The anger of some Crux commenters surprised me when I first wrote for this website. Yes, website comment sections are part of the Internet Wild West. But Crux is a Catholic site, a religious site geared toward believers. I was writing about Catholic spirituality, not Donald Trump. So how come so many got so furious over stories about the saintly nun Joan Chittister, or divorce and remarriage and Communion, without an annulment?
Nineteen months later, I understand a bit better. We Catholics are like the rest of America: passionately divided, red staters and blue staters, social conservatives and social liberals.
Some are convinced the only true Catholics are those whose faith is closely tied to the Church, its dictates, what the Catechism and popes and bishops say about birth control and women and gays and, yes, outspoken nuns like Chittister and rules about Communion.
Then there are others for whom Catholicism is the vehicle they’ve chosen to get to what they seek: a relationship with mystery, the living Christ, one that transforms them totally. They may disagree with the Church on everything mentioned above – birth control, women, gays, Joan Chittister, plus the handling of the sex abuse crisis, married priests, no women priests, etc., etc., etc. Yet they look forward to weekly and daily Mass, that communion of bread and wine, like they look forward to a date with the one they love.
They remain Catholic despite the Church’s flaws and morally challenged hierarchy because the one they love said, 2,000 years ago, “do this in memory of me.” And that “doing” became the Roman Catholic Mass.
I’m one of those blue state liberal Catholics who’s long embraced the perspective voiced anew by a priest in the movie “Spotlight.” This particular priest had devoted his career to studying other priests who molested teens and children. So how can you remain a Catholic, he was asked. Because his faith was not in a Church made of men, he said. Instead, his faith was in the eternal.
Now I’ve moved on to embrace as well the perspective of writer Ron Rolheiser, another priest, who chastises those of us who say, “we want God but we don’t want church.”
The Church matters much, he insists in his wonderful book, “The Holy Longing.” To those who question my own allegiance, I’m now ready with Rolheiser’s roaring Church defense.
“To be connected with the Church is to be associated with scoundrels, warmongers, fakes, child-molesters, murderers, adulterers, and hypocrites of every description.” Yet it’s also to be connected “with saints and the finest persons of heroic soul within every time, country, race, and gender. To be a member of the Church is to carry the mantle of both the worst sin and the finest heroism of soul,” Rolheiser says, “because the Church always looks exactly as it looked at the original crucifixion, God hung among thieves.”
Yet I still worry about the future of the American Church. I worry that my children, and millions of others, will never remain in a Church that treats women and gays as lesser human beings. I worry about half empty parishes with bad music and blah sermons and an average age of 75. Meanwhile, Buddhist retreat houses are packed with thirty-somethings, and when so-called New Atheists like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins come to town, we’re talking twenty-somethings. And standing room only.
I don’t worry, though, about the attraction to the transcendent. That seems hard-wired. Some of us feel that yearning, that sense of something big and unknown and inexplicable. We pay attention to it. We want more of it. Some of us feel that same yearning and let it slip away. Who knows what differentiates us; why some follow the call, and some don’t. But as I’ve written before, I think we battered and disheartened Catholics give up too soon.
Let me end my time at Crux with encouragement from two very different popes: the wildly popular Francis and his wildly unpopular predecessor, the scholarly Benedict.
If you haven’t yet read Francis’ book, “Joy of the Gospel,” it’s focused exactly on what its title says: the joy that Francis says fills those of strong faith. Reading it is uplift extraordinaire. “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience,” Francis writes. But those who “accept His offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness” by a joy that is “constantly born anew.”
Sounds good to me.
Then there’s Benedict’s “Introduction to Christianity.” It’s heavy lifting and hardly exultant. The reader must concentrate, hard. But all of a sudden Benedict offers up a story like this one from Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher. It’s about a scholar and a rabbi debating God’s existence. “My son,” starts the rabbi, “the great scholars of the Torah with whom you have argued wasted their words on you; as you departed you laughed at them. They were unable to lay God and his Kingdom on the table before you; and neither can I.
“But think, my son … perhaps it is true.”
There’s uplift extraordinaire again, plus chills up your spine.
Benedict perfectly captures the human spiritual dilemma. The living Christ may give us joy, as Francis says. But doubt is inescapable. No one can be certain. On the other hand, says Benedict, no one can forget, either, the eerie, soul-quickening, rapturous feelings induced by hearing those words … “perhaps it is true.”