Last week I had planned to write about John Courtney Murray and the concept of religious freedom in American Catholic thought, as a follow up to the piece I did on Romans 13 that exactly three people read. But I wasn’t up to it. I will admit that the news from the Pennsylvania grand jury and former Cardinal McCarrick made me pause. So I wrote a little about that instead, and then I kind of stewed in the aftermath of statements by various bishops and, eventually, the pope.
A couple of my beloved atheist and agnostic friends asked a question that a lot of people are asking a lot of Catholics this week, I expect: how can you stay in a church that would allow such horrors to happen? It’s a legitimate question – so much so that our priest last night even said in his homily that he can’t argue with people who decide to leave the Church after the latest revelations of systematic cover-ups by bishops of sexual abuse of minors by priests. He gave an impassioned plea for staying, but I realized my answer to the question “Why stay?” was maybe a little different than his.
It’s probably worth noting that I chose to become Catholic as an adult after being raised in the United Methodist Church and schooled in enough mainline Protestant denominations (Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Baptist) that I was probably one Lutheran church-school short of hitting for the cycle. I wrote about my (then-20-year-old) decision a few years ago, and a lot of those reasons, both for joining the Church and for growing in loyalty to her, remain the same. But here are the reasons that stand out in this moment as to why I’m not leaving, for what it’s worth:
- Sacramentality – (Probably not a word) – This was the argument our priest leaned on – that Catholicism’s unique embrace of the sacramental nature of the Eucharist means we have access to the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in ways that other churches can’t or don’t claim. Because of my deep affection and respect for my Protestant brothers and sisters, I don’t lean too heavily on this one, but I will say this – with the exception of possibly the Orthodox church, Catholicism stands out among Christianity for its sense of mystery. While a lot of Protestant and Evangelical worship and practice focuses almost exclusively on the Word – on Scripture, preaching, and reasoned theology – Catholicism bears witness to the transcendent, ineffable, felt-not-thought elements of encountering the divine. It’s funny, because many Catholic converts seem to be attracted to its sense of certainty and predictability, but to me, the sacramentality of the faith points to worship of God as an encounter that has to be felt and not just understood, that can’t be completely explained, that carries a degree of unpredictability. I can only really accept a god who is bigger than I can possibly understand. The emphasis on word and sacrament together continues to challenge the limits of what I think I know of God. I fully believe that those who worship God through other denominations (and other religions) can experience God’s transcendence, but this is the channel that most reliably forces me to appreciate that transcendence and bring both my heart and head to worship.
- Globality – (Almost certainly not a word) – At some point, I really do hope to get to spend longer stretches of time writing about the intersection of faith and public policy. In the meantime…one thing that I appreciate about the Catholic Church is its universality. In every corner of the globe, EVERY DAY, people are praying the same prayers and reading the same readings in their own languages. While the hierarchical nature of the Church may be responsible for the ethos that has led to the current awful mess, we live in an age in which much of American Christianity is really just a front for civil religion, for nationalism with a cross on top, for a validation of the status quo. Catholics aren’t at all immune to this temptation, but the fact that the Church has a headquarters, and that the address isn’t in the US, provides a greater opportunity for prophetic criticism of the powers that be. We could use a lot more of that, for sure, but it’s easier for me to see how that prophetic distance happens in a Church that isn’t tied to national borders or atomized into individual, loosely connected congregations.
- Theology – (Definitely a word. Probably a concern that this isn’t higher on the list.) – I’ve been wrestling with an idea that this set of scandals may ultimately vindicate the Augustinian-Calvinist view of the total depravity of man, which I may come back to another day. But in this case, what I value about my Catholic faith is the focus on repentance, confession, and reconciliation. The sacrament of Reconciliation (or Confession) is where people focus on this, and I know that’s a barrier for many Protestant brothers and sisters. But for me, it underscores the slow work of grace and the role we play as active responders to that grace by acknowledging our sins, not only to God but to our brothers and sisters, and seeking reconciliation. More than anything else, what has haunted me about this scandal is that bishops built a culture that chose, instead of seeking reconciliation, to hide their sins and those of the priests they supervised. That is both a criminal and theological abomination. But it’s through the Catholic language of reconciliation that I can best express that abomination. That Church leaders ignored the practice and ethos of the faith doesn’t invalidate that ethos.
- Faithful relationality – Last Friday, the readings for daily mass were from Ezekiel and Matthew. The Ezekiel reading (the shorter of the two options) was about how God was going to confront those who turned their backs on him and overwhelm them with shame by showering them with forgiveness. The Matthew reading was one of the ones where the Pharisees quiz Jesus on rules of divorce and he says that we weren’t made for divorce but for marriage. As I sat in mass, what struck me was the relevance of these readings to today; specifically, that they spoke to God’s call to fidelity in the midst of our infidelity. God doesn’t accept or ignore our penchant for unfaithfulness, but he confronts it and calls us to repent of it and learn fidelity instead. Much of the meager spiritual growth I have experienced in my life has come from practicing the drudgery of faithfulness: keeping small promises, participating in daily rituals, reading the day’s readings. Catholicism has lots of opportunities to improve my ability to be faithful. But more than that, faith itself isn’t about cognitive belief as much as it is about loving relationship, with God and with God’s people. I’m a member of the Catholic Church, but I’m also a member of my Catholic Church, and “member” – long since trivialized – is meant as “part of one body.” It may be a screwed up, dysfunctional body (sometimes because of me, sometimes in spite of me). But it’s the one I’m attached to. As much as we Americans value consumerism and the ability to make individual, disposable choices, over reliance on that mode of living deprives us of true belonging. Sure, I could choose to leave for another church. But in doing so, I’d be practicing the opposite of the sometimes painful faithfulness to God and the people God gives me that is at the center of what I think it means to believe.
- History – One of the treasures I’ve only begun discovering as a new(ish) Catholic is the history of the church as told through the lives of the saints. That historical thread that runs from Peter to today is attractive to me, but it also gives me context to reflect upon the question of leaving. The more saints I learn about, the more I learn that the history of the Church has always been a jagged one, with corruption threatening to send it careening off the tracks, only to be saved by corrective reformers from within (including and especially non-priests like Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena). As a product of the Reformation, I don’t mean to cast aspersions on those who left the Church. But Jesus was pretty clear about wanting His believers to be unified. I decided 24 years ago that, as unlikely as I was to change the Church in anyway, my odds were better from within than outside it.
There are some other reasons – some more trivial, some more reflective of my idiosyncrasies – but these are the ones I’d suggest make the idea of abandoning the Church a non-starter for me. They may not be compelling to you at all…and I understand that. I don’t share this so much to convince others to stay as to explain why that’s the choice I make.