Sometimes atheism is our fault

Look! It’s another one of those “no duh” quotes that we all think applies to someone else.

This is a sentiment that conservatives aim at liberals, with the assumption that only people who haven’t studied the faith properly could possibly hold such nonsensical ideas about redistribution of wealth, about mercy and tolerance; could possibly fail to see that things are either right or wrong, and any attempt to say otherwise equals relativism. (I know this, because that was me not that many years ago.)

But it’s also a sentiment that liberals aim at conservatives, with a hair-pulling level of frustration that people can’t see that Jesus was all about justice, and that money as an idol is behind many of the ideas held up as “traditional values” by conservatives. (And yes, I have to admit, this better represents where I stand now.)

Yesterday, I was reading a passage from Philippians, in which Paul took for granted that Christians living the faith would be united in thought and idea about how to view the world.

I don’t even know to deal with that. I know the Christian community was probably never as uniform as some Scripture passages make it sound, that division is an inescapable part of fallen humanity.

But where we are now–I started to try to lay it out, but the causes are too complex. There’s Steve Bannon going after the Pope, and confusing political ends with Godly ones. There’s the mishandling of the abuse crisis, which hits liberal and conservative bishops & priests alike. There’s clericalism and an inability to see outside “the way it’s always been done,” even though the world has changed around it and that model no longer works (i.e., we don’t have a glut of priests to do all the jobs in a parish, so you actually have to hire people to do work). There’s a passive laity, still thinking that our primary job is to show up and be done to, even though the mega churches have taught us that churches flourish best when everyone is involved.

All of these are examples of ways in which we, as believers, contribute to the flourishing of atheism. And it doesn’t fall on one side of the political spectrum–or of the left-right divide in the Church.

When we are nasty on Facebook, when we share emotion-heavy, but fact-questionable memes;

when we buy into stereotypes that Trump supporters are all uneducated rednecks or that people demanding just wages and just racial treatment are essentially lazy and need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps;

when we fail to recognize the ways in which our own privilege shapes our prejudices;

when we fail to recognize that we have prejudices at all;

when we make assumptions or pass judgment or don’t fact-check (or fallacy-check) whatever inflammatory argument suits our purposes–

In all these moments, we, as Christians, are part of what causes people to doubt the existence of God altogether.

We need to own that…and do something about it.

The danger of getting trapped by conflict

Background image by by John Hain from Pixabay

When I opened my copy of Evangelii Gaudium on Friday to find the day’s sharable, these words leaped off the screen. Almost immediately, two more quotes on the same topic followed, and I realized I needed to wait and post them in a row, as a series. That’s what we’ll be doing this week.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’d encourage you to take the time to ponder these words. How else can we describe what has happened in our country and in our Church in the past twenty years, besides loss of perspective and shrinking horizons resulting from being trapped in conflict?

All of us who have wanted to pull our hair out over the proliferation of conspiracy sites and “fake news”–to say nothing of the subsequent perversions of the concept (it’s not “fake news” just because you don’t like it)–surely find resonance in the idea that getting trapped in conflict leads to a sense of reality falling apart. By which I mean: when people are so committed to always being right, and the other side wrong, that they choose to ignore any and all realities that might force them to self-reflect, then yes, reality itself starts coming apart. We can’t find common ground, because we’re not even operating in the same reality.

I’m thinking of America’s political reality in the above reflections, but it largely transfers into the conflicts within the Church as well. Much food for thought here.

A Word of Hope for the Church, in a time of division

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Bad news is everywhere these days, and often it seems like the Church is characterized by division rather than the unity implied by our name.

We bicker over whether the Eucharist is medicine for the flawed or a reward given to those who deserve it.

We bicker over kneeling versus standing.

We bicker over whether it’s better to receive on the tongue or in the hand.

When the Pope challenges us to see the world’s issues as interconnected and inseparable, quoting the last several popes, certain extreme factions within the Church (who have a secular political agenda) launch a campaign against him that has caused confusion among many faithful people who are just trying to follow Jesus in their daily lives. (You should read that article, by the way. All of it.)

And of course, there’s the ongoing stain of the sex abuse scandal.

Given all this, it was pretty demoralizing when that Pew research survey came out a few months ago. The one suggesting that Catholics don’t even really understand the one thing that, above all others, defines us: the Eucharist.

Photo by Iarlaith McNamara on Pexels.com

Today I want to offer two points as words of hope. First, this article. Words matter, and the way the Pew questions were written, many of us would hesitate, caught between our faith and the way certain words are used in the modern secular world. I mentioned this at choir practice shortly after the survey came out, when people were expressing their dismay about the survey, and a recent convert, who had to navigate those waters on the way into the Church, nodded vigorously in agreement. The authors of this analysis suggest a more hopeful picture, and their argument resonates with me.

Which brings me to the second point: part of the reason for that resonance is an experience I had when I was working as a full-time liturgy director. I was jaded even then about the view and understanding of the Eucharist among the average Catholic Mass-goer. Convinced that most people really didn’t “get” it.

Then one day, when we had a no-show, I substituted as an extraordinary Eucharistic minister.

It was an amazing experience. One after another, people raised their eyes and their hands. The looks on their faces remain with me to this day: raw, naked, vulnerable, longing, hopeful, reverent, transfigured. Those people knew they were receiving Jesus. Knew it at a visceral level that tells a truth far deeper than any survey can illuminate. By the end of Communion, I was nearly in tears.

So when the division in the Church seem ready to rip us apart at the seams—when despair tries to get a hold on my heart—I choose to hope. To believe that what I was taught as a child remains true now: the Spirit is in control, that we are led at this point in time by the person the Spirit knows we need, and that nothing can destroy the Church. Not even us.

Unity, Dissent, Division

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The subject of unity has been on my mind a lot lately.

A well-formed, 100% orthodox Catholic friend shared an editorial addressing the danger of the organized dissidence against Pope Francis. It’s from NCR, which conservative Catholics often don’t trust, so I didn’t share. But I’ve been troubled for a long time by this as well as other signs of division in the Church. How can I make a difference? How can I foster unity in the Church–and, for that matter, in the world?

Wrestling with those questions brings me back to this:

Dang it.

This is hard to swallow. I mean, I know I am flawed and weak. The rush to judgment I excoriate others for is my greatest sin, too. But I’m trying so hard to think around the issues that divide us. To form myself, educate myself, and discern whether the good in one side outweighs the good in the other. And to share whatever good there is with others. My hope is that taking a measured approach can help bridge the gaps between us. Am I really powerless?

I was contemplating this question with great angst when my laptop unexpectedly switched documents. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about that (unfortunately); being an old computer with a first-generation touch screen, it does random things like that pretty regularly. What was remarkable was the document it flipped over to—a nugget carved off another post that wandered too far from its original topic:

For years, I’ve wanted to pull my hair out as our society—both within the Church and outside it—makes a run for the all-or-nothing extremes. If one dares challenge trickle down economic theory, one must, by definition, be against capitalism. If one says “America should be better than this,” one must, by definition, hate America.

Of course, it happens the other direction, too. Words like “racist” are getting thrown around pretty freely these days. Now, I’m a big believer that white privilege and unexamined bias are real problems. I see them manifest in myself daily, and the struggle to conquer them is part of my spiritual journey. But it also seems perfectly self-evident that well-intentioned people suffering from white privilege and unexamined bias are not going to be convinced to confront said privilege by being called racists for it. How we talk about things matters.


I had to stop and chuckle at the Holy Spirit’s timing. It was like a little Divine nudge saying, “Yeah, unity is my problem–but I have a job for you, don’t worry.”

As for the division in the Church: I’ve now read two of Pope Francis’ documents in full, and I am baffled by the voices raised so loudly against him. Everything I see is so clearly, authentically Catholic. He’s called out people for getting too focused on a sliver of the Kingdom to the exclusion of the rest; he’s called out legalism and extremism; he’s called out the misidentification of things of the world as things of God. But there’s nothing threatening to the faith in any of that. So my best (most charitable) guess is that people get defensive when challenged to grow beyond the comfortable and familiar.

There’s a lot of demonizing going on within the Church, and it’s got to stop. There’s got to be room in the Church both for people who are passionately committed to annihilating abortion and people who believe we can’t sacrifice every other Gospel command in pursuit of that worthy goal.

I can’t help feeling that a lot of the negative chatter about Pope Francis is a reaction to him being outspoken on social justice rather than abortion. I have to keep reminding myself of this:

Both in our Church and in the larger world, our habit is to do exactly the opposite—and to cling so tightly to our assumptions that we end up not even seeing there could be another interpretation.

When we do that, the Devil is the only winner. When we do that, we’re giving the Church and the world to Satan.

The Holy Spirit

Background image by Ashish Thakur on Unsplash

I am often guilty of trying to control everything, to take charge and fix what I see needs fixing on the strength of my own convictions and abilities. Since I’ve been quite opinionated the last two days on matters of liturgical music, I put this out as a reminder to all of us who feel passionately about liturgy–myself above all–that God is in charge, not me. That if I try to lean on my own understanding, I’m going to make things worse, not better.

Come, Holy Spirit. Sweep us along with you, and get us where You meant us to be all along.

(This post is part of a three-part series on the liturgy wars.)

Unity vs. Uniformity

Background image by ArtsyBee, via Pixabay

This whole section of Evangelii Gaudium is talking about unity (as distinct from uniformity) and diversity. Bear with me, or better yet just go read it yourself, because it may seem strange that I’m zeroing in on liturgy.

Evangelii Gaudium says the message of the Gospel has been “closely associated with” some cultures, but that doesn’t mean the culture is essential to the message (117). “We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture.” (118)

127-8 talk about how for most of us, opportunities for evangelization come one on one in personal settings, and suggests how that might look–but then 129 warns against being slavish to a particular formulation. This opens up a discussion of the many and varied charisms within the Church, which brings us to this quote and the one I will share tomorrow.

So it’s not specifically about liturgy, but the liturgy wars demonstrate clearly the confusion between unity and uniformity–specifically as regards music. That final sentence: “This is not helpful for the Church’s mission,” is what ties it all back to evangelization. Liturgy is the source of our strength to go out and accomplish the Church’s mission of bringing people to Christ and unfolding the Kingdom on Earth, but if the summit of our faith is corrupted by bickering over guitar vs. organ and whether drums are actually part of the culture and whether pop styles are intrinsically inappropriate for liturgy–etc., etc.–if we’re pouring all our emotional energy into fighting over these issues, how are we supposed to evangelize anyone? More to the point, why would anyone want to join that Church?

In other words: “Not helpful for the Church’s mission.”

(This post is part of a three-part series on the liturgy wars.)