusting in the Holy Spirit, the Magisterium acts as custodian of our spiritual/intellectual heritage and helps to interpret it in ever-new eras.

There are ways of dissenting from various teachings. Indeed, dissent can be an act of great charity and of courageous love. Writing letters, scholarship, and prayer are all various ways of expressing a dissent, not a rejection, of what some teaching or another.

I don't "throw in the towel" on the Magisterium because I do believe there needs to be a place for, as it were, the buck to stop. If you look at our own history, those charged with safeguarding our own national identity bucked what was probably "majority opinion" in Brown vs. Board of Education and ordered de-segregation. Authentic interpretation may not be popular but it is an effort to tease out and come to understand better the truth of who we as a people, or a Church, really is.

Anonymous said...

Forgive me but your latest comment reads a little like a couple of paragraphs from a textbook on the role of the Magisterium. The reality for a normal person like myself who doesn't author scholarly articles (and who are those people that I could be writing letters to....not my bishop!) is that we like it or lump it. Like or lump the fact that the only real power in the Church is clerical and therefore male, like it or lump it that the terrible crime of covering up child abuse has gone largely unpunished by the powers in the Church that could punish and like it or leave it that we have absolutely no say in any of this. these are core issues for me. They are not peripheral. The Church powers that be, including the Magisterim,are is not minorities speaking truth to power. No.

Ryan G. Duns, SJ said...

Not to sound obnoxious, but I simply can't accept this. Like it or lump it as an either/or option? I suspect there are a host of areas in each of our lives where we learn to negotiate various factors some of which are to our liking, others not so much.

My quibble: largely unpunished? I'd say quite the opposite: many have been punished, many have been removed from ministry, many doubts have been cast on the very many good men (and women) who never abused a child. If you want to say that the bishops have failed to be held accountable for their lapses as shepherds, I agree. Many have paid for the sins of individuals, and an institution, that failed to do its job.

The question will be, if these are the core issues, how do you find a voice? Since I haven't any idea who you are, where you're from, or what your background is it makes no sense for me to try to imagine. Anonymity is a luxury not afforded to me.

Anonymous said...

The comments in your blog show that you are sincere, thoughtful, highly intelligent and I think you must be a remarkable young man. You are, though, afforded the same anonymity as I. You choose to waive it by posting a blog, and I am pleased that you do so. Your blog is excellent.

Anonymous said...

OK, I have one: Latin Mass.

I'm a Catholic who was unfortunate to be raise in the Felt Banner Era of the 1970's when a 10 year old me saw a woman in a leotard do an interpretive dance down the aisle during a reading. I was gobsmacked and we never attended that church again. Now, 30 years later, I've come to love the Latin Mass but it is not offered and any suggestions to offer one were rebuffed with that same smile by someone who has similarly "checked out". Any suggestions would be welcome.