Friday, April 09, 2010

Remaining in the Church?

A comment made on my earlier post includes the following: "I haven't given up on God. But the Church? Well, that's another matter entirely. And I'm not sure if I am going to stay or go." 

It would be improper and unhelpful for me to offer an intellectual reason to remain in the Catholic Church, especially in light of the failure of so many of its leaders to leader, the apparent inability of so many of its pastors to pastor.

In my prayer this morning, I imagined a group never really mentioned in the Scriptures: the non-disciple friends of Jesus. By this I mean those women and men with whom Peter might have gathered on the odd weekend to spend time with, to relax with, to 'get away' from the other followers of Jesus. Peter may have introduced some of these people to Jesus and some of them may even have considered themselves followers.

Imagine the shock and horror when Peter told his friends just how it was that he managed to escape being pegged as one of Jesus' followers by the Pharisees. "Well, I denied him three times." Now the Scriptures tell us that Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him three times before the cock crowd and, when he realized that Jesus was right, Peter ran off and felt pretty awful about what he had done. We believe this and we know something of what happened to Peter following the Resurrection. But what do you think his friends thought of him, in those hours immediately following his denial of Jesus?

They probably thought he was a huge jerk, a pathetic loser, a charlatan, a fair-weather friend, a coward. They'd have looked at Peter, "The Rock," with suspicion and disgust: just what kind of friend is this who professes to be such a loyal disciple but then turns and hightails it when his own neck is on the line? Peter, the first Pope, probably appeared to his friends in those hours as a major dope: a traitor, hypocrite who failed the one whom he loved and had sworn to follow.

I mention this because the Church's failure of leadership is nothing new. From the very beginning, we have been shepherded by sinful, fallible men (in this case, using the gender-exclusive noun is appropriate). Our history is not one of pristine purity but, rather, of a sinful Church that has tried, and failed, and tried again to be the people God has called us to be.

Remember: Jesus didn't renege on his friendship after Peter's failure. Jesus knew that Peter was a terrible failure, an unworthy man. But he did not cease loving him: he asked this spectacular traitor to do the unthinkable. Jesus asked Peter to feed his sheep.

For those of us in the Catholic Church, we are still fed by the successor of Saint Peter, the coward chosen by Jesus to be our shepherd, our pastor. Nowhere does Jesus say that any of our leaders will be sin-proof, hermetically sealed off from the ravages of sin and corruption: he promises only that the gates of hell would not prevail over the Church (Matthew 16:18). The hands that raise the bread and wine and the lips that consecrate them as the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ descend from the hands and lips of Jesus' friend who betrayed him and denied him.

I remain in the Catholic Church because it is a Church whose bedrock and foundation is a spectacular sinner. Peter betrayed Christ phenomenally: he could not remain awake with him in prayer, he remained silent as he was charged, and he denied him when questioned. Yet Christ still called these cowardly sinners to go out into the world to preach the Gospel; he gave them his own Spirit and promised to be with them until the end of days. I trust in this promise and trust that I have a home with a history of terrible failures.

I cannot abandon the Church because, in my heart, I know that it is where I belong. I honestly believe that if can gather together we can, sinners all, move forward as a stronger and more committed Body. I believe this because I still have hope. Hope that Christ's strength with galvanize his even his weakest and most flawed followers to live courageously for the Gospel. Hope that Christ's Spirit will embolden his shepherds to put people's lives over institutional prestige. Hope that Christ's love will enable those who have been so grievously wounded forgive - not forget - so that they find greater freedom from the bondage of their abusers. I believe we can do this, together, because of the Resurrection: God is stronger than death, love is stronger than hate, forgiveness is stronger resentment.

Our Church is not perfect. Yet even down to its sinful foundation, it has been solidified always by Christ's Spirit...a Spirit so many of our leaders and shepherds - and, dare I say, we ourselves! - have rebuffed time and again. In a sense, I am grateful that the Church is imperfect, for I know myself to be  sinful man who feels, nevertheless, called to serve Christ's people. If the Church were perfect, I would have no home here. I don't know that many of us would. I know that I need the Church in order to be the Christian that I am called to be: a servant of bodies, a minister of sacraments, a healer of souls. I am not arrogant to say that the Church needs me. But I am confident that the Church every man, woman, and child who are willing to open their hearts to its imperfections and love it, not because she is perfect, but because the Church is called by Christ himself. Even when she limps, stumbles, or falls we can have the confidence that Christ is there, guiding her...guiding all of us as the People of God...on our journey into the Kingdom.


Jason said...

I don't know if you read Timothy Radcliffe's article in The Tablet ( I was struck by his last sentence:

"We may be embarrassed to admit that we are Catholics, but Jesus kept shameful company from the beginning."

And he loved them, and how are we not called to do the same? We're not called to look away or pretend it isn't happening, but we're called to keep company with sinners and love them. Company, from the Latin intimated "sharing bread," which is what we do as Catholics in the Eucharist.

Dr. Rural said...

Thank you for the thoughtful post.

Reading it, I felt as I often do when I read things written by committed Catholics who love the church: as if it was written in a language that is very close to English, and yet that I cannot quite grasp.

That sounds insulting. I don't mean it to. The words themselves are crystal clear. They simply describe a reality I can't access.

Here's my story of growing up Catholic in the 1970s and 1980s. We read the Bible and the Baltimore Catechism at Catholic school. By eighth grade, I had received a fine education and solid grounding in orthodox doctrine.

Doctrine aside, here were the underlying messages of that school that I absorbed into my very bones:

1. God is a harsh master. He demands exact ritual observance and the careful following of many rules. Any minor infraction is worthy of hell.

2. Men are superior to women. They are capable of greater deeds, and are more filled with grace. The Virgin Mary is the one exception. The Virgin Mary, however, is also the yardstick used to condemn other women -- because she was perfectly humble and obedient, unlike, you know, me. Or any other modern women.

By the time I was thirteen, not surprisingly, I was convinced I was going to hell. I thought so for many years. (I'm not sure I've ever fully gotten over this.)

Now, I *know* just how screwed up this is. And I know this is not the only face of the church. I have friends who grew up in loving and supportive schools and parishes, where they learned "God loves you! Now, go show that love to the world!" They love the church. I can see that -- but I can't feel it. For them, the church shows them the way to Jesus. But for me the church was a wall between me and Jesus -- telling me that I was unworthy and contemptible, not that I was redeemed or beloved.

And now? Well, I have consciously rejected the messages I was fed as a child. I've read Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, Kathleen Norris and Elizabeth Johnson. I've also read Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and reams of church documents from the Council of Trent to Vatican II. (My Ph.D. is in history.) A great deal of this reading, as you might imagine, has been in an attempt to work through my childhood issues and arrive at an adult understanding.

But here's the thing. A lot of people are sticking with the church because they love it. I am increasingly having to face the fact that I don't. And although I'm sure that God can be found in the Catholic church, I have come to believe He can be found among the Protestants, too.

Anne-Marie said...

Yes, I too wantes to recommend you read Tim Radcliffe's article. A very balanced approach as usual.

Matt said...

really enjoyed the post. thanks.

Unknown said...

Father -thank you for your transparency, and may you be blessed for reminding us of God's love for his weak, sin-laden children. I just entered the church this Easter at the age of 48, with new revelations of the church's failures and crimes swirling across the worldwide press. I have joined you in praying for our spiritual leaders to be courageous and compassionate in the face of this crisis, and that the church throughout the world will seek the forgiveness of those whom we have harmed, always remembering our common heritage as sinners in continual and desperate need of our Savior Christ.

Anonymous said...

Dear Father,

I happened to stumble across the link for your blog while searching for tin whistle tabs. As a person who was raised Catholic in a Jesuit parish, I miss the matter-of-fact and 'humaness' (for lack of a better term) the Jesuits used to teach with. The same matter-of-fact way you have presented the scriptures in this entry.
It truly was a help for someone who left the church a long time ago after being made to feel substandard, unacceptable and sinful for being married to a noncatholic to see your words.

From the bottom of my heart - I thank you.

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