Monday, July 9, 2012

Why People Get Mad at the Church (One Reason...)

Because the Church is not as our dreams picture her to be, a desperate attempt is undertaken to bring her into conformity with our wishes: to make her a place for every freedom, a space where we can move freed of our limits, an experiment in utopia, which, after all, must exist somewhere.

Called to Communion, 136

Reflection – There is a certain species of anger against the Church, a certain type of bitterness and resentment of the Church, that is really a subtle sort of compliment to Her. I don’t get angry at, say, the Rotary Club for failing to usher in the peaceable kingdom on earth. I don’t harbor a bitter resentment towards the Chamber of Commerce for falling short of the beatitudes and the great commandment of love. I don’t fume and fret because the PTA or the Bowling League have left mankind chained in bonds of ignorance and sin yet.

Human organizations—human expectations! I might be upset if the Chamber of Commerce proved to be a den of thieves and extortionists or the PTA a conspiracy to corrupt our children or the Bowling League a front for a organized crime. But we would never expect such groups to be anything but what they are: a bunch of ordinary people pursuing some mostly harmless or even mildly beneficial end in the normal human muddled up way.

But the Church… that’s another story. It should be better than it is… and so we get angry. It should be a place of love and mercy… and when it is not, we rage. It should be a place of true and genuine freedom… and when it constricts, we rebel.

Now, I’m not talking about the anger that comes against the Church because of clerical sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups. That is a just anger against an intolerable injustice, one which I believe the Church has in recent years taken strong action to address and overcome.

I am talking about the anger, far more common, which comes at the revelation that the Church is, in fact, made up of a bunch of human beings who have the normal human flaws and blindnesses, follies and miseries that all humanity is subject to. When Fr. X is a flake and Fr. Y is a tyrant, and Fr. Z is a drunk and Fr. W doesn’t know how to talk to people… we get mad. When Bishop A is a poor administrator and Bishop B lacks personal warmth, Bishop C is living too lavishly and Bishop D is just a big mean bully… we get mad.
The Church is all human beings living human lives and subject to all the failures and falls that go with it (and, of course, somehow we take for granted and hardly notice Frs. A-V and Bishops E-Z who are fundamentally kind, generous men showing up and doing the best they can each day). Why get mad?

Because somehow we know that the Church is not supposed to be just one more human organization. We know, on some level, that the Church is not just human, but divine, and that the divine charity, the divine goodness, and the divine liberty is meant to flow and shine through all of Her members.

Ratzinger spotlights in this passage, however, the mistaken response many have today to their disappointment in the Church and its very real failures. Namely, to fix the Church by changing it to suit us. The Church has bruised me with its harshness—let me cover every ‘hard teaching’ with soft padding so it cannot reach me anymore. The Church has bound me and restricted me, suffocated my freedom with its overbearing ways—toss out all the rules and let me do what I please!

And when the Church says, as it so often has had to say in recent decades, ‘no, we really cannot teach other than what we teach, as we hold these teachings to be from God and not from man,’… well, that has increased the anger and rage, the contempt and hatred of many.

Meanwhile, the very faults and frailties of the Church’s ministers, the constant falling short of all of us to live the Gospel in fullness and proclaim it in all its perfect beauty and goodness actually calls us into a deeper freedom and deeper goodness and charity. Namely, to know that the Church is the instrument of salvation, but not the Savior. The Church is the sign of salvation, but not Salvation Itself. The Church is the seed of the kingdom, but the kingdom is coming, not here, growing, not yet mature.

And so the Church’s failures, which are real and painful, impel us not towards bitterness and anger or a reforming spirit based on our own ideas and preferences, but towards Christ. To cry out to Him, to deepen our communion with Him, to see Him coming towards us through the wreckage and mire, through the desolate city the Church often resembles, and to put all our confidence in Him, to find our true freedom, not in casting aside the laws and rules, but in the communion of love He makes possible for us, a communion of love that can even extend to Frs W-Z and Bishops A-E…


  1. oh dear! You are too true, Fr. Denis. Too true!

  2. Namely, to know that the Church is the instrument of salvation, but not the Savior. The Church is the sign of salvation, but not Salvation Itself. The Church is the seed of the kingdom, but the kingdom is coming, not here, growing, not yet mature.

    Father Denis,
    At dinner last night, my 10 year old said "Mom, what does God's voice sound like? I talk to him but I have not heard his voice". Sort of took me by surprize and I fumbled around for words and finally told her: God's voice sounds a lot like your voice sometimes, and sometimes your teacher, sometimes Rick, sometimes like me, and sometimes our priest...and I sort of carried on in this way...Then she said, taking her question farther, Mom if God sounds like all of do you know for sure it is God's voice?
    I told her that it hard sometimes to understand God for those reasons and we talked about God calling Sammuel.
    She said, "I used to hear God sometimes when Father Joe blessed me". "sometimes I think I hear God at church." THen finally, "I think Father Tom and MH must help us hear God too, because they probably pray for us as much as we pray for them".
    So beautiful and fresh...a child's heart. So open and so full of love. The kingdom belongs to such as these.
    I have been sort of steeped in everybody's ideas of freedom these past weeks...expressions of both love and realism. The church it turns out, has a long history both of grace and of sin...and we who make up the church on earth, often don't do God very well. Nobody does, I guess. We all need to admit that more.
    But God chose the children, the imperfect ones, the still forming in a certain sense we already have a head start... Maybe, this time to really forgive the church for all its faults and see that they are really our faults too...and see why Jesus chose such an imperfect vechicle to carry on his prescence...
    An imperfect body...made up of people like you and me, full of sin, arrogant, fearful, selfish, miserly,cranky, tainted...but also full of grace, full of Christ, generous without limit, patient, gentle, generous, sincere...
    A group I keep choosing, a group worth dying for...

  3. As an ex-Catholic, I get sick and tired of these excuses, justifications and rationalizations for priests/bishops/etc. behaving badly. Of course, people are imperfect and always will be. That's really not the point. The point is that Christ calls all whom He has redeemed to holiness. Your post. Fr. Denis, fails to address that subject.

    Moreover, the Church is reaping what it has sowed: centuries of sacrificing its Petrine, spiritual patrimony on the altar of wealth, power, privledge, secular influence and a sense of permanent entitlement among the leadership. This is far from "imperfection," this is de facto self-idolatry!

    You talk about the Church being an instrument of salvation but not the Savior. Fair enough. But I remind you that many Catholics, even those who don't believe in "no salvation outside of the Church," view Protestants and Eastern Orthodox with suspicion, despite their own loyalty to Christ. Too many "neo-Catholics," for lack of a better term (such as Mark Shea), make Ultramontanism in political matters look like liberalism.

    You talk about freedom. Well, the Church (especially the Papacy) has stifled freedom illegitimately. Not until 1966 was the Index banned. That's well within my lifetime, Father. For centuries, the Church has effectively denied the fact that God created humanity in His free image. Obviously, that freedom was not meant to be used narcissistically or licentiously. Nevertheless, the Church has tried to dictate to the laity how to behave and how to think, instead of encouraging the Holy Spirit to be the Comforter and Advocate that He is designed to be.

    I suggest you read about the vision of Pope Leo XIII, the prophecies of St. Malachy, or anything written by Malachi Martin. The Church's future is not pretty. That future is divine judgement based on the apostacy of centuries.

    1. I'm sorry, but how is anything I wrote - anything at all! - an excuse, justification, rationalization for bad clerical behavior? Really, did you read what I actually wrote or are you responding to what you think I wrote? I'm calling various unnamed priests and bishops drunks, fools, tyrants, bullies - do I sound like I'm whitewashing anything???
      I fully and totally agree that the Church is to at least some measure reaping what we have sowed, although I may disagree with you on our specific failures and the extent to which that accounts for everything. But if we had been living the Gospel without compromise all these centuries, clearly the situation would be different.
      I still believe my Church, with all its deep human failures, to be the Church Christ established. I will not deny or ignore the real holiness and virtue and love that has poured out of the hearts of thousands of its ministers and millions of its members. And I will be loyal to this Church to my last breath, and proclaim as best I can the truth of her teachings, even as I and everyone else in it fail to live by those teachings very well.
      Bless you!

  4. Fr. Denis, I read your post the first time and re-read it after your reply. I stand by my original comments. What tires me is the constant soft-peddling (as opposed to whitewashing) of human corruption w/in the Church. Again, people aren't perfect; that's why the Sacrament of Confession exits. Nevertheless, I re-state my original point: Nowhere in your post do you acknowledge that a holy, righteous God demands holy, righteous behavior from those who claim authority in His name.

    I suggest you contemplate the story of Eli, the high priest in 1 Samuel. When he met a grieving, broken Hannah at the tabernacle, he rebuked her for being drunk! Father, I've been both drunk and grieving; they are *not* the same! This same Eli failed to discipline his corrupt sons effectively; they were priests who stole more than their fair share of the offerings and encouraged religious prostitution.

    I believe the two reactions demonstrate how Eli's discernment was clouded by a complacency that resulted from his isolation not only from the people God ordained him to serve but also from that same God's demands for righteousness. In 1 Samuel 2, an unknown prophet told him that he and his sons would die, and that his family would become permenantly ineligible for priestly duties because of his complacency toward the things of God.

    How many bishops, let alone priests, are in the same situation?

    Of course, there are many good, kind, hard-working, devout priests. All too often, however, their first reaction to internal corruption is to provide cover for the ecclesiastical institution rather than to defend those exploited by it. That's not a uniquely Catholic problem, of course. But to those whom God has given much, He expects much. Sadly, Catholic leadership has long since forgotten that fact. Your tepid comments, sadly, do little to change the situation.

    1. Well, I don't think my comments are all that tepid, and my post (if you remember) was not about clerical sexual abuse. My reference to that issue said that that particular anger is a 'just anger to an intolerable injustice'! That's tepid? What do you want me to do - froth at the mouth?
      My post was about the more general anger at ordinary human frailty and failures which, as a priest, I assure you is common, widespread. 'Fr. X was rude to me... Bishop Y closed our parish...' Priests and bishops doing stupid things and having the host of human failures we all have. People really get hurt about that, and that's what I was writing about.
      So I'm not writing about what you're upset about. Ok... it's my blog! My blog post is called 'why People Get Mad at the Church (One Reason). I'm not claiming, in a single short post, to cover every reason for people's anger and I specifically say I'm not talking about the sex scandals.
      Peace to you, and I'm sorry we can't seem to connect too well here.

  5. Father Denis, I wish you peace and blessings, as well.


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