2 things I believed about the Catholic Church that were totally wrong (and why anyone would stay Catholic)
February 12, 2019
How about a little remedial ecclesiology today? (Trigger warning: if you don’t like going past 1200 words, this piece might stretch you 5 uncomfortable minutes past your limit. I know, I know. Same! I tried my best to rein it in.)
The summer of shame is well in the rearview now, and we’re underway into a whole new calendar year. As 2018 waned, the days shortening and the nights darkening, it seemed that there would be no end in sight for the rage and pain felt by faithful and lapsed Catholics alike; how could this vile evil be seeping forth from the Church we knew and loved?
For survivors of abuse – men and women who knew all too well the evil that often lay hiding in plain sight – this pain was compounded by perceived silence and cowardice from high. Where were our pastors and shepherds back at the height of the summer’s scandalous and widely-splashed headlights?
Little by little we began to grapple with the ramifications of too few pastors speaking out due to, perhaps, their own lack of credibility. It’s awfully hard to condemn the log in your brother’s eye when you’ve got a telephone pole sticking out of your own retina. Others held back out of fear, perhaps at the advice of legal counsel. Still others felt – rightfully – personally horrified and enraged by the failures of their brothers when they had themselves been struggling heroically, often with little support, to walk the walk.
Many Catholics left. Some had distanced themselves eons ago, but made their separation a public affair after ingesting the wretched evil laid bare in the Pennsylvania report.
Others quietly stopped trusting, stopped believing, and stopped attending.
For those who stayed, each of us have had to answer, if only for ourselves, why we did.
Peter, do you love me?
God knew that each of us who profess a faith in Jesus Christ and the Church He founded would need to dig deep in these days “to give an explanation for the hope we possess.”
It’s not like this was a curveball to the Almighty. He tells us plain, “Whatever is done in the dark will be brought into light.”
In other words, truly private sin is a human fantasy. Maybe it’s one of the oldest fantasies – I wonder if Eve thought, somehow, that the same God who had fashioned her from nothing, breathed life into her lungs, would somehow fail to notice her small act of rebellion? Like He was super busy checking on the mountains and fish and stuff.
Anyway, I’ve had numerous conversations with Catholics and non-Catholics alike over the past 8 months. Answered hard questions from strangers about why we’ll stay, about why we’ll never, ever leave.
But I can’t say I haven’t considered it. Back in July when revelations were coming to light seemingly faster than the Internet could link to them, I was daily overcome with rage and sorrow. And confusion. What I knew about the Church, the papacy, and the gates of hell all seemed, well…wrong. And I felt adrift.
I am a JPII Generation Catholic, as they say. I fell in love with the mystery and the history of Catholicism during the early years of Benedict’s papacy, called home by a mysterious grace seemingly wrought just for me in the final hours of St. John Paul II’s life. My conversion solidified and matured at Franciscan University of Steubenville where I encountered the word “theology” for the very first time. I probably know more about Catholicism than the average Sunday Mass-going Catholic, if only because of the Aquinas and Kreeft and Hahn and DeLubac I was assigned to read.
And I still considered leaving.
It turns out you can’t reason your way into continued belief. Faith is, at the end of the day, a gift. And an act of the will.
I am becoming increasingly aware that faith is both gift and choice. And that, having been handed the gift, I will be asked over and over throughout my lifetime to reaffirm my choice, and to continue to grow both in love and in knowledge of the Faith with a capital F.
Catholicism isn’t mine to interpret or define as I see fit. A radical notion for a postmodern mind, but one that we all fall prey to from time to time. My impoverished philosophical foundation led me to believe some fairly common fallacies about the Church which greatly intensified my pain and confusion this past year. Here are two of the errors I didn’t even realize I was carrying around in my brain; consider this a sort of “Ecclesiology 101” (ecclesia = church, ology = study of).
Myth 1: The Holy Spirit picks the Pope.
I don’t know that I literally thought this was what happened, but I certainly behaved as if I did.
Standing in a sodden St. Peter’s Square and breaking into wild jubilation with a hundred thousand strangers while watching that white smoke billow out of the Sistine Chapel chimney on the night of Pope Francis’ election didn’t do much to help dispel this myth. The papacy has always felt big and kind of magical to me. Probably because of the circumstances of my awakening to the Faith, and because of the big moments we’ve shared as a family with different Holy Fathers.
Nevermind that the Church, in 2,000 years of Petrine ministry had numbered in her ranks countless ineffective popes, weak popes, mediocre popes and outright evil popes. Because my Church history was an inch deep and my love for the modern popes was a mile wide, I was primed to be deflated by any shortcomings in a Roman Pontiff, either perceived or actual.
Reality: The Holy Spirit inspires the actions and deliberations of the College of Cardinals, assuming they are actively seeking His Will and living lives of virtue. (If I could double bold that last line, I would.) And then the Holy Spirit guarantees that whomever is elected can’t make a fatal mess of things.
As best as this armchair theologian can figure, the Holy Spirit really does this heavy lifting when it comes to preserving and protecting the Deposit of Faith:
The apostles entrusted the “Sacred deposit” of the faith (the depositum fidei),45 contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, to the whole of the Church. “By adhering to [this heritage] the entire holy people, united to its pastors, remains always faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. So, in maintaining, practicing and professing the faith that has been handed on, there should be a remarkable harmony between the bishops and the faithful.” CCC 84
…And in preventing heretical or erroneous teaching being promulgated “ex cathedra” or “from the chair” of Peter. Translation: The Pope cannot err when proclaiming, with the full weight of the Magisterium and in keeping with the revealed Tradition of the Church, the truth of something pertaining to faith and morals.
Can the pope have a mistress? Father illegitimate children? Be a heretic, privately? Give dumb answers to questions journalists ask? Believe wrongly that the superior flavor of gelato is crema? All yes. Which is so freaking hard to believe. But bear with me. Because myth number two which I believed was:
Myth 2: the Pope is the head of the Catholic Church
I mean, we do have a hierarchy, do we not? As an American who lives in a society of rules and laws and order, familiar with the organizational structure of human institutions, this is another one which I, frankly, sort of took for granted. Hence the outraged tweeting for the Holy Father to DO SOMETHING. FIRE SOMEONE. WHAT IN GOD’S NAME IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING??? last summer.
But, um, guys…the Church is not just a human institution.
Protects, defends, and transmits? Occasionally, when it suits, and sooner or later.
He is the leader of the Church on earth. The head of the Church’s hierarchy, the shepherd of the Universal Church on earth. But it isn’t Pope Francis’ Church, any more than it was Pope Benedict’s, or Pope Innocent’s, or Pope Gregory’s, or Pope John Paul II’s.
Reality: Jesus Christ is the head of the Church.
“Christ is the Head of this Body:” Christ “is the head of the body, the Church.”225 He is the principle of creation and redemption. Raised to the Father’s glory, “in everything he (is) preeminent,”226 especially in the Church, through whom he extends his reign over all things. CCC 792
Jesus died for us, for His Church. Jesus had to forfeit His life in exchange for ours, hot mess that we were/are. And in an interesting throwback to myth number one, Jesus only personally chose the first pope: Peter.
So why have a pope? Why have a Church? Why have a Bible? Why not start from scratch every generation and do archeological and anthropological research to try to piece together anew what the OG Christians of Corinth circa 67 AD must have practiced and believed?
Is that what Jesus willed for us? To have to start from zero every time the saving water trickles over the brow of a new Christian, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son…”
The Trinitarian formula for baptism, by the way: how are we sure that’s a thing? Should we each be researching and verifying and making sure for ourselves way out here in 2019 that we’re practicing Christianity as Jesus Christ intended? If that’s the case, thank God for Google, rising adult literacy rates, and the printing press, right?
But the Church is for all people, for all times. The Church is not only for moderns with internet access and small group Bible studies. The Church is not only for white people with comfortable sanctuaries and good youth programming. The Church is not only for prisoners in need of mercy, for orphans in need of fatherhood, for prostitutes in need of conversion and redemption. The Church is for all of us, for all of humanity, past, present, and future. The God who promised “I will not leave you orphans” has not abandoned us to our own devices.
We do not have to rely on our own wisdom, our own clever understandings of theology – or our not-so-clever understanding, for that matter – or even on the goodness of one particular person who holds a position of power at a given time in history.
St. Jerome says “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” The words of the Old and New Testaments wash over me every time I go to Mass, whether I’m sitting in recollected silence or wrangling an nasty toddler. I am steeped in Scripture when I sit in the church, which is mysteriously both a building and the Body of Christ, of which I am mysteriously a member and an essential physical component. I am brought into deeper relationship with Jesus Christ through the ministry of His Church and the encounter of His Word. The Church is both guardian and guarantor of the written, living Word of God.
I cannot turn away in solitude from the Body of Christ while clutching the Word of Christ to my heart.
What I read in Scripture casts new light in what I practice on Sundays. The liturgy is rooted in – not added on to – the Bible. Without the Church, we’d have no Bible.
Without the Church, we’d have no Sacraments. Without the Church, we wouldn’t know what to believe- we need the Church’s authority to teach, lead us, and sanctify us.
Because we can’t live without Jesus.
No matter how badly we humans behave. Perhaps because of how badly we humans behave; we need Him all the more. Come hell or high water – and perhaps the water will come right up to the gates…we need Him.