This year marks the tenth anniversary of the widespread outrage against the Roman Catholic Church’s (mis)handling of sexual abuse cases. Over the past decade the fallout from the successive revelations of sin, cover-up, pride and suffering have led many to ask the difficult question that has been the theme of this week: “why am I still Catholic?”
Faced with this question myself, it is difficult to always offer a clear and authentic answer. As previous posts in this series have beautifully highlighted it can be difficult to be a Catholic. Dealing with brokenness and being a part of a community of sinners and saints with imperfect institutions and leaders can often be frustrating and disheartening.
Church as the People of God
But thankfully, the church is much larger than finite people and imperfect institutions. Nearly fifty years ago the Second Vatican Council defined the church as being the “people of God”—a vision that deeply informs how I see the church and why I feel called to remain a Catholic.
When I think about the Catholic Church, my first thoughts are not of impersonal institutions but are of vibrant communities of faith. Grounded in scripture and centered on Christ in the Eucharist, these communities span geography and time.
When I think of being Catholic, I think of women and men in my home parish who gave of themselves to help me and my family when I was ill as a child. When I think of being Catholic, I think of the Catholic student leaders I have met from around the world who both gain and give so much to their Catholic faith. I think especially of those in Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon who struggle daily to witness to Christ in the Holy Land.
When I think of being Catholic, I think also of my personal meetings with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. At the same time I also think of those friends of mine for whom remaining Catholic is a difficult struggle because of the Church’s teachings on the role of women and/or LGBT issues.
But most of all when I think of being Catholic, I think of God’s action in the world and our response as the people of God. As we seek to receive, recognize, and respond to God’s actions upon us, simply being “spiritual” is not enough. We need the church.
Being Catholic as Reception
In order to respond to God’s action in history as a Christian, we need to be part of a community of faith. As the French sacramental theologian Louis Marie Chauvet points out, one does not baptize oneself. We come to know Christ and divine revelation only through the church. The gospels were compiled, translated and handed-down through the ages by way of the church. Karl Rahner, SJ summarizes this well:
“Christianity is a historical religion bound up with the one Jesus Christ. I heard of him only though the Church and not otherwise…. Attachment to the Church is the price I pay for this historical origin.”
Being receptive in this way is definitely not popular. In our culture that valorizes self-control and individualism, the vulnerability the humility required to be open to God and others is not easy. It is not always comfortable, as Rahner admits, to submit oneself to the realities and authority of the Christian community. As a Catholic, we have to accept that the church might not always meet our human expectations. But this does not mean, as Rahner, also points out, that we should be silent about our genuine hopes for developments within the tradition.
Growing in faith is like learning a language. When you learn a language, you can learn the basic structures and elements abstractly with a book. But a language can only be truly learned by immersing oneself in a community with the help of others. The same is true for the Christian faith. We cannot be Christians alone. We need communities, cultures, and relationships to help us recognize, receive, and celebrate the actions of God in history.
Being Catholic as Action
Reception would be incomplete, however, if it did not result in some response on our part. As we read in scripture, God’s action in history calls for some response. Both Chauvet and Ormond Rush (in different ways) have explored the mutual interplay between reception and action.
This does not mean that we can do anything to merit God’s gifts in the first place. What it does mean is that the gifts we have received from God cannot not end in inaction as we read in the Gospel of Matthew (7:24-27) and in the epistle of St. James.
This dynamic process of reception-action can be seen very clearly in the Eucharist, what the Council describes as the source and summit of Christian life. With it we not only receive Christ but also are empowered and nourished for our mission in the world.
Just as we need the church in order to receive God’s gifts (scripture, sacraments, charism, grace, etc), we also need the church in order to effectively respond God’s unmerited action. Here is where I believe the Catholic Church has much to offer. From small Christian communities to local, national, and international groups committed to Christian social action, the church helps people to respond to God’s action upon us.
An Easter Question
The question “why am I still Catholic?” is a particularly timely question as we begin Lent and approach the Tridium Celebrations. At Easter we will join Christians worldwide, lay and ordained, in renewing our baptismal promises. Before we affirm our tenants of faith and our creedal belief in the church, we might want to spend some time in discerning how we will answer this question.