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.