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I find myself among many others who have been pleasantly surprised by the first few days of Francis’s papal ministry. From the first moments of his balcony introduction, when he donned relatively humble attire, to his commentary on the selection of his name, Francis—after Francis of Assisi, a saint known for his humble commitment to the most vulnerable of God’s creation, I’ve been experiencing feelings I have so rarely held with regard to a pope: Excitement. Gratitude. Affection. Hope.
Could it be that we find ourselves with a pope who demonstrates, in such a seemingly accessible way, the virtues of Christianity to which many of us have clung for so long? Isn’t this the type of papal leadership that for which we’ve hope for so, so long? With only a few days gone by, I am constantly surprised as I respond to questions like these with affirmation: Why maybe, yes, this is what we are witnessing…for now, yes, this might actually be happening…. Even as Pope Francis simply reflects the values that I have long believed to stand at the heart of Christianity—radical commitments to the weak and to a life of humility and mercy—I am still so surprised to see it in a public figurehead of the Church.
Accompanying all these good feelings and surprising affirmations has been a sense of hesitation, however. It is a lingering pause. A reluctance. These past few days have confronted me with the fact that I live as a Catholic so often expecting disappointment from the high-ranking officials of the Church. This is a protection mechanism. It is how I protect myself from the constant scandal and failure of fellow Christians in these positions of power. Were I to give myself, wholeheartedly and without hesitation, to belief in the Spirit’s transformative power in the ministry of these leaders, to the hope that they might really participate in the actualization of the goodness and mercy that we proclaim, then I might live always with a broken heart. I might live plagued by the failings of Church leaders.
Instead, I live with a very qualified Christian hope in our leadership. “I believe that the Spirit is moving in our world, in our Church, in its leaders,” I say, “but—” Always but. But the temptation of wealth and power. But the corruption of sin. But millennia of shortcomings. “Sure,” I think, “in principle the Holy Spirit is working through the ministry of these leaders, but de facto I no longer expect to see much evidence of it among these higher ups.” If I don’t expect radical mercy and visionary witness from them, then I don’t have to live with so much disappointment, right?
My reflections about this tension—this tension of hope and hesitation—has got me thinking a lot about Thomas, the disciple beloved among doubters like me. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” he told his friend upon the news that Jesus had risen and appeared to them. Despite dedicating his life to following Jesus, Thomas could not, in that moment, believe that Jesus was the kind of Messiah that had actually overcome death. And I don’t blame him. I imagine we can all relate to Thomas in some way: He was grieving the loss of his friend, and hope in Jesus’s return would be a profound risk of heart—a heart that was already hurting with such sadness and disappointment.
In many ways, Thomas’s doubt was quite reasonable. And, to be sure, there are many good reasons to qualify one’s hope in church officials such as the pope. For one, far too many people invest all their hope for the Church in these men, equating the Church with its hierarchy and overlooking the loving, awe-inspiring work of Catholics living out all sorts of vocations throughout the world. Furthermore, these guys are not God, but sinful creatures like the rest of us. Sin is a reality that does impede our ability to actualize the Christian life to the fullest and freest degree imaginable. We shouldn’t place an unqualified hope in anyone.
Still, Christian life is about courageous hope and love, not enduring cynicism. I am saddened that my response to the witness of charity and humility that I see in Pope Francis is so deeply tainted by cynicism. For, is not the goodness of creation at the heart of the Christian message? Have I not let my fear of disappointment from church leadership prevent me from anticipating the goodness of this man, and so many other Church leaders for that matter? It seems that my doubt in the enduring work of the Holy Spirit has inhibited my ability to believe what I see right before my eyes—moments when the Christian message really comes to life.
While most of us recognize the disciple Thomas as “Doubting Thomas,” I read recently that there is also a tradition of referring to him as “Believing Thomas.” It wasn’t until this week that I marveled so much at the belief he proclaimed after placing his hands in Jesus’s wounds. Thomas doubted—yes, for good reason—but when he recognized Jesus before him he surrendered his doubt—and so humbly. I pray that when we are confronted with the image of Christ before us—be in a pope or stranger or a beloved friend—we too will surrender our doubt, our cynicism, our guards in order to believe in the goodness of the other. “We have to put our hearts out,” commented Catholic blogger Fran Rossi Szpylczyn in her recent reflection on the Pope and her own hesitation to hope for this new papacy. “We have to take the risk. That is what faith and belief demand from us.” That is what faith and belief demand from us—that we all may be a bit more like Believing Thomas.
“Resignation: that’s what American Catholics are feeling about our faith. We are resigned to the fact that so much in the Roman Catholic Church is broken and won’t be fixed anytime soon. So if the pope can resign, we can, too. We should give up Catholicism en masse, if only for a time.”
A few days ago writer Paul Elie joined the chorus of voices offering commentary on the Catholic Church surrounding the resignation of the now-Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. As the above quote indicates, Elie’s op-ed, “Give Up Your Pew for Lent,” plays with the double-meaning of the term “resignation” to make a case for a temporary, protest exodus from the Catholic Church. While Benedict resigned—that is, gave up his office—Elie notes that many American Catholics experience another form of resignation—that is, an acceptance of the inevitable unpleasant reality of their church. From this, he exhorts Catholics to vacate parishes in an effort express to church leaders the resignation they feel, and to spend time reconsidering their resignation. Perhaps some time away and the experience of other faith communities can even dispel their resignation.
There is much to say in response to Elie’s piece. My friend Dan over at datinggod.org has already articulated well how Elie’s proposal betrays our theological conceptions of church and Eucharist, and misplaces the power of ecclesial change in the hands of those who leave the Church rather than those who articulate their criticisms with the tradition. To this, I would add my concern for Elie’s general characterization of American Catholics—Are we really all so “resigned”?
In my mind, “resignation” connotes passivity, a disposition of disinterest, acquiescence. To characterize the temperament of American Catholics—particularly those troubled by Catholicism’s interfaith relations or leaders’ handling of the clergy abuse crisis, to cite some issues listed by Elie—is to depict a gross misrepresentation of American Catholics that overlooks some of the most engaged and faithful practitioners in the Church today. Surely, many dissatisfied Catholics might be characterized appropriately as “resigned,” but to say that this represents the “what American Catholics are feeling,” is an overstatement that overlooks the complex reality of lived Catholicism today.
Furthermore, many of the Catholics I know who are most committed to the types of ecclesial changes underwriting Elie’s op-ed are—undoubtedly—the most engaged and least “resigned” Catholics I know. They have not resigned to bitterness and complaint about the Catholicism; they are deeply hopeful and actively engaged in actualizing a Church grounded in the Gospel.
They are Catholic like those who wrote for the recent publication, Hungering and Thirsting For Justice, co-edited by Lacey Louwagie and my friend Kate Ward, or the colleagues and friends alongside whom I wrote in the collection, From the Pews in the Back: Young Women and Catholicism. These and so many other Catholics are anything but “resigned,” and most would adamantly disagree with Elie’s charge that resigning—that is, giving up on one’s place in the pew—is a good way to engage Catholicism.
What’s more, many of the Catholics I know who have resigned—who have left Catholicism—rarely if ever do so in a state of emotional resignation. They wrestle with the Church and the Catholic tradition, and often experience an incredible amount of conflict about their decision to seek God in another faith community. The kind of easy departure that Elie presents in his op-ed betrays the genuine strife that many Catholics experience as they struggle to understand their place inside—or outside—the Church. The idea of “giving up one’s pew for Lent” seems rather trite in view of the genuine struggles of these faithful friends.
That many American Catholics–on any side of the aisle–are unhappy about the realities of Catholicism is true. That we all feel so resigned is an overgeneralization, I think. It is a misrepresentation of American Catholicism’s complex realities. And, that we ought to resign from our pews, wherever we sit, is no solution for the resignation that some folks do actually feel.
Yesterday afternoon I broke from my homework to read the latest NYTimes op-ed on Catholicism, “The Curse of Catholicism” by Frank Bruni. Prompted by Gary Wills’ forthcoming book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, Bruni argues that institutional Catholicism has done a disservice to its priests and practitioners by “tuck[ing] priests into a cosseted caste above the flock, wrapp[ing] them in mysticism and prioritize[ing] their protection and reputations over the needs and sometimes even the anguish of the people in the pews.” The column, relatively lengthy for an op-ed, goes on to connect explicitly the structural privilege of priests and the power abuses exercised in the global clergy sexual abuse crisis and its cover-up. I have been reading studies on this connection for years and continue to find it deeply concerning.
I do have some contentions with the article—namely, Bruni’s emphasis at one point on Wills’ claim that Christianity was “opposed to the priesthood” from the start, an argument that strikes me as anti-Jewish and rather untenable in view of the tradition of understanding Jesus as the High Priest, as showcased in the Letter to the Hebrews that the church prayed with just this past week! Still, despite this and despite the fact that I have been brooding over the connection of church structures and power abuses for nearly a decade now, something about this article affected me anew. Skimming my computer screen, my heart felt so heavy I thought I might have to hunch over to lean my elbows on the table, just to manage of the weight of it.
Perhaps it is because the details of the article reminded me that I am simply so close, so entangled in the ongoing terrible tragedy that Bruni narrates. A good deal of the piece rehearses new reports about the extensive cover-up of clergy sexual abuse carried out by Cardinal Roger Mahoney, former Archbishop of Los Angeles. He signed my paychecks in 2009 when I served as a minister in the Archdiocesan Office of Religious Education. Every day I worked just a few floors below him. I ministered at liturgies where he presided. I probably shook his hand once or twice. Or maybe I was struck by my closeness to all this because I read that article from a seminary library—a library I occupy nearly every day—that was sold to Boston College by the Archdiocese of Boston in its scramble to attain excess cash for clergy sexual abuse lawsuits. The window I sat beside looks out over Cardinal Law’s former residence, which also sits on the property. The mere mention of his name still infuriates the people of Boston.
In moments like this when I am reminded that I am frighteningly proximate to this scandal, it is also easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of complicity. This Church—led officially by many people who have abused power, and defined by structures that enable them—I am a part of it. I choose to be a part of it. My religious life, my professional life, and so many of my friendships are entirely entangled in this Church. If the structures of this community enabled some leaders to commit appalling abuses, and I am a part of this community, am I not somehow indirectly complicit?
This question is terribly uncomfortable, but whenever it confronts me I have the conviction that it is not to be easily dismissed. So yesterday afternoon, after closing my computer screen, I let that question haunt me. I sat with it before bed and I woke up with it. And then I read that famous passage about the Body of Christ from the First Letter to the Corinthians, which appears in today’s liturgical readings. Despite decades of familiarity with it, something about this passage affected me anew when I read it this morning. It was two brief sentences that struck me, actually: “Now the body is not a single part, but many….Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.” The first sentence reminds us that we cannot reduce the body—the church—to a single part, to oneself. Or to anyone else for that matter—a pope, a priest, a parent. The second sentence, however, emphasizes the opposite: we are distinct individual parts within this larger body. We do not lose our particularities in our belonging to this larger body, as if conflated or erased. This is a tension of being Church: We are many and we are one. We belong to each other but we do not lose ourselves as individuals. We are responsible for one another, but we are also responsible for our own actions and inactions.
So, again, this question: Am I complicit? In view of the vision of church we find in today’s reading, I think we ought not set aside the question of communal responsibility, of structural sin. At the same time, we must keep in mind the obvious fact that people must take responsibility for their own individual actions and inactions when it comes to this terrible scandal. The Church as a whole cannot be conflated with any of its figureheads; in turn, any priests’ sin is not every Catholic’s sin. We must learn to live in this tension as church, and we must learn to live with it in a way that doesn’t leave us so heavy hearted that we are paralyzed. We cannot let the difficulty of church keep us from being the best of church–
More on that last line in the next blog post.