It’s Hard To Be A Catholic

It’s hard to be Catholic these days.

Faithful Catholics have no home in public discourse, because we’re presented with false absolutes: rhetoric that demonizes or “other”-izes half of God’s children, or a world view that leaves no room for a person who doesn’t support abortion. Too many of us act as if one or the other of those is an acceptable choice. It isn’t. Not for a follower of Jesus Christ.

And of course, there’s the sex abuse scandal. The Church has taken a beating from the secular world on that–with good reason. Yet even now, we as laity aren’t really dealing with it. To do so would force us to grapple with a really hard truth: that the Catholic Church’s strength–the apostolic structure that shields it from being swayed by the vagaries of public opinion–is also, in this case, its weakness.

Because, let’s face it: we are a passive laity. We’ve been trained that way: “The Church is not a democracy.” Well, of course not, but when did that come to mean the laity are supposed to lie down and abdicate our baptismal calling as priest, prophet, and king? Too many of us see ourselves as lesser vassals of the hierarchy. Somewhere in our Catholic psyche is a deeply-ingrained belief that it’s neither our right nor our responsibility to speak to them on matters of Church governance. And that, among other things, is how we got the abuse crisis.

So what’s the way forward? If we try to claim any authority, we’re in danger of being called “dissenters.” Nobody wants to get slapped with that label, so we cede the field of spiritual battle. We settle for bickering over sexual orientation, guns, immigration, and organ vs. guitar.

I sound jaded, don’t I? This is not at all the tone I intended for Intentional Catholic. I love my Church. But I’m feeling worn down lately. The institutional Church is in defense mode, terrified of doing the wrong thing—so terrified, it’s failing, at least on a large scale, to call out abuses of power and violations of justice and God-given human dignity, lest we lose any more people who might be offended by having their consciences stung.

Well, that fear is justified, too. Surely your parishes look like mine. Fifteen years ago, our biggest Mass had people standing around the back every Sunday. Now, the only time pew space is at a premium is Christmas and Easter.

But for every person who’s thrown up his hands and left the Church in disgust, there’s another clinging by his fingernails at the edge, tottering. Desperate for grounding, strengthening, spiritual fortification. And every time some zealous Catholic (ordained or lay) launches into legalistic hair-splitting–which of course they never recognize as hair-splitting–the fine thread tethering that wavering soul to the Church trembles. Stretches. Weakens.

We’ve got to make room for people’s questions, for their doubts. We’ve got to accept that we have to have open conversations that are going to be unpleasant. Faith grows when it is stretched, which always means stress and discomfort. But God is big enough to handle it, and–even now–so is the Church.

We have to let people be broken and imperfect. We have to accept the messiness of having a Church full of broken, imperfect people. We have to recognize that unity does not mean uniformity, and if we ignore the issues that are rocking people’s faith, if we talk obliquely about them while getting into knock-down, drag-out fights over liturgy, we’re in great danger of losing all those who are clinging desperately to their faith by a thread. Who see us bickering over minutiae while they’re crying out for survival.

This is spiritual warfare if I’ve ever seen it. And we’ve got to stop giving the Devil ammunition.

4 Replies to “It’s Hard To Be A Catholic”

  1. These are hard times. But we should remember that the Church has always been in hard times in various ways. It’s the nature of what in evangelical Protestant circles they like to call the “already – not yet”. That is, we’ve already been redeemed. We are already the children of God. But the whole thing has not yet been completed. Our redemption is a process that is still going on. There is holiness, but there is still sin. We have a taste of heaven, but we’re not there yet.

    We have to avoid two extremes. On the one hand, we don’t want to get complacent. We don’t want to say, “Well, there will always be problems, so I guess it’s no big deal! I’ll just accept it forget about it.” And we shrug our shoulders and turn apathetic. On the other hand, we don’t want to live in hyper-tense crisis mode all the time, where we’re always panicking about how bad things are and the bad things that might happen, all the troubles and problems and sins, etc.

    In a way, both of these are opposite ways of failing to take seriously the “not yet” of our current condition in this world. The first extreme acts as if the “now” is all that matters, and so it forgets about the future, what we’re striving to be, and becomes too accepting of imperfections. It becomes lazy for losing sight of the goal. You could say that it takes our “not yet” and transforms it into an “already” by just forgetting about any attempts to get anywhere else, like someone on a journey who forgets his destination and just sits down on the road and makes himself at home, refusing to go any further.

    The other extreme refuses to accept that our condition now is, by its nature, incomplete, that we are in fact on a journey and have not yet reached our final destination. It is determined by the sheer force of panicked effort to transform our “not yet” into an “already there” IMMEDIATELY, refusing to accept anything less than immediate 100% perfection. People who fall into this extreme burn themselves out by refusing to accept the limitations of their current life. Instead of working for reform patiently and realistically, while enjoying what they can along the way, they become irate at anything less than the ideal, and in their perfectionism they miss the positive things of life that are meant to sustain them and they end up exploding like a firecracker and then fizzling out out of exhaustion, causing harm both to themselves and the people around them.

    The reality of our current life calls for a balance between these two extremes–a patient, trusting, but resolute attitude to work for change while at the same time living in the moment and enjoying what it has to offer (and sharing that attitude with others). We must keep moving with determination towards our ultimate destination while, at the same time, receiving with gratitidue everything that comes to us along the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You show in this how well suited you are to your job teaching the faith to tomorrow’s young Catholics. I wonder if you have thoughts about what the Church does need as far as truly dealing with the sex abuse crisis?


  2. The sex abuse crisis is a hugely complicated affair. There is much we know, but also probably a good bit we don’t know, about what’s gone on and how it’s all been dealt with.

    My sense is that a lot of what has happened is that the Church, like the rest of the world, has not been adequately conscious of the plight and needs of victims of abuse over the centuries. Western culture has changed dramatically in this awareness over the past few decades. The kinds of sexual situations we talk about under “abuse” these days were not always looked at the same way. They’ve always been sins, but there hasn’t always been the heightened sensitivity to them and the attitude we tend to have now of treating them of the utmost importance and cracking down ruthlessly on them. I think that just about any institution that existed before a few decades ago, if examined under the kind of scrutiny the Church has been receiving lately, would come out very badly by today’s standards.

    There seems to be a tendency on the part of some to see Church leaders who have not dealt with these problems adequately in the past as malicious, evil people, but I suspect this is largely unfair. When there is a culture that tends to look at a situation a certain way, or has not thought through certain things, it is difficult for individuals in those cultures to know how to deal with them. I suspect that many of the so-called “cover-ups” that came out in the PA report and elsewhere were really Church leaders trying to do the best they could given their understanding of the situations at the time they occurred.

    My sense is that the Church, overall, is doing a good job of waking up and responding to all of this. It would be nice if the Church could move faster on these things and not have to be shocked into thinking about them by means of scandals, but I do think the Church–the Pope and the bishops in particular–have taken this situation seriously and have made some very good moves to deal with it. I think they did that back in the 1990s and in 2002, which is why so many of the situations that came out in the PA report and elsewhere were in the past and hardly any, by comparison, in recent times. I think the current scandals is helping the Church make even better rules. I think we will see dramatic practical improvement in these areas in the near future.

    Obviously, there have been terrible sins, and the hearts of some leaders have needed and do need to change, but I think a lot of the problem has been a slowness to recognize a problem and to deal with it, and I have been impressed by the apparently heartfelt response the Pope and the bishops have made when confronted with these realities and made more aware of them. Overall, I’m encouraged by how the whole thing has gone, though that doesn’t, of course, mean we should paper over the serious sins that have been committed or let down our guard for the future.

    What do you think?

    You might find this interesting:


  3. I’ll have to listen to the TED talk tonight when I start folding clothes. As for the rest, I hear you. It all makes sense, but I think the Church has been excoriated because it’s been so strong on sexual matters, so it looks hypocritical. If the Church is held to higher standards than, say, the Boy Scouts or the Key Club, there’s a good reason for it; if we name ourselves as God’s authority on earth, then we are, by definition, advertising ourselves as holding a higher standard.

    I have mixed feelings about everything; recent removals have hit very close to home, and I’m just sick over it; we assume all people are guilty, and will never allow them to be exonerated. OTOH, if we don’t act that way, then we add to the trauma faced by victims, who are re-victimized by people assuming they’re lying.

    Most of all, I think the secrecy in the Church, the “shut up and sit down” attitudes that Catholic lay people have accepted for hundreds of years, only worked b/c we had an implicit trust that everybody was doing the right thing. And now that trust is really rocked, so the only way to get it back is for the clergy (bishops, mostly) to be crazy transparent and accessible, and the bishops still are not accessible. We can’t talk to them. Everything is controlled and formalized. And again, I understand why that is, but it’s further ripping wounds in those who feel betrayed by the Church they grew up trusting. It’s just such a hard time to be Catholic.


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