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This Crazy Concept of Time

“Come From Away” is coming to my community later the year, and we have tickets, in part because it’s a show my daughter likes, and in part because it’s part of a package we bought. If you don’t know what the show is about, here. Have Kleenex handy.

We have learned through hard experience that sometimes it’s worth downloading and listening to the soundtrack of a show before you show up in the theater. I think I’ve made it through this one maybe twice while driving, outright sobbing at a couple of points, which can’t be safe for the drivers in the other cars.

Betsy was born after 9/11, so some of the power of this show is diffused for her, although she’s heard the soundtrack and prepared to bawl from start to end. But the parts that bring me to tears aren’t just the memories of that time or the sad turns of the plot but the points of kindness and humanity that come through the story. (My hope is that this is “on brand” for me.)

I was thinking about the story behind the show this weekend – the life of the passengers on their way to the US on 9/11 who were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland for several days while our airspace was closed, for those too lazy to follow the link or Google it – and in part it was because of that experience of “timelessness.” Matthe Kelly, a popular Catholic writer, talks in his books about “carefree timelessness”, when you’re just lost in the presence of another, like a teen on the phone with their crush (I mean, in the ‘80s, I guess). But this is another sort of timelessness, the not-carefree kind.

I was talking with April about this last night (no, this is not the caliber of most of our conversations); about how we seem to construct this sense of “time” that comes with routines and responsibilities and deadlines and pressures and predictability that can make us feel like we’re living meaningful lives, or we’re connected to the outside world, or that we have a sense of normalcy, but it’s all a myth we sell to ourselves. When a hurricane blows through or even by your community (as happened in North Florida this year and as we recall from last year), or you come in contact with people struggling just to survive (as our friends in Uganda or the priest from DRC who visited our church Sunday remind us), or you have a personal or family emergency – the death of a parent or a medical emergency, we realize how much that “normal life” is a facade, and we lose ourselves for awhile in the rawness of really living.

Maybe the routines of “normal life” are a crutch to soften the edges of raw living for those of us who have the luxury of adopting them and the need for mediated life. Maybe online living is the next generation of mediation. I do not romanticize or long for that raw life, because I’ve only really encountered it in tough times. But it’s probably good for me to remember from time to time that that raw life is what’s real, and not the latest brouhaha on Twitter.

 

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Miracle at the Hartford Super 8

When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii[a] worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

—Mark 6:35-44

“This has sh*t show potential” is not a phrase I can find coming from the disciples in any translation I’ve seen, but it wouldn’t be hard to imagine one of them muttering the Aramaic equivalent as he [let’s face it, probably Thomas] assessed the situation. Five thousand men, plus women and children. Five loaves of bread and two fish. Yeah, that could go poorly.

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img_0561Since I first wrote about my friend Patrick in Uganda and the unlikely story of our connection, there have been some ebbs and flows in the effort to sustain their school in a Kampala outskirt that strives to feed, house and educate several hundred kids, most of them orphans, refugees, or otherwise given up by their families and pretty much everyone else. We raised enough money for the water filter…but Facebook’s Network for Good has been slow to get the money to the US-based non-profit that supports the school. Patrick was able to raise some money for desks for the kids, but the school year was briefly thrown into chaos due to a teacher strike, which reshuffled their fundraising priorities. He was able to raise money to buy supplies for their agricultural venture, but they added scores of new students from South Sudan who had fled their country to a refugee settlement and saw this hanging-by-a-thread school as a better chance to a better life. Even though they really didn’t have enough for the kids already under their roof, they couldn’t turn away these others in even more dire need. So it’s been up and down. Throughout, Patrick and I message each other most days.

Patrick reached out recently to ask if we could send clothes to the kids. As they begin a new school year there, some of them new arrivals don’t have clothes, especially shoes. Could I send some from the US? I explained to Patrick that, if I had the money to ship clothes from America to Uganda, it would be better for all involved just to send the money directly to the school so they could buy their own clothes. But I don’t have that kind of money.

Oh. Hey, Mr. Segawa (the school’s founder, Segawa Ephraim) is planning to visit the US, but I think he’s too far for you to see him. He’s going to a conference in Hartford, Connecticut. (Yes, it’s too far.)

Patrick, if we could get some clothes to Mr. Segawa could he take them back?

He could take two suitcases full – up to 23 kg (50 pounds) each.

Thus began what one of the semi-willing co-conspirators confessed had sh*t show potential.

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Patrick and Mr. Segawa at the airport.

I started off thinking that we could collect clothes in Florida and ship them to Hartford, but the first wake up call was that Mr. Segawa was leaving for the US that day, and would be returning less than a week later. That pretty quickly scrapped the idea of collecting and shipping. Not enough time to marshal te troops, and too expensive to ship on that timeframe.

I know, basically, one person in Hartford, Connecticut, so I asked her if she knew anyone who might be able to donate clothes for kids 5 to 15 to a guy who would take them back to Uganda to orphans and refugees. [Confession: every time I tried to explain this project to someone, I end up laughing at how absurdly unlikely it is.] I figured, best case, she’d know of a non-profit in town I could pitch. Instead, she turned to her friends, several of whom, apparently, have LOTS of kids clothes they don’t need. In the span of about a day, it looked like our biggest concern would be that we had more than two suitcases full for Segawa to take back. All we needed to do was get the clothes to the Super 8 Hartford where he would be staying the night before he returned home, and we’d actually make this happen! My friend is a superstar who went above and beyond, and her friends were awesome to respond so quickly and abundantly.

Then we realized he didn’t actually have suitcases. [This would be when the sh*tshow potential comment came.] I assured my friend that, yes, this was pretty chaotic, but I was confident we could get suitcases. She didn’t seem convinced, but she said she’d keep working on clothes and look to me to work my magic on suitcases.

It turned out I didn’t need to. Before I heard back from a friend who is a Franciscan priest in St. Pete, who used to be a pastor in Hartford, and who said there were plenty of old suitcases that friars had left behind in the friary there, my friend’s friends had scared up two suitcases to go with the shoes and clothes to go back with Segawa.

Through it all, I kept in steady communication with Amish, the manager of the Super 8. He was less than enthused, but handled the chaos relatively well – packages, suitcases, bags of clothes coming in at odd times for a guest who wasn’t arriving for a couple days. By the last drop off, he was ready for Segawa to arrive so he could hand over all this stuff. But at the end of the day, he did his part. Sunday night I got word from Segawa that Amish had given him the suitcases, bags and packages.

Amish receiving suitcases full of clothes from strangers.

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There is a modern reinterpretation of the feeding of the multitudes, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, which is assuredly not what the gospel-writers had in mind. In it, it’s not so much that Jesus says “Shazam” over the bowls of breadcrumbs and multiplies them. It’s that, by encouraging the one small soul who gave what he had, and tearing it into small pieces, he convinced everyone in the crowd that if they all took what they had squirreled away just in case and threw it in with the others, there would be enough for everyone. There is something terribly daunting about taking on the responsibility of feeding 5,000+. There is something imminently doable about throwing in the crumbs you have on you to contribute to the good of the group. It still takes some goodness and some trust, but you can do it. And when 5,000 do it, there is more than enough for everyone.

That is the sort of miracle that happened at the Super 8 Hartford last weekend. A total stranger from the other side of the world needed clothes for the kids back home with nothing. Friends of friends of friends of his heard about it and looked for what they and their friends could spare. And he went home with two suitcases, full to the brim with hope and clothes and shoes of all kinds.

Let those with ears to hear, listen up.

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One more thing before the photos of what came of this caper. If you missed this boat and you’re still willing to help Segawa and Patrick provide for these kids, PayPal Heart for People directly here. Thanks.

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Fortress or Field Hospital?

I’ve been reflecting on the current stage of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church as seen through the lens of moral foundations theory, because it seems to me that one of the dimensions of dissonance in the responses of Catholic factions to what’s been unfolding since the summer of ‘18 relates to the findings of those proposing this new theory of moral psychology.

A little while ago, I read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and (perhaps appropriately) it really struck home by validating something I saw in myself and the people around me. That is, people are not morally rational…at least not primarily rational. Instead, people form an opinion, especially about morality, intuitively, in their emotional center, and then turn to reason to justify that heartfelt opinion secondarily. What changes people’s minds, Haidt argues, isn’t really a change of mind; it’s a change of heart, usually by intersecting with personal stories that shift their current worldview by exposing them emotionally to another way of seeing a situation.

Moral foundations theory, which Haidt outlines in the book, assumes that communities of interest prioritize different constellations of moral values, with some mix of care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and maybe liberty/oppression. Haidt (himself a self-professed progressive atheist) argues that progressives tend to keep their moral reasoning almost exclusively in the first two dimensions, while conservatives tend to use all of them in more of a balance. (Libertarians are a special breed, who in part sparked the addition of the sixth provisional value set.)

In trying to understand my friends who believe that the root cause of the current crisis is the tolerance of deviance from church teaching on sexuality (by which I don’t only mean openness to LGBT believers, but recognizing that that’s the key issue), what keeps coming up in my mind is an observation that they are driven by a deeply felt sensitivity to sanctity and degradation. At a very obvious level, this applies to a reaction to the idea of same-sex sexual relations at all by those who are offended by them; clearly, they would hold that same sex relations violate the sanctity of the divine design of human sexuality and signal the degradation of what sex was meant to be.

But, deeper than that, there’s a sense that what it means to be Christian is to seek sanctity and purity and to actively keep out all that degrades. The other elements are important – authority in determining purity, loyalty to that vision of sanctity, etc. But in this understanding, the Church is a fortress in a viciously antagonistic world, one that must be kept secure by keeping it pure, by keeping out those who by their identities would degrade it.

You could do a full-out Bible Study on Old and New Testament passages that underscore this point. I’m not going to, but I welcome those who want to. I’m just conceding that this is a narrative of what it means to be holy that extends back to the beginning of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

But it’s not the only narrative that can claim that heritage and power, and that may be the issue at play in a lot of the dissension we’re seeing today. What Pope Francis brought to his papacy was a different model of what it means to be Church (one echoed by his predecessor Saint Pope John XXIII and many others): Church as field hospital. Let me try to make that case:

One of the gifts of Catholicism is the lectionary – a break down of the Bible into chunks of Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament and Gospel passages that cycle you through most of the Bible every three years on Sundays and every two years on weekdays. Today, tomorrow, and any day, every Catholic Church in the world (pretty much) will read and reflect on the same set of readings, including at least one Gospel passage, one Psalm, and one other reading. These were set decades ago, so it’s not the case that a pastor wakes up, is struck by a particular thing, and goes to pick readings to underscore that thing. You have to play the cards that are dealt, and while that doesn’t cover the entire Bible, it covers most of it. So if you’re Catholic (or attend another Church that follows a common lectionary), you will hear over the course of time a broader lens of what’s in the Bible, I would argue, than if you are attending a Church in which a pastor picks one book at a time to go deep on. (Growing up in such a Church, I got a heavy dose of Pauline letters; less so the other stuff.)

I raise that to say, it is really, really hard to listen to Jesus’ exploits, both of word and deed, every single day without getting a clear sense that he was deeply subversive and intensely driven by care. Most of what He says, and most of what He does, centers around breaking a norm in order to show care and, even more subversive, actively include those who had been cast out as degrading, unsanctified. Widows and orphans, sure. Those afflicted by deformities and illnesses blamed on their sin or their parents, you bet. But lepers and bleeding women and Samaritans and Romans who were specifically declared unclean and degrading to observers of the Hebrew law of the time.

His subversive focus on care didn’t just undercut the sanctity/degradation and the authority/subversion realms. He violated fairness in what he said, all the time. The parable of the workers said forget paying people based on how hard they worked; shower them all with enough. The parable of the Prodigal Son becomes the parable of the Prodigal Father, who lets his son waste away half his inheritance on wine, women and song and then throws a feast to welcome him back, ticking off the older son who still clings to fairness and all-but-shouts “He’s cheating!” And, perhaps most uncomfortably, in his crucifixion and resurrection, he testifies that even the most malevolent harm can be transformed into loving care, not only for the sinless Son, but for the thief rightfully executed at his side.

In the light of that subversive ethos, this counternarrative of the Church says we are not called to be set apart from the hurting as a shining, exemplary, pure fortress on a hill; we are called to be a field hospital, choosing as Jesus did to go straight toward the margins, to actively embrace those that purity says you should keep at arm’s length, to overwhelm them with love and let yourself take on their stain in the process. One of the fundamental turning points in St. Francis of Assisi’s life doesn’t get as much play in the arts and legends as his taming wolves and preaching to birds. When he was younger, he was horrified by the lepers outside Assisi’s walls, reflecting the cultural norms and good hygiene. But in the process of his conversion, God confronted him with a leper who Francis finally saw not as an impurity or a threat but as a brother needing human touch. When Francis hugged the leper he had earlier scorned, it marked the turn toward sainthood. So are we called as Christians to love first those most scorned by our society, even those that make us go “Eww.” So says the Gospel writers. So says Francis of Assisi. So says the current pope, as imperfect as his example may prove to be.

I obviously have a rooting interest between these narratives, so I admit the bias. But it seems to me that our choice of vision is one of running away from sin or running toward love. Either way, you’re running; one direction is clean and cold, and the other is warm and messy. Like I said, I’ve made my choice based on the God I’ve encountered in Word, Spirit and Sacrament. But I also need to recognize that others hearing the same Word, participating in the same Sacrament, and receiving the same Spirit might be pulled in the other direction. (And the test I will offer – which life brings the most evidence of the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, and the like) – might be a split decision or draw to a truly objective judge.)

As (almost) all of us react in horror to the thought that 16 years after US Catholic Bishops adopted a charter to protect children from sexual abuse, there remain thousands of cases (perhaps) that have never been reconciled, and a hierarchical culture of coverup, you notice that some people’s horror is a little different from others. The victims of abuse lose when we allow ourselves to obsess on those differences rather than the crimes from which there has been no repentance. But maybe if we understand how these divergent narratives of what the Church should be drive those differences, we can give them a nod of understanding and shrug them off enough to focus together on bringing care to the victims and justice to the wronged, and we can rebuild a Church that can hold together the tension of fortress and field hospital.

A 12-step plan for reforming the Church

I’m posting this here, but it’s entirely the work of Michael Bayer (@mbayer1248), who posted it on a Twitter thread and gave me permission to replicate it here for the blessed among you who don’t do Twitter. I cleaned up the formatting a little to translate tweets to more common grammar, but otherwise have left them as is. (He acknowledged in a subsequent tweet that this format required less context and more succinct points than many of these suggestions deserve.) I’ve been casting around for ideas about what a “non-clericalist” Catholic Church would look like, and what policy or organizational changes would get us there, but I’ve had trouble finding much. We are intensely focused as a Church on fighting over the sexual element of the sexual abuse crisis, or on arguing over the same political/ideological fights that existed before the latest revelations of abuse and cover-up. But as Pope Francis outlined in his letter to the faithful (without proposing concrete changes), and as other stories of abuse and cover-up that go beyond sexual abuse illustrate, the fundamental issue that needs to be addressed is the consolidation of power among those clerics at the top of the Church hierarchy and their lack of accountability to the faithful they serve. I hope that Michael’s 12-step plan can be fodder for discussion and a catalyst for organizing the please of the faithful around an agenda for organizational renewal. Please take a minute to read his brief list of suggestions and talk about the ones you think would help, the ones you think wouldn’t help, and what other changes you’d suggest instead. It’s up to us – all of us – to make change happen.

  1. Reform of the priesthood and episcopacy: Based on the priesthood of Jesus in the Scriptures (he held no titles, bore no earthly power; he wasn’t on the Sanhedrin, he didn’t aspire to political office), disentangle spiritual leadership from earthly executive governance.
  2. Reform of diocesan/parish [structure and culture]: Priests/bishops can’t be CEO, CFO, COO, and Chief Spiritual Officer. Lay staff can’t just be mindless automotons who execute the will of the boss. They must be true and equal collaborators whose expertise and authority cannot be peremptorily dismissed.
  3. Reform of seminaries: Taking (mostly) late-adolescent young men and withdrawing them from the world in a self-enclosed Church dorm is exacerbating certain insidious tendencies. Partner with Catholic colleges. Go to classes with lay peers. Live in a house of discernment.
  4. Reform of seminary formation: Not just where priests are trained, but how. Increase human/psychological formation. Focus more on interior holiness, less on external pietistic practices. Classes on leading an organization (e.g. Pat Lencioni) in addition to Eucharistic theology.
  5. Reform of the diaconate: Recognize that authentic diakonos is more than just serving at the Eucharistic table. Youth ministers, hospital chaplains, directors of religious education, those who take communion to the homebound: all deacons. Many (if not most) are women.
  6. Implementation of Lumen Gentium’s call for the laity to take up their true place of leadership in the Church. It is not fair/healthy/sustainable to ask priests to be CEO, COO, CFO, and Chief Spiritual Officer at their parish. Create formalized structures of lay co-leadership.
  7. Independent lay review boards as a mandatory ecclesial structure in every diocese, re: reporting of abuse allegations and decision-making with respect to clergy treatment, transfers, and future ministerial assignments. Members can’t be dismissed by the bishop sole[ly].
  8. Greater involvement of qualified lay leaders and more transparency around priest personnel decision-making. Even most diocesan clergy have little to no understanding (much less input) into how personnel decisions, ultimately, are made. They need to be more involved.
  9. More focus on prayer and spiritual formation in parish religious education programs. We’ve focused so much on transmission of catechetical concepts and doctrinal formulations that most teens, adults, even Church employees, have a meager active prayer life. That’s a problem.
  10. More focus on integrating parish priests into the life of the community. (Examination of mandatory celibacy is unquestionably part of this.) Living alone in a rectory while being tasked with ceaseless pastoral ministry is a recipe for burnout, loneliness, addiction, etc.
  11. Comparatively less focus in youth ministry on sexual purity and more on developing healthy human relationships, in all aspects of life. This isn’t to run away from Church teaching; quite the opposite. It’s filling in huge gaps in how we talk about the gift of human sexuality.
  12. Eliminate disproportionate emphasis on vocations to priestly/religious life as being inherently higher callings. The near-idolatry around vocations/seminarians in many pious parishes leads too many young men who lack deep sense of personal identity to look for it in the collar.

So, let’s discuss…

 

Miraculous Orbits and What to Do Next

I was reflecting this morning on the miracle of our planet’s orbit around the sun. Were our path any farther away from the heat of the sun, Earth would be too cold to harbor life as we know it. Were we any closer, we would all burn up from too much heat. And yet we are in this precious middle channel that offers the possibility of life.

This came to mind as I thought about the reaction of Catholics, myself included, to the unfolding story of ongoing cover ups by bishops and diocesan staff of sexual abuse by priests, which seems to get worse every day – partly in the lack of concrete responses from most of those in authority to the actual revelations of abuse and their cover ups, and partly in its devolution into a proxy battle for settling personal and ideological scores between conservative and progressive camps within the Church.

On the one hand, there is a temptation to ignore it all. Truthfully, the life of the Church is lived locally, and as awful as all this is, worship goes on, faith formation continues, service to those in need still happens, and as parishioners, this is where we really encounter our faith and our Church. So those who aren’t big on following the news don’t know much about the charges and counter-charges and even those of us who are aware can find it easier to act as if we don’t.

On the other hand, there is a temptation to get sucked into the vortex of anger, blame and animosity in ways that feed our sense of righteousness but aren’t directed toward resolving these issues and end up instead pulling us farther from the source of our faith, hope and love.

I am trying to surf the middle ground between helpless apathy and pointless rage. And here are the things that have been my guidestars; I encourage you to consider them as well.

  1. Double down on the actual practice of faith. It has been so inspiring to see many – both personal friends and public figures – responding to this awfulness by saying they are recommitting themselves to the essential elements of their Catholic faith. In essence, if the leaders of this institution are corrupt and have lost the centrality of the way of holiness through love of God and love of neighbor, than it’s a reminder to the rest of us to be all the more diligent in our pursuit of holiness. Whether you think of living your faith as a mix of prayer/study/action or a combination of worship/discipleship/community/service/witness or just applying a core focus on loving God, loving the people God puts in your way, and using what God gives you for Him, focusing on making yourself the best possible version of yourself is both key to preparing you to rebuild the Church and the only worthy goal to begin with. One way we risk “burning up” is by failing to look for ways of engaging that start with prayer and worship and end in an increase of the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – not only for you as an individual but for the Church as a whole.
  2. Do what you can do. If we focus only on cultivating our own garden of faith, nothing will ever change, and the future of the Church “freezes.” In the search to stay up to date, I have found myself getting buried in a morass of scapegoating, palace politics, and abstract online rage; thus the reminder to double down on the faith. But the Church has faced this sort of institutional rot before, and people stepped up to address it. People like Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena. So what can Fred from Anytown do? Contact your bishop. Contact your diocese. Contact your pastor. Ask questions. Raise your concerns. Share your ideas. Tell your friends to do the same.  The key, I think, is in focusing your attention on those who can actually make changes to the way the Church operates, at the level where you can make a difference. I could be wrong, but I don’t expect the pope to listen to me, nor the head of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. But my bishop? It’s not unreasonable to expect a fair hearing in my own diocese.

Don’t stop praying, but don’t stop pushing, either.

Why I’m Staying

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Princes and Thrones: On the feast of the Assumption and the Pennsylvania grand jury

There’s kind of a lot for a somewhat vocal Catholic convert to react to today. I’m still processing the news of yesterday’s Pennsylvania grand jury report documenting graphic allegations by more than 1,000 victims over 70 years against more than 300 priests in six of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses. I feel the need to say something, if only because silence has been the hallmark of a complicit Church over decades of unconscionably heinous crimes. What’s different about this report, which seems to indicate that the changes in policy implemented by the Church in 2002 may have improved things to some degree, is that it outlines how bishops and priests routinely, systematically squelched, hid, covered up abuse, including rape, of young children and teens by priests. And while that may have changed in 2002, many of the same men are in charge of the Church now who were party to those coverups.

I flipped around the radio a few times today, between the local Catholic station (which, when I listened, focused on music), EWTN (which focused it’s “open line” on emails about doctrine and discussion of the Feast of the Assumption), and the Sirius Catholic Channel (on which several hosts, including some I don’t care for, engaged in serious, honest soul-searching with their callers and guests and looked for ways that lay people can be part of the solution to this issue). I have much greater respect for the Catholic Channel than I did before. I am happy that my own bishop (one of recent vintage, incidentally) was quick to put out a statement. It seems to me that Catholics, from Pope Francis down, need to  affirm that, not only are crimes against vulnerable children totally contrary to the Gospel, but silence is complicity and complicity should disqualify people from leadership roles in the Church.

Today is the Feast day of the Assumption, which celebrates one of the three final barriers I had to becoming Catholic. It celebrates the dogma that Mary was assumed directly to heaven at the end of her life and did not experience earthly death, and while it was a part of Church tradition since the sixth century, it wasn’t made an official part of Church dogma until 1950. Like the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (that Mary was born without original sin), it was proclaimed by a pope invoking the doctrine of papal infallibility; in fact, those are the only two instances in which a pope has invoked the infallibility of his office to proclaim a dogma.

Those three things – papal infallibility, the Immaculate Conception, and the Assumption of Mary – were the things I really couldn’t buy into about Catholicism, and when I did join the Church almost 25 years ago, it was not out of conversion on those doctrines but humility. I still have serious doubts about them, but I am just humble enough to know I might be wrong about those doubts.

On the one hand, you could argue that the revelations of the grand jury underscore the fallibility of human leaders of the Church and call those doctrines even further into question.

On the other hand, because of the Assumption, Catholics were obliged to celebrate together as a community and hear these words, spoken by Mary in Luke 1:

He has shown the strength of his arm, and has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

At yet another crossroads on the scandal of abuse by leaders of the Church, it is perhaps God’s working that we hear that Gospel proclaimed and ask ourselves, in this time, whether we side with the proud, might and rich or with the lowly and hungry. Especially when it can seem as though our leaders are motivated primarily by protecting the name and holdings of the institutions they lead.

Anyway, Mary was really clear about which side God was on. Maybe she’s worth paying attention to after all.